Former Australian Labor prime minister Paul Keating’s acrimonious attack on the US policy of containment against China has kick-started a mainstream debate in Australia. This discussion might be low key for now, but as the threat of war in the Asia-Pacific region continues to grow, that is certain to change.
The prime minister and Cabinet are not required to ask for any input should they choose to go to war. An inquiry into whether Parliament should be consulted about such a consequential decision is currently underway. But despite her own party launching the inquiry, foreign minister Penny Wong has made it clear that her government will not alter its existing power to unilaterally declare war.
The very modest proposals raised at the inquiry speak to the nature of the debate. Given the subservience of both the major parties to formerly British and now US strategic hegemony, most wars have historically enjoyed bilateral support from Parliament. “Seeking parliamentary approval” in such a state of affairs would largely amount to a rubber-stamping exercise.
A majority of Australians now believe that the country should stay neutral in the event of a major conflict. An even bigger majority — 77 percent — believe that “Australia’s alliance with the United States makes it more likely Australia will be drawn into a war in Asia that would not be in Australia’s interests.”
But it is not the case that working Australians have always been helpless on major questions of life, death, and regional instability. There are, however, some major differences between today and those historical moments where nonelites have played a key role in world politics.
“Workers, Follow Your Masters!”
Thanks to the revisions of the John Howard era, World War I is popularly remembered in Australia as a time of great camaraderie, adventure, and heroic loss. Obediently sending working-class men to their deaths for the British Empire was successfully — and cynically — rebranded as embodying “larrikinism” and a “scepticism towards authority.”
While early recruitment campaigns did convince many young people to volunteer to fight at the outbreak of World War I, the horrors of the conflict soon dampened public enthusiasm to die for Britain. The International Workers of the World (IWW) and other socialist groups organized mass campaigns against the war. The most famous agitational IWW poster of the era points to the heart of ordinary people’s emerging objection. It read: “TO ARMS!! Capitalists, Parsons, Politicians, Landlords, Newspaper Editors, and Other Stay-at-Home Patriots. Your Country Needs You in the Trenches! Workers, Follow Your Masters!”
By 1916, the hypocrisy of working people dying for the elite’s war was becoming painfully apparent. Many hundreds of thousands stopped work to attend anti-conscription meetings organized by the trade union peak bodies or went on strike to protest measures designed to make them shoulder the economic costs of the war. Due to these mass movements, Australians rejected conscription in two referenda — first in October 1916 and again in December 1917.
The political establishment reacted with ire. Prime Minister Billy Hughes, by then the face of the conscription death drive, ranted that
We place the war first, and everything else after. We believe that it is not only the duty of Australia to stand by the Empire “to the last man and the last shilling” if need be, but that in no other way is it possible for Australia to be saved.
For its part, the wartime Labor government recognized that the war would not be popular among working people. It introduced the War Precautions Act in 1914 and the Unlawful Associations Act in 1916 to stifle dissent, which was used to imprison or deport the entire IWW leadership. It mobilized pastoralists and private school boys to replace, physically attack, and sometimes kill striking workers, even turning the Sydney Cricket Ground and Taronga Zoo into camps for its scab army.
The price of the war was phenomenal. Officially, 62,000 Australians were killed, and 156,000 were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner. There is a strong argument that these numbers are understated. Four out of five surviving soldiers were damaged or disabled after the war, and many thousands more died due to suicide or war-related issues in the following years.
This toll would have been many times higher had Hughes been able to supply the requested quota of youth to Europe. But ordinary people in Australia, drawing inspiration from world-shaking events like the Russian Revolution and the Easter Rising, were able to say no, identifying a divergence between their interests and those of the empire’s elite.
The Black Armada
During World War II, the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) came under fierce attack by Japanese imperial forces. In 1942, the Dutch colonial army retreated to Australia, bringing with it hundreds of Indonesian political prisoners — leftists opposed to Dutch rule. Australia agreed to imprison these men, women, and children until the Dutch could reclaim their colony.
When they arrived in Australia, some of the prisoners managed to sneak handwritten notes about their plight to Australian dockworkers. Many maritime workers were active leftists, and soon the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and other organizations became involved. They successfully campaigned to free the Indonesians, who formed the first Indonesian Independence Committees. In 1945 they began the Black Armada campaign.
The Allies had assumed the resistance to the reimposition of European colonial rule after the war would be minimal. But this was not the case. Organized Australian, Indian, Chinese, and Indonesian seamen and dockworkers refused to handle weapons and goods intended for the Dutch recolonization effort. Mass rallies in support of the campaign drew public attention to the violence of Dutch occupation and potential complicity of Australia in the recolonization effort. Over four years, more than five hundred ships were affected by the industrial bans, which gave Indonesian republicans crucial time to consolidate their forces and fight the Dutch to a military and diplomatic impasse.
The international working-class solidarity of the Black Armada was key to securing Indonesian independence in 1949. Amid appalling violence, working people organized and intervened to change the course of history in favor of each other rather than the elite. Their choices flew in the face of not just European powers’ imperial designs but of Australian capitalism’s budding ambitions in the region.
“Amateur Sign Painters”
Aspects of these two historical fights merged when the fiercely anti-China prime minister Robert Menzies managed to introduce conscription via Parliament in order to fight “aggressive communism.” Then, as now, papers like the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian drummed up the mood for increased US military intervention (with Australian support) in Southeast Asia.
Organizations such as Save Our Sons — a mothers’ group opposed to the war in Vietnam — and a dwindling Communist Party were among the initial protesters. As more young men were sent to the war, and students grew disillusioned with electoral politics, an increasingly radical movement exploded on university campuses across the country. As more polls suggested the public had doubts about the war, so the government tried to paint opposition to the draft as an elitist, communist fifth column. Defense minister Allen Fairhall argued in 1966 that
one is bound to say that the confusion in the public mind, both here and in the United States, is a more powerful asset to the Communists than any weapon they have in the field. . . . The Communist newsagency congratulated the Australian people for their attitude. It should be said loudly and clearly that these views emanate, not from the Australian people as such, but from the noisy minority, from the amateur sign painters, from the card burners and from the demonstrators who are led on by intellectuals.
But student and community fervor, the My Lai massacre, and the Tet Offensive contributed to a growing public sense that the war was unwinnable and that the establishment was lying about the threat posed by China.
The explosion of social movements across the world in 1968 — anti-imperialist and antiwar — emboldened a new generation to organize and take to the streets. In 1970 the largest demonstrations so far in Australian history took place. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in the so-called “moratoriums” against the war. Australian troops began a slow withdrawal from Vietnam that same year.
A Cynical New Century
It is undeniable that organization and mass movements have historically shifted public opinion and put pressure on the government to end its involvement in imperialist wars. But there are exceptions. Despite the demonstrations against Australian involvement in the invasion of Iraq being the nation’s largest ever, they had almost no impact on government policy.
The recent media discussion around the anniversary of the invasion this year drives home the fact that, despite the obvious deception behind the war in Iraq, the scale of its violence, and its disastrous consequences, Australian government officials had more or less free rein to prosecute the war as their US superiors saw fit.
Some key factors had changed in the twenty-first century. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the very notion that a different social order could exist — even an imperfect one — vanished from the public imagination. The level of organization in Australia plummeted. The Labor Party — always pro-capitalism but once a base of social democratic organization — well and truly became a party of capital. Union membership dropped to 24.5 percent at the outset of the war in Iraq; today it is a dismal 12.5 percent. While the IWW had two thousand members in 1917 and the CPA had 23,000 members in 1949, socialist political party membership now numbers in the hundreds at most.
Perhaps most fatal, this situation was replicated in almost every advanced economy in the world. The high points of twentieth century antiwar interventions by working people involved them looking abroad for inspiration and momentum. In the twenty-first century, these are in short supply globally.
All of this has further undermined not only workers’ living standards, but also their capacity to win political demands in a wartime situation.
“Workers Have No Interest in War With China”
Though there is little confidence in the public’s capacity to influence a political elite hellbent on war, there have been small glimmers of hope in recent weeks.
Following the latest AUKUS announcements, there have been small protests and joint statements from community groups refusing to host submarine bases. The Kokatha people, whose traditional lands will potentially be used as a dumping site for AUKUS submarine nuclear waste, suggested last week that they would fight against any such plans — just like the Barngarla people are.
The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has consistently opposed AUKUS since it was first proposed in 2021. It argues that “workers have no interest in war with China or any other country. Every effort should be made to pursue peaceful relations. The MUA stands in solidarity with workers in all countries opposing war and wasteful, environmentally harmful military spending.”
Despite being much diminished after decades of privatizations, the MUA still holds a strategically crucial position. Pro-war politicians know this; the recently deceased war hawk senator Jim Molan warned on his war-with-China-themed podcast that the unionization of the docks undermined national security.
While the MUA tends to ultimately toe the Labor Party line, a lot can change as the drums of war grow louder. Organized opposition to military escalation from workers and residents could certainly play a role in forcing the union to stick to its guns and intensify its campaign.
Organization must also go into defending Australia’s huge Chinese and Chinese-background population from racist scapegoating. In a recent survey, 90 percent of mainland Chinese people in Australia expressed concern for their wellbeing if war breaks out between China and Australia.
In this respect, there is much to be done and a shrinking window of opportunity. The pro-war provocateurs have a decades-long organizing head start, but their word is not final. If ordinary people want to avoid a war, now is the time to get organized.