On October 14, Australians will vote in a referendum to include an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander “Voice” in the country’s constitution. If successful, it will require Parliament to legislate for a body with the power to make representations to the government on issues concerning First Nations people.
Revealingly, in recent weeks the No campaign has begun turning to anti-communist rhetoric to smear the Voice. For example, prominent No campaigner and Liberal politician Warren Mundine has tweeted on several occasions to highlight support for the Voice from members of the Communist Party of Australia, a minor group with no connection to the historic party of the same name.
Similarly, right-wing journalist and campaigner Matthew Sheahan has attacked Thomas Mayo, a prominent Yes campaigner, for having communist sympathies. Sheahan’s proof is that Mayo acknowledged the role played by the historic Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in past struggles for Aboriginal rights.
Mayo, however, is right to note that in the twentieth century, the CPA was one of the most consistent campaigners in solidarity with Aboriginal rights — and that’s precisely why the Australian establishment was scared of both.
White Australia and the Red Menace
Although the forces of communism in Australia today are not what they used to be, the frightful hobgoblin of twentieth-century communism clearly continues to haunt the minds of at least a few hard-right conspiracy theorists. A recent ABC investigation has revealed that white-supremacist No campaigners have been sharing a documentary and book produced in the 1980s by the Australian League of Rights, claiming that Native Title was a secret communist conspiracy.
The example demonstrates that hysteria connecting communism and Aboriginal rights is nothing new. In part, it reflects the fact that the CPA was at the forefront of the struggle for Aboriginal rights for several decades following the party’s establishment in the 1920s. This included organizing Aboriginal workers, urging the labor movement to take Aboriginal rights seriously, and raising awareness about the ongoing frontier violence still occurring in the 1930s. This drew the ire of the Australian government, the security services, right-wing organizations, and the mainstream press.
In September 1931, for example, the CPA published its first program that called for “full economic, political and social rights” for Aboriginal people. A few months later, amid the height of the Great Depression, the communist-aligned Unemployed Workers’ Movement in the New South Wales town of Bourke followed this up by demanding that the dole be extended to unemployed Aboriginal people. This caused an intense backlash in the town, and the press claimed that “Communists were spreading propaganda among the aborigines.” According to newspaper reports, as part of the backlash, “the Reds” were given an ultimatum to leave town.
The connection between communism and Aboriginal rights wasn’t just a fascination of the press. The Australian government was also concerned about communists working with Aboriginal people throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In 1935, the director of the Commonwealth Investigations Branch (CIB) wrote to head of MI5 in London, saying that the “Communist Party has attempted to show an interest in the welfare of the Australian aborigines.” For the CIB director, this was “a clear indication of the depths to which Communists will go to spread their propaganda.” As Padraic Gibson has shown, many Aboriginal activists were monitored by the security services for their alleged communist links.
During the Cold War era, there was continued panic that communists were attempting to use Aboriginal rights as a Trojan horse for subversion. During parliamentary debates in the late 1940s regarding weapons testing in central Australia, Northern Territory MP Adair Blain proclaimed:
They used the cause of the black man — though they have no more genuine sympathy for the aborigine than they would have for a bandicoot — as a means of stirring up opinion among civilized sections of the community against the guided weapons range project.
In another debate, Liberal MP Thomas White said that although people protesting against guided weapons testing in central Australia were “prompted by humanitarian motives on behalf of the aborigines,” they had been “fooled by the Communists.”
Because the Cold War coincided with the breakup of European empires, Australian authorities blamed communists for unrest in the colonies and feared that they would stir up similar unrest among the indigenous population. Indeed, a number of Australian politicians drew a connection between the settler colonies of Australia and South Africa, asserting that communists were behind trouble within the apartheid regime. As Liberal MP Malcolm McColm warned, “now the Communist Party wants to bring this very problem into Australia!”
The Land Rights Movement
As a new era of activism around Aboriginal rights began in the 1960s, conservatives once again voiced fears that communists were embedding themselves in various Aboriginal organizations. In 1961, for example, the Bulletin reported that communists had become part of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights, and warned that “a politically naïve, uninformed, disgruntled people could prove dangerously malleable, particularly when they have genuine grievances.”
And these warnings did not go unheeded by the establishment. As Lachlan Closely has demonstrated, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) kept a close eye on supposed communist influence on the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI).
By the 1970s, the issue of Aboriginal land rights had gained prominence, reinforced by a broader radical upswing in Australian society as a result of the anti–Vietnam War movement. Again there was suspicion that communists were involved, acting in an underhand manner. ASIO viewed the new generation of Aboriginal activists — including people Gary Foley, founder of the Black Power movement in Australia — as communist agents. Consequently, in January 1972, when Foley and others erected the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in front of (Old) Parliament House in Canberra, ASIO put it under heavily surveillance, and made a point of recording any interactions between Aboriginal activists and communists or Trotskyists.
The right-wing premier of Queensland, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, was among the most inflammatory, explicitly claiming that the land rights movement was a secret communist conspiracy. In Queensland’s parliament in 1982, Bjelke-Petersen spoke at length about this supposed communist plot, declaring that,
the objective of the radical land rights movement is to create a separate black nation, outside the laws of Australia, capable of contracting with overseas nations hostile to Australia in the future.
He concluded his speech by reading from a letter by far-right figure Phyllis Cilento, which detailed “a Communist long-range plan to alienate Aboriginal lands from the Australian nation so that a fragmented North could be used for subversive activities by other countries.” As the Queensland premier warned darkly, “this plan is now coming to fruition.”
Phyllis Cilento and her husband Sir Raphael Cilento were both supporters of the Australian League of Rights, a far-right organization that had existed since the 1940s. A 1991 national inquiry into racial violence described the Australian League of Rights as “undoubtedly the most influential and effective, as well as the best organized and most substantially financed, racist organization in Australia.” Eric Butler, the league’s leader, made several trips to Rhodesia while it was under minority rule and met with Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith. And the league’s program was pro-empire, pro-apartheid, anti-communist, antisemitic, and anti-immigrant, an agenda wrapped up in paranoid conspiracy theories about a new international order run by Jews and communists.
In 1982, the publishing arm of the League of Rights — Veritas — produced a book, Red Over Black, that was also cited by Bjelke-Petersen. Written by former-CPA-member-turned-right-winger Geoff McDonald, Red Over Black claimed that the Aboriginal land rights movement was part of an international communist conspiracy to take over the country by stealth. The book went through several editions in the 1980s and 1990s, and today, the League of Rights still sells it via its website.
Thanks to the No campaign, Red Over Black has enjoyed a renaissance in popularity, and a documentary version has been shared by different far-right groups in recent years, such as the Australian One Party, run by fringe right-winger Riccardo Bosi. The aforementioned ABC investigation shows that a far-right Telegram channel, Aboriginal Voice Exposed, has shared the documentary, while another channel, Blacklisted Research, has adapted the video to “specifically attack the Voice.” The ABC also reports that both channels have previously posted antisemitic material.
Far-Right Conspiracies Today
In an age of misinformation and conspiracy theories, aided by the internet, McDonald’s text has found a whole new audience, many of whom would have never heard of the Australian League of Rights. But among those opposed to the Voice — and Aboriginal rights more broadly — part of its resonance is that it taps into an old trope that accuses the Left of manipulating indigenous people to punish white Australia.
For the Right, the Voice is a zero-sum game — in order to give indigenous peoples something, something has to be taken away from white Australia. Just as anti-communists fear economic redistribution, No campaigners such as Jacinta Nampijinpa Price oppose the Voice as an attempt to redistribute political power.
That is why anti-communism and opposition to advancements in Aboriginal rights have long gone hand in hand. Both maintain the status quo and resist progress. And this explains why, in 2023, more than thirty years after the Soviet Union collapsed, right-wingers are still summoning the specter of communism to scare people into voting No in the upcoming referendum.