Bob Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man

Gerard Henderson has some well-informed comments below.  I had some involvement with the DLP back in the '60s so was well aware of Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria. I certainly watched his TV broadcasts. But I am surprised that Henderson fails to mention that Santamaria was a devout Catholic under considerable influence from Melbourne's redoubtable and long-serving Archbishop Daniel Mannix.

His anti-Communism was  heroic at a time when the CPA was still influental in the unions and he was undoubtedly instrumental in defeating the Communist unionists.  But on the other hand he often quoted the bumbling economic thinking of Leftist intellectuals like Felix Rohatyn.

I concluded that it was only the atheism of the Soviets that drove Santamaria.  He was a Catholic first and last and that was all.  If the Soviets had been tolerant of religion, I think it is pretty clear that he would have been a cheerful democratic Leftist.  The 1891 encyclical "De rerum novarum" was after all fairly sympathetic to Leftism as long as it was not Communist.

So Santamaria was in fact consistent --  a consistent "De rerum novarum" Catholic.  He was certainly influential but he was no conservative.  One should remember that Catholics were overwhelmingly Labor Party supporters in those days.  The ALP was "their" party.

Menzies was the first to disrupt that attachment by giving Federal financial assistance to Catholic schools, something that still continues and is now something of a "third rail" in Australian politics -- as ALP leader Mark Latham found out

B­A Santamaria did not encourage conservative Catholics to join the Liberal Party. At the time of his death, the two Liberal MPs who were most in agreement with Bob Santamaria’s philosophy were Tony Abbott and Kevin Andrews.

In 1994, Abbott asked Santamaria for a reference for use in his preselection for the Sydney seat of Warringah. During an interview on May 8 2000, Abbott recalled the occasion: “I asked Santa for a reference for my preselection. And Santa said to me: ‘I don’t think it will do you any good’. And I said to him: ‘Well, let me be the judge of that’. He said: ‘Well, let me think about it and come back to you’. And he came back to me about 24 hours later and said: ‘Look, Tony, I just don’t think I can do it’. And I said: ‘How come?’ And he said: ‘I just don’t think at my time in life I really should be writing references for people in Liberal Party pre­selections’.”

Abbott concluded his recall: “Anyway, I said: ‘I don’t agree with you, Bob, but it’s your call’.

“And then, of course, I won the preselection. And I think there was a slight sense of disappointment that I had disproven his deep conviction that someone who was very publicly a Catholic — as opposed to simply, quietly and unobtrusively a Catholic — could get anywhere inside the Liberal Party. I think he always regarded me as a bit of a jarring figure in his intellectual and social landscape because I was a public Catholic and still it didn’t appear to be stopping me from going places inside the Liberal Party.”

Andrews had a not dissimilar experience. Unlike Abbott, he had not been involved with Santamaria’s National Civic Council, which commenced in the late 1930s-early 1940s as an organisation called the Movement.

Andrews first met Santamaria when, as a residential student at Newman College at Melbourne University, he and a group of friends decided to establish an Archbishop Daniel Mannix Lecture — and asked Santamaria to deliver the inaugural oration in October 1977.

Over the next decade or so, Andrews met Santamaria on about 10 occasions. There were also irregular telephone conversations.

Andrews was not a long-term Liberal Party member before contesting the Melbourne seat of Menzies. Before deciding to enter the preselection ballot, he visited Santamaria at his office. Andrews recalled that the NCC president was not at all encouraging and seemed to exhibit a negative attitude to party politics in general — and to the Liberal Party in particular. Andrews commented that if Santamaria were intent on influencing Liberal MPs, he would have expected to receive invitations to NCC board lunches — along with regular telephone calls — once he became a parliamentarian. This did not happen.

On the Saturday after his death, The Weekend Australian reported that Santamaria had grown so disillusioned with the Liberals after they lost in 1993 that he spent much of the remainder of the year trying to organise a new pro-­family and anti-economic reform political party.

The Santamaria family placed a 40-year embargo on the Santamaria Papers when they were given to the State Library of Victoria in 2006. However, Patrick Morgan (see facing page) was given an exemption to this embargo when preparing his two-­volume edited collection of Santamaria’s letters and documents, Your Most Obedient Servant and Running the Show, published by Melbourne Uni­versity Press in 2007 and 2008.

Morgan’s research indicates that in late 1992, Santamaria formed a group comprising Malcolm Fraser and academics Robert Manne and John Carroll. The aim was to establish a new political grouping, which was protectionist and interventionist, to be headed by Fraser. This is confirmed in Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, which Fraser co-authored with Margaret Simons.

At the time, Fraser had been out of office for almost a decade and neither Manne nor Carroll had any experience in mainstream politics. This initiative suffered the same fate as all of Santamaria’s ­attempts to establish a third party to take on the Liberal and Labor parties in the 1980s and 1990s — that is, failure.

Santamaria was fond of quoting the saying that “anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the intelligentsia”.

In 2012 and 2013, David Marr wrote biographical monographs on Tony Abbott and Cardinal George Pell respectively. Both are tinged with the anti-Catholic sectarianism of a born-again atheist and are long on secular sneering, in the Marr way.

Marr attempts to make much of the alleged Santamaria-Pell-Abbott axis. But his case is always overstated and frequently confused — particularly with respect to the Democratic Labor Party which, with the support of Santamaria, broke away from the Australian Labor Party at the Labor split in the mid-1950s.

In The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell, Marr wrote, with ­reference to Santamaria’s state ­funeral: “Pell’s oldest political loyalties were to the DLP, but when the party collapsed Santamaria had directed his followers to cross the bridge to the Liberals. It was not altogether comfortable for either party, so it mattered a great deal for Santamaria’s people when (John) Howard reconciled with the old man at the very end.”

The fact is that when the DLP collapsed in the second half of the 1970s, Santamaria did not direct his followers to “cross the bridge” to the Liberal Party. If this had been the case, then Abbott — as a follower of Santamaria in the late 1970s and the early 1980s — might have joined the Liberal Party at that time. He didn’t.

In 2012, the Melbourne-based researcher Geoffrey Browne was given access to correspondence that passed between Santamaria and Abbott in the late 1980s. It seems that the State Library of Victoria made an error with respect to the 40-year embargo that applies to this vast collection. Browne passed the material to the historians Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt, who reported the exchange in The Weekend Australian on October 13-14, 2012.

Marr read only the newspaper report; I have been able to obtain a copy of the entire correspondence. According to Marr, Santamaria gave Abbott his political bearings. But Santamaria merely advised Abbott not to flirt with the NSW Labor Party, which was dominated by the ALP’s right wing in the state. Santamaria restated his decades-long hostility to the NSW Labor Right. In spite of this, he provided no encouragement for Abbott to join the Liberal Party.

The correspondence went as follows: In April 1987, at a meeting, Santamaria offered Abbott a job in Melbourne working for the Council for the National Interest. The CNI was one of the many front organisations created by Santamaria. Its focus was defence and foreign policy, but its creation was part of his plan to construct a new political party.

At the time, Abbott had just quit as a Catholic seminarian (a trainee priest). He told Santamaria in a letter dated April 21, 1987 that he needed to build a career and was inclined to accept a job offer to become a journalist working for The Bulletin. He politely rejected Santamaria’s proposal.

On December 8, 1987, Abbott again wrote to Santamaria — shortly after returning from the NCC’s national conference. In a thoughtful, but blunt letter, Abbott told Santamaria that his current political strategy was not working.

Abbott wrote: “To change society one must work in it, share the priorities and fears, cares and concerns of the ‘common herd’, make the compromises that life requires, be wrong, get blood on one’s hands — but at least, be in it. Are we? In 1954, the Movement dominated a major party [the ALP]. In 1969, the Movement had some significant parliamentary influence [through the DLP]. In 1980, the Movement controlled four big unions. Today, we run the AFA [Australian Family Association] and are the main force behind an as yet embryonic lobby group, the CNI. The CNI and AFA are worthy works. But they are essentially waiting in the wings of politics on the off-chance that someone might ask them to dance.”

Interpreting the Abbott-Santamaria letters during an appearance on the ABC’s program The Drum on March 23, 2013, Marr claimed that Santamaria said the following to Abbott: “No [not the Labor Party] — the Liberal Party. Yes, there are many, many risible and ridiculous things about the Liberal Party. But it’s the Liberal Party, now, Tony.”

This is a complete invention — as Abbott’s contemporary writings make clear. Soon after their correspondence, Abbott wrote a profile on Santamaria for The Weekend Australian, which was published on December 30-31, 1989 to mark the collapse of Soviet communism.

It was a broadly sympathetic assessment, but some critical points were made. Abbott commented that “the difference between Santamaria and more mainstream economic commentators is that Santamaria has predicted 30 (rather than just 20) of the last five crises”. Clearly, Abbott understood Santamaria’s crisis mentality.

During the interview on which the profile was based, Santamaria restated the position that he had never stood for political office because he did not think he would be very good at politics owing to “an inability to compromise”. Abbott asks the following question about Santamaria: “Has he not entered the political fray without ever putting his ideas to the electoral test; has he not asked lesser men to undertake the task he would not do himself?”

It is a significant query — which reflects Abbott’s commitment to mainstream politics and explains why he had rejected Santamaria’s offer to devote himself fulltime to the Movement in its final manifestation as the NCC.

How, then, to explain the relationship between Abbott and Santamaria? To a Catholic, anti-communist political activist on a university campus in the 1960s and 1970s, Santamaria had considerable appeal. He was a charismatic speaker and a first-class TV performer on his weekly program, Point of View. He was also a compelling writer.

As a person born in September 1945, I found Santamaria compelling when I first met him in early 1965. So did Abbott, who was born in November 1957 and first met Santamaria around 1978. So did many anti-communist Catholic men and women of our generation. It’s just that the closer you got to Santamaria, the more likely you were to disagree with him over tactics.

I made a public critique of the Movement at the NCC’s national convention in October 1974, when I was 29. Abbott made a not dissimilar critique in his private letter of December 8, 1987, aged 30. By this time, in both cases it seems, Santamaria’s charisma had faded and the flaws in his way of operating had become more evident.

David Marr’s assessment of Santamaria’s influence on Abbott is facile. In the second edition of Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, Marr writes: “Santamaria’s instinct was always to block Labor. Starving it of the talent of young Tony was a tiny detail in a lifetime of hostility. Abbott was not immediately persuaded to ditch his fundamental allegiance — he voted Labor in that [NSW 1988] state election — but the man he called his ‘philosophical star’ had given him his bearings.”

This theory that a strong-willed person like Abbott — possessed of the drive that makes it possible for someone to become prime minister — had to be given “bearings” by Santamaria is ridiculous. As Michael Duffy makes clear in his book Latham and Abbott, Abbott drifted towards the Liberal Party around 1989 — a party that Santamaria then regarded as “reptilian” in nature. Clearly, Abbott found his own bearings.

Abbott has been surprisingly open about this relationship with Santamaria — despite the fact that he had little to gain from stating his long-ago contacts with the one-time Catholic political operator. Addressing the H R Nicholls Society in March 2001, Abbott described Santamaria as his “first political mentor”.

Abbott elaborated on this in a December 2003 interview with Paul Kelly in The Weekend Australian Magazine: “All the way through student politics at university, I was closely involved with the National Civic Council. I regarded him [Santamaria] as an important presence in my life and an important source of ideas, inspiration, example. To this day, I regard Santa as my earliest political mentor, and with the possible exception of the PM [John Howard], as my greatest mentor.”

In launching the first volume of Patrick Morgan’s edited collection of Santamaria’s papers at the State Library of Victoria in January 2007, Abbott referred to his correspondence with Santamaria in the late 1980s.

He maintained that Santa­maria’s enduring political legacy could be located in the Howard government’s foreign policy and social conservatism. According to Abbott, this showed “that the tide of secular humanism was not as ­irreversible as he [Santamaria] thought”.

Abbott concluded that, “the DLP is alive and well and living inside the Howard government, and Labor’s SDA caucus has a leader who should at least give them a fair hearing. The times may not have suited his [Santamaria’s] more dire predictions but they have been kinder to his values.”

The latter reference was to the backing achieved by Labor’s new leader Kevin Rudd, who received strong support in the caucus from Labor MPs aligned to the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association — the SDA, or “Shoppies”, led by one-time Santamaria associate Joe de Bruyn.

Rudd’s mother, Margaret, was a DLP supporter in the aftermath of the Labor split. Abbott’s line was that Santamaria’s influence lived on not only in the DLP but even, to a lesser extent, in the ALP.

That was Abbott’s generous assessment at a function attended by Santamaria’s extended family. It glossed over the reality that Santamaria never really liked the Liberal Party in general — or the Howard government in particular.

When the second edition of Patrick Morgan’s collection was launched in 2008, it was revealed that in March 1996 — just two years before Santamaria’s death — Santamaria went back to where he had commenced with the Movement some six decades previously. He suggested to the NCC national executive in early 1996 that what was left of the Movement “should begin a new fight for the ‘soul’ of the Labor Party”.

So, in 1996, Santamaria was so disillusioned with the Liberals that he wanted his remaining forces to try their luck in the ALP. By then, however, Santamaria had conceded that his long-time wish to “establish a new political party … was beyond us”. Not before time.


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