60 years since ‘The Split’ in the ALP

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The Australian Labor Party (ALP) suffered its biggest ever split 60 years ago in 1955. The ramifications of this split were huge. It marked a turning point in the party’s history and has left a legacy that still exists today.

The party had experienced two major splits prior to 1955. The first occurred in 1916-17 during WW1 when pro-conscription forces around Prime Minister Billy Hughes left to form the Nationalist Party. The second split happened in the early 1930s during the great depression when a huge section of the party broke away in NSW under the leadership of the state premier Jack Lang.

While both of these splits damaged the party significantly ‘The Split’ of 1955 was more far-reaching and left the ALP totally paralysed for more than a decade.

The rupture took place against the backdrop of the Cold War and anti-communist McCarthyist witch hunts in the US. With the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) reaching its height of influence in the 1940s they also had to combat an anti-communist campaign.

At the end of WW2 the CPA had around 23,000 members and ran a number of important unions including the Miners Federation and the Waterside Workers Federation. Most famously they led the heroic, yet unsuccessful, 1949 coal strike. This strike dominated Australian politics at the time.

While the CPA maintained important influence in the unions during the 50s, 60s and 70s, after the defeat of the coal strike their membership began a long period of decline. The then Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies used this defeat to try and push the CPA back further. He introduced a bill into the federal parliament that attempted to ban the CPA by amending the constitution.

Initially the ALP federal executive supported the bill but it was opposed by many in the party including Dr H. V. Evatt who helped challenge the passage of the act in the High Court. The case was successful and this forced the ALP to commit to opposing the CPA ban.

Soon after the case, in April 1951, Menzies called a double dissolution election. The election was largely fought around the issue of “tackling communist influence”. While the ALP managed to gain some ground the Liberals were able to hold onto power. After the election Evatt was made the leader of the ALP.

The government decided to try and circumvent the High Court decision by calling a referendum seeking to ban the CPA that way. Both the CPA and the ALP campaigned against the proposal and it was narrowly defeated. The results were 49.44% in favour of the ban and 50.56% opposed. 95% of eligible voters turned out.

A huge part of the anti-communist campaign was carried out by the Liberal government but inside the ALP there were also significant forces that supported cracking down on the CPA.

The Movement

The anti-Communist ‘Catholic Action Movement’, known commonly as ‘The Movement’, was a group that had a great deal of influence inside the ALP. The Movement’s leader, B.A. Santamaria, was not a member of the ALP but nevertheless he was an extremely influential figure. The Movement published a popular magazine called News Weekly.

Arising in the early 1940s, The Movement promoted conservative catholic values. They railed against the limited socialist aims that the ALP had at the time and opposed policies like nationalisations. They wanted to shift the ALP away from its social democratic roots and transform it into a party based on Christian ideals.

At that time the CPA’s ideas were influential on the ALP, especially its left wing. The presence of a major force to the ALP’s left helped to pull the party in a more progressive direction. In order to transform the ALP, The Movement would have to both destroy the CPA and undermine the left wing within the ALP itself.

A key part of their strategy was to set up industrial groups within the trade unions – particularly in the unions run by the CPA. Initially the industrial groups were seen as relatively uncontroversial and they were supported by the ALP leadership. The aim was to campaign against the CPA at union elections and win the unions to the ranks of the ALP.

The Movement however focussed most of their energy on these groups and they soon became the dominant political force within them. As such they were often referred to as ‘Groupers’.

In the early 1950s the Groupers won a number of union elections against CPA candidates, most notably in the Federated Ironworkers Association and in the Federated Clerks Union. The CPA’s influence was reduced but the Groupers used the momentum they had gathered to strengthen their influence within the ALP itself. They increased their presence in the branches and won a number of party leadership positions. At one stage in 1953 they came close to winning a majority at the federal ALP conference.

As the Groupers gained more power in the party tensions began to arise. Many ALP members were distrustful of the Groupers as they undemocratically stacked out branches and they were becoming more brazen advocating their right-wing views. They openly supported US imperialism and even spoke favourably about the fascistic regime in Spain. Many inside the ALP were now developing the view that the Groupers influence needed to be reduced.

Petrov affair

1954 saw the emergence of the famous Petrov affair. Vladimir Petrov from the Russian Embassy in Canberra offered to provide the Australian government with evidence of Soviet espionage in exchange for political asylum. His asylum was granted and a Royal Commission on espionage was set up. Two ALP staffers were named in the Commission and Evatt appeared in their defence.

While no charges were laid as a result of the Royal Commission, the timing of the Petrov affair gave the Liberals a huge boost in the lead up to the 1954 election. Evatt claimed that the whole thing was orchestrated in order to undermine the ALP. He also claimed that The Movement was part of this conspiracy against his leadership.

The Movement ran many articles in News Weekly aimed at undermining Evatt and he blamed Santamaria for the election loss. This dramatically heightened tensions inside the ALP. In early October 1954 Evatt accused two Victorian MPs of being disloyal to the party and of being under the control of The Movement.

At the same time as these developments were unfolding at a federal level, tensions were also flaring up in the states. It was in Victorian and Queensland, where the Groupers were strongest and it was in these states that the splits were the most bitter.

In Victoria the ALP affiliated trade unions considered the state ALP government to be too heavily influenced by The Movement. They were incensed that the government wanted to carry out job cuts on the tramways and called on the federal ALP leaders to dissolve the Victorian executive.

Evatt obliged and at the 1955 Federal ALP conference the Victorian state executive was dismissed. A number of right wing delegates walked out in disgust and it was here that the split in party started to become formalised.

The new Victorian executive was dominated by the unions and it expelled 24 Grouper MPs that were sitting in the state parliament. Four pro-Grouper unions were also disaffiliated from the party. In April 1955 the Victorian Liberal leader Henry Bolte moved a motion of no-confidence in the ALP and a number of the expelled MPs voted with the Liberals to bring down the government. The Liberals easily won the election that followed.

In Queensland the ALP affiliated unions were demanding that the state government introduce three weeks annual leave for public servants. The state Premier Vince Gair who was supported by the Groupers refused and as a result, in 1957, he was turfed out of the party. In a similar way the split in Queensland destroyed the ALP. Gair lost a vote of confidence in the parliament and the conservatives won the subsequent state election.

Initially those who split from the ALP stood under the banner of the Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist). This group effectively became the parliamentary wing of The Movement. They were renamed the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) in 1957. In Queensland Gair set up a separate party called the Queensland Labor Party which merged with the DLP later in 1962.

In NSW the split was not as severe as under advice from the Catholic Church hierarchy the Groupers decided to stay inside the ALP rather than leave and set up the DLP. When the DLP was established in NSW they were unable to win over any MPs or union leaders. The fact that the bulk of right wingers decided to stay in the ALP in NSW is one of the reasons that the ALP is more conservative in that state to this day.

The split did not really occur in South Australia and Western Australia as The Movement was fairly weak in those states. The DLP did however set up in those states and it was able to win over a layer of ALP members. In many ways the way in which the split panned out in the different states helped to shape the politics of the state based parties over the following decades.

In December 1955 Menzies used the opportunity of a much weakened and demoralised ALP to extend his influence. He called a snap election and was able to win a 28 seat majority. In 1958 the ALP installed Arthur Calwell as party leader. He himself was a right winger and an avowed anti-communist. In desperation, and in an attempt to outflank the DLP from the right, the ALP moved in a much more conservative direction. Amongst other things, Calwell moved to water down the party’s limited socialisation objective.

The shift to the right however did not lead to an increase in the ALP’s fortunes. Between 1955 and 1974 the DLP consistently preferenced the Liberals ahead of the ALP in every election. This helped to keep the ALP out of federal office until 1972. A similar approach was also taken in state elections.

By the 1970s the CPA was a shadow of its former self and anti-communist campaigns were getting less traction. The DLP instead focused on pushing their conservative social agenda. With society moving in a more socially progressive direction the DLP found that their base was eroding. By the mid 1970s they had lost all of their MPs and the party was eventually wound up in 1978.

Character of the ALP

For a long time the ALP could be described as a capitalist workers party. While its leadership and outlook was predominantly pro-capitalist, it had democratic structures and a mass working class base. This base was able to use the structures to exert pressure on the party. Hence periodically, it was pushed in a left direction.

Today the ALP is an out and out capitalist party. The differences that remain between the ALP and the Liberals are purely stylistic. In reality the process of transforming the party into an outright capitalist party began in the period after the 1955 split. Progressively it took on more right-wing policies and distanced itself from its socialist origins.

While the base of the party was able to influence the leaders during the heady 1970s, by the early 1980s its democratic structures were being weakened and it began to be emptied out of its working class base. It became over run with middle class careerists.

The transformation was effectively completed by the late 1980s to early 1990s when under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating the party fully embraced neo-liberal economic policies. When the CPA fully collapsed in 1991 the counterweight on the ALP’s left flank was removed and this only hastened their shift to the right.

It was also during the 1980s that the four Grouper unions that were disaffiliated from the party in 1955 began to be welcomed back. Some merged with bigger unions while others were reaffiliated.

Many right-wingers from The Movement tradition rejoined the ALP in the 1980s and through their control of a few of the reaffiliated unions they once again began to wield a significant amount of influence in the party. Perhaps the union with the most influence in the ALP today is a former Grouper union – the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA).

The SDA, which mostly covers retail workers, has around 230,000 members. In reality the SDA is a yellow union that consistently does sweetheart deals with the major retail chains that undermine wages and working conditions. In return the employers facilitate a process whereby workers are signed up to become passive members of the union.

The large paper membership of the SDA allows them to affiliate to the ALP and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) with significant influence. They use this influence to push their conservative Catholic agenda including opposition to abortion rights for women and opposition to same sex marriage. They play a key role in the pre-selection of many MPs.

Today the left inside the ALP has been totally decimated. There are no longer any significant forces inside the party that call for social reform let alone socialism. The transformation of the ALP into an outright capitalist party can only be understood by looking at how it developed in the aftermath of ‘The Split’.

Now that the ALP’s working class base has been diminished and its democratic structures have been largely removed, there is no prospect of the membership having any influence over the direction the party takes. With that being the case the task ahead is to build a new workers party that fights for a socialist Australia and world.

Understanding the history of the former workers parties in Australia is important so that future generations of socialist activists can build upon their strengths and avoid their many mistakes.

By Anthony Main


Obituary: B.A. Santamaria, 1915-1998

This obituary was originally published in the March 1998 edition of The Militant, the predecessor of The Socialist.

The recent death of B.A. Santamaria brings to an end one of the most significant political careers of the last 50 years.

A deeply religious man, Santamaria first became active in politics in Melbourne student and Catholic circles in the 1930s. An increasingly fanatical anti-communist, he was a supporter of the fascistic Franco regime in Spain. But he was by no means an orthodox pro-capitalist ideologue – he advocated a return to an almost peasant-style rural life, with a powerful church presence.

Santamaria rose to national prominence in the 1940s by organising ‘The Movement’, a secret Catholic organisation dedicated to smashing the growing communist influence within the trade unions. Whilst he was a scholarly and intellectual sort of a person, he clearly understood that the key to success was grass roots mobilisation – and that’s precisely how he organised in the unions – ironically basing himself in large part on communist organising techniques.

In the Cold War atmosphere of the late 1940s and 1950s he was able to achieve considerable success, most spectacularly in the powerful Ironworkers union with the revolutionary-turned-right-winger, Laurie Short.

Indeed so powerful did the Santamaria forces become, that formally sympathetic right-wingers began to fear for their own positions – it was felt he had ‘gone too far’. This was the background to the Labor Party split of the mid 1950s and the formation of the Democratic Labor Party, who played a major role in keeping Menzies in power for two decades. In NSW however, under advice from the local Catholic hierarchy the right-wing remained inside the Labor Party. From a historical view, that is why NSW Labor has remained a bastion of the Right ever since.

Whilst always a reactionary on social issues, on economic questions a bizarre repositioning took place. As the Labor Party took on more and more of the corporate agenda, Santamaria spoke out against privatisation and indeed the whole direction in which Labor was moving. The fact that such a pivotal right-wing figure should find himself, at the end of his life so clearly to the left of pretty-well the entire parliamentary Labor Party – including the so-called ‘left-wing’ – speaks volumes about just how far to the right the Labor Party has moved in recent years. For his part Santamaria never really moved at all.

Santamaria was a reactionary, but unlike the corporate spivs who now completely dominate both the major parties, he at least had a certain humanity about him, and a life-vision that extended beyond the grubby worship of the dollar.

By Paul True