Novel offers roller-coaster ride through history of ALP split
AS someone fascinated by the great split in the Australian Labor Party in the mid-1950s I was delighted to read Julian Croft’s satirical novel ‘Out of Print’, which deals in some detail with the background to the split.
Most of the action takes place in Newcastle in about 1953-54 and deals with a female protagonist, a reporter for the fictional ‘Sydney Morning Times’, who covers the activities of the industrial groupers and the communists in the trade union movement and the sectarian divisions of the time.
The novel does this by featuring the communist Sweetapple family (from the Seamen’s Union); their lodger Toby Girvan, an Ulster Mason (from the Boilermakers); and Joe Sharkey, a Catholic organiser for the Tramways Union.
Published by Puncher & Wattmann, ‘Out of Print’ is also a parody of a 1950s romance, so the female lead has to have a man — in this case, an ASIO operative investigating a tip-off that the IRA is planning to assassinate the Queen on her visit to Newcastle in February 1954.
There is quite a bit of Canberra politicking in it, ASIO, the RSL, Robert Menzies, the Petrov affair and a parody of a Graham Greene spy plot partly involving a visiting British Labour MP, thinly disguised as someone who might be recognisable to political history tragics.
Although federal Labor leader Dr HV Evatt is alluded to only briefly in the novel, other key players include BA Santamaria, Melbourne’s Archbishop Daniel Mannix and Sydney-based Cardinal Norman Gilroy. As well, the communist author and prominent witness at the Petrov inquiry, Rupert Lockwood, gets a guernsey.
The presence of the militant Irish Protestant Toby Girvan in Croft’s cast of characters also serves to remind us of an often-overlooked aspect of the Labor split. Now seen essentially as a schism caused by the rival influence exerted by communists and Catholics in the Cold War, ALP and the Australian labour movement, the split also involves a third force: old-style Protestant paranoia. The split in the 1950s was in many ways a traditional Catholic-Protestant sectarian donnybrook.
This was generated by resentment at the power allegedly exercised in the ALP by disciples of the Catholic anti-communist crusader Bob Santamaria. This resentment was felt by unreconstructed Australian Protestants fearful of Rome’s tentacles — as well as by communists and fellow travellers.
Labor leader Dr Evatt deliberately tried to exploit the sectarian divide in Cold War Australia. He told influential Packer journalist Alan Reid that for every Catholic vote he would lose by denouncing Santamaria he would pick up three Protestant votes. In the event, Evatt’s attempt to benefit from sectarianism failed, but not through want of trying.
Another point of relevance in ‘Out of Print’ is the suppression of books. In Croft’s novel, ex-bomber pilot and ASIO operative Nick Hawkes’s book of poems is pulped on publication (hence the title) because of possible obscenity.
The issue was a hot topic in Australia in the 1940s and 50s. In 1946 Robert Close, author of ‘Love Me Sailor’, was found guilty of having written an “obscene libel. And although the alleged problem was not obscenity, Frank Hardy was sued, unsuccessfully, for criminal libel by well-known “entrepreneur John Wren, who allegedly recognised he and his wife in Hardy’s 1951 novel ‘Power Without Glory’.
Reading ‘Out of Print’ strongly reminded me of the unpublished roman a clef ‘The Bandar-Log’, written in the late 1950s by Alan Reid — then working as Canberra correspondent for ‘The Daily Telegraph’. Also based on the ALP split of the mid-1950s, Reid’s novel features thinly disguised portraits of Evatt, Santamaria, Arthur Calwell, ex-Queensland premier Vince Gair, the secretary of Evatt’s department of external affairs, Dr John Burton, and Reid himself.
The title ‘The Bandar-Log’ comes from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’. In Hindi, Bandar means “monkey and log means “people. The phrase “Bandar-log means monkey people or, more generally, any group of vicious and irresponsible chatterers.
Originally called ‘The Gathering’, Reid’s manuscript, which highlighted the Machiavellian nature of Australian politics in the 1950s, was submitted to Angus & Robertson in 1958.
However, Dr Colin Roderick, who worked at the time for A&R and later moved to Townsville to become Professor of English, claimed that Reid’s novel was libellous. As a result, the publisher withdrew its initial support.
As Stephen Holt and I explain in our book ‘Alan (“The Red Fox) Reid’, in 1960 another attempt at publishing the novel, this time by JP Atkins of Cleveland Publishing, also failed. The printer, Halstead Press, a subsidiary of A&R, was ordered to halt the print run by its owner-company.
A celebrated legal case followed the abandonment of the printing. Atkins (who was president of the Democratic Labor Party in NSW) sued Halstead for breach of contract. However, in September 1961 Judge WB PerÃ‚Ârignon of the Sydney District Court found the novel to be libellous and the claim was dismissed.
Indeed, as Stephen Holt and I point out, in a legal first, Reid’s novel had been judged to be defamatory without having been published!
It seems to me that a truly entrepreneurial Australian publisher should be encouraged to finally publish Reid’s long suppressed novel.
This is because Reid’s depiction of the Santamaria-Evatt era is surprisingly relevant today, especially given that Santamaria later became the first great political hero and mentor of a young and receptive Tony Abbott.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt’s book ‘Alan (“The Red Fox) Reid’ is published by NewSouth Books in Sydney.
The Weekend Australian, September 27-28, 2014, Inquirer, p 24