02/09/2015 - 14:00

Old-school political warrior

02/09/2015 - 14:00

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A new biography highlights the importance of Bob Santamaria to the Australian political landscape.

THREAT: Santamaria was a fierce opponent of communism. Photo: iStockphoto/jojoo64

A new biography highlights the importance of Bob Santamaria to the Australian political landscape.

If asked to name the past century’s five most significant Australian political figures, I’d go with Alfred ‘Affable’ Deakin, William ‘Billy’ Hughes, Robert ‘Bob’ Menzies, Robert ‘Bob’ Hawke, and Bartholomew Augustine ‘Bob’ Santamaria.

How could it be that a non-politician Catholic of Italian ancestry is included in the esteemed company of four, all influential, former prime ministers?

Simply put, because he headed Australia’s biggest political tussle of the 20th century – the efforts to counter communism.

Biographer and political commentator Gerard Henderson’s just-released Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man, goes further to answer the question of Santamaria’s influence, and many others, convincingly and comprehensively.

Henderson, a one-time academic, adviser to John Howard, and now head of the Sydney Institute, had for five or so years worked closely with Santamaria and his crucially important creation, the National Civic Council (NCC), whose members operated on campuses, within trade unions, the ALP, Liberal and National parties, the Catholic Church, and various transient political and cultural pressure groups.

The NCC was, intentionally or otherwise, modelled on the New York-based National Civic Federation, founded by the now forgotten Ralph Easley (1856-1939).

Although far from identical, both sought to refashion politics in their respective homelands from outside political parties and legislatures, with emphasis on trade unions.

Both were active in last century’s struggle against Moscow’s relentless drive to bolshevise their homelands and the world.

The NCC’s efforts focused not only upon Australia but also sponsored modest involvement across South-East Asia, via identified contacts with regional political figures.

Even before the NCC was officially created in 1957, Santamaria had combated Bolshevik penetration of Australia’s unions with his group, initially known as ‘The Movement’ or the Industrial Groupers.

He rightly assessed the Communist Party of Australia as obedient loyalists of the Lenin-created Comintern, and thus an organisational weapon helping to foster Moscow’s global intentions.

The Movement, from 1940, and later as the NCC, was thus a defensive organisational shield, belatedly created to thwart the CPA’s intentions, most especially within the union movement.

And by the mid-1960s this was largely, though not totally, achieved.

Many thousands of Australians backed the NCC with donations, and gave their time freely.

In the process, this Herculean nationwide struggle sparked Labor’s third major split (Hughes was central to the first, in 1917, over conscription) thereby ensuring the 1944 Menzies-created and led coalition denied Labor power until the early 1970s.

Significantly, when Bob Hawke emerged as prime minister a decade later, he ensured unions seen as NCC-aligned or NCC-sympathisers returned to the official Labor movement, thereby strengthening his position against the remnant extreme left of his party.

Opponents conjured up and promoted all sorts of conspiracy theories to explain Santamaria’s doggedness and successes, including that his efforts were a Vatican plot to takeover predominantly Protestant Australia.

For many, the name Santamaria, which hails from the Aeolian Islands, near Sicily, seemed to confirm such contentions.

The six-decade Santamaria-led struggle was the central feature of Australian politics, beginning in the war years when the CPA did Moscow’s bidding to thwart the stevedoring and maritime sectors, especially.

This subterfuge broadened and intensified during Ben Chifley-led Labor’s post-war reconstruction phase.

Central at all time were moves to ensure the strengthening of the American alliance, which the CPA and fellow travellers in unions, media, universities, even some churches wanted dismantled – using a range of justifications, including that they were peace lovers, definitely not appeasers.

That support persisted until the emergence of Poland’s Solidarnosc and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The estimated 94 million deaths suffered by those under communist regimes were conveniently ignored.

Before turning his focus to industrial action, Santamaria had promoted ideas akin to the Southern Agrarians in the US, from within the National Catholic Rural Movement (1939-55) that he headed, which aspired for a more rural-focused national economy in which population would be more evenly spread across Australia, unlike today’s metropolitan Sydney/Melbourne dominance.

Santamaria had a vast number of contacts and admirers, including prime ministers including Menzies, Malcolm Fraser and John Howard, poet James McAuley, prolific author Paul McGuire, and internationally acclaimed Australian economist Colin Clark.

He’d also attracted many who, like Henderson, are now nationally influential in the political and media arenas, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and The Australian’s foreign affairs writer, Greg Sheridan.

And a large coterie of enemies, including outright haters, also existed.

Mr Henderson biography is most definitely not a hagiography.

Instead, he’s assessed and made insightful, as well as critical, judgements about an unusual Australian who’d influenced so many areas of public policy.

There’s nothing to be gained from reading biographies by those who see no error in their subject’s ways.

Henderson’s work is a detailed, insightful and revealing study, which, among other things, makes 20th Australian political life far more comprehensible.


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