Paul Budde's History Archives

Australia becomes further entangled in NEI politics

The trade unions as well as the Communist Party were at their zenith of their power during this period, with a membership close to 50% of the workforce. Furthermore, there was a very close relationship in the overarching Australian Labour Movement between Trade Unions and the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Labor had won the election in 1941 and this gave the unions a high level of political influence.  As the Black Armada will show they even had an input on Australia’s foreign policy, often to the bewilderment of Dutch, British and American government officials.

To complicate matters further this political situation coincided with the rise of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). Initially they didn’t support the war effort of the Allied Forces. This changed when the USSR joined the Allies and soon after that the CPA was legalised again, and membership reached 20,000.  

During the war, industrial disturbances increased in Australia to the point of reaching an extent greater that at any time since 1929. Some 2, 210, 000 man-days were lost during the period 1942-1945, disturbances increasing as the military situation improved. The most worrying losses were in the coal mining industry, a huge problem for a nation and society reliant on coal for power, locomotion, and merchant shipping.

The strikes occurred in all parts of Australia and among many groups of workers. Most of them were local disputes over local grievances and were quickly settled. A number of them were by workers in disregard and in some cases in defiance of their union executives. The only industry in which striking was continuous and extensive was coalmining in New South Wales.

in spite of the exceptional efforts made by the (Curtin Labor) Government and the…..full support of the moderate union leaders and the exhortations to greater production from the Left Wing, industrial stoppages still occurred. This led to many conflicts on the wharves and elsewhere between the unionists and the military.

This CPA became very influential in the trade unions and they even won a seat in the Queensland Parliament. The fact that many of the Digulists were members of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), allowed for an easy and quick alignment of interests.

What assisted the Trade Unions and the CPA was the fact that they were supported by a significant proportion of the Australian public. Under this pressure the Chifley-Evatt Labor Government of the day dared not to intervene in the strikes. However, conflicted as they were at the same time the Government kept up their support for the Dutch re-colonisation effort; which included the supply of weapons, other military equipment, military training and so on. 

This political situation became even more complicated after the Japanese surrender in August 1945. The NEI had not been liberated by the allies as the Dutch were unprepared to immediately take over control from the Japanese. They were just recovering from their own Nazi occupation.  Australia together with Britain were tasked to step into this vacuum and take over administrative control of NEI from the Japanese.

This was not something the Australian Government was really looking for. It was still reeling from the British abandonment of the defence of Australian in 1942. Now it was confronted with the unpreparedness of the Dutch to take-over control of NEI and the volatile situation in NEI.

However, the Australian troops successfully took control of a large part of NEI, without any serious casualties. This buoyed the Australian Government and they considered taking a broader regional role.

This situation saw a short-lived political movement aimed at a more permanent Australian occupation (take-over) of some parts of NEI to create ramparts to the north for their own protection. They were looking at for example occupying Borneo, Portuguese Timor, West Papua and other islands to Australia’s north. However, these ‘secret’ ambitions were resented by the Dutch and quashed by the Americans.