Even in Queensland the anniversary wasn’t getting much publicity, but 50 years ago the state was gripped by one of Australia’s great political dramas: the last act of the 1950s Labor split, in which the Queensland ALP self-destructed and the Gair government went down to electoral defeat on 3 August 1957, ushering in 32 years of non-Labor government.

Gair and most of his ministers were expelled from the ALP for refusing to implement party policy on the introduction of three weeks annual leave. On 12 June the remaining Labor MPs voted with the opposition to force an early election.

Many observers were outraged at a government being dictated to by an outside body, but Labor’s central executive defended its right to enforce the party’s rules. In the words of Jack Egerton, later state ALP president, as quoted by Robert Murray in his classic history The Split:

… we will not presume to direct the Government. But we will presume … to direct the Parliamentary representatives of the Australian Labor Party. … they have to be shown that this is the governing body of the Labor Party and that this is where policy is made. If they do not carry out that policy, they can join some other party.

The contrast could hardly be stronger with today’s position in Victoria, where premier Steve Bracks and his senior ministers have refused point blank to support party policy in relation to abortion. A private member’s bill by former minister Candy Broad to remove abortion from the Crimes Act faces defeat, even though it simply implements the ALP platform.

Whatever unsatisfactory compromise may or may not emerge from the debate, it is clear that Bracks and his colleagues have absolutely no fear of being disciplined by their party for such flagrant disregard for its rules.

Things were different in the 1950s. The Labor Party is now a very different animal; the parliamentary leaders run the show, and while on paper the organisation remains supreme, it’s hard to imagine it ever again using the sort of powers it used against Gair.

Moreover, three weeks leave was a totemic issue, dear to the hearts of the male union leaders who controlled the party. As long as it’s only women’s rights at stake, the workers’ party is happy to turn a blind eye.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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