Obituary: B. A. Santamaria

Robert Milliken
Thursday 12 March 1998 01:02

B. A. SANTAMARIA was one of the most influential figures in Australian political life for more than two decades, yet he never sat in parliament or even joined a political party. He will be remembered as the man who helped to cause a split in the Australian Labor Party in the mid-1950s so devastating that it kept Labor out of power for almost 20 years.

Santamaria's main crusade was against Communism, especially its spread among trade unions after the Depression of the Thirties. He was a conservative Catholic who enlisted the aid of the Church in his political activities. And, long after Communism had been purged from Labor politics, Santamaria remained a leading polemicist and social commentator, attacking other movements such as economic rationalism, feminism, gay rights and anything that threatened the sanctity of family life. His primary pulpit was a column in the Australian, a national newspaper, which he wrote for 33 years until he became ill from a brain tumour at the end of last year.

Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria (he was known as Bob, but always wrote under the formal name B.A. Santamaria) was born to Sicilian immigrant parents in the inner Melbourne suburb of Brunswick, then a working-class neighbourhood. He was a brilliant student, and it was while he was studying Law at the University of Melbourne in the 1930s that Santamaria became involved in the first of a series of groups attached to the Catholic Church that served as his political power base later. At university, he also met Daniel Mannix, then the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, a powerful figure who encouraged Santamaria to work against the rising influence of Communism in the unions. Santamaria later became Mannix's biographer.

The Labor Party at that time drew much of its support from Australia's Irish Catholic working class. By the early 1940s, the anti-Communist crusade became focused on a body called the Catholic Social Movement, known simply as "The Movement", an organisation whose members formed industrial groups to oppose Communist candidates at union elections. The seeds of the big Labor split of the 1950s were sown in the Movement's clandestine campaign. At its simplest, that split was one between the mainly Catholic right wing of the Labor Party and the non-Catholic left, particularly in the state of Victoria where the Movement had its roots.

The split burst into the open in 1954, when Herbert Evatt, then the Labor Party leader, publicly denounced Santamaria and his supporters for disloyalty to Labor. At the party's 1955 conference, Santamaria's supporters walked out and formed a breakaway party of their own, the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). Santamaria himself never joined the DLP, but he exerted strong influence over it as a campaigner, organiser and writer. His main platform was as president of the National Civic Council, the lay body that succeeded the Movement in 1957 and of which Santamaria remained president until he died.

Under Australia's preferential voting system, the DLP gave its second- preference votes at successive general elections to the conservative Liberal- National coalition. The effect of this was cataclysmic for Labor. Thanks largely to DLP preference votes, the coalition - first elected in 1949 - stayed in power for 23 unbroken years. Labor did not return to power until 1972 under Gough Whitlam after shedding its old socialist tags and reforming itself as a party of the middle ground, a process taken even further in the 1980s and 1990s under the leaderships of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. The DLP no longer exists.

During Labor's wilderness years, Santamaria's influence on the ruling coalition was at its strongest in foreign policy. He was a leading proponent of one of the Cold War's most strident and excitable war-cries, the "threat from the north". This was the theory that Australia's security was at imminent risk from the "downward thrust of Asian Communism", emanating from China. It helped to drive Australia into the Vietnam war, to which the country committed 50,000 troops, of whom 500 died in combat.

In his crusade against the totalitarianism of Communism, Bob Santamaria was proved eventually to be a man before his time. On many of his other causes, though, he appeared in his later years as a man increasingly out of his time. Yet he kept the respect even of some of his lifelong enemies in the Labor Party for his unwavering dedication to his cause and his contribution to intellectual life as a powerful public speaker and the author of 10 books.

Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria, political activist and commentator: born Melbourne, Victoria 14 August 1915; President, National Civic Council 1957-1998; married 1939 Helen Power(died 1980; three sons, five daughters), 1983 Dorothy Jensen; died Melbourne 25 February 1998.

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