Book review: Santamaria, A Most Unusual Man

B.A. Santamaria (left) is the subject of a new biography by political commentator Gerard Henderson. Wikimedia Commons

Bob Santamaria deserves Gerard Henderson’s lively and informative biography, Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man, because he was an inherently interesting man and because of the large place he and the organisations he led occupy in Australian political history.

Santamaria also naturally sparks continued speculation about his role in shaping Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s career and values, fuelled by Abbott’s own references to him as his first political mentor.

Henderson clearly has the credentials to write it because of his previous research, going back more than 30 years to Santamaria and the Bishops. So, this biography has had a long gestation. It is also born out of an association between the biographer and his subject.

The book is therefore the culmination of both traditional research and an accumulation of relevant documents and insights through the observations of a participant in National Civic Council (NCC) meetings in the 1970s.

It contains a thorough bibliography and index but is not footnoted. At times, because of its gestation period, I don’t think sufficient account is taken of some other recent accounts, including Kevin Peoples’ Santamaria’s Salesman.

Henderson knows his subject and is right to correct errors by authors such as David Marr and myself, but he also makes it too obvious when he has disdain for others working in this territory, such as Marr, Jim Griffin and Brenda Niall, the author of the recent biography of Archbishop Daniel Mannix. He uses the combative style that readers of his newspaper columns will recognise.

Henderson has produced a rounded and at times fascinating portrait of Santamaria and of some of his closest colleagues. He covers his whole life, from his family and schooling through his lifetime’s devotion to the cause of Catholic Action, broadly defined, in leadership positions in the Australasian National Secretariat of Catholic Action, the Catholic Social Studies Movement and the NCC.

Henderson’s broad conclusion is that Santamaria was a compelling, skilled and persuasive man who was enormously devoted to his causes.

Melbourne University Publishing

Henderson is generous to his subject but certainly not uncritical of Santamaria’s strategy and tactics on occasions. He made this clear to Santamaria himself many years ago in an episode at a NCC seminar also covered recently by Greg Sheridan in When We Were Young and Foolish. He believes that Santamaria was right about his one big thing – anti-communism – but wrong about some other things, though he was most influential on the question of state aid to private schools.

Revealingly, Henderson concludes that Santamaria “led a relatively isolated life” with respect to international and even national travel, but also in regard to personal contacts with those he could have sought to influence, such as some bishops and politicians:

There was home, there was the Church, there was the Carlton Football Club, there was the office and, more broadly, there was The Movement.

Henderson also paints a portrait of a man who could be difficult to work with and who could sometimes be extremely hard and unfair on those within his organisations who disagreed with him or sought to supplant him. This conclusion is reached in a chapter entitled “The Cult of (Santamaria) Personality”.

Henderson’s treatment of Santamaria’s early working life and of his role in the Labor divisions of the 1950s which produced the Democratic Labor Party is authoritative and detailed, though interpretations will continue to differ.

For those who feel they know this story well enough, it is the later chapters – which deal with Santamaria and the Liberal Party, including John Howard and Abbott, and the NCC’s internal politics – which may be of particular interest. Santamaria was far from close to the Liberals and at times quite hostile to them. He appears not to have encouraged conservative young Catholics, including Abbott and Kevin Andrews, to become active in that party.

According to Henderson, Abbott was:

… influenced by – but not a follower of – BAS.

If that is the case, then commentators have been misled by Abbott’s own inflated comments about the relationship.

Another instructive chapter is devoted to Santamaria the outstanding polemicist and media performer, especially through his long-running television show Point of View. It was here that Santamaria was especially compelling, speaking a seven-minute memorised script to camera with only a rare stumble.

Santamaria on Point of View, 1985.

In this way, a wider audience had some insight into Santamaria’s dominating performances within his own organisations and before episcopal audiences. These seem often, according to Henderson, to have been self-indulgently long but doubtless still persuasive to many true believers, many of whom devoted their lives to following his leadership.

Ultimately, however, this biography is a labour of love, or at least a labour to ensure that a man that Henderson greatly admires receives due credit for his achievements.