AUSTRALIAN HISTORY: by Patrick MorganNews Weekly
New perspectives on the 1955 Labor split
, March 29, 2014
This year is the 60th anniversary of the great Split in the Australian Labor Party. At a conference held on the 50th anniversary, mainly by opponents of Mr B.A. “Bob” Santamaria, little new was revealed. But, since the release of Mr Santamaria’s papers, new avenues of interest have opened up which throw some fresh light on this much-debated event, and on the Movement in general.
B.A. “Bob” Santamaria (1915-1998)
Dr Mannix’s early Australian political activities
From 1914, Dr Daniel Mannix, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, used the newly formed Australian Catholic Federation (ACF), a Catholic Action pressure group, to promote his public agenda on state funding for Catholic schools and other issues. After being rejected by the then Victorian Liberal premier, the ACF took its list of policies to the Labor Party, which did not agree and eventually proscribed the ACF.
The ACF promptly set up a new body, the Catholic Workers Association (CWA), which consisted of Catholic trade unionists and members of the Labor Party (the same membership as the later Movement) in order to strongly influence the Labor Party from inside. This effort, directed by Mannix, was unsuccessful, but was a precedent for his and Santamaria’s later actions in directing the Movement.
The accepted account of the founding of the Movement in 1941 has been that Bob Santamaria provided the initial idea and strategy, and that Dr Mannix played a supporting role in providing financial and pastoral/spiritual support.
But knowledge of his early political activities suggests that Mannix may have had a more direct role in its strategy than previously thought. He was at this stage a very experienced political operator and Bob Santamaria an untried 26-year-old.
At the time the Movement was founded in August 1941, it was claimed in federal parliament that Catholic Action and some unions were being financially supported by the government’s secret intelligence body because of worry about disruptive communist activity in the unions during the wartime emergency. This suggests that the Movement’s inception may have involved larger forces than Bob Santamaria’s organisation.
The Movement’s founding in August 1941 coincided precisely with the fall of Robert Menzies as Prime Minister and the coming of John Curtin’s ALP government. Santamaria may have seen the advent of a federal Labor government as an opportune time to begin his fightback against communist union domination.
As a Catholic and a person of recent Italian descent, Santamaria closely followed post-war political events in Italy and the Catholic Church’s role in them.
The ruling Christian Democratic Party (CDP), which derived from an earlier church party, was threatened by a resurgent Communist Party. In elections from 1948 onwards the Christian Democrats needed the active support of the church to maximise their vote in closely fought polls.
Direct church involvement in politics was not allowed under the Italian Constitution. However, Catholic Action set up bodies of prominent local people, called civic committees, in all towns. These successfully got out the CDP vote, though they were at arms’ length from the CDP.
Australian seminarians studying in Rome kept Santamaria informed of these developments. Santamaria, who was head of Catholic Action in Australia, saw the possibility of applying similar tactics in Australia. He made semi-formal approaches to Catholic officials in Rome to get Vatican backing for his plans, but approval was not forthcoming. When the Movement was dissolved after the Split, he called its successor body the National Civic Council, on the lines of the Italian civic committees.
The 1954-5 Split is usually seen as an intra-party squabble, an internal struggle between the left and right factions within the Labor Party and the unions. But wider forces were involved.
From the start the Movement had links with Australia’s intelligence organisations. In the 1940s, the Movement and the Commonwealth Investigation Service (CIS) worked so closely that they had a member in each other’s office.
This was understandable, as the CIS needed information on the communists’ increasing control of important transport, mining and waterfront unions, and Santamaria was the best informed person on this subject. A key link-man was Paul McGuire, who had set up a Catholic Action body in South Australia, and was a member of Naval Intelligence during the war.
In the 1950s before the Split, key members of the post-war Menzies government had a keen interest in supporting counter-communist operations in the unions. The External Affairs Minister Richard Casey was in touch with Santamaria, as was Paul McGuire, now employed as an advisor on Menzies’ staff, with a brief to advise on Catholic affairs, and to liaise with the Movement through Bob Santamaria.
These outside groups had a clear political interest in encouraging Santamaria’s activities within the Labor Party and the broader Labor movement.
It is generally agreed that the Split was caused, depending on your allegiance, by federal Labor leader Dr H.V. “Doc” Evatt or Bob Santamaria, or perhaps by both.
But there is a third candidate for the role of instigator. A group of Sydney Catholics led by Jim Ormonde, who were involved in Labor politics, deeply disagreed with Santamaria, the Movement and its tactics.
Throughout the early years of the 1950s they worked in conjunction with the local Catholic Bishop James Carroll to oppose the Movement by briefing journalists, politicians and church figures, and encouraging them to publicly denounce the Movement.
Eventually after the 1954 federal election, when Labor was defeated and Dr Evatt’s position was precarious, Ormonde utilised the material on the Movement’s role in Labor politics which had been on offer for some time, with disastrous results for both sides. He was awarded a NSW Labor Senate position for his work.
Until comparatively recently, discussion on the Movement centred on its activities within Australia. What was little known was that from the early 1950s Bob Santamaria set up an equivalent body in Asia. It aimed to coordinate and lead the various disparate bodies which had begun the struggle against communism in Asia.
Many of these were connected with the Catholic Church, in particular the Jesuits. Santamaria tried to get official church approval for his Movement in Asia, but because of the controversy surrounding the Movement after the 1954-5 Split, which was damaging to the Australian Catholic Church, this recognition was not forthcoming.
Santamaria set up a body, the Pacific Institute, based first in Saigon and later in Manila, to coordinate these activities. Colonel Ted Serong, a counter-insurgency expert, was a leading figure, and Frank Mount, a Melbourne Santamaria associate, its permanent official. A DLP-type party was set up in South Vietnam to provide a political base for President Nguyen Van Thieu there.
Frank Mount recently published a book-length account of the Asian Movement, called Wrestling With Asia: A Memoir.
Patrick Morgan edited two volumes of B.A. Santamaria’s papers, Your Most Obedient Servant: Selected Letters, 1938-1996 (2007) and Running the Show: Selected Documents, 1939-1996 (2008) and wrote Melbourne Before Mannix: Catholics in Public Life 1880-1920 (2012). He reviewed Frank Mount’s book, Wrestling With Asia: A Memoir, in News Weekly (September 1, 2012).