1955 Labor Split
Australian 1 October 1994

Herbert Vere Evatt made two inestimable contributions to the preservation of our social democracy. The first was his leadership of the 1951 campaign to oppose the banning of the Communist Party.

Scholars have shown that the Menzies government was preparing to put thousands of Australians into concentration camps once that ban came into effect. Fortunately, most Australian followed Evatt’s lead and voted against the referendum to alter the Constitution.

Had Evatt not used his authority in the Labor movement to marshall opposition to the anti-Red Bill, political life would have been driven well down the road to authoritarianism. Communists would have been punished for their beliefs, not for specified offences. Fellow travellers and other non-communist radicals would have been rounded up as well.

Most Australians now appreciate that Evatt played the hero’s part on this issue, while the Liberal Party under Menzies exposed how little it had in common with small-l liberalism or the rights of the individual.

Evatt’s other contribution, however, is hardly recognised. Indeed, his action in splitting the Labor Party has been an embarrassment to his admirers. It is high time to praise Evatt for saving Australians from a national government dominated by the Catholic Action groups around B.A. Santamaria.

On October 5, 1954, Evatt denounced the “Movement” and the “Groupers” as clandestine organisations attempting to take control of the political and industrial wings of the Labor movement. The term “Movement” derived from Santamaria’s National Catholic Rural Movement and the Catholic Social Actin Movement. “Grouper” was shorthand for the Industrial Groups which had been set up inside the ALP to take control of unions from the Communist Party.

Santamaria’s memoirs, Against the Tide (1981), acknowledged that the Industrial Groups had the numbers to control the ALP machine, and hence to influence government policies. On the issue of sacking the anti-grouper federal secretary of the ALP, he wrote: “Nor was there any doubt that a majority existed on the federal executive to bring this about”. He added that “Industrial Group supporters now occupied the positions of federal president … and the two vice-presidents”.

Evatt pretended to be surprised by the extent of this takeover. In fact, for tactical reasons, he had been supporting the Catholic Action forces for two years. During the approach to the 1954 elections, Evatt initiated discussions with Santamaria. According to Santamaria, Evatt promised two million pounds as a capital contribution to land settlement projects.

Forty years on, the significance of what was then a substantial sum of money needs explanation. In those days, the Catholic Actionists hoped to convert Australia into a utopia of rural idiocy. Their pivotal organisation was the National Catholic Rural Movement. Santamaria called his 1945 manifesto “The Earth, Our Mother”, in which hs expounded the virtues of living on six acres with a cow. All modern evils came from industrialisation and organisation. The contemporary world was sinful by definition. The answer to communism and to juvenile delinquency was to encourage a society of small rural producers.

Our immigration program would be tailored to suit. Catholic peasants would be brought out and put on government-funded settlements. Women would fulfil their God-ordained role as breeders of 12 children and keepers of the kitchen.

As Santamaria put it: “If Dr Evatt had won the election, he would never have launched his attack on the Industrial Groups or the Movement, since he would have needed their support as prime minister”. In exchange, a federal Labor government would have implemented social and economic programs far more reactionary than any supported by Menzies and his Country Party partners. With Grouper-dominated in five of the six States, complementary legislation would have been forthcoming to overcome the fact that constitutional powers on many social issues resided with the States.

Labor’s defeat in the 1954 election prevented the implementation of such schemes. The claim that ASIO arranged Petrov’s defection to save us from a left-wing government under Evatt has never held water, given how right-wing Evatt’s policies were in the first half of 1954. If there were any truth in the Petrov conspiracy, it is more likely that the Anglo-Saxon Protestants moved to prevent a government in which Santamaria set the agenda than that they sabotaged the electoral chances of a left0leaning Evatt.

Hence, instead of moaning that the Labor split helped to keep the Liberals in office for 23 years, progressive Australians should rejoice that Evatt’s madness and machinations prevented the forces of black Catholic reaction from dominating the government.

The only criticism to be made of Evatt was that he attacked the Groupers before they had had a chance to clean up the NSW branch of the ALP. The Groupers were on a crusade to purify the world. Having vanquished the Reds, Santa’s sanctified ones were turning their attention to the corrupt elements on the Right of the Labor movement.

Fearful of the Groupers, the old Irish Catholic Right in NSW went along with Evatt’s attack and thus survived the split to perpetuate its reign down to the present. If Evatt could have waited, the Groupers might have done their cleansing thoroughly enough to dislodge the machine that has landed us with Paul Keating and his mates.

See also: Cold War Australia - Petrov Commission