2001 ASSLH conference – Anti-communism and civil liberties: The 1951 Communist Party dissolution referendum debate at the University of Melbourne

Fay Woodhouse
University of Melbourne

The Menzies Government’s attempts from 1949 to 1951 to ban the Australian Communist Party did not reach the same heights as similar efforts in the United States; however, “The crusade against communism offered a welcome and popular diversion”.1 Historians and biographers until now have been unable to explain fully the impetus for the drastic measures Menzies wished to undertake. The 1951 Referendum was called to suppress Communism and Communists through an amendment to the Constitution. Powers to outlaw the Communist Party in times of war had been used in 1940 to declare the Communist Party illegal. This Referendum sought to outlaw the Communist Party in peace time. The opponents of the Referendum saw the perceived restrictions on civil liberties as onerous and unacceptable. The referendum was widely debated in the press, political parties, churches, universities and elsewhere. The University of Melbourne became heavily involved in the debate. This paper explores the very rich referendum debate at the University of Melbourne in order to illuminate Australian political and academic debate at that time. It examines the effects of a meeting held nine days prior to the referendum, at which three professors advocated a “No” vote.


For nearly two years the question of how to deal with the Communist Party was a dominant issue in Australian politics.A preoccupation with “the communist threat without” was linked to the danger “within”, and during the 1949 election campaign Prime Minister Robert Menzies had undertaken to ban the Australian Communist Party.3 The outbreak of war in Korea in June 1950 heightened a widespread fear in Australia of a threat from Communism both at home and abroad. Frequent contact with British and American leaders influenced Menzies’ thinking and attitude toward Communism.4 Legal action against communists and communism was, Menzies claimed, the essential weapon required to wipe out any subversive activity in Australia.

In 1950, Menzies was aware that there might be constitutional difficulties in banning a political party in peacetime.Sections 9 and 10 of the Communist Party Dissolution Bill, first debated in Parliament in April 1950, provided for the declaration and disqualification of members of the Communist Party, placing the onus of proof not on the Commonwealth but on the person so “declared”.6 The Bill, enacted in October 1950, was immediately challenged by the Communist Party and ten militant unions. The Waterside Workers’ Federation briefed Dr Herbert Vere Evatt, deputy leader of the federal Labor Party and former High Court judge, to appear for it. Evatt persuaded all but one of the judges that the legislation was unconstitutional since the country was not at war. In March 1951 the High Court declared the legislation invalid by a majority of six to one.7 Six weeks later, in April 1951, Australians went to the polls after a double dissolution of Parliament; and the Government was returned. In July, Menzies introduced into Parliament the Constitution Alteration (Powers to Deal with Communists and Communism Bill) to enable it to hold a referendum that would give it powers to enact and amend the Communist Party Dissolution Act of 1950. The Australian people were asked to amend the Constitution to give the Commonwealth Government power to suppress Communism and Communists.8 The “Yes” case appealed to fears of the Communist menace, setting out the grounds for suppressing the Communist Party. The “No” case argued that the issue was being used to cloak the Government’s totalitarian designs and to distract the public’s attention from its failure to cope effectively with the problem of inflation.9 Although it appeared public opinion was “overwhelmingly anti-communist”, and it seemed that the “No” case was too subtle to be appreciated by many voters,10 the Referendum proposals were rejected by the majority of people in a majority of States.11

In the half-century since the Referendum occurred, Australian historians have dealt, to a limited extent, with the many complex aspects of the 1951 Communist Party Dissolution Referendum. Leicester Webb’s 1954 survey, Communism and Democracy in Australia, remains the only major study of the Referendum.12 Webb argues that the decision of the Menzies Government to proscribe the Australian Communist Party created a political crisis that required political parties and individuals to formulate their attitude to basic issues of human rights.13 He concludes that Australians found the effort painful and disturbing.

Lawyers14 and historians have assessed the significance of the rejection of the Referendum proposals. Stuart Macintyre, in his recent Concise History of Australia, believes: “The affirmation of political freedom for a small and vilified cause in the fevered atmosphere of the early 1950s did the country credit.”15 It is anticipated a more detailed analysis of the Referendum will be addressed in his forthcoming second volume of the history of the Communist Party of Australia.16

Like Macintyre, Russel Ward in his earlier history, A Nation for a Continent, saw the failure of the Referendum as a striking tribute to the “occasional political maturity of the Australian people, the courage of their intellectuals” that the referendum was defeated, though by only the narrowest of margins.17 His analysis addresses the wider implications of the Referendum and the political climate at the time. The major study by Gavin Souter of Australian Acts of Parliament since Federation, analyses the Communist Party Dissolution Act and its progression through Parliament, the High Court decision and Referendum. He rightly concludes that not even the fear of Communism could overcome the deeper Australian fear of constitutional amendment.18

While there is extensive published material on the referendum debate, no detailed study of the role of the universities exists. The published histories of the University of Melbourne19 are limited in the extent of their coverage of the debate. Personal memoirs and biographical studies of university staff provide an overview of the period, rather than detailing the particular events.20 A biographical memoir of Sir Charles Lowe, the then University Chancellor, primarily defends his role and actions at the time,21 while a memoir of Sir John Medley, Vice-Chancellor from 1938 to 1951, discusses the incident as illustrative of Medley’s consistent defence of academic freedom.22 An examination of the Melbourne intellectual “vanguard” of the 1950s touches on the referendum debate within the context of University politics. 23  On a much more specialised note, a study of the covert activities of ASIO within the University of Melbourne focuses on the material compiled against “adversely recorded” University professors.24

The sincerity of Menzies’ rhetoric about the dangers of the Communist Party is challenged by several historians. Geoffrey Bolton concludes that after the failure of the Referendum Menzies was disappointed, “but not much distressed.”25 Robin Gollan proposed in 1975 that there was no way of establishing, with the evidence available, whether or not the views of Menzies were sincerely held.26 Menzies biographer, A W Martin, writing in the early 1990s, is sympathetic to the difficulties Menzies faced throughout the campaign.27 It is hoped that the release of Cabinet Notebooks for 1951 in the year 2002 will shed light Menzies’ inner thoughts. Commentators on Evatt’s role emphasise his impact on a political campaign that altered the opinion of a large majority of the electorate.28 The Referendum left a significant mark on Australian attitudes to democracy and the democratic process. The lively debate that occurred at the University of Melbourne and elsewhere during 1950 and 1951, as this paper will illustrate, confirms this contention.

The University of Melbourne in a cold war context

The University of Melbourne, opened in 1855, was for over one hundred years the only university in Victoria. Its role as an institution of superior academic achievement, vital research and intellectual elitism remained unchallenged until the late 1950s.29 The decade 1945-55 witnessed radical changes in the University of Melbourne. However, funding through the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme far from alleviated the financial difficulties experienced by the University following the War. In the early Cold War years the University, under financial pressure, was highly sensitive and susceptible to accusations of communist influence, though these had been present since at least the early 1930s.

The University, overflowing with students, was a lively social and intellectual environment.30 The Student Representative Council (SRC) became the training ground for many students who later progressed into academia and politics. The SRC’s two publications, Melbourne University Magazine and Farrago gave aspiring journalists and writers practical experience. University clubs and societies offered students the opportunity to become involved in film, drama, sport, and a variety of social, religious, cultural, and political activities, including the experience of practical political debate. Careers in student politics did not necessarily end with graduation.31 The most active political clubs were the Labour Club, ALP Club and Liberal Club, all of which regularly conducted lunch-hour meetings in the Public Lecture Theatre. The richness and complexity of the University’s intellectual milieu, together with its abundant cultural and social environment, contributed to the stimulating and exciting experience gained by many of the students of the University of Melbourne during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

A hot-bed of communism

Accusations of communist influence had plagued the University as far back as the 1930s, if not earlier.32 The post-war influx of ex-servicemen and women meant many of these students had experienced more of the world than their younger counterparts, and been exposed to communist philosophies. Two prominent students, Stephen Murray-Smith and Ian Turner, returned from the war as communists and became active communists within the University. In 1944, Tom Hollway, Liberal Party leader and later Premier, accused the University of being “a hot-bed of communism”.33

The University was led at the time by Vice-Chancellor John Medley who became known for his defence of academic freedom and defence of his staff against accusations of communism. That allegations of communist propagandising could not be proved was shown by the Royal Commission into Communism in 1949-50 which Justice Sir Charles Lowe, then Chancellor of the University, presided over.34 A deep suspicion of “pink professors” was also maintained by an influential Labor Party figure and staunch anti-communist Catholic, Stan Keon. His maiden speech in Federal Parliament in March 1950 resonated with the sentiments of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s speech at Wheeling, West Virginia, in February 1950 where he publicly claimed to have a list of names of communists working in the State Department.35 Keon would almost certainly have been aware of the presence of communists at the University and of the ructions in the Communist-dominated Labour Club before it split and an ALP Club formed in 1949.

On 6 May 1949, Robert Menzies, then Opposition Leader, addressed a “record crowd of over 2,000 students who filled two lecture halls to capacity” at Melbourne University, advocating the banning of the Communist Party and exposing the communist penetration of the University Labour Club. During his speech, he told his audience that when he had arrived, “I was handed a Communist pamphlet sponsored by the University Labour Club. This is the first time the Labour Party has openly admitted that it was Communist”.36 Menzies’ speech, “The Truth About Communism”, sparked off debate at the University on the merits of banning the Communist Party.37

The 1950 Communist Party Dissolution Bill

Prime Minister Menzies’ first attempt to ban the Communist Party in 1950 was thoroughly debated at the University and in some ways the 1951 debate on the referendum mirrors this preceding debate. On 28 April 1950, the day after the Communist Party Dissolution Bill was introduced into Parliament, the Professor of Public Law, Wolfgang Friedmann, spoke to a “hushed and attentive audience of 400 undergraduates”. He warned that “legislative suppression of the Communists will yield superficially quick results but at the same time a deep split may develop and gradually undermine the faith in democracy”.38 The Dean of the Law Faculty, Professor George Paton, became involved in the debate. Paton in his capacity as Dean, commented to the Argus: the “onus of proof” resting on the “declared” person was a very dangerous procedure unless used with care and discretion in extraordinary circumstances”.39 The Freethought Society sponsored a meeting of political clubs to discuss the Bill on 4 May. Liberal Club identity Ivor Greenwood defended the ban; while Murray Groves, the ALP Club President, was unequivocal in declaring his opposition: “I want to oppose this Bill in every way I can …the Bill is a part of the present Reign of Terror”.40 At the Liberal Club’s General Meeting on 9 May a motion opposing the “undemocratic provisions” of the Anti-Communist Bill was carried 22-6.41

Further meetings of students discussed the Bill. The Political Science Society, chaired by W. Macmahon Ball, Professor of Politics, was addressed by four speakers—Professor Maclean, (an Ormond College theologian) and Professors Ian Maxwell (English), Oscar Oeser (Psychology), and “Pansy” Wright (Medicine). They warned of the dangers to individual rights if the Bill became law. Speakers from the Newman Society, Liberal Club and Labour Club addressed another meeting. Vin Buckley, Vice-President of the ALP Club argued that the bill opened the way for discrimination against the teaching staffs of Australian universities.42 The 600 students then supported Buckley’s motion opposing the Bill by a margin of “about 6 to 1”.43

Thus, the attitude of Melbourne University students and staff towards Menzies’ wish to ban the Communist Party had been made very clear throughout 1950. It was in this context that the referendum on dissolving the Communist Party came to be debated at the University of Melbourne in August-September 1951. The crucial meeting of 13 September 1951 was a reaffirmation of views already well formed and firmly held.

Professors say ‘No’ to Referendum

On Thursday, 13 September 1951, the Political Science Society held a meeting chaired by W. Macmahon Ball. This meeting was pivotal to the development of the academic debate on the referendum at the University. Three professors—Ian Maxwell, Professor of English, Faculty of Arts; Roy Douglas (“Pansy”) Wright, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine; and Zelman Cowen, Dean of the Faculty of Law—advocated a “No” vote in the forthcoming Referendum. The professors entered the debate from differing perspectives but with equal vigour. Their decision to speak publicly drew large numbers of students to the meeting. It was reported in the Melbourne press as well attended, though estimated numbers varied.44 According to Farrago,45 and to a member of the Political Science Society present,46 the Public Lecture Theatre was filled to capacity. Students listened attentively and applauded enthusiastically when the Professors put forward their case.47

For Ian Maxwell, the first speaker, this meeting was the second occasion on which he had spoken against the referendum, the first being at a meeting at the Women’s College.48 At the meeting he told the students that banning the Communist Party would not achieve the aims of the Government. He believed the opinion at the University was strongly against the Bill, and was also aware that it was difficult for those organising meetings to find anyone to speak for the Bill.49 Accuations of communist bias were foreshadowed in his statement.

“Pansy” Wright was the second speaker at the Public Lecture Theatre. Wright had many objections to the referendum. The onus of proof being placed on the accused troubled him. He believed that Communism was “a proper political philosophy …and therefore should be available for full and frank discussion”.50 Wright believed the referendum sought powers for political repression inappropriate for a democracy: “The powers the Government is seeking would be a negation of our belief in free speech, freedom of association, and political freedom.51 Following the University meeting, Wright offered himself as a speaker against the referendum “anywhere between Hobart and New South Wales”, and spoke passionately from this perspective for the remainder of the campaign.52

The third and final speaker was Zelman Cowen, the 31-year-old Professor of Public Law at the University, who had recently returned from Oxford University. At the outset of the debate he declared himself to be opposed to Communism and argued that the international situation was highly inflammable and that powers were needed to deal with Communists within Australia.53 He went on to say that he was satisfied that it was necessary to do this on a national basis, and that the Commonwealth should have power for this purpose. However he believed that it was the manner in which the Government aimed to acquire extra powers to deal with Communists that concerned him:

What worries me so much is that the Commonwealth has asked for much wider powers than those in the Communist Party Dissolution Act. Although I loathe the Communists and their minions, I believe that we must remember always what it is that we are fighting to preserve.54

Cowen conceded that “if he had been asked to vote on the Communist Party Dissolution Act he would have voted “yes”” but it was the inclusion of extra powers that troubled him.55 He elaborated on this in a special article published in the Argus on 14 September, titled “These Referendum Proposals are Unsound”. In that article he asked why it was necessary to do anything more than ask for power to write into the Constitution the Act which the High Court held not to be permissible in the existing state of the Constitution.

The referendum meeting was reported in the Melbourne Herald that evening and by the Argus the following day. The headline “1,000 students hear Professors—say No” was accompanied by photographs of Wright and Maxwell together with photographs of young students gazing in awe toward the podium.56 It was also reported in the press that a meeting of the “vote No” Committee planned to make pamphlets of the Professors’ speeches to “deluge” blue-ribbon Liberal electorates was also reported in the press.57 Both the “Vote No” Committee and the Communist branches at the University used the text of the three Professors’ speeches for pamphlets which were distributed widely.58

Student Response to the referendum

The SRC, up until the late 1940s led by Communists, took an active role in the referendum debate, and held a meeting in the Public Lecture Theatre on 14 September, the day following the meeting at which the Professors spoke. Until the ructions in the Communist-dominated Labour Club before it split and an ALP Club formed in 1949, the SRC had also been dominated by Communists. The SRC meeting on 14 September was attended by approximately 500 students.59 Speakers for and against the Referendum addressed the meeting. A motion:

that this General Meeting of students at the Melbourne University opposes a “Yes” vote in the forthcoming Referendum, even though it abhors Communism, because it feels that the passing of this Referendum would endanger the democratic rights of the Australian people.60

Was put to the meeting and carried by an 8:1 majority.61

On 21 September, the ALP Club was addressed in the Public Lecture Theatre by Arthur Calwell, the new Deputy Leader of the Opposition and the local Member of Federal Parliament. In its early September edition of the ALP Club’s newspaper, the Socialist, the inconsistencies within the Labor Party in respect to the referendum were discussed. The Socialist challenged the Labor Party’s position on the referendum given its agreement to passing the Communist Party Dissolution Bill through the Senate in 1950. It proposed the argument being used by Evatt and other politicians—that the powers being sought would enable the government to pass a more far-reaching measure than the final form of the 1950 bill. Then, it suggested, a view that many thousands of Labor supporters believed: that in allowing the Communist Party Dissolution Bill to pass, the Party was guilty of unworthy surrender of principle to expediency. Therefore, in opposing the referendum, it would be returning to its traditional role, that of advocate and defender of Australian democracy.62

The Communist Party at the University was naturally unequivocal in its attitude to the referendum. There were two (possibly three) branches operating as separate units at the University.63 Membership was derived from all faculties, but broadly divided into Arts and Medicine.64 In 1951 approximately 15 University staff were members, some of them using aliases, and a very active membership was estimated at 100.65 Membership of the Communist Party was not generally known, though Labour Club members were fairly confident they knew who was and who was not a Party member. The Communist Party was closely aligned with the University Labour Club66 and many recruits for the Labour Club were believed to have come from the Communist Party.67 During the referendum campaign, the University branches of the Communist Party were directed by the State Central Committee to “plug holes” that had been left in the propaganda activities. This meant, for example, letter-boxing in areas not covered by the local Party branches.

The University Labour Club saw the referendum as an “issue of overwhelming importance”.68 The Club at this time numbered over one hundred active members. Meetings to discuss the referendum were held, though formal debates are not recorded. Campaign activities within the Club included composing and placing newspaper advertisements opposing the referendum, and handing out how-to-vote cards on polling day. For example, John Clendinnen, President of the University Labour Club during 1951, was a member of a Labour student working group working with left-wing Labor trade unionists, in particular working with Don McSween of the Clothing Trades Union.69 This group’s task was to make sure that all polling booths in Richmond, part of Stan Keon’s electorate, were manned because the Richmond Labor Party branch was strongly anti-communist and would not hand out “No” cards. McSween supplied official Labor Party how-to-vote cards to the Labour Club and on the day of the referendum, Club members travelled from booth to booth in the Richmond electorate handing them out.70 Their aim was to make their presence felt at polling booths and prevent the media from printing stories that proved the Labor Party, especially in Richmond, was not opposing the referendum.

The University Liberal Club was divided on the referendum. Opposition to the Bill was on the grounds that “you should not seek to proscribe an organisation or prevent opinions being held.”71 However, within the Liberal Club a major debate between Vernon Hauser, President of the Young Liberal Movement of Victoria and Alan Hunt, immediate past president of the University Liberal Club took place on 12 September. Hauser argued for the “Yes” vote. “The Commonwealth is asking for less power than the States already have”, he said. Alan Hunt advocated the “No” case. “This referendum is a fraud” he agued. “The Government is using it to rally support for a smear campaign”, he said. Hauser and Hunt each believe they won the debate.72

Referendum debate occurred across the University, in its many clubs, associations, societies and faculties. Various members of staff gained public prominence for opposing the proposed alteration to the Constitution. The ALP, University branch of the Communist Party and Labour Clubs supported the “No” vote, while the Liberal Club was split on the issue. The breadth and depth of discussion is illustrative of the high level of intellectual debate carried on within the University in 1951. By 22 September, the referendum issues had been thoroughly canvassed within the University. University figures—staff and students—had been active, some quite prominently in the wider community debate.

In a broadcast speech on 17 September, four days after the 13 September meeting at the University, Evatt expressed appreciation of the work of Australian opinion leaders openly advocating a “No” vote. “This applies to prominent churchmen, …and to distinguished university teachers and scholars”, he said.73

As polling day approached, both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition began to assess the referendum campaign. Menzies proclaimed that a “No” vote would protect communists while a “Yes” vote would destroy them. In his final appeal, Menzies urged voters to “Put this dishonest and stupid nonsense aside” because “the communists are the greatest and subtlest of our enemies”.74 In summing up the campaign, an Age Parliamentary reporter believed Menzies was clearly disturbed that the campaign had not gone as well as the Government would have liked, and with the degree of dissension within his own party, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. The campaign had suffered considerably, the report said, “at the hands of some of the clergy”.75 Whereas Evatt frequently referred to clergy and university professors, no public mention of them was made by Menzies.

On the eve of the referendum, a “hardening of public opinion against any prediction of an easy victory for the Government” was seen by the Age writer as the most remarkable aspect of the last weeks of the campaign. His prediction was that Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania would almost certainly vote “Yes”, while New South Wales and South Australia were likely to reject the proposals. Victoria was “very much a doubtful quantity”.76 The referendum failed. Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania did vote “Yes”, and New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria voted “No”. Victoria, which had been predicted as the pivotal state, rejected the referendum by a narrow margin. For the Commonwealth as a whole, the “No” vote was 50.48%.77

The academics were not, of course, the only factor working against a “Yes” vote in Victoria. Evatt’s relentless campaigning around the country was carried out with great conviction and his role appears to have been decisive.78 In the final week of campaigning, opinion polls showed an unexpected swing away from supporting the referendum. Morgan Gallup Poll announced “In the past six weeks, a million electors have switched from “Yes” to ‘No’.”79 How strong was the influence of the professors? With only one University in Victoria, and the university an elite institution, the professors were given considerable respect by the media. Yet many conservative figures in the community found their action deeply irritating, and did not want professors to take a public stance on controversial issues. As well as their speeches at the University being reported, some professors and other academics made deliberate entry into the public arena—by writing newspaper articles, or signing public statements. The professors’ influence on the final result is therefore difficult to determine.

Repercussions at the University

Aspects of the referendum debate were not seen favourably by the Chancellor, Sir Charles Lowe, and some of the Council. At its meeting on 1 October, Lowe read a prepared statement to Council regarding the 13 September meeting. It was published in the press the following day. Lowe was concerned by two aspects of the debate: one was the use of University property for partisan debate, and the other the limits to the conduct of professors towards students within the University. The SRC executive responded that freedom of expression by both University staff and students was essential for the University’s traditional role as a centre of free and unfettered inquiry.80 The September meeting stirred up old and unresolved worries held by the Council as to the limits of academic freedom that should be allowed in their University. Lowe saw the Referendum as party political and believed the University must not be seen to take a partisan attitude. The University “cannot allow itself to appear to enter the arena of controversy”, a cry also heard during the 1930s and especially after the infamous Spanish Civil War debate held in 1937.

The Chancellor’s comments need to be seen in the light of two aspects that were perhaps self-evident at the time, yet were not set out in detail. Firstly, university students were widely held to be (and perhaps were) highly susceptible to influence by teaching staff, and the University consequently had what can be described as a duty of care to ensure teaching was not biased. Secondly, the University was under considerable financial stress;81 and with a highly unstable political situation in Victoria, it is not surprising that the Chancellor was wary of the danger of alienating his primary sources of funds.82 The second factor was, it is argued, pivotal to the manner in which Lowe and Paton structured their responses to the 13 September meeting.

Lowe and Paton were legal men and understood the skill of signalling a number of messages in one communication to discreet audiences. In this case, one audience was the staff and student population; the second was “the men at the top of Bourke Street”.83 The two documents tabled at the 12 November Council meeting apparently aimed to satisfy a number of criteria. They were largely obscure statements of a legal nature, almost impossible to interpret in plain English. However, they conveyed a number of messages. They indicated, to the Government, that action was being taken to prevent another incident such as the Political Science Society meeting. This was achieved by announcing that rules would be reinstated governing the use of premises and the balance required in any meeting (not just political meetings). The precarious financial position of the University was brought into stark relief when Lowe carefully referred to ministries and political parties who “come and go” and, apart from any prudential reason, “the University would not wish to antagonise any political party”. A further subtlety of the Lowe and Paton argument was directed at the Professors. The impact of Government cutbacks would eventually mean expenditure cuts in their departments. An article in the Argus on 13 November announced that the University Council had cleared professors and no action was needed over “No”-vote talk.84

The issue of free speech in the University was raised in Parliament on 5 December 1951. Lowe was attacked by John Cain, Leader of the Labor Party who insisted the State Government impress on the Chancellor “that it would not tolerate stifling of free speech”.85 Lowe, in a published response, denied that he had criticised the Professors.86 He reiterated this point in his final statement on the matter in the December University Gazette. Later in the year, Lowe pointed to the contrasting responsibilities of a professor:

Outside the University and as a citizen he may put forth his views subject to the law of the land …But inside the University and to University students he cannot rid himself of the prestige and authority which he derives from being a professor.87

Lowe’s belief that the University of Melbourne provided a forum in which all views could be discussed embodied his views on the issue. Medley continued to support the ideal of freedom of speech for university professors. The professors, such as Wright and Cowen, continued to speak outside the University on issues of public conscience.


It is difficult to argue that the debate at the University had a significant result in the University’s electorate, Melbourne. The vote for the Labor and Communist parties in the electorate at the 1951 Federal election was marginally higher, at 68.2%, than the “No” vote of 67.2%. In Victoria overall, the “No” vote at the referendum showed an opposing trend, being 0.8% higher than the overall ALP/Communist voting at the 1951 election. However, as only a minority of students were entitled to vote (the voting age at the time was 21 years), and the University staff were few in number and more likely to live outside the electorate (which was not the gentrified area it is today), it is not surprising that there is no discernible effect of the debate on the local electorate.

The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition issued statements on the results. While emphasising his view that the referendum failed because of “a wicked and unscrupulous ‘No’ campaign, Menzies concluded that “no amendment of the Commonwealth Constitution can be carried if the Parliamentary Opposition is against it”.88 It was perhaps for this reason no further referendum was held while Menzies remained in office. Although Menzies’ view of the need for bipartisan support for a referendum to succeed has become the conventional wisdom, analysis of the 1951 campaign suggests it may be wrong. It may well be that, had academics and other non-partisan opinion leaders not opposed the referendum, Menzies would have won despite Labor’s opposition. In his post-referendum comments, Evatt again cited the influence in the community of respected leaders as significant on the campaign and once again addressed his thanks to the distinguished clergymen, writers and academics he believed had helped achieve the narrow “No” victory. To them, he said, “the future generations of Australians owe a deep debt of gratitude”.89 In an analysis of the referendum result, the political correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald gave seven reasons for the “No” verdict. They included the vigour of Evatt’s campaign and the declaration of a number of Protestant clerics, coupled with similar declarations by “certain university men” against the referendum.90 These, of course, were not the only reasons listed for the defeat of the referendum.

Given the extreme closeness of the vote in Victoria and nationally and the evidence of a late swing during the campaign, and given that independent analysts and participants at the time described the academic contributions to the debate as influential, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the meeting at the University of Melbourne may have contributed to the “No” vote against the referendum.

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1 Geoffrey Bolton, The Oxford History of Australia Volume 5: The Middle Way 1942-1995, New Edition, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1996, p. 80.
2 Leicester Webb, Communism and Democracy in Australia: A Survey of the 1951 Referendum, F W Cheshire, Melbourne, p. v.
3 Stuart Macintyre, A Concise History of Australia, Cambridge University Press, Oakleigh, 1999, p. 209.
4 A W Martin, “Mr Menzies’ Anticommunism”, Quadrant, Vol. 11, No. 5, pp. 48-52; Robert Menzies: A Life, Volume 2 1944-1978, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, 1999, pp. 169-200.
5 The Communist Party had been banned, under wartime regulations, from 1940 to 1942. Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1929-1949, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1963, p. 118-19.
6 A Concise History of Australia, Cambridge University Press, Oakleigh, 1999, p. 209.
7 Macintyre, op.cit., pp. 209-10; A W Martin, p. 183.
8 Bolton, op.cit., p. 307.
9 Webb, op.cit., Appendix 1, “Text of Pamphlet Issued by Commonwealth Electoral Office, Commonwealth of Australia”, pp. 178-85; Martin, op.cit., p. 190-1.
10 Ward, op.cit., p. 308.
11 Leicester Webb, p. 145; Ward op.cit., p. 309.
12 Leicester Webb, Communism and Democracy in Australia: A Survey of the 1951 Referendum, F W Cheshire, Melbourne, 1954.
13 Ibid., pp. v-vi.
14 Mr Justice Michael Kirby CMG, “H V Evatt, The Anti-Communist Referendum and Liberty in Australia”, Australian Bar Review, Volume 7, No. 2, March 1991, pp. 93-120; George Winterton, “The Significance of the Communist Party Case”, Melbourne University Law Review, Vol. 18, 1992, pp. 630-58; George Williams “Reading the Judicial Mind: Appellate Argument in the Communist Party Case”, The Sydney Law Review, Volume 15, No. 1, March 1993, pp. 3-29.
15 Stuart Macintyre, A Concise History of Australia, Cambridge University Press, Oakleigh, 1999, p. 210.
16 Macintyre, The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia from origins to illegality, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1998. Volume 2 is scheduled for publication in 2001?
17 Russel Ward, A Nation for a Continent, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1977, p. 309.
18 Souter, Gavin, Acts of Parliament: A Narrative History of the Senate and House of Representatives Commonwealth of Australia, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1988, p. 423.
19 See e.g. Poynter & Rasmussen op. cit., pp. 116-18. Geoffrey Blainey (1957), A Centenary History of The University of Melbourne, MUP, Melbourne, p. 183, 198-199. Ruth Campbell (1977), A History of the Melbourne Law School 1857 to 1973, Faculty of Law, University of Melbourne, p. 146.
20 Hume Dow (ed.) (1983), Memories of Melbourne University, Undergraduate Life in the Years Since 1917, Hutchinson of Australia, pp. 119-136, and (1985), More Memories of Melbourne University Life, Undergraduate Life in the Years Since 1919, Hutchinson of Australia, pp. 89-117. Vincent Buckley (1983), Cutting Green Hay, Penguin, Ringwood, pp. 76-78. John Hetherington (1965), Uncommon Men, F W Cheshire, Melbourne, pp. 193-200. Peter Ryan (1990), William Macmahon Ball, A Memoir, MUP, Melbourne, pp. 1-18.
21 Newman Rosenthal (1968), Sir Charles Lowe. A Biographical Memoir, Robertson and Mullens, Melbourne, pp. 161-169.
22 Geoffrey Serle (1993), Sir John Medley: A Memoir, MUP, Melbourne, p. 55.
23 Lynne Strahan (1984), Just City and the Mirrors. Meanjin Quarterly and the Intellectual Front, 1940-1965, OUP, Melbourne, pp. 135-38.
24 Fiona Capp (1993), Writers Defiled. Security Surveillance of Australian Authors and Intellectuals 1920-1960, McPhee Gribble, Ringwood, p. 92. On Manning Clark, see pp. 95-99, and on Nina Christesen, see pp. 101-10.
25 Geoffrey Bolton, The Oxford History of Australia Volume 5: The Middle Way 1942-1995, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1996, p. 82.
26 Robin Gollan, Revolutionaries and Reformists: Communism and the Australian Llabour Movement 1920-1955, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1975, p. 260.
27 A W Martin, Robert Menzies: A Life, Volume 2 1944-1978, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, 1999, p. 178.
28 Ken Buckley, Barbara Dale and Wayne Reynolds, Doc Evatt: Patriot, Internationalist, Fighter and Scholar, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1994, p. 35.
29 John Poynter & Carolyn Rasmussen (1996), A Place Apart. The University of Melbourne: Decades of Challenge, MUP, Parkville, p. 1. Despite inconsistencies in details appearing on them, all Melbourne University Press publications will, hereinafter be cited as MUP, Melbourne.
30 In 1945 the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme was introduced to provide assistance for up to five years for discharged servicemen and women to commence university or other studies. As a result, total student enrolment at the University doubled between 1945 and 1947 from 4,224 to 9,127, and peaked at 9,506 in 1948. A Mildura branch of the university was opened in 1947 to cater for the increased student population. The experiment proved very successful, though it closed in 1949 because numbers of ex-service people dropped rapidly after 1948. Indeed, Blainey argues that “the students captured more of the spirit and ideals of a university than their fellows who did their whole course in …Melbourne”.30
31 Many, such as Ian Turner, Alan Hunt, Alan Missen and Ivor Greenwood, took for granted that their careers were to be in politics. Ken Gott, “Student Life: the Forties”, Melbourne University Magazine, Spring 1961, p. 27.
32 For example, a novel published in The Catholic Young Man in 1937 depicted the growth of communism in an economically depressed Australian community, culminating in a sweeping “Red” victory at the polls. Communist organisation is centred around the University “cell”, which includes various Professors and a Party Organiser. The novel, serialised weekly, depicted the University as a place of seditious activity. The Catholic Young Man, 8 November 1937, p. 11.
33 This followed a meeting where the Public Lecture Theatre was crowded with 700 students to condemn the Teachers’ College authorities for refusing to allow communist speakers on the premises to speak in a College debate. Gott, op.cit., p. 26; Poynter & Rasmussen, op. cit., p. 94.
34 Hon. Sir Charles Lowe, Report of Royal Commission, Inquiring into the origins, aims, objects and funds of the Communist Party in Victoria and other related matters, Victoria, 1950. His report concluded “there is no evidence of any member of the party who is or was an officer either of the Education Department or of any School or of the University using his position for purposes of indoctrination in Communism”. p. 107.
35 William Buckley, Jnr., & L. Brent Bozell (1954), McCarthy and His Enemies: The Record and Its Meaning, Chicago (page unknown).
36 Farrago, 11 May 1949.
37 Ibid.
38 Farrago, 3 May 1950.
39 Argus, 29 April 1950.
40 Farrago, 10 May 1950.
41 Farrago, 17 May 1950.
42 Argus, 19 May, 1950.
43 Argus, 19 May 1950; Farrago 14 June 1950, Farrago, 17 May anticipates this meeting.
44 “1000 students hear Professors”, Argus, 14 September 1951. “A rowdy meeting of 400 students”, Age, 14 September 1951.
45 Farrago, 19 September 1951.
46 Ray Dahlitz, letter to author, 30 June 1996.
47 Farrago, 19 September 1951.
48 Date of meeting unknown, however confirmed in interview with Lloyd Churchward, 11 September 1996. Transcript of interview with Professor Emeritus Ian Maxwell, 3 May 1976, as appendix VII to Thomson, op. cit.
49 This view is confirmed by the then President of the Labour Club, Mr John Clendinnen, who recalls that someone from the opposing side had been sought, but the Political Science Society had been unable to find any one willing to speak for the referendum. Letter to author, 28 August 1996.
50 Transcript of interview with “Pansy” Wright, Thomson, op. cit., n.p..
51 Farrago, 19 September 1951.
52 Transcript of Interview with Professor Wright, undated as Appendix VII of Thomson, op. cit.
53Farrago, 19 September 1951.
54 Farrago, 19 September 1951.
55 Argus, 14 September 1951.
56 Ibid.
57 Argus, 15 September 1951.
58 Interview Lloyd Churchward, 11 September, 1996, Argus, 15 September 1951.
59 Age 15 September 1951, Argus, 15 September 1951. In A Place Apart, p.117, John Poynter and Carolyn Rasmussen appear to have conflated this meeting and the meeting at the Public Lecture Theatre on 13 September. The first SRC General Meeting of 1951, held on 14 September at the Public Lecture Theatre, was held in order to attract new membership and to discuss the Referendum.
60 Argus, 15 September 1951.
61 SRC Minutes, op. cit.
62 Socialist, September 1951, ALP Club Archives, Special Collection, Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne, p. 1.
63 Lowe Report, op. cit., p. 43.
64 Interview, Lloyd Churchward, 11 September 1996. Churchward was a Reader in Politics and an active member of the Communist Party.
65 Ibid.
66 Note difference in spelling: The Australian Labor Party and the University Labour Club differ. Source: Reports in Farrago, Argus, Age.
67 Ken Gott, “Student Life: The Forties”, Melbourne University Magazine, Spring 1961, p. 25.
68 John Clendinnen, letter to author, 24 August 1996.
69 McSween was a well-known ALP left-winger backed by communists-led left unions on a “reform” platform for the job of Assistant Secretary of the Victorian Branch against P J Kennelly in 1940. McSween came within a few votes of winning. Robert Murray, The Split, Cheshire, Melbourne, pp. 14, 28, 132.
70 Clendinnen, 24 August 1996, op. cit.
71 Interview with Alan Hunt, 1 October 1996.
72 Argus, 12 September 1951, and interview with Vernon Hauser, 9 October 1996.
73 Sydney Morning Herald, 18 September 1951.
74 Age, 21 September 1951.
75 Age, 21 September 1951.
76 Ibid.
77 Webb, op. cit., (from tabulated results) p. 145.
78 Buckely, et. al., op.cit., p. 365.
79 Webb, op. cit., pp. 133-34.
80 Argus, 3 October 1951.
81 Poynter & Rasmussen, op. cit., pp. 90—109.
82 Council and Its Minutes, 1951, Book 38, MUA.
83 Argus, 13 November 1951.
84 Argus, 13 November 1951.
85 VPD, 1951-52, Vols. 238-40, pp. 568-71; Argus, 6 December 1951.
86 Herald, Melbourne, 6 December 1951.
87 University Gazette, 18 December 1951, p. 92.
88 Sydney Morning Herald, 24 September 1951.
89 Sydney Morning Herald, 24 September 1951.
90 Sydney Morning Herald, 24 September 1951.