by John BarichNews Weekly
1955 LABOR PARTY SPLIT: Conference marks 50th anniversary of Split
, May 7, 2005
Over 100 academics and former politicians and trade unionists attended a two-day conference, held at Parliament House, Melbourne, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1955 Australian Labor Party split, reports John Barich.Over 100 academics and former politicians and trade unionists attended a two-day conference, held at Parliament House, Melbourne, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1955 Labor Party split.
The conference was organised by the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University and the Melbourne Branch of the Society for the Study of Labour History.
Those attending heard 22 papers delivered, watched an hour-long documentary and witnessed former Victorian Premier John Cain (Jnr) officially launch a book called The Great Labor Schism
consisting of most of the conference papers.
The book's editors were also the organisers of the conference and they went to some pains to ensure a balanced discussion of the 1955 split.
They invited both sides of the dispute to contribute. Representing the defeated anti-communist Industrial Groups was Frank Scully, a key participant in the Split, who gave one of the two opening addresses.
Representing the National Civic Council (the organisation founded by the late B.A. Santamaria) was Anthony Cappello, manager of Freedom Publishing Company, who gave a well-received paper on the racist and sectarian prejudices present in some sections of the ALP.
The documentary devoted much time to Santamaria, and many of the questions after each papers came from a Movement perspective.
Those presenting papers were restricted to only 15 minutes' speaking time which somewhat restricted their opportunity to present their arguments fully.
Most speakers speculated on how things might have turned out differently. What would have happened if Labor's right-wing faction had not boycotted the federally-convened Victorian State Conference? As the right-wing had a 7-5 majority on the Federal Executive, could Kim Beazley (Snr)'s replacement by left-winger Harry Webb have been averted? Apparently not, as the WA State Executive under the control of F.E. Chamberlain decided Kim Beazley's replacement.
B.A. Santamaria was subjected to considerable personal invective, ranging from allegations that he wanted to take over Australia for the Catholics (Race Matthews and Bob Corcoran), to claims that he did not believe in democracy and was opposed to the thinking of Jacques Maritain (Bruce Duncan and Michael Sexton).Spurious allegation
The first allegation is spurious because of the sheer magnitude of the task. How could a few hundred, or even thousands of, Catholic Social Studies Movement people first dominate a nationwide ALP and then hope to win government? Even if this had miraculously occurred, would not the secularists in the ALP soon be voting Liberal to remove the Santamaria forces from government?
Evidence presented by some of the conference speakers demonstrated that the secularists in both the major parties were united in their opposition to the Movement. John Roskam showed that Liberal Party state secretaries sympathised with Dr Evatt and those ALP members under Movement attack.
The second charge is not entirely true in so far as Maritain recognised the congenital weakness of democracy in failing to achieve a decisive consensus early enough and then act on a sustained basis until victory.
Santamaria endorsed Maritain's call for the establishment of "prophetic shock minorities" who would pursue policies which were initially unpopular but then, when endorsed by the general community, would be pursued until ultimate success was achieved.
A collateral claim that Maritain embraced the religious and political pluralism of the Second Vatican Council while Santamaria rejected it is a misreading of the Second Vatican Council.
Santamaria's epic struggle against communism was aimed at neutralising its impact on Australian society and exposing its real agenda, thus making it less attractive, especially for lapsed Christians who proliferated in the Communist Party and the hard-left of politics.
Robert Murray, author of the authoritative The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties
(1970), identified a little-known catalyst to the 1950s struggle between the left- and right-wing factions of the ALP. In 1954, Clement Attlee, Britain's postwar Labour Prime Minister (1945-51), addressed the federal ALP caucus about his recent trip to communist China. He downplayed the nature of Chinese communism, which infuriated the ALP's right wing.
Anthony Cappello's paper analysed the irrational response to a Movement proposal for settling Italian migrants - who of course were Catholic - on small farms with the support of the Italian Government.
Conference delegates generally agreed that large sections of the ALP in that era were redolent with xenophobia and sectarianism, which prompted the heated political reaction to this modest proposal.
Former Victorian premier John Cain (Jnr) instanced that, in his state, it took until the 1970s for a Catholic, Pauline Toner, to be able to be preselected for a winnable seat.
- John Barich is a Western Australian who attended the conference.