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Echoes of the 1940s

16 June 2012 1,126 views One Comment

COPING with a hung parliament is increasingly an unenjoyable experience for the federal government but it did not need to be so. The Prime Minister’s bleak prospects stand in sharp contrast to what happened under her great Labor predecessor, John Curtin, when he was in the same situation. The wartime parliament of 1940 to 1943, in which no one party had a majority, saw him gain office and wield power magnificently.

One point of contrast, in particular, is quite eerie. It is not widely known that Curtin’s task in removing Australia’s minority non-Labor government in 1941 was made much easier because of explosive allegations of corruption occurring in, of all places, a trade union. The resulting controversy benefited Curtin whereas the same issue, in the form of the Craig Thomson saga, is weakening Julia Gillard.

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The federal election of 1940 produced a hung parliament in which the conservative prime minister, Robert Menzies, had to rely on the support of two independent members, Arthur Coles and Alexander Wilson.

The outcome, then as now, was a beleaguered and fragile government racked with intrigue and personal animosity.

This undesirable situation occurred at a time when Australia was involved in World War II. The nation needed unity and cohesion, yet there was dissension on the home front. Between the start of the war in September 1939 and June 1941, the Soviet Union was in a de facto alliance with Nazi Germany. This was due to the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, which had been signed on August 23, 1939.

As a consequence, Communists throughout the British Empire, including Australia, were strongly opposed to the Allied war effort. Australia’s War Cabinet was worried about the prospect of serial unrest in key wartime industries such as transport, manufacturing and mining, where trade union officials who belonged to the Communist Party were a force to be reckoned with.

A strike on the coalfields of NSW, organised by the Miners Federation, whose key national officials were Communist Party members, lasted from February to May 1940. When the strike was settled, the Miners Federation was required to give an undertaking to observe new dispute settlement procedures and to cease disrupting the war effort. Sporadic disputes continued nonetheless.

The War Cabinet was ready to hit back. In February 1940 it authorised the attorney-general (ex-PM Billy Hughes) to initiate a campaign of counter-propaganda directed against left-wing trade union officials. To finance such a campaign, ministers allowed Hughes to draw on secret service funds. A covert slush fund had been created.

The scope for abuse and scandal took off when Joe Winkler, a wartime media adviser, got in touch with Charles Nelson, a leading figure in the coalminers’ union.

Winkler was a journalist who worked for the ALP’s newspaper, Labor Daily, in the 1930s. He joined the Department of Information at the start of World War II. In June 1940 Winkler transferred to the Prime Minister’s Department where, as assistant commonwealth publicity officer from February 1941 onwards, he acted as a trusted agent for the government in trade union matters. He administered the secret slush fund.

After some ineffective activity, Winkler finally targeted Nelson who had been president of the Miners Federation since 1934. Nelson’s radicalism was ebbing away after seven years of high- pressured industrial and political struggle. Long recognised by friend and foe alike as forceful and honest, he was ready to crack.

In March 1941 Nelson, no doubt acting on the advice of Winkler, approached Hughes to seek financial assistance. He offered, if funded, to arrange for friendly union officials to travel around the coalfields in NSW to persuade the workforce to observe the previous year’s undertaking to preserve industrial peace.

Hughes and Arthur Fadden, as acting prime minister, gave the ministerial approval required.

The details were left to Winkler and deputy crown solicitor George Watson to sort out. Watson supplied Winkler with a cash sum of £300, which in 1941 was appreciably more than the average manual worker’s annual wage. Winkler, if we are to credit later judicial findings, gave this money to Nelson in three instalments.

Winkler’s involvement in such backroom machinations was exciting but short-lived. On August 29, 1941, amid backstabbing in the non-Labor government, Menzies was replaced as PM by Fadden, who was worried by the air of conspiracy that surrounded Winkler.

Winkler was told to quit the Prime Minister’s Department on September 16, 1941. He struck first, though. Three days earlier, at a meeting in the Hotel Kurrajong, he provided opposition leader Curtin with a memorandum and supporting confidential documents relating principally to the secret slush fund.

The gentle Curtin, with great reluctance, pursued the matter in federal parliament. In a division at three o’clock in the morning, witnessed by a packed public gallery, the house of representatives, by a single vote, rejected a motion censuring the “wrong use of the fund established in February 1940”.

This vote did not end the matter. Sydney Labor firebrand Eddie Ward latched on to Winkler’s information and generated much media attention with raucous accusations of “bribery” and “shady dealings”. Newspapers widely reported his reference to “a secret fund from which secret payments are made to undisclosed persons for purposes that have not been revealed to parliament”. Australia, Ward insisted, had a “crooked” government.

The scandal distracted Fadden from the task of wartime leadership. To ease the pressure he appointed a royal commission to investigate the affair and settle things quickly. The royal commission complied by presenting a report on November 21.

The royal commission had been presented with an array of confusing and often contradictory evidence. As is the case with Thomson, Nelson asserted that he had never done anything wrong. He denied ever having received money from Hughes or even having approached him.

The royal commission was not convinced and determined that Winkler had indeed handed over £300 to Nelson to prevent further strikes, although there was no evidence of what Nelson had done with the money. Certainly there had never been any organised campaign against industrial unrest on the coalfields.

The Miners Federation accepted that Nelson had done something untoward. He was voted out of office.

The royal commission also determined that there had been no “improper action” by any member of federal cabinet.

So Fadden and Hughes escaped judicial censure but nevertheless their government had suffered a grievous political setback. As historian Paul Hasluck has observed, the Winkler affair “affected the general reputation of the Fadden ministry”. It was left shaken and vulnerable following Ward’s outburst. On October 7, after 40 days in the job, Fadden was replaced by Curtin as PM after the independents Coles and Wilson withdrew their support.

The Winkler affair compounded the pervasive sense in 1941 that the non-Labor parties in Canberra were not fit to govern a nation at war.

Fadden and Menzies as party leaders lived to fight another day, but Nelson and Winkler were quickly forgotten once their wartime scandal subsided. Winkler never again figured in the public spotlight and after leaving the Miners Federation, Nelson eventually retired to a farm. Suffering from chronic emphysema, he died, aged 52, in 1948.

The Winkler affair and the Thomson saga differ vastly in dimension but similar pressures are at work.

The two matters were bound to luxuriate in the hothouse atmosphere of a hung parliament, whether in the 1940s or now.

The essential difference remains, though. Unacceptable behaviour in a union helped drive the non-Labor parties from office in 1941. In 2012, as represented by the Thomson saga, this same issue is working against another embattled minority government. But this time the minority government that has to contend with the resulting controversy is a Labor government.

In this regard Gillard’s parallel in the wartime hung parliament is, strangely but sadly for her, the doomed if rumbustious figure of Fadden rather than the iconic Curtin.

Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt are co-authors of Alan (“The Red Fox”) Reid, published by the University of NSW Press.

One Comment »

  • Peter Smith said:

    Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt do well to remind us that history shows us that little has changed in Australian politics (“Thomson saga echoes 40s furore”, 16-17/6). At its core is a lust for power with opposition and government leaders only too willing to grab it at whatever cost to the nation.