The Official Organ of LaborNET
click here to view the latest edition of Workers Online
The Official Organ of LaborNET
Free home delivery
November 2005   

Interview: Public Defender
The CPSU's Stephen Jones has confronted the Howard Government's IR agenda at close quarters.

Legal: Craig's Story
An inquest in western NSW is a cautionary tale of the use of AWAs, writes Ian Latham

Unions: Wrong Way, Go Back
The WorkChoice legislation sends Australia down the wrong economic road by smashing the instittutions that have made it strong, argues Greg Combet.

Industrial: WhatChoice?
The Howard Government has shown itself to be the master of illusion, writes Dr Anthony Forsyth

Politics: Queue Jumping
The changes to industrial laws, betray a new vision of Australian society, writes James Gallaway.

History: Iron Heel
Conservative governments using laws to take away basic civil rights. It's nothing new, writes Rowan Cahill

Economics: Waging War
When was the last time you heard an Australian politician talk about incomes policy, asks Matt Thistlethwaite

International: Under Pressure
The push for UN intervention in Burma is intensifying, following a report by Vaclav Havel and Bishop Desmond Tutu into slave labour.

Poetry: Billy Negotiates An AWA
More and more people are meeting Billy, the hero of page 15 of the WorkChoices booklet, including our resident bard, David Peetz

Review: A Pertinent Proposition
Nick Cave's "Australian western" touches on some themes still relevant today, Julianne Taverner writes.


The Soapbox
Men and Women of Australia
What makes a perfect speech? Michael Fullilove has scoured Australian history to find out.

The Locker Room
The Hungry Years
Phil Doyle gets the feeling we’ve been here before

From Little Things
Paul Kelly's song about the battle for land rights misses one important character, writes Graham Ring

The Westie Wing
Ian West takes a look at Public Private Partnerships, and wonders if we should all just drink rum…


Terror Laws
It was poetic really, the WorkChoices legislation, all 1,000 plus pages of it, introduced into Federal Parliament this week under the cloak of terror.


 D-Day For Political Rights

 Bosses In Sack Race

 “Choice” By Decree

 Howard Barges Into Workplace

 Della Grounds Boeing

 Wal-Mart Sees the Light

 Libs Chicken Out

 Shame Ships Filch Fish

 Multis Line Up to Cheer

 Feds in Dock

 Santoro Waves Red Rag

 Activist's What's On!

 We're Next
 Australia, 2005
 Truth in Advertising
 Investment Advice
 What a Woman!
 It's Not Pretty
About Workers Online
Latest Issue
Print Latest Issue
Previous Issues
Advanced Search

other LaborNET sites

Labor Council of NSW
Vic Trades Hall Council
IT Workers Alliance
Unions on LaborNET
Evatt Foundation

Labor for Refugees



Iron Heel

Conservative governments using laws to take away basic civil rights. It's nothing new, writes Rowan Cahill

This is a brief historical overview of the authoritarianism of Australian conservative governments as background to the Howard government's IR and anti-terrorism laws.


Critical responses to the Howard government's IR changes and anti-terrorist legislation, including the reworking of laws relating to sedition, tend to imply these changes are un-Australian. I beg to differ; anti-Australian certainly, but not un-Australian. Historically, the changes are in keeping with the political behaviour of Australian conservatism in government.

Back in 1926, and later in 1928, for example, conservative Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce variously and aggressively tried to transfer state industrial powers to the Commonwealth and abolish arbitration entirely. His plans were thwarted by the lack of public support, the strength of 'states rights' arguments, and political divisions within conservative ranks. But there are marked similarities between what Bruce set out to do, and what Howard is in the process of doing.


For many Australians, including John Howard, the 1950s are golden years of comfortable suburban values presided over by the paternal sobriety of Prime Minister Menzies, all under the maternal care of the British crown. While Robert Gordon Menzies has been air-brushed by history, the fact is the Liberal Party founder and hero of John Howard yearned for authoritarian government. We glimpse this on 6 November 1938 when he told a Presbyterian church audience that a government "founded on licence would destroy itself

", and went on to call for more "national powers" to help the development of

a "national spirit".

A fortnight earlier he had told a Melbourne audience that the enthusiasm for service to the State evident in Italy and Germany "could well be emulated in Australia". His comments were based on his European tour earlier in 1938 which took in Nazi Germany, and high level Nazi briefings courtesy of the recommendations he received from the Nazi Consul-General in Sydney and the Nazi Ambassador in Britain.

As Prime Minister (1939-1941) Menzies was an appeaser of considerable magnitude. In London on 3 March 1941, as part of a four-month visit, Menzies told an international audience of business representatives, journalists, and diplomats, that Australia had no quarrel with Japan, and wanted to "draw closer to Japan and appreciate its problems". We would draw closer all right; Pearl Harbour was nine-months down the track.

In mid-1940 his government had pressured Britain to close the Burma Road, effectively starving China of vital supplies required for its struggle against Japan. Earlier, in 1938 as Attorney-General, Menzies had used draconian powers to smash the ban by Port Kembla (NSW) wharfies on the export of pig-iron ("war supplies") to an aggressive, expansionist Japan. It was during this dispute that Menzies earned the derisory nickname Pig Iron



During the 1930s a vocal, growing and energetic Australian Left increasingly opposed fascism, Nazism, Japanese militarism, and appeasement. Conservative Federal and State governments retaliated with harassment, including special legislation, extensive use of security services and police, prosecutions, imprisonment, the curtailment of civil liberties,while the thuggery of anti-leftists was tolerated. Censors hip was a repressive feature of Australia during the 1930s. Some 5000 titles were banned, including many left-wing works. Australia ranked as the most repressive English speaking nation.


Still largely hidden from public view are the draconian measures Cold War politicalconservatives, and the capitalist order they served, were prepared to use a gainst militant trade unions and the Left generally. Menzies, again Prime Minister (1949-1966), featured prominently in these measures.

The public face of these measures is evident in tactics like the Communist Party Dissolution Act 1950, and the subsequent Referendum; the Petrov Affair; and the intrusive and intimidating work of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

Less known is Operation Alien, 1950-1953, a comprehensive plan to use the armed forces against organised labour. This top-secret operation was under the control of Prime Minister Menzies, and planned by a select group of government, service and industry leaders. It was part of a wider Cold War strategy to smash militant unionism in Australia.

Directly under the control of Menzies, a special staff of military personnel, and the Assistant General Manager of Shell Oil, the plan was for the routine mobilisation and deployment of the armed forces in industrial disputes, especially in areas where essential services were involved, and in the stevedoring and coal industries.

Cabinet documents suggest th at elements in the government sought to inflame industrial disputes during the period, particularly in the maritime industry, with a view to extending areas of dispute and justifying the implementation of Operation Alien.

The first use of the plan was in May 1951, in response to Australian solidarity actions during the New Zealand waterside workers' strike. Troops and naval ratings were used to break union bans; trade union offices were raided by State and Commonwealth security agencies; the Crimes Act was used to prosecute prominent unionists. Partially implemented a number of times between 1951 and 1953, Operation Alien never went into full swing. Wary targeted unions failed to provide sufficient provocation.


Internment Camps were also on the conservative agenda. Using the excuse of an expected Third World War, the Director General of ASIO, Colonel Spry, began the compilation in July 1950 of a list of people who needed to be interned in time of national emergency. Whole families, including children, were scheduled for rounding up and incarceration in camps.

By December 1950 the list included 750 'selected' communists. Less than a year later this figure stood at 1100 'suspected' communists. Enemy Aliens were also included; these were mainly Eastern Bloc, Chinese, Korean, and Indo-Chinese people between the ages of 16 and 65 who had entered Australia after 1945. With the inclusion of these people, the list blew out to 16,660 people by April 1955. Predictably, former European

"Nazis and Fascists", amongst them war criminals, were specifically exempted from Enemy Alien status, some of them variously cementing themselves within the Liberal Party organisation. Camp sites were located, staffing requirements calculated, and legislation drafted. To be interned one did not have to actually commit an offence in any legal sense.

Internees were to be arrested by state police. The camps were to be run by the Army and under the control of Military Intelligence.

Many thousands of ASIO files now in the Australian Archives indicate that during the Menzies era it was regarded as 'offensive' and 'suspicious' merely to criticise the government or society in general, and to exercise democratic rights.

The internment plan lapsed in the 1970s, by which time the project had become too expensive and was bureaucratically unmanageable. Both it and Operation Alien were hidden from scrutiny until 1992-1993, revealed by the patient Archival research of Associate Professor Les Louis (University of Canberra).


The Death Penalty was another tactic considered by the Menzies government. Fuelled by anti-communism, and speculation by ASIO and the armed forces that Australian communists were likely to spy against their own nation and engage in acts of sabotage, legislation was drawn up to execute Australian communist "spies".

The drafted legislation was cavalier in regard to civil liberties and inconsistent with normal legal processes. Federal Cabinet rejected it in late 1952.

Rejection was not based on distaste or any issue of principle. Rather, Cabinet felt that the legislation would be too hard to sell to parliament and the people, and that it would generate "unnecessary" public debate. People seeking a precedent for Howard's anti-terrorist legislation need only go back to 1969. The anti-Vietnam War movement was increasing momentum and seriously challenging the pro-war politics of, and public support for, the conservative coalition government. In response, Liberal Prime Minister John

Gorton's Cabinet drafted draconian legislation to stifle criticism and debate, similar to the sedition proposals of Howard's current legislation. Wiser, cautious, legal heads prevailed at the time and the legislation never went public, remaining a Cabinet secret until therelease of Cabinet papers in 2000.


Conservative Australian governments have variously used the armed forces against the trade union movement. The armed forces generally were mobilized as back-up during the 1923 Melbourne Police Strike and also provided strike breaking assistance; army and naval personnel were used to variously break bans by the Seamen's Union of Australia (SUA) and the Waterside Workers Federation in 1951, 1952, 1953, and 1954; the navy was used to break an SUA boycott against the Vietnam War in 1967.

Since a 1993 election campaign threat by Liberal Party leader Dr. John

Hewson to use troops on the waterfront 'as a last resort', the martial option has been a shadowy dimension of Liberal Party industrial policy; the nature, extent, and involvement of defence force personnel in the 1998 War on the Waterfront (a Howard government initiative) is yet to be fully understood.

Unfortunately, the use of armed forces personnel against Australian workers is not confined the Liberal Party or its ancestors. The first post-Federation peacetime use of troops as strikebreakers was by Ben Chifley's Labor government during the seven week 1949 Coal Strike. This intervention set the precedent for subsequent use of the armed forces for industrial and political purposes. And it was ALP Prime Minister Robert

Hawke who used the navy and air force to help smash the Australian Federation of Air Pilots and its industrial campaign of 1989.

The now born-again liberal Malcolm Fraser, also put his finger in the pie. In February 1978, as Liberal Prime Minister during the Commonwealth Head of Government Regional Meeting (CHOGRM) in Sydney, Fraser established a dangerous precedent for the domestic peace-time use of troops against civilians in the name of counter-terrorism.

Early on Monday morning, 13 February 1978, a bomb exploded in a garbage bin outside the Hilton Hotel (Sydney) where the CHOGRM guests were staying, resulting in the deaths of two city council workers and a policeman. In response Fraser deployed 2000 military personnel, some 800 of them fully armed, and militarily took over the small rural town of Bowral, 128 kilometers south-west of Sydney, for three days when CHOGRM relocated to the town.

Arguably, this bombing, and Fraser's military response, are significantly responsible for our current anti-terrorist political-legal climate. It was a major factor leading to the creation of the Australian Federal Police (1979), placed national security firmly on the national agenda, helped strengthen the power of the Federal government in domestic affairs, created a precedent for using the Army to deal with counter-terrorism, placed terrorism beyond the ambit of civilian policing, and helped introduce into Australian law the slippery concept of "terrorism", capable of political definition and manipulation.


email workers to a friend printer-friendly version latest breaking news from labornet

Search All Issues | Latest Issue | Previous Issues | Print Latest Issue

© 1999-2002 Workers Online
Workers Online is a resource for the Labour movement
provided by the Labor Council of NSW
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005

Powered by APT Solutions
Labor Council of NSW Workers Online