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Split personalities

It’s 50 years since the ‘Great Labor Schism’. It’s appropriate and it was certainly inevitable that a book should be published to recall the event and its aftermath. This book is it: a collection of contributed essays capably compiled and edited by three academics with a strong background in Labor history.

The ALP has a rich and interesting past. Its True Believers are fascinated by it and spend far more time contemplating the history than considering whether the party has either the organisation, or ideas, to face up to an uncertain future. Labor historians have a captive audience. The party wonders what to do next.

In just over a century of its history the Labor Party has had three splits, all of which have tumbled it out of office. The split of 1955, which had its epicentre in Victoria, helped keep the party out of office federally for 17 years and out of office in Victoria for 27 years. These are the numbers, which made it ‘great’.

That the Great Labor Schism occurred at all was because of the Cold War in which the ideological conflicts taking place in Europe washed over into the Australian political debate. Essentially it was a debate about the influence of Soviet communism, internationally and domestically, and the Australian Communist Party’s involvement in the affairs of trade unions.

Fifty years on there seems, for what it’s worth, to be a tentative consensus among historians that the whole thing was a ghastly mistake. It shouldn’t have happened, and if cooler heads had prevailed, the problems would have been resolved. Victoria was the sticking point, largely because of personalities.

In the other eastern states the fracture lines were relatively insignificant. Certainly they led to the establishment of state-based Democratic Labor Parties, but unlike Victoria these had little influence on electoral outcomes in either the state or federal arena. In New South Wales the Church hierarchy and the Catholic-led state Labor Government showed little enthusiasm for a split. As one cleric of right-wing persuasion is recorded as saying: his bishop (Bishop Carroll) was right—history showed that breakaway parties never lasted. ‘They were not worth two bob.’ So in New South Wales Catholics generally stayed with the ALP, and the DLP vote never exceeded 3.1 per cent, compared with more than 12 per cent in Victoria.

In Queensland the split didn’t occur until nearly two years after Victoria and it was more about a power struggle between the Labor Premier, Vince Gair (later a DLP Senator), and the Australian Workers’ Union than any question of ideology. In style, Gair was dictatorial and Bukowski, the leader of the AWU, ‘unstable’ and ‘irrational’. It was not a good mix. In South Australia there was really no split at all, largely because the Labor Party was dominated by two individuals, Clyde Cameron and Jim Toohey (later a senator), who for
three decades imposed a power-sharing consensus on the party.

In Victoria there was no meeting of minds. There were no matchmakers. And there were a number of strong personalities. Of these, Archbishop Mannix was the most influential. Far from espousing the separation of church and state, Dr Mannix believed in the direct involvement of the clergy in political affairs; his support for the activities of Bob Santamaria, the National Civic Council and later the DLP was persuasive for many of the clergy and, in turn, large numbers of lay Catholics. Victorian Catholics who might have played a mediating role, such as Arthur Calwell and Senator Pat Kennelly, were too boxed in by hardline views emanating from the hierarchy. Bishop Fox, for example, an auxiliary bishop to Archbishop Mannix, pronounced it a ‘mortal sin’ to be a member of the ALP.

Some of the contributors to this book have observed that one of the tragic consequences of the split was the division it created within Catholic families. Others point to it as being an interruption to the development and implementation of Catholic social ideals. A third unhappy consequence was the outbreak of reactive anti-Catholicism, broad-brush and undiscriminating, which followed. It was, for example, more than 20 years before a Catholic parliamentary candidate was endorsed by the Victorian ALP.

Of the 19 contributors to this book, at least 14 might fairly be described as full-time academics. Not surprisingly, it is a scholarly and professional history. There is a lucid analysis of what happened, and why, which draws on previously published work and overlays events with a 21st-century perspective. Distance lends some enchantment to this view and reveals a mixture of motivations and beliefs more complex than the simplistic version of a stoush between an ideological Right and an ideological Left.

Other chapters deal with more speculative questions such as ‘Was the DLP a Church party?’ and ‘Was the DLP a Labor or Centrist Party?’ and canvass the influence of a book like Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory in setting up an environment of suspicion, if not paranoia, about the influence of the Church in politics.
But the richest and most engaging history goes beyond the mere analysis of events. It captures something of the ambience of the time—the circumstances in which the historical figures played out their roles. This is hard to do when individual contributors are asked to write on a specific and sometimes
narrow topic.

Doris Lessing has famously observed that it is impossible today to explain what it was like to be a communist in the 1950s. It is probably just as difficult to explain what it was like to be a Catholic, and particularly an adherent of Bob Santamaria’s National Civic Council.

It is in this context that a chapter in the book by Tim Hayes, whose father and grandfather were both Labor MPs and later DLP members (but not Santamaria supporters) is most interesting. Hayes writes: ‘Our tribal life revolved around the Church, virtually to the exclusion of any association with our non-Catholic neighbours,’ and, ‘They were the days when our priests, brothers, and nuns were highly respected, when Daniel Mannix was the closest thing to a living saint and the Pope was infallible.’

Hayes describes the busyness and passion of an active involvement in the Church and to some extent the busyness of involvement in the Labor Party. At that time there was no television and no internet. There were no couch potatoes, focus groups, direct mail campaigns or other paraphernalia of contemporary politics.
Politicians made speeches to audiences in public halls rather than delivering 30-second grabs. So people were involved at the coalface and often they were passionately involved. They believed that big issues were at stake. Ideologies were powerfully embraced.

In today’s politics, passion seems spent. Ideologies are muted. Focus groups, more than ideals, dictate political direction.

If there is a profoundly divisive issue it is about the degree to which the market provides solutions to human problems, which might otherwise be alleviated by political action.

Nonetheless, there is something to be learnt from the past. Otherwise, for the Labor Party all its rich history is close to being bunk. What might be learnt is something about tolerance.

As former Premier John Cain pointed out, in launching the book in April, the Labor Party does best when power is shared between the various groups or factions within the party. From time to time this has happened with positive results. If it doesn’t happen, there may be no more splits, but the ALP may degenerate into an unappealing and unelectable rump, too obsessed with petty internal power struggles to reach out and embrace the world.

The Great Labor Schism: A Retrospective, edited by Brian Costar, Peter Love and Paul Strangio.
Scribe Publications, 2005. ISBN 1 920 76942 0, RRP $35

John Button was a minister and senator in the Hawke and Keating governments.


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