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Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man — portrait of a political powerbroker

8 August 2015 368 views One Comment

Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man
By Gerard Henderson
The Miegunyah Press, 505pp, $59.99

As it happens, in early October 1997, accompanied by Brisbane-based film director Pat Laughren, I conducted what turned out to be the final film interview with leading Catholic activist BA (Bob) Santamaria, who was born in Brunswick on August 14, 1915, and died in Kew on February 25, 1998.

This interview, held at the headquarters of the National Civic Council in North Melbourne, was for a planned television documentary entitled ‘Stories from the Labor Split.’ In this lengthy interview, the person whom Gerard Henderson refers to throughout this fascinating book as BAS looked and sounded physically well and intellectually active. All of this suggests Henderson is correct in concluding Santamaria’s demise was relatively sudden.

Unfortunately, at the time neither the ABC nor SBS showed a flicker of interest in such a documentary. I suspect this was largely because of the deep dislike of, and animus towards, Santamaria by the Left and other supposedly progressive forces in Australia.

As Henderson demonstrates, BAS was very much a Melbourne man. His main source of power and influence lay in his close relationship with the charismatic Irish-born Daniel Mannix, Catholic archbishop of Melbourne from 1917 until his death aged 99 in November 1963.

Indeed, as Henderson convincingly argues, Santamaria had relatively little influence in NSW, where cardinal Norman Gilroy and his powerful No 2, bishop James Carroll, were much more involved in parliamentary politics than Mannix. Carroll issued the faithful very specific directions that Catholics in NSW should stay in the ALP and not support the Democratic Labor Party, whose main strengths remained in Victoria and Queensland. Moreover, Carroll banned BAS from establishing a Sydney office of his magazine ‘News Weekly’.

In a telling section of this compelling biography Henderson reveals the highly negative reaction to Carroll by the then Sydney-based Catholic poet and academic James McAuley, who ardently supported Santamaria and his stridently anti-communist organisation the Movement, as well as NSW ALP breakaway Jack Kane, and the Democratic Labor Party.

On April 9, 1957, McAuley wrote to Santamaria that he had “spent the week very depressed at having our guts kicked in by Carroll without being able to kick back effectively. Henderson then quotes Father Edmund Campion’s recollection of McAuley’s response to a local priest who expressed concern that the poet’s battles with the Sydney hierarchy might diminish his recently acquired faith. McAuley is said to have replied: “Why do you think that because my bishop is a liar and a schemer that this somehow disproves the fact that Christ rose from the dead?

Henderson, correctly in my opinion, maintains the principal cause of the great Labor Split in the mid-1950s was the erratic federal Labor leader HV (Doc) Evatt and not Santamaria, who in 1955 was only 40 and who, as it eventuates, did not know many people who left the ALP to join what in 1957 became the DLP. As left-wing historian Paul Strangio recognises in his recent book ‘Neither Power nor Glory’, which is referred to in this biography, it was definitely Evatt who “lighted the match on Labor’s combustible landscape.

Henderson’s assiduous research mirrors the conclusion of my own in ‘The Pope’s Battalions: Santamaria, Catholicism and the Labor Split’ (2003) that most of the mayhem in Labor ranks in the 1950s was created not by Santamaria but by Evatt who, before he denounced him in October 1954, had formed a working relationship with Santamaria.

Henderson also correctly claims BAS had a strong influence on archbishop (now Cardinal) George Pell — who delivered the panegyric at Santamaria’s state funeral in Melbourne in 1998 — and especially on Catholic prime minister Tony Abbott, to whom Santamaria was a source of considerable inspiration.

As befits a book subtitled ‘A Most Unusual Man’, Henderson’s captivating biography has a strikingly arresting front cover photo of BAS in profile directly gazing at the reader and standing in front of an old-fashioned Channel 9 camera. Taken to illustrate an article about him for ‘The Bulletin’ in February 1964, this image is apposite as Santamaria was a highly skilled media performer, especially in his long-running TV program ‘Point of View’, as well as being a fine writer and public speaker.

Henderson’s biography is not only extremely well researched and clearly indexed but boasts an illuminating array of photographs. My favourite is a portrait, published in the ‘Sydney Sun-Herald’ on October 17, 1954, to illustrate a highly damaging interview with influential political journalist Alan (The Red Fox) Reid. Instead of a front-on, close-up, Reid had organised a wide shot of BAS seated at his desk in Melbourne beneath a large crucifix featuring a depiction of Jesus on the cross at Calvary. As Henderson wryly comments, “This was an ill-advised pose for a Catholic political activist, with an Italian name, at a time when anti-Catholic sectarianism prevailed within sections of Australian society.

Coupled with this unforgettable photo, which prefigured Reid’s famous 1963 photo of Labor leaders Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam waiting at night outside Canberra’s Hotel Kingston to be told party policy by the so-called faceless men, Reid’s explosive article about BAS, who he described as Svengali-like, helped set-off a sectarian firestorm that could not be controlled. As the militantly anti-communist atheist and powerful union leader Laurie Short reported to Henderson in June 2001, Santamaria “didn’t realise the extent of anti-Cath­olicism in the labour movement and elsewhere during the 1940s and 1950s.

For years, before they fell out irrevocably in 1975, Henderson and Santamaria had been close colleagues. Indeed in the early 70s BAS gave Henderson unfettered access to all his papers and correspondence. Much of this was used for Henderson’s 1982 book, ‘Mr Santamaria and the Bishops.’ Since then, and particularly in this fine biography, Henderson has used a vast array of primary and secondary sources concerning the life and times of BAS.

Henderson has certainly done his homework into all aspects of Santamaria. For example, in chapter 13, ‘For God — and Carlton’, he reveals the editors of a 1988 essay collection about Australian football, The Greatest Game, were prevented from including a passionate piece by BAS about the highs and lows of supporting his beloved Carlton. The editors were Ken Spillman and me. It is pleasing to note Henderson goes on to report that in our 2013 follow-up book, ‘Australia’s Game’, Santamaria’s essay, ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’, has pride of place.

Fittingly, in the first game of the 1998 season, the Carlton team wore black armbands in memory of their high-profile lifelong supporter.

Ross Fitzgerald’s books include ‘The Pope’s Battalions: Santamaria, Catholicism and the Labor Split.’

The Weekend Australian, August 8-9, 2015, review, Books, p18-19.

One Comment »

  • Jason Steger said:

    PM’s judges depart
    As expected Les Murray will no longer be a judge of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards after angrily slamming the last-minute decision to share last year’s fiction prize between Steven Carroll and Booker-winner Richard Flanagan.

    Nor will Gerard Henderson return as chair of the non-fiction and history judges. He is apparently on “leave of absence” this year; that could extend to next year’s awards when his biography of B.A. Santamaria will presumably be in contention.

    The three non-fiction judges are Ross Fitzgerald, Ida Lichter and Peter Coleman. Fiction judges: Louise Adler, Des Cowley, Jamie Grant and Robert Gray.

    Jason Steger, The Age, September 12, 2015

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