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The Reactionary Australian Right Wing in the inter-war period

The Reactionary Australian Right Wing in the inter-war period

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Published by Tim McCulloch

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Published by: Tim McCulloch on Jul 24, 2010
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10/25/2012

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The period between the first and second world wars was a time of upheaval inAustralian society. The interwar period saw the rise of a number of right wing,quasimilitary organisations, most notably, Colonel Eric Campbell’s the New Guard. Itis difficult to pinpoint the factors that lead to the emergence of these organisations.Factors such as the ‘ruling classes’ reluctance to embrace democracy in the first place,the effects of war on society, economy and the returned soldiers, fears of communismand the depression all contributed to the emergence of these groups. Theinterpretation of these factors by the protagonists and public as a whole was extremelysubjective and based on class, prejudice and each individual’s experiences. It is easyto criticise the reasoning behind those who thought liberal democracy was in its deaththroes, but that is not the point of this essay. There were genuine fears that managedto split Australian society. I will attempt to identify and elaborate on the factors thatlead to this right wing backlash in the early 1930s with particular reference to the New Guard.The basis of the right wing movements of the 1930s goes back much further thanWW1 and its ramifications. Andrew Moore argues that we can “identify a long termanti-democratic tradition within Australian political culture.”
1
In his book 
 A history of right wing politics in Australia
Moore asserts that among “the wealthy and powerfulthere was a strong resistance to the ethos and practises of democracy” and that thisresistance was “aggravated rather than appeased by the advent of responsiblegovernment in 1856”.
2
The ‘elite’ in Australia held strong suspicions of democracy,especially the advent of universal suffrage. Banker Alfred Davidson remarked at thetime, “One does think of Bismarck’s great aphorism…Grant universal suffrage andyou rule your country from the nursery.”
3
 Stemming from this distrust of democracywas a predisposition on the part of the middle and upper classes in Australian societyto undermine the foundations of liberalism when they felt threatened. This stemmed back as far as 1804 and the Irish convict uprising, 1854 and the Eureka stockade and1890s and the industrial unrest of this period.
4
The perception of the ruling classes
1
Andrew Moore,
The Right Road?: A history of right-wing politics in Australia
, Oxford UniversityPress, Melbourne, 1995, p. 22
2
Ibid
3
Ibid, p. 38
4
Andrew Moore,
The Secret Army and the Premier: Conservative Paramilitary Organisations in NSW 1930-32
, UNSW Press, Kensington, 1989, p. 18.
1
 
was that they were constantly under threat from the ‘the great unwashed’. This feelingwas in no way abated by the emergence of the Labor party in the 1890s and into thetwentieth century. The Sydney Morning Herald remarked in 1890
Our greatest peril comes from the intrusion…of the labour struggle into the field of  politics. In one colony where a general election is now imminent preparations are being made for the formation of a labour party…One characteristic of social strife of this kind is its extreme bitterness and violence. Nothing is more certain than that if itis begun the most extreme and violent men will control the situation.
5
The fears of the upper classes of democracy and the potential for it to be subverted bylabor and anti-capitalists were long held. It is no surprise that when faced with thesocial upheaval of the war they reacted strongly.WWI had a profound effect on Australian society. Unsurprisingly it saw an increasein the preparedness of government to compromise individual freedoms to support thewar effort. Groups who opposed the war were dealt with harshly. The WaPrecautions Act effectively destroyed the socialist group Industrial Workers of theWorld and the Unlawful Associations Act of 1917 “allowed authorities to imprison persons obstructing the war and summarily proscribe associations doing the same”.
6 
Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Bruce also introduced into Parliament a proposed amendment to the Immigration Act that would enable “the deportation of any person not born in Australia whose continued presence was detrimental to peace,order and good government.” This amendment was eventually struck down by theHigh Court as ‘
ultra vires’ 
(outside power).
7
In Adelaide, the police commissioner ‘Bull’ Lean petitioned the government to amend the Crimes Act to make it an offenceto “take part in any Communistic meeting or other meeting for the purpose of discussing alterations to our present social system.”
8
There was a eagerness from bothsides of politics to compromise to right wing demands as labor and non-labor fought
5
Sydney Morning Herald, 6 October 1890.
6
Nick Fischer, ‘Lacking the Will to power? Australian anti-communists 1917-35’,
 Journal of  Australian Studies
, January 2002, pp. 223-39.
7
Ibid
8
Moore, Andrew, ‘Policing Enemies of the State: The New South Wales Police and the New Guard, inMark Finnane (ed.),
 Policing in Australia: Historical Perspectives
, NSW University Press, Kensington,1987, p. 115
2
 
to support the war effort. Social divisions were compounded by the 1917 strike, whichinvolved more the 76,000 workers
9
and by the conscription referenda, which wastwice defeated by the Australian public after being put forward by Labor PM BillyHughes. Keith Amos asserts that the war effort led to “social divisions that were based not only on class but also on sectarian, ideological and nationalistic lines.”
10 
Social division and fear characterised the war years and did not abate after the war, inmany senses they intensified as society coped with the return of 250,000 soldiers fromthe Great War.The effect on the soldiers who had served in the Great War was significant. It also hadan effect on the national character with the emergence of the ‘digger’ legend. AndrewMoore describes the digger as a “potent new element within Australian nationalismthat tipped its imperial patriotism even further to the right…they became the countries best citizens.”
George Johnston encapsulates the feeling of many returned soldiers inhis fictitious novel
My Brother Jack 
. In it he writes, “By the time I was about thirteenall the returned soldier we knew had come to see the whole conflict as a monument of disorganisation and waste and political chicanery.”
Eric Campbell, leader of the New Guard writes in
The rallying point,
“The returned men felt that they had been letdown with a thud by their peace time leaders, and they were apt to get together muchmore.”
The emergence of right wing political organisations in the 1930s can beattributed to this feeling of disillusionment on the part of the diggers as well as thedesire to be involved in a group that provided the discipline and mateship that theyhad experienced in the AIF. D.H. Lawrence’s novel
 Kangaroo
, arguably baseddirectly on his observations on Sydney’s North Shore in the early 1930s one character statesThere’s quite a number of us in Sydney-and in the other towns as well-weremostly diggers back from the war-we’ve joined up into a kind of a club-and
9
Keith Amos,
The New Guard Movement, 1931-35
, MUP, Carlton, 1976, p. 6
10
Ibid
11
Andrew Moore,
The Right Road?: A history of right-wing politics in Australia
, Oxford UniversityPress, Melbourne, 1995, p. 25.
12
 
Johnston G,
My Brother Jack 
, Fontana, 1967
13
Eric Campbell,
The Rallying Point: My Story of the New Guard 
, Melbourne University Press,Carlton, 1965, p. 22
3

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