When Fascism Almost Came to Australia

In Australia, as elsewhere, the 1930s saw the emergence of an armed, proto-fascist right who were united by their hatred of working-class politics.

The apprehension of Francis de Groot, a member of the right-wing New Guard of Australia, in March 1932. (Sydney Living Museums)

In 1931, dozens of meetings convened in packed town halls across the Mallee country, a region spanning Victoria’s Northwest and New South Wales’ Southwest. Most meeting attendees had never met a communist. Nevertheless, to euphoric applause, they passed motions demanding that “ALL COMMUNIST ACTIVITY MUST CEASE.”

In the dust of such a night, a group of “concerned citizens” captured an unemployed supporter of leftist NSW Labor premier Jack Lang. They held him down and burned “RED” into his forehead with acid.

While exceptional in brutality, this was a result of a broader movement. Across the country, secret right-wing paramilitary armies had been recruiting large numbers, waiting for the moment they could make good on their oaths, to “shoot the bloody red bastards on sight from the capital.”

Given a mass audience by the Great Depression, these militias grew in the soil of right-wing populism and were promoted by Australia’s ruling class to overthrow noncompliant Australian Labor Party (ALP) governments and suppress working-class organizing.

The Old Guard

Although far-right organization accelerated during the Great Depression, the roots of these movements can be traced back to when the Labor Party emerged as a party of government in the 1910s. In combination with universal suffrage, this precipitated a new configuration within the ruling class who felt compelled to promote mass organizations incorporating the middle classes and some conservative workers.

Pioneering research by historians Andrew Moore and Michael Cathcart has revealed that at least since the 1910s, protofascist organizations and paramilitaries were emerging across Australia. Growing social and political unrest following World War One built the Left — in turn, right-wing groups stepped up their efforts.

The Old Guard, a protestant, monarchist paramilitary, was one of the most important. Its origins are subject to debate. However, by the 1930s it was of the main armed anti-communist forces, boasting wealthy backers and ties with the Department of Defence. In 1931, it split, and the New Guard was formed. It soon mobilized tens of thousands of members under arms. The New Guard was also monarchist and anti-communist, but it emphasized a more public strategy, mirroring Italian Fascism. The New Guard also established links with Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, and Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister.

Secret-police reports reveal just the extent of these organizations and their preparedness. Every member was trained and assigned a role to fulfill when the signal for insurrection was given by their division leader.

They drilled, patrolled neighborhoods armed with handguns, served as auxiliaries in anti-eviction struggles, and regularly started street fights with members of the Unemployed Workers Movement (UWM), as well as anyone they suspected of being a Red. They even targeted ALP members and officials, on one occasion, breaking into the home of Jock Garden, then secretary of NSW Trades Hall, and bashing him.

The Populist Front

Killara is a suburb replete with English lawns and golf courses in Sydney’s well-to-do North Shore. In February 1931, you wouldn’t think there was a “depression” occurring on the other side of the harbor.

In a smoky room, ruling class figures gathered, surrounded by military paraphernalia and colonial “artefacts.” The meeting was called by the president of Sydney’s Chamber of Commerce and included senior military commanders, the presidents of every major employers’ association, and eminent Sydneysiders like Lieutenant General H. Gordon Bennett (formerly the commander of the 2nd Division of the AIF and now the president of the Chamber of Manufactures). Eric Campbell, leader of the New Guard, was also in attendance.

They had gathered to launch a new organization, the “All for Australia League.” The new league intended to channel widespread anti-labor and anti-political sentiments into “concerned citizens” associations, ironically modeled on the ALP. AFAL’s platform was shaped by the interests of capital, demanding an end to “divisive” class politics and advocating austerity measures and industrial cooperation.

Media magnate Keith Murdoch (father of Rupert Murdoch) mobilized his “million-eyes” newspaper empire, calling on all citizens to join the AFAL. Various employers’ federations bankrolled the advertising blitz, while members like Lieutenant General H. Gordon Bennett used their connections to ensure Rotary Clubs, charitable societies, and Returned and Services Leagues (RSLs) acted as local recruiting centers.

AFAL grew at an astonishing rate. Three weeks after the Killara meeting, over thirty thousand members had joined. By April 1931, it reached a reported membership of 130,000 people, with eighty-four branches in Sydney alone.

The Victorian Citizens’ League got off to a similar start. Formed by Ernest Turnbull (former president of the Victorian Branch of the RSL), and with G. J. Coles (founder of the eponymous supermarket chain) as its vice president, it claimed a membership of eighty thousand by May 1931, after which it merged with the AFAL.

As the depression deepened, the AFAL helped divert public opinion, pinning blame on “fiscally reckless” Labor governments.

John Citizen Versus “Party Politics”

The Great Depression did not significantly disrupt life for Australia’s middle classes — broadly, the small capitalists, professionals, managers, and state bureaucrats. Yet for Robert Menzies’s “forgotten people” (today, Scott Morrison’s “quiet Australians”) the fear of losing their relatively privileged position — and joining the ranks of the unemployed — weighed like a nightmare on their minds.

When the crisis deepened in 1931, these respectable citizens became convinced that none of the existing political parties were able to resolve the crisis, driving recruitment to the various citizens’ leagues.

In rhetoric, the citizens’ leagues were “anti-political,” then, as now, a kind of dog whistle for the Right. Yet politics were discussed at well-to-do dinner tables. For citizens’ league members, this hinged on denying the existence of class divisions: in this “lucky country,” the poor and rich became so solely by their own efforts. This was the foundation of a developing anti-democratic, anti-labor, and increasingly anti-establishment worldview. As one pamphlet from a citizen’s league in South Australia declared: “We feel it is time that poor old John Citizen made himself felt. Citizens are tired of party politicians.”

In mid-April 1931, private meetings were held in Melbourne with representatives of the various citizens’ leagues, former Nationalist Party politicians, and business owners. Joined by future prime minister Robert Menzies, they came together to merge all anti-Labor forces under one banner: the new United Australia Party (UAP). The UAP was led by right-wing Labor Party renegade, Joseph Lyons.

On December 19, 1931, John Citizen made himself felt — by electing party politicians. The ruling class’ investment paid dividends as the faithful, apolitical middle classes came out in their Sunday best to deliver the UAP a resounding victory.

But should the ALP have won reelection, alternative measures had been prepared.

Australia’s White Armies

For some John Citizens, dislike of class politics gave way to hatred. Many were stirred into a frenzy by the rising one-hundred-thousand-strong Unemployed Workers’ Movement (UWM). They had feared “certain death” due to inflation under the Scullin Federal Labor government and were now horrified by NSW premier Jack Lang’s anti-austerity repudiation of state debt commitments to British capital.

Consequently, many respectable citizens joined illegal paramilitary organizations like the New Guard. They would defend their quarter-acre castle with their life, as historian of the Australian middle class Janet McCalman put it, “believing oneself to be deserving, that one’s life comforts and social position has been legitimately earned.”

This proved unnecessary. After the UAP’s success in the 1931 federal election, the various white armies’ plans for an anti-Labor coup were shelved. The exception was NSW, where Premier Jack Lang’s rogue “Lang Labor” government remained in power in 1932.

By this time, all state governments — except Lang’s — had agreed to the pro-business austerity measures mandated by the “Premier’s Plan.” Yet what infuriated the ruling class was not simply Lang’s resistance to austerity, but his intolerable decision to repudiate NSW’s state debt repayments to British Banks.

His defeat could not wait until the next election.

On May, 13, 1932, the thirty-thousand-strong Old Guard came within twenty-four hours of ordering its members to overthrow this democratically elected Labor government. The support of key military officials, businessmen, and bureaucrats was already secured. At the last minute, however, Governor Sir Philip Game dismissed Lang in a constitutional coup similar to that which toppled Labor’s Gough Whitlam some forty-three years later. Like Whitlam, Lang went peacefully.

Were it not for this constitutional coup, the Old Guard would have attempted to violently overthrow Lang’s elected government. Had he resisted, the other paramilitaries, including the New Guard, were waiting in the wings. These white armies were commanded by Sir Thomas Blamey, Australia’s field marshal during WWI. This was, however, kept in absolute secrecy: Blamey was also the commissioner of the Victoria Police.

If You Don’t Fight, You Lose

The Left was not defenseless. In February 1932, the Bankstown branch of the UWM joined seventy-plus other branches across New South Wales to celebrate winning over two hundred anti-eviction battles, singing:

We met them at the door boys,
We met them at the door,
At Newtown and at Bankstown,
We Made the cops feel sore.

As festivities were underway, a motorized column of several hundred New Guard members arrived and set upon the unemployed with wooden batons. The UWM fought back as the community rallied to their side, destroying the invading sedans and driving the New Guard back to their North Shore enclaves.

The UWM may have lacked wealthy sponsors and the support of field marshals — but it could call on the power of organized labor, employed and unemployed, as well as deep community support.

Although the Australian ruling class did not resort to open dictatorship as in Europe, capital’s contempt for democracy was not abandoned after World War II. A paramilitary army called “the Association” stood at the ready to overthrow Ben Chifley’s Labor government, should he have been reelected in 1949.

And today, as Australia plunges into the worst depression since the 1930s, Scott Morrison’s Liberal government has closed Parliament and granted itself the right to rule effectively by edict. His immigration minister Peter Dutton has stated his view of “parliament as a disadvantage for governments.”

The hard-learned lesson is that the Australian labor movement cannot simply hope to “maintain the rage” until election day. It must always prepare itself for the counter-organization of the ruling class.