By Dr George Venturini*
B.A. Santamaria was one of the most controversial Australians for more than half a century, until his death in 1998. His sphere of influence ranged across the nation’s political and social landscape. Santamaria, unquestionably as intelligent and he was fanatical, polarised the community into loyal followers and committed opponents.
He was a crusader of the twentieth century, and carried on his wars under papal sanction. For more than sixty years he was Australia’s leading Catholic layman, anti-Communist, anti-Labor if not anti-labour, zealously concerned with stamping out careerism, opportunism, corruption. He cast a long shadow on Australian political life.
He did his studies with the Christian Brothers, who fortified in him narrowness of mind, lack of curiosity, and determination that he would put to good use.
Among the Catholics who would graduate from Melbourne University in the 1930s there was a strong surge of sentiment for the writings of Hilaire Belloc and Gilbert Chesterton. Young Catholic university students would turn with delight to such prophets and polemicists as Ronald Knox, Christopher Hollis and even – though only in moments of desperation, when seeking to make converts – Arnold Lunn. The leading lights though were Belloc and Chesterton.
In the Campion Society, founded in 1931 by direction from Archbishop Mannix, Santamaria met a ‘robust’ English monarchist, Deny Jackson. Jackson was strongly influenced by the ideas of Charles Maurras and Action Française and was among those who identified in Fascist Italy the seeds of a corporate society. It was Maurras, whose conception of nationalism was illiberal and anti-internationalist, elevating the interest of the state above that of the individual and above humanity in general, who coined the term integralism. Santamaria also was amongst the founders of the Catholic worker. Belloc and his followers were profoundly anti-Semitic and, though Santamaria was not – at least no more than the Catholic Church – Jackson was seriously so. There were certainly Echoes and resonances of Action Française in early issues of the Australian Catholic Worker, as documented by Colin Thorton-Smith. (Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal Vol. 11, No.3 1991, 458).
It seems that Santamaria wrote his B.A. Honours thesis on Mussolini, perhaps with the suggestion that the thesis exalted ‘Il Duce of the Fascist regime’. Such probability is high, but the thesis, perhaps dated 1934, could not be accessed after a lengthy and unsuccessful, albeit revealing, search. Under condition of ‘absolute confidence’, a person who will remain as Doctor X yielded the following information. The thesis does exist: it runs for about 100,000 words and about 270 pages; it is titled ‘Italy changed shirts (sic) – The origin of Italian Fascism’. It deals with the setting up and crisis of the Italian State, from Garibaldi (red shirts) to Mussolini (black shirts). It summarises extensively from Fascist Italian literature on the subject – hence the length. Was Santamaria a contemptuous observer? Dr. X said that “Santamaria did in time so closely identify with the position of Italian Fascism that he became of interest to Commonwealth Security forces.” That is correct. (V. G. Venturini, ‘B.A. Santamaria – An agent of influence’, ConVivio, Vol. 5, No. 2 (October 1999) 123).
But was Santamaria a Fascist agent? Certainly his anti-Communism was pathological. In time, it easily led him to support Franco’s rebellion against the young Spanish Republic. Support for Franco was total.
On 4 July 1936 Santamaria’s Catholic worker predicted an army intervention in Spain. Immediately after the rebellion of 17 July 1936, all but three of the Spanish Catholic bishops signed a document which certified the act as Christian and just, praised Franco’s Nationalist Movement and announced the war in Spain to be the result of the struggle between two irreconcilable ideologies. Before the end of August, the Vatican formally recognised Franco’s junta as the official government of Spain. The official Catholic position was sealed. All Australian bishops followed, and the Campions mobilised. The Society members were not only formidable debaters; they were – with the possible exception of Santamaria – trained for ‘robust confrontations’, good street-fighting pugilists all!
In March 1937 Russel Ward joined colleagues at Melbourne University and witnessed a heated debate on the Spanish ‘civil war’. Putting the case that ‘The Spanish Government is the ruin of Spain’ were three students, amongst whom was Santamaria. “Santa [as he was familiarly known] and [another] both studied law but were clearly more interested in politics and history: Santa struck me then, and still does, as the cleverest and most fanatical person I ever knew. … He preached eloquently and incessantly the virtues of Franco’s falange, of the Spanish rebels and of Franco himself, but he was very far from being obsessed with Spanish affairs. To back up these views he passionately expounded a whole theory of authoritarianism. Fascism in Germany, Italy and everywhere else was the best form of government, because it was the most viable and in the modern world, to which modern man could aspire, and all human history went to prove it. Art, science and learning – he argued – had always flourished most under royal, imperial or dictatorial rule; the more authoritarian the better.” (R. Ward, A radical life – The autobiography of Russel Ward (Melbourne 1988) 88.
In the 1930s Santamaria served international Fascism. In the 1940s he continued to soldier on for his real motherland: the Vatican.
In the 1940s Santamaria set up ‘the Movement’ in Australia, an anti-Communist organisation. Applying the technique of communist cadres, he had his followers infiltrate the unions to counteract their leftish ideology and to stop the spread of communism. He was president of the organisation from 1943 until 1957, when the Movement evolved into the National Civic Council. He became a key figure in the tumultuous split in the 1950s of the Australian Labor Party. Even more insidious was his part in helping keep the Labor Party out of office throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He was a major influence in the formation of the Democratic Labor Party, a breakaway group of the A.L.P. He hoped to siphon the Catholics from the A.L.P. into the D.L.P., and attract the anti-communist vote.
Subsequently he had much influence as a public commentator on his television programme Point of view and his weekly column in The Australian.
If he ever felt like being a divided man because of his overt support of Fascism, and the state of war declared by Mr. Menzies, it did not show. He was always – he had been all his life – in the service of his real country: the Vatican.
By the 1990s B.A. Santamaria was the only person still active in politics who had been involved in public life before the second world war and in the immediate post-war years. He left behind, amongst other writing, a substantial amount of correspondence which would offer a rare glimpse into a mind which was preoccupied for more than six decades with world events and ideological controversies.
At the January 2007 launch of Your most obedient servant, a collection of selected letters for the period 1938-1996 curated by Patrick Morgan (Melbourne 2007), Tony Abbott said: “I was lucky to know B. A. Santamaria for the last 22 years of his life, to have attended diligently to his writing and speaking.” Santamaria – he said – “left Australian Catholicism more intellectual and less politically tribal”, by which he presumably meant that there are now Catholics in Coalition as well as Labor ranks.
On the death of Santamaria in February 1998 Abbott made a statement in Parliament. He referred to his mentor as “a philosophical star by which you could always steer” and “the greatest living Australian.” As a matter of fact, by then Santamaria had lost all political relevance and the statement was astonishing: how could anyone honour in that way a man who inspired so much hatred?
Santamaria’s influence on Abbott’s policies has been much discussed in newspaper articles, scholarly studies and books on the period in Australia.
Frequently, reference has been made to Abbott’s close relationship to Cardinal George Pell, another self-proclaimed disciple of Santamaria, and now the No. 3 in the Vatican establishment.
But more important than the influence of particular policies is the ‘type’ of Catholicism Santamaria represented and the subtle, even unconscious, influence this might have on Abbott. (P. Collins, ‘PM Tony Abbott; Personally and Politically Rooted in Fascist Catholicism’).
And so one could well ask: what is Abbott’s Catholicism?
Tomorrow: Searching for Tony Abbott
* In memory of my friends, Professor Bertram Gross and Justice Lionel Murphy.
Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. In 1975 he left a law chair in Chicago to join the Trade Practices Commission in Canberra.
Like what we do at The AIMN?
You’ll like it even more knowing that your donation will help us to keep up the good fight.
Chuck in a few bucks and see just how far it goes!
Your contribution to help with the running costs of this site will be gratefully accepted.
You can donate through PayPal or credit card via the button below, or donate via bank transfer: BSB: 062500; A/c no: 10495969
498 total views, 2 views today