AUSTRALIAN HISTORY: by Gavan DuffyNews Weekly
The Labor Split - 50 years on
, April 9, 2005
Fifty years ago, the Australian Labor Party suffered the most catastrophic split in its history.
The then federal Labor leader, Dr H.V. Evatt, turned against and expelled from the party leaders of the ALP Industrial Groups which for years had successfully fought to save Australia's trade unions from control by the Communist Party.
The resulting split and the emergence of the Democratic Labor Party - formed by people expelled from the ALP - cost the Evatt-led Labor Party a large number of votes in subsequent elections.
For many years, the late B.A. (Bob) Santamaria's Catholic Social Studies Movement (CSSM), which had masterminded the Industrial Groups' strategy of combatting communism in the trade unions, was unjustly maligned for supposedly splitting Labor and keeping it out of office federally for 17 years.
Gavan Duffy's careful examination of the historical record shows that it was Dr Evatt and the ALP's left-wing which engineered the Split - something which leading Labor figures have gradually come to acknowledge.The first act in the drama, which eventually culminated in the 1955 Labor split, was a special press conference called by Dr Evatt in an obscure Sydney bookstore on October 5, 1954. At this conference, Evatt launched his now famous attack upon certain parliamentary Labor members whom he accused of being "disloyal to the Labor movement and to the Labor leadership", thus supposedly "deflecting the Labor movement" from the pursuit of what he described as "established Labor objectives and ideals".
He accused the Catholic Social Studies Movement - founded and led by the late Bob Santamaria - as being the director of this group of dissidents and said that the Movement's journal, News Weekly
, was its organ.The Industrial Groups' achievements
Evatt's attack caused widespread consternation among the Labor Party rank and file for whom the successes of the Industrial Groups in the fight against communism was a source of considerable pride.
During World War II, the Communist Party - a numerically small, but tightly disciplined body, obedient to Moscow - came close to taking over Australia's trade union movement and, through it, the Labor Party.
In 1945, the communists had won effective control, with 40 per cent of the votes, of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Congress at Sydney.
By the end of 1953, however, the Industrial Groups - fully supported by Labor's leadership - had defeated the communists in union after union - notably in the powerful Federated Clerks Union, the Federated Ironworkers' Association, the Australian Railways Union and many others - and had thus saved the ALP from becoming an ideological prisoner of the Communist Party.
B.A. Santamaria's Movement had acted as a logistical support group for the Industrial Groups by providing manpower, mostly as canvassers and doorknockers, legal advice and candidates in trade union ballots.
What, then, prompted Evatt's outburst against Santamaria and the Movement in October 1954?
Former Labor leader and Governor-General, Bill Hayden, says in his autobiography that, after Labor's loss of the May 1954 federal election, "Evatt was in deep trouble within the Party at the time he precipitated 'the Split' and it was all his own work.
"His unilateral inclusion in the 1954 election policy speech of a number of uncosted, extravagant and distributively regressive promises provoked a justifiable outrage on the part of many caucus members.
"A little later, before the Royal Commission into Espionage that followed the defection of a Soviet MVD and his wife in Australia, the Petrovs, Evatt's strange behaviour left many wondering whether there was evidence of some symptom in his behaviour of an intellectually corrosive disability."
The Petrov Royal Commission into Espionage had implicated members of Evatt's personal staff in covert activities with staff of the Soviet Embassy in Canberra and with Rupert Lockwood, a journalist and prominent member of the Communist Party.
There is now evidence, revealed in this writer's book Demons and Democrats
, that one of Evatt's press secretaries, Fergan O'Sullivan, was passing information from Evatt's office to the Communist Party's Sydney office on a daily basis and may even have been a member of the Communist Party himself.
Political commentator, Gerard Henderson, in an article in the Brisbane Courier-Mail
(August 24, 1998), has stated that, thanks to the research of people like Desmond Ball, David Horner and David McKnight, there was now irrefutable evidence that there had been a Soviet spy ring in Australia in the 1950s and that it had contact with Dr Evatt's office.
Evatt, however, defended his staff and accused the then Prime Minister Robert Menzies of having unscrupulously manipulated the timing of the Petrov defections to win the May 1954 election.
Evatt insisted on appearing before the subsequent Petrov Royal Commission until the judge-commissioners terminated his leave to appear because of his outlandish and unfounded accusations about the circumstances surrounding the Petrov defections. That was in September 1954, just before the storm was to break.
What was Evatt's frame of mind at this juncture?
Colourful New South Wales federal Labor parliamentarian and former Whitlam Government minister, Fred Daly, said in his autobiography that Evatt at this time was a desperate man and that his attack on the Industrial Groups and the Movement was a diversionary tactic to take people's minds away from his own shortcomings and problems, such as difficulties with the Petrov Royal Commission, the recent election loss, and other internal party problems.
Jack Kane, a one-time New South Wales state secretary of the ALP and later a DLP senator, said that when it became clear to Evatt that he had forfeited the support of the Industrial Group supporters by his conspiracy-driven behaviour over Petrov, he saw one path left to him - to turn savagely on the Groups and the Movement and to drive them by a violent sectarian campaign out of the Labor Party.
Kane said that the vacuum created by the Right's expulsion would inevitably be filled by the pro-communist Left; but this was of no concern to Evatt and his supporters. To them, even should such an event occur, Evatt's leadership would be preserved, at least in the immediate future. This tactic, Evatt fondly hoped, would ultimately reward him with the prime ministership.
It also became evident that Evatt's and the Labor Left's strategy was aimed at arousing the latent anti-Catholic sentiment present, at that time, in Australian society, and directing it, mixed with copious amounts of innuendo and untruths, against the Movement.
It was grubby stuff, but, from the point of view of Evatt and the Left, highly effective. The hypocrisy of Evatt's attack upon the Movement and Bob Santamaria is evident from the fact that it was the ALP leadership itself which had originally sought the assistance of Santamaria when it became obvious to them that the Communist Party was posing a real threat to the integrity of the ALP.Rigging the numbers
Up until this point, Evatt and his supporters had acted within the rules of the ALP. But now Evatt discovered that he had a problem: he did not have the numbers either within the Victorian ALP or in the supreme governing body of the ALP, the national conference.
He did however have the numbers by 7-5 on the federal executive. Accordingly, he utilised this majority in a manner contrary to the rules of the ALP to dismiss the Victorian executive - which had been democratically elected at the annual state conference in 1954 - and to arrange for a new state executive to be elected at a special conference to be held on the February 27, 1955.
To get the necessary numbers at the special Victorian conference, the federal executive, in clear disregard of the party rules, decided in effect that union delegates to the ALP federal conference need not be members of the Labor Party.
The federal executive further decided that unions which had been disaffiliated during the Industrial Groups' heyday - most of them being unions under the control of the communists or the extreme Left - could re-affiliate and send delegates to the conference.
By these means, the federal executive circumvented democratic processes for the election of conference delegates while giving the appearance that everything was above board.
In a further step, to deprive the Victorian executive of its right of appeal to the party's federal conference, the federal executive postponed the scheduled forthcoming federal conference from January 17 to March 14, 1955, so that it took place after the special Victorian conference called for February 27.
The Victorian state executive elected at the 1954 conference declared the special conference called by the federal executive for February 27 to be "bogus" - which, according to the rules of the Labor Party, it clearly was.
(Ultimately, the legal position of the rival executives was determined by the Supreme Court of Victoria in a case involving the ownership of certain trust funds. In a judgement brought down in October 1960, the Supreme Court found in favour of the 1954 executive. As a result of this case, various properties and moneys were deemed to be in the ownership of the ALP Anti-Communist, later to become the Democratic Labor Party.)
When the postponed federal conference convened in Hobart on March 14, there were two opposing groups of Victorian delegates, each claiming to represent the party's Victorian branch.
The first group, led by Jack Horan and Frank McManus, was the one elected at the party's 1954 state conference. The second group, led by Vic Stout and Pat Kennelly, was the one elected at the special state conference held on February 27 at the instigation of the federal executive at which members of various trade unions who were not members of the Labor Party were allowed to attend and vote.
The Queensland and New South Wales delegates fell in behind the Victorian delegates elected at the 1954 state conference.
What should subsequently have occurred was that all Victorian delegates be stood aside until such time as conference had decided whose credentials would be accepted.
That is not what occurred. Once more, the rules of the party were breached by Evatt's forces. On the initiative of the party's federal vice-president Clyde Cameron and the powerful Western Australian state secretary F.E. (Joe) Chamberlain, a motion was put before the ALP's federal executive on the day before the federal conference was due to meet, designating the six delegates from the February 27 special Victorian conference to be the Victorian delegates to the federal conference.
This decision was clearly in breach of the party rules, as the credentialing of all delegates to the federal conference was a matter for the federal conference and not the federal executive.
Clyde Cameron, when interviewed by the present writer in 1999, acknowledged that the federal executive's decision in respect of the credentialing of delegates was highly irregular.
Bill Hayden, has described Cameron's action as a gross and blatant violation of party rules, usurping the national conference's supreme authority over all other organs of the party.
Paradoxically enough, Clyde Cameron - who in later years formed a real friendship with, and an admiration for Santamaria - has largely accepted Hayden's view of the federal executive's action. In his political memoirs, he said:
"The only way to save ourselves from defeat, I realised, would be to arrange for the federal executive to make the decision before the conference met. It was highly irregular for the Federal Executive to be deciding a matter that properly belonged to the conference, but when you are in a war, fighting for survival, you cannot afford to be worried about technicalities."
As Santamaria was later to remark caustically, "Technicalities is a neat word to describe illegalities."
On Tuesday morning, March 15, two rival conferences met in Hobart. At the originally designated conference venue, namely the Tasmanian Trades Hall Conference Room, were delegates from Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia and the six Victorian delegates elected from the 1954 Victorian State Conference.
Nearby, located at Trinity Hall, North Hobart, were the six delegates elected by the February 27 special Victorian conference, which had been illegally convened by the federal executive, and 13 constitutionally-elected delegates from other states.
This meant, in effect, that the anti-Evatt group had 17 delegates whose credentials were not in dispute, as against Evatt's 13. At this stage, Queensland's then Labor Premier Vince Gair and the NSW ALP state secretary Jack Kane suggested that, as the 13 constitutionally-elected delegates and the six Evatt-supporting delegates from Victoria were now meeting at the Trinity Hall, the 17 delegates whose credentials were not in dispute, who were located at the Trades Hall conference room, should open the conference and admit the six legitimate Victorian delegates led by Jack Horan and Frank McManus.
There thus would have been two Hobart conferences, one at the Trades Hall with 23 delegates, and the other at Trinity Hall with 19. Had this strategy been proceeded with, it is possible that the outcome of the conference and the course of the Labor split would have been entirely different.
From the public's viewpoint, the Trinity Hall conference with 19 delegates may well have been seen as a rump conference. This would have left Evatt relying on minority support from delegations from Victoria, Queensland and NSW and with divided support from those of smaller states. With such limited support, Evatt would eventually have been replaced as leader by Arthur Calwell and the split may well have been avoided.Split spreads
As things turned out, the weakness in the anti-Evatt camp was the Queensland Treasurer, Ned Walsh. Walsh would not have a bar of Gair and Kane's strategy, and indicated that he would leave the Trades Hall conference and sit in the Trinity Hall conference if they proceeded.
Clyde Cameron later admitted that, had Gair's and Kane's plan been followed, it is possible that Labor's traditional voters would have seen the Trinity Hall group as the breakaway party. Cameron said however that he was able to persuade Ned Walsh to sabotage Gair and Kane's proposal.
It is interesting that when, two years later, the Labor split spread to Queensland, Walsh joined Gair and the Queensland Labor cabinet (with the sole exception of Jack Duggan) in forming the Queensland Labor Party.
The conference sitting at Trinity Hall went on to pass motions disbanding the Industrial Groups throughout Australia and adopting a series of foreign policy initiatives, the most notable of which were recognition of Communist China and the pledge that no Australian troops would be used for counter-insurgency operations against communist guerrillas in Malaya.
Most of these motions were indistinguishable from those of the Communist Party.
The disbanding of the Industrial Groups - the only effective obstacle to a left-wing take-over of the Labor Party machine - was to have far-reaching, long-term effect on Labor. By the end of 1957 the ALP had split across Australia, resulting in disastrous political fall-out for the party. It was to be 17 years before Labor again graced the Treasury benches in Canberra. In all states, Labor struggled to attain government.
Parallel with the axing of the Industrial Groups was the axing of Santamaria's Catholic Social Studies Movement by a section of the Australian Catholic hierarchy. Until 1955, the hierarchy had strongly supported the ALP Industrial Groups' fight against communist power in the unions.
But in New South Wales, where the Catholic Church was hoping to secure state aid for Catholic schooling from the Cahill Labor Government, Cardinal Norman Gilroy and Bishop James Carroll sought to frustrate and destroy the Movement. They refused to stand by the more than 50 Labor, mainly Catholic, parliamentarians who had sacrificed safe seats in federal and state parliaments, even ministries, rather than go along with Evatt's accommodation of the far Left in the Labor Party. This subsequently led to a deep distrust of the Church hierarchy by many Catholic politicians.
Clyde Cameron himself played a part in splitting the Catholic hierarchy when he warned the Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide, Matthew Beovich, that if the bishops continued to support the Industrial Groups, the Catholic Church itself would suffer a sectarian backlash.What Labor lost
During their heyday, the Industrial Groups - contrary to Evatt's suspicions - had never undermined the Labor Party. On the contrary, in the five years before the Split, the party had enjoyed a remarkable turnaround in its fortunes:
- Labor increased the number of seats it held in the House of Representatives and exceeded the Liberal-Country Party vote in the Senate.
- In December 1952, Labor for the first time had won a majority in the Victorian Legislative Assembly and was able to form a government in its own right - the John Cain (Snr) Labor Government.
Had the 1955 split not occurred, a united Labor Party - enjoying 80 per cent of the vote that subsequently went to the breakaway Democratic Labor Party (DLP) - would have likely won every federal election from 1955 until the 1970s.
Bill Hayden has said of Dr Evatt that he "was the cause of Labor's greatest and longest-running disasters, and he should be held accountable for that."
After the split, the DLP adopted a strategy, known as "the Roadblock", by which it withheld votes and preferences from Labor as a bargaining weapon to force the ALP to reverse it political accommodation of the extreme left. This objective came surprisingly close to being realised in 1966 when two of Labor's federal parliamentary leaders, Senators Nick McKenna and Pat Kennelly, conducted unofficial discussions with the DLP to effect a rapprochement. However, these were vetoed by Evatt's successor, Arthur Calwell.Labor's loss of direction
The real effect of the split, however, was that it changed the character of the ALP forever. It ceased to be, and has never again become, the party that it was under such great Labor leaders as Curtin and Chifley. Although no longer run by left-wing ideologues, it is now run by pragmatic machine politicians.
Like its conservative counterparts, the ALP has uncritically accepted the philosophy of economic rationalism and globalism which has witnessed the concentration of economic power in the hands of a few to the detriment of the many.
The ALP has deserted its traditional roots, much to the disgust of traditional labour men and women such as former federal treasurer, John Dawkins, who lamented in the Australian Financial Review
(July 15, 1994) that the Business Council of Australia was the dominant influence on Labor's reform agenda during the previous decade at the expense of other employer groups and the party's traditional union supporters.
It is ironical that there are some, who are considered on the left of the trade union movement, who today are expressing concerns about the impact of economic rationalist policies on employment and industry, and the issue of fair trade versus free trade, in language reminiscent of the late Bob Santamaria.
In a generous eulogy which Mr Cameron wrote on Santamaria's death (News Weekly
, March 21, 1998), he said: "I often wondered whether members of the Hawke-Keating 'Labor' Governments often suffered qualms of guilt as they read Bob Santamaria's articles reminding readers of the quite different principles which had been followed by Labor leaders like Ben Chifley."
- Gavan Duffy is a retired Queensland lawyer and author of Demons and Democrats: 1950s Labor at the Crossroads (Freedom Publishing). RRP: $27.95