DITTMER, Felix Cyril Sigismund (1904–1977)
Senator for Queensland, 1959–71 (Australian Labor Party)

Felix Cyril Sigismund Dittmer, a medical practitioner who unwittingly helped bring about the Split in the Queensland ALP in the mid-1950s, was born at Dugandan in south-eastern Queensland, on 27 June 1904. He was the son of Gustav Dittmer, a chemist born in Germany, and Marie Farris, née Massie, born in Queensland. By 1916 the family had moved to Childers, where Felix gained his junior certificate at the age of thirteen, jumping two classes to become dux of Childers State School. He then progressed to Isis District High and from 1919 to St Joseph’s College, Nudgee, where he gained a Queensland Open Scholarship in 1921. Attending St Leo’s College at the University of Queensland, Felix was awarded a BSc (1925) and a BA (1927) from the university, where he was also a keen sportsman. On 29 October 1927 he married Minnie Elizabeth Crow at St James’ Catholic Church, Forest Lodge, Sydney. In 1930 Dittmer graduated with Honours in Medicine from the University of Sydney. In 1931 he completed an internship at Sydney General Hospital, and during 1932 was an honorary demonstrator in anatomy at the university. In July 1932 Dittmer was registered as a medical practitioner at Proserpine in North Queensland where he remained until 1940, when he moved to Brisbane to practise at Wickham Terrace. By 1943 he had become an ear, nose and throat specialist. On 10 August, then aged thirty-nine, and with impaired hearing, Dittmer was commissioned in the Australian Military Forces in Dugandan and was allotted to 116 Australian General Hospital, in Charters Towers. Serving with the Australian Army Medical Corps, in June 1944 he transferred to the AIF with the rank of Captain, and was posted to various military hospitals in Australia. In February 1946 he moved to the Army Reserve.

During his time in North Queensland, Dittmer acquired a goldmine at Kelsey Creek, Dittmer Gold Mines Ltd, which gave rise to the town of Dittmer. The mine was liquidated in late 1952, and Dittmer itself is now a ghost town. In 1950 Dittmer claimed that his employees enjoyed a 40-hour week and had the highest rates of pay of any goldmine in Queensland. He established a close association with the Australian Workers’ Union, speaking at AWU meetings and rallies over many years. [1]

Dittmer unsuccessfully contested the Oxley by-election for the Queensland Legislative Assembly on 17 April 1943.. He was similarly unfortunate at the 1944 election, but in 1950 won Mount Gravatt, having the year before failed in his bid to become Lord Mayor of Brisbane. By this time he had served several years as president and vice-president of the Graceville branch of the ALP. In the Assembly, he supported the government purchase of prefabricated houses, and sought to ensure that Queensland medical practitioners were professionally qualified, and that there was appropriate recognition for the credentials of overseas doctors. He put forward ideas for industrial reform, such as long service leave.[2]

In March 1953 Dittmer was a delegate at the Labor-in-Politics Convention at Rockhampton, where he moved: ‘That it be the aim of the Labor Movement to obtain for the workers three weeks’ annual holidays in southern areas and four weeks in northern and western areas’. The motion was carried without discussion, but, in the volatile atmosphere surrounding the anti-communist Industrial Groups and their opponents, it would have far-reaching consequences, and become the central issue of Dittmer’s political career. At this time he was still a supporter of Vincent Gair, Premier since January 1952. When, in November 1955, the Queensland Central Executive (QCE) of the ALP instructed the Queensland Parliamentary Labor Party (the Caucus) to legislate in accordance with Dittmer’s motion, the deeply divided Caucus refused to obey, by twenty-eight votes to twenty. Dittmer, now in the anti-Gair camp, made an unsuccessful attempt to bring the warring groups together. At the February 1956 Labor-in-Politics Convention, Dittmer’s 1953 motion was confirmed, but the rift continued, with the QCE expelling Gair from the ALP on 25 April 1957. Dittmer, who had been elected to the QCE the previous year, was among those who voted for Gair’s expulsion. Gair retaliated by forming the Queensland Labor Party (which later merged with the Democratic Labor Party). Dittmer, holding to his unshakeable view that the Caucus should be obedient to the QCE, remained in the ALP with J. E. Duggan, formerly Gair’s deputy premier. On 29 April Duggan was appointed leader, and Dittmer deputy leader, of the Caucus, albeit briefly. At the election on 3 August, Dittmer, along with Duggan—and many in the QLP—suffered defeat, the only winners being the members of the Liberal–Country Party Coalition.

Dittmer remained a member of the QCE until 1960. Between 1959 and at least 1968, Dittmer was the inaugural principal of the Labor College in Queensland, set up to promote Labor aims and ideology. He remained an unabashed socialist, believing that the ALP should ‘develop an Australian school of Socialist thought to meet the needs of the Australian people’.[3]

In August 1958 Dittmer stood on an AWU ticket for preselection in the ALP’s Senate team. He was endorsed in second place for the Senate, and elected at the federal poll in November. Sworn in the Senate on 11 August 1959, Dittmer drew on his rural experience in his first speech, and spoke of the need to develop northern Australia, especially the Mount Isa to Townsville railway. Once described as ‘the fiery Senator’, he was a regular and vigorous interjector, and was suspended on four occasions, including one in October 1963 when, under standing orders, he was suspended for a whole week for repeated interruptions. This was one of the very few occasions since Federation that a senator has been suspended for more than the remainder of the day on which the suspension occurred.[4]

Dittmer was not only outspoken in Parliament, but outside. In June and July 1966 he publicly criticised fellow Labor parliamentarian, the Member for Yarra, Dr Jim Cairns, over French nuclear testing in the Pacific, and in August spoke against Labor’s federal Leader of the Opposition, Arthur Calwell, in relation to a dispute between the Australian Workers’ Union and the Labor Party over the Mount Isa strike. In February 1967 he again criticised Calwell in the press, this time for inviting United States senator Robert Kennedy to visit Australia. Towards the end of the month, he took a tilt at Prime Minister Holt for hosting a party at Parliament House to mark the opening of the twenty-sixth Parliament. Declaring that this should have been cancelled because of the Tasmanian bushfire disaster, Dittmer, instead of joining the frivolities, opted for lying barefoot on his bed at Canberra’s Kurrajong Hotel, while reading an irrigation report, which, he said, the Government had not made available to the Opposition, and which he had obtained on the quiet. The Daily Mirror headed its photograph and article: ‘The senator stayed home’.[5]

Dogmatic opinions on some issues did not prevent his having sincerely held views based on an innate humanity and an unashamed belief in socialism, as was evident in his speech on international relations in April 1965, several months after the Menzies Government decided that Australian national servicemen would be liable to serve in South Vietnam. ‘I believe’, he said,

that history consists of the march of the poor and the underprivileged against wealth and privilege … Where deprivation exists there will be an ism, whether it be Communism, Fascism, Nationalism, Catholicism or Protestantism. Anything that seems to offer people something better than the conditions in which they exist is the ism that will appeal to them.

Referring to South Vietnam he went on: ‘The approach of the Government has been superficial and it has been recreant to its trust. Australian servicemen are dying overseas and this year conscription is to be introduced so that young men will be obligated to serve overseas when ordered by the Government’. The speech earned unexpected praise from conservative Liberal senator George Hannan [q.v. Vic.], who described it as ‘a careful and dispassionate analysis of the foreign problems which face this nation’.[6]

Dittmer spoke, in general, on matters that affected the welfare of all Australians, such as health, education and scientific research. He also spoke particularly on issues that were Queensland-oriented, such as Queensland coal being sent overseas, when ‘the people’ were entitled to receive the benefit of natural resources. Debate on the estimates was an opportunity to question the possibility of Trans-Australia Airlines (TAA) running a service to Bundaberg and Gladstone, and making mention of the conditions under which TAA staff worked in Brisbane. Rural issues remained important. The Queensland Grant (Beef Cattle Roads) Bill 1961 caused him to accuse the Menzies Government of vote-catching in ‘the dying stages of the Parliament’.

Re-elected at the half-Senate election of 1964, Dittmer, who had argued that medical and hospital benefit schemes were not working as intended, became a member of the Senate Select Committee on Medical and Hospital Costs, set up in April 1968 against the wishes of the Gorton Government. Dittmer took the work of the committee with the utmost seriousness, contributing to its final report, and submitting dissenting reports, which included the recommendation to end the existing voluntary health insurance scheme for a more equitable process.[7]

In August 1969, although chairing parliamentary party committees on social services, health and repatriation, Dittmer failed to gain preselection. Finishing fourth in the contest for three places on the ALP’s Senate ticket, he termed his defeat ‘organised assassination’, and blamed Labor’s relatively new process of preselection. Of disadvantage to Dittmer was the fact that the AWU had withdrawn from the new process earlier in 1969.

Shortly before he left the Senate, legislation was passed that would establish, in Queensland, an Australian Institute of Marine Science, something for which Dittmer had been lobbying for over twenty years, and which was later referred to by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Lionel Murphy as his monument.[8]

Dittmer was not present at the last meeting of the Senate (in May), before his term ended on 30 June 1971. From June to July, he was a member of a parliamentary delegation on a fact-finding mission to the South Pacific, his inclusion for a few days after the end of his term causing the raising of some political eyebrows. In 1967 he had been part of a parliamentary delegation to South-East Asia, and in 1962 was an alternate delegate to the seventeenth session of the General Assembly of the United Nations.[9]

Dittmer returned to his practice in Wickham Terrace, serving as honorary specialist at the Mater Public Hospital and the Mater Children’s Hospital. From 1950 to 1956 he had served on the Senate of the University of Queensland, and in 1970 had enrolled there for a Bachelor of Commerce degree, which he had almost completed when he died on 29 August 1977 in the Canossa Hospital, Brisbane. Dittmer was accorded a Requiem Mass at St Joseph’s Church, Corinda, and was buried in Mount Gravatt Cemetery. He was survived by six children.

In the Senate, he had re-established his friendship with Gair, who now remembered him kindly, despite suggesting that Dittmer had made a ‘great mistake’ in leaving medicine for politics. The Courier-Mail noted the complexities of Dittmer’s character: possessing a fine intellect, he was a sincere and approachable man, but his ‘often-explosive’ temperament caused him to be ‘self-confident, sometimes to excess’. Dittmer’s restless energy and ambition is expressed in the advice he gave a colleague, ‘Do all the things that you want to do while you are in the Parliament because when you leave it you will be forgotten’.[10]

Lou Daniels

[1] Brian F. Stevenson, ‘Dittmer, Felix Cyril Sigismund’, ADB, vol. 14; Childers State School, Admissions register, 1916, mfm Z1484, QSA; Dorothy P. Bunn and Jan Mungomery (comp.), Childers State School No. 568 Centenary 1889–1989, Childers State School Parents’ and Citizens’ Association, Childers, Qld, 1989, pp. 62, 77; T. P. Boland, Nudgee 1891–1991: St. Joseph’s College, Nudgee, Boolarong Publications, Brisbane, 1991, p. 297; Michael A. Head, St. Leo’s College, The Memory: St. Leo’s College Within the University of Queensland 1917–1992, Leonian Press, St Lucia, Qld, 1991, p. 196; The editor acknowledges the assistance of Larah Seivl-Keevers, UQ Archives, and Julia Mant, Archives and Records Management Services, University of Sydney; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 30 Aug. 1977, p. 5; Dittmer, Felix Cyril Sigismund—Defence Service Record, B883, QX58749, NAA; Proserpine Guardian, 17 Dec. 1947, p. 18; QPD, 31 Aug. 1950, p. 247; Worker (Brisb.), 12 Feb. 1951, p. 8, 3 Feb. 1964, p. 2.

[2] Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 1 July 1948, p. 3; QPD, 23 Sept. 1954, pp. 412–13, 20 Sept. 1955, pp. 391–2, 5 Oct. 1955, pp. 559–61, 19 Mar. 1952, pp. 1827–9.

[3] ALP, Official record of the 21st Queensland Labor-in-Politics Convention, 1953, p. 121; Clem Lack (ed.), Three Decades of Queensland Political History 1929–1960, Government Printer, Brisbane, 1962, p. 391; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 17 Nov. 1955, p. 1; Denis Murphy, Roger Joyce and Margaret Cribb (eds), The Premiers of Queensland, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1978, p. 469; ALP, Official record of the 22nd Queensland Labor-in-Politics Convention, 1956, pp. 48, 105, 190–1; Robert Murray, The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1970, pp. 316–25; Raphael Cilento (ed.), Triumph in the Tropics: An Historical Sketch of Queensland, Smith & Paterson, Brisbane, 1959, p. 415; ALP, Official record of the 24th Queensland Labor-in-Politics Convention, 1963, p. 123; CPD, 27 Sept. 1967, p. 968.

[4] Lack, Three Decades of Queensland Political History 1929–1960, p. 510; CPD, 27 Aug. 1959, pp. 349–58; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 30 Aug. 1977, p. 5; Senate, Journals, 4 Oct. 1961, pp. 131–2, 1 May 1962, p. 65, 17 Oct. 1963, p. 336, 1 Oct. 1964, p. 150.

[5] Herald (Melb.), 4 June 1966, p. 3; Australian (Syd.), 19 July 1966, p. 4; CT, 1 Sept. 1966, p. 8; Age (Melb.), 1 Feb. 1967, p. 12; Daily Mirror (Syd.), 24 Feb. 1967, p. 3.

[6] CPD, 27 Sept. 1967, p. 968, 7 Apr. 1965, pp. 344–8.

[7] CPD, 29 Aug. 1962, pp. 526–7, 26 Oct. 1965, pp. 1186–7, 25 Oct. 1961, p. 1502, 2 Apr. 1968, pp. 507–10; CPP, 196/1969, 82/1970; Senate, Journals, 2–3 Apr. 1968, pp. 34–5.

[8] CT, 6 Sept. 1969, p. 8; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 1 Sept. 1969, pp. 1, 5; CPD, 10 June 1970, pp. 2249–52, 12 May 1971, p. 1714.

[9] CPD, 12 May 1971, p. 1713; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 26 May 1971, p. 1; Daily Mirror (Syd.), 9 June 1971, p. 13.

[10] Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 30 Aug. 1977, pp. 3, 5; The editor acknowledges the assistance of Aileen Potts, Corinda Graceville Catholic Parish and Sharyn Myers, Brisbane City Council; CPD, 6 Sept. 1977, p. 589.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 308-312.

DITTMER, Felix Cyril Sigismund (1904–1977)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Queensland, 1959–71

Queensland Parliament

Member of the Legislative Assembly, Mount Gravatt, 1950–57

Senate Committee Service

Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, 1963–71

Select Committee on Medical and Hospital Costs, 1968–70