2001 ASSLH conference – The flawed history of the movement and the Labor split: How and why the facts were obscured and distorted

Robert Corcoran


This paper examines beliefs – where any exist – about the Split and the Santamaria Movement. It concludes that distorted perceptions were created at the time of the Split and have been nurtured ever since. They still have political significance. The questions are “Why and how were the facts obscured and distorted in the first place, and why has the deception been maintained for so long?” The answer to “Why?” is that the misperceptions have suited the conservative side of politics, and still do. The answer to “How?” is: through the power of the mass media and, to some extent, the influence of certain books.


The most popular beliefs about the Labor Split and the Santamaria Movement are wrong. That is the justification for yet another paper on this subject, but it will not be a re-hash of the whole history of the matter. It will concentrate on perceptions, how and why they were formed, and on the influence of particular books.

The mass media has had great influence on the general public and the result has been a distorted popular view. Robert Murray’s book The Split has also been important, especially because of its influence on other authors as well as readers. Other books will be briefly discussed, including two recently published ones that present new facts. 1

The creation of popular impressions

In the years leading up to the Split the Santamaria Movement was secret – and the mass media cooperated with its secrecy. When Evatt exposed the Movement in late 1954 the press gave headlines to the controversy that followed but obscured the background facts. At that time Santamaria’s press releases implied that the Movement did not exist, but the newspapers did not contradict nor comment. Later on, they acknowledged that some sort of organisation did exist, but pretended to be ignorant of the Movement’s nature and methods.2

The Sydney Morning Herald was an exception, in a limited way. It published articles that correctly described the Movement and in this respect clarified the statement made by Dr Evatt in October 1954, which did not refer to the Movement by name. The Herald articles were sufficient to alert other newspapers to the nature of the Movement, if they happened to be unaware of it at that time, which is most unlikely.3

The campaign to blame Evatt and ignore Santamaria was effective. As the years passed, people who took a keen interest in politics, including authors, absorbed the popular perceptions that had been largely induced by the press. The role played by books was also important and will be discussed later.4

Perceptions of the movement among Catholics

Few Catholics understood much about the Movement before the Split  – or afterwards. For them, like the rest of the community, the daily papers were little help, but most Catholics received the message propagated by Movement people, and by many priests, that the nebulous organisation without a name was Catholic and should be supported. And, from 1955 onwards, that Catholics should vote for the DLP.

There were exceptions. Before the Split, some individual Catholics, although believing that communism should be opposed, were uneasy about the tactics adopted by the Movement, especially its secrecy and the tendency to personally malign opponents. They were apprehensive over its influence within the Labor Party, but for a long time they remained silent. After the Split, these Catholic critics of the Movement realised they were not alone, some spoke out and, in later years, their attitudes were substantially vindicated.5 Among Catholics who were unionists or traditional Labor supporters, a significant minority would have none of the DLP, which they regarded as a breakaway party –  with good reason, as history confirmed.

Senior supporters of Santamaria and the Movement had their own special misperceptions. They had been buoyed up by their success in manipulating the votes in ALP ballots and in 1955 they were confident that their new party would be accepted as the major “Labor” party at the first election after the Split. This was the Victorian State election in May 1955 and they were shocked by their disastrous failure. Long-lasting antagonism towards the ALP followed this disappointment, which continued into the 1970s and even further.6

Motives for concealing the movement

We now come to the question, “Why was information about the Movement concealed by the mass media?” And to examine that question it is helpful to divide the history of the Movement, and Australian politics, into three roughly equal periods stretching over a total of more than 50 years.

The first period began in the early 1940s when the Labor Party was hugely popular, and effective as the government. The conservatives could do little but hope for dissension within the ALP and they realised that the Movement was a potential source of trouble for the Labor Party.7 So it was in the interests of the conservative camp to protect and encourage the Santamaria Movement. But its survival depended on secrecy – and the mass media cooperated.8

In the late 1940s the Movement was already causing serious trouble within the ALP and was a problem to the Labor leader, Ben Chifley.9 By 1954 the Movement dominated the ALP in Victoria and had almost achieved nationwide control of the party, by branch stacking and ballot manipulation. In October 1954 Evatt spoke out, but it was not until 18 months later that Santamaria publicly admitted that the Movement existed.10 Throughout the controversy over the Split the press pretended to be unaware of Santamaria’s real role and the Movement’s activities.

During the second stage, which continued until the 1970s, the bulk of DLP preferences flowed to the anti-Labor parties. But the Movement and the DLP did much more than can be measured by counting preference votes. They attacked Labor, particularly within the Catholic community, with assertions of Labor sympathy for communism – a powerful tactic during the years of the Cold War. So it was still in the interests of the anti-Labor people to obscure the undercover activities of the Movement and avoid tarnishing the reputation of the DLP, and the conservative parties. The cooperation of the mass media continued.

To understand the third stage, which extends to the present time, we must again focus on party politics.

The conservative parties, under a variety of names, have lacked the tradition and fervent loyalty enjoyed by the Labor Party. Aware of this, public relations people have attempted to fashion a political icon out of Menzies and call his time the “golden years”. This package would be hard to sell if it were widely known that Menzies had been propped up for years by Santamaria and the mysterious Movement.

The close relationship between Santamaria and the conservatives was shown by a grand dinner to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Movement, held in Melbourne in 1981. It was attended by the then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and the Federal Treasurer John Howard, but given little publicity. Santamaria had shifted a long way from his youthful Labor sympathies.11

Robert Murray’s The split: Influential and misleading

While the mass media created misperceptions in the minds of average Australians, Robert Murray’s book The Split influenced people who were very interested in politics, including some authors. Murray provides a lot of data about events, dates and people, but omits many important facts and gives a distorted impression of the Movement and the Split.12 Nevertheless, it can be a useful book if treated with caution.

Murray’s sources of information must have affected the character of his book. As he acknowledges, people at the DLP office in Melbourne provided him with help and documents; and the tone of his writing suggests that they exerted a strong influence. In the 1960s, when the book was written, the DLP was still active in politics and its supporters would have been other than human if they had not been partisan in their comments and selective in offering documents.

The book begins with an astonishing blunder. Murray writes, “Information for ‘The Split’ came from many sources. The daily press provided a basic, continuing background to work from and the only records in existence of many events.” In reality, it is difficult to find any news or information about the Movement in the newspapers during the first dozen years of its existence –  from 1941 to 1954. Murray makes no reference to the difficulties this huge gap caused him during his research, nor does he give any explanation for this extraordinary behaviour of the press.13

Murray makes serious mistakes. For example, he writes, “There is no evidence that The Movement itself took an organised part in pre-selection ballots. Anyone with practical experience of what happened in internal ALP elections knew that the Movement was active and highly organised in these ballots, and could have informed Murray. And there is clear documentary evidence. At the 1952 National conference of the Movement, its officers were instructed to “devote full attention to the problem of Federal and State pre-selections with a view to building up numbers of satisfactory Members”. And “…to make every effort to secure control of the [ALP] Federal Executive and Conference…by July 1952”.14

Murray disparages people who criticised the Movement, including Chifley, Evatt and James Ormonde, but praises Santamaria. Attacking Evatt’s 1954 statement, Murray calls it, “melodramatic” “malevolent”, “panic-stricken” and  “unscrupulous”. He calls Ormonde “irrationally obsessive” and after praising Chifley’s earlier career, Murray writes, “…in the eighteen months between his defeat and his death he had increasingly become prone to pique and prejudice…” Records of Chifley’s speeches show that he expressed his concern about the Movement in calm language, and later events showed that his anxiety was justified.15

By contrast, Murray’s attitude towards Santamaria is deferential, even obsequious, with high praise such as “…brilliant ideological clarity“ “His charm, tact, patience and clarity”. Murray makes no criticism of Santamaria’s public statements that were intended to deceive, such as those implying that the Movement did not exist. At the time he was writing The Split Murray must have known this was rank deception.

History contradicts Murray’s judgements. Santamaria’s outlandish political aims have been revealed as fantasies and his many predictions of calamities turned out to be nonsense. In contrast, the events of history have shown that James Ormonde was justified in believing that the Movement was a danger to the Labor Party. Ormonde deserves to be remembered with esteem for his foresight and loyalty.

Murray used dubious material provided by his pro-Movement advisers. For example, the 1954 Federal inquiry investigated and condemned the Victorian State Executive, so it is not surprising that the report produced by the Victorian Executive would be distorted. Murray does comment on its bias in a footnote – but relies on this account. He failed to include balancing statements from Movement critics who knew about the inquiry.16

The Split was re-issued in 1984, 14 years after the first edition without any amendments.

Other books and evidence

A substantial new book on the Movement was recently published. It is Crusade or Conspiracy? Catholics and the Anti- Communist Struggle in Australia. The author is Dr. Bruce Duncan – a Catholic priest of the Redemptorist Order, a scholar, and currently engaged in social advocacy. The book is the product of a huge effort in research over several years and includes important new evidence.

Duncan makes a penetrating appraisal of BASantamaria and the Movement, which will stir interest and, perhaps, controversy. Crusade or Conspiracy is a major work of some 200,000 words and includes nearly 100 pages of Endnotes. It should become recognised as a major reference work on the Movement.

“Insiders” who decide to expose the truth about secret organisations, such as intelligence services often provide valuable insights but, in the case of the Movement, there is a dearth of such books. It is interesting to speculate on the reasons. Have former members felt less than proud of its methods? Have they come to see Santamaria as a false prophet because of the failure of his many predictions of doom? Do they still feel bound by promises of secrecy?17 Or do they simply prefer to “forget”?

Gerard Henderson is a former “insider” who worked as a senior assistant to Santamaria and has written candidly on some, but not all, of the important aspects of the Movement. His book, Mr Santamaria and the Bishops, is based on detailed knowledge and research and focuses mainly on the controversy over the status of the Movement within the Catholic Church. Henderson also includes important evidence that Santamaria had far-reaching political aims. Henderson notes that Santamaria wrote to Archbishop Mannix in 1952 asserting that it would be possible “…for a Catholic inspired program to be implemented by government”. A PhD thesis by Andrew Campbell, which is described later, confirms this, with more evidence and greater explanatory detail.18

When dealing with the Split itself Henderson may have been thrown off-balance by his apparent antipathy towards Evatt, whom he blames for the Split and calls “mad, some would say stark raving mad” and “a fruit loop” – strange words from a usually dignified author. Perhaps he believed such terms would appeal to some of the readers of his book about the Liberal Party, in which these words appeared.19

Instead of addressing the real question of whether Evatt – and Chifley three years earlier – were correct in believing that Santamaria was a threat to the ALP, Henderson brushes aside such issues by simply calling Evatt “mad”. Elsewhere, and paradoxically, Henderson acknowledges that Santamaria planned to dominate the ALP.20

Despite the scarcity of revealing publications by Movement people, books are available that have been written by a different group of Catholics. They were people who had become well aware of the nature and tactics of the Movement during the 1940s and 50s, although they were not Movement members themselves.

Such writers have contributed to a new book called Santamaria—the Politics of Fear. It is edited by Paul Ormonde, and he is also one of the contributors. An interesting consequence is that its publication has prompted a revival of the sorry tactic, often used at the time of the Split, of denigrating those who criticise Santamaria and the Movement, instead of discussing their arguments. Referring to the authors of Ormonde’s book, Archbishop Pell of Melbourne comments, “These are hardy perennials, long-term opponents…” and the Archbishop goes on to argue in defence of Santamaria’s attempt in 1967 to divert money to the Movement from government finance intended for schools.21

The editor of the new book, Paul Ormonde, is already well known to political historians as the author of The Movement, published in 1972 and based on the first hand knowledge of people who knew about the Movement in the years of its greatest power.

Santamaria’s own book, Against the Tide is partly autobiographical and gives his version of the Movement, the Split and the DLP. It was published in 1981, long after the events, when a more candid history would have been appropriate and more valuable. His later book Santamaria—A Memoir (1997) reproduces much of the earlier one, but with more attention to internal Church matters. Santamaria also added a chapter on economics, partly returning, too late to matter, to some of the long-neglected attitudes of his youth.22

Santamaria omitted material that would have damaged the reputations of the Movement and some of its senior people, such as Frank McManus. At the Federal Executive inquiry McManus pretended to know little of the Movement and denied that he was a member. In Against the Tide Santamaria writes of McManus several times, but does not mention his senior position in the Movement.23

Santamaria’s more secret political ambitions, mentioned by Henderson, are discussed at length and confirmed in Andrew Campbell’s PhD thesis – Politics as a vocation: a critical examination of BA Santamaria and the politics of commitment, 1936-1957.

Santamaria gave interviews to Campbell, and gave him access to previously confidential documents and correspondence. He contends that Santamaria was inspired by an obsolete movement called “Integralism” that proposed that the Catholic Church should be “the central organising principle of the social and political order.” Campbell states that commentators and academic critics have failed to appreciate the religious dimension to Santamaria’s political activities.24

Perceptions of Santamaria by various groups of people differ greatly, and this is not surprising as he presented radically different faces –  or masks –  to different audiences: There were at least four of them.

To the general public he played the part of a modest, self-effacing opponent of communism, not otherwise active in politics.

1.    To rank and file members of the Movement and to many other Catholics he appeared as a charismatic orator and leader against the threat of communism, and claimed to be acting with the authority of the Church.
2.    To senior Movement people at national conventions he was a political maestro, orchestrating the permeation and takeover of the Labor Party.
3.    Secretly   to Archbishop Mannix and few others   he presented himself as a latter-day crusader who would turn Australia into a Church-state, governed according to the precepts of the Catholic Church.

Conclusion and the task ahead

It so happened that circumstances brought me into contact with many of the circumstances and events that led up to the Labor Split, and also to those that occurred during that conflict. Since then I have studied whatever material I have been able to find. From all this I have come to the conclusions that I have just presented to you and have become convinced that popular perceptions are distorted, when any at all exist.

Others may have different opinions and it is important to continue until the facts are clearly established, and then, if possible, to ensure that the truth of the matter becomes part of accepted history.

1 Robert Murray, The Split, 1984, Hale & Iremonger. First published in 1970 by Cheshire. Important recent books include: Crusade or Conspiracy? Catholics and the Anti-Communist Struggle in Australia, by Bruce Duncan; Santamaria –  the politics of fear, edited by Paul Ormonde, with contributions by Xavier Connor, James Griffin, Val Noone, Paul Ormonde and Colin Thornton-Smith.
2 The Melbourne Herald was typical of most Australian dailies. After Evatt’s statement it printed several articles but omitted to mention Santamaria and his Movement. In an editorial it simply blamed Evatt.
3 The Sydney Morning Herald, October 6 and 7, 1954. Two articles gave information about the Movement. They were written by the editor, JD Pringle, who also wrote a chapter on the subject in his book Australian Accent, Chatto and Windus, 1958.
4 Allegations have been made that, at the time of his 1954 statement, Evatt was unbalanced or “mad”  –  the word used by Gerard Henderson  –  in Menzies Child, HarperCollins, 1994. p.131. The tactic of blaming an allegedly crazy Evatt distracts attention from the subject matter of Evatt’s statement. In seeking the causes of the Split, questions of Evatt’s mental condition, or his motives, are less important than examining the need for public exposure of the actions of the Movement. This was pushed into the background by attacking Evatt personally.
5 Rulings by paramount Catholic Church authorities in 1957 showed that the Movement’s political activity had been inappropriate for a body purporting to act with Church authority. These findings were not clearly made known to ordinary Catholics and, in Victoria and elsewhere to some degree, the Movement carried on unchanged, but with a new name.
6 In the first post-Split election, in May 1955, the new party’s advertising was substantial and expensive and reflected confidence. How-to-Vote cards proudly carried the name Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist)”. At the next election, a few months later, its advertising was subdued and the single word “Labor” (without defining the precise party) was used on How-to-Vote cards. This was an attempt to confuse voters and indicated the despair of the new party to poll well under its own banner.
7 Recently released cabinet discussion notes of 1950 show that splitting the Labor Party was the main purpose of the Communist Party Dissolution Bill.
8 It is difficult to find any mention of the Movement in the files of the daily press before late 1954.
9 Ross McMullin, The Light on the Hill, OUP, 1991. pp.256-9.
10 Gerard Henderson, Mr Santamaria and the Bishops, St Patrick’s College, Manly, 1982. p.156.
11 Edmund Campion, Rockchoppers, 1982. p.119. Campion writes, The saddest moment in Mr Santamaria’s life seems to me the fortieth anniversary dinner of the Movement, in July 1981, where one of the speakers was Mr Malcolm Fraser, Prime Minister of Australia. BA Santamaria, the man who, all those years ago, had set out with a great ache in his heart to remake the world so that the poor and rejected could find compassion and justice, was ending his days among the stone-faced men of the Right.”
12 The fault is not entirely Murray’s. Based on what is included in The Split and what is omitted, it seems that he was given slanted DLP interpretations of the events and background.
13 Murray, op. cit., p.178. Commenting on an Alan Reid article in the Sydney Sun of 28 September 1954, Murray writes that it was remarkable that the “Santamaria story” was not written earlier.
14 Paul Ormonde, The Movement, Nelson, 1972. pp.173-5. Details are given of how the Movement manipulated ALP ballots. As an example, the present author was a returning officer at an ALP selection ballot in the early 1950s and noticed a group of campaign workers who had travelled together from far outside the electorate to assist the Movement candidate. When they arrived they did not recognise the candidate, nor did the candidate know them. Andrew A. Campbell, Politics as a vocation: a critical examination of BA Santamaria and the politics of commitment, 1936-1957. PhD thesis, Deakin University, 1989. p.261. Campbell notes that it was resolved at the 1951 National conference of the Movement to obtain as many delegates as possible to Trades Hall Councils and conferences of the ALP. At the same conference it was announced that no Movement member was permitted to promise support for an ALP pre-selection candidate without consultation with the Movement. Edmund Campion, Australian Catholics, Viking, 1987, p.167.
15 Stargardt, Things worth fighting for, [Chifley speeches] MUP 1952. 385-6. Murray, op. cit., p.11.
16 Murray, op. cit., p.202. Murray gives an account of the present author’s testimony to the 1954 Federal inquiry. He did not discuss the evidence with Corcoran and the account contains errors of fact.
17 Campbell, op. cit., p.169. The pledge made by Movement members includes “not to disclose to any person whatsoever, not being a member of the Movement, any information concerning its existence or activities; either during my membership or subsequently…”
18 Campbell, op. cit., pp.196-7.
See also Henderson, Mr Santamaria and the Bishops. pp.172-3. See also Edmund Campion, Australian Catholics, p.167.
19 Henderson, Menzies Child, pp.131-2.
20 Henderson, Mr Santamaria and the Bishops, pp.172-3.
21 Paul Ormonde (Ed.), Santamaria—the politics of fear. Spectrum, 2000. p.17. For Archbishop Pell’s statement see The Age of 17.12.2000.
22 Santamaria claimed he never voted Liberal, but in 1994 he contributed a chapter to the 1994 publication The Heart of Liberalism. His more substantial help to the anti-Labor parties included his denigration of the ALP over many years and directing preference votes towards the conservative parties.
23 Murray, op. cit., p.136. McManus is named as a Movement member.  In Laurie Short, A Political Life, 1992, p.211, Susannah Short, writes that McManus was “a senior Movement organiser, close to Santamaria.” The present author submitted a sworn declaration to the Federal Executive inquiry of 1954 that stated that McManus took a leading part in a Movement meeting. See also Gil Duthie, Memories of a Labor Backbencher, Angus and Robertson, 1984. p.151.
24 Campbell, op. cit., p.1. Campbell refers to this doctrine as “Integralism”, the name applied to the ideology of a religious movement in Europe about 90 years ago. It advocated the restoration of the power of the Church in government. In the Conclusion to his thesis, Campbell writes, Santamarias political activities in the period under review are a distinctive example of religiously inspired political action to transform the world”.