January 12th 2002

  Buy Issue 2624

Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: Eyewitness in East Timor

Editorial: Population - time for a new approach

Canberra Observed: Howard understands ALP better than it knows itself

Straws in the Wind: Cries for help / Political terrorism / Opium of the children

Public policy and the family

Books: Demons and Democrats - Re-evaluating Labor's disastrous 'Splits'

Media - Selective indignation / Ideological consistency

US welfare cuts coming home to roost?

Trade: Debt will return to haunt us

The search for meaning

Books: Don't despair: 'The Skeptical Environmentalist', by Bjorn Lomborg

'Queen Victoria: A Personal History', by Christopher Hibbert

Books promotion page

Books: Demons and Democrats - Re-evaluating Labor's disastrous 'Splits'

by Bill Hayden

News Weekly, January 12, 2002

Demons and Democrats: 1950s Labor at the Crossroads
by Gavan Duffy (Freedom Publishing Company, February 2002)
Paperback, 200 pp, $27.95

Next month, Gavan Duffy's history of the Movement will be published by Freedom Publishing. Its Foreword, written by former Labor leader and Governor-General, Bill Hayden, casts new light on the impact of the Labor 'Splits' of the 1950s.


This new work by Gavan Duffy is a helpful compendious history of sensational events in this country's political history. The great sectarian 'Splits' of the 1950s ruptured the Labor Party, leaving it, effectively, politically impotent in the states of Victoria and Queensland and also nationally for the best part of two decades.

The Catholic Church survived this collision, but not unscathed. Labor and the Church are vastly different institutions from what they were before the 'Splits', and certainly from the warring adversaries they were during the Split and what might be called the long post-Split trauma period.


The nature of the collision between them and some of its wider effects provide some important explanation of how those changes were influenced.

The reputations of the two central actors in this remarkable saga, Dr Bert Evatt, Leader of the Labor Party during the 1950s, and Bob Santamaria, leader of the Catholic-sponsored Movement at the time of the 'Splits', are now being re-evaluated.

At the time of the 'Splits', Evatt's reputation was energetically burnished as a defender of free expression, a slayer of intolerant Catholic sectarianism and a demolisher of secret and sinister Catholic conspiracies to seize control of the Labor Party.

Control of Labor was, according to this interpretation, the first step towards the takeover of the government of Australia. And, through this government control, a comprehensive program of Catholic social policies would be imposed on the community.

Looking back on it, it all looks so fanciful and, in its more extreme manifestations, unconvincingly grotesque. Yet a lot of trusting people, especially the good and faithful foot-soldiers of the Labor Party, swallowed it whole.

Evatt's record as a civil libertarian is very spotty and there are a number of incidents in that record which mock the folkloric myth that was created around Evatt at the time of the 'Splits'. In fact, the evidence is convincing that the man suffered a serious psychiatric disorder, which he took with him when he left Australian politics, on to the bench of the NSW Supreme Court.

Duffy deals with this matter, that of his erratic judgment and scarcely rational behaviour at great public moments. If I could say so, he does this rather gently, given the slings and arrows of outrageous calumny that Duffy, and people like him, would have endured in those bitter days following the 'Splits'.

For the sake of balance, I have to point out the traffic in insults at that time was not one way by any means. If you stood on the wrong side of some javelin of political contumely unleashed by the late Vince Gair, you knew you had been impaled by an expert. But my point is that Evatt's reputation now looks rather frayed and is rapidly receding into oblivion.

Santamaria's reputation, on the other hand, is enjoying a renaissance. He is being seen as less of the ogre he was painted by his opponents, more correct in his description of Communist intentions towards this country's political and social system than his critics were prepared to allow, and in the broader political programs he espoused, not a reactionary at all. He was in fact quite radical and condemned Capitalism with the same energy he directed against Communism, as Duffy illustrates in his work.


In fact, I have a strong conviction that if Santamaria were alive today he would be positively inspiring the discontented of a very broadly based and growing anti-globalisation feeling in this community. He would be doing that by directing the energies that come from the fears and insecurities globalisation provokes for lots of people into creative policy formulation along the lines of distributivism.

He eloquently propounded this theory as, he believed, a genuine "third way" political force, as distinct from the phony third way of some contemporary political commentators. As one perceptive observer described this latter political shadow play: a case of switching the indicator onto left and then turning sharp right.

I regard distributivism's tenets as impractical. Its principles, based on small-scale farming and industrial operation, seem to offer an escape to the past for many of those disenchanted with globalisation, which they see in its raw and brutish form. It is an illusory escape, I believe. But we can't find practical solace and sustenance by trying to escape to the past. We have to attempt to civilise by regulation the forces the future unleashes.

Nonetheless, distributivism is a theory which has respectable antecedents and worthy proponents. In any case, a vigorous debate on this proposition a la the more general issue of globalisation could be highly beneficial on a broader canvas. The distributivists, of course, would have to justify their presumptions.

More importantly, those who trumpet the virtues of globalisation as an extension of the succession of magic moments that the largely free and unfettered market endlessly produces could be forced to face a vital fact. That is, that the profound changes sweeping through our social and economic system leave lots of losers sprawled about our social landscape, like World War I battle field casualties whose sacrifice now seem so disproportionately unfair.

I must say that Santamaria's creed, quoted by Duffy, leaves me greatly moved, viz.:

"Communism and Capitalism insulted man by regarding him as a labour unit, rather than as God's noblest creation."

In my early years of political activity I made innumerable speeches condemning Capitalism for tending to enslave man as the servant of the profit-making system rather than subordinating the system to serve him. Well, that was an angry young man talking, letting ideals run away from practicalities.

"Let him mature with experience", I expect, would be an understandable reaction. I suppose there was some truth in all of that.


Along the way of a busy 36 years in public office I became more and more interested in seeing that things worked more efficiently. I certainly demonstrated a concern for redistributive measures based on demonstrated need. I confess, however, there was a fascination with economic growth, efficiency and thus all of us being better off.

Now, I look at the landscape. We're certainly wealthier as a group, growth has been phenomenal, and efficiency is good and getting better. The process has had its costs, unfairly borne by some - mostly, those least able to afford this punishment. And of course, it follows that their deprivation has been part of the process of making the rest of us better off.

Certain scholarly analysis claims to illustrate that there is more inequality now than there was in the not-too-distant past. The Productivity Commission acknowledges that industry restructuring, so essential for our economic success, has resulted in losers and, to its credit, is researching who and where these casualties are.

Our Government, if it shares concern on this matter with so many of us alarmed by the less than beneficial aspects of this process, could do something with that information.

I firmly believe that globalisation has the capacity to make the world a more fulfilling place in which to live. Farm product exporting countries like Australia and the developing countries stand to gain greatly from an opening up of world markets to freely traded farm products.

Poor countries can only be crippled by rich countries like Australia resorting to industry protection. Demands that poor countries implement developed countries' industrial workforce employment standards, if successful, would ensure that the industrial development of those poor countries would be by-passed.

This would be to the benefit of rich countries like Australia. That is undoubtedly the purpose of those propounding this view.

There is a vast range of objections to the emotive opposition of those trying to stop globalisation, not the least of which is the motivation of so many as thoroughly self-serving and irredeemably selfish.

But the losers who are created by the globalisation process need to be adequately catered for. That is my main caveat about this process which, if Australia were to opt out of it, would have us become an economic and social backwater on the globe.

There is also the matter of a nation's culture. Behind much of the populist promotion of globalisation seems to be an undetected momentum towards what has been termed a "universal civilisation". The ideal for this global social homogenisation is American Capitalism.

Now there is much that is admirable about America and what might be termed the "American Way". But the "American Way" has its serious defects too. It is not so much preoccupied with people with needs as human beings but with people as winners, or successful inputs in their part of the system. It is not as caring for the poor as it should be. Racial tensions are nasty, divisive and extensive. Its rates of penal incarceration are disturbingly high and it legally tolerates the killing of certain offenders.

Regrettably, we are treading some of this path as is demonstrated in the proclivity for some politicians, especially at elections, to "get tough with law and order" responses to what are really deep-seated social problems.

Fortunately, we do have certain distinctive cultural values and we should fight to preserve these. Values about a fair go and a helping hand for the social casualties in life's often unfair race. We shouldn't junk these because of the meretricious appeal of the latest fashion.

The "American Way" is to reward winners, the people of merit. Losers, it seems, let the "ism" down and deserve a penalty for failure. The "ism" is American Capitalism and the American dream that is deceptively woven about it. So with globalisation or globalism we have the latest "ism", the latest utopia.

It has moved into the space vacated by Marxism. Here the best of all possible worlds beckons, as has been the case with previous, now defunct, "isms".

American Capitalism is a very successful arrangement for producing and distributing according to people's material needs. It is not a moral ideal. Different peoples of the world have different ways of attempting to reach the moral ideal. We Australians should be confident enough to do this according to our cultural values.

And what of the unerring justice of market forces and the virtues of Capitalism within the Australian experience? Frankly, on the evidence amassing before our eyes over the past year or so, the dominant characteristics of a very modern robust Capitalism seem to be nastiness, brutishness and unscrupulousness.

The Alan Bonds and the Christopher Skases represent the ever-present companions of Capitalism. But the spectacular self-demolition of hitherto reputable institutions like the seemingly staid HIH Insurance body, the exciting techno-jockeys running One.Tel up against the edge of established big league IT competition from a standing start, and the presumably cautious and prudent Harold Scarf retailing empire falling into reputedly bad book-keeping practices leave the trusting public pondering the morality of Capitalism. If this is the standard of the new Capitalism, then Santamaria was right to be critical of Capitalism as well as Communism.


The great tragedy of all of this is that the dominant perception of what the new, muscular Capitalism is like comes at the expense of the majority of business leaders. People who are, in my experience, decent, hard-working, ambitious for their company's success, but soberly so, and they really care for their workforce. But why do they remain silent? Through this muteness they risk being hobbled by a public opinion too impatient to wait any longer to hear from them and demanding controls and restraints which could be counter-productive to national economic performance.

Now coarse salt is ground into these open wounds, with the Reserve Bank warning that workers savings held in compulsory superannuation funds are vulnerable to defalcation.

Whatever differences one might have had with Santamaria on political issues, one could never have fairly accused him of lacking a well-developed code of personal ethics, or of not having a comprehensive system of moral standards. And that is another area where contemporary Capitalism in Australia needs to better justify itself.

Gavan Duffy's writings demonstrate, I believe, the respect and faith that Santamaria and his followers in the Movement and the activists in the Industrial Groups had for the role of trade unions.

Their challenge was directed against Communist control and influence which had ulterior motives. Motives not at all in the interests of a free, open, pluralistic democracy. They also fought against dodgy practices by non-Communist union officials as well as Communist officials; like rorted ballots for office.

It was the Industrial Groups' allotted role to fight this struggle directly in the unions. Denunciation of the Groups, as they were colloquially termed, and their associated personalities was mostly expressed with an overload of venom at Labor Party forums after the 'Splits'.

It would have been hard to believe the Groups had been a formal part of the ALP for many years before the 'Splits'. Some of the most intense of this criticism came from representatives who were previously prominent in the Groups and whose sudden conversions resulted in their transformation as leading figures in the anti-Groups ALP.

They had gone with the winds of their destiny, no doubt after they saw the direction in which the windsock of their ambitions was pointing.

It was a nasty, uncongenial period. To be labelled a "grouper and a grub" was a leprous sentence. Made from the right source there could be no effective appeal. Did the Groups and Santamaria rather overdo the Communist control and influence of unions accusations? I think the answer is yes and no.

The yes is, I feel, that the tactic was kept going too long and intensely after the Communist forces had passed their peak sometime in the 1950s. The DLP, the political front for the Movement and the Groups, operated a political blocking strategy, as Gavan Duffy demonstrates.

No support for the ALP in the electorate from them - which meant for more than two decades no prospect of a Labor Government - without a settlement of the 'split'. But such was the intensity of invective from both sides - the situation had gone well past the point of there being any relevance in attempting to apportion blame for first causes by this time - that any of the few with sufficient standing in the ALP to commence negotiations and a possible inclination to do so lacked, wisely, the courage to confront the passion and prejudices of their own party on this issue. Gavan Duffy has some interesting references to this in his book.

But initially, there was a justification for a determined struggle against Communist tactics in the unions. As Gavan Duffy points out, no-one else nor any other organisation was prepared to do it.

There was a notion on the part of the Communists that militant industrial confrontation would raise working class revolutionary consciousness. In turn, through radical working class agitation and confrontation, the State would be changed.

So the coal mines, waterfront, railways and several other industrial scenes were active battlegrounds in this struggle during the 1940s and early 1950s.

Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley, who once lost his job as a result of his industrial agitation in the railways in 1917, was forced to put troops into the mines. He had to do this to get the nation's power-generating system operating again and thus restart a reliable functioning of the nation's industrial productive system.

New challenge

Now, however, the concern about unions is of a totally different dimension. At a time of workforce need, they seem ineffective and perhaps of diminished relevance.

Something happened to them in the decade and a half from the early eighties leaving them enfeebled and with the arrival of a non-Labor Government, a government that presented them with extraordinarily radical industrial challenges, they were quickly floundering.

In the meantime, basic working conditions have been consciously eroded. As just one example, a series of reports have featured the growing practice of unpaid overtime. About 60 per cent of middle income earners work as much as five hours unpaid overtime a week. That is about a 13 per cent reduction in the hourly rate for a 38-hour week. The situation of many lower income workers is worse all round. It's not peonage, not yet, at least.

Was the Communist influence with the ALP and the fellow-traveller syndrome overdone too? I think so. But there was more than a smidgin of truth to it. Mostly it was ill-conceived idealism. The Great War and the Great Depression did wicked things to lots of families. They lost their respect and confidence in the established orders.

The Communist ideology had seemingly well-reasoned and simple solutions to peoples' not unreasonable wants. Moreover, World War II was won on the Eastern Front. That and the magnificent defence of Stalingrad greatly influenced lots of people. I know. I was one of them.

Much of my more measured appreciation of the realities of our political situation came later. My views here, in this foreword, resonate with that great virtue, the benefit of hindsight. I have dealt with this at more extent elsewhere.

When I was a Minister in the Whitlam Government I was given a briefing from a credible source. A prominent party member I knew well had been detected undertaking clandestine meetings with a senior national official of the Communist Party of Australia.

More than that, it had been convincingly established that he was, concurrent with his ALP membership, a secret member of the CPA. He had no access to any classified information, and therefore, issues of state security did not arise. But they could have, if any attempt had been made to bring him to account because of his behaviour. In that way too much would have been disclosed about what was known and how it had become known. So he was left alone; and watched.

The Petrov Espionage Royal Commission of the 1950s revealed some surprising facts, including the presence of Communist stooges in Evatt's office. So the link I mentioned earlier was not novel.

Gavan Duffy correctly acknowledges the problems of incipient anti-Catholic sectarianism in Australia. With Australia's original settlement, Catholic priests were proscribed from entering the country, a hangover of the "no-popery here" heritage of England. In the 1930s, the Catholics of NSW made the mistake of fielding Catholic candidates for a State election; there was a nasty reaction against them and also against the ALP candidates. The ALP was then seen as a predominantly Catholic party.

The 'Splits' of the 1950s allowed the full gamut of anti-Catholic bigotry, masquerading as political principle, to reign wildly. That is why Santamaria's wish to make public the role and operations of the Movement and the Groups was very wise. It was equally unwise of those in the organisation to overrule him. It allowed some of the most unpleasant allegations about Catholic secret conspiracies to be manufactured and cast about unhelpfully.

I have some reservations about the message I divine in Chapter 8, "Socialism, the Movement and the ALP." If I interpret it correctly, it is stating that a non-Marxist ALP combining diverse attitudes to the problems of social reform and progress, inspired from Christian as well as secular elements, would not be a problem in terms of the part played by the Industrial Groups and the Movement.

This begs the question, which Christian elements? Some of the Christian Churches are more liberal on social values than others. The Catholic Church is probably the most restrictive. For instance, how would a libertarian party member who openly propounded the right to abortion fare with those representatives? Or perhaps upholding homosexuals' rights before the law on equal footing with others, including marriage and adoption rights?

What about single women's entitlement to IVF procedures on the same basis as for families? I know the sanctity of the family is central to Catholic social teaching, but it is nowhere near as rigid as it was when I was young.

If it were, the Church would lose large numbers of its congregations. Then there is voluntary euthanasia. And moving on to the Church itself, firm advocacy of the right to marriage of people in orders and of the entitlement of females to be priests.

Would representatives of the Groups and the Movement be firmly bound to do what they could to unload such a member, especially if she or he was a parliamentarian? If so, a lot of people who hold such views - I know one as well as I know myself - would be chilled at the prospect of such a presence in their party.

It would not allow an atmosphere of open, plural dialogue to flourish within the party. That, I would regard as a tragedy. Perhaps the thinking behind this section needs more elaboration for the sake of lucid understanding on the part of non-Catholics.

As I said earlier, Gavan Duffy's book is timely. It compendiously revisits one of the most momentous incidents in this nation's political history at a time when the memories of most of those who were engaged in the bust up are fading with age.

It also allows the younger generations to re-visit these events and better understand them, for their influence went far wider than the actual period and the events themselves did. In the end the final result has been positive. The nagging memory is that just getting there was so gawd-awfully uncomfortable.

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