The Labor split

‘You’re a fanatic.’ ‘You’re not a Labor man.’ ‘Rat!’ So the interjections rang out with intensifying ferocity late on the evening of 19 April 1955 as F.R. (Frank) Scully, MLA for Richmond and until three weeks earlier a member of John Cain’s Labor ministry, addressed the Victorian Legislative Assembly in support of a no-confidence motion in the Cain Government. At 4.30am the following morning, Scully and his fellow Labor renegades voted with the Opposition parties to seal the Cain Government’s fate. Thus the Labor split of 1955 reached its point of no return; federally, it would be 17 years before the ALP regained office, while in Victoria, the eye of the storm, the penance lasted a generation.

Last month, on the 50th anniversary of that momentous debate, Scully, a sprightly 85-year-old, returned to its scene to launch the Great Labor Split: Fifty Years Later conference. This time there were no insults, but a hushed silence from the hundred-plus registrants who were acutely aware of a moment rich in historical resonance. To add piquancy to the occasion, sharing the launch duties was another octogenarian and Split survivor, Robert Corcoran. In the 1950s, Corcoran had been one of the earliest whistleblowers on B.A. Santamaria’s clandestine anti-communist organisation, the Catholic Social Studies Movement (‘the Movement’). This culminated in a decisive appearance by Corcoran before the federal executive inquiry into the Victorian ALP that followed Labor leader Doc Evatt’s ‘hydrogen bomb’ statement of 5 October 1954 outing the Movement.

Old warriors, neither man flinched in asserting that his cause had been true. Scully’s shorthand version of the Split fingered Evatt as the chief wrecker. (So much for Gerard Henderson’s precipitant judgment in the Fairfax press that the conference was to be an exercise in ‘denial’ about Evatt’s ‘predominant role in this Labor disaster’.) If Evatt had been the culprit, then, according to Scully, the ALP had been the victim. Labor, he lamented, had ‘never recovered’—the sloughing off of its Catholic right wing left it susceptible to hijacking by middle-class progressives. Corcoran, on the other hand, was adamant that the blame rested with Santamaria and his disciples, who had deployed the Catholic faithful as a Trojan horse in a sinister attempt to capture the ALP. They had to be confronted. 

While the chasm between Scully and Corcoran could not be straddled, the following two days of the conference brought a genuine dialogue on the causes and legacies of the Split. The participants were a diverse lot, ranging from veterans of the conflict and their descendants, Labor Party elder statesmen, headed by national president Barry Jones, former Victorian Premier John Cain jnr and former ALP Senate leader and minister in the Hawke and Keating governments John Button, trade union stalwarts, current representatives of the National Civic Council and Democratic Labor Party, as well as historians and political scientists from across Australia. The opinions expressed were equally catholic, with the discussion roaming over topics including the role of personalities in the Split, particularly Evatt, Santamaria, Frank Hardy, Archbishop Daniel Mannix and Trades Hall Secretary Vic Stout; the distinctive patterns that the Split took (or didn’t take) in different states; religiosity and the Split; the Liberal Party’s response to the Split; and retrospective assessments of the DLP.

There were highlights aplenty; among them a première documentary screening by Griffith University filmmaker Pat Laughren, featuring interviews with many of the key Split protagonists (some now deceased, such as Santamaria and Jim Cairns) and archival footage; a talk by Robert Murray on his writing of the landmark study The Split: Labor in the Fifties; and John Cain’s passionate address in launching the companion book to the conference. If Scully’s appearance had been powerfully symbolic, by no means less so was Cain’s—son of the premier whose government had been destroyed by the Split, a reformer of the Victorian ALP in the 1960s, and Labor leader whose election as premier in 1982 closed the circle opened in 1955. But Cain also spoke with an eye to the present. An outspoken critic of the scourge of factionalism, he warned that the contemporary party exhibited symptoms of the pathology that afflicted the party in the 1950s and 1960s: one mob wanting exclusive control rather than sharing power.

Some of the conference’s best moments were unrehearsed: Barry Jones in full flight on the visit of British Labour Leader Clement Attlee to Australia in September 1954 as one of the unrecognised ignition points for the Split, and former communist Bernie Taft reminiscing about his unlikely rapprochement with Santamaria in the latter’s twilight years. Particularly memorable was the contribution in the final plenary session by the son (and namesake) of the late Bill Barry, who in April 1955 had led the breakaways across the parliamentary floor. In one of the last acts in that drama, Labor MP Bob Pettiona, a former friend of Barry’s, showered him with 30 silver threepences (the coins are on display outside the Parliamentary Library), hissing, ‘There you are, you … Judas.’  With an intensity born out of long-nursed grievance, Barry jnr spoke emotionally of the injustice done to his father and late mother Mary, who had also been expelled during the purge of April 1955. To listen to him was to realise how deep had been the wound of being cast from the Labor tribe.

Closure had been a theme of the conference’s last session: when, if ever, did the Split end? Like the other topics dealt with, there was no consensus, no easy answers. Yet the spontaneous applause accorded to Barry left one feeling that the conference had been another small step towards a healing of sorts.

Paul Strangio was a co-organiser of the Great Labor Split: Fifty Years Later and co-editor of The Great Labor Schism: A Retrospective, Scribe, 2005



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