Australia: Red councillors during the Cold War: Communists on Sydney City Council, 1953-59


 Sydney Town Hall in the 1950s.

Recent electoral victories in Australia by socialists at the municipal council level -- the Socialist Party's Stephen Jolly in Victoria and Socialist Alliance's Sam Wainwright in Western Australia -- have sparked renewed interest in the experiences of other socialists who have been elected to such bodies. With permission of the Rough Reds Collective, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal is publishing Beverley Symons' paper that examines the example of Communist Party of Australia members elected to the Sydney City Council in the 1950s. This article first appeared in the 2003 book A Few Rough Reds, published by the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Canberra Region Branch. The book is available online at

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By Beverley Symons

As is well known, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) was represented in an Australian parliament only once, by Fred Paterson in the Queensland state seat of Bowen from 1944-50. However, the party's electoral successes in local government have attracted little historical attention. As far as I know, the only published material outside the communist press were two articles in 1985 and 1986 examining the CPA's 1944 victory in winning five of the eight seats on the Kearsley Shire Council in the northern New South Wales coalfields.

During a period of over 30 years, CPA councillors held office in numerous city and municipal councils in several states. The first, Fred Paterson and Jim Henderson, were elected in April 1939 to the Townsville City Council and Wangaratta Shire Council respectively; and the last -- Bill Flynn and Bill Whiley, who were on Broken Hill Council for 21 and 12 years -- were defeated in October 1974. Subsequently, some Communist Party members have been elected to councils -- such as Jack Mundey and Brian McGahen to the Sydney City Council in 1984 -- however, they stood as community independents and not for the CPA.

Of comparable significance to the Kearsley wartime victory is that, throughout the Cold War 1950s with its prevailing anti-communism, the party continued to achieve electoral successes in local government.

In the NSW municipal elections in December 1953, eight CPA candidates were elected -- two to the Sydney City Council, one to outer-suburban Penrith Council and five to the country councils of Lithgow, Cessnock, Lake Macquarie, Broken Hill and Binnaway. Three of these councillors served only one term, two served for six years, two for eight or nine years and one for 21 years. This paper examines the experiences of the two communists elected to the Sydney City Council for the first time, Tom Wright and Ron Maxwell.

At the time of their election, Wright, 51, was NSW secretary and federal president of the Sheet Metal Workers’ Union and had led the NSW branch for 17 years. He was the CPA’s general secretary for four years in the 1920s and since then, had continued to be a leading member of its central committee. Maxwell, 42, a waterside worker, was a senior vice-president of the Waterside Workers’ Federation, Sydney Branch and had been a party member for 10 years.

Given that the 1953 municipal elections occurred only two years after the CPA had narrowly escaped being declared illegal, it seems pretty remarkable that it was able to break through the anti-communist barriers and gain entry to the aldermen's chambers in the Sydney City Council.

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Read the remainder of the article on screen below, or click HERE to download the article in PDF format.

[Beverley Symons was a Communist Party of Australia member for 20 years, from 1970 until the CPA's dissolution in 1991, and on its national committee in the 1980s. She was a peace movement activist and a full-time worker for the Vietnam Moratorium Movement. In the 1990s, she was president then secretary of the Sydney Branch of the Labour History Society. In 1998 she gained her PhD in Australian History from the University of Wollongong, and is now retired in Newcastle where she is an active Greens member.]

Links-Red Councillors during the Cold War: Communists on the Sydney City Council, 1953-59-Beverley Symons