by Frank ScullyNews Weekly
1955 LABOR PARTY SPLIT: The Great Labor Split remembered
, May 7, 2005
Fifty years ago, the Australian Labor Party split caused the defeat of Labor governments in several states, and kept the Labor Party out of power federally until the 1970s. Frank Scully, at the time Cabinet Secretary in the Victorian Labor Government, gave the opening address at a conference held in the Victorian Parliament to commemorate the event. This is an edited version of his paper.Thank you for your invitation to participate in this conference on the Great Labor Split of 1955 and its consequences.
Over the 50 years since the split, much has been written and many books have been published on the subject. A great deal of this material has been produced by people who were not even born when the split took place. As they did not have any first hand or personal knowledge of the split, they have had to depend on other sources for their material.
Sadly much of this material has been flawed and inaccurate, particularly if it was obtained from sources or individuals who had a vested interest in supporting or continuing the split - for example, those who won seats in Parliament, or positions of profit which they would never have secured without the split.
One of the errors repeated over and over by Evatt supporters was that the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) split the Labor Party. This was untrue. In fact it was impossible because the DLP did not exist when the split occurred. The DLP came into existence after and as a consequence of the split.
What then is the truth about the split? Who caused it and how was it done?
The answers to these questions come from the former federal leader of the Labor Party and our former Australian Governor-General, Bill Hayden. In his Autobiography
, Hayden said:
"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 justifiable outrage on the part of many Caucus members.
"A little later, before the Petrov Royal Commission into Espionage ... Evatt's strange behaviour left many wondering whether there was evidence of some symptom in his behaviour of an intellectually corrosive disability.
"His letter to the Foreign Minister of the USSR, inquiring whether the Soviet Union really did have spies in Australia and his acceptance of Molotov's reassuring denial, exposed him to widespread ridicule." (Page 83)
Mr Hayden stated: "Evatt was the cause of one of Labor's greatest and longest running disasters and he should be held accountable for that." (Page 91)
He added, "There was a National Executive inquiry into Evatt's rather thin and poorly substantiated allegations. Evatt's allegations were unsubstantiated."
Hayden also said, "I am quite convinced that the degree of influence available to and the level of encroachment achieved by the Movement were much exaggerated, sometimes by those with a sectarian motive for doing this." (Page 79)
Hayden's views were supported by Jim McClelland, a former Labor Minister, in an ABC television Lateline
interview with Maxine McKew in 1997. In a report of the interview McClelland said, "I finished up totally disenchanted with Evatt. He caused a lot of travail in this country. He caused Labor to have no chance of winning office for 20 years."
Now, how did Evatt cause the 1955 split?
In October 1954, Dr Evatt launched a public attack on the Victorian branch of the ALP alleging outside influences were at work in Victoria that were detrimental to the party.
Now, what was the condition of the Labor Party in Victoria at the time Evatt launched his attack?
The Victorian Branch of the ALP was the strongest in its history. In the Legislative Assembly in Victoria the Labor Party held the greatest number of seats in its history as it did in the Victorian Legislative Council. Further, the Labor Party had the greatest number of trade unions affiliated and financial in its history.
It should be noted also that Labor membership, which peaked during the Chifley era at 51,000, increased to 61,000 after the establishment of the ALP Industrial Groups. Further, to be a member of an ALP Industrial Group, one also had to be a financial member of the Labor Party. Outsiders could not become ALP Industrial Group members or have any part in their deliberations.
In view of this great record, how did Dr Evatt get support to hold his position?
Bill Hayden has commented: "The remarkable thing is that, for having left a legacy of political ruin and desolation where he was supposed to have created a government, he [Evatt] became canonised as another martyred hero of Labor and an enduring party icon." (Page 80).
Evatt had a threefold plan. He felt that if he could combine the support of firstly the left-wing elements and secondly dissident elements who had stood on communist tickets in union elections and been defeated by ALP Industrial Group candidates, and thirdly by the launching of the sectarian campaign, he could win - and he did.
Evatt's chief private secretary, Alan Dalziel, who knew Evatt better than anyone else, wrote in his book Evatt the Enigma
, "Dr Evatt deliberately chose to precipitate the great sectarian split in the ALP." (Page 143)
Let me tell you of a personal experience which I had that supports Alan Dalziel's comment.
At the time of the split, I was a member of the central executive of the Victorian ALP. I was also a minister in the Labor Government. I was Cabinet Secretary. In this position I was in regular contact with a number of ALP federal officers. I met Jack Schmella, Federal Secretary of the Labor Party, on the steps of Parliament House in Melbourne.
I said to him, "Jack, what are you really down here for?" He replied, "We are going to cut back the Catholic influence in the Labor Party."
I asked him how they were going to do that. He said, "We will sack McManus, Keon, Mullens, Bourke and a couple of others." I told him that if they did that they would destroy the Labor Party. They proceeded to do as he threatened.
Now, as you know, if you carve the heart out of an individual or an organisation, it dies. Sadly the Labor Party never recovered from the split Evatt caused.
Perhaps the strongest comment on the state of the party after the split came from Kim Beasley Senior who, in a statement quoted in the Bulletin
, said, "When I first went as a young man to the ALP forums, those present were the cream of the working class, while now, those there in many cases represent the dregs of the middle class". (The Bulletin
, October 2, 1979.)
Fifty years on, what do we see? Today we see the sad spectacle of Labor spokesmen being reported in the Herald Sun
as saying that the Labor Party was academic.
We see the sad spectacle of the Labor Party divided by factions, with public demonstrations by members against Labor branch-stacking, with public complaints by members of preselection irregularities and allegations of corruption in the Party - a legacy of the Labor split of 1955 caused by Dr Evatt.