The Communist Party Dissolution Bill (1950)
As Australia entered the first phase of the Cold War, the CPA entered a period of open hostility with the ALP. This was exacerbated by the 1949 Coal Strike and the actions of the Chifley Labor Government in using strike breakers or ‘scabs’ to combat strike action by miners.
Divisions between CPA factions grew during the 1940s, with some members in direct conflict with the leadership. The Communist Information Bureau (Cominform) was established in October 1947 and the Australian leadership chose to follow its directives, including focusing on the formation of a ‘people’s front’. This led to the formation of organisations including the Australian Peace Council (APC) in 1949 and the Union of Australian Women in 1950. The Peace Movement was a key focus, and the APC grew rapidly.
In the Cold War climate, both the Liberal and Labor Parties were united in their opposition to communism. In 1949 a number of prominent communists were arrested and jailed, including Party leader Lance Sharkey, who was sentenced to 3 years “for having uttered and published seditious words”. His sentence was appealed and reduced to 18 months.
In a joint opposition policy speech in 1949, leaders Robert Menzies and Arthur Fadden announced that if the Opposition won the December election...
“The Communist Party will be declared subversive and unlawful and dissolved... No person now a member of the Communist Party shall be... eligible for any office in a registered industrial organisation, i.e. a trade union” (A Davidson 1969 p.111).
After winning the election, the Menzies-Fadden Government wasted little time in introducing the Communist Party Dissolution Bill to parliament on 27 April 1950. The Bill gave a very broad definition to “communist” and included anyone who supported the principles of the CPA. Opposition from the ALP was minimal, however some saw the Bill as a threat to the trade union movement and succeeded in introducing amendments.
A significantly amended Bill was passed and the Communist Party Dissolution Act (1950) became law on 20 October 1950. The Bill declared the Communist Party to be an unlawful association and, as such, it was to be dissolved and its property was to be forfeited without compensation. The Bill authorised the Governor-General to declare bodies, such as trade unions, to be communist affiliates, and unlawful. The Governor-General could declare a person as a communist and this person could not be employed by the Commonwealth or hold office in a labour union or industry vital to Australia’s security and defence.
Following the passing of the Communist Party Dissolution Act (1950), the CPA and several trade unions including the Waterside Workers’ Federation, took swift action. On the same day that the Act came into force eight actions were commenced in the High Court against the Commonwealth and various persons connected with the Act, with each seeking a declaration that the Act was unconstitutional (G Williams 2010).
On 9 March 1951 the High Court of Australia, by a majority of 6 to 1, ruled that the Communist Party Dissolution Act 1950 was unconstitutional. The High Court ruled that as Australia was not in a state of war the government did not have the power to proscribe organisations; the Act prevented the Communist Party and its members from disproving allegations made against them; and the threat posed by the party did not warrant the imposition of such peremptory legal penalties (Museum of Australian Democracy nd).
Cottle, D n.d., How Australia failed to destroy communism, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, accessed <https://www.labourhistory.org.au/hummer/the-hummer-vol-10-no-1-2015/australia-failed/>
Davidson, A 1969, The Communist Party of Australia: A Short History, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, California
Macintyre, S 1998, The Reds, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, Sydney
Gollan, R 1975, Revolutionaries and Reformists: Communism and the Australian Labour Movement 1920-1955, Australian National University Press, Canberra
Museum of Australian Democracy n.d., The Communist Party Dissolution Act 1950, accessed <http://static.moadoph.gov.au/ophgovau/media/images/apmc/docs/82-Communist-Party-ban.pdf>