Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Schmella, John Mattao (Matthew) (1908–1960)

by Manfred Cross

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

John Mattao (Matthew) Schmella (1908-1960), Labor Party secretary, was born on 24 February 1908 at Charters Towers, Queensland, youngest of three children of John Mattao Sciarmella, an Italian-born miner, and his wife Mary, née Brahan, who came from Ireland. Educated at the Christian Brothers' Mount Carmel College, Jack entered the Department of Public Instruction in 1924. He taught in turn at Cloncurry, Hughenden and Townsville North state schools. On 20 August 1929 at St Mary's Catholic Church, Townsville, he married Gladys Mary Parsons, a nurse. After working as a jackeroo, prospector and miner, he became a shift-foreman with Mount Isa Mines Ltd, joined the Australian Workers' Union and the Australian Labor Party, and began to style himself John Matthew Schmella.

In 1945 C. G. Fallon recruited him as a research officer for the A.W.U. Within five years Schmella was the union's industrial officer. Elected State secretary of the A.L.P. in June 1952, he was a delegate to the party's federal executive from November that year. The Courier-Mail reported that he was regarded in Labor circles as 'popular, practical and brilliant'. Campaign director for the State election in 1953, he brought to the task a capacity for hard work, considerable industrial experience and the support of the A.W.U. Labor achieved a majority of 25 in the 75-seat Legislative Assembly, assisted by the zonal system of redistribution introduced in 1949. Schmella soon developed a relationship of trust and respect with other unions and the party branches. At the Labor-in-Politics convention held at Rockhampton in 1953, he reported that the party had gained a thousand new members, formed fifty new branches, affiliated five additional unions, launched a youth movement and improved the performance of its radio-station, 4KQ. By a vote of 105 to 7, the convention approved the report of the industrial groups (which had been formed to fight communism in the trade unions) and carried without debate a resolution supporting the extension of three weeks annual leave to workers under State awards.

Schmella was elected secretary of the party's federal executive in July 1954. Three months later Dr H. V. Evatt, leader of the parliamentary Labor Party, made a dramatic attack on the industrial groups, precipitating the most profound crisis in the A.L.P. since the split over conscription in 1916. The federal executive intervened to establish a new central executive in Victoria and facilitated a compromise between the left and right factions in New South Wales. At a special conference in Hobart in March 1955, Schmella played a central role in negotiations and decisions which were to weaken the power of the groups. He did so despite the decision of five Queensland delegates, including the premier V. C. Gair and treasurer E. J. Walsh, not to take part in the proceedings. Eight members of the Federal parliament subsequently resigned from the A.L.P. and formed the Anti-Communist (later Democratic) Labor Party.

In September 1955 the A.L.P.'s Queensland Central Executive raised the issue of three weeks leave with the State government. Cabinet supported the proposal in principle, but felt that economic conditions did not allow its immediate introduction. The trade unions then united against the government. Organized by Schmella, Joe Bukowski and (Sir) John Egerton, the Labor-in-Politics convention held at Mackay in February-March 1956 overwhelmingly endorsed the proposal for three weeks leave. Despite undercurrents in the party, Labor was returned to office in Queensland two months later, with a large majority, after an election campaign run by Schmella. On 28 February 1957 the Q.C.E. issued an ultimatum to the parliamentary party, demanding the introduction of three weeks leave. The government refused to be bullied and on 18 April the Q.C.E. passed a vote of no confidence in Gair. In the early hours of 25 April Schmella successfully moved a resolution to expel Gair from the A.L.P. Gair formed the Queensland Labor Party. Following a bitterly fought campaign, the Liberal-Country Party coalition won office at the election on 3 August.

Over the next three years the federal executive and federal conference began operating more efficiently. Schmella worked towards the formation of a national secretariat, which was approved in principle in August 1958. In Queensland, he and George Whiteside, the president of the Q.C.E., encouraged branch members to become more involved in the union-dominated party. Five years of trauma and the effects of heavy drinking took their toll on Schmella's health, forcing him to enter hospital in December 1959. He died of hypertensive renal disease on 18 July 1960 at his St Lucia home and was buried in Toowong cemetery; his wife and their two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Lack (compiler), Three Decades of Queensland Political History, 1929-1960 (Brisb, 1962)
  • R. Murray, The Split (Melb, 1970)
  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Labor in Power (Brisb, 1980)
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 1 Aug 1952, 19 July 1960
  • ALP federal executive records (National Library of Australia)
  • ALP (Queensland) central executive records (State Library of Queensland)
  • private information.

Citation details

Manfred Cross, 'Schmella, John Mattao (Matthew) (1908–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/schmella-john-mattao-matthew-11629/text20771, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 3 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014