Australian Biography

Bob Santamaria - full interview transcript

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Can I ask you to talk a little about the place of politics in religion, and what you feel about that, because one of the serious principles that were under discussion at the time that decisions were being made within the church about the way things would go after the split, was that whole question of the relationship of politics and religion. What are your thoughts on that?

Well, it's very noticeable that the fashionable view about that has changed. The relationship between religious belief and political action, which was held to be illicit at the time of the split, that's completely vanished today. Everybody says - bishops say and people in the social welfare environment say - that it's very important that religion should have some impact on the social system, on taxation, on wages and so on. It always seemed to me, even at the time, that people had no real objection to politics and religion being mixed, as long as the religious factors were on their side. They only objected when they were on the other side. But to take it more seriously, if you look at the government of Germany, for instance, Germany's been under the Christian Democrats for years, and really it was the Christian Democrats under Adenauer who created modern post-war Germany. Now that wasn't a name just chosen for luck or whatever it was, or to get a particular line of support. The truth is that the viewpoint of the Christian Democrats on the economy, on the way in which the role of the state in the economy, is very different from that of the Liberals, or the Social Democrats. The Christian Democrats as against the free marketeers, believe that the role of the state in the economy is fundamental, that the religious values and moral beliefs establish the parameters. In other words, you don't pursue free market ideas if they destroy the family, as they're destroying the family in the our part of the western world. So religious, moral and philosophic ideas must describe ends. Now whether you give those political form or not, it really, I think, is an instrumental matter, and sometimes it's a good idea and sometimes it isn't a good idea. But there's no fundamental moral dichotomy.

One of the arguments [coughs] ... One of the arguments against it was that the concept of Christianity as being concerned with the world hereafter, rather than the world here and now, was a strongly held view in past times about the church, that in fact it was a preparation for another life, rather than trying to influence the life now. What was your feeling about that argument?

Well, I think the people who believe that haven't the vaguest idea of what religion is all about. If it's true that there is a personal judgement at the end of your life, and a Last Judgment for everybody, you're not going to be judged on the esoteric beliefs or principles that you've had, you're going to be judged on what you did. And therefore, religion is concerned not only with the next life, it's concerned with how you behave in this life. In other words, if one leads a particular personal life that is not in accordance with the Christian dispensation, if he pursues a pattern of law which is not accordance say under the Family Law Act and so on, not in accordance with the Christian dispensation, all of those things are not going to be separated when the weights go up in the final count. I don't believe that you can have that dichotomy at all, as long as you believe that religion must guide conduct, and political conduct is part of conduct.

What about being a politician yourself, did you ever consider it?

Yes, and rejected it. The exact year I can't give you but it was early in the forties. The Member for Bourke, which included the suburbs of Brunswick and Coburg was Maurice Blackburn, and Maurice Blackburn was expelled from the Labor Party, so there was a vacancy in the seat of Bourke. And Bourke, I think, was the safest Labor seat in the whole of Australia. The presidents of the two leading branches in Bourke went to my father and asked if I would have a shot at it, and my father asked me and I said, 'Well there are only two problems: one is I don't want to, and the other is that I'm not a member of the Labor Party, or any party'. And they said well that was of no importance at all. They could easily give me a ticket, and predate it. But in any case, I said no because I was already engaged in trying to develop the Movement. And that was the only time I've got near politics, and it's not very near.

You weren't a member of the Labor Party?

No, I've never been a member of any party.

Including the DLP?

Never been a member of the DLP.

Why not?

Simply because I wanted to be in a position where, in the last analysis, I could exercise an independent judgement and didn't feel that that judgement had to be limited by my responsibilities as a member of a party.

How have you voted?

Well, until the Labor split, I voted Labor. The Labor split took place in '55. From '55 until about '74, I voted DLP, and since then I've voted informal.

Why have you voted informal?

Simply because I wouldn't ... I wouldn't believe sufficiently in either political party to vote for them. And my belief has never been stronger, in that regard, than it is at the present moment.

You're on record as having some admiration for Malcolm Fraser ...

Yes, I did. I think I can claim that we are friends. He mightn't agree with that but I think we are.

So during his period, you weren't tempted to vote for him?

No, I didn't, no. No, during his period was ... his period was '75 to '83. No, I didn't. No, I just wanted to keep ...

As an old Labor person could you just not quite bring yourself to vote for the coalition?

I have never felt any ... any sympathy with the voting group that was represented by the Liberal Party. I had a lot of views in ... which were the same as Menzies' views. Menzies said that the DLP was the party he thought that he had founded. But no, I was born on the other side of the tracks.

And so even though you could do business with them, [Santamaria: Oh Yes] give them the preferences of the DLP ...


... even go so far as to threaten, at least, to form a coalition with the Country Party ...

Not threaten, no. It wasn't a threat at all. It was just a commonsense thing. McEwen was the one who suggested it.

Okay, let me rephrase that.

To consider it, yes, not to threaten.

To consider forming an alliance with them, you nevertheless had no sympathy with their general direction.

Oh, the Country Party then was quite different. I feel a lot of sympathy with the rural and country elements in society. And even that's got to be qualified, because McEwen told me that there was no such thing as a Country Party. He said that there were three Country Parties: the Victorian and New South Welsh Country Party, and Queensland, and they represented different things. And that turned out to be true as a matter of fact. It was the New South Wales Branch of the Country Party which represented the silvertails, which it doesn't in Victoria or Queensland, which prevented that amalgamation coming about. But, no, I have always distinguished between the country interest and the liberal metropolitan urban interest.

I'd like now to talk a little bit about leadership. What sort of qualities do you think a leader needs?

Well, I really wouldn't be the best judge of that.

You've observed a few.

I have observed them, yes. I think that a leader needs, first of all, great intellectual clarity so that he knows exactly what he's doing. Secondly, I think that he needs moral conviction, which is honestly held and not manufactured for the occasion, which he can communicate to the people to whom he is appealing. I think then that he needs certain technical qualifications. He needs to be able to express what his convictions really are, so that people have the opportunity of making up their minds about him. And I think he needs organising capacity too. In other words, you can't just do the purest things and dissociate yourself from the machinery that you've got to bring into being. Those seem to me to be four of the things that a leader really needs.

You've been a leader of a quite significant group within the community. Do you feel, judging on that, those ... that set of criteria, that you've just put together, do you feel that you've been able to fulfil that to your own satisfaction?

No, well look, it's not mock modesty. I'm not a leader in that way at all. No, please believe me. I don't even count those things by ... I just, I regard myself as a tradesman. There are certain jobs to be done and you do them.

So you don't see your role as having been a role of leadership?

I don't think so. I don't think so. I don't know how ... really I don't know how you define it. I mean I recognise there's such a thing as political leadership and I've never been a political leader. There's religious leadership and that really belongs to those who consecrate their lives to that, and I'm not in that. And in the field of intellectual leadership, well really, and it's not mock modesty, I regard myself as second class. I'm not an original thinker.

So when you say you're not an original thinker, where do you get your ideas from?

Well, you get your philosophy, if you like, which is the foundation of your ideas, out of the whole of the background of your existence, which comes from the family into which you were born, the schools to which you went, the educational developments you had at the secondary and tertiary level, and so on. Then whether you can get the quick solution to an administrative problem, or a political problem, really depends. Some people are champion footballers because they've got a certain muscular development. Other people have got a certain mental development. I've got a bit of that, but I don't want to exaggerate it, because sometimes I've made a lot of mistakes tactically.

It's just that that description of being clear about things and being able to organise people, seemed like a reasonable description of what you've tried to do in the NCC.

Yes, but we ... I wouldn't regard ourself as a majority force, or a large force in the life of the Australian Commonwealth. I've always believed that we were a minority. I don't know whether that answers your question, but that's how I've looked at it.

That was how you experienced it, but looking back from the vantage of ... of having come to this point in your life [coughs] ... Looking back at the vantage point of now, I mean you do see that you influenced the course of events with the actions that you took.

Oh yes, yes, there's no question of that. But look, you're discussing a rather difficult problem. You're asking me to talk about myself, and of course, I have been talking about myself. But no, I ...

Why do you find that difficult? Do you think it's just a training that ... that you don't like to talk about yourself?

Well, it'd be very difficult to talk here for five or six hours and say you don't like to talk about yourself. [Laughs] But that's your fault, not mine. No, I really can't explain it. You can ... there's a great danger that you can exaggerate the significance of anything that you've done. And I really don't want to fall into that category. I just would rather say that the role of the tradesman is a little more than the role of the manual labourer, and a little less than the role of the professional. And that's where I'd put myself. [laughingly]

In relation to the ... [INTERRUPTION]

I'd like to ask you now about a few areas of your philosophy. One of the very important things that emerged from your analysis of the cultural revolution that took place in the sixties, was a renewed focus on concern for the family, and family values. That term, 'family values,' is thrown about and means lots of different things to different people. Could you tell us what you mean by it?

Well, I try not to use the term 'family values,' simply because it's been completely abused by people who are simply seeking political advantage out of it, but I regard the family as a natural organism that has existed since the beginning of humanity. It was before the tribe. When I look at it, it seems to me to be the centre in which children are born, children are educated, old people are cared for. All of the things that are needed throughout the course of the human life are better safeguarded by the family, where things are working in its favour - you know, sometimes people die and so on - than by any other agency. The alternative to the family in the modern state is social services. In other words, the state looks after your education, the state looks after old age and so on. I - who was it? Santayana, who, as far as I know, had no religious belief, defined the family as 'nature's masterpiece', and it's nature's masterpiece because it is the best way of looking after the human being at every stage of his or her life. Now, the ... Around that of course, values accumulate. There are the values in relation to marriage and all of that. But the one thing that is challenged, simply challenged by not being mentioned in modern times, is that if the family is to fulfil its function, it must have a firm economic base. And I believe that the biological structure of the family and the economic structure, which the family should have, really are parallel. In other words, I believe that it's normal - you know what I mean by the word normal - that the male should normally be the breadwinner, the woman should be the nurturer and the carer, and that the economic system should not ... while the woman should be perfectly free to choose whatever she wants to work in - I want to be clear on that - the economic system should not conscript the married women to go into the work force. In other words, if she chooses to go into the work force, as my own daughters, after they have raised their families, have done, that's her choice. But what is happening today is that I believe that sixty per cent of married women are driven into the work force, simply because the economic system has driven down the living wage of the family breadwinner to the situation where, without the supplementary assistance of the wife's income, you can't maintain a family, and that ultimately will destroy your whole family structure. So you see, I believe that the family's a mechanism that imparts, carries out certain functions at every stage of life, in which the member of the family, the child learns its values and so on. But if it's going to be more than words, it's got to be represented in the economic framework of society.

What about within your own family? Was that the kind of family you grew up in?

Well, yes and no. You know, that's a purist sort of definition. But yes, in a sense, it is the kind of family I grew up in. My father had a shop. He was in charge of the shop. My mother was in charge of the domestic economy, if you like, including the raising of the children. But because [of the way] we lived - the house and the shop were in the same premises - a lot of the functions were mixed. But nevertheless, there was a pretty clear idea as to where the priorities lay.

Because a lot of people point out that that division between the public and the private roles of the man and the woman are really post-industrial revolution, that if you have a family business like a farm, often the work is shared around.

Oh, without any doubt, and I come from that background. I mean, my mother's family, who had this vineyard in Italy, I mean the women used to help there as much. I understand all of that. But there was no doubt as to where the primary responsibilities were. The primary responsibility of the man was, in a sense, the economic responsibility of maintenance. And the primary responsibility of the woman was the management of the domestic economy, including children. I really believe that's the best. But I do make this point: I'm not here, and I never have been to tell the woman what her duties are or anything like that. But I am here to say that society has got no right to force her to enter the industrial work force if she wants to remain in the domestic work force. Now, Reagan, in the United States, achieved the presidency, twice, with this great emphasis on family values and so on, and introduced a taxation system that greatly favoured the rich at the expense of the poor, and, in fact, helped to weaken the whole family structure because of this industrialisation of the female part of the work force. So, if it is genuinely voluntary, it is not my business. But if society moves to make it compulsory, it is my business.

What are the duties of the man of the family?

Well, I'm no philosopher. [Laughs] I ...

Really, you're not?

No, I'm not. No, the duties of the man in the family, first of all in the perfect society, is that ultimately he is the breadwinner, and his responsibility is to maintain the economic basis of the family. He is a, I think, the essential role model for his sons, although I think it's notorious that the link between daughters and fathers is closer than between sons and fathers. [Laughingly] And in the last analysis, he's got to be a person whose wife has confidence. She might have very different ideas and not agree with a lot of things that he says or does, but she is confident that ultimately not only will he want the right thing, but his judgements generally will be correct, so that she will be willing to associate herself with those judgements. You've asked me a very difficult question.

He doesn't have to associate himself with her judgements?

Of course he does. There's no question of that. I mean, there is no purely purist definition of functions. I would not for a moment say that I washed as many as nappies as my wife did, but I washed a lot of them. You see what I mean?

And so in relation to what a man needs to do for his wife in terms of raising the family, how would you see his responsibility there, towards his wife?

Well, his first responsibility towards his wife, in my judgement, is to idolise her, and then everything else becomes easy. But his responsibilities towards his wife are, first of all, to make sure that she hasn't got the final concern about the economic well-being of the family, he will look after that. He's got to make sure that he ... he deserves her favourable judgement in his judgements. And he's got to be ready to help her with a lot of the domestic economy as well and not just leave it to her. Here you get into frightfully intimate questions which are very difficult to discuss. But in the raising of a family, the function through which children are born, and conceived and born, I've always regarded that as pretty easy for the man, an incident if you like. But it's not easy for the woman. That incident can mean nine months' gestation, through years of being the slave of a particular child, and I believe that your responsibility is to do whatever you can to lighten that burden.

And did you do that?

Oh, you're asking me to make my confession. Let me say I tried to do it.

It must have been hard with everything else you had on at the time.

Well, look, I'm not pretending to do something I didn't do. I was away from home a lot. I mean our Movement was all over Australia and ultimately became a bit international. I was away a lot. But in my view, while you were at home - it wasn't a matter of duty - I wanted to be with my wife. I think you can work it out, and we did work it out. You had to do your daily work. Secondly, there was what I've called the domestic economy, in which the man should help. The third thing was that people of a particular social group believed that you've got to spend time and money in entertaining in order to hold friends. We came to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that you couldn't do the three and so we sacrificed the friend part of the thing. We had intimate friends, but none of this entertaining stuff and so on, simply because there wasn't the time. So you could do two out of the three, and I preferred to do the other two.

How important in marriage do you believe sexual fidelity is?

Well, it's not easy, but it's vital. And ...


I think that marriage ... Again, you're asking me difficult questions, because I seem to be preaching and I'm not preaching, I'm simply talking about my intuitions. When you marry, you give your word that you will not only be faithful, but you'll want to be faithful. And it's very important to keep your promises. But there are difficulties. And it's very important to be aware of the difficulties. You look at the condition of the man in a modern, metropolitan, industrial, commercial society. Let us say that they have three or four children. That is extremely difficult and exhausting for the wife. It's all very well, the man swans off in the morning and goes into his office. And he goes home at night, and his wife is distressed and at her wit's end at five o'clock in the afternoon. And you've got to understand the temptations of the man. He goes into an office where there's a secretary who may be pretty and all of that, and well groomed. And the wife very often will not be, because of the difficulties of her life. That's when it's important to remember. And it's not easy. But nevertheless, the principle is the principle.

You've had a number of women that you've been close to in your life. There was first of all your mother.


Your first wife. And now you've remarried. You've got a second wife. How important have those women been to you in the way in which you've pursued your own things?

Oh, they're the indestructible foundation. Look, if they'd been different, I couldn't have done anything. Well, I don't think I've done much, but I couldn't have done anything. They are the foundation. And that's why - I'm not being romantic when I say it - I think a man mustn't respect his wife, he must idolise her.

And what do you mean by idolising?

Well, just think she's the best. That's all.

That must have meant that it was really quite difficult at the end of your wife's life, to be able to carry on, and I notice from the dates, that your wife died about the time that you were having difficulties internally at the National Civic Council. [Santamaria: Yes, yes] How do you deal with that, when your private life is throwing up something as massive as that, and you've got public duties to perform?

Well, I knew that my wife was dying right through 1979 and these difficulties came to a head in 1980 and she died at the end of 1980. I remember saying to the head of the group with whom I had the difficulties in the organisation - he'd been a friend of mine for thirty-six years - I remember saying to him, 'Look, leave this. My wife is very ill and I don't think she'll survive'. I found out afterwards that he asked my brother whether that was true. He didn't believe me. So the difficulties continued, and they got quite massive and they really came to a head at about the same time. And you say how do you do it? I don't know how you do it, you do it. And it's not very pleasant, but both things had to be done at the same time. I think it's true to say that if it hadn't been for my concept of my responsibilities to the other people in the organisation to whom I owed a responsibility - they'd been faithful to the same things as myself - I think I would have thrown it in. I would have looked after my wife. I have no doubt about that. But I had the assistance of my daughters and my sons, and so you just battle through both at the same time.

And what kind of a person is your second wife?

Well, she worked with me for over thirty years. She was my secretary. And it came to the time when she came to the age of retirement and retired, and it was at about the same time that my wife died. And I thought that I knew her very well. And after three to four years, I thought it was pretty silly for her to be in one place and me to be in another place, and we could extend companionship to each other. And so that that's how it happened. I discovered, of course, that knowing a person as a secretary for thirty-odd years means you don't know her at all. But she is a very equable and understanding person with whom I find it very pleasant to live.

So you've been lucky with the women in your life?

Well, that's stupid, isn't it? It's absolutely true. I have been very lucky, and why that should be, I don't know, because if you look at me physically, I'm hardly the answer to a maiden's prayer.

Oh, you have your qualities.

[Laughs] Oh well, I know my limitations too.

Have you had any women friends?

Not in particular as friends. You can't help, if you've worked ... there was, the first secretary I ever had, I mentioned her name yesterday, she cooperated with me in my work. If she hadn't looked after the Rural Movement couldn't have done anything in the trade union field. And naturally, I got to know her very well. And she still remains a friend. Well then, Dorothy, who is my second wife, worked with me, as I said, for over thirty years. But outside that, I've had friendly acquaintances, if you like, but not very intimate women friends.

Would you think that might be a little bit difficult for you, that you'd be naturally drawn to friendships with men more?

No, I never found it very difficult, no. I ... no, I'm just the same as anybody else in that regard. But no, I don't think that's difficult, because you retain friendships to men, you know their wives, and you have a friendship with them to the limits that I think is desirable.

Again, because to some extent you're on guard against getting too close to another woman other than your wife.

I think that's important. Yep.

What about your children? Have you been ... What kind of a father have you been?

Pretty lousy, I think. Oh no, I've been very lucky. My children, broadly, have the same ideas, pattern of ideas, as I have. To date, at least. You never know what the future holds, [what] their children have. We are very close to each other even in where we live. The ... I have two daughters who live a long way away from me, one in Canberra and one in Sydney. But the others ... and we're all in and out of each other's homes all the time. We get together every Sunday night: the children and the grandchildren. And it's not basically because it's a rule, it's because I think we want to get together. Anybody who doesn't want to come, doesn't come. And we eat together. I cook a plate of spaghetti for every one of them on the Sunday night. And in that way, the big thing is not only that I can meet my own children, but that the cousins know each other very well because that will attenuate over the years. But at least they start from a very close cohesion.

[end of tape]

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