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Labor’s Original Killing Season

20 June 2015 616 views 5 Comments

Alan Reid (1914-1987)

Alan Reid was one of the most influential political journalists in 20th century Australia. Working for most of his long career as Canberra correspondent for Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, he not only reported key events in Australian politics, but also from time to time actively participated in them.

As far as can be ascertained, Reid’s roman a clef about the 1950s Labor Split, The Bandar-Log, holds the dubious title of being the only Australian novel legally judged defamatory without having been published.

As myself and Stephen Holt point out in our biography Alan (“The Red Fox) Reid: Pressman Par Excellence (2011), The Bandar-Log was submitted to Angus & Robertson in 1958. Colin Roderick, who worked for A & R at the time, insisted the novel was libellous and the publisher withdrew its initial support.

In 1960, there was another attempt at publication, this time by JP Atkins of Cleveland Publishing. This also failed when the printer, Halstead Press, a subsidiary of A & R, was ordered by its owner-company to halt the print run. A celebrated legal case followed, with Atkins, who was president of the Democratic Labor Party in NSW, suing Halstead for breach of contract. In September 1961, Judge WB Perringnon of the Sydney District Court found the novel was libellous and dismissed the claim.

After more than half a century of suppression, The Bandar-Log: A Labor Story of the 1950s will finally be published on Monday. It is based on the 1960 galley proofs of Reid’s novel I uncovered at the Mitchell Library in Sydney.

The extract below features characters who mirror the actual political players of the time. As Holt and I explain in the introduction to the book, Kaye Seborjar (“Cesare Borgia) is largely based on federal Labor leader Dr HV Evatt; Con Fortune on Evatt’s deputy Arthur Calwell; Carr Domineco on the Melbourne-based, Catholic anti-communist BA Santamaria; and Gilly Hoskin on Labor firebrand Eddie Ward. Jasper Danke is a fictionalised supporter of Santamaria, while the character Macker Kalley (“Machiavelli) is a close representation of the book’s author, Reid.

The title comes from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The phrase refers to “monkey people or, more generally, any group of vicious chatterers. In essence, The Bandar-Log is a graphic Labor novel about the “killing season of its time.- Ross Fitzgerald


Con Fortune had answered the ring at the front door, and been surprised when he recognised his visitors. Carr Domineco and he had been feuding politically within the Party for years. Fortune had ushered the men into the sitting room where his wife Lottie had been sewing. He had introduced them and Lottie, fluttering, had gathered her sewing and left the room.

When the door closed behind her, Fortune dropped the thin pretence at urbanity he had maintained for the brief moments of his wife’s presence. His eyes narrowed. He said, “What do you two vultures want?

Jasper Danke smiled without humour. Large and dominating, he said in his truculent voice, “I take it you want us to come straight to the point, Con? as though he were issuing a challenge.

“Why not? Fortune asked curtly.

Fortune did not like Danke. He did not like his overbearing manner. He did not like the slavering, uncritical, adoring obedience with which Danke stooged for Domineco. Most politicians had obedient, unquestioning stooges. “But Domineco’s are different from the usual stooges, thought Fortune. “There’s something about him that brings out the groveller that’s in every man. The rest of us have stooges, followers and supporters. They’ll do anything for us while we’re on top, or while they believe in us, or because they like us. But they want something back. A pay-off. Or flattery. It’s a two-way traffic. But with Domineco it’s one way. He gives nothing, but takes all. He doesn’t have supporters, he has devotees. To them he is without blemish, infallible: a Pope in a lounge suit, a modern saint with a God-sent mission. But despite his distaste for Danke, Fortune did not let the man anger him: he had long passed the stage at which he expended rancour needlessly on unimportant people, even when he disliked them. Danke was merely Domineco’s faithful watchdog. If the dog was kicked, the master went unhurt.

Domineco was silent. He sat in his chair, demure, smooth-cheeked, his face unlined and expressionless, like a Buddha slightly less than life-size, with the same air of calm, compelling benignity. He was very small. But everything about him was exquisitely finished. The bones under the rounded plumpness of his flesh were light and delicate. His face, olive-tinted, was round and sleek, under a retreating, tight-fitting hairline. The mouth was unexpectedly prim, though full-lipped. His hands, which he held clasped in front of him, were sensitive and well-shaped, but tiny.

“Con, said Danke, with booming heartiness, “I’ll put it to you straight. We — he paused and nodded in the direction of the motionless Domineco — “Carr and me, we think that it is about time we — that is, you and us — had a powwow.

“What about? said Fortune.

The big man made a conciliatory gesture. “About burying the hatchet, Con.

“Why? said Fortune. “The only place I’d like to bury the hatchet is in your skull. Yours and Carr’s.

Danke shrugged. “So you don’t like us. So what? You’re entitled to feel that way if you want to. But you’ve got to be realistic, Con.

“How realistic, Jasper? asked Fortune.

The big man leaned forward in his chair and tapped Fortune on the knee confidentially. “I’ll give you the picture as we see it, Con, he said. “You and us — his thick thumb waved towards the silent Domineco — “we’ve been battling against each other for control of the Party for years. You are strong in the Party, but you haven’t got control. Right at this moment we are even stronger, but we haven’t got control. We’ve got a lot of power, but neither you nor we have the tight control that we want. He hitched his chair nearer to Fortune’s. “But together, Con,–his voice was persuasive — “we can own the Party.

Fortune tilted his chair back. He thought, “What’s Domineco up to? What’s coming? Where’s the gimmick? He was alert, like a ratting terrier, but he was outwardly relaxed, his eyes half-closed and reflective.

“So? he asked calmly.

Danke was encouraged. He stabbed at Fortune with a blunt forefinger. “We’re putting all our cards on the table, Con. Being completely frank. His eyes flickered to Domineco. “That’s so, Carr, ain’t it? he appealed.

“That’s so, Con, Domineco confirmed. The little man’s voice was unexpectedly deep and musical, cultured and carefully modulated. He was said to be as fine and fluent a speaker as there was in the country.

“Look, Con. The big man leaned forward eagerly. “I’ll tell you how it looks to us. There’s a fight on now in the Party. The right wing — us — versus the left wing. We know you don’t belong ideologically to either side. You’re a middle-of-the-road man. You’re in the position that you could join either side without losing face.

His tone changed subtly. Fortune felt the insinuated threat before Danke voiced it. “Better join us, Con. You’ve been in the Party a long time. You’ve not always been consistent. But you’ve been consistent in one thing. In Party fights, you’ve always ended up on the winning side. We’re the winning side, Con. His voice had a triumphant note. “We’re winning now. You can’t beat us, Con — nobody can. Better join us.

“You almost convince me, Fortune answered calmly. His mind was racing. He thought, “If you’re winning, sport, why bother telling me? Why not go on and win? He took a cigarette from the box on the small table beside him. “But I’m like the man from Missouri, Jasper. I have to be shown. He looked at Danke thoughtfully. “What makes you so positive yours is the winning side, Jasper? At the risk of being corny I point out there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip.

“There’ll be no slip, Con, said Danke. He struck a match, leaned across and held it for Fortune’s cigarette. “We practically own the Party now. He sounded very confident, Fortune noted dispassionately. “The cup’s at our lips. All we have to do is drink. We’re the winners. Con.

“Thanks, said Fortune. He exhaled and held his cigarette, watching the ash grow. “But somebody might knock the cup from your hand, Jasper. Someone like me. Or Gilly Hoskin. Or half a dozen others. Perhaps the Leader — Kaye Seborjar himself.

“Seborjar? Danke was scornful. “What’s happening to your spy system, Con? Macker Kalley on vacation? Seborjar is backing us. He’s holding the cup steady for us.

Fortune ignored Danke. He turned to Domineco. “That right, Carr?

“That’s right, Con. The little man inclined his head gravely. “And you know me, Con. I don’t lie.

Fortune felt his stomach muscles contract. It was as though he had been punched. He believed Domineco. Domineco did not lie. The little man prided himself on his punctilious honesty in a world where lying was as natural as breathing. Fortune knew that he should say something, anything, to hide the shock of the news that Seborjar, who disliked him and had been trying secretly to undermine him within the Party for years, had joined his dedicated open enemies. “Hell, where does this put me? he thought.

“Surprised, Con? the little man asked gently.

Domineco was trying to gauge his reactions. Fortune knew that. It helped him recover his self-control. “Yeah, he said. “I admit it. I’m surprised. That’s quite an alliance — you and Seborjar.

“We both want something, the little man explained unsmilingly.

“Yeah, said Fortune. “Seborjar wants to rule the country — and he doesn’t care how he gets to do it. You want control of the Party — and you don’t particularly care how you get control. There was tension in the room. The three men had the serene wariness — an air of being simultaneously fearless but cautious — that men who are expert in handling dangerous animals so often have. They were all three schooled in handling that most unpredictable of all animals, man. They appeared relaxed, yet at the same time they gave an impression of careful watchfulness. When Fortune rubbed his long forefinger horizontally across his top lip, and kept rubbing, Danke glanced at Domineco. Both men knew the gesture. They had seen it at Party rallies, at committee meetings, at Party functions, on innumerable occasions when Fortune was disturbed.

At last Fortune said, “You two have a boa constrictor by the tail, you know. Sooner or later, it’ll writhe round and crush you. Danke said with loud confidence, “Seborjar? He boomed his hearty, insincere laugh. “Don’t worry about us, Con. We’ll handle him. Fortune said, his lips twisting wryly, “If you can handle Seborjar, you’re the first in Party history who can.

This is an extract from Alan Reid’s ‘The Bandar-Log: a Labor Story of the 1950s’, edited by Ross Fitzgerald (Connor Court, $34.95).

Treasured memories of political intrigue:
Alan Reid was the Paul Kelly of his day and the Labor Split in the 1950s was probably the most far-reaching convulsion in Australian politics. It gave birth to the Democratic Labor Party and the National Civic Council and hastened the move of Catholics to the conservative side of Australian politics.

Its repercussions are still felt even today, six decades later, in otherwise unlikely alliances across the party divide.
Reid was far too scrupulous a journalist to put two and two together to get five and a half. For Reid, nothing that first hand witnesses hadn’t verified could find its way into his reporting or his books — or, at least, that’s what he told Greg Sheridan and me when, as wannabe journalists, we visited the largely retired press gallery legend in the late 1970s.

Still, it seems that the gossip and the conjecture that he’d accumulated demanded an outlet — hence this book, his fictionalised account of what he thought had been happening behind the scenes but couldn’t quite substantiate.

In 1958, he turned the drama he’d been covering for the previous few years into The Bandar-Log, a phrase he borrowed from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book that probably best translates as “vacuous chatterers.

Twice, legal action thwarted publication. The account that was too close to the bone to be tolerated, even with the names changed, could have been lost to our literature but for the efforts of another fine analyst of Australian politics: Professor Ross Fitzgerald, who uncovered the final galley proofs of Reid’s work in Sydney’s Mitchell Library.

In some ways, the book illustrates how much has changed for the better since our grandparents’ day. Many of Reid’s characterisations could be questioned including his rather florid depiction of my one-time political mentor, BA Santamaria, as “demure, smooth-cheeked, his face unlined and expressionless, like a Buddha slightly less than life-size, with the same air of calm, compelling benignity.

Still, the turbulence of times long past is full of instruction for all who would understand the turbulence of our own times. It’s good that Ross Fitzgerald has rescued this important insight into events that have shaped our nation – Tony Abbott

This is the foreword to The Bandar-Log, edited by Ross Fitzgerald.

The Labor split, as told by a witness and player:
Those Russian novelists with their penchant for complex casts of characters had nothing on Alan Reid. His rediscovered work, The Bandar Log, is stuffed with protagonists carrying complicated names designed to disguise their real-life alter egos. It’s sometimes difficult to tell one Labor flunkey from another.
These men criss-cross the narrative, dragging their suit coats through the muck and mire of politics. Their names may differ but their naked ambition and immorality are interchangeable.

No matter. Like the Russians, Reid, the journalist who dominated Canberra reporting for decades, is intent on making some big statements amid the detailed political history he is recounting. The Bandar Log is a book about the Labor Split of the 1950s but it is also about the corrupting effects of politics, a world, according to Reid, inhabited by the venal, the heartless and the dogmatic.

The relentlessly negative view of the politicians and operators whom Reid reported on is a shock although the doyen of the press gallery could be uncompromising in his non-fiction accounts.

And when, in the late 1950s Reid sat down to write this book — recovered thanks to historian Ross Fitzgerald — he had lived through years of manipulation, intrigue and betrayal that had destroyed the Labor brand.

Fiction released Reid, or so he thought, from libel laws, and he let it rip as he recounted the split between the anti-communist Right and the Left in Labor, a rupture that created a new party which, in 1957, became the Democratic Labor Party .

The split of the mid 1950s took place against the background of the Cold War and fears of infiltration by communist agents. Industrial groups had been set up in the ALP to combat communists in the trade unions and B.A. Santamaria, a militant Catholic layman, supported these groups through the Catholic Social Studies Movement. He was pitted against the flawed Labor leader, H.V. “Doc Evatt for control of the direction of Labor.

Reid was a witness but also a player, with intimate knowledge of all the major figures, from Santamaria to Evatt to deputy leader Arthur Calwell. And as Laurie Oakes says in his postscript to The Bandar Log, it was Reid who “lifted the lid on what he termed the ‘Svengali-like’ role of Bob Santamaria, starting the process that led to the great Labor split.

Here is journalist Reid writing on October 20, 1954, just 15 days after Evatt, in an extraordinary and destructive move, publicly denounced the influence of Santamaria. “Rightly or wrongly Santamaria, short, squatly rotund, fluently jovial, is believed to be the brain that has built up as powerful a political machine as Australia has seen — ‘The Movement’, a political force that exists, unknown to the thousands who belong to it, within Catholic Action, which itself is non-political and devoted to matters spiritual, not material.

Four years later, with Labor on its knees, Reid as a novelist talks through the Calwell character (Con Fortune) to paint a picture of the differences that ripped Labor apart: “My enemies in the party — Domenico (Santamaria) and his organisation — are bitter. They know I loathe the things they stand for. Their ruthlessness. Their suicidal craving for a Holy Crusade against the Communist heretics … They want to restore peasantry, this time in an urban as well as a rural setting. Their ideal man is bovinely content, stupidly docile and subservient to the divinely inspired, crazy guidance of leaders whose minds half the time are preoccupied unrealistically — and intolerantly — with the problems of life after death.

Reid is a brilliant writer, able to nail the personalities of his protagonists in a few words. The Bandar Log has its faults as a work of fiction but it is a compelling read: history masquerading as fiction and offering a unique contemporary account of events more than half a century ago – Helen Trinca

The Weekend Australian, June 20-21, 2015, Inquirer, p 8.


  • Peter Coleman said:

    It was back in the mists of time but I easily recall the day in September 1961 when I dropped in to the NSW District Court to listen to what promised to be a sensational political trial. It centred on a notorious novel– finally published this week some 54 years later– about the catastrophic Labor Split of the 1950’s, written by the famous journalist Alan Reid. It was called The Bandar Log in an allusion to the vicious chattering monkeys of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The subtitle makes its theme clearer: ‘A Labor Story of the 1950’s’.

    Reid personalised the story as a war to the death between the attack dog of the Labor Left who was obviously meant to be Dr H.V. Evatt and the hero of the anti-communists who was obviously Bob Santamaria. Reid’s problem was to find a publisher.

    The book publishing division of his employer Australian Consolidated Press would not take it on. They thought it would not sell. (‘We are not in the business of losing money.’) A second publisher, Angus & Robertson, was keen. They even thought it might win the Miles Franklin Prize. But as Reid tells the story, one day an old Labor cobber sidled up to him in King’s Hall in the old Parliament House and whispered: ‘It’s not coming out!’ He was right. A&R finally turned the book down as defamatory. Then unexpectedly a third publisher turned up, P.J. Atkins of Cleveland Press, who said he thought there might be a quid in it. (Atkins was President of the Democratic Labor Party in NSW.) He wanted to publish it in time for the 1960 Christmas trade. But suddenly Atkins’ printer — Halstead Press, owned by A&R — followed A&R’s ruling that the book defamed prominent public figures. It refused to go on with the printing. The publisher thereupon sued Halstead Press for damages for breach of contract. The case came before the District Court.

    Despite great expectations the courtroom drama was low-key, even dull. The principal witness for the printer was the literary scholar Dr Colin Roderick, a director of Angus & Robertson. He painstakingly showed how closely the fictional characters mirrored and defamed actual public figures such as Dr Evatt and Bob Santamaria. The cross-examining barrister for the publisher — the formidable Tom Hughes, later Attorney-General in the federal Liberal government — argued that the characters were definitely not portraits of real people. They were simply political types that turn up everywhere in politics from Washington to Westminster, from Canberra to the Kremlin — the wheeler-dealer, the fanatic, the madman, the fixer, the opportunist, the ideologue, the double-crosser, the stooge, the sycophant, the jackal or whatever. But despite Hughes’ aggressive and lengthy cross-examination, Roderick stuck doggedly to his observation that the characters were thinly disguised portraits of actual politicians in Canberra. When I wrote up the case for The Bulletin of September 1961 I reported that ‘it seemed at times as if Dr Roderick was being subjected to an extremely stiff Leaving Certificate examination in textual criticism’– and passing.

    But rereading my piece at after 54 years, I see I did not do justice to the contest. My divided loyalties got in the way. My sympathies were with Reid. He was a colleague at the Bulletin and although I often, and increasingly, disagreed with him, I wanted to see his novel published. But I was also convinced that Colin Roderick was right that the characters in the novel were portraits of real public figures — Evatt and Santamaria but also Arthur Calwell, Eddie Ward, Gough Whitlam, and Dr John Burton among others. I did not put my by-line on the report. We presented it as ‘From a Sydney Correspondent’. Readers today, more than 50 years later, will probably consider the Bandar Log as hard-hitting if dated commentary.
    But in 1961, at the time of would-be publication, it was an inflammatory and libellous, if accurate, account by an insider. The Judge found the book was defamatory and dismissed the claim for damages.

    It was a triumph for Dr Roderick. Consider the portrait of Evatt : ‘…brilliantly mad, pursued by a sense of historic destiny. Subtle, a self-deceiver. Haunted by the lust for earthly power and a desire for immortality in the memory of man…he would not let what to him were the trifles of normal standards of morality and the little decencies of human existence stand between him and the end he was pursuing …shifty moody, sombre and morose…’

    After the hearing in the District Court, Reid returned his manuscript to the bottom drawer, to be forgotten and apparently lost to history. But a copy of the printer’s galley proofs survived among the Roderick papers in the Mitchell Library — ignored by historians until recently discovered by Ross Fitzgerald [who with Stephen Holt had a few years ago published the biography Alan (‘The Red Fox’) Reid.)] Fitzgerald corrected the proofs and edited the novel again. Connor Court has now published it, at long last, with a Foreword by Prime Minister Abbott (who calls Reid ‘the Paul Kelly of his day’), an Introduction by Fitzgerald and Holt (who find the novel ‘surprisingly relevant today’), and a Postscript by Laurie Oakes (who notes Reid’s ‘extraordinarily bleak’ picture of Canberra politics – ‘filthy and disgusting…a sewer’.) One point is clear : the novel, wooden, creaky and didactic, has little literary merit, but it evokes the spirit of Labor politics in the 1950’s.

    It is a document that will be of lasting interest to students of Australian politics. How many more such documents are still out there, in library archives or family garages, waiting to be discovered?

    Peter Coleman, ‘Australian Notes’, The Spectator Australia, 20 June 2015, p iv.

  • Phil Brown said:


    It could be regarded as a badge of honour when a novel is judged libellous without even being published. Still, it rankled with veteran Australian journalist Alan Reid who died in 1987.

    Reid would be chuffed to know that his hitherto unpublished novel, ‘The Bandar-Log’, has been rescued from the archives, dusted off and has finally managed to see it into print more than five decades after it was suppressed.

    Editor of ‘The Bandar-Log: A Labor Story of the 1950s’, Ross Fitzgerald, emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald, says the novel is a “roman a clef” which featured recognisable political figures of the day.

    As Fitzgerald and Dr Stephen Holt point out in their introduction to the book, the novel is a fictionalised recreation of the great Labor split of the 1950s. “This schism in Labor’s ranks began in October 1954 when its erratic federal party leader, Dr H.V. “Doc” Evatt denounced the perceived influence wielded over the party by anti-communist Catholic activist B.A. “Bob” Santamaria. The resulting donnybrook involved personality clashes as well as ideological conflict.”

    “It was fairly clear who a number of the characters in the book were,” Fitzgerald says. “People like Doc Evatt and his then Labor deputy, Arthur Calwell, were there if thinly disguised. It was a bit clearer which character was based on Santamaria. As far as I know this is the only example of a book being declared libellous without getting published.”

    ‘The Bandar-Log : A Labor Story of the 1950s’, is based on the 1960 galley-proofs dug out of the Mitchell Library in Sydney, retyped, edited and now at last published. But wait, there’s more, including a foreword by Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, who describes Reid as ”the Paul Kelly of his day”. He’s referring to the journalist, not the singer.

    Abbott maintains that the Labor split of the 1950s was “probably the most far-reaching convulsion in Australian politics”.

    “It gave birth to the Democratic Labor Party and the National Civic Council; and hastened the move of Catholics to the conservative side of Australian politics,” Abbott writes. “Its repercussions are still felt even today, six decades later, in otherwise unlikely alliances across the party divide.”

    Abbott, a former journalist, encountered Reid in Canberra and says his novel contains lessons for the present from the past.

    Fitzgerald says Reid’s novel is “not exactly War and Peace or Great Expectations but it is an important historical work nonetheless”.

    The title is a reference from Rudyard Kipling’s classic ‘The Jungle Book.’ In Hindi “bandar” means monkey and “log” means people. The phrase Bandar-log therefore refers to monkey people or, more generally, to vicious and irresponsible chatterers.

    Originally entitled ‘The Gathering’, Reid’s manuscript, which highlights the Machiavellian nature of Australian and especially Labor politics of the 1950s, was first submitted to Angus & Robertson publishers in the 1950s but was deemed libellous, leading the publisher to withdraw its support. Another version of the novel was rejected in 1960.

    The story of its failed attempt to get into print was told in Fitzgerald and Holt’s book ‘Alan (“The Red Fox”) Reid’ which was short-listed for the National Biography Award in 2012. Now the novel itself has been resurrected. In a postscript to the book containing it veteran journalist Laurie Oakes describes Reid as a hugely important figure.

    “No other political journalist has exercised such influence.” Oakes says. “ Les Carlyon has written that Reid’s life ‘reminds us that journalism can be as hazardous as politics’. This is what makes him such a fascinating, controversial and — yes — important figure in our political and media history. That is why the publication of Alan Reid’s hitherto suppressed novel is so welcome.”

    ‘The Bandar-Log: A Labor Story of the 1950s’, Edited by Ross Fitzgerald, Connor Court, $34.95; connorcourt.com

    Phil Brown
    The Courier-Mail, Arts, Monday June 22, 2015.

  • Ron Owers said:

    The article “Labor’s Original Killing Season” (Weekend Australian June 20 – 21) brought back memories.

    My mum, Jean Owers, was the proof reader/editor who brought the libellous content of Alan Reid’s book to the attention of her management at Halstead Press. She was also a witness for Halstead in the court case when Reid sued for breach of contract.

    The Judge, in his decision, quoted Mrs Owers as an example of an ordinary Australian who recognised the characters in the book. Mum was a bit put out to be labelled “ordinary” but did read the report of the trial and its result, which was printed in the Sydney Morning Herald, to me and my brothers, aged 15, 13, and 11. Ah, nostalgia.

    Ron Owers, Mollymook, NSW

    The Australian, June 22, 2015

  • Christian Kerr said:

    Distant divisions

    The Liberal faithful can’t get enough of Labor splits at the moment: splits from more recent years and from ages past. Copies of the long-suppressed, finally published roman a clef of Labor turmoil from the 1950s by legendary pressman Alan Reid, The Bandar Log, sold out at the Liberal federal council on Saturday. Melburnians will have a chance to grab a copy when it receives a formal local launch from a few names that are familiar to readers of this paper, including Reid biographer Ross Fitzgerald — who discovered the manuscript — and his old press gallery colleague Sam Lipski, at DiMattina’s restaurant in Carlton this evening.


    Christian Kerr, STREWTH, The Australian, July 29, 2015, p 9.

  • Stephen Holt said:

    Tony Abbott’s career echoes that of his political hero, B. A. Santamaria

    The Prime Minister’s willingness to be associated with the late Alan Reid’s novel shows a high level of self-awareness.

    Right-wing Melbourne ideologue Bob Santamaria (1915-98) was Tony Abbott’s formative political hero. The Prime Minister still cherishes his memory. Signs of Santamaria’s abiding presence in Abbott’s imagination have continued to pop up recently, given that 2015 is Santamaria’s centenary year. On July 30, the Prime Minister will launch a biography of Santamaria written by Gerard Henderson, a fellow former acolyte.

    In a fascinating prelude to the Henderson book, Abbott has thrown his support behind the publication of a novel conceived in the 1950s, in which his lifelong hero Santamaria looms large. This novel, graced with a foreword by the Prime Minister, was just published for the first time, even though it was written decades ago. It is called The Bandar-Log: A Labor Story of the 1950s. Its author is legendary Canberra journalist Alan Reid, who died in 1987.

    The well-read Reid derived the title of his novel from Rudyard Kipling. It represents the Hindi words for “monkey people”. The unattractive people in question are the political figures who precipitated the self-destructive schism in the Labor Party in the 1950s, which is known popularly as “the Split”.

    Reid gave the characters in his novel Florentine-sounding names (such as “Kaye Seborjar” or “Carr Domineco”) to summon a Machiavellian atmosphere, but the people associated with the Split on whom these characters are based are readily discernible.

    The two leading protagonists at the time, and in Reid’s novelised version of events, are federal Labor leader Dr H. V. Evatt (Seborjar), and Catholic organiser and ideologue Bob Santamaria (Domineco). Seborjar, like Evatt, is secular and nakedly ambitious (“He’d sell his mother if it helped his ambitions”). Domineco, like Santamaria, is suave (“a pope in a lawyer’s suit”) and pious. He is bent on a “Messianic mission”.

    Early on, the two men, as they did in real life in 1952, form an ultra-pragmatic alliance. This pure marriage of convenience eventually ends in acrimony. Reid’s novel culminates with his fictional Labor leader, as Evatt did in October 1954, hypocritically denouncing the Santamaria-like character in the novel as a “papal fascist”.

    Despite his story’s stirring climax, Reid failed to get his novel published. A timid local publishing industry assumed that Evatt, whose paranoid streak Reid did not disguise in the novel, would sue for defamation if it ever appeared. The project was put on hold. A court case in 1961 failed to break the impasse.

    The Bandar-Log affair was first examined in depth in a 2010 biography of Reid that I co-wrote with Professor Ross Fitzgerald. Last year, Fitzgerald undertook to edit a set of surviving galley proofs of the novel held in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. He was backed by Ballarat publisher Anthony Cappello.

    Getting the Prime Minister to provide a foreword to the finished literary product was the icing on the cake.

    In his foreword, Abbott expresses some unease at Reid’s willingness to characterise Santamaria (Abbott’s guru, no less) in the same, unflattering way that all the other power-obsessed characters in the novel are presented. The Prime Minister also points out that the modern Liberal Party, as well as today’s ALP, is what it is because of Santamaria. The Liberal Party was once a Protestant outfit whereas Abbott’s cabinet today contains numerous fellow Catholics. This flip in demographics can be traced back to Evatt’s denunciation of Santamaria, which alienated many Catholics forever.

    The split with Labor was exceptionally bitter for Santamaria because his natural political home, as he ever admitted, was in the right wing of the party. Santamaria’s influence behind the scenes took off in 1941, when right-wing figures in the Victorian branch of the ALP recruited him as a factional resource.

    The Labor right’s favoured treatment shaped Santamaria for life. He always doubted the seriousness of the Liberal Party.

    Santamaria’s non-idealistic attitude to the Liberals rubbed off on his latter-day disciple, Abbott. Abbott only became a Liberal after Santamaria’s fast-diminishing relevance declined even further in the 1980s. It was a second-best option.

    Abbott’s eventual association with the Liberal Party eerily resembles Santamaria’s earlier factional connection with Evatt. It, too, is overly pragmatic – all about accessing the levers of power. The connection, while fuelled wonderfully by raw aggression, does not have a deep mooring in abiding bedrock principles.

    The resulting weathervane aspects of Abbott, with his surprises and U-turns in government, is on a par with the volatility and overexcitement that characterised the bewildering interaction in the 1950s between the Prime Minister’s future hero, Santamaria, and the unruly Evatt.

    Symmetry between the 1950s and the Abbott era is why Reid’s newly revived fictional recreation of the failed Evatt-Santamaria bromance resonates so powerfully with the Prime Minister. His willingness to be associated with Reid’s tale of cynicism in high places shows a high level of self-awareness.

    Stephen Holt is a Canberra writer. (Disclosure: Holt co-wrote an introduction to Ross Fitzgerald’s edition of The Bandar-Log, though these comments are his own.) sjholt@fastmail.fm

    The Bandar-Log: A Labor Story of the 1950s, by Alan Reid (edited by Ross Fitzgerald). Introduction by Ross Fitzgerald. Connor Court Publishing, May 2015. RRP: $34.95 (paperback)

    Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man, by Gerard Henderson. Miegunyah Press, August 2015. RRP: $59.99 (hardback)

    The Canberra Times, July 7, 2015. Public Sector Informant, p.10

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