Australia’s Special Council on Anti-Subversion Affairs, 1948-57
By Chris Oakley
based on "Red Dusk" by the same author
The 1948 September Revolt shook Australia to its political and social foundations. Though the Lance Sharkey-masterminded uprising didn’t accomplish its intended aim of overthrowing then-prime minister Ben Chifley, it did change the course of Australian history: fears of a similar Communist rebellion in the future drove the country’s Parliament to form a committee whose ostensible purpose was to probe suspected insurrection plots against the federal government in Canberra. In reality, however, the Special Council on Anti-Subversion Affairs-- colloquially dubbed "the SC" by Australia’s press-- turned out to be little more than a soapbox for right-wing politicians to push their agendas. And even then, it wasn’t as effective in making careers as its advocates would have liked; one Australian politician, though, famously saw his career ended as a result of his views on the Council and the actions Australian security forces were carrying out on its behalf....
...but before we get into that, we should first review the set of circumstances that brought the Council into being. Long before anyone outside the CPA1 was aware of the September Revolt conspiracy, or for that matter before the CPA themselves had even conceived of such a venture, political leaders disturbed by the Soviet Union’s subversive actions in eastern Europe had warned prime minister Ben Chifley that he wasn’t doing enough to prevent such subversion from being carried out inside Australia. Echoing those concerns, Chifley’s top domestic intelligence experts urged him to permit greater surveillance of all known and suspected radical leftist agitators in the country, with special attention paid to trade union leaders and members of hardcore Marxist political parties.
Though not yet aware of the full scope of Lance Sharkey’s rebellion plot against him, Chifley had gotten enough hints to suspect something was amiss, and in late July of 1948 he authorized the creation of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation(ASIO), an agency whose charter would be to handle domestic security and intelligence matters on behalf of the federal government and combat terrorism wherever it might crop up. In the aftermath of the September Revolt the ASIO would be tasked in rooting out all traces of Communist subversion within Australia’s borders; in fact, the September Revolt itself would be the subject of one of the ASIO’s first major investigations.
By an eerie coincidence, the Australian Senate was debating a conservative member’s proposals regarding the creation of the Special Council when the CPA insurgents and their NKVD comrades-in-arms began their ill-fated attack on Parliament House. The sound of gunfire echoing through Canberra’s streets did more than even the most ardent oratory could have achieved to persuade many senators to embrace the man’s somewhat controversial proposal; by the time that Sharkey and his co-conspirators were indicted for sedition and other charges two weeks after the rebellion, the focus of the debate on the Special Council had changed from whether it should be formed at all to who should comprise its membership and what authority it should be given. The Special Council bill made its way through the Senate with only minor opposition and had soon been overwhelmingly approved by the House of Representatives as well. Prime Minister Chifley signed it into law on September 22nd, 1948; the following week Parliament held its first hearings on Chifley’s nominations for the membership of the Council.
By mid-October the Council had its roster firmly in place and the first round of hearings had been scheduled; at the request of the ASIO the Council expanded said roster on November 1st to include an ASIO liaison whose primary tasks would be to co-ordinate ASIO-Parliament relations and to debrief the Council on ASIO investigations into anti- government rebellion plots. In the last days before the SC’s inaugural session, Australia’s major radio and print news outlets were buzz with speculation about who would be the first witnesses to appear before the new committee.
In the years since the Special Council was disbanded, it’s been fashionable to refer to the Council as a kind of Australian cousin to Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee in the United States. But nothing could be further from the truth: unlike their American and British counterparts, Australian federal legislative committees hardly have much real power, and often as not their rulings can end up being ignored by their own government as well as the public at large.2
What couldn’t be ignored was the Special Council’s first batch of witnesses. They included a group of ex-CPA members who’d been part of the September Revolt but had been granted immunity from prosecution in return for assisting the Canberra government’s inquiry into the ill- fated rebellion; an NKVD officer who’d defected to the West rather than face Beria’s or Stalin’s wrath following the collapse of the Revolt; and former CPA general secretary J.B. Miles, who despite his ouster had retained his party membership and was familiar with Lance Sharkey’s methods and character. On November 7th, 1948 these men and two dozen other witnesses were sworn in for the Special Council’s inaugural session. The galleries were packed like sardine tins as the Council, the press, and the public listened to the ex-CPA men give their statements about how the Revolt conspiracy had been organized and how Sharkey had enlisted the aid of the Soviet government in its preparations for the ill-fated rebellion. Their testimony was quickly corroborated by the ex-NKVD man, who added that had the Revolt not fallen apart so soon Stalin might have been inclined to increase his support of the CPA insurgents.
Then it was J.B. Miles’ turn to speak; summoned before the Council as a character witness, he painted a damning picture of Lance Sharkey as a cold-blooded 20th century Richard III who’d stolen the leadership of the CPA from Miles and sought at any cost to make himself an all- powerful dictator like Stalin. If there was anyone in the spectators’ galleries inclined to disagree with Miles’ assessment, they certainly kept quiet about it; even if such people had spoken up, however, it’s doubtful the Council would have been inclined to listen to them given Sharkey’s actions before and during the September Revolt.
The testimony which emerged from this hearing gave the ASIO plenty of ammunition as it went about the business of rooting out perceived threats to the stability of the Australian government. Any individual or group that exhibited even vaguely socialist tendencies in their thought or speech fell under the agency’s relentless surveillance and had a file started on them at ASIO headquarters in Canberra. Naturally some files were thicker than others; some consisted of not much more than a single sheet of paper, while others were large enough to take up entire file cabinet drawers. Lance Sharkey’s file in particular was so massive that at one point the ASIO top brass seriously considered setting up a sub-section of its records department devoted exclusively to the jailed CPA leader.
After preparing files on a suspected subversive and placing him or her under surveillance, the agency’s next move was usually to contact state or federal police so that the subject could be swiftly detained and, if necessary, arrested. Civil libertarians in Australia warned that these practices could be the first steps down a long and highly dangerous road toward exactly the kind of thing anti-Communists said they were trying to prevent, a totalitarian dictatorship; however, few of their fellow Australians were inclined to listen to those warnings given the overwhelming dread of Communism pervading the country in the wake of the September Revolt.
By April of 1949 nearly 3000 people were incarcerated in Australian prisons under the new anti-Marxist security laws and at least 6500 were being watched by the ASIO as potential subversives. And it didn’t necessarily take actual membership in a radical leftist faction to arouse ASIO suspicion; often as not, people who had no ties to any subversive organizations whatsoever could fall under ASIO scrutiny for expressing views that could be even loosely interpreted as Marxist.
There was also, it should be noted, an element of xenophobia in the ASIO’s actions at that time: many of the people under the agency’s nearly ubiquitous surveillance were left-leaning immigrants from other Western countries, and the ASIO top brass tended to view such people with even more suspicion than was the case with native-born Australian leftists. American and British left-wingers were looked upon with a particular attitude of mistrust, considered by the ASIO to be carriers of the political equivalent of bubonic plague.
Its behavior toward Aborigines was much as the same as that of almost every other sector of mainstream Australian society in those days: it tended to ignore them. Except for the rare cases in which an Aborigine had the misfortune to get on the bad side of a particularly inebriated ASIO man, the agency hardly even bothered to keep any files on Aboriginal men or women-- its senior staff didn’t see much point in worrying about the risk of a Marxist-inspired Aboriginal uprising, and in all fairness Aborigines tended to have almost no interest in the tenets of Communism one way or the other.
On the other hand, the ASIO actively recruited immigrants and defectors from Soviet bloc countries to serve as undercover agents. The vehemently anti-Communist attitudes of such people, it was felt, would make them highly cooperative with what the agency wanted to do; furthermore, having had first-hand experience with life in a Communist society, they were seen as uniquely qualified to understand how the Communist mind operated. Such recruits were usually assigned to infiltrate domestic leftist political groups or Soviet bloc diplomatic facilities in order to gather evidence of links between the Kremlin and Australian anti-government radicals; whenever possible, they were also used to disrupt meetings of organizations deemed a threat to the Canberra government.
There were few in Australia brave enough or reckless enough to even question the AISO’s methods, much less challenge them. And when such opposition did arise, it was usually quickly silenced by bitter condemnation of the opponents as puppets of the perceived worldwide Marxist-Leninist conspiracy. While it is true that a genuine Communist threat to the West did exist for many years, it did not pose as much risk to the Australian government’s stability as one might have been led to believe after the September Revolt-- certainly not enough of a risk to justify the numerous abuses the ASIO was committing against Australian citizens.
One of the few powers not granted to the ASIO in its original charter was the authority to arrest or detain individuals under its surveillance. But in the spring of 1950, as the guerrilla war in French Indochina(present-day Vietnam) was intensifying and war was about to begin in Korea, the agency was offered a potential solution to this rather thorny problem as grassroots support began to build for a constitutional amendment banning membership in Marxist groups or political parties as a criminal offense; if passed such an amendment would allow local, state, and federal police to arrest those who were caught violating the ban-- essentially putting people in jail in the ASIO’s name without direct ASIO involvement.
There had already been one unsuccessful attempt to outlaw
Marxism in Australia prior to the September Revolt; after the uprising was
crushed, the idea of a constitutional ban on Marxist parties started gaining new
currency in Australian political circles, especially among conservative
lawmakers who feared that without such a ban on the books the Communist Party of
Australia, which had dissolved in 1949, might have a chance to revive itself.
Those who protested the idea on free speech grounds were either ignored as fools
or condemned as traitors.
The proposed constitutional ban on Marxist political parties was finally decided in a federal referendum on June 10th, 1950, just over two weeks before the Korean War broke out. Predictably, the amendment enjoyed its greatest margin of approval in Queensland, which has long been a solid bastion of conservative sentiment in Australia; in some Queenslander towns the balloting ran as much as 7 to 1 in favor of the ban. With equal predictability Tasmania and South Australia, where liberal and socialist ideas still had a foothold even after the trauma of the September Revolt, overwhelmingly rejected the amendment. In New South Wales, Western Australia, Victoria, the Northern Territory, and and the Australian Capital Territory3, the ban was approved by narrow margins. The vote was particularly close in New South Wales, where it took a two-day-long recount to finally confirm that the voters in that state had approved the amendment.
Leftist activists and politicians denounced the amendment as a death knell for civil liberties in Australia; to the surprise of the amendment’s sponsors, some Australian conservatives could be heard expressing similar fears. The halls of Parliament began buzzing with predictions that the amendment’s legality would soon be challenged before the High Court of Australia....
...and sure enough on July 1st, 1950 the state attorney general of Tasmania and the heads of Australia’s two largest labor unions filed a joint petition with the High Court asserting that the ban on Marxist political parties should be struck down on the grounds it was unconstitutional. Supporters of the ban blasted the petition as a sign of naivete at best and outright treason at worst; opponents of the ban saw the court challenge as a necessary move to protect the Australian people’s civil liberties.
Labor unions exert a degree of political power in Australia that puts their American counterparts to shame; thus, it was practically inevitable that the legal confrontation between the petitioners and the Menzies government would be a lengthy and bitter one. Indeed, it promised to be the most contentious civil case the High Court had ever seen. Like the criminal trials of Lance Sharkey and his cohorts in the September Revolt, the Tasmanian government’s court challenge of the ban would become the focus of national media attention.
The case also stirred a fair amount of interest in the foreign press, especially in the United States, which at the time was in the midst of its own wave of anti-Communist hysteria. Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy, whose name would one day be synonymous in America with right-wing persecution of political dissidents, instructed his staff to scan the newspapers for every scrap of information about the trial they could find and to bring that information to him once it was obtained. McCarthy was of the opinion that the Tasmanian government’s petition to overturn the anti-Marxist amendment of the Australian constitution was a sign of a broad international Kremlin-sponsored plot to subvert the West-- a plot he was sure was actively at work in his own country.
Not surprisingly, Senator McCarthy was a great admirer of the Special Council on Anti-Subversion Affairs. Shortly after he was first elected to Congress he wrote a letter to the Special Council chairman praising the SC’s effort to expose alleged Communist subversion within Australia’s borders. "Never forget," he said in his epistle, "that you are doing God’s work."4 Some of the Council’s critics thought it was more likely the SC was in league with the Devil, but they usually kept such thoughts to themselves lest they be accused of having Communist tendencies as others had been.
The Special Council had other foreign fans as well. Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, then in his eleventh year in power, called the Council "the holy sword of righteousness against the dragon on Marxism"; Argentina’s Juan Peron offered the SC chairman an honorary officer’s commission in the Argentine army. Right-wing newspapers in France called for President Charles de Gaulle to establish a similar committee to root out evidence of Marxist sedition on French soil. In Cuba, Fulgencio Batista contacted the Australian embassy in Havana to arrange for members of the Special Council to visit his country and advise his government on the foundation of an SC-type legislative panel.
It would take over a year for the High Court of Australia to rule on the Tasmanian government’s petition to revoke the anti-Marxist amendment to the Australian constitution. During that year, the chill which had started to settle over political speech and thought within Australia after the amendment was passed became noticeably stronger; most people were afraid to criticize the government too severely for fear they might be branded Communists or worse, arrested by police in accordance with the amendment’s provisions. In some cities, the police spent almost as much time chasing Marxist bogeymen as they did hunting regular criminals. The ASIO’s files continued to expand, and the days when individual privacy was taken for granted were beginning to fade into memory.
What kept federal police arrest rates from climbing even higher than they already were was a provision of the Australian constitution known as Section 80. This clause states that any Australian citizen who is arrested for a criminal offense in a given state must be tried within that state; it effectively negated any chance of extraditing violators of the anti-Marxist ban to federal territory-- or for that matter to any Australian state outside the one in which their original alleged offense had been committed.
Even making arrests in the first place was a tricky business, requiring the consent of state governments to be obtained first. An arrest carried out without such consent could-- and frequently did -- lead to nasty legal confrontations in state and federal courts. To muddy the waters still further, when those arrested for violating the anti-Marxist amendment were brought to trial, their sentences upon conviction could as often as not depend on which state they were tried in. For example, in left-leaning Tasmania defendants might be given a light sentence or even acquitted; on the other hand, a similar case brought to trial in Queensland or New South Wales might result in a stiff prison term for those found guilty.
At least a third of the civil cases heard by Australia’s State Supreme Courts between July of 1950 and September of 1951 involved challenges of convictions handed down against those believed to have violated the anti-Marxist amendment. To the surprise and dismay of those who supported the amendment, many of those convictions were overturned, stirring fears among the hardline anti-Communists in the Australian Parliament that the High Court might soon strike down the amendment itself.
Those fears were groundless: on October 4th, 1951 the High Court ruled 4-3 in favor of the federal government, upholding the legality of the anti-Marxist amendment and forcing Tasmanian state authorities to take their case to the Judiciary Committee of Great Britain’s Privy Council. Two more years would pass before the issue of the amendment’s constitutionality was settled for good; in the meantime, police kept arresting people who held allegedly Marxist views and Australian civil libertarians continued to fear for their country’s future.
The British Privy Council’s Judiciary Committee is one of the most important bodies in the political and legal structure of the British Commonwealth. Among its functions is to review and decide on legal matters pertaining to the Commonwealth countries; traditionally Commonwealth citizens seeking to appeal unfavorable verdicts by the supreme courts of their homelands had have the option of stating their cases before the Judiciary Committee, and if the committee deems a given ruling to be improper that ruling quickly becomes null and void. Australians had this choice open to them until 1986, and the Tasmanian state attorney general was quick to make use of it when he began his fight to reverse the Australian High Court’s rejection of his petition to revoke the anti-Marxist amendment.
On October 8th, 1951 he flew to London to present the Judiciary Committee with his plea to have the High Court of Australia’s decision struck down. His visit was of sufficient importance to merit front page coverage by the Times of London and the Manchester Guardian; BBC Radio’s Home Service interviewed him at length prior to his return to Australia. To many in Great Britain, the Tasmanian attorney general’s appeal was a test of the British people’s most fundamental ideals on freedom of speech and thought; furthermore, one of the more hardline factions of Britain’s Conservative Party was advocating legislation similar to the Australian anti-Marxist amendment that would in effect render the British Communist Party an outlaw group just as socialist factions had been made illegal in Australia.
Winston Churchill, then in his second tenure as prime minister of Great Britain, may have put it best when he told a Canadian radio journalist: "What is at stake in this coming trial is nothing less than the essence of what it means to be a free Englishman."5 Churchill might have been a committed anti-Communist, but he was also a believer in free speech; the passage of the ban on Marxist political parties in Australia had greatly troubled him, and he’d said as much in a private letter to Robert Menzies shortly after the ban went into effect.
In April of 1952, six months into the Privy Council Judiciary Committee’s review of the Tasmanian state attorney general’s petition to overturn the High Court of Australia’s verdict, 10,000 supporters of the anti-Marxist amendment demonstrated outside the residences of the governors of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and Western Australia and Yarralumla House6 in Canberra to protest the Judiciary Committee’s intervention in the case. In the British Commonwealth, the governor of a state or territory and the governor-general of a country act as representatives of the Queen to those areas; naturally, such officials were therefore natural targets of anti-British sentiment on the part of those who favored the ban on Marxist political parties in Australia.
Inevitably the largest such rally took place in Brisbane, the Queenslander state capital; most of Queensland’s citizens had greeted news of the Committee’s decision to hear the Tasmanian state attorney general’s appeal with outrage, deeming it a betrayal of everything Australians held dear. Only the presence of a rather sizable security contingent outside the governor’s residence kept the marchers from trying to storm the building.
One important if unanticipated consequence of the amendment supporters’ outrage over the Privy Council’s actions was that the idea of making Australia a republic, which had been bandied about for many years, gained new popularity on the Australian political scene as the anti-Marxist amendment’s supporters sought ways to keep the Judiciary Committee from reversing the High Court’s verdict. Two weeks after the anti-British demonstrations, Prime Minister Menzies heard through the grapevine that a Country Party member of Queensland’s delegation in the Australian Senate was planning to introduce a bill which called for a national referendum to make Australia a republic; realizing such a move represented not only a threat to party discipline but also a possible recipe for nationwide political chaos, Menzies confronted the bill’s sponsor and warned him in no uncertain terms that if he did not scrap his proposal at once he would be immediately expelled from the coalition government. Rather than take a chance that the PM might make good on his threat, the intimidated Country Party senator killed the referendum proposal.
The internal controversy in Parliament House over the referendum bill signified an ironic role reversal in Australian politics between the right and the left. For most of Australia’s history it has usually been leftists who advocate in favor of a republic while right-wingers make the case for staying part of the British Commonwealth. But the anti-Marxist amendment and the Tasmanian state attorney general’s bid to get it overturned had seriously changed the equation, at least in the short term: now it was the rightists, desperate to prevent the amendment from being struck down, who wanted to cut off Australia’s constitutional ties to Great Britain while left-wingers who hated the amendment fought to preserve those ties and thus ensure that Canberra would be legally obligated to abide by the Privy Council Judiciary Committee’s decision.
Throughout the next six months, the Judiciary Committee’s deliberations on the anti-Marxist amendment and the idea of making Australia a republic would occupy substantial space in the editorial pages of the country’s major newspapers; the Australian Broadcasting Commission hosted three-hour radio debates on each of these topics in August of 1952. These programs still rank among the top twenty most-heard radio broadcasts in Australia’s history.
One month after the debates, a ceremony in Brisbane marking the fourth anniversary of the September Revolt turned into a full-fledged mêlée over the amendment when a rally of local Country Party faithful marching in support of the anti-Marxist ban was confronted by a group of relatives and friends of 100 people jailed under the provisions of the ban. The two camps first exchanged harsh words with each other, then crude insults, and at last tore into each other physically in a ferocious street brawl whose intensity eerily recalled the gun battle outside Parliament House during the CPA’s ill-fated attempt to topple the Chifley government. Police made dozens of arrests before the clash was over; the organizer of the Country Party rally had to be literally dragged away to keep him from going after the leaders of the counter- demonstration.
In December of 1952 the Sydney Morning Herald incurred the ASIO’s wrath when one of its editorial columnists published a scathing article that blasted the agency’s tactics in tracking down alleged leftist subversives. The agency petitioned the New South Wales state police to arrest both the columnist and his editor only to have both requests flatly refused. When the outraged ASIO director demanded an explanation for this refusal, the NSW state police commissioner said such a move would violate the notion of freedom of the press that was an implied fundamental part of constitutional law in Australia.
The commissioner’s actions stunned the pro-amendment crowd and gave heart to the anti-amendment factions in Australian politics. It also marked a turning point in the battle to end the ASIO’s abuses of its power; emboldened by what the commissioner had done, other critics of the agency began to speak out against it-- and some of them had positions of influence in Parliament House from which they could push for the enactment of laws restraining the ASIO’s authority.
As dramatic as the showdown between the ASIO and the New South Wales state police was, still greater confrontations lay ahead in the final months before the Privy Council’s verdict. One such standoff began in February of 1953, when eight inmates at Western Australia’s Fremantle Prison began a hunger strike to protest being incarcerated on what they alleged were false grounds; all eight had been arrested under the provisions of the anti-Marxist amendment, most of them on what was at best questionable evidence.
The Fremantle hunger strike also started the final irrevocable falling-out between Prime Minister Menzies and his chief critic at the time, MP Harold Holt of Higgins. Holt had never been particularly fond of Menzies to begin with, but the animosities between them had stayed behind closed doors until the ASIO-New South Wales police standoff; from that point on, however, their disputes would become very public and very heated till Menzies finally kicked Holt out of the Liberal Party at the height of the Fremantle affair.
Harold Holt’s political career was a promising one sadly cut short. He first gained elective office during World War II as the youngest MP in Australia’s history, then served in Robert Menzies’ cabinet as a minister without portfolio; many believe that had Holt not been expelled from the Liberal Party he could have remained a major player in Australian politics well into the 1960s, possibly even the 1970s.
Since the 1980s a veritable cottage industry has arisen in Australia of literature speculating on the direction Holt’s life might have taken had he stayed in politics after 1953. Ten of the fifty most popular alternate history short stories and six of the twenty-five most popular alternate history novels in Australian science fiction feature Holt as a major subject. One book, Just A Few More Questions, Mr. Holt, even envisions Holt taking over as Australia’s prime minister following Menzies’ shocking assassination in 1965.7 (A TV miniseries adaptation of the book was aired in 1998 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the September Revolt; it was one of the top ten most-watched programs on Australian television that year.)
When Holt challenged Menzies’ hardline stance on the Fremantle hunger strike, his political fate was effectively sealed; not only would he be exiled from the Liberal Party, but in a parliamentary election after the strike was over his bid to retain his Higgins seat as an independent was narrowly defeated. The chain of events which climaxed in Holt’s departure from the political arena began on the fifth day of the strike, when the newspaper The Age published a letter by Holt in which he advocated a more lenient approach to dealing with the strikers than the rigid policy Menzies had been following so far.
The prime minister took Holt’s letter as a personal insult; in a furious phone call to the MP that afternoon Menzies branded him a "traitor", accusing him of undermining Liberal Party discipline and threatening to expel him from the party’s ranks if he publicly opposed Menzies on this issue again. But Holt wouldn’t back down; if anything, Menzies’ threat actually seemed to embolden him. The next day, Holt introduced a nonbinding resolution in Parliament calling for Menzies to make certain concessions to the strikers.
For Prime Minister Menzies, already seething with resentment over Holt’s attacks on his handling of internal security matters, the resolution on the Fremantle crisis was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Within minutes after the resolution was voted on and narrowly defeated, Menzies summoned Holt to the Lodge and coldly informed him his membership in the Liberal Party was being revoked as of 6:00 PM that evening. Holt-- if popular legend can be believed-- responded by sneering "Bollocks on you AND the Liberal Party!", then tearing his party membership card in two and throwing the pieces in Menzies’ face.
His expulsion from the party, and subsequently failure to retain his MP seat as an independent, hardly did much to diminish him as far as his supporters were concerned; if anything, Holt’s dismissal made him an instant folk hero in their eyes. When he returned to Higgins two days after he was voted out of Parliament, he was greeted with a gigantic rally of admirers who hailed him for standing up to Menzies on the Fremantle crisis, even though it had meant sacrificing his political future in the bargain.
Holt embarked on new twin careers as an author8 and a spokesman for the families and friends of those jailed under the anti-Marxist amendment; in the second capacity he worked tirelessly to help secure compensation for victims of the amendment and the ASIO’s abuses of its power. Shortly after the Australian Senate elections of May 1953, Holt became a charter member of a public interest group whose aim was to put limits on ASIO authority.
The Fremantle Prison hunger strike finally ended in late April of 1953 when Prime Minister Menzies, under stern pressure from the Labor Party and a growing chorus of critics in his own party, agreed to review the convictions of the five surviving strikers.9 For those who were against the anti-Marxist amendment this constituted a massive psychological and political victory; they saw it as the first genuine sign of hope that the harsh internal security laws instituted in the hysteria following the September Revolt might finally be overturned or at least relaxed. Many of the amendment’s supporters, who took it as an article of faith the strikers were guilty of everything they’d been incarcerated for if not worse, took the news of Menzies’ decision to review the convictions as a sign of the Apocalypse.
Their belief in the strikers’ guilt would be shaken as evidence began to surface indicating that the "Fremantle Eight", as they’d been dubbed by the Sydney Morning Herald, had indeed been jailed on less- than-airtight evidence; in fact, in June of 1953 one of the police officers involved in their arrests would incite a nationwide scandal when he confessed under oath to having planted evidence on one of the surviving five strikers to ensure the man’s conviction for violation of the anti-Marxist ban. The officer’s confession opened a legal and political can of worms for the Menzies government, which was starting to find itself compelled to belatedly acknowledge that its efforts to inoculate the Australian people against the plague of Communism had produced a cure ten times worse than the disease.
The federal attorney general’s office convened an inquiry into dozens of similar cases of known or suspected false arrest; in far too many instances the investigators found examples of less-than- ethical conduct by the police in the guise of protecting Australia against subversion. This gave fresh ammunition to opponents of the anti-Marxist amendment, whose old fear of being imprisoned was slowly giving way to livid fury over the injustices they or their friends and family had endured at the hands of those who thought anti-Communism justified even the most despicable tactics.
As the fifth anniversary of the September Revolt came and went, the five surviving Fremantle strikers had their convictions reversed; four of them were released while the fifth, who was also serving time for assaulting a police officer during his original arrest, had his sentence commuted and would be released from prison by March of 1954. On the day of the anniversary itself anti-amendment rallies were held in every major city in Australia, one of them just a few blocks away from Parliament House in Canberra.
It was around this same juncture that popular sentiment inside the Liberal Party finally began to turn against the anti-Marxist amendment once and for all; there was a modest but steadily building consensus inside the party’s rank and file that the amendment had done more harm than good and that it might be time to repeal it regardless of what the Privy Council Judiciary Committee decided regarding the Tasmanian state attorney general’s petition to have the amendment struck down.
In late September of 1953 the Australian House of Representatives finally started debating on a bill to limit the ASIO’s surveillance powers and toughen penalties for abusing those powers. By the time the Judiciary Committee issued its final verdict, the bill had moved on to the Senate.
Just about every radio set in Australia was tuned in to ABC’s special evening news bulletin at 10:00 PM on the night of October 5th, 1953; it was about 12 noon in London, and word had just come from the British embassy in Canberra that the Judiciary Committee had reached its final decision on the Tasmanian government’s petition to reverse the High Court of Australia’s original ruling upholding the legality of the anti-Marxist amendment to the Australian constitution. Prime Minister Menzies, like millions of his fellow countrymen, was anxious to hear the Committee’s verdict; he and his cabinet were gathered at the Lodge so that they could all receive the news simultaneously.
Harold Holt was in Sydney that night, resting at one of the city’s largest hotels before a scheduled interview the next day with the Sydney Morning Herald. He had planned to retire at 10:30, but when he learned the Judiciary Committee was getting ready to announce its verdict he chose to stay up until he’d heard it. If nothing else, he thought, it would make an interesting icebreaker for starting off the interview.
The four ex-Fremantle hunger strikers who’d been released from prison were at the home of widow of the first man to die during the strike. They’d been talking about plans to visit their late comrade’s grave when they got the word the Committee was about to publish its verdict; all conversation stopped dead at that moment and the widow’s fell silent as they waited to hear the ruling.
At 10:07 PM an Australian Broadcasting Commission newsreader made the formal announcement: "The Judiciary Committee of Great Britain’s Privy Council has decreed that the High Court of Australia was in error in its ruling of October 4th, 1951 on the matter of the legality of the anti-Marxist amendment to the Australian constitution..." With that simple, bland-sounding report the ban against Marxist political parties in Australia effectively had a stake driven through its heart.
Once the Judiciary Committee issued its decision, it was just a question of time before the Australian Parliament acted to rein in both the ASIO and the Special Council. Two days after the Committee reversed the High Court of Australia’s verdict Parliament approved the ASIO reform bill and passed it on to British governor-general Sir William Slim, who signed it into law on October 8th, 1953. The new Actof Parliament took away many of the surveillance powers the ASIO had formerly enjoyed, put tough restrictions on those it still had, and mandated stiff prison terms for any ASIO field agent or officer found to have violated the new law.
The Australian federal attorney general ordered the swift release of all Australian citizens still serving jail time under the provisions of the now-defunct anti-Marxist amendment. The Special Council on Anti-Subversion Affairs, stripped of many of its chief reasons for existing, dismissed its ASIO liaison in July of 1954; by March of 1955 the last of those detained for violating the amendment had been freed from federal custody.
Over time Australia and Britain regained the cordial relationship they had enjoyed before the passing of the anti-Marxist amendment, but Canberra’s fences with other countries weren’t so easily mended: 22 nations, not all of them Communist, boycotted the 1956 Summer Olympic Games in Melbourne in protest of the Menzies government’s failure to do more to prevent the injustices done by Australian security forces during the years the amendment was in effect. There were rumors that the United States might also pull out of the Melbourne Games, but the friendship between Washington and Canberra made sure this would remain little more than a paranoid fantasy.
On June 23rd, 1957 Prime Minister Menzies ordered the Special Council on Anti-Subversion Affairs dissolved; that same day Menzies received the Council’s final report. Australia’s "Red Scare" had come to an end-- though perhaps not soon enough for many of those who’d spent months or years in prison simply for expressing vaguely leftist political sentiments.
In the years after the anti-Marxist amendment was struck down Harold Holt, who’d been studying law in college before the Great Depression forced him to quit law school, resumed his legal studies; after earning a Bachelor of Law degree he set up a practice in Sydney. Not surprisingly, he specialized in obtaining financial compensation for victims of the amendment and became Australia’s most sought-after civil attorney in this field. He died of heart failure on December 19th, 1967 while preparing to make his closing arguments in one such case.
One of the five survivors of the Fremantle Prison hunger strike was killed in a car accident near Broome in 1981; in his memory, the four remaining survivors maintain a museum chronicling the events of the September Revolt era. They also make regular appearances on the lecture circuit testifying about their experiences from and opinions on that politically tumultuous time, and two of them were technical advisors on the TV adaptation of Just A Few More Questions, Mr. Holt.
A violent postscript to the story of the Special Council would
be written on August 14th, 1965 while Menzies was preparing to deliver
a speech to a group of Liberal Party faithful in Townsville. Shortly
after the prime minister arrived at the auditorium where the gathering
was being held, a man in a dark blue jacket fired four rifle shots at
him from a hotel window across the street; the first two shots hit him
squarely in the chest, the third shot grazed his neck, and the fourth
blew a hole in his temple. Within minutes, Menzies was dead and his
assassin had committed suicide; a subsequent federal inquiry into the
assassination identified the killer as one Edward Burke, a New South
Wales resident whose son Stephen had been the leader and a casualty of
the Fremantle hunger strike.
1Communist Party of Australia
2For a more detailed analysis of this aspect of Australian politics, see Professor C.M. Nuttall’s book Rubber Sword: A Critique Of Australian Parliamentary Committees Since 1948(copyright 2003 Oxford University Press and 2004 Melbourne University Press).
3The special district which encompasses Canberra.
4The letter is preserved today in the University of Wisconsin archives.
5Quoted from a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interview, October 10th, 1951.
6The official home of the British governor-general for Australia.
7Though well-written for the most part, this book’s credibility is unfortunately somewhat undermined by a rather implausible ending in which Holt disappears while swimming off the Australian coast.
8As has been previously mentioned, the past few decades have seen an explosion in ‘what if’ books about Harold Holt’s life after 1953. What you may not know is that one of the first books to seriously speculate on this topic was written by Holt himself in 1964; titled What I Might Have Done, it lists scenarios for how he might have handled such sensitive matters as the Vietnam War, his country’s treatment of its Aboriginal citizens, and compensation for those wrongly jailed under the anti-Marxist amendment had he served as prime minister of Australia.
9Two of the original eight strikers had died of starvation within six weeks after Harold Holt was expelled from the Liberal Party; a third perished in mid-March.