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Labor’s Nemesis

30 May 2017 23 views No Comment

Labor and Santamaria by Robert Murray

Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2017

103 pages, $24.95

A disastrous division in its ranks in the mid-1950s kept the Australian Labor Party out of power federally for twenty-three years. Until Gough Whitlam was elected Prime Minister in 1972, there hadn’t been a federal Labor government since 1949, when Ben Chifley was defeated. The infamous Labor Split fundamentally reshaped Australian politics, both nationally and in the states, especially in Victoria and Queensland.

In 1970 Robert Murray published ‘The Split’, a groundbreaking analysis of Labor in the mid-1950s. In ‘Labor and Santamaria’ Murray re-examines, to good effect, much of the original story of the Split, continuing its repercussions into the twenty-first century. It’s a story that is well worth bringing up to date because the effects of the Split are still with us, and some of the issues have never been adequately resolved within Labor’s ranks.

After the Split, the Catholic-dominated Democratic Labor Party (DLP) usually received about 15 per cent of the total vote in Victoria and about 10 per cent in Queensland, but less than 5 per cent in other states. Its best votes were for strong candidates for the Senate, where for most of the time from 1955 until the early 1970s the DLP held the balance of power. As Murray helpfully explains, this voting pattern “took away nationally at least 5 per cent of the vote that would normally have gone to Labor.” This leakage was a huge obstacle to Labor returning to federal office.

The two key players in the deeply wounding political upheaval that characterised the Split were the highly unstable leader of the federal ALP, Dr H.V. Evatt, who died in 1965, and the influential, and extremely polarising, Catholic layman B.A. (“Bob”) Santamaria, who died in 1998.

Although Santamaria was never a member of a political party, according to Murray he influenced them all. This strong influence occurred first when Santamaria was the director of Catholic Action, then as a result of his role in the strongly anti-communist Industrial Groups in the trade unions, more generally known as “The Movement”. This was followed by his long-serving role at the National Civic Council (NCC) and his strong support of the DLP.

In his final decades, Santamaria’s influence was exercised by being a powerful political, social and cultural commentator in his weekly newspaper articles in ‘The Australian’ and by his regular appearances on television—especially his widely watched, nationwide ‘Point of View’ program on Channel 9 which readers of a certain age will remember well. His television performances were often memorable and, to some of us, utterly mesmerising.

This influence via the media gained traction after the DLP and Australia’s various communist parties ceased to be political forces in Australia. In his later life, Santamaria campaigned strongly against economic and fiscal deregulation, opposing the dominant “free market and free trade” approach, which he loathed.

Santamaria’s greatest success in an adult lifetime of trying, with varied success, to influence politicians was undoubtedly Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister from 2013 to 2015. As Murray explains, Abbott was “an assertive, ebullient force of nature in Sydney University politics as a leader of its Democratic Club”. This was a nationwide NCC initiative to counter the powerful campus Left. For several years, guided by energetic political and cultural warriors such as Abbott, throughout the nation Democratic Clubs, with varied degrees of success, allied with both Labor and Coalition student organisations to vociferously oppose the “hard Left” controllers of the national union of Australian university students. But unlike other leading politicians, Abbott was, and still is, open about his admiration for Santamaria.

‘Labor and Santamaria’ offers much food for thought and speculation about what might have been. For example Murray’s absorbing book includes intriguing references to the radical Adelaide MP Clyde Cameron wanting his political hero, the Sydney firebrand Eddie Ward, to become federal ALP leader—whereupon Ward would immediately unleash a strident socialist crusade throughout Australia. This extremely unlikely possibility, which was predicated on Cameron’s belief that a massive economic crisis would soon occur, was brought to an end when Ward died of a heart attack in 1963.

Santamaria died on February 25, 1998, aged eighty-two, remaining president of the NCC until the end. His terminal illness prevented him teaming up in Adelaide, as he had planned, with his old adversary and one of the leading architects of the Split, Clyde Cameron. By then Cameron was what Murray calls “a mellower retired MP in his mid-80s, attracted to the NCC’s hostile view on the free market”.

The then Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell, officiated at Santamaria’s funeral at St Patrick’s Cathedral in East Melbourne. More than two thousand people attended, the crowd spilling into the street outside. Prominent among the mourners was the Prime Minister, John Howard, whose visit to Santamaria on his deathbed was widely publicised.

Although not of major concern, when it comes to Murray’s sources for Labor and Santamaria, there are one or two slightly puzzling omissions. For example in his bibliography Murray cites Gerard Henderson’s biography ‘Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man’ but makes no mention of Henderson’s equally fine work ‘Mr Santamaria and the Bishops’. Also I find it a tad puzzling that he neither mentions nor cites as a source my book ‘”The Pope’s Battalions”: Santamaria, Catholicism and the Labor Split’ which would seem to be somewhat germane to the topic at hand.

Never mind. Despite these omissions, it is difficult to quarrel with Murray when he concludes that “nearly a generation after Santamaria’s death and more than half a century since the drama of his regular appearance in the headlines, adoration and bile still surround his name”. And thereby hangs this tale. Lucidly written, revealing, brief and to the point, this is a book for lovers of Australian political history to savour, and to contemplate.

Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of thirty-nine books, including the recent satire ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure’, which is shortlisted for the 2017 Russell Prize for Humour Writing.

‘Quadrant’, June 2017, pp 66-68.