Sunday 25 September 2011

Communist Party Dissolution Act of 1951 | Australian High Court said No

Sixty years ago yesterday, the Menzies government’s constitutional referendum to outlaw the Communist Party was narrowly defeated.

It began life as a piece of legislation that was struck down by the High Court. At the double dissolution five months earlier the government had won majorities in both houses. However unlike this month’s High Court decision the problem was constitutional not just legal. So a referendum was required.


A successful constitutional referendum requires majorities in a majority of states and a majority overall. This one just missed out. There are at least a couple of ways of looking at how close it came to passing. In “uniform swing” terms it was 1.3 percent (or 61 thousand voters) off—the national “swing” required for a majority of states (Victoria joining the three yes voters) and majority overall (which would have been 50.7).

Or we could say that if 27 thousand voters in Victoria, or in South Australia, had changed from “no” to “yes” the proposal would have met the constitutional requirements (with a touch over 50.0 percent nationally).  Either way it was a tight finish.

See how Queensland and Western Australia were the most favourably disposed. These two “outlier states” (Tasmania is another) have tended to often (not always) vote in approximate unison at referendums. In the early years they were most enthusiastic “yes” voters, possibly because they saw the central government as a bulwark against the more powerful, populated states and/or a nice wealth distributor away from the centre.

(Then, as now, referendums were popularly seen as increasing Commonwealth government power.)

By mid-way through the century, New South Wales and Victoria were becoming the biggest “yes” voters. The outliers tended to see Canberra as representing the interests of the populated states. In the case of the 1951 referendum the actual content was presumably responsible for the “conservative” states reverting to old habits and voting yes.

It is a much written about event in political history, but as a referendum it went the way of most: opposed by the federal opposition, it began with much popular support that dissipated as voting day approached. But usually it has been ALP government-initiated referendums that suffered this fate. (Labor in opposition has tended to support referendums.)


This table at left shows all the referendums that were (a) held mid-term (ie not concurrent with an election) and (b) didn’t receive federal opposition support.
(Referendums without bipartisan support held concurrent with elections tend to attract support similar to the parties’ primary votes and so narrowly go down.)
“Communism” tops the list.

See the four 1988 Hawke government turkeys at or near the bottom. The theory at the time was that these amendments would be so mild, so inoffensive ("motherhood statements” was the routine description) that voters would give them a tick and break the habit of rejecting referendums. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Labor governments used to see “modernising the Constitution” as a bit of a rallying cry, an end in itself. They seem to have given that game away.  I reckon most referendum results (not all) have little to do with the question at hand and much to do with the electoral climate. Exceptions include 1967 “Aboriginals”, 1999 “Republic” and 1951 “Communism”.

See all referendum results at Parliament House here.

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