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The hunt for communists

Having failed to win the referendum on constitutional change, Menzies stepped up the hunt for 'reds under he beds'. The anti-communist witch-hunts in Australia almost became as bad as McCarthy's hunts in America. People even stopped saying they were socialist for fear of being 'named' as a communist and losing their job. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) was taking advantage of its powers and watching people and politicians, tapping phones and confiscating passports from suspected communists. Spy rings had been discovered in Canada in the late 1940s and fear was rife that one would emerge in Australia. The Liberal Party, under Robert Menzies, continued to do all it could to heighten those fears, as it was an effective way of keeping power. In 1954, there was a federal election ahead and Menzies needed another ploy to help him keep his party in government. See image 1

In 1951, Ben Chifley died; Herbert (Bert) Evatt, his deputy, became leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Opposition. As a lawyer, he had helped to represent the Communist Party of Australia in its High Court battle against the ban that Menzies tried to impose in 1950. He was not a communist sympathiser, but he did believe in fair rights for all, and had seen the Communist Party Dissolution Act 1950 (Cth) as an infringement of human rights.

A 'spy' is found

In the election called for 1954, Evatt's Labor Party appeared like they could win. The Liberal's scare-mongering about communist spy rings waiting to take over Australia had come to nothing, and no one really believed they were there any more. Then, in April 1954, just before the election, Menzies produced his 'spy'. Vladimir Petrov, Third Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, defected to ASIO on Saturday 3 April 1954. See image 2

Petrov had been a cipher (code) clerk with the OGPU (State Political Directorate), the Soviet spy organisation, since 1933. In 1951, as a full agent, he had been sent to Australia under diplomatic cover, ironically, to make sure other Soviet citizens in Australia did not defect. When he defected, Petrov brought with him allegations of spying by Soviet agents in Australia and alleged documented evidence for this. Ten days later, just two days before Parliament broke up for the election, Menzies made the announcement that a Soviet spy had defected to Australia and the country went into uproar. The story made even bigger headlines when Petrov was allowed to stay, but Soviet officials tried to take his wife back to the USSR. They forced her on board a plane, but when it made a fuel stop in Darwin, she was offered asylum by Australian officials and she accepted. It was huge news at the time. The newspapers were full of pictures of a frightened, crying Mrs Petrov being led onto the plane in Sydney - it was sensational. See image 3, see animation

Robert Menzies also announced there would be a royal commission investigation into 'espionage activities' in Australia. Only ten days before the election, the royal commission began to hear evidence about the supposed spy ring in Australia. Rumours were circulating about communists close to the Labor leader, Bert Evatt. There were allegations that one of his aides was supposed to be the author of a document that Petrov brought with him out of the Soviet Embassy. In the election, Labor won a majority of the votes, but Menzies' conservative Coalition was able to win the House of Representatives by just seven seats.

The Petrovs maintained there had been a spy ring in Australia since the 1940s. That possibility had been looked into at the time, when a spy ring was found in Canada. America, however, had stopped providing top secret information to Australia in 1948 because they said there was a high-level leak to the Soviet Union. ASIO had been formed to look into that leak but nothing came of it as no evidence had been found. Some historians believe that the Petrov defection was a set-up by ASIO to prove its worth as a security agency. Whether or not the defection and the evidence of a spy ring were real, it had a huge impact on Australian society. 

Luck or strategy?

Opinions differ as to how much Menzies orchestrated the timing of the Petrov Affair to his own advantage. It is not possible to determine whether it was just luck or a definite strategy that had Petrov appear with the long-looked-for Soviet spy ring just weeks before an election that the Liberal Party could have lost. It is also not possible to determine if Petrov ever did produce concrete evidence of espionage taking place, however, not one criminal charge resulted from the Petrov Commission.

After the election was over, the Labor Party began to fall apart under the strain of the continuing rumour campaign about Evatt and those surrounding him and the stress of the communist witch hunts in Australia. The ALP was also split internally by a more right-wing faction of the party which called itself the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). The DLP was led by B. A. Santamaria and its policies were very anti-communist. This split, and a weakening of support for the ALP, resulted in the Liberals remaining in power for another 18 years.

Meanwhile, the already declining Communist Party of Australia lost even more support after the Petrov Affair. Apart from the fact that many people's worst fears about communist spy rings seemed to be true: if communism was so great, why would someone want to defect?


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1. How many people were charged with criminal offences related to spying after the royal commission investigation?

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