When Labor jailed unionists and communists and broke the coal strike

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When Labor jailed unionists and communists and broke the coal strike

Going My Way? Australia's Choice in 1949
Until October 31
Old Parliament House, Canberra.

Reviewed by Kim Bullimore

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1949 federal election that brought Robert Menzies to power. It is the 50th anniversary of the jailing of trade unionists by a federal Labor government for refusing to hand over union strike funds as well as the jailing of Lance Sharkey, general secretary of the Communist Party of Australia, for sedition. It also the 50th anniversary of the use of the military by Labor to break the 1949 coal strike.

All of these events are remembered in an exhibition called Going My Way? Australia's Choice in 1949, at Old Parliament House. The exhibition takes its name from a cartoon by the Bulletin's Ted Scorfield on the 1949 election campaign.

The Labor government, led by Ben Chifley, offered "no glittering promises", but pledged to help the "less fortunate section of the community", while Menzies' Coalition rhetoric envisaged a nation of small-scale capitalists, where individual effort brought rewards and national progress and prosperity.

The exhibition, located in the old National Party rooms, is divided into a number of themes. It is composed mainly of static displays that include articles from the newspapers of the day, photographs, cartoons, memorabilia, pamphlets and how to vote tickets.

It contains lots of interesting historical information, including on Chifley's attempt to nationalise the banks in 1947 and the subsequent overturning of the legislation by the High Court. Visitors can also hear Chifley's famous "Light on the Hill" speech.

One of the most interesting sections of the exhibition is the "Coal and Communism" room, which examines the 1949 coal strike and the "communist conspiracy" and the jailing of Sharkey for sedition.

In June 1949, 23,000 coal workers went on strike demanding a pay increase, a shorter working week and better conditions in the pits. The strike became a bitter battle between the Labor government and the miners.

Chifley told colleagues, "The reds must be taught a lesson" and, in an attempt to break the strike, introduced legislation to freeze union strike funds, making it illegal for miners and their families to receive money to help them through the strike.

Union officials refused to hand over the funds, and union offices and the Communist Party headquarters were raided by police. Eight unionists were jailed. On August 1, Chifley sent troops to break the strike.

Included in this section are reproductions of union telegrams condemning Chifley for his government's tactics, union propaganda (with one flyer entitled "Baby Starvers"), reproductions of verse and articles from the miners' journal, Common Cause, photographs of mass meetings of thousands of coal miners and their supporters in the Domain in Sydney, and anti- and pro-communist propaganda. There is also a great Movietone newsreel, which declares, "Law and order ensure that any communist plans are doomed to fail".

The rarely seen union propaganda, booklets and stunning photographs of both the electoral campaign and union meetings are accompanied by informative scripts. Visitors will need to allow enough time to take in all the written material, but it is worth it.

Going My Way? manages to convey not only a sense of what Australia was in the late 1940s, but also the atmosphere of the period. It is well worth seeing.