By Stephen Holt
(An edited version of this article appeared in The Canberra Times (Public Sector Informant) of 5 April 2022)
There is an intriguing reference to political shenanigans in Cold War Canberra in Troy Bramston’s new biography of Bob Hawke.
Bramston in an early chapter refers to a letter dated 24 October 1956. Written by Hawke, then residing in Canberra, to his parents back in Perth, the letter includes commentary by Hawke on, according to Bramston, “factional wars in the local Labor Party in Canberra”.
Bramston’s description prompted me to contact the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library in Perth – which has a copy of the original letter – to see precisely what the future Prime Minister had to say about his fellow Canberrans. JCPML let me look at its copy. The resulting examination has turned up interesting information.
1956, the year that the letter was written, took in some big events for Hawke. He returned to Australia after having been a Rhodes Scholar at University College, Oxford. In March he married Hazel Masterson in Perth before moving to Canberra to take up a research scholarship at the Australian National University.
The research conducted by Hawke at the ANU focused on the conciliation and arbitration system which regulated relations between employer associations and trade unions.
Hawke engaged with the political side of trade unionism as well which required his becoming a rank and file member of the local Canberra branch of the Australian Labor Party.
Hawke detailed his initial response to grassroots Laborism in the national capital in the letter that he despatched to his parents on or after 24 October 1956.
Context is needed to better understand Hawke’s observations. The Labor Party was highly competitive and outwardly united when Hawke sailed for England in 1953. But by the time he returned in 1956 things were much different.
Labor, under the erratic federal leadership of Dr H V Evatt, was now hopelessly split on the issue of communism. Breakaway elements were in the process of forming the Democratic Labor Party which was dedicated, via preferences at the ballot box, to propping up the Liberal-Country Party coalition government led by Robert Menzies.
Normal Aussies in the 1950s did not include lengthy analyses of internal political bickering when writing to their parents but Hawke was never a normal Aussie. He knew that he was destined for national leadership. He had to understand and master all the political intricacies that that entailed.
In accordance with his destiny Hawke’s filial letter from Canberra included an unbroken two and a half page paragraph in which, in a stream of consciousness, he detailed how the big Labor split was impacting on the local party branch in Canberra.
Local Laborites, Hawke told his parents, were “agitated” by an attempt to create new ALP branches in Canberra. A proposal to break up the existing single branch was being fought over by two rival camps.
Hawke’s letter outlined the rival forces. “Groupers” (aka anti-Evatt people) controlled the existing Canberra Labor Party branch. Followers of Dr John Burton, who periodically advised Dr Evatt on policy issues, hoped to break their control by replacing the existing single branch with three new branches.
Hawke then summarised what ensued.
The Groupers had the numbers at a branch meeting (on 24 September) and blocked the proposed break up. Hawke, with trademark verbal thoroughness, supported the Groupers. His opinion, as passed on to his parents, was that “the present branch is by any standard a remarkably good one” characterised by an “extraordinarily high” level of discussion.
In a follow-up move Hawke (on 13 October) attended an unofficial private meeting organised by Burtonites at a private residence in O’Connor. Many of the attendees, Hawke noted, seemed genuine but Hawke did his best to ensure that “Burton’s henchmen” did not dominate the night’s proceedings.
Finally, just before writing his report to Perth, Hawke (on 22 October) attended a regular meeting of the existing party branch. He came away sensing that a deal to dampen down the infighting was in play. Both sides would be placated. To this end the existing single anti-Evatt branch would be downsized but there would be only one additional branch and not the two new branches that the Burtonites were demanding (this is in fact what happened).
Hawke was ready to assure his parents that he rejected “extremists of either wing” in the ALP. He was prepared to collaborate with the local anti-Evatt forces in Canberra because he considered that their nemesis Dr Burton was the less desirable of the two choices. While he had many “perfectly sound” views, Dr Burton, for Hawke, was a just a “political opportunist” who had to be blocked.
Hawke’s unfavourable opinion of Burton spread out to include distrust of Burton’s federal patron Dr Evatt. The factional content in Hawke’s report concluded with a comment to the effect that Evatt, as evidenced by his willingness to get involved in the then broiling controversy surrounding Professor Sydney Sparkes Orr and the University of Tasmania, was apt to do things that reflected badly on his judgement as a federal leader of the Australian Labor Party.
For their part the anti-Burton camp in Canberra – who were led by the redoubtable Professor L F Crisp from the Canberra University College – welcomed Hawke as a useful collaborator. Branch correspondence held at the National Library of Australia indicates that no hard feelings were generated by Hawke’s attending the informal meeting of critics in O’Connor. He had obviously attended either to express opposition or simply to observe what was happening, as befitted someone who after was still an academic researcher.
Early in 1957 Hawke became vice president of the downsized anti-Evatt Canberra ALP branch. He addressed its annual general meeting on the latest basic wage case being heard by federal conciliation and arbitration authorities.
Hawke’s involvement in local ACT Labor politics had now peaked. His focus after all was on industrial advocacy.
Hawke chose to leave the ANU and take up a position with the Australian Council of Trade Unions in Melbourne. He left Canberra – though not for good – in 1958.
So Hawke’s involvement in local Canberra politics was quite short lived. His involvement was serious though and highlighted an enduring reality.
Faced with the clear right-wing versus left-wing differentiation in Canberra Laborism in 1956 Hawke opted for the right. When angling for the prime ministership two decades later he had to navigate a similar right-left situation.
The late seventies and early eighties saw a repeat of the Canberra gambit albeit on a much bigger scale. Hawke joined up with opponents of Labor’s Socialist Left faction, which included reaching an understanding with the famed New South Wales Right.
An accommodation with the right was fundamental to Hawke’s final ascendancy. What happened in Canberra in the spring of 1956, when he performed a similar manoeuvre, was a foretaste of important things to come, both for Hawke and for Australian politics as a whole.
Against this background political historians ought to be grateful that back in 1956 Hawke decided to detail his thinking about factionalism in the letter that he wrote to his parents in October of that fractious Canberra year.
Stephen Holt is a Canberra writer.