SPECIAL FEATURE: by Tony Abbott MPNews Weekly
The legacy of B.A. Santamaria
, February 17, 2007
This is the address given by the Federal Minister for Health and Ageing, Tony Abbott, at the launch of the B.A. Santamaria collection of letters, at the State Library of Victoria on January 30, 2007. Copies of this important book, edited by Patrick Morgan, are available from News Weekly books.
Bartholomew Augustine ("Bob") Santamaria helped to split the Australian Labor Party, to found the Democratic Labor Party and to keep the Coalition in government for almost two decades, yet he was only briefly a member of any political party. He had more political influence than most senior ministers, yet never held any public office.
He was a key figure in two of the most important cultural shifts in Australian politics: the secular humanist takeover of the Labor Party and the growing influence of Catholics inside the Coalition, resisting one and not quite believing the other.
Despite his epic and largely successful battle against Communism in the union movement, he regarded himself as a political failure.
He sometimes described himself as having the faith of a "primitive Italian peasant", but he left Australian Catholicism more intellectual and less politically tribal. He was ferocious in argument but charming in person.Guiding principle
For all the alleged "narrowness" of his philosophy, he had a wide and diverse circle of contacts, as these letters show. Almost a decade after his death, the guiding principle of his life, that it was impossible to be a passive Christian, is on the verge of being taken seriously.
That this paradoxical man was the most influential "failure" in our political history is, perhaps, the least that can be said of him.
My first contact with what turned out to be the Santamaria Movement was a school-friend's invitation, back in 1976, to attend a weekend course on the issues we might face at university.
It was never entirely clear who had issued it or who was organising the conference, but it had an impressive speakers' list and some instinct whispered that this was not an opportunity to be missed. I arranged to tag along, and have been under the Santamaria spell ever since.
At times, I recoiled a little from the single-minded intensity of the activists I met. Still, some of them became more than friends. We came to share a brotherhood born of holding the same values, debating the same issues, confronting the same challenges, and suffering the same defeats.
For Santamaria and those influenced by him, it wasn't enough to have a point of view: it had to pass the highest ethical and intellectual tests. It wasn't enough to have a sound philosophical position: it had to be applied to real life.
"What is to be done?" was the one Marxist-Leninist interrogatory he took rigorously to heart. The result, at least for those close to him, was a life of constant intellectual and political struggle against the conventional wisdom of the day that almost inevitably seemed to fall short of his bracing ideals.
There are people from that conference, and all the others like it, in positions of intellectual leadership right around our country. It is a tribute to his influence and authority that, even now, it would be invidious to name them.
Some are notional political opponents between whom there's the bond of trust that comes from sharing an intellectual trench on a hostile battlefield.
In the famous Melbourne University debate about the Spanish Civil War, he declared: "When the bullets of the atheists struck the statue of Christ outside the cathedral in Madrid, for some that was just steel striking brass. But for me, those bullets were piecing the heart of Christ the King."
He could engender a thrill in the heart that was part patriotism, part Christian idealism and part "fighting the good fight".
I was lucky to know B.A. Santamaria for the last 22 years of his life, to have attended diligently to his writing and speaking over that time and to have been the beneficiary of the occasional private lunch and long phone call.
I am honoured to have been asked to help launch these memoirs, as there are many whom he knew better and loved more. Perfectionist that he was, I'm fairly sure that I would have been a disappointment to him. Still, hardly a day passes without recalling his example and its challenge to do more, better.
The golden thread linking these letters (whether about the organisation of the Catholic Social Studies Movement, the bishops' attitude towards the local practice of Catholic Action, the mobilisation of pro-Western bodies in our region, the morale of the Christian church or merely his efforts to help and motivate friends and contacts) is the imperative to find the truth and, as best one can, to put it into practice.
Despite his longevity in public life, he was too contentious ever to achieve "living national treasure" status. Especially during the Labor Split, he was a fixture in Australian demonology.
Still, even such inveterate philosophical and political opponents as Max Charlesworth, Phillip Adams, Clyde Cameron and Jim Cairns thought him worth the bother of writing to and invariably received courteous and thoughtful replies.
In his perceptive editor's commentary, Patrick Morgan provides a judicious appraisal of his life, highlighting his little-known role in the international network of thinkers and organisers which did so much to counter the allure of Communism in our region.
I have one quibble though: the "mock modesty" which Morgan identifies in him might better be described as a pervasive sense of disappointment that his Herculean efforts of organisation and advocacy had not made more impact.Two great concerns
The last years of Santamaria's life were dominated by two great concerns: the restoration of authority in the Catholic Church and the creation of a political party that people of traditional Australian values could readily vote for other than under threat of fine. In a 1982 letter to Peter Coleman, he complained about the "modernist revolt against the authority of the Church as a whole and the papacy in particular".
In a 1992 letter to Philip Ayres, he said that the roots of a new political party "rest within the Nationals, what are broadly regarded as the social conservatives among the Liberals … and the DLP factor which still exists … within … Labor". I'm not sure, given his constitutional pessimism, that he would have taken the accession of Pope Benedict and the ascendancy of Cardinal Pell here in Australia as vindication, but it is.
It hasn't meant the end of altar girls or the revival of plain-chant in ordinary parish churches (as he wished), but it has meant markedly less equivocation and half-heartedness about Catholic beliefs and their relevance for the wider world.
The formation of a new political party was a necessary but hopeless mission, he thought — essential but impossible. He was good enough to engage in correspondence with me on this topic, politely rejecting the idea that he should explicitly encourage people to join the political party of their choice and improve it.
In his view, the existing parties were incapable of redemption. In 1994, he declined to give me a pre-selection reference on the grounds that it wouldn't do any good. Deep down, I think he suspected that I might win and thus undermine his thesis that only "castle Catholics" could ever penetrate the Anglo establishment. With eight Catholics now in the Howard Cabinet, he was certainly wrong there.
This Government's decisions to: overturn the Northern Territory's euthanasia law, ban gay marriage, stop the ACT heroin trial, provide additional financial support for one-income families, and try to reduce abortion numbers through pregnancy-support counselling show that the tide of secular humanism was not as irreversible as he thought either.
He was also wrong about the English-speaking powers' irretrievable loss of nerve after Vietnam, as the U.S./ British/Australian persistence in Iraq shows.
Thirty out of 60 Labor members of the House of Representatives taking an affirmation rather than an oath on the Bible at the swearing in of the current Parliament, and Lindsay Tanner declaring that Labor is the "party of the socially progressive secular society", tend to confirm Santamaria's prejudices. On the other hand, the election of Kevin Rudd as leader tends to confound them.
Of course, it could all go bad. America could elect another flaky president. The next Liberal leader might be a less assured champion of traditional institutions. Labor could be elected federally without Rudd demonstrating that his Christian convictions are more than mere window-dressing.
In the meantime, though, the DLP is alive and well and living inside the Howard Government, and Labor's SDA (Shop Distributive and Allied Employees' Association) caucus has a leader who should at least give them a fair hearing. The times may not have suited his more dire predictions, but they have been kinder to his values.
In his memoirs, Against the Tide
, he observed: "In the midst of all these great historical events, we were nothing more than tiny minnows swimming in great and turbulent seas. But even the minnow must do what he can."
Some tide. Some minnow.— Tony Abbott MP.