The ideological war over our first MP

Stephen Holt

February 5, 2013

Labor’s first federal preselection contest in the ACT was conducted after the Chifley government awarded Canberrans parliamentary representation. The resulting preselection turned out to be a fraught affair indeed, replete with chicanery and religious sectarianism.

The intensity of the contest was unsurprising. Canberra, when Ben Chifley was our prime minister, was a small public service town where gossip, occasionally fuelled by alcohol, flowed freely. Ambition flourished as well. This was a heady mixture.

A prime topic for social chit-chat among bureaucrats at the time was the supposed existence in Canberra of a cell of public servants who were linked to the secretive Catholic Social Studies Movement (known simply as ”the Movement”), whose driving spirit in Melbourne was B. A. Santamaria.

Frank Street

Public servant Frank Street was the Movement’s chief agent in the ACT.

The Movement existed to combat communist influence in the Australian labour movement. Critics could easily depict the consequences of its anti-communist campaign in a Machiavellian light. The word around Canberra was that ”a secret Catholic society is trying to get control of the ALP”.

The speculation about the Movement’s presence in Canberra had a solid basis. Santamaria’s papers, available to researchers up to 1972, contain documents which outline the Movement’s early activities in the national capital.

The Santamaria archive reveals that an officer in the federal Department of Commerce, Frank Street, was the Movement’s contact in postwar Canberra. As such, Street was in an unenviable position. He had his demanding public service duties to perform yet had his unpaid Movement work as well. His departmental superiors suspected a possible conflict of priorities.

BA Santamaria

The Movement’s leader, Catholic right-winger B. A. Santamaria.

Everyone knew about Street’s ”anti-com” activities. Movement members in Canberra were pledged to secrecy, yet they leaked like a sieve. Street had to spend time devising ways of ensuring that fewer Movement supporters in Canberra had access to sensitive internal information. Eventually, access to such information was confined to an eight-person executive, each of whom knew only about their own particular activity.

The Movement’s Chifley-era followers in Canberra got the chance to conduct their first serious party-political operation after the legislation granting parliamentary representation to the ACT was passed in 1948. The Movement was determined to ensure that Canberra’s first federal MP had impeccable anti-communist credentials. Street was an obvious candidate if this was the chief criterion.

There were complications, though. In the winter of 1948, the Movement in Melbourne learnt that Street might shortly be transferred overseas for work. It contacted him to see if this meant he had given up the idea of contesting the new ACT seat.

John Burton

Department of External Affairs secretary Dr John Burton.

In response, Street confirmed he had indeed been appointed as his department’s representative in London. He had, he told the Movement, failed in efforts to get the Public Service Act amended to provide for the reinstatement of public servants who had served in Federal Parliament. This failure had killed off his parliamentary aspirations. Street was unprepared to sacrifice his job security for a risky political existence. And so he headed off to London.

Nevertheless, Street left behind a legacy. Thanks to his efforts, the Movement was, he could report, ”very strong” in the local ALP branch. He was confident his friends had the numbers to sway preselection.

Street was aware of talk that the sitting Labor MP, Allan Fraser, might try to move from his marginal seat of Eden-Monaro to the ACT seat. An alarmed Street dismissed Fraser ”as a Russophile and an opportunist”. He was not to be trusted.

Jim Fraser

The ACT’s first federal Labor MP, Jim Fraser.

To head Fraser off, the Movement in Canberra approached right-wing Sydney Laborite Jim Maloney to see if he might be interested in nominating for the new seat. Street supported Maloney because he had, in his estimation, ”a good reputation as an industrial advocate and would be very acceptable generally because of his anti-com sympathies”.

In the latter half of 1948, potential candidates for ALP preselection emerged and disappeared at a great rate. In the event, Maloney did not seek preselection, nor did Allan Fraser (though his younger brother Jim did).

Street’s absence from the contest was symptomatic. The Movement in Canberra was comprised for the most part of highly capable federal public servants, none of whom was willing to risk their permanent employment by trying to get into Federal Parliament.

One public servant, however, did throw his hat into the ring, despite the impact such a decision could have on his career prospects. This was the all-too-idealistic head of the Department of External Affairs, Dr John Burton. A fellow officer at the department, Jim Hill, whom the intelligence service saw as a security risk, was Burton’s campaign manager.

Burton’s candidacy disturbed Santamaria and the Movement. Burton, along with fellow public servant Dr H. C. Coombs, represented a new breed of left-leaning bureaucrats with advanced tertiary degrees who seemed to be doing well in the Chifley era. Santamaria, fearful of secular humanism, distrusted them all.

So Burton had to be stopped, but the Movement in Canberra, as we have seen, was in no position to summon up a rival preselection candidate from its own ranks. Forced to adopt a fallback position, it opted for the secretary of the ACT Trades and Labour Council, Sid Rhodes.

The membership of the Canberra ALP totalled fewer than 60 people, which meant every vote was crucial. In the lead-up to the day of judgment, pettifogging rather than ideology or policy was the order of the day. The anti-Burton forces claimed Burton was ineligible for nomination because his continuity of party membership had lapsed. The Burton camp insisted the ballot be put off because it appeared that some members of the ALP branch lacked valid party tickets.

It was widely acknowledged that Burton did not have the numbers to win preselection. In response, the pro-Burton forces sought to hijack democratic procedures. They contacted the state ALP executive in Sydney – whose jurisdiction at this time included the ACT branch – and asked it to suspend the disputed preselection ballot. The plan then was for Chifley, who favoured Burton, to get the state executive to appoint Burton as the ACT nominee without a ballot.

The NSW executive was compliant at first. It suspended the preselection ballot pending an investigation of the rival claims.

The anti-Burton forces were undaunted. They turned up in force when the annual election of local ALP branch officials took place on February 28, 1949. In a clear statement of who was in control, Movement people were elected to the key positions. The new secretary was a public servant, Fred Quinane, who features in the Santamaria archive. He was linked to the Movement. The election demonstrated that a majority of the ACT branch was opposed to a Burton candidacy.

This show of strength had the desired outcome. The NSW executive backed off. It authorised the ACT branch to go ahead with its contentious preselection ballot. The result was no surprise. Rhodes defeated Burton after the preferences of the third-placed Jim Fraser were distributed.

The Chifley era ended when the Liberal-Country Party coalition swept to office in the December 1949 federal election. In a bad year for Labor, Rhodes was defeated by an independent, Dr Lewis Nott, who thus became the ACT’s first elected federal member. The ACT only elected its first ALP member in 1951, when the popular Jim Fraser, named as Labor candidate by the NSW executive when the federal election was called on early, finally got to contest the seat.

In the end, the Movement failed to produce Canberra’s first federal MP. Its strength in the national capital mostly comprised permanent public servants such as Quinane and Street. From their viewpoint, it was OK to fill voluntary positions in the local ALP but being a good public servant meant forswearing parliamentary ambitions. That was an article of faith.

Yet the Movement’s activity in the Canberra ALP in the Chifley years was not without effect. In the years ahead, it continued to frustrate the dreaded Burton whenever he sought to influence local party affairs. In alliance with other anti-Burton stalwarts (such as Professor L. F. Crisp), Movement people gained a strong ongoing presence in the local branch. The resulting right-wing aura of the ALP in Canberra was not really challenged until less-inhibited political conditions began to arrive in the swinging years of the 1960s.

Stephen Holt is a freelance writer and historian based in Canberra.