This article first appeared in The Canberra Times of 5 July 2022
Before the teals, the DLP rewrote politics
by Stephen Holt
The election of sixteen House of Representatives crossbench members, including six or so Teal independents, on 21 May 2022 signals a big shift in the underlying structure of Australian politics.
Old habits have been cast aside. The emergence of the Teals in particular shows that new loyalties are being formed. Amid the disruption, one item of Australian federal political history was swept aside.
Until 2022’s shakeup the previous biggest contingent of crossbenchers sitting in the House of Representatives was not during Julia Gillard’s storied hung parliament of 2010-13, which had a total of six crossbenchers including three independents. To find a bigger crossbench we instead have to go way back to 1955 and the early political response in Australia to the onset of the Cold War.
On 19 April of that year the Speaker of the House of Representatives formally recognised the presence in the chamber of seven members of a new political entity which went by the name of the Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist).
The new party comprised members who had just withdrawn from the federal parliamentary Labor Party which, led by Dr H V Evatt, was in opposition in Canberra. The seven new crossbenchers were assigned seats at the far side of the Opposition benches.
At the end of the month the House voted to evict Arthur Calwell from the parliamentary office suite that he occupied in his capacity as Deputy Leader of the Opposition. The suite was then placed at the disposal of the seven new crossbenchers to serve as their party room.
The unseemly scuffle over accommodation was rooted in a deep internal struggle which had been going on for months if not years. All seven members of the new party came from Victoria. They claimed to represent the only legitimate state ALP branch in Victoria. Labor’s federal executive had expelled them from the party because they had refused to recognise a new rival state executive that had been installed in Victoria.
The federal executive had suspended the old Victorian executive because, allegedly, it was controlled by sinister acolytes of the Catholic anti-Communist activist Bob Santamaria.
The seven new crossbenchers had been elected as endorsed Labor candidates at the previous federal election held a year earlier. In the lead up to that election Labor leader Dr H V Evatt had entered into a purely transactional alliance with Bob Santamaria. When Evatt lost the election he felt betrayed. Within months he was portraying Santamaria as a creepy ultra-religious conspirator.
The denunciation of Santamaria blindsided the seven Victorian crossbenchers. They were convinced that Evatt was a stooge of the Kremlin. Evatt’s followers hit back, loudly denouncing the seven as rats and traitors. Proceedings in the House of Representatives became noisy and angry as a result of the bad blood. It was all quite unedifying.
The brainiest member of the breakaway party was Stan Keon but he could not be its leader. Sectarianism explained everything. Keon like most of his party colleagues was a Catholic but he could not be their leader because the new party was determined not to be seen as part of a latter-day Popish plot. A Protestant (Bob Joshua) had to be their official leader.
The ALP (Anti-Communist)’s presence in the House of Representatives did not last long. Prime Minister Robert Menzies capitalised on the split in Labor’s ranks. He dissolved the House towards the end of the year. In December all seven Victorian crossbenchers were defeated.
The new party did win a Senate seat though and even more importantly its second preferences in the 1955 election went solidly to the Liberal Party. Menzies was returned in a landslide. It was a triumph for the established order.
The crossbench of 1955, although short lived, was highly significant. It embodied one of the big shifts in Australian politics.
Forty years before, the great anti-conscription struggles of 1916-17, which had a marked sectarian element, had forged a seemingly unbreakable bond in Australia between the Labor Party and voters of Irish Catholic descent.
In the 1950s this old association buckled under the impact of adverse Cold War pressures. The Catholic Church was militantly anti-Communist. From the perspective of many of its members a Labor Party led by Dr Evatt, now a fierce critic of Bob Santamaria, could no longer be trusted.
The 1955 election went ahead under the new paradigm. A sizeable bloc of formerly rusted on Labor voters did not have to switch directly over to voting for Menzies and the Liberals in order to keep Evatt out of office. They could instead vote and indeed campaign for Keon and Joshua before, in the utter privacy and silence of the polling booth, allotting their second preferences to the Menzies government.
1955s breakaway Laborites and their followers long remained a force to be reckoned with. They became the Democratic Labor Party. DLP voters helped to elect the odd Senator. DLP preferences helped to prop up conservative government in Canberra until 1972.
Keon and his six comrades in 1955 provided a haven for lost Labor voters who for understandable reasons did not want to vote Liberal just as the Teals in 2022 are a haven for lost Liberals who for equally understandable reasons do not want to vote Labor.
Will the Teals prop up Anthony Albanese long after 2022 just as the DLP propped up Bob Menzies and his successors long after 1955?
In politics there is never anything new under the sun.
Stephen Holt (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Canberra writer.