Australian Biography

Bob Santamaria - full interview transcript

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Your first wife came from a very different background from yours, didn't she? What was that?

Well, racially, on her mother's side, it was Irish. On her father's side, it was Irish too originally, but there was quite a strong Indian Army background in that, so that there was a different sort of a culture, and my wife seemed to be a mixture of both of those, really. And that's about really all that I can say about it, in terms of the difference. Her family had been very badly affected by the Depression, and she had to work and help to maintain them from ... as soon as she left school. [coughs] And it was then that I met her. I really can't say much more than that.

No. [INTERRUPTION] How did your first wife get on with your family, coming from a different background? What did she make of the Italian family in Brunswick?

Well, I can't answer that, because she never really told me, but she must have thought it was pretty strange. But she actually got on very well with them, and particularly with my mother. So there was never in problem in that regard at all.

And what did her family think of you?

Well, if I'd been in their position, I would have been very disappointed at their daughter's choice. Simply because ... well for the reasons that I've given you, basically. I had no real prospects. What I had done, humanly speaking, in taking on the job that Archbishop Mannix asked me to take on, was quite stupid. I didn't realise it at the time. I'm glad I didn't because I wouldn't have taken it. But I would have thought that the background and the lack of financial prospects and the fact that I'd put up ... the legal career that I thought I had, up for grabs. It wouldn't have been a very strong recommendation to a girl's parents. And I'm quite sure she had many better offers than I had ... than I was.

But later on they were quite proud of what you did, and supported it.

Well, they never said the opposite anyway. [Laughs]

What about your own parents, were they proud of you?

I think so, yes, I think so. Silly enough to be.

I ask that question because before we diverted to picking up again on ... on the issue of your marriage, I was about to ask you, in relation to your own children, that I often notice that what people want for their children, and what kind of human being they feel that they're trying to raise, tells you more about what they really value, than a lot of other things. And I just wondered, in raising your children, what was your idea, what would you say would make you feel satisfied with the work that you'd done? How did you want your children to turn out?

I don't think I was ever really very conscious of that. I always regarded my wife and their mother as being the influence I wanted to have on their lives. I wanted them to be like her. And I knew that she could do that. So that I wanted what simply any father would want of his children, that they would be honest, they'd be truthful, that they'd work at their work, and then when they went to university, that they wouldn't go crazy. I must confess that one of my great weaknesses was that I was always extraordinarily nervous when the girls were taken out later on, about the time that they came home. I could never go to sleep. [Laughingly] But other than that, I was not very conscious. I just expected them to grow up, that was all. But I was able to do that, basically because I had implicit trust that their mother would guide them in the right way.

Do you think they suffered at all because of the battles you were fighting?

Well I know that some did, yes, but they were generally pretty well sheltered from it. I didn't ... I wouldn't talk much at home about what was going on. I would to my wife, but not while the children were about, basically because I didn't want to distress them and I believed that they should be protected. After all, it was my sins, not theirs.

Your sins?

Well, yes, if you want to look at it that way. In other words, I'd made my choices, and whatever came good or bad was the result of my choice. I didn't see that I had to visit it on them.

But the name Santamaria's quite distinctive. Did they ever attract any kind of attention because of that name being used in the way that it was at that time?

Oh, I think they must have. I'm not really very conscious of that, because they were all young and at school, when I think the events you're talking about [took place]. I'm not very conscious that ... oh, the name would have meant something to other people there, but I'm not conscious of it beyond that.

One of the sources of opposition to the Movement resided in the university societies - the Newman Societies, in both Sydney University, very strongly, and in Melbourne University. Your daughters, your sons, as Catholics going up to Melbourne University, would they have joined that society, and would that have had any effect on them?

Well I don't think it did. I ... the university societies were not really very ... Catholic university societies were not really very influential. It was the Newman Society here in Melbourne. I think it was the same in Sydney, although I'm not certain, but it was pretty feeble until about the end of the forties or the beginning of the fifties, and then it did gain a number of quite formidable people around. The poet Vincent Buckley was one of the them, and they became quite opposed to what I was trying to do.

Did your children get involved in that at all?

One of them. My daughter Bernadette did. I always remember saying to her before she went to the university, 'I don't mind if you join the Labor Club, but don't join the Newman Society'.

And did she obey you?

No.

And what was the consequence of that?

Nothing really.

You didn't have any conflicts with her?

No, I didn't. No, she goes round sort of traipsing around, protecting her independence and so on, but I think in the last analysis, we think pretty well the same. She was the one who went on furthest academically. She went to Cambridge and got her doctorate there and so on. I try to keep her feet on the ground.

But you're actually very proud of her academic achievements?

No, I'm not proud of her academic achievements. I'm proud of Bernadette.

And you feel that way about all your children.

Yes, I do. There's no exception.

What would you ... What would you do ... what would you have done, if one of your children had taken a completely - in your view - wrong route?

Well, what I would hope that I would have done would have been that it would have made no difference to the feelings that I had, to the welcome that that person had. I have always believed that it's a fatal mistake to exclude your children, either from your affections or from the home, because they take an entirely different course. Because if you do that, there is never any hope of influencing that child later on, and they're entitled to feel bitter, because there are certain fundamental attachments that go beyond ideas and so on. But I wasn't faced with that, thank God.

Can I ask you now about some of the broader issues that perhaps were issues of the time of ... during the course of your life, and I wonder what your attitudes to them are. You did say earlier that you were the first environmentalist ...

Well, I was joking when I said that.

Yes, well I wonder how you feel about the environmental movement, which has been one of the other great movements, to use that word, that you use in relation to your own efforts, that has occurred in the Twentieth Century, in ... in Australia. How do you regard the environmental movement?

Well, I think that I ought to say that fundamentally, on those rare occasions when I look at myself and say, 'What the hell are you, really?' I am a peasant. I have those values. And I think central to those values is the family and the land. I'm not pretending about that, because I've told you I couldn't grow a lettuce. But that's where my attachment is, and all my values really depend on those two things. And therefore I have always - and I mean the proof is in things that I wrote in the end of the thirties and the early forties - simply attached myself to those values. In pamphlets that I wrote, in the book, The Earth, Our Mother and so I'm not a late convert to environmentalism. What I don't like about the environmental movement is this - I think a lot of its values are right and the way in which the political game is played is natural - but there is a lot of exaggeration. I'm not very much in love with movements who depend on governments for the financial support, without which they couldn't exist, because that means that in the last analysis, a government will keep them in being as long as it wants to. And when it doesn't want to, it'll ... they haven't got any independent resources and the tap is turned off. So when I speak of the land, and the sea, because the sea is important to me ... My grandfather was a sailor. When I speak of that it's sort of a deep attachment but I don't want to make a fetish of it, or a science out of it. I don't know if that's what you really are asking me about.

Well yes, that ... that really tells me about your attitude to the fundamentals. I suppose in terms of the platform of the environmental movement, one of the important issues, which I would imagine would divide you from them, relates to population control ...

Yes, of course.

... and I wondered whether that would be an impediment to your feeling whole-heartedly behind their notions of taking measures to try to preserve the earth.

No, I believe in the preservation of the earth and the soil and the beauty of the sea and the natural environment for their own sake. The things that you're dealing with now, population, and the controversies that arise out of that, are in a sense, added things. And I don't agree with them, because I think they exaggerate. For instance, the statement that Australia can only maintain eighteen million people, and Ehrlich I think, once said that Australia was already overpopulated, that seems to me to be the most rampant rubbish. I've just come from the - a few weeks ago - from the Lombardy plain, where there are twenty million people living: no unemployment. Ninety per cent of the enterprises of this very wealthy part of Italy, family enterprises, and people are trying to tell me that Australia can't maintain more people than they can maintain on the plain of Lombardy. It seems nonsense to me. I ... so I am very strongly divided from them on that issue.

In the world at large, though, if you look at it overall, and you think about issues like ...

Overpopulation.

... global warming, and so on, which are all to do ... related to population growth.

Well, global warming is not so much related to population growth, if it exists. See I am not a scientist and there are two diametrically opposed scientific schools in this regard and I don't know who's telling the truth. That's one of the difficulties that you have. You don't know where truth really lies. But when you look at the question of over-population, you'd better draw some distinctions. The two most ... by far the most populous countries in the world - are in China and the India. But if you look at Europe today, the truth is, that at the present birth rate in Italy - allegedly the most Catholic country of all, in Spain, in Germany, within fifty or sixty years, there'll be very few Italians, there'll be very few Germans. Europe, as such, will have ceased to exist. You know the statistics, that for the population simply to remain at a stationary level, the average number of children that are required is 2.1 for each woman. That's the statistics. Well, it's much less than that in Italy. It's I think 1.3. It's less than that in Australia. What you're going to face in Europe is - unless there is some radical change that we can't envisage at the moment - the practical extinction of the European populations. And the continent of Europe is going to simply become colonised from Africa and from ... well, not even from East Europe any longer, because Russia's population is smaller. But very largely, Europe is going to be Africanised. I don't regard that as a great gain.

In the course of your life, you've written a lot of ... you've done a lot about social justice issues and written about them and been active on them. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but one of the issues in Australia that I'm not conscious of your having taken up, is the Aboriginal issue.

No, that's perfectly true, I haven't. It's not for lack of sympathy, but I think that there's a great deal of exaggeration in that also. For instance, I look at the whole question which is current at the present moment, as a result of the Mabo and the Wik judgements, and when I looked at the statistics, there are no more than 44,000 people who are defined in the broadest sense, as Aboriginals on the land at all, and while one must be conscious of our responsibilities, which I don't deny, it seems to me that at a particularly critical moment of our history, the idea that everything should be subordinated to whatever the High Court judgements in relation to Mabo and Wik, seems to me to be quite nonsensical. There are certain things in the end, that you'd like to be able to determine on a strict definition of justice. But really, in the end you can't. If we were to go back to the beginning and say that there should be no European colonisation of Australia, but it should be left to the Aborigines, according to the - what do you call it? The method of agriculture - not of agriculture, of ... even the word doesn't occur to me at the moment - Australia really run according to the Aboriginal ...

Hunter-gatherer method.

Yeah, hunter-gather - would hold very few people. And let me tell you, it won't be maintained like that. If that had been the condition of Australia at the time of the Second World War, we would have had a Japanese occupation and the Aboriginal problem would have been solved very quickly, and very ruthlessly. So I think that justice is one of the elements that you've got to bring to a determination of the issue, but then the actual practicalities of the moment, which tend to be pushed aside by the Aboriginal movement, I think that's got to be brought into the formula, into the equation as well.

That's why I'm interested that you've kept out of it, because you're somebody who's very much concerned with trying to find practical solutions to immediate problems, and this is a very difficult one to find a practical solution to.

It is very difficult, and it's the fact that I can't see a practical solution that really stops me trying to participate, because I don't believe in just waffling around, or making popular statements. I just don't know how you best solve that problem.

So are you telling me that this is a problem. There is a problem on which Bob Santamaria doesn't have an opinion. [Laughs]

There's plenty. This is one of them. No, I have an opinion. I really believe that, first of all, the vast majority of Aborigines and of the descendants of Aborigines are urban people. There is no human possibility at all that they will ever [clears thorat] revert to hunter-gatherer lifestyle. And the number on the land is 44,000. Therefore it ought to be possible to make sure that they have access to the ritual, the ceremonial uses of land and so on, but I don't believe that in the last analysis, the rights of 44,000 people have to take precedence over whether this country lives or dies.

So do you feel that in the wake of Wik that it would be possible to divide in a co-operative way those kinds of measures, or do you think that there needs to be legislation?

Well, one of the reasons that I haven't expressed an opinion on that is that I don't know whether you can solve the problem by legislation. All that I do know is, that while I don't agree with the people who say that the High Court should not make law - High Courts always make law - nevertheless I believe that the High Court has left us in one unholy mess. And I don't regard them with very much affection. The ... It's very difficult. When you look at the Mabo judgment, I can understand the motives that underlay the High Court majority in the Mabo judgment, and what's more I sympathise with a lot of them, but, after all, the law of the country was quite different before Mabo. And what the High Court was called upon to adjudicate on was certain particular questions in the Torres Strait Islands, and the racial and cultural identity of those islanders is totally different from the Aborigines, totally different. They were a settled people with their own small holdings and so on, and the decision of the High Court, to use that as a fortunate occasion to extrapolate, if what the Murray Islanders, I think as they call themselves, to the Australian mainland, without calling any evidence on the subject at all, without hearing any witnesses, seemed to me to be quite arrogant. And nevertheless, after the Mabo judgement, it was laid down there and laid down in the Native Titles Act, that the grant of a pastoral lease extinguished native title, and everybody agreed to it at the time. Now, with the Wik judgment, with a different High Court, and a four-three majority, suddenly very many people reverse what they said then, and we are in a very difficult situation now. So I'm only pointing to the difficulties. I don't say to you that I know what is the solution that would end all acrimony.

But you've kept out of public debate on this because ...

Fundamentally, because I am not clear on what I'd like to say.

Well that seems like a wise thing to decide, if you're not clear about what to say. [Laughs]

I don't think you've got to say something on everything.

The Movement was formed against the backdrop of a war, and in the course of your life you've fought a lot of battles. Do you see life, really, as in a way, a battle?

Oh, I don't elevate the concept of battle to number one priority, as a matter of fact. I would envisage a totally different world if I were called upon to plan it, and if I do happen to meet God in the next life, which is possible but not very probable, there are a lot of questions I'd like to ask him, as to why exactly he organised things in this particular way. No, the sort of world that I ideally would like to envisage, is a world of family, and agriculture and small cities, all of the things that go with a decentralist vision. And of course, that's the very opposite to what we've got at the moment. So I don't look forward to the battle at all. But perhaps my life has been cast in different channels, where the battles have existed and sometimes have been landed on my lap. I haven't gone looking for them because I'm a coward at heart. But you've got to make up your mind whether you'll be in it or out of it.

And so you've been a warrior.

Oh no, please. [Laughs] I told you, I am a coward at heart, and I'm not being modest about that. That's the truth. But there are some situations where, however you try to reason your way out of them, you can't escape them. I don't know if that applies to others, but it applies to me, and when you can't escape them, I don't think you could live with yourself later on if you'd just run away.

I suppose I'm interested in what you think about the place of conflict in human affairs. Do you think conflict is ever valuable? What do you believe about conflict?

I believe that conflict is inevitable. I don't know that it's valuable. There are those who say that the highest qualities of the human being are demonstrated, come to the top, in moments of conflict. And they say that about war. I don't sympathise with that. I don't think that conflict ennobles. I think it leads to situations in which human beings are cast into opposition to others in which is often very unnecessary. But it's there all the time. And you just have to make your decision and make the best of it.

You do enjoy conflict on the football field.

Well, it's inevitable in football. That's what football is about: conflict. Or it used to be. Now it's about money.

But you liked it better when it was about conflict than about money.

Oh, yes, without any doubt at all, because it was honest. I believe that in ... I'm talking about Australian Rules football, which of course is the only brand of football that there really is. But I believe that under the old system of the Australian Rules football, most players were playing for the club, and therefore they demonstrated qualities of loyalty. They demonstrated qualities of loyalty to the district. And even though you tended to regard supporters of Richmond and Collingwood as double died enemies, now that the whole concept has been destroyed and it's about money, I realise, really, that Collingwood and Richmond people really belong to the same breed as myself. [Laughs] That's a bad position to come to.

One of the ways in which you, and other people in your generation have parted company, is over the issue of authority. The Communists on the one hand, accepted a kind of authority. The church of course, the Catholic Church, is very strong on authority.

Within a limited area. Let's be clear on that. Because as we have transacted some of this interview already, I pointed out to you that it is in matters of faith, doctrine, and in moral teaching, but in matters of political judgement, it has no authority at all. The Communists say that in matters of political judgement, there's only one authority.

What is your own attitude to authority? What do you think, again, is the place of authority in life generally, and in whom should it be vested?

Well, it depends, doesn't it? I mean there's authority in the family, there's authority in the a country, there's authority in political parties, there's authority in a church. All of these have their own constitution. And my answer to that is very simple. If you decide to join a club, then you join subject to its constitution, and its constitution states where authority shall be placed and how that authority shall develop, and if you can't live by that, don't join the club. But if you join it, you take, warts and all. Now, there are two qualifications on that. One is authority in the family, which isn't subject to a constitution at all and I think it is best in the family that authority rests in the father and the mother, and that if you've got any sense, you will make sure that the woman is very much the ultimate authority in what I call matters of the domestic economy and raising of the family. And I really believe that the hand that rocks the cradle rules society. [Laughs] I remember hearing somebody a little while ago saying that 'I am the master in my own home, as long as my wife lets me be', and that's pretty well the truth, you know. But on big issues, like you know, whether you are in political life, whether you buy or don't buy a property and so on, if you've got any sense, you will talk it all out to the last. But ultimately, if there's a division of opinion and a decision has got to be made about those things, I think it ought to be - if a decision has got to be made - you will always to avoid that. You will try to create the situation where you're in agreement. But in the last analysis, somebody's got to make a decision, and about temporalities I think it's better in the hands of the husband. About the intimacies of family life, I think it's better in the hands of the wife.

Why do you think that there are so many people who have a lot of difficulty with authority?

I think for very good reason in many cases. I think that once authority is exercised tyrannically, you will breed opposition, not only to your exercise of authority, but to the whole idea of authority. I think that one of the reasons why there have been so many clashes on the issue of authority in the Catholic Church over the last thirty years, I believe that in the life of religious orders, for instance, particularly orders of nuns, I think that there was a good deal of tyranny. And, therefore, you find that exaggerations of the feminist movement are very strongly expressed among the present generation. Well, when I say the present generation of nuns, there are no nuns left except those who are sixty years of age. In other words, authority is something that is legitimate, but must be exercised in a humane and sensible way. If it degenerates into tyranny, it'll breed its own reaction and the reaction will be very bad indeed.

You've said that Muggeridge, in the end, was a rat who joined a sinking ship.

Well, I said that, he didn't say that.

Why do you think ... why do you think the ship is sinking, or do you think it is sinking?

If I were to look at the Catholic Church historically, I could come to this conclusion: I could say that every civilisation has got its distinctive, inspiriting, religious faith. China has got Taoism, Confucianism - which is not a religion. India and Ceylon have got Buddhism, and that either they created the civilisation or they're the product of the civilisation, I don't know. But as the civilisation dies, the religion will die with it. And I think that Gibbon's view was, and Toynbee's view could have been, that Catholicism was the central factor in the development of post-Roman, Greco-Roman European civilisation. And as that civilisation is obvious dying, and dying very rapidly, you could expect Christian religion and Catholicism to die with it. I could adopt that attitude, and that would make me an historical determinist. On the other hand, if I believe that that was the religion which Christ intended to establish, and that he was the son of God, then I will believe that what is happening at the present moment has got very great similarities to the Fifth Century, when after Constantine's declaration of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire in the Fourth, it suddenly fell apart. I will believe that if it is God given, then that we're going through a bad patch, but will ultimately reassert itself as it has in the past. Now you can take your choice.

And you've taken yours, and what is it?

Oh well, my choice is the second. I've got a very great temptation to believe the first. When I look at the fatuous decisions that have been taken by very many in authority, within the Catholic framework, I believe that that is a ... many of them are suicidal. But nevertheless, if I were a historical determinist, I would give it away. The only reason that I'm a Catholic is that I believe that that's what Christ intended to be.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 13