Party Leaders, the Media, and Political Persuasion: The Campaigns of Evatt and Menzies on the Referendum to Protect Australia from Communism

Murray Goot & Sean Scalmer. Australian Historical Studies. Volume 44, Issue 1. March 2013.

The 1951 referendum campaign to ban communism produced a massive shift of public opinion, from Yes to No. This article attempts to explain why. It examines the political appeals and rhetoric of the Liberal and Labor Party leaders, their coverage across the entire metropolitan press, and their use of radio. Breaking with earlier interpretations, it argues that Evatt’s campaign encompassed wider issues than civil liberties, suggests that Menzies’ campaign was damaged by unruly meetings and shows that neither side appealed exclusively to ‘reason’ or to ‘passion’. Ultimately, the success of the No campaign rested on its capacity to mobilise most Labor voters and to attract some Liberals. This was an extraordinary achievement, but it was secured using routine forms of electioneering.

The 1951 referendum to ban the Communist Party and proscribe communists from holding positions of influence was one of the most remarkable in Australian history. Conducted shortly after an election that had seen the return of the Menzies government on a strongly anti-socialist platform, and opposed by a Labor Party deeply divided over communism, the proposal was defeated after appearing initially to enjoy widespread support; 80 per cent of respondents in a Gallup poll conducted three months before the ballot said they were ‘likely’ to vote Yes in response to a question that framed the referendum in terms of banning the Communist Party—Menzies’ preferred reading, contested by Evatt. The 1951 referendum is often recalled as a pivotal moment in the history of Australian democracy; it was, Evatt said, more important than an election. Using close historical analysis to better understand the meaning and significance of the referendum, we clarify its major dynamics, analyse newspaper coverage as well as the use of radio, and locate the contest within a broader understanding of political campaigns.

While the campaign involved a number of political parties and interest groups, the focus of this article is on the campaigns conducted by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. We advance three main arguments. First, by examining the itineraries and tactics of the two leaders—the Liberals’ Robert Menzies and Labor’s H. V. Evatt—we argue that they conducted themselves quite differently. Menzies and Evatt campaigned with contrasting levels of intensity and self-discipline, travelled to different places, addressed dissimilar audiences deploying different approaches and used radio in quite distinctive ways. Second, in the course of providing a comprehensive analysis of the metropolitan press, we argue that while Menzies’ speeches were widely reported in the dailies, Evatt’s far greater number of public talks and addresses were also reported, though more selectively. Given the hostility of the press to Evatt’s cause—all but two of the fifteen dailies urged a Yes vote—this is no small matter; it almost certainly helped him win his case. Third, by examining the content and the rhetoric of the leaders’ speeches we challenge accounts of Menzies that portray him as a man of ‘reason’ defeated by a man of ‘passion’, and descriptions of Evatt as a defender of civil liberties, pure and simple. Against Leicester Webb, whose book on the referendum insists that the contest was in some sense a travesty of the democratic process, we argue that the leaders’ rhetorical strategies—especially their stress on different issues—were entirely consistent with the sort of strategies common to political campaigns.

Campaign Styles

Starting from a long way behind, according to the Gallup poll, Evatt began his campaign nearly three weeks before Menzies; he had travelled around Australia twice before Menzies even started. Out on the stump by 16 August 1951 (the writs were issued on 10 August), by the end of the campaign, on Saturday 22 September, Evatt had delivered many more speeches than Menzies. The metropolitan papers reported over thirty of Evatt’s speeches, including two broadcasts from a studio; others, delivered over commercial radio almost nightly in the last two weeks of the campaign, were not covered by the dailies. By contrast, Menzies appears to have delivered only ten speeches, three of them from a studio.

The two leaders paced their campaigns differently. In the second week Evatt delivered seven speeches, then dropped back to four or five in each of the middle weeks, before going on to deliver seven speeches in the penultimate week of the campaign and eight in the final week’s rush to the finish. Menzies delivered no public speeches until the fourth week when he delivered two. In week five he delivered just three speeches. Not until the sixth and final week, when the majority in favour of Yes was slipping away, did he deliver as many as five. Evatt spoke on one Saturday and three Sundays; Menzies spent his weekends away from the fray.

Both leaders addressed meetings in every state (electors in the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory did not have a vote), though both favoured their home states: Menzies appeared more often in Victoria, and Evatt more frequently in New South Wales, where he made nearly one-third of the twenty-nine speeches he delivered before live audiences. While Menzies’ speeches were limited to the capital cities, Evatt extended his campaign to regional centres. As well as travelling to each of the capitals—something Labor leaders had not always done—the Labor leader addressed meetings in Newcastle and Griffith (NSW); in Cairns, Barcaldine and Bundaberg (Queensland); and in Fremantle (WA) twice. Outside the capital cities, the Yes campaign was spear-headed by the deputy Prime Minister and Country Party leader, Arthur Fadden—the man often credited with initiating the referendum.

Menzies’ speeches were delivered in civic spaces of a formal kind: Canterbury Memorial Hall (in Kooyong, his own seat in suburban Melbourne where, following tradition, he opened the campaign); the Town Halls of Melbourne and Adelaide; City Hall in Brisbane; Rivoli Theatre in Hurstville (Sydney Town Hall was not available), in or near Evatt’s seat of Barton; and the Theatre Royal in Hobart (in Denison, the only other Liberal seat in which he spoke). Evatt, too, gave speeches in places of this kind. But he spoke in other spaces as well, including out in the open air at Cairns, in Randwick’s Alison Park and at the Domain in central Sydney. In addition, Evatt brought his arguments to places of work and to sites of organised labour—the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ in Barcaldine, where the Labor Party is sometimes said to have been born; the wharves of Fremantle; Trades Hall and the Midland Junction Workshops in Perth; Trades Hall in Melbourne. He also spoke at a succession of industrial workplaces across metropolitan Sydney: the Railway Workshops at Eveleigh and Clyde; the Ford motor works at Homebush; the Leichhardt bus depot; and the Electric car workshops at Chullora.

Labor leaders had sometimes included workplace addresses of this kind, certainly in election campaigns. Evatt may also have judged that industrial workers and union members were those most likely to be persuaded of the rightness of his cause; especially as union radicals had been targeted for incarceration by Menzies. Evatt had moved into Labor politics not from the workbench but from the judicial bench; far from secure in his leadership, he might also have seen the campaign as an opportunity to enhance his relationship with those who formed the core of the movement.

Both Menzies and Evatt used radio, but in very different ways. Radio broadcasts were either live broadcasts from public meetings or studio recordings. They went out over the ABC or were carried by one or more commercial stations, sometimes both. Towards the end of the campaign, Menzies relied increasingly on studio recordings. The first five of Menzies’ eight broadcasts, including his opening, were transmitted live from public meetings. By the end of the campaign, Menzies avoided the discomfort of unruly public gatherings by retreating to the calm of the soundproof studio. Expected to make his ‘final radio appeal’ on the last Wednesday, Menzies broadcast additional appeals on Thursday and again on Friday after being warned by the party’s New South Wales general secretary that defeat was likely. Though the election ‘blackouts’ introduced in 1942, to prevent the broadcasting of political advertisements after the final Wednesday night, did not extend to referendums, Evatt and Menzies reached a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ not to broadcast on the day of the vote.

Evatt’s meetings went to air more often than Menzies’ meetings. Seven of Evatt’s public speeches were broadcast: from Bundaberg, Brisbane, Homebush, Collingwood, Hurstville, Bondi and Randwick. Only two of his speeches (both from a studio) were broadcast nationally over the ABC—the second, on the last Wednesday, timed to go to air an hour after the last of Menzies’ speeches. Additionally, Evatt made use of stations owned by the labour movement, including: 2KY, Sydney; 3KZ, Melbourne; and 5KA, Adelaide. But apart from his use of 4KQ in Brisbane, Evatt made little use of this resource. 3KZ and 5KA were ‘only nominally in labour hands’, according to a report, prepared in 1950, ‘and had sacrificed propaganda value to money and success’.

One reason Menzies favoured studio broadcasts was because he found his public meetings difficult, a discomfiture those who write about Menzies’ campaigns routinely ignore. Vigorous heckling disrupted his campaign opening. Twenty-one people were ejected, not a happy circumstance for a leader fighting opposition charges that a Yes vote would introduce a ‘police state’; the Argus called it ‘bedlam’ and had photographs to support its description. Despite a reputation for the artful despatch of interjectors, Menzies did not deal well with this dissent. He ‘interrupted his speech’, ‘became angry’, and even ‘beat his fist on a stand’ as he ‘attempted to make himself heard’. While Menzies may have declared himself ‘very satisfied indeed’ with the episode, the Daily Mirror noted that the Prime Minister ‘appeared exhausted’ by the contest.

Two nights later, at Brisbane City Hall, the Prime Minister faced a lesser but still powerful ‘threat’ from the referendum’s opponents. Menzies appeared under a heavy guard; police ejected three people and intervened to stop several fights. Demonstrators threw pamphlets. Menzies, his biographer notes, ‘spoke cleverly into the microphone so that listeners on the radio heard most of his speech, together with the jeers of part of the audience and Menzies’ often bitter lashes back at “these poor stooges”, “Communist scum”, and so forth’. Upon returning to Melbourne, Menzies again faced the determined ferocity of the No campaigners. Ten interjectors were removed from the Town Hall when he tried to address the crowd. The famed orator ‘lost his audience’ at one point, said the Age. The Melbourne Sun, the Advertiser and the West Australian all described the Prime Minister as ‘smiling grimly’ in the face of uproar, the Advertiser adding that he ‘alternatively’ gave ‘the Nazi heil and the Communist clenched-fist salute’. The following week, in a speech broadcast from Adelaide, Menzies ‘lashed out against interjectors and hecklers’, and parts of the audience were moved to boo. At Hurstville, where his speech also went to air, Menzies was greeted by shouts of ‘Heil Hitler’ and ‘counted out’ twice. The evening was a scene of ‘continuous uproar’. Menzies’ Hobart meeting, the last of his campaign, was also disrupted by a ‘leaflet shower’.

Communism’s strongest opponents presented the tumult of the meetings as proof of Red disrespect for liberal norms. This underlay Menzies’ claim to be ‘pleased’ with the uproar. At the 1951 election he had also faced rowdy meetings with no apparent damage to the Coalition’s vote. But the Age, while strongly critical of the disruptions, thought the rowdy gatherings Menzies faced had ‘given him little chance to inform the people of the reasons his Government considers the constitutional change so essential’. Evatt, by contrast, was ‘able to develop his arguments with little interruption’.

The Media

Labor’s biggest campaign rally, in Sydney’s Domain, attracted between 4,000 and 8,000 participants (estimates vary); the largest audiences Menzies attracted, in Brisbane and Melbourne, were about 3,000. Both Evatt and Menzies used radio to speak to voters in much larger numbers. While voters went to meetings—according to one estimate ‘crowds of from 50 to 200 people’ attended a hundred ‘street-corner’ meetings in Sydney on the Saturday before the referendum—radio ‘brought political issues into the home’. With ‘licensed listeners’ in almost two million homes, radio enabled women, in particular, to hear speeches from the parliamentary leaders. The ABC’s audience for campaign talks may have been ‘very small’, but the Prime Minister’s ‘fluency and ease as a broadcaster’ meant that at times on commercial stations he was being heard through ‘over 30% of sets in use’.

Radio allowed party leaders to address listeners directly without the editing that accompanied written accounts, but newspapers remained the most significant source of information for most voters. ABC radio allocated the major parties three hours of broadcast time, Labor dividing most of its allocation into ten-minute segments (shared by Evatt and seven other Labor Members of the House of Representatives and Senators), the Liberal and National parties dividing their allocation into larger lumps. Radio held out the prospect of being a transformative medium; accounts of its power in earlier years emphasised not only its ‘educative effect’, in the sense of ‘broadening knowledge’, but also the way it transformed politicians into ‘radio personalities’ who delivered their speeches in a quieter and more intimate manner. Newspapers, of course, offered the main means of reaching voters and, with over three million papers published daily in metropolitan cities to inform nearly five million voters, the press was almost certainly more powerful than radio. In a Gallup poll conducted in February 1950, many more respondents said they ‘got most of the facts’ on which they based their ‘opinions on current affairs’ from newspapers (52 per cent) than from radio (19 per cent).

The editorial line of the metropolitan press was almost uniformly supportive of the Yes case. Only two papers—the Daily Mirror, which did not run editorials, and the Daily News—failed to enunciate a position, and only the British-owned Argus advocated a No vote. In most states the morning papers editorialised frequently during the course of the campaign. As Table 1 shows, the charge was led by the Sydney Morning Herald (thirteen editorials in a bit under a month), followed by the Advertiser (ten), the Courier-Mail (eight), the Daily Telegraph (eight in one month, since it published on Sunday), the Age and the Sun News-Pictorial (each with seven). For the No side, the Argus was relatively restrained; it carried just three editorials. In some states the afternoon papers also editorialised quite heavily; the Sydney Sun (published seven days a week) carried twelve editorials, and the Melbourne Herald nine.

Table 1. Editorials and recommended vote in the referendum, metropolitan press, 10 August-22 September 1951.


Owner Frequency Sales Editorials* Vote
New South Wales
Sydney Morning Herald John Fairfax am: Mon-Sat 306,000 13 Yes
Daily Telegraph Consolidated Press am: Mon-Sun 315,000 8 Yes
Sun Associated Newspapers pm: Mon-Sun 265,000 12 Yes
Daily Mirror Truth and Sportsman pm: Mon-Sat 280,000 0
Age David Syme & Company am: Mon-Sat 129,000 7 Yes
Argus International Publishing Corp am: Mon-Sat 153,000 3 No
Sun News-Pictorial Herald and Weekly Times am: Mon-Sat 409,000 7 Yes
Herald Herald and Weekly Times pm: Mon-Sat 406,000 9 Yes
Courier-Mail Queensland Newspapers am: Mon-Sat 188,000 8 Yes
Telegraph Telegraph Newspaper Co. pm: Mon-Sat 139,000 5 Yes
South Australia
Advertiser Herald & Weekly Times am: Mon-Sat 157,000 10 Yes
News News pm: Mon-Sat 100,000 5 Yes
Western Australia
West Australian West Australian Newspapers am: Mon-Sat 119,000 5 Yes
Daily News West Australian Newspapers pm: Mon-Sat 84,000 1
Mercury Davies Brothers am: Mon-Sat 40,000 4 Yes
* The Courier-Mail published two editorials on 22 September, the Advertiser two on 21 September.
Source: Murray Goot, Newspaper Circulation in Australia 1932-1977, Media Centre Papers No. 11 (Centre for the Study of Education Communication and Media, Bundoora, Vic.: La Trobe University, 1979), 3, 5, for ownership and circulation; individual newspapers for frequency and vote.

Set against the 1949 and 1951 elections, the editorials were not just pronouncements on an important constitutional issue, they were interventions in a sustained battle. The Courier-Mail was not alone in inviting its readers to ‘Finish the Job’. The argument that, having twice given the government a ‘mandate’ to deal with communists, voters were now obliged to give it the means to do so was advanced repeatedly by the HeraldSun News-Pictorial and Sydney Morning Herald (in five editorials), by the AgeCourier-Mail, AdvertiserDaily Telegraph and West Australian (three times) and by the Sun and Brisbane Telegraph (twice).

Commentators for papers advocating a Yes vote emphasised Labor’s divisions rather than the divisions in Liberal ranks. Jim Davies, in the Sun News-Pictorial, thought Labor preserved only the ‘semblance of a united front’ over the campaign. The Herald drew attention to an apparent Labor ‘Split’. And Alan Reid of the Sun alleged a ‘precarious truce’ between Labor’s ‘factions’. By contrast, the Argus not only granted prominent opponents of the No case much greater coverage, it was also the only paper to give sustained attention to divisions within Victoria’s Young Liberal and Country Movement.

The extent to which the leaders’ speeches were reported varied markedly. Notwithstanding that Evatt gave many more speeches than Menzies, six papers reported as many or more of Menzies’ speeches (Table 2). Relative to the number of speeches each gave, the odds of Menzies’ speeches compared to Evatt’s making the front page of the morning papers were more than six to one. This may have been driven by news values as much as by political bias: disorderly meetings helped propel reports onto the front page of the morning press, and prime ministers are generally more newsworthy than leaders of the Opposition. In any case, being reported prominently wasn’t necessarily good; front-page coverage of rowdy meetings cued readers to the chaos Menzies was fermenting rather than to the chaos caused by the Communist Party the referendum was ostensibly designed to prevent.

Table 2. Newspaper reports of the leaders’ speeches, referendum campaign, metropolitan press, 10 August – 22 September 1951

Evatt Menzies
Newspaper Reports† Quotes* Lines quoted# Reports† Quotes* Lines quoted#
SMH 19 16 (84) 868 (50) 13 12 (92) 557 (42)
Daily Telegraph 11 11 (100) 545 (60) 13 12 (92) 699 (47)
Sun 12 12 (100) 709 (65) 9 9 (100) 337 (52)
Daily Mirror 15 13 (87) 341 (32) 10 9 (90) 242 (34)
Age 17 15 (88) 334 (31) 12 11 (92) 743 (52)
Argus 11 8 (73) 226 (45) 11 9 (82) 408 (36)
Sun News-Pictorial 9 8 (89) 237 (40) 6 6 (100) 287 (45)
Herald 1 0 (0) 0 (0) 1 0 (0) 0 (0)
Courier-Mail 17 8 (47) 97 (16) 10 7 (70) 187 (28)
Telegraph 4 3 (75) 87 (43) 4 3 (75) 109 (31)
Advertiser 4 3 (75) 172 (48) 10 10 (100) 500 (47)
News 1 1 (0) 0 (0) 1 1 (0) 0 (0)
West Australian 4 4 (100) 130 (35) 8 8 (100) 396 (42)
Daily News 1 1 (100) 8 (20) 0 0 (0) 0 (0)
Mercury 4 2 (50) 29 (22) 4 4 (100) 101 (31)
Note. Excludes: reports that outline speeches not yet given; editorials or other commentary; and (for Evatt) speeches made to trade union officials.
† Number of reports and (in square brackets) number of reports on the front page/number on the front page reporting speeches delivered in the city in which newspaper was published. (In the SMH and Daily Telegraph one of Evatt’s and three of Menzies’ speeches generated two reports each. In the Age, one of Evatt’s speeches was mentioned in two reports while four of Menzies’ speeches generated two reports each. In the Argus, one of Evatt’s and three of Menzies’ speeches generated two reports each, while one of Menzies’ speeches occasioned three reports. In the Advertiser and West Australian two of Menzies’ speeches generated two reports. And in the Courier-Mail, Daily Mirror and Sun one of Menzies’ speeches also generated two reports. In a few cases two or three of Evatt’s speeches given the same day were covered in one report).
* Reports that included quotes and (in brackets) this number as a percentage of all reports.
#Number of lines using quotes, and the number as a percentage (in brackets) of all lines in the reports.

: see Table 1

Greater notice was taken of Evatt’s speeches by papers in the largest cities (Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane), crucial to the Yes vote nationally, than in the smallest ones (Adelaide, Perth and Hobart), at least one of which would be crucial if the Yes vote was to secure a majority in a majority of the states. Newspapers, sometimes thought of as closest to being ‘journals of record’, offered the most complete reportage. Yet the Sydney Morning Herald (which reported nineteen of Evatt’s speeches) and the Age (seventeen) reported no more than two-thirds of Evatt’s speeches, perhaps because of the places and times at which he spoke. Menzies’ speeches were more widely reported not only in Sydney but also in Melbourne (Argus), Brisbane (Courier-Mail), Adelaide (Advertiser) and Perth (West Australian). While some afternoon papers reported few of the speeches by either Evatt or Menzies—regarding them, perhaps, as old news—Sydney’s afternoon papers—’mere gutter press’, as some misleadingly called them—noted most of them. The cities in which the leaders spoke affected their chances of making the front page only marginally; Evatt’s Sydney meetings were front-page news in Sydney just once, while the two Melbourne meetings Menzies addressed that made the front page in Melbourne were both noisy.

How directly did reports convey the words of the party leaders? In seven of the fifteen papers, from 40 to 65 per cent of the reports of either Menzies’ or Evatt’s speeches consisted of direct quotes. Were we to count paraphrasing, of which there was a substantial amount, the number of papers that conveyed the leaders’ remarks would be higher. Despite hostile editorial postures, almost every newspaper regularly reproduced elements of Evatt’s speeches. In six papers the extent of transcription measured as a proportion of the total report was somewhat greater for Evatt than for Menzies; only in two was it greater for Menzies than for Evatt. The two papers that reproduced nothing from Evatt—the Herald and the News—also reproduced nothing from Menzies. The Daily News produced nothing, or almost nothing, from either leader. Overall, the papers favoured the Yes case and reported a greater share of Menzies’ speeches. But Evatt was still able to reach readers. The public sphere was not closed to the No case, even where editors were opposed to it. If the press had ignored Evatt’s speeches Labor would have had greater difficulty reaching voters, on Evatt’s terms, let alone reaching them repeatedly. The relative openness of the public sphere was an important precondition of the successful No campaign.

The Leaders’ Rhetoric

What form did the leaders’ arguments take? In Communism and Democracy in Australia, Webb draws a contrast between the Yes campaign and the No campaign; between what he sees as the merits of the Yes campaign—its focus, its cool-headedness, its logic—and the demerits of the No campaign, with its passion, its lack of logic and its introduction of extraneous matters. The official Yes case, ‘in its tone and in its regard for logical sequence’, Webb argues, ‘was an appeal to reason’. ‘Considered as political propaganda’, he says, ‘the “Yes” statement was relatively free from emotive language … It was a skilful but fair presentation of a difficult case.’ ‘The “No” statement’, on the other hand, was marked by ‘staccato sentences’, linked by only the ‘thinnest of logical threads’; the language was ‘excitable’; and its primary appeal was ‘not to reason but to fear’. It relayed a misleading view of the Parliament’s current powers, argued a case inconsistent with Labor’s earlier position, offered an extravagant account of the consequences of the referendum’s passage, and attempted to divert voters from the real issues. In short, Webb argued, ‘[t]hose who set store by political consistency and fairness in argument will probably regard the “No” statement as a deplorable document’.

For Webb, the worst shortcoming of the campaign was that the two sets of arguments hardly ever met. Menzies focused on explaining the case for suppressing the Communist Party and on reassuring voters that only communists would be affected. Evatt, on the other hand, spent much of his campaign drawing analogies with Nazi Germany, berating the government for accepting a peace treaty with Japan, prophesying ‘a severe budget’ in a few months’ time, and inviting voters to cast their vote on ‘the whole record of the government’, not just on the proposals before them.

Webb’s critique of the two sides raises a number of issues: Evatt’s reputation as the man who saved Australia from draconian legislation by campaigning purely in defence of civil liberties; the appropriate criteria to deploy when evaluating a political campaign; and the importance of the campaign in shaping the result of the referendum. We address each of these below.

Evatt’s Reputation as a Civil Libertarian

In their biography of Evatt, Ken Buckley and his colleagues insist that Evatt’s campaign was based on a simple proposition: that the outlawing of a political party was ‘unacceptable in a peaceful democratic society’. Evatt took the high road. By contrast, they say, a ‘prudent, conventional Labor politician’ would have emphasised ‘party unity’ over principle and conducted only a ‘low-key campaign’. Denis (Dinny) Lovegrove, the State Secretary of the Victorian Australian Labour Party (ALP), is their paradigmatic case. Lovegrove ‘issued a four-page leaflet only one page of which was concerned with issues in the referendum. The rest … was devoted to attacking both the Liberal Party (mainly over inflation) and the CPA.’ ‘This’, Buckley et al. argue, ‘was not Evatt’s way’. Peter Crockett’s life of Evatt takes a similar line, suggesting that Evatt campaigned exclusively on the issues raised by the proposed powers. A similar conclusion is reached by Allan Dalziel, Evatt’s private secretary.

Evatt may have put up ‘a magnificent fight’, as Ben Chifley prophesied, but these accounts are misleading. So is the triumphalism in accounts of the campaign that focus exclusively on civil rights. The argument that the only thing that mattered to voters was the notion of a ‘fair go’ is also mistaken. Evatt introduced arguments unconnected with civil rights in the official No case, in at least one broadcast (12 September), in a press release (5 September), in campaign rallies (23 August, 11 September and 14 September), and in talks to workers (6 September and 7 September). In the second week of his campaign, Menzies railed against those who were trying to turn the referendum into an election campaign. The depiction of Evatt as nothing less than a principled champion of the civil rights of an unpopular minority is misleading.

The Rationality of the Campaign

On Webb’s view, Menzies’ campaign was rational, and Evatt’s irrational. This, too, does not withstand scrutiny. Webb treats ’emotion’ and ‘reason’ as mutually exclusive, with each quite narrowly defined. Moreover, he applies these concepts selectively. A central tenet of the Yes case was the claim that ‘Communist activity’ posed ‘a grave menace to our industrial peace, to production, to national security and defence’. Why Webb should have regarded this as a statement of pure reason is far from clear; Perce Partridge, Professor of Social Philosophy at the Australian National University (ANU), rejected it. Given Menzies’ prediction of a third world war within three years, the statement about ‘national security and defence’ could just as easily have been read as scaremongering. Similarly for the claim that the powers for which the Yes case argued were essential. Conversely, the fears evoked by the No case often had a reasonable basis. Given that the budget that followed the referendum included a 10 per cent lift in income tax, for example, Evatt might have been excused for seeing the referendum, in part, as a way of distracting attention from the government’s ‘failure to deal effectively with the problem of inflation’. Indeed, at one point Webb concedes that in this ‘there was some element of truth’.

Webb’s allegations of apparent inconsistency are also slanted. He presents Evatt—not Menzies—as guilty of having shifted his opinion. Yet on the Liberal side Menzies stands accused by Percy Joske, his close friend and colleague, of going back on the party’s ‘own fundamental policy’, namely that ‘to ban political groups or to disqualify their members from civil rights on mere government declaration, without acts of specific conduct, without a hearing or without a charge, is tyrannical and unjust’. The Vice-President of the Victorian Young Liberal and Country Movement, Alan Missen, whose advocacy of a No vote finds a place in Webb’s book but whose reasoning does not, was disturbed by the way Menzies had turned his back not only on the party’s platform but also on views he had earlier espoused.

For Webb, ‘the worst shortcoming’ of the official paper setting out the Yes and No cases was that ‘the two sets of arguments hardly ever met’, a view echoed by Allan Martin, Menzies’ biographer. But to say the arguments ‘hardly ever met’ is to miss the point. In politics the art of persuasion depends primarily on playing to one’s strengths. Menzies’ main strength was the widespread opposition to communism and the level of concern about it; twice as many respondents in the Gallup poll had explained their vote for the Coalition at the 1951 election in terms of its opposition to communism, compared to those who had mentioned anything else. Menzies did not want to address the charge that the referendum was a smokescreen for economic mismanagement because a debate on the economy would have seen him surrender his advantage.

Evatt’s main strengths were just as clear. First and foremost, Menzies’ proposal lacked bi-partisan support. For the official Yes case, the vote was ‘NOT a party political one’. Menzies was careful not to link the ALP as a whole to the Communist Party despite urgings from his party’s professionals; to stir division and to encourage defection, Menzies went out of his way to praise Labor members who had not opposed the Communist Party Dissolution Act. But the claim that the vote was not ‘party political’ hardly does justice to the way the campaign was always going to be conducted. Unless Evatt could mobilise Labor supporters, as well as some from the Liberal side, the referendum was bound to pass.

In addition, Evatt benefited from the fact that the changes proposed to the Constitution entailed an expansion of Commonwealth powers with a good deal of uncertainty about the ways these powers might be used. In his memoir, Menzies conceded that Australians ‘are not only reluctant to vote for new powers for the Commonwealth, but are also, by deep instinct, unwilling to modify in any way the old principle that “a man is innocent until proved guilty”‘. This was a consideration he no longer dismissed as simply part of a ‘scare campaign’.

Also running in Evatt’s favour—though not nearly as strongly as to turn ‘the referendum into a plebiscite on the economic record of the Menzies’ government’, as Ian Hancock suggests—was concern about the government’s economic competence. According to a Gallup poll, ‘the high cost of living’ (nominated by 23 per cent) and a belief that Labor was the ‘workers’ party’ (19 per cent) were the main reasons for voting Labor at the 28 April election.

Just as Menzies tried to avoid any engagement with his opponent on issues on which he was vulnerable, so Evatt tried to avoid issues on which he was weak. Webb notes that the official No case included the claim that under the proposed change to the Constitution ‘legislation could be framed not to discourage or suppress but actually to encourage or promote communism’. He goes on to observe that ‘[t]his remarkable argument was not much used by the No advocates during the campaign’. That it ‘was not much used’ suggests that Evatt, like Webb, saw it as a sign of weakness, desperation even, not strength.

The Importance of the Campaign

‘At the end of the campaign’, as Dalziel observes, ‘many voters crossed traditional party lines’. An analysis of the vote in 121 federal seats, conducted by the ANU statistician H. P. Brown, shows that if ‘a relatively constant percentage of Labour and non-Labour voters changed sides’ between the 1951 election and the 1951 referendum, 13.75 per cent of non-Labor voters would have voted No while 11.25 per cent of Labor voters would have voted Yes. We might interpret this to indicate a flow of middle-class Liberals, including Liberals like Missen, to the No side. It also suggests a flow to the Yes side by working-class Labor voters, including many who would later vote for the Democratic Labor Party.

The fit between the distribution of the vote at the 1951 election and the division between Yes and No at the referendum is even closer. In every mainland state, the seat by seat correlation between voting No and voting Labor was high: 0.97 in New South Wales and in South Australia, ‘the only State that put up a wholehearted campaign against the proposal’; 0.96 in Victoria, early support for a Yes vote by the Victorian ALP executive and Lovegrove notwithstanding; and 0.84 in Western Australia, despite an argument put by Labor’s state executive that the party not tell voters which way they should vote. Only in Tasmania, where Premier Cosgrove ‘took no part and addressed no meetings’—though Senator Bill Morrow ‘addressed eighty-six meetings and made a number of broadcasts’—did the correlation drop to just 0.27.

What the correlation coefficients report are relations between the No vote and the Labor vote based on a ranking of electorates. The coefficients do not tell us anything about the relative size of the respective votes. Brown’s work shows they were actually much the same. Based on what, courtesy of Malcolm Mackerras, would come to be known as the ‘two-party preferred’, Brown calculated that, had it been a general election, Labor and the Coalition would each have lost five seats and gained five seats; in the House of Representatives the party balance would have been unchanged.

The correlation between support for Labor and voting No, based on aggregates, is confirmed by the data for individuals. In the final Gallup poll, conducted a week before the referendum, 64 per cent of Labor respondents said they would vote No, while 30 per cent intended voting Yes; the corresponding figures for LCP respondents were 12 per cent and 82 per cent. Since the referendum was very close, these figures substantially underestimate the final No vote, even if we add to No the 6 per cent ‘undecided’. And since the 1951 election saw voters fairly evenly divided, it was almost certainly among Labor respondents that support for No was underestimated; Brown’s ‘guesstimate’ for Labor and the LCP is surely closer to the mark. On all the evidence, the referendum was as polarising an issue as could be imagined.

One way of exploring the impact of the leaders’ speaking engagements is to see whether there is a relationship between where they spoke and the seats in which the Yes or No vote was unexpectedly high or low. However, few of the electorates where the No vote did particularly badly—or well—compared to the 1951 Labor vote were visited by either leader. Of the thirteen seats that polled relatively poorly for the Yes side, Evatt appears to have spoken in none, and Menzies only in one. Of the nine that polled relatively poorly for the No side, Menzies spoke in one while Evatt spoke in three. If Evatt spoke in more of the seats in which the No case didn’t do well than Menzies in seats where the Yes vote did poorly, this may be for no better reason than that Evatt, who travelled 15,000 miles in four weeks, covered more territory.

Of these electorates, the one in which both leaders spoke was Brisbane where the No side recorded its most disappointing result: 4.8 percentage points lower than the adjusted Labor vote at the 1951 election. Both leaders addressed evening meetings in the City Hall: Evatt on 16 August; Menzies on 6 September. Speaking late may have been better than speaking early. But the reach provided by radio and the press is likely to have been more important than the immediate reach of the leader’s voice.

Overall, the campaign saw the reassertion of party loyalties: Coalition voters overwhelmingly voted Yes and Labor voters No. Evatt’s effective mobilisation is an example of artful campaigning. It was neither a pure act of political heroism, as Evatt’s supporters have argued, nor unreasonable scaremongering, as Webb claimed. Much of the praise for Evatt—the idea of this as his ‘finest hour’—assumes that the support for a Yes vote initially recorded by the Gallup poll was strong. But insofar as the poll provided a measure of support for the referendum it was a measure of the breadth of support not its strength. More importantly, it made no attempt to measure how persuadable the electorate might be, given Evatt’s rather than Menzies’ framing of the issue. To understand the dynamics of the campaign is not only to appreciate the campaigning of the party leaders; it is also to grasp the position of the party branches, the parliamentarians, and the various interests supporting the parties, especially in a referendum not tied to a general election. The leakage of Liberal (and, perhaps, Country Party) voters to No was as vital to the success of the No campaign as the movement of Labor voters away from Yes.


The campaign strategies of the two leaders were much as the contest demanded: each played to their strengths and sought to exploit their opponent’s weaknesses. If this meant adopting positions at odds with previous positions, talking past one another, introducing ‘extraneous’ matter, ‘scaremongering’ and so on, these were the turns the contest took. Menzies’ campaign was not an exercise in pure ‘reason’. Evatt’s campaign was not based solely on a defence of civil liberties. The decision of Evatt and of Menzies not to take each other’s arguments head-on could have been anticipated. This is how campaigns are typically conducted. In their analyses of the opening speeches at federal elections between 1946 and 1990, Ian McAllister and Rhonda Moore show that the opposed leaders emphasised different things. Similar results have been derived for post-war campaigns in twenty-five democracies.

Evatt waged a campaign that appealed not only to middle-class misgivings; on numerous occasions, it appealed directly to the (male) industrial working class. Women would follow their men, Labor strategists seemed to think. Others believed this, too. Some Liberals thought differently. As Menzies’ radio address to ‘the forgotten people’ showed in 1942, as the John Henry Austral radio series confirmed in 1947-8, and as Menzies’ election speeches made clear, Liberal strategists attributed a good deal more political autonomy to women than many Labor strategists. From 1931 to 1943, as Chris Leithner has shown, the Coalition drew ‘more support from women than from men’. Whether Menzies’ rhetoric during the referendum campaign persuaded more women than men to vote Yes, we cannot tell. At the 1951 election (and in 1946) there appears to have been no ‘gender gap’ in party support. In 1949, when the issue of communism also loomed large, it was not women who proved more likely to vote for the Coalition; it was men. If Menzies appealed more directly to women, there is no evidence from the 1949 and 1951 elections to suggest that he met with great success.

Although the Yes case was backed by the press—overwhelmingly in the editorials—and although it may have had the better of the radio contest between Menzies and Evatt, support for Yes appears to have plummeted. Since Labor and the Coalition took opposed positions this is not surprising. What campaigns do, more than anything else, is allow voters already predisposed to one party or the other to hear from the parties and align themselves, accordingly. This is one way to grasp the meaning of Chifley’s famous remark that ‘although there may be a lot of people who do not make up their minds until the last few days the things that cause them to make a final decision have already been planted in their minds’. This is not to discount the campaign; it is to understand it.

But to explain the rise of the No vote in this way is not to assume its success. According to Brian Galligan, the ‘first law of Australian referendums’ is that ‘a winning proposal needs bi-partisan support’. It may be true that no referendum has passed without this support. But we should be wary of moving from noticing a constant conjunction to proclaiming a law. In 1951, and not for the first time, the final margin in favour of the No vote was small: just 0.48 percentage points. Three states—New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia—voted No, but the margin in the closest of these contests, Victoria, was only 1.36 percentage points. Had Archbishop Mannix urged a Yes vote—as Archbishop Duhig did in Queensland—the result in Victoria might have been different; Catholics, across the country as whole, according to the Gallup poll, were the denomination most evenly divided. Given the closeness of the outcome it seems foolish to insist that whoever had led the No campaign and whatever the manner of their campaigning, the No case would have prevailed. The campaign strategies may have been routine, but the result was far from assured.