Page 1 of 8
Reds Under the Beds
Australia's fear of communism was not just confined to events occurring overseas. Within Australia, there was a growing fear of Communist infiltration in the trade union movement and the Australian Labor Party (ALP). These concerns, whether true or not, helped to bring about the downfall of the Chifley Labor Government in 1949 and played a role in keeping the ALP out of government until 1972.
In this lesson, you learn about post-war fears of ‘Reds under the bed’ (an expression that was commonly used in the 1950s regarding popular fears that there were communists within Australia). You then examine attempts made by the Menzies Government to ban the Communist Party in Australia. This resulted in a referendum in 1951 on that issue
Immediately after World War II there was turmoil in the workplace. The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) had begun influencing the activities of many of the biggest trade unions. There were large-scale strikes in each year from 1945 to 1949.
The coal strike of 1949 was especially harmful to then Prime Minister, Ben Chifley. He broke the strike by calling on army and air force personnel to work the mines. The union movement saw this as a betrayal by someone who had been elected to represent them.
Also during the 1940s, a new political party had been formed. In 1943, Robert Menzies, who had previously been Prime Minister when leading the United Australia Party (UAP), was urged to become leader of the new Liberal Party. He agreed on condition that he could reorganise the party structure.
The industrial problems, rumours of the ALP’s communist connections and Chifley’s unpopular attempts to nationalise the banking system were three of the issues in the 1949 federal election.
The opposition leader, Menzies, heavily exploited the public’s communist fears during his campaign for both the 1949 and 1951 elections. He also promised to end petrol rationing, which was still in force from World War II.
Chifley was concerned about rumours of the Labor Party’s involvement with the communists so he took a tough stand on the CPA, as they were blamed for the many strikes occurring. The CPA’s offices were raided and their bank accounts frozen as the government investigated the communist influence on the union movement.
This strong stance on communism, however, didn’t save the Labor Government. Many Labor supporters thought Chifley had gone too far in freezing the CPA’s bank accounts.
In the December election, Menzies’ Liberal Party had a victory in the House of Representatives and therefore became the government. However, Labor was able to hold the majority of seats in the Senate.
The 1949 victory in the Federal election was the start of what was to become the longest term ever served by a Prime Minister of Australia. Menzies remained in office until he decided to retire in 1966. The Liberal Party remained in government until the ALP victory in 1972.