The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key moments in Australian political history, looking at what happened, its impact then, and its relevance to politics today.
The Labor split started in earnest in October 1954, when federal leader H.V. Evatt denounced the “disloyal” activities of a militant anti-communist faction operating predominantly in the party’s Victorian branch. Tumult followed.
In March 1955, rival Victorian Labor delegations competed for admission to the party’s federal conference in Hobart, further crystallising the split. A month later, the Victorian Labor government was sacrificed as anti-communist breakaways crossed the floor to support an opposition-initiated no-confidence motion.
In the federal sphere, Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies called an early poll to capitalise on Labor’s chaos. The result was an emphatic victory for the Coalition, which benefited from preferences from the Australia Labor Party (Anti-Communist), later renamed the Democratic Labor Party (DLP).
Influenced by distinctive local factors, the split also engulfed Queensland Labor in 1957. Premier Vince Gair was expelled from the party. This precipitated an election that delivered power to the Coalition in Queensland.
But the seeds of this political calamity predated Evatt’s combustible statement. For complex socioeconomic and other reasons, a majority of Irish Catholics had historically voted for Labor, and the schism during the first world war over conscription further strengthened this ethno-sectarian alignment. In turn, there had always been a tension between socialist impulses within the labour movement and Catholicism.
The risk of conflict escalated in the 1930s, as the small but resolute local Communist Party made inroads into the labour movement.
By the 1940s, communists controlled key trade unions. This prompted Labor state branch organisations to establish “industrial groups” to combat that influence. These groups proved effective, but became closely entwined – especially in Victoria – with the Catholic Social Studies Movement.
“The Movement” had been set up by the bishops and was directed by B. A. Santamaria to exploit the position of Catholics within the labour movement to fight atheistic communism.
Santamaria’s ambition for The Movement expanded from it stiffening anti-communist resolve in the trade unions to it becoming a trojan horse for transforming the Labor’s personnel and policies. Those dreams were fanciful, but Santamaria’s zealotry and Evatt’s intemperance were crucial to the split.
Trade union powerbrokers who were determined to subjugate Labor’s parliamentary wing – even at the price of political oblivion – were also responsible.
What was its impact?
The split destroyed Labor governments in Victoria and Queensland. The party was relegated to opposition for a generation. It did not regain office in these states until 1982 and 1989 respectively.
Better sense prevailed within the ALP’s top counsels and Catholic hierarchy elsewhere, enabling Labor governments to ride out the storm in New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia.
Federally, however, the consequences were also devastating for the ALP. Becoming prime minister for the second time in 1949, Menzies’ hold on office was initially far from secure; the elections of 1951 and 1954 were close run. But the Labor split gifted him political dominance.
In contrast, despite remaining at the ALP’s helm until 1960, the brilliant but mercurial Evatt never recovered politically or psychologically.
Another legacy was the DLP, which at its zenith held the balance of power in the Senate and buttressed non-Labor governments, federal and state, through watertight preference flows.
The split dramatically realigned Catholic voting. Tribal Labor supporters were torn between their religious and political faiths. The upward social mobility of Catholics in post-war Australia was destined to diversify their voting behaviour, but in one stroke a sizeable chunk hived off to the DLP.
It has also been suggested that, over time, the DLP acted as a bridge for Catholics to transfer loyalty to the Liberal Party: a side of politics where they had been traditionally unwelcome.
What are its contemporary implications?
The effects of the split washed out of the political system during the 1970s.
Federal intervention in the Victorian Labor Party in 1970 to correct its post-split deformities was an important prerequisite for the party winning office federally in 1972, and a decade later in Victoria.
The first of these victories undermined the DLP’s fundamental rationale – to deny Labor power nationally. In 1974, it lost its representation in the Senate. A few years later it expired.
Viewed from today’s post-Cold War and secularised society, the conflicts at heart of the split appear curiously arcane. Yet the ghosts of those events linger.
In 1985, four trade unions – including the powerful and conservative Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association – that had affiliated with the DLP in the 1950s were controversially readmitted to the ALP. Their presence continues to influence Labor’s contemporary factional power balance.
The DLP – or its bastard child – resurrected in the 2000s and has since had members elected to the Senate and the Victorian Legislative Council.
We are also reminded of how much the presence in the modern Liberal Party of a high-profile conservative Catholic grouping recast religious political allegiances following the split. Among them is former prime minister Tony Abbott – an unashamed Santamaria protégé.