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The inner workings of Santamaria’s Movement

12 August 2017 275 views No Comment

The Show: Another Side Of Santamaria’s Movement

By Mark Aarons, with John Grenville

Scribe, 265pp, $32.99

BA Santamaria was one of the most influential unelected Australian political figures of the 20th century. ‘The Show’ is a sometimes controversial reassessment of the role in labour history and Labor politics of this Melbourne-based Catholic layman who loomed large in our political and cultural landscape. From 1942, Santamaria (1915-98) helped organise and orchestrate anti-communist activities throughout Australia, especially in Victoria.

Mark Aarons’s previous book, ‘The Family File’, was a riveting account of four generations of his family who, over seven decades, were members of the Communist Party of Australia, so he knows the territory well.

In researching this fascinating book, Aarons was aided by an erstwhile warrior from the other side of the barricades, John Grenville, who in 1957 joined the National Civic Council.

This primarily Catholic organisation was run by Santamaria and was also known as The Movement or, by its members, as The Show. For years, The Movement and the CPA were extremely influential in Australian politics.

For more than a decade Grenville, a committed Catholic, operated as a highly influential, yet secret, NCC member in the trade union movement in Victoria. In 1975 he resigned from his position as federal secretary of the Federated Clerks Union and also from the NCC. This was in the middle of a bitter factional fight that eventually tore The Movement apart.

As Aarons acknowledges, it was Grenville’s detailed knowledge and understanding of the workings of the NCC and the Catholic Church that has made possible this contemporary telling of a sometimes revisionist history.

Aarons claims, rightly in my opinion, that while the CPA and The Movement were opposed in a relentless pursuit of their ideas and ideals, in many ways they mirrored each other. In this dramatic, yet scholarly, account of the inner workings of The Movement, Aarons explains and elucidates precisely how Santamaria’s organisation managed to defeat the communists in a number of key unions.

As I made clear in my account of Catholicism and the great Labor split of the mid-1950s, ‘The Pope’s Battalions’, Santamaria based his Movement on the CPA, whose structure and whose methods of infiltrating the ALP and key trade unions he aped in their entirety.

A primary aim of ‘The Show’ is to elucidate the impact of Santamaria’s key decision to model The Movement on communist techniques. Indeed the book’s major theme is, as Aarons puts it, “the impact that importing the CPA’s chief characteristic of the early 1940s — Stalinism — had upon The Show’s development, operations, and virtual demise upon Santamaria’s passing”.

While one might cavil at Aaron’s use of the term “Stalinist” here, it is certainly true that, over time, Santamaria’s key organisation, and the unions it controlled, became infected by authoritarian and anti-democratic practices and policies.

To expose what he claims is “a previously unseen side of Santamaria’s Catholic Movement”, Aarons has made excellent use of extensive interviews with a number of key protagonists in their battle for the life and soul of the Australian labour movement. In using, to good effect, previously secret ASIO and Communist archives, as well as hitherto unpublished internal material from The Movement, he manages to uncover much about the latter’s clandestine operations in the wider trade union movement and against the CPA in particular. ‘The Show’ also demonstrates how ASIO and The Movement helped each other gather intelligence that was of mutual benefit.

Aarons’s book deals usefully with Santamaria’s role in the formation of the Democratic Labor Party. It also illuminates how, in his later life, Santamaria railed against all aspects of modernity and the pernicious effects of unregulated transnational capitalism. In the years before his death in 1998, this brought him quite close to old ideological enemies, including the ALP’s loquacious Clyde Cameron and the long-time Victorian communist leader Bernie Taft.

Unfortunately a significant part of Santamaria’s important papers, held in the State Library of Victoria, are not yet available to historians and other researchers.

The fact is that only files older than 40 years are currently in the public domain. This means Aarons could not access material relating to the tumultuous events recounted in chapter 12, “The cult of personality”.

This crucial chapter deals with Santamaria’s increasingly autocratic and dogmatic behaviour and his pronounced tendency to dominate proceedings at conferences and elsewhere. It was this that, in large part, led to the divisions and ultimate split in the NCC in the early 1980s. Paradoxically, by the time of this hugely unpleasant schism in its ranks, the arch-enemy of The Show, the CPA, had split into three separate, highly antagonistic parties.

Despite the limited archival access, ‘The Show’ is an intriguing complement, and counterpoint, to the most important works published about Santamaria’s role in Australian political history. On one hand there is Bruce Duncan’s magisterial ‘Crusade or Conspiracy?: Catholics and the Anti-Communist Struggle in Australia’. On the other, there are two fine books by Gerard Henderson, whose work Aarons makes use of in ‘The Show’ but with whom he sometimes disagrees. These are ‘Mr Santamaria and the Bishops’ and the revealing recent biography ‘Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man’. From my perspective, this is high praise indeed.

All in all, Aarons’s book, which is fascinating in its forensic detail, deserves to be widely read, not least because the ghost of Santamaria in some ways still haunts the politics of today.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, and the author of 39 books. These include ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure’, which was shortlisted for the 2017 Russell Prize for Humour Writing.

The Weekend Australian, 12-13 August 2017, review, Books, pp 18-19.

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