Friday, June 26, 2015

Aussie PM Abbott walks in the footsteps of his political godfather

The parallels between Tony Abbott's bid to strip dual-nationality alleged terrorists of their Australian citizenship and those of his political godfather, Robert Menzies, 55 years ago to ban the Communist Party of Australia are almost unnerving. 

Both pieces of legislation attracted significant criticism for their overreach, the likelihood of the unintended consequences of "innocent" people being caught within their ambit, and for potentially flouting the rule of law.

Menzies' bill had to be redrafted before the Labor controlled Senate agreed, even with misgivings, to pass it, but following royal assent on 20 October, 1950, the legislation was immediately referred to the High Court which in March 1951 struck it down 6 votes to 1 as being unconstitutional.

It remains to be seen whether Abbott's Allegiance to Australia legislation (which, given Labor's agreement, is certain to pass the parliament) will be sent to the High Court and, if so, what the determination will be, but it is certainly possible for a parallel scenario to unfold.

If it does, the lessons of history will be instructive but it is the political parallels, rather than the legal similarities, between the two cases that are really fascinating.

The current legislation is being introduced at a time of general alarm about international terrorism and the likelihood of homeland attacks. The prime minister has played political hardball with these fears, rhetorically thumping his chest to proclaim his own toughness while seeking to portray the Labor opposition as being "soft" on terrorism.

Menzies did the same back in 1950, doing his best to portray the ALP as "soft" on communism. He had the media onside.  The then staid Sydney Morning Herald described the bill, in a front page headline, as being to OUTLAW REDS and to "deal with 'King's Enemies'."

It was no secret that some of the nation's largest trade unions were communist-controlled and memories were fresh of the crippling 1949 black coal-miners strike, which many contended was orchestrated by Communist union officials. The Chifley government certainly thought so and became the first to use the military to break a strike, an action that caused immense bitterness in Labor ranks but which was not enough to stop Menzies winning the federal election later that year.

Plus the geopolitical context was very much to Menzies' advantage.

The Cold War was raging. Australia's war-time ally Russia had become the aggressive Soviet Union. On June 25, 1950, while the dissolution bill was still before parliament, North Korea invaded South Korea and it took just four days for Australia to sign up to fight beside the United States to repel this downward thrust of communism.

Yet although Menzies won the double dissolution election in April 1951, and obtained a mandate to take the question of banning the Communist Party to a referendum, when the question was actually put to the people, on September 22, 1951, it lost. Only three  states (Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia) voted Yes and the national vote in favour was 49.44 per cent.

So the lessons from history for Abbott would seem to be that if his legislation is struck down by the High Court, he should move on and not risk the kind of rebuff that Menzies suffered when he sought to enlarge the powers of the Commonwealth, in this case to – many argued – reverse the presumption of innocence.

But perhaps Abbott should use this history lesson to reflect more widely about what he actually wants to achieve with his legislation.

Menzies might have lost the battle – the referendum, the legislation – but he undoubtedly won the war.

The Communist Party stayed unbanned and while its membership began to decline – especially after Soviet leader Kruschev's 20th Party Congress speech and the USSR invasion of Hungary, both in 1956 – it remained a useful public whipping boy for the canny Liberal leader.

But of far greater benefit to Menzies was the dramatic defection of Soviet spy Vladimir Petrov in 1954, which came complete with Russian goons trying to drag his wife onto a plane to whisk her out of the country. It was a dream gift for Menzies, who knew how the exploit it to the hilt for domestic political purposes.

And the biggest bonus of all: the 1955 split of the ALP on the question of alleged communist influence in its ranks. The splinter Democratic Labor Party (DLP) used its preferences to keep the coalition in government for a generation.

When Gough Whitlam finally brought Labor to power in 1972, the party had been in the political wilderness for 23 years.

Tony Abbott can only dream about the modern ALP splitting. The political landscape is very different today, with the Greens and Independents having power that was virtually non-existent in Menzies' day.

But Abbott's Allegiance to Australia legislation, if it becomes law, means he is unlikely to have a modern-day Petrov.

The prime minister has been impervious to arguments about the intelligence and propaganda value former terrorists could provide. He just wants them all to stay away.

These go-for-the-jugular combative instincts might come at the expense of effectiveness. If we really want to stop young Australians from being radicalised, then shouldn't we be using potential assets such as ex-militant Zaky Mallah to warn off Muslim teenagers from signing up with the jihadists? Instead, for short-term political gain, Mr Abbott has gone all out to use Mallah to turn up the political temperature, scorch the national broadcaster and anyone else who gets in the way on this perilous political warpath.

As a strategy it's full on. And it's risky.

It might secure victory in the battle. But will it win the war?

Anne Summers is editor and publisher of Anne Summers Reports.



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