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Learning from Labor’s past

15 April 2010 1,514 views No Comment

Dr H. V. Evatt, who led the federal Australian Labor Party from 1951 to 1960, had  been a high-profile world figure during World War II and had served a term as an early president of the United Nations General Assembly.

Doc Evatt, notoriously, was a disastrous leader , the great Labor split of the 1950s occurred on his watch , but what is less known is that his political career was in difficulties even before he became leader. These difficulties arose from his failure to reconcile the competing demands of global diplomacy and domestic politics.

A cache of previously unexamined documents in the National Library of Australia sheds new light on this facet of Evatt’s career. Evatt’s entry into politics made headlines. On the eve of the wartime federal election of 1940, he stood down as a High Court judge in order to run as an ALP candidate.

Different Labor factions vied for his services and, buoyed by a wave of enthusiasm, he won the seat of Barton with a swing of 14 per cent. When the Curtin Labor government came to office in 1941 Evatt became a senior minister from the word go.

But the downside to Evatt’s importance as aminister meant he did not have much time to tend to his Sydney electorate.

Suburban disaffection soon surfaced as a result. Dissent was led by Joe Quinane, a local ALP member and unpaid secretary of the Barton Federal Electorate Council, the main ALP organising body in the seat.

Quinane was a bit of a fixer , it was due to his machinations that the way was cleared for Evatt to enter the House of Representatives. Quinane came to rue his intervention on behalf of Evatt. It was, he discovered, no fun having him as his local member. As external affairs minister Evatt was often away in foreign parts. When in Australia, matters of state and ministerial duties kept him confined to his office in Canberra. Indeed, in wartime the seat of Barton had a virtual absentee member. Evatt had little time to deal with local correspondence and often failed to attend ALP meetings organised by Quinane.

Quinane’s displeasure increased in 1942 when Evatt defied the Barton Federal Electorate Council after it instructed him to oppose the Curtin government’s proposal to send conscripts to the south-west Pacific theatre. On the eve of the council’s vote, Evatt paid Quinane a rare visit and offered to secure an officer’s commission for his son.

Quinane, who knew that this offer was an inducement to get him to drop his opposition to conscription, was not impressed. This was a completely inappropriate intervention by a senior cabinet member in wartime.

As the war dragged on, Quinane became evermore convinced that Evatt was out of touch with grassroots Labor opinion. In 1944 Labor Party members in Barton, motivated by old-style anti-banker sentiment, called on Evatt to oppose the Bretton Woods international financial agreement. Once again Evatt ignored the views of the Barton council. His focus was fixed on the creation of a new post-war world order and its grand accompanying institutions such as the UN and the World Bank, and he was not going to be distracted by lesser concerns.

Eventually Quinane warned Evatt that he was likely to face a preselection challenge because of his non-attendance at council meetings and his flouting of its recommendations on key issues.

In 1946, an election year, Quinane drew up a list of strategic government appointments, which, he considered, were designed to buy off possible preselection challengers in Barton. The list included Roden Cutler (the future governor of NSW).

Cutler, Quinane honestly believed, was given a diplomatic post in New Zealand by Evatt in order to spirit him away from a possible preselection race.

Dissent ratcheted up. Quinane feared that Labor would lose Barton in the 1949 election if Evatt, weighed down by his glory as a world statesman, stood again.

Quinane took the plunge and announced that he was standing against Evatt in the preselection ballot in Barton. On the eve of the vote, Quinane circulated a list of complaints against Evatt. He cited Evatt’s failure to visit local party branches and criticised his handling as attorney-general of the Chifley government’s attempt to nationalise the private banks. He reeled off examples of unresolved conflict and tension in such trouble spots as Palestine, China, Indonesia and Berlin in a bid to deflate Evatt’s reputation as a UN peacemaker.

Typically, Evatt almost missed the Barton preselection ballot. After serving as UN president, he returned by sea (Evatt was notoriously fearful of flying) and only just arrived home in Sydney in time for the vote. In the event, Evatt won the ballot easily, by 196 votes to 33. There was no way that such a senior Labor figure would be rolled. But the mere fact that Evatt had to deal with a contested preselection at all despite being a senior minister was embarrassing for the ALP.

The Liberals, hoping to capitalise on the internal disaffection with Evatt in Barton, nominated a celebrity candidate , war heroine Nancy Wake , to contest the seat in the 1949 election. The Chifley government lost the election and Wake slashed Evatt’s majority but nonetheless he was re-elected.

Evatt became federal ALP leader in 1951 and was never again threatened by a contested preselection in Barton.

The Quinane family, however, was not done with the Doc. Joe Quinane’s son Fred followed his father into the Labor Party. He joined the Commonwealth public service and moved to Canberra, where he became secretary of the local ALP branch. He also enrolled in The Movement, the anti-communist organisation run by B. A. (Bob) Santamaria, who was later to be a mentor of current federal Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott.

In 1954 Evatt condemned Santamaria, whose help he had previously enlisted, thereby precipitating the great Labor split of the ColdWar era.

Fred Quinane remained in the ALP despite the denunciation of Santamaria, but this did not mean that he liked Evatt.

In 1955 Fred was involved in an attempt to depose Evatt and replace him with the deputy ALP leader, Arthur Calwell. Evatt, because he was based in Parliament House and estranged from the ALP in his own electorate, had got into the habit of renewing his annual party membership with the Canberra ALP branch. In 1955 he forgot to renew his membership. An attempt to remove him from the party leadership was launched once Quinane, as local party secretary, cheerfully confirmed that Evatt had let his membership of the ALP lapse.

Evatt’s opponents insisted that he could no longer hold any position in the ALP up to and including the parliamentary leadership because his membership had lapsed. His supporters demanded that this technicality be overlooked. The dispute went all the way up to the ALP national executive where Evatt was confirmed as leader only after ALP numbersman, Pat Kennelly, twisted a few arms.

This aborted coup helped to persuade Labor’s powerbrokers that Evatt could no longer be left exposed to the irritating incidents of insurgency that had become a hallmark of the Quinane axis linking Barton and Canberra.

In 1958 party insiders shifted Evatt to the ultra-safe Labor seat of Hunter. He was able to spend his declining days as Labor leader secure in the knowledge that at last he was spared the grassroots disaffection associated with Joe Quinane and his like-minded son Fred.

A clear message emerges from the various Quinane documents, now housed at the National Library. They show that Evatt’s political career was imperilled long before he precipitated the great split of the mid-1950s.

From as early as 1942 Evatt had to cope with an ever-rising tide of disaffection in his own seat of Barton. His base, untended there, eroded dangerously. Evatt discovered to his cost that prestige gained at international conferences is of little consequence , and indeed may be counter-productive , if a political leader becomes disengaged from issues and concerns on the home front.

This is an abiding political truth, as pertinent for Kevin Rudd as it once was for Doc Evatt.

The Canberra Times, April 14, 2010. Ross Fitzgerald’s and Stephen Holt’s new biography, Alan (The Red Fox) Reid will soon be published by New South Books.