Not Fascist At All

Shane Cahill’s cheap attempt to brand the war-time Institute of Public Affairs as sympathetic to Japanese fascism (‘This fascist mob’, Overland, 189) fails on every count.

The first indictment Cahill presents is drawn from a letter written by an anonymous Air Force officer to the IPA, and a subsequent investigation of the IPA by the Commonwealth Security Service (the precursor to ASIO). This letter condemned the IPA as ‘more vile and sinister than any Jap’ for opposing the Curtin government’s proposal to continue economic regulations after the war. The officer also argued that opposition to Curtin’s policies was a gross abuse of freedom of speech.

The CSS investigation – instigated after a copy of the letter was sent to the Deputy Prime Minister – predictably found nothing of interest. Nevertheless, Cahill describes the CSS file in the most conspiratorial of terms, implying that a higher power spiked the investigation before it could uncover some nefarious secret. Perhaps the conspiratorially-minded might be more interested in how an anonymously written, angrily ranting screed sent to the Labor government managed to spark a serious security investigation. After all, the IPA was Labor’s political opponent.

Cahill’s second indictment tries to condemn the IPA with the old Communist Party canard that the United Australia Party and some senior business leaders were fascist admirers and appeasers, and points to two founding members of the IPA who were also listed as supporters of the pre-war Japan-Australia Society.

The accusation that membership in the Japan Australia Society signaled an otherwise unstated sympathy for totalitarianism is an old one, appearing most recently in Rupert Lockwood’s War on the Waterfront and Drew Cottle’s The Brisbane Line. But neither of these books can produce any documentary proof, relying almost entirely on oral recollections; and, more suspiciously, both claim that the necessary supporting documents have been destroyed in two unrelated fires.

Instead, during the Depression Japan was Australia’s second most important trading partner. The society should be seen as a reflection of that economic relationship, rather than a signal of ideological sympathy for fascism – at least in the absence of contrary evidence. Trade with Japan in the 1930s no more indicates support for fascism than trade with Cuba in 2008 indicates support for communism.

Nevertheless, it is on this feeble evidence that Cahill bases his argument. But the wartime IPA’s support for democracy and the finer points of democratic theory was impeccable, in contrast to the many on the Left who embraced the Nazi-Soviet Pact when it was seen to be in the best interests of international communism.

Looking Forward, the IPA’s first major publication, contained a defence of the sovereignty of parliament against the executive branch. It also argued that a planned economy – which it unmistakably opposed – required a dictatorial government. It is hard to argue that the early IPA was sympathetic to totalitarianism; after all, this was the stick it used to beat its ideological opponents.

But perhaps more revealing, the Harris Family radio show transcript contained in the same CSS file that Cahill investigated clearly contradicts his argument. The Harris Family’s dialogue is just as critical of totalitarianism as it is of excessive government regulation. Papa Harris sums up: ‘we people of Australia will never forego our free democratic rights for an illusory politician’s paradise’. If, as Cahill clumsily infers, the IPA council was trying to sow the seeds for Japanese-style fascism in Australia, sponsoring a radio show that condemns totalitarianism and centralised government seems to be a strange way to go about it.

Shane Cahill’s piece goes to show that demonisation is as common a tool in political debate as it was when the IPA was founded. His disingenuous manipulation of the historical record seems little more than an excuse to carry the word ‘fascist’ in an article about the Institute of Public Affairs. And, by trying to equate an organisation that opposes government interference into the economy and society with fascist totalitarianism and militaristic nationalism, Cahill does little more than reveal himself as someone happy to abuse history to take a cheap partisan shot.