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A History of Labor Splits

Sir Robert Menzies, Joseph Lyons and H V 'Doc' Evatt.

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This is the edited text of a talk given by Mr. Robert Murray, author of The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties, in South Melbourne on the 23rd of July 2003.

Labor's Contending Tribes I am indebted to a recent issue of Social Action with which many of you are familiar, for a good introduction to the subject of splits in the Australian Labor Party (ALP). The May 2003 issue has an article on Labor's Contending Tribes, which explains that there are not only left and right wings, but divisions inside these and numerous variations between the states and in the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.All footnotes by PWHCE editor Trevor Stanley.
This has been a fairly common pattern throughout the past 100 years, though the factions have been more highly organised since 1970. As the current state of the party shows, the pattern can often be quite intricate - so much so that most people don't want to understand it. They might take an interest in public divisions in the parliamentary party and even the organisational wing, but if the background is explained to them they are likely to grimace and shrug, 'Oh, the unions and all that!' and lose interest.
I would like to list a number of what might be called permanent interests within the ALP and broad labour movement, which have been there from the start. The intricate interplay of all these is the essence of internal labour politics. These interests overlap. The essential rule for getting ahead is that you don't insult any of them if you might want their vote.
These interests are:
1. The Left Wing Unions.
Few of you will need these to be defined for you. These unions usually have some basis in marxist ideology, are the most industrially militant and are the most gung-ho in humanitarian-type causes. Many have had this character for generations - sometimes it runs in family groups. The nature of particular industries also affects militancy. They tend to be tribal and stick together - with some notable exceptions.
From the later 1930s to the 1960s the Communist Party or parties had influence, often to the point of domination, in them, but it faded rapidly after about 1970. Communist control made them more muscular than they were before and after that period. It expanded their numbers and it created many problems for both the rest of the labour movement and for Australian society. But it didn't radically change their character, where the previous controllers had been left in the usual sense. They were still recognisably Australian left wing unions before and after the communist parties.
2. The Right Wing Unions.
I will call them that, though many would not appreciate the label. These are usually more moderate industrially - though it is usually more a question of degree. Indistrial differences are not fundamental and depend more on the industry involved than on ideology. The moderate unions are usually more sympathetic to and interested in the problems of the labor parliamentary wings. Their internal political ambience is nearer that of the average Australian. They do not get so stirred up over things like, for example, the refugees and the war in Iraq. They are more accepting of causes like the Catholic view of life, on the other hand. And they are less defensive, tribal and cohesive than the left.
Inside the moderate group, the Australian Workers Union (AWU) is something of a colossus and often runs its own race. This was as true in its old, rurally-based phase, as it has been since the amalgamations of the last 20 or so years.
3. The Centre Unions.
This grouping occurs often, but tends to be ephemeral, caused by unions breaking ranks with one side or the other.
4. The Catholics and 5. The Protestants and/or Masons.
These differences were much more pronounced before the Vatican II changes of the 1960s. These are sensitivities rather than interests and only affect policy a little. Nevertheless, anybody who wants to be effective in Labor politics has to bear them in mind.
6. The Bush.
This is another touchy lot. You don't insult the country people if you want to win their votes - and it is hard to win and hold government without them, distasteful as that is to some inner city people I know.
7. The State Parties.1 Edward Gough Whitlam (1916-), Prime Minister of Australia 1972-1975.
Gough Whitlam1 found them about as distasteful a drag on progress as the bush.
8. The Women.
Yet another touchy bunch and not getting any less so.
9. The Lawyers.2 Examples include Slater and Gordon (left-wing) and Maurice Blackburn Cashman (moderate).
The Labor law firms2 are a big power behind the scenes; wealthy, skillful and with a big network of contacts.
10. The Branches.
It is instructive that I have left these till last. They are now getting effectively 50% of the votes at conferences, compared with 20% 35 years ago. Candidates for elective office badly need them to man (or should I say person) the polling booths. Their interests arise as an internal issue in the party from time to time and they are the launching pad for many a political career. However, they tend to be too fragmented and the members too divided and apathetic to be a strong interest in their own right. Rather they are a way for average people without union ties to get deeper into the labour movement and the other nine interests I have named.
Having said all that, a cardinal rule is that these interests never stay still. As the Social Action article explained so recently, they tend to split internally under pressure and recombine in all sorts of ways. I was nearly going to say interesting or fascinating ways, but probably a better adjective is maddening.
The Split over Conscription Now to splits. There have been lots of ltitle ones but the first big one was over conscription for military service in World War I. The Left-Wing unions were the driving force for opposing conscription. Pre-communist socialist ideology and organisation permeated them and at that time was particularly suspicious of imperialism, which it associated with Britain and to a lesser extent France. The moderate unions were more divided but the AWU was anti-conscription but probably particularly for reasons of boosting the power of the industrial wing in the ALP in harness with the Left.
The catholics were another strong force against conscription, largely for Irish reasons, but they were divided - like a lot of other people. The protestants were more sympathetic to conscription, but also divided.
It is significant that I omitted working class opinion from my list of interests above. It is usually difficult to distinguish it from public opinion generally, though less so years ago than today. In World War I there was a widespread view that by 1916 the manual workers and trade unionists had contributed - one can almost use the word suffered - disproportionately. They were quick to join up, partly because of the unemployment caused by the 1914 drought. They were over-represented in the infantry, which seemed to be getting slaughtered and maimed the most. And on the home front, wartime price inflation was beginning to hit them severely while some of the better-off seemed to be making money or getting good jobs out of the war.
In as far as it can be measured, working class voters were about two to one against conscription, middle class voters the other way around and the bush split fairly evenly. The ALP split about two or three to one against conscription. It was a terrible time to be a Labor politician.
An interesting aspect is how bitter this split became and how vindictive the winning anti-conscriptionists were against their opponents. There was also a bit of a sub-text of the industrial wing, led by the left, the AWU and young and politically ambitious, using this split to strengthen the relative position of the unions as against the parliamentarians within the labor movement. Some commentators have used the term 'industrial wing messianism'.
Part of this affair was on the surface a straightforward split in the federal caucus about how the inexperienced Scullin3 Labor Government should handle the Depression. But nothing was straightforward about either cures for the Depression or the turmoil in the ALP.3 James Henry Scullin (1876-1953), Prime Minister 1929-1932.
The main running sore in the ALP between the wars was in New South Wales, though it spilled across the borders now and then. It had the lot - the political wing versus the industrial - left versus right unions - the machinations of the Communist Party - country versus city - some aspects of catholics versus the left. However, the key ingredient was the state parliamentary Labor leader for most of the time, Jack Lang.4 Lang was a naturally divisive figure. He had an amazing knack for throwing oil on troubled waters.4 John Thomas (Jack) Lang (1876-1975), Premier of NSW 1925-1927 and 1930-1932.
I won't try to explain it further. It would take until tomorrow night and even then I'm not sure that I wouldn't be like other historians and get lost in it. Some have just described it as 'one long brawl', a description applied earlier to mediŠval scottish history.
There wasn't a lot of ideology at stake in the Lang years, though there was a bit of the usual left-right, socialist versus compromisers stuff. We shouldn't condemn our brothers and sisters across the Murray too much, however, for Labor there was reasonably good at getting into office and running adequate governments with useful dollops of social reform, much appreciated by its blue-collar and unemployed clienteles.
However, one legacy which proved unhelpful was the growth of a climate of Labor orthodoxy or fundamentalism. It was very helpful in fighting in a split of such uncertain causes to be able to say you were much more orthodoxly true labor - a truer believer - than the other bloke, truer to the noble spirit of 1916. It was not a great climate for intellectual ideas.
In Victoria it was all much more bland. The dominant spirit was that introduced before the war by the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP). This was a marxist ginger group affiliated to the party, rather european socialist in inspiration, with a spirit of comradely piety. Some of the VSPers left to join the Communist Party, but most were non- and often anti-communist. They were a minority in the ALP, but their style permeated it. One had to be very careful in saying anything nice about capitalists or imperialists. Quite typically, catholics like Arthur Calwell,5 later the federal leader from 1960-67, were not VSPers but might as well have been.5 Arthur Augustus Calwell (1896-1973), Opposition Leader 1960-1967.
Victorian Labor was also not much chop electorally. It reached state office twice with the support of the Country (now National) Party in that party's also rather arcane brawling with the Nationalists (now the Liberals, just to complicate things.) But it soon blew its chances. For example, in a brief period in office but not in power in 1924 it tried to get anti-war material into the school books. That was in accordance with socialist principles - but went down like a lead balloon with its patriotic rural backers, who went back to their erstwhile Liberal mates.
The Depression And then the Depression. Every government in Australia and pretty well every government in the world lost office then. Germany got Hitler, as its idea of somebody who might be able to do something, so there was nothing very exceptional about Labor losing office in Canberra and Victoria. There is nothing like 30% unemployment to make voters angry. However, the troubles in New South Wales made it much harder for the Scullin Federal Labor Government to stay in office than it might have been. It was the more left-wing Lang group, aligned with the left-wing unions, which voted poor Scullin and his team out of office, not the right wing breakaways on the cross-benches under former acting treasurer Joe Lyons. Lyons only crossed the floor to become a non-labor Prime Minister - and a successful one in the seven years plus club - after Labor and perhaps the country fell into hopeless disarray.
The New South Wales situation, which lingered into the early war years, made life harder for John Curtin,6 who became parliamentary party leader when Scullin retired in 1935. Curtin's two main jobs were to use the authority of his office to gradually and tactfully repair things in New South Wales and to turn the party into a credible wartime party.6 John Joseph Curtin (1885-1945), Prime Minister 1941-1945.
Isolationism Labor's natural leaning, over most of the past 100 years, as now, is towards isolationism, in the sense of avoiding military embroilment outside Australia and the immediate region. There have been of course plenty of high-minded words about peaceful engagement and international cooperation etc.. But Labor just doesn't warm to military alliances and commitment and never has. This sentiment ws very strong in the 1930s and made especially so by the strict orthodoxy needed to avoid charges of heresy in New South Wales.
There is supposed to have been an elderly back-bencher who said Hitler was a fellow-socialist and should be supported. This is hearsay; I have never tracked the story down. But at the time of the Munich Agreement with Hitler in 19387 Eddie Ward said that the real threat was not Germany but the imperialist nations of Britain and France getting too close to each other. Ward was later the arch opponent of conscription for war service during the war years - even when the Japanese were at the door. Ward was, to simplify, a Lang man from Sydney but a minister in the wartime and postwar governments. In the 1950s and 60s he had aspirations to becoming a left-wing prime minister. He was looked on as the left-wing leader prior to Jim Cairns.87 The Munich Agreement was the 29th September 1938 agreement involving the premiers of Britain, France, Germany and Italy. It appeased Hitler, transferring the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Germany.
8 Dr. James (Jim) Ford Cairns (1914-). Deputy Prime Minister 1974-1975.
9 Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria (1915-1998).
The Split of 1954 I had better get onto the main business of the evening, the 1950s Split. To summarise it very briefly, the Communist Party won office in a lot of unions in the late 1930s. This was largely a reaction to the Depression and the way it weakened many unions. Its postion strengthened during the war, when the Soviet Union was our gallant ally and things generally were in upheaval. Anti-communist activity developed in reaction, much of it dominated by catholics. Bob Santamaria's9 'Movement', fore-runner of the National Civic Council (NCC), got church backing in 1942, at first only in Melbourne. The australian bishops endorsed it nationally in 1945 and it absorbed other catholic anti-communist groups in Sydney, Newcastle and elsewhere.
About the same time, the ALP conferences in most states authorised official ALP industrial groups to operate in the unions, to either win them back from the communists or to beat off communist attacks on them. They worked in conjunction with the Movement, which operated as a support organisation for the groups and had overlapping membership. Between them, they checked the communist progress and won several big unions back for the ALP in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The two biggest of these were the ironworkers, now absorbed into the ALP, and the clerks. The the main method was to select and give ALP endorsement to anti-commumnist candidates for election to union office and to organise on their behalf, especially by stirring up pro-labor and especially catholic members to vote in their union elections. ALP group members, the movement and their more ardent supporters got the collective tag 'grouper'.
None of this activity was terribly controversial at first. The communist party at the stage was out to be a rival party of the left and weaken the ALP. It was always, too, pretty good at being its own worst enemy. However, in the usual byzantine way the union battles fed into other ALP factionalism. Naturally the left-wing unions didn't like the groups but their influence at this time was not great as communist policy was either to disaffilate unions the party controlled from the ALP or at least to affiliate at low numbers. The communists reversed this policy in 1952 when their strength was fading and turned to a policy of trying to build up a left-wing in the ALP.
Many other unions didn't like the groups because they feared that their now strong electoral machinery could be used against them. This electoral muscle within the labor movement was considerable. There was talk, for example, of the groups being used against corrupt or weak union officials. The groupers also made many parliamentarians nervous as they feared what they could do in pre-selection contests. The pre-selection system differed among the states but in Victoria prior to 1955 any member of a union affiliated to the ALP could vote in them. Thus success lay in being able to activate the usually apathetic vote of the union rank and file.
Like the Communist Party, the Movement - that is, Santamaria's Movement - had a knack of being its own worst enemy and added to the fear of the groups. Its News Weekly magazine had a strident, punchy quality, a bit like the communist papers, and frequently attacked the ALP leaders, usually for not being anti-communist enough. It's not hard to understand why its enemies wanted to weaken the Movement, but it also had the knack of losing allies. But especially in the early 1950s, after some big successes in the unions, Santamaria began to fancy his Movement controlling the ALP through the groups and through members joining ALP branches. This vision was impractical in my view, on either the votes Santamaria's followers had at conference then or what it was ever likely to have. But there was just enough prospect of it succceeding to frighten people in all directions.
The Movement also had some unhelpful policies. It tended to a cataclysmic view of the world and especially one that saw communists about to win big victories in Australia and the world. There was not much chance of this in Australia but Santamaria's view that it was five minutes to midnight in Southeast Asia was, while I think it was extreme, not as fanciful as it might seem today. It was nevertheless a view that went down badly in the ALP, with its gut feeling for isolationism and dislike of Australia being caught up in the Cold War. If you doubt this sentiment, have a look at the letters page in The Age.10 The main practical impact the Movement's worldview had on national policy however was on whether Australia should recognise communist China. ALP opinion favoured recognition, conservative and anti-communist opinion was against it in the '50s and '60s.10 Melbourne daily broadsheet.
The Movement/NCC also had several other policies that were alienating in the ALP context, such as making Australia a more agricultural society by settling migrants on the land, where it believed they would be better catholics than in the cities.
I should explain that until the mid-50s the Movement/NCC was a secretive organisation, though backed by the catholic bishops. It operated within the Catholic Action organisation but was not of it. It was kept a close secret, with a fluid sort or organisation, to make it harder for opponents in the unions to label it a catholic body. This secetiveness had been recommended and supported by the top Labor and union leadership, as the best way to be efective but it was always likely to rebound sooner or later - which it did.
The overall impact of vaulting ambitions, secretive activity, strident style and controversial policies built up to a bit of a crisis and division in the broad labour movement. But it seemed in the early '50s - and still seems to me now - to be managable. It also developed into a crisis of division in the Catholic Church, but again one which should have been managable.
However, it was not be managable in either body.
The chief unbalancing factor was that the opposition leader, Dr. Evatt,11 unleashed a vitriolic statement against the Movement in October 1954. This was soon after Labor had narrowly lost the federal election of May 1954, which would have made Evatt Prime Minister. It was even more recently after the Petrov espionage commission12 had refused to allow Evatt to appear as a barrister before it.11 Dr. Herbert Vere Evatt (1894-1965), High Court Judge in 1930s, External Affairs Minister under Curtin, Deputy Prime Minister under Chifley, Opposition Leader 1951-1960.
12 The Royal Commission on Espionage opened on 17th May 1954 in Canberra.
13 For more detail, the definitive text is: Robert Manne, The Petrov Affair: Politics and Espionage, Pergamon, Sydney, 1987.
14 Sir Robert Gordon Menzies (1894-1978), Prime Minister 1939-1941 and 1949-1966.
Petrov is a whole other story, but briefly Vladimir Petrov and his wife were diplomats who defected from the soviet embassy in Canberra.13 Members of Evatt's staff were named in the subsequent Royal Commission into allegations of a spy ring in Australia. The information allegedly given was not much more than Canberra pub gossip but Evatt tried to build up a case of the Petrovs, ASIO and Menzies14 conspiring against him. He then tried to tie the Movement into the conspiracy. This is a difficult thing to say about such a top public figure, but he was going a bit mad at the time. The election result seemed to finally derange him. Most of Evatt's statements then and in the next couple of years reeked of paranoia. But he was also an extremely ambitious politician trying to hold on to his leadership with a new scare and with it the chance of becoming Prime Minister.
Santamaria and the Movement and their role in the industrial groups were constantly in the news from then on. Evatt called for - and was granted - a meeting of the ALP Federal Executive to discuss the 'serious situation', as he called it. The executive held a long inquiry in Melbourne, but actually didn't find very much. Nevertheless it called a Special Conference of the victorian branch of the ALP for February 1955 to elect a new state executive. This conference was to be under special federal rules, which could have allowed new or even non-members of the ALP to attend as delegates. Its backers thought this rule, along with the reaffiliation of departed left-wing unions and others affiliating on higher membership strengths - which allowed more delegates - would give the broad anti-grouper side control. At the same time, the executive proposed to withdraw the ALP charter given the industrial groups. This would deprive them of the ALP name and organisational support.
This all had an obvious appeal to the left but it also appealed to a centre faction, which hoped to get the balance of power. The AWU was a centrepiece of this group. Its Federal Secretary - and dictatorial boss - Tom Dougherty15 had once been a group supporter but had broken with the groups and become a vitriolic opponent. There are many suggested reasons for this but the main one seems to be that he thought the groups were out to dislodge him. His ally in the centre was Pat Kennelly,16 Deputy Labor Leader in the Senate, former Victorian and Federal Secretary, and another ardent hater of the groupers for a host of personal and political reasons. Another of these powerful centrists was Vic Stout, Secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council. Stout had been a staunch ally of the groups and the Movement when the communists were hot on his heels a few years earlier. Now he switched to the left, at least partly because he was 68 and didn't want to retire and hand over to his offsider, Mick Jordan, who still worked with the groups. Each of these men was able to carry others with them and build up big muscle in the ALP machine.15 Tom Dougherty (?-1972) was General Seretary of the AWU 1944-1972.
16 Senator Patrick Kennelly.
The groupers refused to attend the 1955 Special Conference, mainly because they thought their opponents would use the Federal Executive ruthlessly against them. They decided instead to send the delegates elected by the 1954 Victorian Conference to the 1955 Federal Conference due to be held in Hobart in March. These would claim their right to attend as the true victorian delegation, as against the delegates elected by the Special Conference. This proved to be a crucial mistake, as the Federal Executive still continued to be ruthless. It crededentialled the so-called new victorian delegation elected by the Special Conference. The grouper delegates were out in the cold.
The reasons for this failed strategy can only be guesstimated. However, one is that the Movement did a seemingly exhaustive analysis of the likely numbers at the Federal Confefrence and produced a very bleak forecast. Some group supporters believed this was excessively, perhaps even mischievously, pessimstic, and designed to preserve the Movement's power by producing a split. A split would then, it was argued, allow a subsequent rapprochement that would give the Movement even more power than it had had. Of course it didn't work out like that. Without the groupers, the far left had a majority in the victorian branch and kept it until Gough Whitlam inspired a new intervention in 1970. The rapprochement did not come until the 1980s.
The groupers split nationally, though mainly in Victoria. Their right-wing, aligned with the Movement, was forced out and formed the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), which controlled or influenced the balance of power in national politics until the middle 1970s. However, its influence was minor other than in Victoria and Queensland, although New South Wales elected one DLP senator in 1970.
The catholic bishops and community generally became bitterly divided and were also on the receiving end of much protestant suspicion and name-calling. The atmosphere all-round was very tense for at least ten years.17 Coalition Governments during this period:
Sir Robert Gordon Menzies (1949-1966)
Harold Edward Holt (1966-1967)
Sir John 'Blackjack' McEwan (1967-1968)
Sir John Grey Gorton (1968-1971)
(Victoria) Sir Henry Bolte (1955-1972).
The left won leverage in the machine, but could do little with it except keep Labor out office federally and in states where the left controlled the machine. They were hopeless at winning votes from the public. Their big dream was to make Eddie Ward, and after Ward died suddenly in 1963 Jim Cairns, leader of a left-wing, nationalising, neutralist government. It was a pipe dream.
The communists won some influence in the ALP through the left-wing unions, but just enough to be the kiss of death.
Who did win? The big winners were the Coalition, the Menzies, Holt, Gorton and Bolte Governments17 and perhaps the australian public too.

Texts used in compiling the footnotes:

Michelle Grattan (editor), Australian Prime Ministers, New Holland Publishers, Sydney, 2000.

Walter Consuelo Langsam, Historic Documents of World War II, D Van Nostrand, Princeton, 1958.

Robert Manne, The Petrov Affair: Politics and Espionage, Pergamon, Sydney, 1987.

Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria, Against the Tide, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1981.

S. E. Tottenham, 101 Great Australians, Child and Henry, Brookvale (Australia), 1983. (Including a hagiography of H V Evatt.)

Kate White, John Cain & Victorian Labor 1917-1957, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1982.

Websites used in compiling the footnotes:
Brief Jim Cairns biography. (Curtin University.)
The Australian Workers Union National Office Historical Timeline.
The Australian Trade Union Archives' brief biography of Arthur Calwell.
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Copyright ę2003 Robert Murray. Format copyright Perspectives on World History and Current Events.