Last 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.