Primary Sources 50 stories from 50 years of the Archives

The Cold War comes to Australia

Cold War antagonisms in Australia were brought to a head by the outbreak of the Korean War, a wave of post-war strikes often led by communists or sympathisers, and the growing hostility between the USA and USSR. Robert Menzies became the figure-head of anticommunist hysteria, and introduced the Australian Communist Party Dissolution Bill after decisively winning the 1950 federal election in which the threat of communism dominated the debate.

The bill was draconian. It abolished the fundamental legal principal that a person is innocent until proved guilty, as the Governor-General could 'declare' any person a communist, and the burden was on the individual to prove that they were not. The definition of communist was broad enough to worry many trade unionists that they might be included. Once an organisation had been declared 'communist', a person was liable for five years jail for continuing to be associated with it.

At first, the Australian Labor Party (ALP), which controlled the Senate, refused to accept Menzies' version of the bill, but this opposition was later reversed and the bill passed unamended. The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and several unions then began actions in the High Court of Australia against the bill. H.V. Evatt, deputy leader of the ALP, represented the CPA and the unions. The High Court ruled the bill unconstitutional, whereupon Menzies called a double dissolution election and the Liberals gained control of the Senate. A referendum on allowing the Dissolution Act was ordered for 22 September 1951. It looked certain that the 'yes' campaign would win, with one poll putting support at around 73 per cent.

The CPA, some unions, sections of the ALP and civil liberties organisations campaigned strongly against the referendum and the 'no' campaign ultimately won by a narrow margin of around 50,000 votes.

UMA holds one of the largest collections of CPA material in the country, as well as many related collections such as trade unions and the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party.

top of page