Shunted: Ian Turner’s “industrial experience”, 1952-53

Phillip Deery

At 7.30pm on Monday 15 June 1953, the large radio audience of station 3UZ listened to a weekly political broadcast. Delivered by 3UZ’s popular commentator, John Pacini, and repeated the following morning, listeners heard the remarkable declaration that ‘the only good Communist is a dead one’. This refrain, with its reverberations from World War 2 (‘the only good Jap’), would have astonished listeners less then than it chills readers today. But then, in June 1953, the Rosenbergs were about to be electrocuted, Stalin’s corpse was still warm, and Australian troops were still in Korea, with the spectre of World War 3 still hovered menacingly. So the broader background to this broadcast was the virulent anti-communism associated with those alarming early years of the Cold War. However, the specific context was the sacking of a relatively unknown employee, Ian Alexander Hamilton Turner from the Victoria Railways. This article focuses on that dismissal and illuminates, in a small way, the political atmosphere of the Cold War.

In his autobiographical ‘My Long March’, Turner – soldier, communist, intellectual, railway cleaner, radical historian, folklorist, Labor Party activist – has written evocatively about his eleven months as a railway carriage cleaner in Melbourne in 1952-53.1 According to Ralph Gibson, the Communist Party of Australia [CPA] directed him to this job ‘for industrial experience’; according to Drew Cottle, it was to test ‘his Communist faith’; according to the ALP Industrial Group within the Australian Railways Union (ARU), it was to be ‘groomed for higher positions within the union’; and according to Turner himself at the time, he took the job ‘to assist in the struggle of the working class for a better life’ and to ‘gain practical experience in the working class and labour movement’.2 In his self-written, single-sheet Election News, which he distributed throughout the Glen Iris electorate when he stood as the Communist Party candidate in the Victorian State election of December 1952, he wrote that it was his decision, ‘at considerable personal sacrifice’, to work ‘among a large body of workers, where his efforts for peace would reach most widely’.3

In fact Turner had no idea why he was forced by the Party to relinquish his position – which he relished – as secretary of the Australian Peace Council, established in 1949 principally by the Victorian State Committee of the Communist Party:

I didn’t last long in the peace movement after I got back to Australia. There had been some internal faction fight in the party – I never discovered just what it was – and I was out-The verdict was delivered by Ted Hill… [who] spoke coolly and colorlessly. I had no advance warning and responded emotionally, but … I was a disciplined communist and copped it sweet.4

Nor was his wife at that time, Amirah, able to throw any light on the Party decision in her 1995 memoirs: ‘WHY? WHY? WHY? We turned it over and over and could find no answer. Neither was any reason given by the state secretariat. It seemed unfair.’5 The reason, not publicly revealed before, was primarily personal, not political. When Turner was in Warsaw, attending the Second Congress of the World Peace Council in November 1950, 6 he had – to use his own words – ‘an intense relationship with an American Negro girl’.7 Amirah subsequently discovered this when, accidentally, she found a passionate love letter to this same ‘black American’ in his clothes; for some time after she ‘heard the tormenting words of that love letter’.8 None of this is, or should be, of any interest to the labour historian – except that it leads us to resolving that unexplained riddle: why was Turner ‘proletarianised’? Amirah’s father, Itzhak Gust, was a staunch supporter of the Soviet Union and benefactor of the Communist Party in Victoria.9 An Eastern European Jew, he had joined jubilant crowds in the Ukraine welcoming the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917. He arrived in Australia in July 1928 and remained an ardent defender of the communist cause for the rest of his life.10 Apparently, Itzhak was sufficiently upset or angered by his son-in-law’s infidelity to request privately of Ted Hill, the State Secretary of the CPA, that Turner be disciplined; this meant removing Turner from his leading position, paid for by the Party, with the Australian Peace Council. Hill had his own reasons – ideological, not personal – for shifting Turner from the Peace Council and his action was immediate and ‘decisive’11. The ostensible need for ‘industrial experience’ was an afterthought not the basis for his removal.12

In July 1952, Turner commenced work with the Victoria Railways as a car cleaner at the Dudley Street workshops in West Melbourne. His job was situated in the Rolling Stock Division, which was traditionally militant.13 The Communist Party – in particular Bernie Taft, a full-time Party functionary, whose ‘brief’ was the railways – found him the job.14 Consisting of ‘sweeping, mopping, dusting, window-polishing, cleaning shit-houses (6d extra a day for that!)’ – the daily work was, as he put it, ‘dull and repetitive and unrewarding’.15 But being a communist meant far more than work: it meant being active and effective politically and industrially in trade union affairs – something that the Movement-backed ‘groupers’, who were circling the ARU menacingly, were then successfully emulating. So Turner soon rose through the ranks to become chairman of the Dudley Street Shop Committee, the vice-president of the Central Council of Shop Committees, the Rolling Stock delegate to the State Conference of the Australian Railways Union, and secretary of the CPA fraction that coordinated the activities of the local shop committees. He also edited a militant roneoed broadsheet distributed on-site every week – in contrast to the official monthly Railways Union Gazette, now under Grouper control. It was these activities which, he alleged, underlay his dismissal. In a ‘letter to fellow railway-workers’, Turner gave full vent to his belief in a conspiracy between the State Railways Commissioners and the State Labor government. It should be recalled that the Cain government contained within its ranks numerous right-wing Catholics who were actively backing Santamaria’s ‘Movement’ and the ALP Industrial Groups in their daily struggle with the Communist Party for the control of the trade union movement. Part of Turner’s letter read:

Just six weeks short of coming due for permanency, I have been sacked from the Railways – without notice, without being charged, without a hearing. The official explanation was that my explanation for absence from duty with leave for two days without pay was “unsatisfactory”. Have any of you ever heard of any railwayman ever being sacked without notice, without a chance to defend himself, on an excuse like that? Mr. Transport Minister Coleman – the “Labor” Minister … – says there was nothing political about my dismissal. But … my activities in the A.R.U. and in the Shop Committee movement displeased the Commissioners and the Minister – so they conspired to sack me. My activities also displeased the agents of the Government inside the A.R.U. – so they helped to get me sacked.

Comrades, I am writing this letter to you to ask you to help me in fighting against this victimisation of myself because of my political beliefs and trade union activities. I am not making this appeal to you on personal grounds. For me, this is a matter of trade union principle. For you, it is a matter of your wages and conditions, your right to speak your mind…. It’s not only my future that is at stake in this case of victimization – it’s yours as well.16

In the communist Guardian Turner broadened the conspiracy to include not only the ‘capitalist’ Coleman17 and the Commissioners but also the ‘bosses’. ‘The pattern is now obvious. The bosses hope to get militants off the job by victimizing them – and then they hope to get away with wage cuts, pegged margins, longer hours and speed-up’.18 Subsequently the Guardian went even further. In an article replete with Cold War hyperbole, and headlined ‘Links in Bosses’ Master Plan Revealed. Turner’s Sacking Exposes Sinister Plan to Smash Wages’, it alleged complicity between the ‘security police’, the State Labor government, the right-wing of the ARU, employers and the backers of the Federal government’s ‘union-busting arbitration amendments’. Each of these groups, it argued, ‘work in connection with one another to a common plan – the employers’ plan to destroy the organised fighting strength of the workers’.19

But was Turner victimized, as he alleged, for political and industrial reasons? Officially, he was sacked because his excuse for being absent from duty for two days was not believed by Railways Commissioners and because he refused to give any further information before two staff officers, suspicious of his explanation, who interrogated him upon his return to work. The Minister for Transport, P.L. Coleman MLC, emphasized that the dismissal was without political motive or implication: ‘I am at a loss to understand why there has been so much agitation about this dismissal’. He told the press that Turner was only one of 27,000 railway workers, was not a permanent employee and had been treated no differently from anyone else. There had been significant absenteeism and employees should not be permitted to absent themselves whenever they felt inclined; indeed, ‘discipline must be maintained’.20

Given that Turner subsequently issued an Arbitration Court summons, under Section 5 of the Arbitration Act,21 for an order compelling the Railways Commissioners to re-instate him and reimburse wages due to wrongful dismissal, it is necessary to review briefly his position.

The explanation that Turner gave to the Commissioners in June 1953, and repeated to the Arbitration Court five months later, was that he took time off work without pay because of the illness of his wife and one of his two young children. In his own words, he ‘decided to help her’ and undertook a ‘considerable amount of housework’ on both days in late May.22 However the Dudley Street Shelter Shed foreman, Jack Schmidt, overheard one of Turner’s telephone conversations (presumably not about nappies or housework), alerted a Railways investigation officer, and that officer placed the Turner home in Rix Street, Glen Iris, under surveillance.23 When he observed Turner leaving mid-afternoon on the second day, he knocked on the door, asked for ‘Ian’ and was told by his wife, Amirah, who assumed he was a ‘Railways comrade’, that he was at the ARU office. According to his report, ‘she did not appear ill, and said that Mr. Turner would not return until about 10.30pm.’24 This officer, together with the Chief Clerk, later interrogated Turner about his absences. However, Turner declined to supply an affidavit or to answer any questions ‘until I saw the union. I claimed that as my right’.25 This refusal not only compounded the officers’ suspicions but was an immediate reason for his dismissal. So, a mixture of recalcitrance; an apparently implausible explanation; the temporary status of employment (which made dismissal easier: Turner was still two months away from permanency); and frequent previous absences from work (especially when campaigning as a State parliamentary candidate) combined to strip the sacking of its conspiratorial clothing. Arguably, therefore, Turner was wrong and the Commissioners were right – an interpretation indirectly confirmed by Turner’s wife: ‘Ian had taken two days off, at Party direction, for union meetings.’26

So the real reason Turner took time off work was the imminent ballot of union officials (ARU executive officers, industrial officer and councillors). The ALP Industrial Groups, through the monthly union journal Railways Union Gazette and other means, were campaigning relentlessly to win control of the Executive and Council of the ARU. It is clear from the Gazette that the Minister, Coleman, was backing the Groupers. He was a Catholic who, in two years time, would lead the Anti-Communist Labor Party, known at the time as the Coleman-Barry Labor Party.27 In 1953 the Gazette praised him as ‘a practical man who believes in first hand knowledge of workers’ needs’, and gave him its front page to reprint his ministerial statement, ‘Railwaymen to Get a New Deal’.28 In turn, the ARU Industrial Group was given a ‘substantial’ donation in late 1952 by the ALP Central Executive, which was ‘a great boost to the Group’ and enabled the publication of its intermittently published News and Views.29 One issue, distributed at the time of the 1953 union elections, recreates the seemingly Manichean struggle between ALP and CPA candidates: ‘It is only the intervention of the rank and file led by the A.L.P. Group that frustrates complete Communist dictatorship in the A.R.U.’30 Similarly, the Gazette’s front page in July 1953 declared that Labor would not ‘yield an inch to the Communist campaign to smash the railway system and produce chaos in the rail service’.31 In the ARU, as in the wider labour movement in this period, much was at stake in union elections.

On Saturday, 13 June 1953, less than twelve hours after Turner was sacked, the Commonwealth Electoral Officer issued ballot papers for the union election. The ballot closed on Friday evening 26 June.32 Until that afternoon, Turner’s candidature was officially invalid since he was no longer a member of the union and therefore ineligible for office. However, following an application to the High Court, the Electoral Officer undertook to count votes cast for Turner. Not surprisingly, Turner lost. In fact, of the twelve candidates for State Council from the Rolling Stock Division, Turner, with 806 votes, came last.33 Most likely he would have polled poorly anyway: the Groupers wrested from communists (or ‘Unity’ candidates, as Turner was34 the positions of ARU state president (now Jim Neill), vice-president (Arthur Cook) and industrial officer (Ted Heagney). J.J. Brown (state secretary) narrowly survived – for another year – but the ALP Industrial Group now had the numbers on the ARU state council. A meeting of the new executive ‘deplored’ Turner’s efforts to link his sacking to the union elections, efforts in which he, and ‘other unsigned and unauthorized propaganda’, attacked members of the executive ‘for no other reason than to influence the current elections’.35

But was there a link between Turner’s communism and his dismissal? Circumstantial evidence suggests there was. In other words, a political dimension was present and thus Turner’s assertion, outlined in his letter, was not so fanciful. We could be more certain of this if the numerous inaccessible folios dealing with this case in Turner’s ASIO file were declassified. Until then all we have are suggestive scraps of evidence. One scrap is that there was no systematic interrogation or wholesale sacking of the many railway workers who rang in to notify the foreman of their absence from work due to sick wives on the same day as the mid-week race meeting or the day following pay day.36 In fact, the Railways Chief Commissioner knew of no case in which a railway employee had been dismissed in circumstances similar to Turner’s.37 It does seem reasonable to speculate that Turner was singled out because, as Inglis puts it, he was ‘an active, well-known Communist, rising in the union and successful as a propagandist and organiser’.38 Turner was not an ‘ordinary’ employee – and this was obvious to his opponents at the time. One Railways Commissioner regarded the employment of the double-degreed Turner at Dudley Street as ‘peculiar and anomalous’; another Commissioner alluded to this, with limp irony, when he stated that he ‘had not yet solved a riddle – Mr. Turner’s decision to take up carriage cleaning instead of law’.39 The Assistant Secretary of the ALP in Victoria, Frank McManus, was more blunt: ‘Some most unusual people were “planted” in the railways.’ Presumably, he had Turner in mind: ‘former full-time officials and operatives of the Communist Party were located in jobs at key rail centres…’.40 So Turner was already notable as a CPA cadre, albeit an incongruous one, in the Victorian railways.

More compelling evidence, but still circumstantial, is the fact that the Chief Commissioner for Railways, R.G. Wishart, admitted under cross-examination by Turner’s barrister, the formidable Maurice Ashkanazy QC, the existence of a ‘secret file’. This file, which Wishart stated was ‘quite a number of pages long’, contained lists that identified communists employed within the railways. It was supplied, Wishart stated, to the Commissioners and to the Minister for Transport. It would seem almost certain that it was compiled by ASIO in conjunction with investigation officers from the Railways Department. We know nothing more about this file since the Arbitration Court ‘decided that the contents should not be made available to Turner or his counsel’.41 Turner would have surely been named in this file. Indeed, Wishart acknowledged that he knew Turner was a communist prior to his dismissal. Conceivably, a copy of these lists are in Turner’s original ASIO file – in contrast to the National Archives copy with its dozens of removed folios. Thus, Turner was ‘known’ to the Railways Commissioners not just because of his ‘peculiar and anomalous’ position but also because he was a communist. That fact led Commissioner Wishart to discuss the question of Turner’s dismissal with the Minister ‘to see whether the Government would support the Commissioners in the event of industrial trouble’.42, So there may not have been a conspiracy but there certainly was collusion. Whilst Turner’s absence from work was connected to the holding of union elections, we cannot state authoritatively, as Turner was tempted to do, that the coincidence in timing between his sacking and the union ballot was deliberate. The Full Bench of the Arbitration Court (Justices Dunphy, Kirby and Morgan) saw no connection. It dismissed Turner’s appeal, decided unanimously in favour of the Commissioners and awarded costs against Turner.

This hearing was in late November 1953. By then Turner was about to commence what was, for him, a far more congenial prospect: secretary of the Australasian Book Society. In retrospect, therefore, he was ‘not sorry that [he] got the sack’.43While his ASIO file continued to grow, never again would he the subject of that extraordinary, almost visceral, radio broadcast with which this article began:

A few days ago a Communist car cleaner by the name of Ian TURNER was sacked by the Railways Commissioners…The dismissal of Comrade TURNER, reputedly a master of Communism, has brought a violent protest from fellow reds like Comrade [J.J.] BROWN and from other railway workers, who if they are not reds themselves, don’t have enough brains to think for themselves…If TURNER goes, BROWN loses an important link in his chain… Links that have been forged by Communist doctrine and marked so clearly made in Russia.

[W]e have been told that there is nothing political behind his dismissal. I for one am sorry that there is nothing political behind it. I would like to feel we at last had a government which is not afraid to push every known red out of the public service and out of any essential transport service and even industry itself. The only good Communist is a dead one….

The fact that these words came not from the pages of News-Weekly but from a mainstream radio broadcaster is indicative of the near-visceral hatred of communism that gripped large sections of Australian society in the early 1950s. This rhetoric – frequently exaggerated, sometimes apocalyptic, but usually sincere – underlay the activities of Santamaria’s Movement and the closely linked Industrial Groups that were fighting, and often defeating, Turner and other communists in the trade unions. It also echoed the slimy epithets that Joe McCarthy was then hurling and that were carried to Australia with the chilly winds of the Cold War. The fact, too, that Pacini’s vitriolic words concerned not prominent trade union leaders, such as Ernie Thornton or Jim Healey or Jack Hughes, but a communist of insignificance, industrially, and about whom most listeners would not have heard, suggests how comprehensive anti-communist propagandists believed their crusade must be. After all, this was a ‘conspiracy so immense’ that even small successes like the sacking of Ian Turner acquired importance.

Seen in this light, the story of Turner’s ‘industrial experience’ becomes more than a punctuation mark in a crowded life; it opens another small window into how the Cold War was fought on the industrial front in the early 1950s.


  1. Ian Turner, ‘My Long March’, Overland, No. 36: 1974, pp. 36-8.
  2. Gibson cited in Turner, p.36; Drew Cottle, ‘Ian Turner: Red Digger, Radical Historian’, in George Parsons (ed.), The “Old Left” and Australian History: Papers of the Seminar held at Macquarie University, December 1993 [Macquarie University, 1994], p.11; Herald (Melbourne), 13 June 1953, p. 1; The Guardian, 3 December 1953; Herald (Melbourne), 24 November 1953 (report of testimony to Arbitration Court).
  3. Leaflet contained within memorandum from Victorian Regional Director, ASIO, to Headquarters, ASIO, 12 January 1953, National Archives of Australia [henceforth NAA], A6119/2, 180, folio 50; Folder, ‘Victorian State Elections 1952’, Ian Turner collection, P2/2/3, Noel Butlin Archives Centre, ANU.
  4. Turner, p. 36.
  5. Amirah Inglis, The Hammer & Sickle and the Washing Up. Memories of an Australian Woman Communist, Melbourne: Hyland House, 1995, p. 108.
  6. See Phillip Deery, ‘The Dove Flies East: Whitehall, Warsaw and the 1950 World Peace Congress’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 48 (4), December 2002, pp. 449-68.
  7. Turner, p.36.
  8. Inglis, pp. 127, 134.
  9. Amirah Inglis is currently (2004) preparing Itzhak’s memoirs for publication. My uncle, Paul Vardy, and Itzhak were once close friends. Both were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, both joined the Movement Against War and Fascism in the 1930s, and both visited the Soviet Union- the effect of which was to disillusion the former and fortify the latter. See Amirah Inglis, Amirah. An un-Australian childhood, Melbourne: William Heinemann, 1983, pp.44, 69.
  10. See Fiona Capp, ‘Children of the Revolution’, The Age (Saturday Extra), 14 November 1987, p.1.
  11. Personal conversation, Bernie Taft, 12 March 2004. Unfortunately, I was unable to obtain permission to identify the source who informed me of Gust’s role and I have respected that wish for anonymity.
  12. This is confirmed by Turner’s account: ‘When I asked what I was to do next, there was a puzzled silence…They [the State Committee Secretariat] told me to go away while they thought about it’. Turner, p. 36.
  13. The Dudley Street workshop in particular leant towards the communist line. In 1953 it sent a congratulatory letter to the Premier of the Soviet Union, Georgi Malenkov, on the 36th anniversary of the Soviet Union. Guardian, 19 November 1953, p.7.
  14. Taft was then an Executive member of the Metropolitan Committee and Victorian State Committee. He became close friends with Turner and talked Turner out of resigning immediately from the Party in 1956. Personal conversation, Bernie Taft, 12 March 2004; John McLaren, Free Radicals. Of the Left in Postwar Melbourne, Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2003, p. 139.
  15. Turner, p.36.
  16. NAA: A6119/2, 180, folios 73-4.
  17. Coleman owned several hotels and listed as his recreations the distinctly non-working class pursuits (in the 1950s), tennis and golf. See Joseph A. Alexander (ed.), Who’s Who in Australia 1950, Melbourne: The Herald, 1950, p. 170
  18. Guardian, 18 June 1953, p.3; see also Guardian, 2 July 1953, p.3.
  19. Guardian, 2 July 1953, p.3. Argus, 14 June 1953; Age, 15 June 1953.
  20. This Section prohibited an employer from dismissing an employee who was a union delegate or union member engaged in union activities.
  21. Herald, 24 November 1953.
  22. According to Schmidt, he heard Turner ‘tell someone he was busy’ soon after Schmidt was told that Turner was taking leave because his wife was sick. Herald, 25 November 1953.
  23. Argus, 25 November 1953; Inglis, p.128.
  24. Herald, 24 November 1953.
  25. Inglis, p. 128 (emphasis added).
  26. See Robert Murray, The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties, Melbourne: Cheshire, 1970, pp. 238-9, 254-5; Paul Ormonde, The Movement, Melbourne: Thomas Nelson, 1972, p. 93. Coleman, the leader of the ALP in the Legislative Council, lost his seat (Melbourne West) – as did all rebel MPs with the exception of Frank Scully (Richmond) – in the 1955 state elections.
    Railways Union Gazette, No. 514, August 1953, p. 1; No. 517, November 1953, p. 1.
  27. Tom Rigg, The History of Victorian Railways A.L.P. Industrial Group 1945 to 1975, [Melbourne, 1997], no pagination.
  28. Ibid. For the vitriolic hatred towards communists in the ARU, see
    Railways Union Gazette, No. 509, March 1953, p.2 (‘Distortion of Union Principles’), and No. 510, April 1953, p.4 (‘Traitorous Attempt to Discredit State President’). Animosity was mutual: a mass meeting of Ballarat railway workers, for example, supported a CPA-moved resolution that condemned Coleman’s ‘link with Menzies’ Security snoopers’. Guardian, 9 July 1953.
  29. Railways Union Gazette, No. 513, July 1953, p.1.
  30. The Communist Party was panic-stricken: it believed, wrongly, that the ballot would be ‘faked’. ‘What then of this ballot, open for a fortnight to the mercy of the reaction – men who lie, slander, forge and commit all sorts of crimes in the name of anti-communism.’ Guardian, 4 July 1953, p.8.
  31. Ibid, p.3.
  32. See statement, signed by Turner, ‘Unity Candidates Joint Letter’,
    Railways Union Gazette, No. 509, March 1953, p.4.
  33. Railways Union Gazette, No. 513, July 1953, p.4.
  34. Herald, 24 November 1953 (statements by R.V. Monahan, QC).
  35. Guardian, 3 December 1953, p.6.
  36. Inglis, p. 129.
  37. Herald, 25 November 1953; Herald, 15 June 1953. Turner had graduated with a Bachelor of Law as well as a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Melbourne.
  38. Railways Union Gazette, No. 513, July 1953, p. 1. Bernie Taft confirmed that this was a CPA practice.
  39. Herald, 25 November 1953.
  40. Cited in Guardian, 3 December 1953, p.6.
  41. Turner, p. 38.