From Communists in 1951 to refugees in 2011: Labor & the High Court

The federal Labor government of Julia Gillard struggles with the issue of asylum-seekers, the government’s rigid position is widely unpopular among Labor activists and party sympathizers and many were pleased with the High Court’s decision on the Malaysian solution. Caucus leaks to an extent akin to that of the Scullin government. We can see how times change and remain the same if we consider Labor’s problems with the Communist issue in the early 1950s as recounted by Leslie Crisp and Sean Scalmer. In 1949 Robert Menzies was elected Prime Minister on a platform of outlawing the Communist Party of Australia(CPA). Labor however retained control of the Senate. Many Labor MPs in marginal seats were deeply alarmed by the prospect of an election fought on Communism at a time when polls showed very strong support for the legislation. Their pragmatic concerns were for some bolstered by sincere support for the legislation in particular among the crop of right-wing MPs elected in 1949 who were closely aligned with the Catholic Social Studies Movement. Labor’s official policy was to allow passage of the legislation with amendments in alleged deference to the government’s mandate, although many traditional labourists such as Party leader Ben Chifley hoped that this would ensure the legislation’s defeat. In November 1950 the ALP Federal executive, where the influence of MPs had substantially declined in favour of organisation men with Movement sympathies, instructed the federal ALP to allow the legislation to pass without amendment. The parliamentary party complied. Deputy leader H V Evatt then outraged the party right by accepting a brief from the Waterside Workers’ Federation to challenge the legislation in the High Court. When the Court ruled that the legislation was unconstitutional many Labor activists were delighted but Labor faced an election in 1951 at which Communism was a major issue. Although Labor lsot votes in many electorates, including Evatt’s electorate of Barton were he only narrowly defeated Nancy Wake, it made gains in rural areas aggrieved by the government’s anti-inflationary policies which included a levy on wool incomes. Does the 1951 result suggest that although asylum-seekers are certainly unpopular the consequences of sympathy for them might not be as disastrous as many in Labor think?

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