Last week saw the release of the private letters of one of Australia’s most influential unelected political activists. Bartholomew Augustine "Bob" Santamaria was a highly divisive figure. He became one of the country’s most reviled people in politics after he engineered the 1950s split in the Australian Labor Party which effectively kept it out of power until 1972. Santamaria died in 1998 aged 82 and was a backroom operator for most of life.
Santamaria was born in 1915 in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick. He was the first of six children of greengrocer Joe Santamaria and his wife Maria Terzita. His parents migrated from the Aeolian island of Salina off the coast of Sicily. They emigrated to Australia just before the First World War. Bartholomew was educated at St Kevin’s Catholic school and Melbourne University where he studied law. He did an MA thesis on Italy’s blackshirts. He was politically active at university and spoke in favour of Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War. Although he supported fascism in Spain and Italy, he was anti-Nazi.
In 1936 Santamaria helped found the Catholic Worker, a newspaper influenced by the social teaching of Pope Leo XIII and his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. This encyclical addressed the condition of the working classes. Rerum Novarum ("On New Things") supported the rights of labour unions, but rejected socialism and affirmed private property rights. It is generally regarded as the founding document of Christian Democracy. In 1931 Pope Pius XI re-issued the document which was updated in the light of the great depression.
Thus, Santamaria was one of Australia’s first Christian Democrats. He gained exemption from World War II service for reasons that have not been fully explained. He had influential Catholic friends including the 1930s Labor Prime Minister James Scullin, 1960s Labor leader Arthur Calwell and the towering Irish Archbishop Daniel Mannix who ruled the Melbourne diocese with an iron hand for 46 years. In 1941 Santamaria founded the Catholic Social Studies Movement, known simply as "the Movement," which recruited activists to oppose the spread of Communism, particularly in the trade unions. After the war, Santamaria became disillusioned with the Labor government which was not anti-Communist enough for his liking. This became a divorce with the party after Doc HV Evatt was elected leader in 1951.
Evatt publicly blamed Santamaria for Labor’s loss in the 1954 federal election. At the next party conference in Hobart in 1955, Santamaria's parliamentary followers were expelled from the Labor Party. His supporters founded the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) dedicated to opposing both Communism and the Labor Party. The split not only kept Labor in federal opposition for a generation, it also caused the fall of Labor governments in Victoria and Queensland. Santamaria’s power base remained in Victoria where Archbishop Mannix supported him. In Sydney Cardinal Gilroy supported Labor and the DLP never took root in NSW. Oddly enough, Santamaria never joined the party he was instrumental in creating. Instead he created a policy thinktank known as the National Civic Council (NCC).
In his later years, Santamaria strongly supported the US war in Vietnam. His political influence waned after Mannix died in 1963. Then in 1974 the DLP lost its last Senate seats. The defeat effectively sent the party into mothballs. The NCC also went into decline when many of its trade unionists left the organisation in the 1980s. Despite this, Santamaria’s public profile was higher than ever. He wrote a regular column in the national “Australian” newspaper and had an opinion program on Channel Nine called Point of View. In his later years he opposed liberal trends in the Catholic Church and founded a magazine, A.D. 2000, to argue for traditionalist views.
Santamaria’s letters have now been published by Melbourne University Press. “Your Most Obedient Servant: B. A. Santamaria Selected Letters 1938-1996”. The collection spans sixty years showing facets of his personality and activities not previously disclosed. His correspondents included prominent politicians, Malcolm Fraser, Bill Hayden and Clyde Cameron, religious leaders, including Archbishops Mannix and Pell, as well as influential media and social commentators such as Kerry Packer and Phillip Adams. Although Santamaria died in 1998, his political legacy is still alive. The DLP shocked everyone by coming from nowhere to win a seat in Victoria’s upper house in the December 2006 election.