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How Tony Abbott laboured over choice of party

13 October 2012 2,856 views 5 Comments

NEWLY discovered letters that Tony Abbott wrote to his Melbourne-based mentor B.A. “Bob” Santamaria illuminate his inner struggle to decide which major political party to join.

They show that the person we know as a roguish right-winger during his university days and now as a highly combative Opposition Leader could have ended up a Labor MP.

In his 1994 inaugural parliamentary speech, Abbott described Santamaria as the person who first sparked his interest in politics. This was in the mid-1970s, when Abbott’s power base in student politics was the Democratic Club at Sydney University, which was affiliated with Santamaria’s National Civic Council.

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In 2007, Abbott, then health minister in the Howard government, visited the State Library of Victoria – where 150 boxes of Santamaria’s records and correspondences are housed – to launch the second of two books of documents about Santamaria’s career. Only part of the Abbott-Santamaria interaction took the form of letters but those that survive are precious. This especially applies to some letters written in 1986 and 1987 – a crucial period in Abbott’s life as he moved from the world of NCC true believers into mainstream party politics.

The first pertinent document – dated March 7, 1986 – was written when Abbott, then training for the Catholic priesthood, was working at Our Lady of the Way parish at Emu Plains in Sydney’s west.

He was an unhappy trainee who needed to be re-energised by Santamaria’s zealous criticism of modern social and political trends. In this epistle, he congratulated Santamaria on “a marvellous speech which stirred and inspired many and impressed even those who are not normally sympathetic”.

The next surviving letter – dated April 21, 1987 – was just a month after Abbott had abandoned his plan to join the priesthood. Written from the home of Abbott’s parents in Sydney’s northern St Ives, it indicates that Santamaria had offered him a paid position as organiser with the Council for the National Interest in Melbourne. The CNI was a body to promote discussion on defence and foreign policy that Santamaria recently had helped to set up. He saw it developing into a national political organisation under Abbott’s dynamic leadership.
Abbott declined Santamaria’s offer. Things would be different if he were still 21 and fresh out of university, or 35 with an established professional reputation. But this was not the case. He had just dropped out of the priesthood and could no longer risk “another great gamble”. His life to date, Abbott wrote, combined “much promise but little actual performance”. He believed that the time had come for him to build a career so that he could show a future wife and employer that he was solid and dependable.

Abbott told Santamaria that the ‘Bulletin’ had made him an offer of a job as a journalist that he could not refuse. He felt he could do more to advance the values of the NCC by writing for the ‘Bulletin’ as opposed to working directly with Santamaria in Melbourne.

Although Abbott quickly gained attention writing for the ‘Bulletin’, he soon felt discontented again. He was still living with his parents at the end of 1987 when he wrote his next surviving letter to Santamaria.

In it, Abbott confessed he was sick of the NCC criticising unwelcome social and political trends from the sidelines. He wanted to change society by working from within. This meant sharing the fears and concerns of the “common herd”. It was crucial to “make the compromises that life requires, be wrong, get blood on one’s hands – but at least be in it”.

For “vigorous, self-starting people” such as himself, the real issue was to secure a direct parliamentary presence. NCC people needed to “coalesce around leading individuals in the major parties”.

But which of the major parties was the more suitable?

Labor’s previous 30 years of hostility to Santamaria weighed against it but Abbott wrote, “our roots and the origins of our political culture are there”. But if the ALP was not “dominated” by Santamaria-style ideas, it would succumb to “the grip of the Left or of soulless pragmatists”. This was intolerable.

However, the Liberal Party was just as problematic. It was “without soul, direction or inspiring leadership”, while its members were divided between “surviving trendies and the more or less simple-minded advocates of the free market”.

The Liberal Party’s mixture of “hand-wringing indecision or inappropriate economic Ramboism and perhaps their lack of political professionalism” struck Abbott as a fatal combination.

The choice on offer was bleak. “To join either existing party involves holding one’s nose,” he wrote. “Either way would upset some. But to do nothing dooms us to extinction.” For a while, the choice for Abbott seemed to be the ALP. The NSW Labor government led by right-wing stalwart Barrie Unsworth was due to fight an election in March 1988 and this was surely “a window of opportunity” to be exploited.

In a careful but forceful reply, Santamaria rejected the suggestion of the NCC “going back to our Labor origins in an organised way, as our central strategy”.

Santamaria noted that Catholics had largely run the NSW ALP since the 1950s but that the only result of Catholic influence in Labor governments, both in NSW and federally, had been “jobs for the boys”.

Santamaria also was dismissive of “the reptilian Liberals”, who lacked the capacity to win or wield power.

So perhaps Abbott was not so wrong after all. Santamaria did not doubt that, in the person of young Tony, there was an opportunity for “a real apostolate in Labor ranks”.

Significantly, as a result of the 1987 correspondence, Abbott felt free to embrace mainstream party politics.

It is already known that Abbott voted for the ALP in the 1988 NSW election and that Bob Carr and Johnno Johnson tried to recruit him as a member of their NSW Right faction. Yet, at this stage, the two major parties seemed equally unlovely in his estimation. This meant that it wasn’t difficult to switch from one to the other. In 1990, Abbott became press secretary to Liberal leader John Hewson, even though Hewson surely embodied the “economic Ramboism” Abbott had so recently dismissed.

Hewson’s defeat in the unlosable election of 1993 did not force Abbott to reorder his priorities.

As demonstrated by his correspondence, Abbott was already wary of puritanical zeal. Forced to choose between Santamaria-like zealotry and actual political power, Abbott was going to opt for power. Compromise had ceased to be a dirty word.

From 1987 onwards, Abbott, with Santamaria’s reluctant blessing, embraced pragmatism. Provided that it was not “soulless”, pragmatism and political accommodation were absolutely OK.

It will be in the same pragmatic, yet forceful, spirit that Abbott, as leader of the Liberal Party, will fight and most likely win the next federal election. But how different things could have been!

The authors wish to acknowledge the assistance of Geoffrey Browne.

Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt are co-authors of ‘Alan “The Red Fox” Reid’, published by The University of NSW Press

The Weekend Australian, October 13 -14, 2012, pp1-2.

5 Comments »

  • CUT & PASTE said:

    Deja vu all over again as La Tingle gets all hot and bothered about exposing Tony Abbott

    IT pays to read the endnotes, Laura, otherwise you can look a lot like you’re plagiarising.

    David Marr in his new book ‘Political Animal’ (based on his ‘Quarterly Essay’), released yesterday, page 187:

    SOURCES. This essay is built on the work of dozens of my colleagues over many years.

    Laura Tingle in ‘The Australian Financial Review’ yesterday with a scoop from Marr’s new book:

    THE book contains details of a letter Mr Abbott wrote to Mr Santamaria on December 8, 1987. The letter, and a response to it from Mr Santamaria, was accidentally released from the Santamaria estate late last year.

    Haven’t we read that before? Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt write in ‘The Weekend Australian’ on October 13 last year:

    NEWLY discovered letters that Tony Abbott wrote to his Melbourne-based mentor BA “Bob” Santamaria illuminate his inner struggle to decide which major political party to join.

    Spookily similar. Tingle writes in the ‘AFR’ yesterday:

    MR Abbott wrote, “our roots and the origins of our political culture are there” and if the ALP was not “dominated” by Santamaria-style ideas, it would succumb to “the grip of the Left or of soulless pragmatists”. This was intolerable.

    Fitzgerald and Holt, ‘The Weekend Australian’, October 13 last year:

    ABBOTT wrote, “our roots and the origins of our political culture are there”. But if the ALP was not “dominated” by Santamaria-style ideas, it would succumb to “the grip of the Left or of soulless pragmatists”. This was intolerable.

    Tingle in the ‘AFR’ yesterday:

    THE Liberal Party was “without soul, direction or inspiring leadership” while its members were divided between “surviving trendies and the more or less simple-minded advocates of the free market … ”

    Fitzgerald and Holt, ‘The Weekend Australian’, October 13 last year:

    THE Liberal Party … was “without soul, direction or inspiring leadership”, while its members were divided between “surviving trendies and the more or less simple-minded advocates of the free market”.

    Tingle, the ‘AFR’ yesterday:

    MR Abbott saw the Liberal Party’s mixture of “hand-wringing indecision or inappropriate economic Ramboism and perhaps their lack of political professionalism” as a fatal combination.

    Fitzgerald and Holt, ‘The Weekend Australian’, October 13 last year:

    THE Liberal Party’s mixture of “hand-wringing indecision or inappropriate economic Ramboism and perhaps their lack of political professionalism” struck Abbott as a fatal combination.

    Quoting Marr? Tingle, the ‘AFR’ yesterday:

    MR Marr says that in the letter, Mr Abbott said for “‘vigorous, self-starting people” such as himself, the real issue was to secure a direct parliamentary presence. But on which side?’

    Sounds like Fitzgerald and Holt, ‘The Weekend Australian’, October 13 last year:

    FOR “vigorous, self-starting people” such as himself, the real issue was to secure a direct parliamentary presence. NCC people needed to “coalesce around leading individuals in the major parties”. But which of the major parties was the more suitable?

    Tingle, the ‘AFR’ yesterday:

    “TO join either existing party involves holding one’s nose. Either way would upset some. But to do nothing dooms us to extinction,” Mr Abbott is quoted as writing.

    Fitzgerald and Holt, ;The Weekend Australian’, October 13 last year:

    THE choice on offer was bleak. “To join either existing party involves holding one’s nose,” he wrote. “Either way would upset some. But to do nothing dooms us to extinction.”

    Something Laura didn’t see? Marr’s endnote, ‘Political Animal’, p61:

    “HE wanted” and all the passages that immediately follow: ‘The Australian’, 13-14 October, 2012 pp 1-2.

    CUT & PASTE ‘The Australian’ March 22, 2013, p 13.

  • James Jeffrey said:

    House of Fin

    AWAY from the Kevurrection that wasn’t, ‘The Australian Financial Review’ was broadening the excitement. There was Laura Tingle quoting bits from David Marr’s new book revealing Tony Abbott expressed doubts about the Libs in a letter to his mentor B. A. Santamaria in 1987.

    We’ll put it down to the thrill of discovery that Tingle missed noticing Marr was quoting from Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt’s story that ran in ‘The Weekend Australian’ last October.

    As a bonus, the Fin appeared to follow up Strewth’s query as to whether there was anyone in NSW who hadn’t had dealings with Eddie Obeid. Indeed, it reproduced a page from Obeid’s diary showing seating plans for lunch on what proved to be the day before the rolling of then NSW premier Nathan Rees. Then speaker Richard Torbay’s name was among the multitudes, as was “Imre Sal — News Ltd”. We collared our colleague Imre Salusinszky. “It is not true that Eddie installed a swimming pool in my backyard,” he said, cool as a cucumber. “That was his cousin.”

    STREWTH, ‘The Australian’, March 22, 2013 p 11

  • MEDIA WATCH DOG said:

    NEW FEATURE: WORTH A WALKLEY – AS NOMINATED BY NANCY

    LAURA TINGLE REPORTS DAVID MARR BOOK – APPARENTLY FROM A MEDIA RELEASE

    What a Walkley-worthy piece by Laura Tingle in yesterday’s ‘Australian Financial Review’. It appears that La Tingle wrote an article on the new edition of David Marr’s ‘Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott’ (Black Inc) based merely on the publishers blurb – which was, well, just blurb. As a result:

    â–ª Laura Tingle claimed that the new edition of ‘Political Animal’ had unearthed copies of correspondence between Tony Abbott and B.A. Santamaria in the late 1980s which are located in the Santamaria Collection in the State Library of Victoria.

    In fact, this correspondence was discovered by the Melbourne based researcher Geoffrey Browne and written up by historians Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt in the front-page splash in ‘The Weekend Australian’ on 13 October 2012. The source of the Abbott/Santamaria correspondence is acknowledged by David Marr in the new edition of ‘Political Animal’. Maybe La Tingle does not read ‘The Australian’.

    ▪ Laura Tingle claims that the new edition of Marr’s book “reveals a new witness to a now notorious incident in which Mr Abbott is claimed to have punched a wall close to the head of Barbara Ramjan, a female rival in student politics at Sydney University” in 1977.

    In fact, the person – who still chooses to remain anonymous some 35 years after the incident – did not witness Tony Abbott punching a wall. He claims to have seen “the punch” commence – but not land. Someone cannot be a witness to an event they did not see. Maybe La Tingle does not understand the laws of evidence.

    MEDIA WATCH DOG, Friday March 22

  • CUT & PASTE said:

    Following on from the last thrilling instalment of Cut & Paste, Gerard Henderson in ‘Media Watch Dog’ yesterday:

    WHAT a Walkley-worthy piece by Laura Tingle in yesterday’s ‘Australian Financial Review’. It appears that La Tingle wrote an article on the new edition of David Marr’s ‘Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott’ (Black Inc) based merely on the publisher’s blurb which was, well, just blurb. As a result, Tingle claimed that the new edition of ‘Political Animal’ had unearthed copies of correspondence between Tony Abbott and B. A. Santamaria in the late 1980s which are located in the Santamaria Collection in the State Library of Victoria.

    In fact, this correspondence was discovered by the Melbourne-based researcher Geoffrey Browne and written up by historians Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt in the front-page splash in ‘The Weekend Australian’ on 13 October 2012.

    The source of the Abbott-Santamaria correspondence is acknowledged by David Marr in the new edition of ‘Political Animal’. Maybe La Tingle does not read ‘The Australian’.

    ‘The Weekend Australian’ March 23-24, 2013

  • Gerard Henderson said:

    ON TONY ABBOTT, THE LATE B.A. SANTAMARIA & THE LIBERAL PARTY

    Gerard Henderson to David Marr – 28 October 2013

    I was busy at the weekend and I expect to be busy this week. However, being the kind of conscientious guy I am, I have responded to your email concerning B.A. Santamaria – which arrived towards the end of your stream of emails concerning child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church to which I responded last week.

    On 24 October 2013, you emailed me as follows:

    Gerard,

    I normally wouldn’t bother but while I’m at it I thought I’d address your attack on me under the headline: DAVID MARR’S HOWLER RE TONY ABBOTT, CARDINAL GEORGE PELL, BOB SANTAMARIA AND THE LIBERAL PARTY.

    You were provoked by a line I wrote on Santamaria’s career as the old man lay on his deathbed: “When the party [DLP] collapsed Santamaria had directed his followers to cross the bridge to the Liberals.” You really went to town here accusing me of a serious “howler” that was “simply false” and “unsourced” and with “no evidence” to back it.

    But, Gerard, don’t you remember that Santamaria directed Abbott himself to go into the Liberal Party? Have a look at the splendid work of Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt in the Weekend Australian of 13-14 October 2012 reporting the correspondence between Santamaria and Abbott on this issue in late 1987 and early 1988. I drew on their work in my Abbott essay. It’s all there at pp. 61-4 in the most recent (March 2013) edition.

    I know you will not retract and not admit your attack on me was unfounded. I write so that those who read these bizarre exchanges can judge for themselves. At this point, I think enough is enough.

    Yours,

    David Marr

    The reference was to my comment in my Media Watch Dog blog Issue 201 where I pointed to an error in your essay The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell. More errors were documented in MWD Issue 202.

    I make the following comments:

    ● In The Prince, you wrote at Page 60:

    Pell’s oldest political loyalties were to the DLP [Democratic Labor Party], but when the party collapsed Santamaria had directed his followers to cross the bridge to the Liberals.

    The DLP collapsed in 1974 and was formally wound up in 1978. You provided no evidence of any kind that B.A. Santamaria gave any such direction to his followers in 1974 or 1978 or at any other time.

    ● You now provide what you allege is evidence to support your position. By the way, it was Geoffrey Browne (not Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt) who located, at the State Library of Victoria, correspondence which passed between Tony Abbott and B.A. Santamaria in the mid- 1980s. Fitzgerald and Holt wrote about Geoffrey Browne’s research.

    The Fitzgerald/Holt article, “How Tony Abbott laboured over choice of party” (The Weekend Australian, 13 October 2012) was a fine piece of scholarship. However, contrary to your assertion, the authors did not claim in their article that Bob Santamaria directed Tony Abbott to go into the Liberal Party. You just made this up.

    As Fitzgerald and Holt made clear in their article, Tony Abbott wrote to Bob Santamaria on 21 April 1987 advising of his intention to pursue his political aims in the NSW Labor Party. Santamaria indicated to Tony Abbott that he did not like NSW Labor. But Santamaria also referred to “the reptilian Liberals”. Which demolishes your view that Santamaria “directed” his followers – including Tony Abbott – “to cross the bridge to the Liberals”.

    In your email, you seem to have forgotten that you quoted Santamaria’s reference to “the reptilian Liberals” in the second edition of Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott (see page 63). Clearly, Mr Santamaria was not proposing to direct his followers to go into a party of reptiles. As I have said before, you have a bad memory.

    ● In the first edition of Political Animal, you record that B.A. Santamaria declined Tony Abbott’s request to provide him with a reference for the Liberal Party’s Warringah pre-selection in 1993. Santamaria would not have denied Abbott a reference if he had directed him to go into the Liberal Party. Once again, this is evidence of your poor memory.

    I interviewed Tony Abbott on this matter some years ago. Mr Abbott made it clear to me that Santamaria’s refusal to provide a reference for him in the Warringah pre-selection reflected Santamaria’s disillusionment with the Liberal Party in the 1990s.

    ● As Patrick Morgan documents in his edited collection titled B.A. Santamaria: Running the Show – Selected Documents 1939-1996 (MUP, 2008), in the final years of his life Santamaria sought to establish a new politically conservative party to run against the Liberal Party. Once again, he was not directing his followers to go to the Liberal Party.

    Conclusion:

    Your (undocumented) assertion that B.A. Santamaria directed his followers – including Tony Abbott – to go into the Liberal Party is not only false, it contradicts your own published comments.

    Best wishes – and here’s hoping your memory improves. Here’s a hint. Next time someone refers to a political party as consisting of reptiles, assume that they don’t like it very much. Hope this helps.

    Gerard

    David Marr to Gerard Henderson – 28 October 2013

    Dear Gerard,

    In late 1987 Abbott was keen to enter parliament and wrote asking Santamaria which party he should join. He had already rejected an invitation to work for Santamaria’s latest venture, the Council for the National Interest. He wanted to win preselection for one of the big parties: Labor or the Liberals. It was a time, Abbott wrote, to “make the compromises that life requires, be wrong, get blood on one’s hands – but at least be in it.” Santamaria replied with, I understand, many pages of criticism of the Labor Party. He was absolutely hostile to Abbott taking that path. He also had a number of criticisms of the Liberals. Yes, he called them “reptilian”. But Santamaria’s advice left Abbott with only one choice: the Liberals. As Fitzgerald and Holt wrote: “From 1987 onwards, Abbott, with Santamaria’s reluctant blessing, embraced pragmatism.” Why Santamaria refused to give Abbott a reference in his preselection bid, I don’t know. But I do know – after speaking with a number of the preselectors – that a commendation from Santamaria would have finished young Abbott’s chances.

    Did Santamaria’s advice amount to a direction? I think so. And he would live to see many of his men cross the same bridge to the Liberals. We might have an interesting debate on the point, but your strange hatred of me leads you instead to make homophobic jibes and accuse me of baseless howlers. I’ll leave you to it.

    David Marr.

    David Marr to Gerard Henderson – 29 October 2013

    Dear David

    I refer to your (somewhat strange) email received last night.

    You have not produced one skerrick of evidence to support your assertion that in 1987 B.A. Santamaria “directed” Tony Abbott to “go into the Liberal Party”. Instead you state that in “late 1987” Santamaria condemned the Labor Party. So what? That’s what BAS did. What you overlook is that is that Santamaria was also highly critical of the Liberal Party – before and after 1987. If you knew anything about Santamaria you would know that, in the final decades of his life, he was disillusioned with both sides of mainstream politics.

    Moreover, if Santamaria directed Abbott to go into the Liberal Party in 1987, how come Abbott voted for the Labor Party in the March 1988 New South Wales election? Abbott’s support for NSW Labor in 1988 is a matter of public record.

    And then there is your on-going underestimation of Abbott. Abbott turned 28 in 1987. He did not need to take direction from Santamaria or anyone else. Tony Abbott made his own decisions – as do most 28 year olds.

    The fact is that you do not know much at all about B.A. Santamaria, the Catholic Social Studies Movement (“The Movement”), the National Civic Council, the Democratic Labor Party or – indeed – the Catholic Church. You engaged researchers for your essays on Tony Abbott and George Pell. In my view, researchers are often long on material but often short on knowledge. For the record, I do my own research.

    In your oh-so-soft interview with Phillip Adams on Late Night Live last Thursday, you described me as a “Santamariaite”. If you had done your own research you would be aware of my book Mr Santamaria and the Bishops (the first edition of which was published by Ed Campion in 1982), my essay B.A. Santamaria, Santamariaism and the Cult of Personality (which was published by Michael Kelly in 1992) and my obituary on B.A. Santamaria (which was published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on 26 February 1998).

    All three works were considered and reflective critiques of B. A. Santamaria. They were not the work of a “Santamarite”. The fact is that you lack the intellectual grounding in this area to even be aware of what you do not know.

    As to why Santamaria refused to provide Abbott with a reference for his Liberal Party pre-selection in Warringah in 1993 – you are just theorising. Again. I interviewed Abbott about Santamaria in 2002. I will write about this in due course. To summarise, Tony Abbott told me that B.A. Santamaria did not believe that he should write references for Liberal Party pre-selection aspirants. Also, Abbott was of the view that Santamaria believed that a public Catholic like Abbott could not get anywhere in the Liberal Party.

    If you had asked me about this issue, I would have provided facts. And you would not need to theorise – and fantasise – about the Prime Minister and his one-time relationship with the late B.A. Santamaria.

    You are a fine writer. But you tend to get emotive. Moreover, your memory is bad – even to the extent that you sometimes forget what you have previously written.

    Now you have thrown the switch to persecution. Being unable to provide evidence for your assertions, you have taken the easy way out by accusing me of homophobia and alleging that I hate you.

    You should be able to do better than this. Especially since on two occasions I have invited you to address The Sydney Institute – at which you have always been treated with fairness and respect.

    Best wishes

    Gerard Henderson

    MEDIA WATCHDOG, November 1, 2013