Review of Robert Murray, Labor and Santamaria, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2016, published in the Recorder, newsletter of the Melbourne Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, No. 288, March 2017, p. 7.
As Australian labour history goes, Robert Murray’s The Split (1970) on the tumultuous splits in the mid-1950s, is only rivalled by H.V. Evatt’s Australian Labour Leader (1942), a sympathetic account of the life, disillusionment and failures of one of the movement’s pioneers, one-time NSW Labor Premier William Arthur Holman who ratted on the ALP in 1917. Both books are connected to another great tragic Labor figure – “Doc.” Evatt, who arguably did more than R.G. Menzies to keep Labor out of office for twenty three years.
In this short 100-page booklet, part crib of the original, memoir, update and reconsidered assessment, Murray in Labor and Santamaria provides a clear, absorbing account. The book’s chapters signal to any newcomer the story of what happened over 60 years ago: After ‘Chif’, The ALP, 1954, Bob Santamaria, The Split in NSW, The Split in Queensland, The Rise of Whitlam, After Half a Century, Memory Lane.
At the launch of the book in March 2017 in the Old Library Room of Trades Hall, Carlton, two former Victorian Premiers, John Cain Jnr and Steve Bracks, urged all new party members read the book. There was much lamenting that not enough Victorian Labor history has been written.
What is striking in this account, is the calm, sober assessments of personalities and ideologies that challenge conventional opinion – such as, for example, the myth that the Split represented the struggle between progressives and reactionaries for the soul of the labour movement.
This is in marked contrast to the Labor history tradition which has emphasised the ideological at the expense of the accidental, the rationalisations ahead of the personalities and chaos that more captures what really happened. In his study, Murray complements the insight of the late British political theorist Henry Drucker, himself a great admirer of The Split, that there’s too much doctrine and not enough ethos in the telling of labour history. If the narrative is clear and ideologically coherent be suspicious – seems one important conclusion of Drucker’s UK study, Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party (1979).
Murray has an insider’s grasp of the workings of the ALP and a novelist’s ability to capture the essence of person, situation and context.
Here are some interesting quotes:
“For the first few years, the [ALP Industrial] Groups were uncontroversial, their work too essential and appreciated by all but the far left of the ALP.”
“The official ALP Industrial Groups had had a favourable press and the support of most orthodox Labor people, though later propaganda made it all seem sinister.”
On Santamaria: “Santamaria was a flawed leader who succumbed to hubris in the heyday of the Groups, with the smell of power over public policy while still young and admired by the bishops, clergy and many laity. Religion and politics can be an intoxicating, unstable mix, risking misjudgments due to over-confident belief that one is doing God’s work.”
“Bob Santamaria made mistakes enough but it is hard to avoid the judgement that Evatt caused the Split, in his own bid for survival. His 1954 statement gave the internal troubles the momentum to produce devastation instead of just another nasty but manageable political party and trade union feud.”
“Short, rotund, affable yet arrogant, [Vince] Gair was the rising star [in the Queensland Labor government in the late 1940s].”
In the May 1955 Victorian State election: “The vindictiveness and hysteria on both sides of the two Labor camps led to them breaking with usual practice and giving most of their second preferences to the Liberals.” So, at first, both what became the DLP and the ALP refused to preference each other.
“Clyde Cameron’s vision had been of [fiery Labor MP Eddie] Ward bringing the Left to radical power with great thumping speeches during an economic crisis.”
As Santamaria moved on from his concern with industrial and union issues, the late 1960s onwards, he seemed to act “like a shrewd, typically autocratic small businessman, cultivating new markets for his firm as old ones weakened.”
When asking Frank McManus about the influence of papal encyclicals on DLP thinking he dourly responded that “most of them would want to know what race it was in” followed by an account that the Split was a power struggle and not particularly ideological.
Murray writes that “[t]he most revealing discovery to me was how little most people involved thought about ideology. There seemed enough of it in the background of both the DLP/NCC and the trades halls to attract half the world’s universities: Catholic social theory and church authority on the one hand, variations of Marxism, social democracy and other socialism[s] on the other. But ideology hardly arose at all in the innumerable interviews and informal conversations I had; and if it did [it] was usually in the context of being dismissed as unimportant. The politics at hand was the game.”
Of Santamaria, “I decided that he was not a bad bloke, but yet another control freak…” There were many around at the time, on all sides.
On involvement in the ALP in Victoria in the 1960s, Murray and colleagues “…soon realised what an ineffectual, bullying and unlovely mess the Split had left.”
In part the book conveys the sense that without the reforming zeal of Whitlam, the sorry disaster had decades left to unfold without national party intervention in the Victorian Branch in 1970-71.
This frank, sad, compelling story opens up the richness of Labor history including – notwithstanding the downplaying of ideology – the significance and compatibility of Catholic social thinking to Labor theory. The Victorians, as Santamaria and Murray saw, were trying to pioneer something new. Was Catholic social and political philosophy compatible with Labor values – something better than the crude notion of a big family on every acre, as anti-Grouper propaganda later presented? There are indications in Murray’s book about the missed opportunities for Labor to renew its reforming agenda, as the Split furies blew themselves out. Some issues – the formulation of a reform agenda for one, are never ending and require a mastery of contemporary challenges.
Perhaps this book will inspire a new Bob Murray to explicate understanding of our times.
At one time I was hopeful that the American-UK political scientist, the late Henry Drucker might be enticed to take up a Chair of Government at the University of Sydney. So I sent him Murray’s book The Split (1970) and other publications as briefing material before an informal interview he had in London. That is how come I knew of Drucker’s high regard for the work. He thought the book a masterful and convincing account.