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August 31st 2016 print

Bernadette Tobin

B.A. Santamaria, Aeolian Australian

Admired and reviled during his lifetime, his was a life of controversy and so remains. Early on he saw Marxism's atheistic and materialistic values as the greatest threat. Later, he saw the lack of commitment to any social values at all as equally destructive

santamariaLast September a new biography of Bob Santamaria, Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man by Gerard Henderson, was launched by Tony Abbott, who was then Prime Minister. Abbott said:

B.A. Santamaria has been dead for seventeen years, held no public office, and claimed to have failed in all his principal endeavours … Why is a long-dead “failure” still fascinating? Why did our nation’s leaders regularly seek his counsel …? If his life was a failure, it was a magnificent failure that changed and improved our country and hundreds, if not thousands, of its leaders … He [was] the extra-parliamentary conservative conscience of both parties, upbraiding Labor for its socialism and the Coalition for its heartlessness—and why not, as political parties, no less than individuals, are often improved when someone they respect calls them to account …

Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria, called “Bob” by his school friends, was born in August 1915 in Melbourne, the first of the six children of Giuseppe Santamaria and Maria Terzita Costa. Giuseppe and Maria had separately migrated to Australia from the Aeolian island of Salina, Giuseppe from Rinella and Maria from Leni. They married in Melbourne in 1914. Giuseppe had previously tried his luck in the United States but had not liked the poverty and the criminality there. In Melbourne he set up a small fruit shop which ultimately became a grocery business also licensed to sell wine. Bob remembers his father’s determination to be “his own boss”. Bob went to the local Catholic primary school, to St Kevin’s Christian Brothers’ College, and then on a scholarship to the University of Melbourne where he studied History and Law.

Bob Santamaria said that five things influenced him most profoundly when he was growing up. First, his family and its strength as a social unit. Second, the fact that his family was Italian and thus that he felt a strong link to Italy. Third, his school, an Irish working-class Christian Brothers’ school. Fourth, the local parish church of St Ambrose. And last but not least, his beloved football team Carlton.

He remembered his mother’s concern at his speaking Italian loudly in public. “What’s the problem?” he asked. “We are Italian!” Prejudice against Italians did not concern him, except when he heard his mother being called the disparaging term “dago”. “That,” he said later on in life, “I couldn’t forgive.”

He felt a deep personal bond with the other Aeolian families in Melbourne: the Santospirito family, the Bongiorno family, the Dimattina family, the Tesoriero family, the Fonti family, the Casamento family. He said:

It was the Aeolian families that gave me the things that were most significant of all: the sense of family which is more important to the peasant than it is to the nobleman; the necessity of religious belief, without which life is meaningless; the importance of accumulating some modest property of one’s own in order to achieve a degree of independence, which always eludes the wage-earner dependent on a boss.

In 1922, when his mother suffered depression after a stillborn child, the family returned to Salina and lived there for nearly a year. That was a momentous year in Italian history. Bob recalled that “red bandanas” were the waterfront fashion when they departed from Naples for Salina; on their return via Naples twelve months later the red had turned to black. He was to live far away, but his life was never remote from the political cycles of Italy and Europe.

Bob Santamaria was greatly influenced by the Depression of the 1930s. He saw the unemployed fathers of his friends reduced to absolute poverty, with nothing to live on: “I deeply resented the [social] system that had reduced them to that.”

The targeting of individual priests, monks and nuns during the Spanish Civil War moved him emotionally. Many thousands were killed in the first few months of that war. He also reasoned to the view, which he later found was shared by George Orwell, that if the Republican side had won, it would ultimately have been eradicated by the communists. So he supported the intellectually unfashionable side, even as he wondered about the enormous amount of social injustice which had led to the war.

In the early 1930s, Bob Santamaria was invited to join a group of young Catholic intellectuals who met regularly to discuss Catholic social teaching, and in particular the significance of the great encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891. They called themselves the Campion Society, after Edmund Campion, the English Jesuit who was martyred for his faith during the reign of Elizabeth I.

From his earliest days Bob was interested in a combination of ideas and organisational action. Within a very short time the Campion Society sought the permission of the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne to publish a paper, to be called the Catholic Worker. “You don’t need my permission,” said Archbishop Mannix. “We might make mistakes,” said young Bob. The Archbishop replied: “The man who makes no mistakes makes nothing.”

Begun in 1936, the Catholic Worker was an immediate success. Three thousand copies of the first edition were printed—the entire contents of which were written by Bob Santamaria. It sold out, and an extra eight thousand had to be printed. By 1941, its circulation had risen to 70,000. In the Catholic Worker, Santamaria wrote against the evils of both communism and capitalism. He argued that communism was a godless philosophy which was hostile to freedom and democracy, and that capitalism was an unbridled system in which ordinary people were wage-slave victims. He argued that the government should do more than it was then doing to reduce social inequality, although reform of society should begin with individuals themselves.

In 1937 the Campion Society sought more formal and organised support from the Australian church in its work of Catholic Action. Thus did the Australian bishops, under the leadership of Dr Mannix of Melbourne, set up the Australian National Secretariat of Catholic Action, and Bob Santamaria was appointed Deputy Director. From then until his death, he gave his life to the dissemination of Christian political and social ideas and their translation into organisational action. However, over the subsequent years, two splits, one in a political party, the other in the Church, shaped his public life.

In 1941 Bob Santamaria was asked by an influential member of the leadership of the Australian Labor Party to help some trade union leaders who had lost their positions in the party to communist activists. The unions then controlled the Labor Party, so those who controlled the unions controlled one of the parties in Australia’s two-party system. Australian communists routinely rigged union ballots, practised violence as a political tool, and supported the Soviet (and later the Chinese) governments when these governments oversaw the violent deaths of tens of millions. However, the wartime alliance with Russia, combined with general apathy, meant that many Australians were slow to understand or to admit that the Soviet experiment with communism was “a cruel failure, a betrayal of the people it claimed to serve”. Bob Santamaria and those he recruited to the “industrial groups” gradually turned that tide.

In 1953, the Labor leader, Dr Evatt, expressed his admiration for the industrial groups which had greatly diminished communist power in the unions. However, the following year, the Labor Party narrowly lost the election. In a bid to retain his threatened leadership, Dr Evatt turned on the industrial groups and on the leaders of Catholic Action, denounced them as part of a recently-discovered conspiracy, and had dozens of them expelled from the party. Most of them went on to form their own political party, the Democratic Labor Party. Thus occurred the “Split” that kept Labor out of office federally for nearly twenty years, blamed by many on Bob Santamaria.

The Split spread from the political realm to the Catholic Church itself. In 1956 the bishops of New South Wales saw the Split as a threat to their preferred model of Catholic leadership. They favoured the Italian model whereby the Church threw its support behind a largely Catholic party. For half a century Labor had been the party of Catholics, if not strictly a Catholic party. The Catholic hierarchy in New South Wales had a comfortable relationship with the Labor Party. Theirs was the most populous state, the most Catholic and the most committed to Labor. No splinter parties for them!

These bishops went to the Vatican to ensure that, if Catholic Action did not support Labor, then it would not support anyone. They sought a ruling on whether the Australian National Secretariat of Catholic Action was “Catholic Action” or not. In 1957 the Vatican ruled that it was not. “Rome blunders again!” said Dr Mannix. The bishops closed down ANSCA—so Bob Santamaria set up his own independent body, the National Civic Council.

These events shaped the next forty years of Bob Santamaria’s active political engagement. Every week for thirty years, he wrote a column in the Australian. He broadcast a weekly political commentary, Point of View, the longest-running television program in Australia. He established organisations in the professions, the universities and in South-East Asia. He launched two weekly magazines, News Weekly and AD2000. Each year he would visit Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong. Indeed he set up a “Pacific Community”, a loose grouping of Asian nations which has since been imitated by governments throughout the region. All this work continued very nearly until his death of a brain tumour in 1998 at the age of eighty-two. It is to these activities that Tony Abbott was referring when he spoke of Bob Santamaria as the “extra-parliamentary conservative conscience of both parties”.

Bob Santamaria’s life was a life of controversy. He was admired and reviled during his lifetime, and still is.

His bedrock ideas came from traditional Catholicism and conservative morality, anti-communism and anti-capitalism. Early on he argued that the atheistic and materialistic values of Marxism were the greatest threat to social harmony and justice; later on he thought that nihilism, the lack of commitment to any social values at all, was equally destructive.

Let me return to what Tony Abbott said when he launched Gerard Henderson’s biography:

Santamaria was a pessimist who never gave up. His life exemplifies the difference you can make, even when you don’t succeed. It demonstrates that a good cause is worth failing for … It is impossible to grasp Australian politics without some appreciation of Santamaria.

Bob Santamaria treasured his Aeolian heritage. As he said to the television journalist Geraldine Doogue:

while there is no doubt as to where the centre of my loyalties has been and is today, which is Australia, that close link with an Italian background and Italian culture is one of the most important things in my life.

He had a lively Catholic faith, he prayed regularly and he went to Mass every day for many years. He loved Neapolitan songs and Italian opera. Indeed, he seemed to think he could sing all four parts of the quartet in Rigoletto—simultaneously!

Bernadette Tobin is one of B.A. Santamaria’s children. This is the edited text of a speech she delivered on the Aeolian island of Salina in September last year.

 

Comments [30]

  1. Warty says:

    Wonderful. Here’s hoping Cory Bernardi generates, even if it’s half, the energy to counteract the actions of the frenzied left. I somehow don’t think Tony Abbot will, though there is much to admire in the man.

  2. Ian MacDougall says:

    There was much to admire in BA Santamaria.
    BUT he was chief cheerleader in Australia for Franco’s fascists in Spain, and the Spanish Civil War was about all about a military coup led by Franco AGAINST a democratically elected (Republican) government. Read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia for further details.
    Santamaria was also a keen supporter of the US cause in Vietnam, and I distinctly remember his TV broadcast following the first news of the My Lai massacre, in which the US troops slaughtered pretty well an entire village: men, women and children. Santamaria said that fact of the massacre should never have been made public: putting him (as a candidate at least) for membership of the same manipulative class as Dr Goebbels.
    According to the first link report below, Vietnam claims half a million children have been born with serious birth defects, while as many 2 million people are suffering from cancer or other illness caused by Agent Orange. [Warning: contains photos which some might find upsetting.]

    http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/agent-orange
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/monsanto-vietnam-agent-orange_us_57a9e002e4b0b770b1a445ba

  3. Ian MacDougall says:

    Ian MacDougall
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    August 31, 2016 at 10:50 pm
    There was much to admire in BA Santamaria.
    (to be continued)

  4. Ian MacDougall says:

    2. BUT he was chief cheerleader in Australia for Franco’s fascists in Spain, and the Spanish Civil War was about all about a military coup led by Franco AGAINST a democratically elected (Republican) government. Read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia for further details.
    (to be continued)

  5. Ian MacDougall says:

    3. Santamaria was also a keen supporter of the US cause in Vietnam, and I distinctly remember his TV broadcast following the first news of the My Lai massacre, in which the US troops slaughtered pretty well an entire village: men, women and children. Santamaria said that fact of the massacre should never have been made public: putting him (as a candidate at least) for membership of the same manipulative class as Dr Goebbels.

  6. Ian MacDougall says:

    4. According to the first link report below, Vietnam claims half a million children have been born with serious birth defects, while as many 2 million people are suffering from cancer or other illness caused by Agent Orange. [Warning: contains photos which some might find upsetting.]

    http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/agent-orange
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/monsanto-vietnam-agent-orange_us_57a9e002e4b0b770b1a445ba

  7. Ian MacDougall says:

    Part 4 is ‘awaiting moderation.’

    • Warty says:

      Ian, are you having a brain explosion? And who, I need to ask this very carefully, who is moderating your comments? Take your time there.

      • Ian MacDougall says:

        Warty:
        When a comment goes up with a flag on it ‘your comment is awaiting moderation’, I presume that ultimate responsibility lies with the site manager/editor, ie to my present knowledge, Roger Underwood. In private email correspondence, he has told me that there is a problem with the antique software that runs this site.
        On a previous thread (‘The Road to Earthly Perdition’) a post of mine is still sitting there in Purgatory viz:
        “Ian MacDougall
        Your comment is awaiting moderation.
        August 29, 2016 at 8:50 pm”
        I do not believe that there is no easy way round this: a moderation on/off button perhaps?

  8. Don A. Veitch says:

    Bob Santamaria was one of the finest men I have ever met and I was proud to be one of ‘Santas little helpers’ back in the 1960s at Melbourne University. I was a Protestant, not RC. In respect the Vietnam War was a tragedy and should never have been fought but the Liberal Party types (Staley, Stockdale), never argued their own war case on campus, some voted for sending ‘humanitarin aid’ to the NLF. Santmaria held the line despite this 5th colum. God we need statesmen like Santamaria back to help us today!

    • Ian MacDougall says:

      Don:

      God we need statesmen like Santamaria back to help us today!

      Too many cats now, out of too many bags. Not even Santamaria could herd them all back in. For that matter, not even the Angel Gabriel.
      Not even both of them together.
      ;-)

      • Don A. Veitch says:

        Defeated before you start!

        • Warty says:

          This is getting fascinating. Would you like to add to your comment ‘defeated before you start’? As I was living in Rhodesia over this period, I was not privy to the information you gentlemen are, important though it is.

          • Ian MacDougall says:

            Warty:
            Get hold of a copy of Tom Truman, Catholic Action and Politics and read all about it.
            Sorry, I can’t remember the publisher. (Definitely not Conor Court, so that narrows it down a tad.)

  9. Peter OBrien says:

    When I was in Vietnam my father bought me a subscription to The Bulletin and each edition was eagerly awaited and devoured cover to cover. Bob Santamaria’s columns were always the highlight. I was not very politically mature in those days. I’m sure that Bob’s wisdom unconsciously contributed to my philosophy today. I read The Bulletin religiously until it folded. The names of most of its regular columnists, Bob Santamaria, Sam Lipsky, David McNicoll, Ron Saw and many other put most of the current crop of scribblers in the shade.

    • LBLoveday says:

      Trevor Sykes (Pierpont) was a Bulletin favourite of mine, next only to B.A., and B.A. was the main reason I bought the Australian. I initially subscribed to Newsweekly because of B.A, and then AD2000, and still do.
      In the early 90′s when the internet was just coming into Australians’ awareness, I downloaded information about the Singapore Central Provident Fund and faxed it to B.A. at the request of a NW staff, as he did not have internet access. How times have changed!
      In 1997/8 I was at last to meet him when he was to be the guest speaker at an Adelaide function organized by NCC’ Mark Posa, but he fell ill and never recovered fully. The speech was read by one of his sons, Dr John from memory, who correctly declined to take questions as he was unwilling to presume to speak off the cuff on behalf of his father.
      Thanks for the bring back memories Bernadette.

  10. Ian MacDougall says:

    4 (and last). According to the first link report below, Vietnam claims half a million children have been born with serious birth defects, while as many 2 million people are suffering from cancer or other illness caused by Agent Orange. [Warning: contains photos which some might find upsetting.]

    http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/agent-orange
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/monsanto-vietnam-agent-orange_us_57a9e002e4b0b770b1a445ba

  11. Ben says:

    We were brought up on News Weekly. I remember going to school and bashing the Russians whilst praising Reagan and Thatcher. News Weekly is still an excellent publication.

  12. Ian MacDougall says:

    4 (and second last). According to the first link report below, Vietnam claims half a million children have been born with serious birth defects, while as many 2 million people are suffering from cancer or other illness caused by Agent Orange. [Warning: contains photos which some might find upsetting.]

  13. Jody says:

    Ian’s comments about the Vietnam War all carry some truths. However, what is lost in the detail is the fact that war is intrinsically ugly; it claims innocent victims in the most appalling ways. Remember Pol Pot? Remember WW2 and why that was necessary? Nations go to war for a variety of reasons – from self-preservation, strategic advantage, resources and/or nationalism. None of these by themselves can ever be vindicated, but some combination of those 4 contain the seeds of the American foray into the Asian subcontinent. And, remember, Communism was anathema to Christianity and Catholicism. The two worst dictatorships and mass murderers in the world were communists: Stalin and Mao. By the 1960s the world was opposed to communism as both an ideology and a living reality; the pointy end was the Chinese-sponsored Vietnamese government moving inexorably to the south. Not unlike militant Islam which we are unwittingly importing into our nation, courtesy of generous (read ‘ridiculously naive’) ‘immigration’ and multicultural policies. And, for good or ill, Australia has a powerful ally in the USA and looks to it for a feeling of security. I would have thought that would be second nature in a nanny state!!

    Anyway, BA Santamaria was a fine man and a morally-abiding Catholic intellectual. I wrote to him many times and sometimes he even quoted my comments/observations in his newspaper columns!! If he supported the USA over Vietnam he was not alone. But he surely would never have rubbished and denigrated the bravery and pride of those who actively served our nation by putting their lives on the line when they returned home. That was one of worse examples of hypocrisy and craven viciousness this country has ever seen – and from a group of people who watched it all unfold from the comfort of their own living rooms. It turned my stomach then and it still does now. Irony alert: much of the anti-war ‘activism’ and belligerent diviseness was fermented by the communist party in Australia.

    • Ian MacDougall says:

      Jody:
      …the pointy end was the Chinese-sponsored Vietnamese government moving inexorably to the south.
      I suggest you have a look at the performance of former US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in the documentary The Fog of War which covers a trip he took back to Vietnam post-war. In it, he has an interview with one of the NLF (‘VietCong’) commanders his troops were earnestly trying to blast off the face of the Earth in the war years.
      McNamara said at one stage something like: “…but we were convinced that the war was all started by an attempt by the Red Chinese to take over Vietnam!”
      To which the former commander replied: “Didn’t you know that we Vietnamese have been fighting the Chinese for our independence for the last thousand years?”
      With all the resources available to the US Defense Dept, McNamara did not even know that.
      The mind boggles.

      https://freedocumentaries.org/documentary/the-fog-of-war

      • Jody says:

        Sorry, I don’t believe a word that the “Vietnamese have been fighting the Chinese….” because Vietnam is STILL a communist country in 2016!!!

        • Ian MacDougall says:

          Jody,

          Check out http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2015/05/01/402572349/ask-the-vietnamese-about-war-and-they-think-china-not-the-u-s

          In one of the many war cemeteries in Lang Son, a city in northern Vietnam, Pham Thi Ky and her family light incense and offer prayers for her brother-in-law, who died 36 years ago in Vietnam’s brief but bloody border war with China.
          That 1979 war left more than 50,000 dead. There are other graves here, too. They fought and died against the French occupiers, then the Americans. But relative to China, those were brief battles.
          No country weighs on Vietnam like China, and it has been that way for centuries. Has the conflict with China ever really ended, I ask Pham Thi Ky as she lights another candle.
          “No,” she says. Her daughter agrees. Her sister is even more emphatic. “It will never end. With the Chinese, how can it ever end?”

  14. Don A. Veitch says:

    Most weeks on a Tuesday evening over about three years (1965-69) about twenty or so students (Santas little helpers) would meet and discuss political issues in Fitzroy, just next to Melbourne U campus. Gerry Henderson (now Dr Gerard Henderson of the Sydney Institute), was our leader. It was he who led the pro-commitment fight in a very hostile environment. The Liberal Club students (eg Stockdale) and lecturers (eg Staley) did the chicken run.
    We would get a general run-down from B.A and then divide into groups, for discussion, and meet down stairs later, to sum up. One hot topic in , I think 1968 was if the DLP should join with the Country party to form a new party against the ALP (pro—communist) and the pathetic Liberals (Menzies not withstanding). The joke was ‘the hicks and the micks from the sticks’. We all despised the Liberals and had seen their weakness and failure to defend our troops fighting in Vietnam. The unanimous vote from the students, was no amalgamation with the Country Party. Fight on in the DLP (ALP anti-communist).
    The point here is that BA, rose above issues, post-Vietnam, he was always building and forming coalitions. He looked to the future. He had, as I recall from discussions, a distrust of “City”. He was a Maryknoll boy. Simple rural morality. In the American spectrum he was a Jeffersonian, I heard him criticise Hamilton and his financial links. Fast forward to today where financial interests are as locusts, I now reflect and believe Santamaria was very wise. Reflect on today’s moral muddles and BA is a beacon.
    I last met BA in North Melbourne, at the Thomas More office about 1990. He seemed depressed, he lamented ‘So hard to fund raise’. He had been deserted by the brown paper bag boys so free with money in the 1960s.
    Disagree with BA on many points, but what a hero, what a man!