April 22nd 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The populist wedge: political disaffection comes to Australia

EDITORIAL Human Rights Commission needs to start afresh post Professor Triggs

CANBERRA OBSERVED Liberals' soul searching too painful to publicise

ABORTION Law condones the act as it criminalises the image

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Trump makes calculated response to Syrian atrocity

CHINA No easy way to reverse malignant one-child policy

FOREIGN AFFAIRS French election may determine Eurozone fate

ECONOMICS The taxing of companies: a clarifying perspective

PHILOSOPHY Rights bereft of obligations: or, Socrates versus the pig

MUSIC Classical colours: Mozart's fusion of opposites

CINEMA Beauty and the Beast: A fairytale of true enchantment

BOOK REVIEW Santamaria: a man against the tide

BOOK REVIEW The teen they would have made queen

Heartening response to readers' survey

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Santamaria: a man against the tide

News Weekly, April 22, 2017



by Robert Murray


Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne
Paperback: 103 pages
Price: AUD $24.95

Reviewed by Jeffry Babb


The Aeolian Islands lie in the Tyrrhenian Sea, to the north of Sicily. This island group has two active volcanoes, Stromboli and Vulcano. Technically, the Aeolian Islands belong to Sicily, but they are not of Sicily.

During the great earthquake of 1693, in which thousands of people died in Sicily, the Aeolian islanders gathered in the cathedral and prayed to Saint Bartholomew. Not one islander perished.

The Santamaria family, like many other islanders in the Mediterranean, grew weary of battling to wrest a living from the sea and the unyielding earth, and immigrated to Australia at the turn of the 20th century.

Bartholomew Augustine “Bob” Santamaria was born in Melbourne’s inner north, in the suburb of Brunswick. In 1915, Brunswick was almost exclusively “old Australian”. Some 30 per cent of the population was Catholic, mainly Irish in origin. The Santamarias at first sold fruit and vegetables, and then later moved into licensed groceries, which had the advantage of being less perishable. Brunswick is now very trendy. Successive waves of immigrants have moved through the suburb, all making an impact.

Santamaria is the most influential figure in Australian politics never to have occupied a seat in any parliament, state or federal. He was a member of no party, yet influenced them all. According to personal information from Santamaria, he voted for the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) when it fielded candidates, and after the DLP disbanded in 1978, he voted informal.

The relationship between the National Civic Council (NCC), which Santamaria headed, and the DLP could be fraught. Santamaria’s claim that the NCC “rolled up” the DLP parliamentary party after the DLP disastrously lost all five senators in the double dissolution election of 1974 is hotly contested.

Bob Santamaria was a man of great talents. Murray writes: “He was of politics but not in them, tough and shrewd beneath a slightly pious exterior, persuasively charming and fluent, at ease with both the written and spoken word. His ego and desire to influence and win were as strong as anybody successful in public life. He never joined a political party but sought to influence them all “(Murray, p38).

One could never make any prior assumptions with Santamaria. Shortly after I began writing for News Weekly a generation ago, I said: “Bob, there are a lot of things I don’t agree with in News Weekly.” He laughed and replied: “Well, I don’t either, and I’m the editor, at least nominally.”

Santamaria was a master of subtlety. He didn’t usually hold grudges. Clyde Cameron (ALP, Hindmarsh) was an ex-shearer with broad shoulders. He was formerly the Australian Workers Union (AWU) kingmaker in South Australia, a pivotal figure in the Split. Cameron and Santamaria became good friends. Santamaria later in life said that “he had always perceived himself as an activist, presenting, developing and organising ideas for society rather than an originator of an ideology” (Murray, p41).

“The Movement” or “the Show” was the designation for the anti-communist movement headed by Santamaria and nurtured by the eminent Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix. The Movement evolved organically into the National Civic Council. The Movement initially had no formal structure or identity. This made it difficult to attack. The bishops in whose sees the Movement operated felt responsible for the personal commitment by Movement people and the frequent family and career sacrifices. “They usually thought of Santamaria as an ‘exemplary layman’ and liked him personally – he was a likeable man. Some revered him” (Murray, 49).

The ALP was the vehicle for advancement for Australian Catholics, particularly those of Irish descent, who felt excluded by the Protestant ascendency, a feeling for which they had ample justification. Murray estimates that before the Split two-thirds of Catholics voted for the ALP.

The fact that the Split fractured the Catholic vote led to the exclusion of the ALP from power for 23 years in Canberra. It was out of power for even longer in Victoria, until John Cain Jnr led the ALP back to the government benches in 1982. It was 1989 before the Wayne Goss reform team took power in Brisbane. Professor Patrick O’Brien of the University of Western Australia observed that the Catholic vote, after the DLP disbanded, split down the middle between the ALP and the Liberals. This justified the DLP’s claim that the DLP had kept the Liberals in power for 23 years, he said.

The fight against the communists in the unions was ultimately successful. It involved the Industrial Groups, an ALP operation, and the Movement, which was largely Catholic. It is likely that there was an overlap between the two organisations. By the time of the Split in 1955, the battle against the communists in the unions had been largely won. The non-communist left, led by F.E. “Joe” Chamberlain (ALP federal president 1955–61), survived a lot longer, one of them being notorious Victorian state secretary William “Baghdad Bill” Hartley. Chamberlain was a political tornado, whose tirades evoked a mix of exhilaration and terror.

The Split ended the political career of numerous ALP men, among them Standish Michael “Stan” Keon (ALP, Yarra), reputed to be a future leader of the party. Keon had been one of the Movement’s most prominent supporters in Federal Parliament. Keon, who was said to like a glass of red, divorced himself from the Movement and went on to become a successful liquor merchant.

Santamaria was still a young man in his 30s at the time of the Split. He had been little known to the public until Herbert Vere “Doc” Evatt QC (ALP, Hunter) made lurid accusations, supported by the left-wing unions and the AWU, depicting Santamaria as a deranged clerical fascist white-anting the ALP.

Santamaria was not perfect. No one is. Murray described him at this time, before the Split, as a “flawed leader who succumbed to hubris … risking misjudgements due to an overconfident belief that one is doing God’s work. His judgement was no doubt affected by the early admiration – reverence with some – he won from a rather closed community, swayed by his lucidity of mind and speech, his careful politeness and piety and sense of sincere and idealistic commitment” (Murray, p49).

One cannot credibly argue that Australia would have been better off if Santamaria had been, say, a top Queen’s Counsel instead of taking up a leadership role as one of Australia’s most prominent Catholic laymen. The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) dissolved itself, while the NCC is still going strong. The NCC no longer has a presence in the unions, although the “shoppies” (Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association) follows social teaching as espoused by the NCC. But the “shoppies” leadership too is under attack from an insurgent group.

Perhaps Santamaria’s greatest policy success was achieving a cherished goal – state aid for independent schools. The Australian Council for the Defence of Government Schools (DOGS) still vigorously opposes state aid for Catholic schools. But this legacy of sectarianism is uncommon in Australia today.

As for Santamaria “causing” the Split, Murray lays the blame squarely on Evatt. “Doc” Evatt was highly eccentric – even some of his own caucus members described him as mad. He flipped from supporting the Groups to opposing them because he feared being dumped as leader of the parliamentary ALP.

A lot of it has to do with the way the ALP works. The parliamentary ALP is described as “the political wing of the industrial movement”. And Joe Chamberlain was accused of preferring doctrinal purity to winning elections. One of the ALP’s most astute journalistic observers, the “Red Fox” Alan Reid, described the ALP as being run by the “36 faceless men”. As a rule, conference votes will be decided in advance as delegates “caucus” to determine the “line” and who will be elected to the various positions on offer. It’s not unknown for troublesome or ineffectual union officials to be preselected for the Senate or Legislative Council seats where they can’t do much damage.

What might have been if Bob Santamaria had sought a political career? Within the ALP, the NCC was a proscribed organisation. Yet, although Santamaria counted former Liberal Prime Ministers (Sir) Robert Menzies and Malcolm Fraser among his friends, he didn’t seem to fit the Liberal mould. As a Catholic leader with an Italian background, with a predominantly Irish Catholic following, his remarkable political skills would have been of value to any political party.

For the NCC, the confrontation with the communists in the unions ended when Bob Hawke (ALP Wills, Prime Minister 1983–91) brokered the re-entry of the “Grouper” unions into the 1984 Victorian Conference, amid flying rotten tomatoes tossed by the socialist left. The returning unions were the clerks, the ironworkers, the shoppies and the carpenters and joiners.

Labor and Santamaria covers much new ground. While the focus is on Santamaria and his role in the Split, it also covers the Split in New South Wales and Queensland, where Santamaria had little influence. The reaction of the Catholic hierarchy in NSW, in particular Cardinal (Sir) Norman Gilroy and Bishop James Carroll, to the Split meant that the party largely stayed united. This meant that the “Grouper” unions like the Ironworkers, led by Laurie Short, stayed in the ALP.

Bob Murray is Australia’s pre-eminent authority on the Split. His earlier book, The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties (Cheshire, 1970), is the standard text on this period. This new book, at around 100 pages, is an update, rather than a rewrite, but it fills in many gaps.

Murray is a journalist with an old fashioned commitment to telling the truth and doing “hands on” research. He did his cadetship at The Argus, a former competitor to Melbourne’s Age. He has given all parties fair treatment in Labor and Santamaria. His style is lucid and entertaining to read. Anyone who is interested in Australian history would benefit from reading Labor and Santamaria.

And Santamaria? He was a man of many facets. Leader, thinker, inspiration. The man who loved Carlton Football Club and deplored the advent of the Australian Football League (AFL) because he believed supporters should be able to walk to their home ground on match days. Father of eight, grandfather of many. The man who guided the battle against communism in the unions but let his troops do the fighting. Santamaria’s whole life was a struggle, Against the Tide, as he wrote. As for his legacy, Murray writes: “Over the years a growing middle ground of public opinion conceded that he had made a substantial and unique contribution to the nation’s affairs” (Murray, p38).

Purchase this book at the bookshop:


All you need to know about
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TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm