Reviewed by Bruce Duncan.

Robert Murray Labor & Santamaria

(Melbourne Australian Scholarly Publishing 2017) ppx+103, with a Foreword by Graham Freudenberg.

Veteran political journalist, Bob Murray, has produced a short lively account of the traumatic events of the great Labor Split of the 1950s in a way which makes the story readily accessible to readers today. Having known many of the players in this script personally, Murray has made them come alive for readers, with their personal idiosyncrasies and blemishes, as well as with their hopes and struggles.

Murray wrote his classic book The Split in 1970. This has long remained the most significant political chronicle of those tumultuous years. It was based largely on Murray’s interviews with the key characters, bolstered by years as a political journalist doing the rounds in Labor political and union circles. He understood the Labor culture intimately, and was a close observer of ambiguity and human foibles.

Written with a journalist’s eye for colourful detail, Labor & Santamaria revisits the Split years in the cool light of history, and draws out the significance of various events. Adding sparkle to the account are the character portraits of key figures, many of whom Murray knew or had interviewed.

Murray has condensed material from his The Split, but augmented it greatly from his other writings since then, from access to Labor records and the Santamaria files, and other historical works. He traces the origins of diverse currents in the labour movements and unions, the rise of the Communist Party and their opponents in the Catholic Church, notably Santamaria’s anti-communist ‘Movement’.

Labor & Santamaria outlines the developments and key political personalities and factions in the various states, leading up to Evatt’s fateful denunciation of the Movement in October 1954 and the calamitous consequences resulting in the Labor Split from 1955. Murray unravels precisely how events unfolded in his clear journalistic style

Santamaria receives detailed attention in Chapter 4. He brought an ‘often idiosyncratic perspective’ from 1936 to his death in 1998 at 82, with ‘extraordinary commitment and dedication to basic principles’ (p38). His relationship with Archbishop Daniel Mannix was to prove decisive for Santamaria. ‘Tall, austere, articulate, with a memorably biting wit that sometimes misfired’, Mannix remained intensely loyal to Santamaria. ‘Santamaria himself acknowledged that he was the son Mannix never had.’ (39).

Murray leads us succinctly through the development of the Catholic Action movements into the crucial dispute between Santamaria and the Catholic groups of the Campion Society, which were deeply influenced by Kevin Kelly and the French philosopher Jacques Maritain. Maritain insisted that Catholic social movements formally under the control of the bishops, like Catholic Action, must not attempt to control party politics; Catholics should enter politics independently on their own personal initiative and responsibility.

On principle, the Campions strongly opposed Santamaria’s dual role as head of the National Secretariat of Catholic Action while organising the secret anti-communist Catholic Social Studies Movement, claiming the authority and sanction of the Church, especially of Mannix. By 1954, however, Sydney’s Cardinal Gilroy grew concerned about the Movement’s political activity, and wished to restrain it to the anti-communist struggle in the unions. Even the Catholic bishops soon divided over the Movement, and Gilroy appealed to Rome to intervene; this it did in 1957, against Santamaria and Mannix.

Murray describes in two chapters the consequences of the unfolding Labor Split in NSW and Queensland, and then outlines the politics of the Democratic Labor Party and the emergence of Gough Whitlam. A retrospective Chapter 8 summarises the conflict of the DLP with Whitlam, the impact of the Second Vatican Council on Catholic social thinking, the decline of international communism, and Santamaria’s disengagement from the industrial struggle, to concentrate his efforts on inner-church debates.

The final chapter, ‘Memory Lane’, captures Murray’s reflections on this tale: ‘The most revealing discovery to me was how little most people involved thought about ideology. …ideology hardly arose at all in the innumerable interviews and informal conversations I had… The politics at hand was the game.’ (p92).

He considered Santamaria ‘a flawed leader who succumbed to hubris in the heyday of the groups, with the smell of power over public policy while still young and admired by bishops, clergy, and many laity. Religion and politics can be an intoxicating unstable mix, risking misjudgments due to an overconfident belief that one is doing God’s work.’ (p49).

‘I found Bob Santamaria polite, fluent, helpful, and less evasive than many, but neither as spellbinding and charismatic, nor as central to events as I and others expected. I got the impression – as with Keon – that he felt both dreadfully hurt by the Split and the personal tirades and vilification that followed but also chastened and embarrassed by some of his own hubris and excesses then. He seemed to struggle with his ego. (p93).

Labor & Santamaria offers an invaluable summary of the politics and issues of the Split, and will likely be regarded as essential reading for anyone interested in Australian political history.


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