September 22 deserves to be celebrated along with the centenary of Federation. On that day in 1951, defeat of the referendum to ban the Australian Communist Party confirmed that Australias temper would remain democratic. Had the vote gone the other way, the presumption of innocence would have been impaired and a star chamber installed.
Labor leader Ben Chifley said the Communist Party Dissolution bill opens the door to the liar, the perjurer and the pimp to make charges and damn mens reputations and to do so in secret without having either to substantiate or prove any charges they might make.
Robert Gordon Menzies had resisted a ban until disclosure of a Soviet espionage ring in wartime Canberra caused the United States in mid-1948 to cease sharing classified documents with Australia. This embargo struck at Britains nuclear program which needed both US secrets and Australian test sites. Communism, Menzies declared, was high treason.
After taking office in December 1949, the Liberal-Country Party coalition set out to dissolve the Party and its affiliated organisations, confiscate its properties and deny communistsCommonwealth employment or office in most unions.
The Act had first to identify communists. Documented membership would not catch the most wanted. Hence, the government proposed to declare people to be communists on the basis of evidence provided by its security service.
After Menzies made his Second Reading Speech on 27 April 1950, he had to amend accusations about five of the fifty-three union officials he had named as Reds.
The Act defined a communist as anyone who supports or advocates the objectives, policies, teaching, principles or practices of communism, as expounded by Marx or Lenin. Menzies reiteration that No Parliament can convert a power over Communists into a power over non-Communists would have been more convincing had the Act been confined to membership. Instead, declaration based on beliefs seemed to open windows onto mens souls.
The slipperiest slide was in the industrial arena. The publics prime objection to Communists was their causing strikes. Thus, every industrial action was labeled Communist.
Menzies had to break the Communist power in trade unions without provoking the labour movement into fearing that banning the Communists would also ban the right to strike. In a gesture to moderates, the Act outlawed communist control of employer bodies..
After the Labor-controlled Senate finally allowed the bill to pass on 17 October 1950, two Communist-led unions briefed deputy Labor leader Dr H. V. Evatt for a challenge in the High Court.
On 9 March 1951, the judges four of whom were Menzies appointees ruled six to one that, although the regulations sought may be valid under the Defence Power, the Cold War did not meet that criterion. In peace time, laws could prohibit only specific acts.
When Menzies sought to amend the Constitution by referendum, his lawyers warned against the dangers of being simple. It was not enough to ask: Are you in favour of banning the Commos?. The government also needed the constitutional authority to amend its invalidated Act. The arcaneness of the 300-word amendment fed suspicions that a Yes vote would let the a cabal declare anyone it did not like.
Menzies gave credence to that concern by allowing himself to be goaded, while the worse for drink, into hinting that two Labor parliamentarians could easily become declared persons.
Newly elected as Federal Labor Leader, Evatt raised the spectre of Belsen-style camps across Australia, an accusation which Menzies characterised as wicked. The Commonwealth War Book, meanwhile, prepared to concentrate over 1000 communist leaders in camps on the outbreak of the world war that Menzies warned was less than three years away. The Solicitor-General expected a round-up as soon as the High Court validated the Dissolution Act.
Evatt buttressed his legal and liberal arguments with attacks on the governments failure to put value back into the pound. On September 22, the No case attracted 50.48 percent, up from 20 percent seven weeks earlier. The press rekindled speculation that Menzies would resign to lick his wounds on the High Court.
As a poll of the whole people, the 1951 vote was more democratic than those leading to Federation, and the decision more democratic than our monarchical Constitution.