SPECIAL FEATURE: by Patrick MorganNews Weekly
New light on Bob Santamaria
, March 3, 2007
Political commentators, when evaluating B.A. Santamaria's life, have seldom looked much beyond his epic fight against the communist dominance of Australia's trade unions and the 1955 Labor Party Split.
Noted historian and author Patrick Morgan, who has recently published a selection of B.A. Santamaria's correspondence,* challenges this view.
In a speech he delivered on February 2, 2007, to the National Civic Council's national conference, he spoke of Mr Santamaria's ambitious vision for the organisation he founded, the NCC, and about how little has been known, until now, of the multitude of activities in which he was involved, both in Australia and overseas.
Bob Santamaria's strategy had an essentially religious basis. The work he and his colleagues did was, he believed, a religious more than a political vocation. You had to sacrifice your whole life to it, as a priest or soldier would. The intensity of the religious basis of his motivation is caught in a speech he gave to the Movement in the early 1950s:
"Arising from that call there is some sort of vocation, and it is my belief that the majority of us will save or lose our souls by the way in which we respond to that challenge."
But he was also an original political thinker and strategist. He was sui generis
— he invented his own way of doing things, and didn't depend on past models.
Santamaria's earliest insight was to see the parish in secular-political terms — he realised that the Australia-wide Catholic parish network was a superb vehicle on which to base a political operation. The Movement involved organising most parishes and most unions in Australia. This he did for decades, and on a shoe-string.
In a speech to be published in a second book of Santamaria's writings, he tells us why he called it "the Movement". We usually use the word "movement" loosely for a body or group such as in the phrase "the Labor movement", but for him it had a specific, literal
meaning: the Movement was an organisation that is always in motion, always changing, always recreating and renewing itself, always expanding its mandate, always seeking new goals.
He tells his supporters: you can't stand still — you either move forward or die. Don't act timorously: be a maker of history, live courageously. And this incessant energy of course reflects his own personality.A self-denying prophecy
Santamaria's great early success was in rolling back communist dominance in the unions, a precondition of Australia's prosperity in the post-war decades. But because of this achievement, his warning about the dangers of communism became a self-denying prophecy — his success in blocking it led to the view that the communist danger was exaggerated or even untrue, and that his actions were a form of McCarthyism endangering the freedoms of Australians.
A similar argument is going on today about terrorism. The terrorists started the problem by bombing us (just as the communists started the problems in the unions). Both are totalitarian pests. But we in the West have taken strong, successful counter-measures, so there have been no outbreaks recently. And now the civil liberties lobby says we, not the terrorists, are the problem; we are threatening freedoms; the terrorist threat is exaggerated and blown up by Western governments to win votes.New insights
There was a rush to judgment on Santamaria in the 1950s, but this was premature, as we didn't know the full extent of his activities. Now we can see the multitude of activities he was involved in, and his whole life gains a coherence and comes into a better focus as a result.
His opponents' view of him as a sinister Labor manipulator was frozen in the past. It was their fixation, not his, and gave him more freedom to manoeuvre than he might have hoped for.
The letters reveal his extensive international connections. In particular they reveal he ran a Movement-like operation in Asia for decades. Its policy was anti-colonial and anti-communist, and devoted to improving Asian living conditions.
He first saw Australia's "manifest destiny" as being the headquarters of the mission to Christianise Asia. So the Movement in Asia in the post-war decades was under church auspices. But after the Split the Asian hierarchy came to see him as "the stormy petrel of Australian Catholicism", so he secularised the Movement in Asia as the "Pacific Institute", a body to oppose Asian communism. He even helped found a DLP-type party in South Vietnam to help President Thieu.
Most people think of him as quintessentially political, but he spent a great deal of time on non-political matters. For decades he ran a one-man agency to help those in need. He coped with a wide range of problems which people brought to him. This became a social welfare agency, influence network and patronage circuit all rolled into one.
One of his main aims was to create a third party in Australia which was suited to our needs, anti-communist and alert to defence needs, but with fair social policies. This he tried through the ALP and the DLP, as we all know.
The letters reveal his attempts to change the Country Party and Liberal Party in this direction. Near the end of his life he thought himself as something of a failure, because he had not succeeded in this venture.Consistency
Our view of him is skewed by the controversy over the 1955 Labor Party Split — we think his main aim was to work in the labour movement combating communism. Then when this finished he set out to do other things. This is not so.
Let's look at his original aim. The positive part was to permeate all bodies in society, political and non-political, left and right, with Christian social principles.
His negative aim was to stymie those forces which represented militant atheism. In the 1940s this was organised communism in the labour movement.
Once this was beaten, he moved on to his positive agenda of widespread permeation, and to new enemies of the religious disposition in life: permissiveness and societal liberalism, bio-technologies, economic liberalism, and so on.
The historical focus on the left, the unions, the Labor Party and on the negative part of his agenda, gives a distorted view of him and makes it harder to understand his overall career.Unique political organisation
The organisations he formed were unique, combining the functions of think-tanks, lobby groups, research institutes and intelligence-gathering outfits, but also active in politics in mobilising votes, changing organisations, and so on.
The best definition I have come across of the Movement/NCC's basic strategy was stated by his colleague Frank Mount:
"We are part of, and represent, the forces of the established order of society. That society is under attack by subversive political 'guerrilla' forces.
"Our job is to defend the established order and its essential institutions by (i) strengthening its 'main forces' and (ii) conducting 'counter
-guerrilla' operations ….
"We have long been almost solely responsible — through the default of others — for the established order's counter-guerrilla operations. These have largely focussed on the unions, but over time the enemy's guerrilla attacks have spread to other fields."
The established order is not the establishment, but those forces and institutions, including government, which ensure stability and security. The first subversive force was communism in the unions, then others arose. Looking at him this way enables us to see the consistency in his vision.Legacy
One legacy was his unfashionable resistance to permissiveness and to the liberation movements from the 1960s onwards. At that stage people began to embrace modernity totally, to let every-thing hang out, with no limits — anything goes, and so on. They lost their power of discrimination.
Now his views are much more accepted. Many people have come to see that permissive views don't work, on pragmatic, if not on moral, grounds. Bob Santamaria's legacy is now moving to the forefront of the "politics and religion" debate.
In the last U.S. Presidential election, polls showed the great vote determinant was religion — those of a religious disposition voted for the Republicans, the secular humanists voted for the Democrats.
In Australia, John Howard has captured the votes of those who believe duties and responsibilities transcend rights, who believe life has larger goals than hedonism and immediate gratification, and that there are boundaries and limits which should not be crossed. Howard's codeword for this disposition is "values".
Kevin Rudd realises he must shift this vote back to Labor and so emphasises his Christian convictions. Because Bob Santamaria stuck it out and promoted these values, people and parties are scrambling for his legacy, which now seems important again.
;* YOUR MOST OBEDIENT SERVANT:
Selected Letters, 1938-1996
by B.A. Santamaria
edited by Patrick Morgan
(Melbourne University Press)
Hardback: 575 pages (including index)
Rec. price: $49.95