The Democratic Labor Party (Anti-Communist) was formed as a result of a split in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) which began in 1954. The split was between the party's national leadership, under the then party leader Dr Evatt, and the majority of the Victorian branch, which was dominated by a faction composed largely of ideologically driven anti-Communist Catholics. Many ALP members during the Cold War period, most but not all Catholics, became alarmed at what they saw as the growing power of the Communist Party within Australia's trade unions. These members formed units within the unions called Industrial Groups to combat this alleged infiltration.
The DLP was mostly, although not exclusively, a party of Catholics of Irish descent. Some of its parliamentarians and a significant minority of its voters were non-Catholics. Journalist Don Whitington argued in 1964 that the DLP, as a basically sectarian party, was a most dangerous and distasteful force in Australian politics. Whitington observed that the party was backed by influential sections of the Roman Catholic Church, and that although the party professed to exist primarily to combat communism, it had less commendable reasons behind its coming into being. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, was a DLP supporter, as were other influential clerics.
The intellectual leader of the Victorian Catholic wing of the ALP (although not actually a party member)B. A. Santamaria, a Roman Catholic Italian-Australian Melbourne lawyer and lay anti-Communist activist, who acquired the patronage of Dr Mannix. Santamaria headed The Catholic Social Studies Movement (often known as The Movement), modeled on Catholic Action groups in Europe, and, ironically, in organizational terms, upon some of the methods employed by its principal target, the Communist Party of Australia. This group later became the National Civic Council (NCC). Evatt denounced the "Movement" and the Industrial Groups in 1954, alleging they were trying to take over the ALP and turn it into a European-style Christian Democratic party.
The split extended to the Victoria State Parliament, where a faction of "Movement" supporters crossed the floor to bring down John Cain's ALP state government. In 1957, the Labor Party split in Queensland following the expulsion of Vince Gair, a conservative Catholic, from the party. He and his followers formed the Queensland Labor Party, which, in 1962, became the Queensland branch of the DLP.
At the 1955 ALP national conference in Hobart, Santamaria's parliamentary supporters in the federal and Victorian parliaments were expelled from the ALP and formed the ALP (Anti-Communist), which became the DLP in 1957 and lasted until 1978.
In New South Wales, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Norman Cardinal Gilroy, the first native-born Australian Roman Catholic prelate, opposed the Movement's tactics and there was no party split in New South Wales. The Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist)'s performance at the 1955 state elections in Victoria, where it obtained 12 per cent of the vote, retaining only one of the dozen Assembly seats it had held, was another factor preventing a similar split in New South Wales.
1950s to 1970s
Between 1955-74 the DLP was able to command a significant vote, particularly in Victoria and Queensland, with their large numbers of Catholics. During the period the DLP held between one and five seats in the Senate (which is elected by proportional representation). The DLP Senate leaders were George Cole (from Tasmania; 1955–1965), Vince Gair (from Queensland; 1965–1973), and Frank McManus (from Victoria; 1973–1974). Other DLP Senators were Condon Byrne (from Queensland), Jack Kane (from New South Wales), and Jack Little, a Protestant (from Victoria).
No DLP Senators or state politicians were ever elected in South Australia or Western Australia. Owing largely to demographic reasons, the ALP did not split in these states, although some lay branch members switched to the new party once it had been established. As the ALP and the conservative parties traditionally held approximately equal numbers of seats in the Senate, the DLP was able to use the balance of power in the Senate to extract concessions from Liberal governments, particularly larger government grants to Catholic schools, greater spending on defence and non-recognition of the People's Republic of China.
During this period the DLP exercised influence by directing its preferences to Liberal candidates in federal and state elections (see Australian electoral system), thus helping to keep the ALP out of office at the federal level and in Victoria. The DLP vote for the House of Representatives gradually declined during the 1960s, but remained strong enough for the Liberals to continue to need DLP preferences to win close elections.
After Evatt's retirement in 1960, his successor Arthur Calwell, a Catholic, tried to bring about a reconciliation between the ALP and the DLP. Negotiations were conducted through intermediaries, and in 1965 a deal was almost done. Three out of four of the ALP's parliamentary leaders agreed to a deal. However, Calwell refused to share power within the party with the DLP leadership on a membership number basis, so the deal failed. Santamaria later claimed that had he accepted, Calwell could have become Prime Minister. Indeed, at the 1961 federal election, Labor came up just two seats short of toppling the Coalition. One of those seats was Bruce, in the DLP's heartland of Melbourne. DLP preferences allowed Liberal Billy Snedden to win a paper-thin victory. Although the Coalition was only assured of a sixth term in government later in the night with an even narrower win in the Brisbane-area seat of Moreton, any realistic chance of a Labor win ended with the Liberals retaining Bruce. Without Bruce, the best Labor could have done was a hung parliament.
Four years later, DLP preferences kept Calwell's successor, Gough Whitlam, from toppling the Coalition despite winning an 18-seat swing and a majority of the two-party vote. DLP preferences in four Melbourne-area seats allowed the LIberals to narrowly retain them; had those preferences gone the other way, Labor would have garnered the swing it needed to make Whitlam Prime Minister.
The DLP's policies were traditional Labor policies such as more spending on health, education and pensions, combined with strident opposition to communism and greater emphasis on defence spending. The DLP strongly supported Australia's participation in the Vietnam War.
From the early 1960s onward, the DLP became increasingly socially conservative, opposing homosexuality, abortion, pornography and drug use. This stand against "permissiveness" appealed to many conservative voters as well as the party's base among Catholics. Some members of the DLP disagreed with this, believing the party should stay focused on anti-communism.
The highest DLP vote was 11.11 per cent, which occurred at the 1970 half-senate election. Whitlam and the ALP won government in the 1972 election, bringing the DLP's strategy of keeping the ALP out of power undone.
In 1973 it was reported that the Country Party and the DLP were considering a merger. In response, Gough Whitlam said he "would be delighted to see 'the old harlot churched'". In 1974, Whitlam appointed Gair as ambassador to the Republic of Ireland in a successful bid to split the DLP and remove its influence. The DLP lost all its Senate seats at the 1974 election and the party formally wound up in 1978. Soon after, a small group of supporters formed a new Democratic Labor Party, which continues to this day as the Democratic Labour Party (following a name change away from the American spelling). Santamaria continued to exercise considerable influence through the National Civic Council (NCC) until his death in 1998.