A- A A+

Anti-communism in the Liberal Party from Menzies to Turnbull

Evan Smith |  31 August 2017


The anti-communist hysteria has been ratcheted up a notch in the last couple of weeks by the Liberal Party.

Cartoon by Chris JohnstonEconomics Minister Mathias Cormann has claimed that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is a socialist and wants to take Australia back to the times of East Germany and the Soviet Union. Eric Abetz has sought, alongside The Australian newspaper, to make links between Get Up and the remnants of the Australia Soviet Union Friendship Association.

In the debate over the statues of Captain Cook and Governor Lachlan Macquarie, as well the wider denial of many to Australia's violent settler colonial history, Malcolm Turnbull has called those who argue for a rethink over Australia's past treatment of the Indigenous population 'Stalinists'. And last weekend, Veterans' Affairs Minister Dan Tehan claimed that Shorten will turn Australia into Cuba.

Earlier this year, Turnbull made a speech in London where he called for the Liberal Party to return to its ideological base as laid out by Sir Robert Menzies. Turnbull suggested that the Liberal Party under Menzies was the socially conservative party that many on the LNP's right wish it to be, but it seems that what the Liberals have taken from the Menzies era is a revival of anti-communist rhetoric.

Menzies became prime minister for the second time in December 1949 on an explicitly anti-communist agenda. This was the early height of the Cold War. Throughout 1949, communist-influenced miners had led a coal strike in three states in a challenge to Labor PM Ben Chifley, who eventually called in the Army to break up the strike. Furthermore the leader of the Australian Communist Party, Lance Sharkey was jailed for sedition in the same year for suggesting he would welcome the 'liberation' of Australia by Soviet troops.

On the international stage, the tightening of the grip of the Soviets over the 'People's Democracies' of Eastern Europe had become more or less complete by this time and in October 1949, the People's Republic of China was announced in Peking. To make matters worse, a communist rebellion was beginning in Malaya, reportedly (falsely at the time) sparked by conversations between Sharkey and the Malayan Communist Party leader, Chin Peng.

Taking inspiration from similar efforts in Canada and the United States, and working closely with the newly created apartheid government in South Africa, Menzies campaigned that if elected, the Liberal-Country Party coalition would ban the Australian Communist Party.

Within six months of his electoral victory Menzies had navigated the Communist Party Dissolution Act through Parliament and fulfilled his election promise, but the legislation was deemed unconstitutional by the High Court. The following year, after a double dissolution (sounding familiar?), Menzies reintroduced a bill to outlaw the Communist Party and then held a referendum to change the Constitution to enforce the Act. In September 1951, such a referendum was held, with the 'No' vote winning by a small, but significant, majority.


"Although sections of the right-wing commentariat might still fear the spectre of communism, the Turnbull government's evoking of it has probably more to do with its own internal obsessions, rather than the concerns of the electorate."


Despite this defeat at the referendum, Menzies' anti-communism did not abate. In the lead up to the 1954 election, a staff member of the Soviet Embassy, Vladimir Petrov, defected to the West in spectacular fashion. The pictures in the press of Petrov's wife being manhandled by Soviet agents were used by Menzies to demonstrate the threat that the Soviet Union presented to Australia. Part of the fallout from the Petrov affair were the rumours linking several ALP figures to the Soviets, including Opposition Leader H. V. Evatt, who had campaigned heavily for the 'no' vote in the 1951 referendum. Many historians argue that the Petrov affair cost Labor the 1954 election.

Petrov's information was also used to justify the establishment of a royal commission into espionage, which commenced in 1955. Many 'fellow travellers' of the Communist Party and those who had expressed some sympathy for the Soviet Union, especially individuals working in the Commonwealth public service, were hauled before the royal commission. The findings of the commission were limited, but it ruined the livelihoods of a number of the people who had to testify before it and it reinforced Menzies' image as the anti-communist Cold War warrior.

This remained with Menzies until his final days. One of his last major decisions as prime minister was to send Australian troops to Vietnam in 1964, convinced by the 'domino theory' that all of South-East Asia was vulnerable to communism if South Vietnam collapsed. Even after Menzies' retirement, his successors were quick to raise the communist bogeyman, both internally and domestically. As the movement against the Vietnam War grew in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Liberal Country Party politicians called those who demonstrated 'communists', 'Marxists' and 'anarchists', among other names. Labor frontbencher Jim Cairns was particularly identified as a crypto-communist inside the ALP. Malcolm Fraser used similar slurs against the Whitlam government, admonishing its socialism and its links to the Soviet Bloc and China (despite Nixon's overtures to Mao at the same time).

Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Labor's policies have been described by various LNP politicians as 'socialist', 'neo-Marxist' and 'Stalinist'. Senator Eric Abetz, as well former Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi, have warned about the creeping 'cultural Marxism' of the ALP (as well as the Greens). Fear of socialism has probably waned in the last few decades, as demonstrated by the popularity of people like Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Jacinda Ardern overseas, as well as ALP figures like Anthony Albanese at home. Although sections of the right-wing commentariat might still fear the spectre of communism, the Turnbull government's evoking of it has probably more to do with its own internal obsessions, rather than the concerns of the electorate.



Evan SmithEvan Smith is a Visiting Adjunct Fellow in the School of History and International at Flinders University, South Australia. He blogs at Hatful of History and tweets from @hatfulofhistory.


Evan Smith

Recent articles by this author


Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

But Evan, soviet-style Marxist-Leninists really were very bad guys, and Stalin was a monster, perhaps the worse ever to gain political power. The fight against this evil was of historic importance, even if other forgotten by some in your generation. It is also quite evident that some of the children of this monstrosity have found a home in the green movement and the left of labour politics. Bill Shorten has moved towards the left and is pondering to this group so as not to lose votes to the Greens. It seems to me the Liberal comments in this regard hit the truth quite well. Radical left values are popular only with those who have no real knowledge of history.

Eugene 04 September 2017

Thanks Evan for a guided walk through the national politics of my childhood and early adult years. Political slurs relating to past and present Communist leaders are more a demonstration of the superficiality of Australian political argument than any ratcheting up of anti-communist hysteria. Of course the Coalition is not alone in this gamesmanship, this playing to the gallery, that both sides of both Houses have substituted for intelligent political debate. Perhaps it indicates politicians' lack of faith in the intelligence of those who elect them; perhaps it is wishful thinking by us, the electors, for politicians to focus on the matters of concern to the nation rather than engaging in point-scoring attempts at the level of a middle high school debate.

Ian Fraser 04 September 2017

Socialism is not communism.

john frawley 04 September 2017

Thanks, Evan, for the tip-toe through the tulips (and the weeds) in the garden of Australian politics after WW2, the Cold War, and the emergence of the "Communist" slur. One huge factor you omitted was the Labour Party Split in 1955 and all that followed, in particular the formation of the Anti-communist Labour Party. I endorse the comments of Ian Fraser and John Frawley.

Uncle Pat 04 September 2017

For the best part of a hundred years the Left couldn’t find any Reds under the bed of any radical. Finally, they’ve discovered them under the bed of Donald Trump colluding with Russia.

Ross Howard 04 September 2017

It seems that the people who are so fanatically anti-communist don't understand what produced communist governments in those countries.

Russell 04 September 2017

Radical left values are popular only with those who have no real knowledge of history. What a statement from Eugene. I am left wondering what 'real knowledge of history is? I have some knowledge of history as among other studies I majored in History and have taught it for years. Does that qualify me for 'real knowledge'? If I have 'real knowledge' does that mean I cannot therefore be a 'radical' lefty? And the questions keep on coming.

Tom K 04 September 2017

Really, Eugene, accusing people with “radical left values” of “no real knowledge of history” is a bit intellectually risky when you and the Liberals ludicrously tar Bill Shorten and today’s Labor with the brush of Marxist-Leninism. Given that Labor, like the Liberals, has taken a leap to the right over the past 15 years. Now, before you assume my own Shorten-Stalinist proclivities, the only thing I am extreme about is a wish for politics to move back to the rational centre and for our badly unperforming politicians and their apologists to stop playing silly infantile games. And to start running the country again for the benefit of all Australians, not just those willing to swallow party lines complete with hook and sinker. Stalin and the 1930s-1970s Soviet regime were a murderous bunch, responsible for the death of millions. But, excuse me, have you heard of a certain A. Hitler and pals, whom the free world spent 6 years fighting and defeating for the survival of freedom and democracy back in the 1940s? With neo-Nazism and far right ideology resurgent and becoming unaccountably acceptable again, one might be more receptive to a “real knowledge of history” if it presented both sides.

PaulM 04 September 2017

One response to Mathias Cormann’s comment was surprise that East Germany had been built on removing negative gearing from housing investments and support for Marriage Equality, a good answer to a bit of fear mongering. My late parents called all the Labor leaders from Calwell to Keating communists. They had a “Liberal Party good, Labor Party bad” mentality that came from their upbringing and the politics of their time and they pushed the Labor=Communism barrow to anyone who would listen. It’s an easy line to push but it doesn’t really offer much in the way of serious political discussion. I’m a little surprised it has any traction at all these days but I suppose the logic is if it worked in the past it is worth repeating.

Brett 04 September 2017

The Liberals have always been keen on standing up to Communism unless it was electorally advantageous. Liberals on returning to power failed to recognise the Government of Republic of China. THey allowed the ABC to be the mouth of Communism in Australia. They allowed Soviet Union to subsidize the CPA and SPA. They allowed Red China to subsidize CPA (Marxist-Leninist) and after the jailing of Sharkey they never prosecuted any other Com. We need to remember that COms are evil in the same way as NAZI 's are evil and both should have been prosecuted for treason and Sedition. John Howard even repealed the Sedition laws.

Andrew Jackson 05 September 2017

I endorse Uncle Pat's endorsement of Ian Fraser and John Frawley and endorse Uncle Pat's comments. Labels like Commo, Leftie etc do not deal with the matter at hand. They convey fear or hatred but do not touch the matter discussed, or proposed. Often they are lazy and spiteful rebukes. And as always when you can engender fear reason goes out the window. In Australia I believe we are more in danger from the predatory behavior of big banks, water thieves, unscrupulous developers, generous donors to political parties and the insurance industry. They will cause more pain to Australians today and tomorrow than ISIS. So the faux fear-mongering about communism is a fear inducing blind to hide and protect those who threaten and profit from current inequality.

Michael D. Breen 05 September 2017

john frawley: "Socialism is not communism". Exactly. Humans are Social Beings. We depend on social structures for our well-being. Real Progress, both for individuals and for the human race will be dependent on how well WE, as individuals, communities and nations, embrace and implement, from the heart. the slogan, "From each according to their ability; to each according to their need".

Robert Liddy 06 September 2017

Similar articles

Dual citizenship should be a plus in modern Australia

Fatima Measham | 21 July 2017

Greens Senator Larissa WatersThere are layers of frustration around the resignation of Greens senators Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters due to dual citizenship. The immediate loss of two of Australia's better parliamentary performers - on any side of politics - is unfortunate. For no one in their orbit and nothing in the AEC nomination process to have caught something so fundamental is unsettling, but perhaps not that odd. Presumptions of Australian-ness are more or less adjudicated on a certain kind of look and surname.

Is there an Asian Australian culture?

Tseen Khoo | 11 July 2017

Asian AustraliansThe short answer is 'no'. There is no single Asian Australian culture, just as there is no single 'Australian culture'. As well as an unfortunate tendency to flatten differences, trying to talk about particular groups can serve a broader political and cultural project. I run a research network focused on Asian Australian Studies. The topics we cover strive to give depth and detail to otherwise stereotyped, shallow representations of Asians and Asian Australians that surround us.

Why 'white' isn't a racist slur

Sonia Nair | 13 July 2017

Scene from Dear White PeopleI hung out with a group of Indian-Australians while I was a university student who called themselves 'curries', but the unspoken camaraderie that ensued from this self-identification stood in stark contrast to that time I was called a 'f***ing curry' by a passing car full of white people. You often hear from white people that they can't be called 'white' because that too is racist language. This reflects a flawed assumption that societal structures advantage and disadvantage people in the exact same way.

Data, distrust, and the disastrous My Health Record

Amy Coopes | 06 July 2017

Doctor and patientPlagued by sluggish uptake, clinician reticence and a substantial privacy backlash, the $1.2 billion My Health Record has proven, thus far, something of a lemon. The putative benefits of an electronic health record have been expounded at length by the government. But for success there must be buy-in, and for buy-in, there must be trust, according to the Productivity Commission. Both are lacking, and it is important to consider why.

Despite census results we dismiss religion at our peril

Christine Burke | 30 June 2017

Crowd aerial viewThe origins of hospitals, schools and social services can be traced back to the efforts of people of faith. Much poetry, art, drama and literature grapples with the deeper meaning of life in dialogue with a larger vision found through the everyday challenges of our lives. This religious urge can re-emerge as nationalism, racism, greed, or narcissism, and these have no inherent counter force to question their authenticity. The truths at the base of great religions reorient us towards love, peace and justice.