AUSTRALIA’S SECRET WAR:
How Unions Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II
by Hal G.P. Colebatch
(Sydney: Quadrant Books)
Hardcover: 340 pages
Reviewed by Patrick Morgan
The Japanese threat to Australia in the 1940s was the most profound crisis our nation has faced. During that period a great scandal occurred, a scandal up till now hidden from view. Many trade unions, particularly the maritime ones controlling our ports and shipping, sabotaged the war effort for their own ends.
At crucial junctures when men and war materiel were needed for the Middle East and New Guinea campaigns, union workers went on strike or on “go slow” campaigns; they damaged equipment and obstructed the orderly preparation of ships being sent to the war zone.
This story has now been told in full for the first time in Hal Colebatch’s important new book Australia’s Secret War, in which he documents in great detail the severe disruption occurring at ports all around the country.
He quotes letters from soldiers who were appalled by the unpatriotic activities they witnessed on the waterfronts of Australia. Vitally needed aircraft and other equipment were deliberately wrecked while being unloaded and loaded.
This was especially so in the early years of the war when we were losing. Our soldiers on the Kokoda track in New Guinea and elsewhere were dying because essential supplies were not getting through to them. The unionists resorted to stand-over tactics (like demanding triple pay over work conditions) and bludging when a cargo had to be loaded quickly. Troops often had to be called in to do the work.
The communist-led unions had ideological reasons for their actions. From 1939 to 1941 the Hitler-Stalin pact meant communists around the world were on the other side — they were allied with Hitler, and supporting the Soviet Union in opposing our war effort.
This was treasonous behaviour. In 1941 Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, which now became our ally; but the local communist unions continued their campaign of sabotage, as they saw wartime chaos as an opportunity for promoting a class revolution in Australia. They hoped to eventually pull down our whole structure and then take over.
There were a number of villains here. The worst were the communist-led unions. They worked hand-in-hand with the extreme Left of the parliamentary ALP led by the radical firebrand Eddie Ward, who did all he could to make the Prime Minister John Curtin’s onerous task even harder.
Curtin, with a slender majority in parliament, had to perform a delicate balancing act in keeping the whole show afloat. Because of entrenched ALP ideology he could not be seen to be moving harshly against ordinary Australian workers on the wharves, which had always been a “no go” area to outsiders. He was not the problem, but a victim of the problem.
Why is this disgraceful episode not well known? As the author points out, it is virtually absent from ALP and trade union histories, obviously because it would not do the reputations of these bodies much good to have the full facts brought to light.
Progressive historians see their role as uncovering unpalatable facts, but they have failed in this case; Hal Colebatch, a Perth writer and lawyer who contributes to News Weekly, has done the job for them.
It is amazing that, with so many Labor historians around, no full union history of the period from the mid 1940s to the mid 1950s, when the Movement and the Industrial Groups broke the back of communist domination of the unions, has ever been written. What more important union story is there than that?
In 1941, B.A. “Bob” Santamaria founded the Movement to combat communist and extreme left influence in the unions. This was at the height of the sabotage of our war effort.
At the time, the former prime minister, and later federal attorney-general, Billy Hughes was reported as saying that money from the government’s secret intelligence fund had been given to Catholic Action and the Newcastle Miners’ Union to combat industrial disruption.
If true, this suggests that the genesis of the Movement may have been connected with helping to combat the communist-led union campaign against our war effort described in this book.
Patrick Morgan has written a number of books and has edited two volumes of the writings of B.A. “Bob” Santamaria. His most recent book, Melbourne Before Mannix: Catholics in Public Life 1880-1920 (2012), is available from News Weekly Books.