Reviewed by Gerard Henderson

Labor and Santamaria by Robert Murray, 

  • Publisher: Australian Scholarly Publishing
  • ISBN: 9781925333596
  • RRP: $24.95

 On 15 February 1964, journalist Peter Coleman profiled B.A. Santamaria (1915-1998) for The Bulletin’s cover story. Half a century ago, Coleman argued that Bob Santamaria was one of “the three most influential personalities in Australian politics” since the Second World War – along with then Prime Minister Robert Menzies (1894-1978) and former Labor Party leader Bert Evatt (1894-1965).

Menzies remains a dominant figure in Australian politics of the twentieth century.  However, Evatt’s reputation has declined from that of a “Labor saint”, much admired by the left, to that of a flawed and erratic personality who lost three elections to the Menzies led Coalition in 1954, 1955 and 1958.  Surprisingly, Santamaria’s reputation has increased over recent years.  This is how Robert Murray introduces a chapter on him in Labor and Santamaria:

Bartholomew Augustine Michael (“Bob” as he was usually known) Santamaria attracted more harsh epithets than almost anybody in Australian public life, while some admirers thought he was a saint.  But over the years a growing middle ground of public opinion conceded that he had made a substantial and unique contribution to the nation’s affairs.

Hence the title of Robert Murray’s Labor and Santamaria. Clearly the author and his publisher believe that there is some currency in the name “Santamaria”. For the fact is that Santamaria was never a member of the Australian Labor Party and, contrary to the left-wing interpretation of Australian history, he was not responsible for the Labor Split of 1955.

Indeed, Murray regards Evatt as primarily responsible for the Split – which followed his attack, as Federal Labor leader, on the Victorian ALP state executive in October 1954:

Bob Santamaria made mistakes enough but it is hard to avoid the judgment that Evatt caused the Split, in his own bid for survival.  His 1954 statement gave the internal troubles the momentum to produce devastation instead of just another nasty but manageable political party and trade union feud. There is little doubt, sadly, that he succumbed to paranoia as mental illness deepened.

In view of this, Murray’s book should have been titled “Labor and Evatt”. Clearly Santamaria is in this title since, today, he is still a high profile name in contemporary Australian history. Unlike Evatt.

Murray’s Labor and Santamaria provides an excellent summary of the Labor Split of the mid-1950s. It commenced with Evatt’s attack on his Victorian colleagues in October 1954. It culminated in 1955 when seven Victorian ALP parliamentarians were expelled from the Labor Party and crossed the floor in the House of Representatives – forming the entity which, in time, became the Democratic Labor Party. And it ended in 1957 when the ALP split in Queensland bringing down Vince Gair Labor government in the process. Gair subsequently became leader of the DLP’s Senate team.

What’s missing from Murray’s summary of the Labor Party in the 1950s is any passion. For example, in his final chapter titled “Memory Lane” the author writes:

The most revealing discovery to me was how little most people involved thought about ideology.  There seemed enough of it in the background of both the DLP/NCC and the trades halls to attract half the world’s universities: Catholic social theory and church authority on one hand, variations of Marxism, social democracy and other socialism on the other. But ideology hardly arose at all in the innumerable interviews and informal conversations I had; and if it did was usually in the context of being dismissed as unimportant. The politics at hand was the game.

This judgement is formed from Murray’s assessment of the interviews conducted for his 1970 book The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties.  These conversations took place well after the Split – by which time the ALP had lost elections in 1955, 1958, 1961, 1963, 1966 and 1969.  It’s not surprising, then, that Murray found “the DLP people the most reflective” of those he interviewed. It’s likely that many of those on the Evatt side of the Split had become disillusioned with the seemingly endless defeats being inflicted on the ALP as the Democratic Labor Party’s preferenced the Coalition ahead of the ALP.

The DLP was essentially formed by members who were expelled from the ALP at the time of the Split – the vast majority of whom were Catholic. Murray assessed the role of Catholics in Australian politics before the Split as follows:

About two-thirds of Catholics voted Labor in the post war years, preferring the less imperial, working-class of the two main party groupings and about 60 per cent of the federal Labor parliamentarians were Catholics, at least nominally. As a group, Catholics were slightly more working-class than Protestants, but middle-class, rural and wealthy Catholics were more likely to vote Labor than Protestant equivalents. The propensity of Catholics to vote Labor was a critical factor in keeping the Labor vote up towards 50 per cent of the electorate, despite the unpopularity of its socialism.

As Murray writes, the emergence of the DLP “took away nationally at least 5 per cent of the vote that normally would have gone to Labor”. In federal elections, the DLP played a key role (by preferencing the Coalition ahead of Labor) up until Gough Whitlam led Labor to victory in December 1972.

The ALP not only suffered on-going losses in federal elections. Labor also lost government in Victoria in 1955 to Liberal Party leader Henry Bolte – and in Queensland to 1957 to National Party leader Frank Nicklin (who was followed by Joh Bjelke Petersen). The ALP did not return to government in these states until 1982 and 1989 respectively.

Bob Murray is very much the old fashioned journalist, more focused on reporting than analysis.  In his final paragraph, Murray reveals that he was a member of the ALP in Victoria from 1964 to 1970. He was a “volunteer editor of Labor Comment, a miniscule monthly put out by the somewhat clandestine group known as `The Participants’ to campaign for change in the Victorian branch of the Party”. Fellow Participants included Labor identities John Button and Barry Jones. However, Murray soon realised that he “was not by temperament a political party animal” and let his ALP membership lapse.

The problem is that the men Murray is writing about – and they all are men – were by temperament political animals.  And there were ideological issues at stake in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s – even though then, as now, Australia was a relatively empirical society.

After all, the Split occurred at the time of the Cold War – the conflict between the communist dictatorship in the Soviet Union and the democratic West led by the United States.  The Communist Party of Australia was influential in the 1950s and quite a few ALP members were close to the communists.

Moreover, the Soviet Union had agents operating in Australia – as was proved in 1954 when Vladimir Petrov defected from the Soviet Embassy in Canberra. Petrov and his wife Evdokia – were perhaps the most important operatives to defect from the Soviet Union in the 1950s.

Jim Cairns – the left wing hero and ALP member for the Melbourne seat of Yarra – said as much in 1964 when he argued that Labor occupied the position on the political spectrum next to the communists. Yet, to Murray, Cairns was but a “well-intentioned dreamer”.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, in the lead up to the Labor Split, the communists were engaged by the anti-communists. In time, Santamaria became the best known anti-communist of his generation. In 1942, he set up the Catholic Social Studies Movement – The Movement. It was re-named the National Civil Council in 1957. The Movement’s operatives assisted the Industrial Groups which were established by the ALP to contest trade union leadership positions against the communists.

When Murray interviewed Santamaria for The Split, he found him “neither as spell-binding and charismatic” as he expected.  But Murray acknowledges that he “never had the opportunity to hear him in full oratorical flight to a sympathetic audience”.

Murray acknowledges that “in the 1940s the Communist Party believed that in the Soviet Union and the rule of Josef Stalin lay the solution to the world’s problems”. In short, members of the CPA wanted to establish a communist dictatorship in Australia. And members of The Movement – along with other anti-communists – were determined to stop the CPA.  Yet Murray regards the Split – in which Labor’s attitude to communism was an issue – as being non-ideological at its core. That’s not how the operatives on either side of the divide regarded the matter at the time.

Labor and Santamaria is a rare book in that its Foreword has a better feel for the political climate of the 1950s than the book itself.  Written by one-time Labor speech writer Graham Freudenberg, the Foreword gives a good understanding of the political intensity of the period. As Freudenberg writes:

The Split was an Australian manifestation of the Cold War.  This gave it its deadly power. The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of communism in 1989-91 has rendered almost incomprehensible many aspects of the Cold War to 21st century generations.  Because we avoided a Third World War, inevitably a nuclear war, the ideological threat presented in the Cold War years now tends to be discounted.  But it was real; it was not just some invention of Senator Joe McCarthy in the United States or of [Robert] Menzies in Australia….It was easy to dismiss claims that western communist parties were in the pay of Moscow, but they turned out to be true. These parties skilfully exploited the prestige of the Soviet Union based on its massive contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany.

The Marxist-Leninist analysis of imperialism struck a deep chord in Asia. The Chinese revolution, the Korean War and the French defeat in Indo-China brought the Cold War to Asia in a very hot form.  This was profoundly unsettling for a nation which, having fought its war against Japan, was now witnessing the dismantling of the British Empire, the guarantee of its basic doctrine, the White Australia Policy. These were the realities against which the Split was acted out in Australia.

Unlike Freudenberg, Murray misses the political intensity of the 1950s.  But Murray’s handling of the facts is first-rate. The only noticeable error is the claim, in the first chapter, that “The Movement comprised Catholic laymen directed through the official Catholic Action office in Melbourne”. In fact, the Australian Secretariat of Catholic Action (formed in 1937) and The (Catholic Social Studies) Movement (formed circa 1942) operated out of different offices – even though Santamaria effectively controlled both organisations.

Otherwise, Murray gets Santamaria pretty right. He maintains “the idea that Santamaria could control or sway large numbers of Labor politicians and union officials, though widely alleged, was fanciful”.  Yet he also recognises that Santamaria played an important role in the organisation of the anti-communist Industrial Groups which took up the fight against the communists in the trade unions:

Santamaria was a flawed leader who succumbed to hubris in the heyday of the Groups, with a smell of power over public policy while still young and admired by bishops, clergy and many laity….  Few, though, could have brought more talents and commitment to the job. Few could argue in later decades that Australia would have been better off if the communist grip on the unions had continued unchecked.  It is also difficult to see how the sustained work on the ground could have been done except though the organised Catholic community.

One of the strengths of Murray’s 1970 book The Split is that it depended to a large extent on interviews with players in the labour movement in the 1950s.  In his final chapter in his book, “Memory Lane”, the author offers brief personal insights into Santamaria, Stan Keon, Bill Bourke, Frank McManus, Jim Brosnan, Arthur Calwell, Pat Kennelly, Clyde Cameron, Bob Holt, Mick Jordan, Laurie Short and John Ducker.

Keon and Bourke were two of the 104 Labor politicians expelled at the time of the Split.  McManus and Brosnan were also expelled and the former went on to become a DLP senator.  Calwell and Kennelly, both Catholics, stayed in the ALP at the time of the Split and Calwell succeeded Evatt as ALP leader in 1960. Holt and Cameron were senior Labor politicians who were embittered with anti-Catholic sectarianism. Jordan, Short and Ducker were anti-communist union officials who went with Labor in the 1950s. Jordan was a Victorian. Short and Ducker were New South Wales based – where the ALP did not split – and there were only a couple of significant expulsions. Namely, Jack Kane (later a DLP senator) and Frank Rooney.

Some engaged in true confessions. According to Murray, Bourke acknowledged that he was not a great natural politician. And Murray recalls that Keon told him that some of his shriller statements in parliament had been in part due to staying too long in the Members’ bar.

Would the Split have happened sometime without Santamaria’s Movement? Possibly not.  Would the Split have happened in the mid-1950s without Bert Evatt (whom Freudenberg described as unhinged)? Almost certainly not.

It’s just that a book titled “Labor and Evatt” would cause scant interest these days.  But Santamaria is still a name, almost two decades after his death.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute and author of Santamaria – A Most Unusual Man (MUP 2015)