BY the time these words are read, Australia will have had a national election. The conflict within the Australian Labor Party has been a dominant factor in the electoral campaign and will affect the result. What is the background of this Party crisis? What is the clash of ideas, particularly in the field of international affairs, which gives it interest and importance far beyond the limits of Australia?

Since the defeat of the Chifley Labor Government in 1949, Labor has been in opposition in the Commonwealth Parliament, although it continued to hold office in five of the six states--Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania, West Australia and (until recently) Victoria. The leadership of Dr. Herbert Vere Evatt, who succeeded the late J. B. Chifley in 1951, has been frequently challenged, mainly because he opposed efforts to proscribe the Communist Party, but partly because he exercised his personal rights as a lawyer to assist Communists legally. Dr. Evatt retaliated by accusing his opponents within the Labor Party of being under the control of "The Movement," a political expression of Catholic Action. Charges and countercharges followed; sectarian feelings poisoned the political atmosphere. When Dr. Evatt's opponents in Victoria formed a separate executive, they were expelled from the Labor Party; an anti-Evatt breakaway party voted against the State Labor Government and in the ensuing election Labor was defeated. In the Commonwealth Parliament, a small group of Victorian members followed suit by leaving the official Labor Party. The division within the Labor Party has extended less openly, but just as seriously, throughout Australia. In every State there are those who believe that the official Party is temporizing with Communists in the trade unions, or is following a wrong policy in international affairs.

There are, however, issues other than international policy involved in the conflict, and these may be isolated first. There are the differences about the part that Roman Catholics have played or should play in Party councils; about the Party's stated objective of "socialization"--its meaning, its importance as a guide in planning legislation, its finality; about the relationship between Communism and Labor; the extent to which theoretical differences should involve the Labor Party in fighting Communism in the trade unions; about the inevitable personal strains and factionalism in a large and well-established political party; and about the disappointments at Labor's failure to defeat the Commonwealth Liberal-Country Party alliance led by Prime Minister R. G. Menzies. These issues are interwoven with the central controversy over international policy.

As Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs in the Curtin and Chifley Labor Governments, Dr. Evatt won a great reputation in the two fields of law and international affairs. This reputation has passed over party lines. In the international sphere he has enjoyed as wide esteem as any Australian, including Prime Minister W. M. Hughes in World War I and Prime Minister Curtin in World War II. His present difficulties, like the differences within the Labor Party, have developed not because there is any important group which opposes his basic philosophy of international peace through social justice but because its application has involved Dr. Evatt in controversial attitudes toward Communism at home and abroad.

Serious dissension in the Labor Party began in 1950 with the effort to reinstitute the wartime ban on the Communist Party which had been lifted in December 1942.

During the first postwar election, held in 1946, Mr. Menzies said: "We must be extremely reluctant to put down the Communist Party. We must not let it be thought that they are such a force in political philosophy that we cannot meet them." The proper way to deal with Communism, he claimed, was to expose its false arguments to open discussion. If, however, the Communists fomented strikes, they should be dealt with as lawbreakers. Following a series of industrial disputes and the development of international strains, Mr. Menzies in 1949 declared himself in favor of banning the Communist Party. On April 27, 1950, in furtherance of election promises, he introduced the Communist Party Dissolution Bill, the principal features of which were:[i]

(1) The Communist Party was declared to be seeking the violent overthrow of the established government of Australia and to be a part of the world Communist revolutionary movement.

(2) The Australian Communist Party was declared illegal and dissolved.

(3) The Governor-General was empowered to declare unlawful organizations affiliated to or controlled by Communists which could be regarded as a menace to defense, or the Constitution, or to the laws of the Commonwealth.

(4) The Governor-General might "declare" specific individuals who had been after May 10, 1948, and before the dissolution of an association, a member of it. Persons so declared might not hold a position in the government service or in important trade unions.

(5) A person so declared had the onus of proving that he was not a Communist, except that if he elected to go into the witness box and state on oath that he was not a Communist, the onus of proof would rest on the Crown.

Though opposed by the late Mr. Chifley, who was then leader of the Labor Party, and by Dr. Evatt, the deputy leader, the Labor Party decided to agree to the Bill in principle, but to attempt a modification of a number of clauses. However, the Government refused to accept the Labor amendments. The Party then refrained from opposing the Bill in the Senate, where Labor had a majority and could have held up its passage. Chifley, Evatt and most union leaders believed strongly that the Bill represented a drastic interference with democratic principles. The Party as a whole was afraid of an election on the issue, however, so principles gave way to expediency and the Bill was passed.

The Communist Party Dissolution Act was immediately challenged in the High Court by a number of unions, with Dr. Evatt appearing on behalf of the Waterside Workers' Federation--a Communist-controlled union. The Act was declared invalid in March 1951. A week later Parliament was dissolved and in the subsequent election Labor gained five seats in the House of Representatives, but was still in a minority, and lost control of the Senate. The Menzies Government decided to submit to the people a referendum to alter the Australian Constitution for the purpose of giving the Commonwealth Parliament power to dissolve the Communist Party. Dr. Evatt, who had become Party leader following the death of Mr. Chifley, dominated the campaign. The referendum proposals were defeated by a margin of 52,000 votes out of some 4,700,000 cast. Of Dr. Evatt's part in the campaign, a severe critic of his policies said: "Immediately the referendum was launched he took the initiative in the fight; he held it to the end, vigorously campaigning in every State, and by sheer personal earnestness and force, making the other side's effort in general look careless and lethargic."

These events merge into any discussion of Labor's policies in international affairs. Communism was believed to be a danger by many, not only because Communists were alleged to foment industrial disputes, but because these disputes sometimes were political and aimed at controlling Australia's external policy in the interests of Soviet Russia. Many Labor supporters would in fact have preferred to support the referendum, and these now were insistent that the Party must accept responsibility for weakening Communist influence in the unions by other means. This thesis was accepted by the Industrial Groups, which had been formed by the Labor Party, but with reservations on the part of those who believed that unions should be left free from outside political interference. Those whose point of departure was fear of Communism --especially the Roman Catholics--threw themselves enthusiastically into the campaign for eliminating Communist influence from unions. Throughout these controversies there was a possibility that some members of the Labor Party and of the community would identify opposition to particular anti-Communist legislation with apathy towards the spread of Communist influence, especially in the unions. Upon those members of the Labor Party, including Dr. Evatt, who were campaigning against the Government's methods of dealing with Communism, rested the responsibility of uprooting Communism in the unions by methods of Labor organization. Part of the explanation for the present discontent is that the Labor Party's recent statements on foreign policy coincide with Dr. Evatt's repudiation of the Industrial Groups and of the need to take an active part in the anti-Communist campaign in the unions.

The Labor Party's position on international affairs was set forth in a policy statement at the 1955 Federal Labor Party Conference. Colonialism, it said, must be ended; the dignity and self-respect of Asian nations and peoples must be recognized; official and unofficial visits between Australia and Asian countries must be encouraged. SEATO, as a regional organization within the United Nations, has a positive duty to try to lessen international tension in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. To promote the security of the area, including New Guinea, and to improve standards of life, a mutual regional pact for security and welfare should be negotiated among Australia, Holland and Indonesia. A renewed attempt should be made to include all applicants in the United Nations Organization. The policy statement asserted further that had the United Nations intervention in Indo-China been taken five years earlier, a better settlement would have been obtained. "Indo-China is typical of those cases where inexcusable delay in recognizing a genuine nationalist, anti-colonial movement in Asia resulted in Communism gradually capturing the Nationalist movement," the policy declaration read. "Democratic Nationalism suffered a severe setback." Generous assistance was advocated from Australia to Asian peoples suffering from poverty, disease and lack of educational facilities. Stress was placed on the need for "continuous action by way of conciliation and peaceful intervention for the purpose of preventing war and of bringing all armed conflict to an end."

Opposing the use of armed forces in Malaya, the Labor Party Conference stated more specifically that "the use of Australian armed forces in Malaya will gravely injure Australian relations with our Asian neighbors while in no way contributing to the prevention of aggression. The 'guerrilla' operations in Malaya have lasted five years. They will eventually be ended by some form of agreement or amnesty. Action toward this end should begin now."

In April 1955, Prime Minister Menzies announced a Federal Cabinet decision to coöperate with Britain and New Zealand in establishing a strategic reserve in Southeast Asia. The Federal Cabinet also decided to send an Australian force to Malaya. "If the battle against Communism is to be an effective one," said Mr. Menzies, "it must be won as far north of Australia as possible." He insisted that Australia could not accept the collaboration of friends and allies in a comprehensive defense against aggressive Communism unless it was prepared to assume a share of the responsibilities. Australia, he argued, could not be effectively "defended either by our own efforts within our own borders, or by resolutions of the United Nations rendered impotent by the Communist veto." Emphasizing the need to coöperate with the United Kingdom and the United States, he continued: "With our vast territory and our small population, we cannot survive a surging Communist challenge from abroad except by the coöperation of powerful friends, including, in particular, the United Kingdom and the United States."

These decisions were opposed by Dr. Evatt, speaking on behalf of the Labor Party. The Party, he said, "believes that an attempt should now be made to settle this guerrilla warfare by some form of agreement or merciful amnesty, by the quicker granting of self-government to the Malayan peoples, and by the eradication of poor working conditions in the rubber plantations." And he added, "Malaya is entitled to self-government." Australia should not send troops to interfere in the internal politics of Malaya. This was not because Labor favored isolationism, but because it looked at the situation in Southeast Asia from a point of view which was "realistic, humane, and in strict accordance with United Nations principles set out in the Charter." "The Labor Party has promised to support self-government by all nations."

In his reply Dr. Evatt also made a reference to opponents within his own Party. "Subversive elements within Labor," he said, "will no longer be able to stop the drive which Labor will lead towards better relations with Asian peoples." Dr. Evatt was alluding to the fact that dissidents within his own Party supported the dispatch of Australian troops to Malaya. The Party's foreign policy, these dissident elements said, "is insulting and dangerous to the friendly coöperation at present existing between Australia, England and the United States of America." Such a policy, they claimed, would tend to isolate Australia from all traditional support in foreign affairs and leave the Commonwealth "totally dependent in the Pacific on acceptance by Australia of policies designed to placate Communist-dominated Pacific nations."

These anti-Evatt elements also oppose recognition of Red China and support the claims of the Chinese Nationalists, almost to the point of giving them armed assistance. They favor aid to Asians, but believe that resistance to Asian Communism must be organized. They criticize recent truces and, while expressing the hope that war may be avoided, suggest that peace will be illusory so long as international Communism exists, or so long as powerful armed forces are not at the disposal of the anti-Communists. The Evatt foreign policy, said News-Weekly, a progressive journal, whose inspiration is Catholic but whose influence extends into all anti-Communist circles, "is the kind of thing one could expect from a sort of Vichy Government in Canberra, operating under Chinese Communist auspices."

The Communists today are in fact very vocal in supporting the main elements of Labor's international policies. Trade union and Labor Party ranks have been permeated with their propaganda. A petition demanding that hydrogen and atomic bombs be banned has been circulated and more than 100,000 Australians were said to have signed the peace petition prior to the Helsinki conference in June 1955, which was attended by 31 Australian representatives. "No Australian troops for Malaya," according to the Communist Tribune, is the "fighting slogan of the Australian working people." Attacks on the United States are continuous and undiluted. The story of Sacco and Vanzetti was revived as Communists organized united front memorial celebrations in honor of the Rosenbergs. McCarthy was made into a symbol of American policy and McCarthyism into a generalization of the American spirit.

The tendency today is for official Labor to minimize the influence of Communism--an indirect result of the Labor split which, as we have seen, originated immediately in the problem of defeating Communism in the unions. Communism is said to be no longer a national danger, as shown by the small Communist votes in recent elections; or Communism, it is argued, can be beaten only by improving working conditions through efficient and aggressive Labor leadership. Yet, the influence of Communists in Australia has never been measured by political results, but by their success in controlling the policies and administration of trade unions and in infiltrating their policies into Labor organizations. Judged by both tests, they are recovering lost ground. They have won elections in key engineering and transport unions; in international affairs they have identified themselves with Labor policies so that on immediate issues there are few clear differences. For example, the Communists could well applaud the words of the Deputy Leader of the Labor Party, Mr. A. A. Calwell, when he described the Malayan campaign as a "colonial expedition." The purpose, he said, was to protect the interests of millionaire investors; the solution is to grant "immediate independence to Malaya." Malaya belongs to the Malayans as Australia belongs to the Australians.

In union elections, combined Communist-Evatt slates are appearing in opposition to those who achieved office by obtaining Labor Party sanction-- now withdrawn--in fighting Communists. This is another example of the major ideological problem that is weakening Australian Labor. Official Labor seems unable to develop policies which can be distinguished from the Liberal Party on the one side and Communists on the other. While opposing the strong anti-Communists in its own ranks, Labor seems in process of being ideologically absorbed by the more aggressive and vocal forces of the Communists.

Historically, Labor's problem in international policies--and often in domestic affairs--is that it must choose among a set of ideas and a set of reservations. The achievement of John Curtin in the Second World War was that he selected the idea and the reservation which met the needs of his Party and his nation. He opposed the policies which had led to the outbreak of war, but convinced the Party that Australia's freedom was at stake. He belonged to a party that was critical of the economic policies of the United States, but he rallied the people with prospects of American aid. He had opposed conscription of Australians for service overseas, but he persuaded his Party to accept the view that national freedom required a modification of a basic tradition. He recognized that isolationism was no longer desirable or practicable. He agreed with the policies of his Party in excluding Communists from membership, and in lifting the ban on the Communist Party. But both he and Chifley died before the problems of postwar Communism created new difficulties for Party and nation.

A responsible Labor Party in Australia today must recognize the need for building Australian defenses, economically and politically. While exploring seriously the hopes of peaceful settlement with Asian Communism and recognizing honestly the claims of Asian nationalism, Labor must link these with the tradition of national leadership which Chifley and Curtin established.

Mr. Calwell, Deputy Leader of the Labor Party, in the August 22 issue of The New Commonwealth wrote:

In Australia, unlike England, the United States and Canada, there is no such thing as a bipartisan foreign policy . . . . Never at any time in our history has there been agreement between the Government and the Opposition on matters of foreign policy--not even in time of war. This is due to the fact that the anti-Labour forces in Australia are imperialist in outlook while the Labour Party is stridently nationalist.

Mr. Calwell illustrates again the limitations both of the traditional Labor generalizations on international affairs and of the realities of such generalizations in meeting the complicated problems of Australia. Labor's difficulties today arise partly because her security--as well as her nationalism--must be reconciled with the latter-day nationalism of her neighbors. If Australian Labor in its sympathy for nationalist aspirations and its opposition to imperialism ignores the complications created by Soviet Communism and expanding nationalism, then Labor will fail to develop a rounded answer to all aspects of the problem.

There is some evidence that Australian public opinion is becoming more willing to listen to Labor's oversimplified approach to international affairs. The Australian community shows signs of being critical of defense preparations, especially where these seem to be increasing contemporary economic difficulties.

Before the recent divisions developed within the Party, popular trends favored Labor; reaction against a long-established government had begun. The economic policies of the Federal Government were erratic and uncertain; consolidation, rather than expansion of social policies, had lost its appeal; hopes of peace rather than fear of war were pervading the outlook of the community; the swing of the pendulum, noticeable in the preceding election, favored Labor.

The political question before the elections was whether the internal dissensions in the Labor Party had reversed these trends. The report of the Australian Royal Commission on Espionage fell flat after the expectations created by the drastic events of the Petrov decision to remain in Australia. The details of the Report could be used against Labor, not because there was any evidence to link Labor with Communist espionage, but because Dr. Evatt criticized the integrity of the Commissioners, claimed that the Petrov revelations were part of a political conspiracy against Labor and belittled the evidence of Soviet espionage. This attack not only intensified internal Party dissensions, but revived earlier public suspicion of Dr. Evatt's policies, or at least his wisdom. When Dr. Evatt appeared before the Commission in defense of members of his staff implicated by "Document J" but generally absolved by the Report, public opinion was divided between those who admired his courage in defending his colleagues and those who resented his suggestion that everybody concerned was involved in a conspiracy against him. It was against this background that the elections have been fought. The outcome depends on how much the electorate has been influenced by it and how much by the general issues, on which Labor has an advantage.

[i] This summary is taken from Leicester Webb, "Communism and Democracy in Australia: a Survey of the 1951 Referendum." New York: Praeger, 1955, p. 24.

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  • LLOYD ROSS, lecturer on industrial relations, University of Sydney; formerly New South Wales secretary of the Australian Railways Union.
  • More By Lloyd Ross