Australian Biography

Bob Santamaria - full interview transcript

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What kind of a paper was Freedom?

Well, it was originally what you'd call a broadsheet, about the same size in superficial covering as the Sun News Pictorial, as it used to be. It was about eight or twelve pages, I forget which it was, and it was kept like that for many years. Later on, we transformed into magazine size, which it is today, although it is called now News Weekly. And as to content, it was ... the central factor about it was the political and trade union reporting and it was very detailed. I think it had better, more detailed reporting than any trade union newspaper in Australia because we had very good sources of information from people who were active in all the unions. So that was what it was originally built on, and then later you added film reviews, philosophic articles, and so on ... foreign affairs.

But it's primary purpose was to motivate people, so it had that ...

No, to inform them rather than motivate them. You see, they didn't know what was happening in the union movement. The media didn't report it, or in general if they did report it, they reported it from the viewpoint of those who held them - those who held the unions. Otherwise they wouldn't get access to it. In other words, it paid them to have dealings with Thornton and J. J. Brown and so on. So you would get a totally uniform left-wing picture of what was happening in the unions. It was important for us to give the other picture.

Was it popular?

At its peak, in 1955, we used to sell 30,000 copies a week. Then after the vicissitudes of the Labor split and so on, it, the circulation varied. It continues today and it's got a page circulation of 12,000.

That's a long running paper, isn't it?

Well it started in 1943 and we're now in 1997, so it's fifty-four years.

And it's continued with the same sort of reportage, or has it changed its character?

No, it's changed its character basically because the nature of our interests have changed. The clearest example is the immediate one. When Gorbachev wound up Communism as an international movement in 1991, the emphasis that we used to give to Communism in international affairs naturally was no longer relevant. Different problems were developing. From the beginning of the sixties, the problems that really began to develop in all western countries were problems of what I call the cultural revolution, which showed itself in the field of population, the field of feminism, and the field of environmentalism and so on, so that if you felt that there was something that needed to be done and that you could achieve in those areas, it was important that the paper followed where the interest was. And so that's what has fundamentally happened.

So in setting up the Movement you had organised what you might ... what they'd call these days your human resources, and you had organised a voice for the Movement through the paper. What did you do about finance?

Well, the finance came in two ways. When the Catholic bishops said that they would support the effort that we were making in this field, if I remember rightly, they made an allocation of 10,000 pounds a year. But I suppose that to run everything - and here I'm guessing, because I don't remember - but you would be up for fifty or sixty thousand a year, then in those days: pounds, not dollars. And you had to go and get that yourself. And so side by side with the actual formation of branches in different districts, you would run financial appeals in those districts. Your members would get their friends and those who couldn't help you in an organisational sense would help in a financial sense. And we've had to do that ever since. We ... The financial support that we got from the church, at the time of the split, when there was a split in the ranks of the Catholic bishops as well, in the end we decided to go ahead on our own. We didn't want to have any responsibility in that regard, and we've had to raise all of our own money ever since.

How did you succeed with the money? Did you find that a really arduous task?

Arduous is hardly the word. We ... well when you look back really it was quite remarkable that you succeeded at all. It's ... you look at the movements that the Keating Government financed here in Australia, whether it was the feminist movement or the environmentalists, or the union education things. They were given millions of dollars, you know, of public money. We have never got a penny of public money. We've had to do it ourselves. And we still have to do exactly what we did then, at a time when the world situation has changed completely. While Communism was a persistent threat, it was much easier to get financial support, because people had all sorts of reasons why they wanted to oppose that. Today, with a different and much more varied interest, it's much harder.

When you were able to raise the money, did you invest it carefully?

No, we didn't invest it at all. [Laughs] We needed it from week to week to keep going. There was no possibility of investing.

So you've done all of this without capital. How did you start a newspaper, the Freedom newspaper at the beginning without capital?

Well it was very simple. I went to my father and I said to him that we were going to start this paper, but we didn't have any money and he said, 'How much do you want?' I said, 'I want 700 pounds, but I'll hand it back to you', so he gave me the 700 pounds. He never expected to get a penny back, but I paid him back in two years. So that was how that started.

How did he have 700 pounds?

Oh well, he, you know ... he had ... well no, he was still working. Yes, well he was working many years after that, but you know, in an Italian family, savings are very important and he had it and he was very generous about it.

And being a little older with the family grown ...

Oh yes.

... he was able to accumulate a little and then gave it to you.

Well he didn't give it all to me. That was ... you know, he had that and he gave it to me.

Was he surprised when you paid it back?

Yes, well yes, I think he was. I think he was crazy to give it to me, but nevertheless he did.

And so you ... you were very busy with all of this. Now for somebody who ... who said that he was a boy who didn't really like to work, you hadn't chosen the best of jobs. You must have been working extraordinarily hard at this time.

Well, I was working, yes. You know, I hadn't ... I didn't choose to work. I mean, you chose to go down a particular line and found that you had to work.

How did you manage it? I mean, how did you organise yourself to do this? Did you work long hours in the office, or what was your day like?

Oh well, I suppose as far as office hours were concerned your day was like anybody else's. I mean it would be nine to about six o'clock, but you'd have to work every night. All your organising work, apart from central administration, was done at night because basically the only time that you could get at people was when they were home. So I would say that you did five or six nights a week out of the seven, and the real problem of that was that after about 1940 our family began to come and naturally my wife was minding children and I believed that it was very important for me to help and so we made very clear choices. We realised that our time was going to be ... had to be shared. You had to raise a family, I had to do my work. She had her work at home. And the third thing that most people had was a bit of social life. We realised we couldn't do that. We didn't, on the one hand, have the money, and secondly, we wouldn't have had the time. If you decided to see your friends a couple of times a week, you couldn't do your work. So we decided we would rather be together and do the other two things.

And that worked out for you?

It was very hard for her, very hard, because we had a large family, and I don't know how many women could have done it. Which is amazing to me, because she was, she was certainly not a very robust woman. I remember she weighed herself on the day that we were married. She weighed exactly seven stone. So from that sort of background, I really have to say, that just as in all of my work, you see this session is personal and you're talking about me, but it gives you a totally wrong picture if you think that I did this. In my work there were very many people who were critically important. The secretary of the Movement was a man called Norm Lauritz, who would have become, he would have become manager of one of the largest agricultural companies in Australia, but he chose to come. There was a man like Frank McManus. There were many like that and their contribution was just as much as mine. And in our family, well, her ... it was my wife's work. So if you like I was a presiding genius, who lived off everybody else.

You started out in the Movement as deputy leader, didn't you?

No, I was in charge of the Movement from the moment it began.

From the moment it began.


Right, right. Wrong fact there. And so those were people that worked with you in a supportive capacity. Do you think that both at work and at home, a lot of it had to do with common purpose, the fact that you had agreement about where you were going?

Oh yes, it was ... without that, we could never have done anything. Without that common purpose, that sense of shared values and ideas, it would have been a waste of time to try anything. That's still fundamental.

Now you had as the target of the Industrial Groups, the ensuring that the union movement was taken away from the Communists, and to a large degree that was successful, wasn't it?

Yes, it was. The turning point ... there were certain turning points. I realised in the middle of forties that we might be able to, in the end, out-organise the Communists. I wasn't sure of that. But it didn't matter much if they counted the ballots, because they rigged the ballots and so you had to get clean ballots legislation, which we ultimately persuaded the Chiefly Government to begin, and then Menzies expanded it. Then secondly, I realised that as long as you were open to attack on the basis that you were largely Catholic and therefore open to sectarian attack, you had to get the support of the Labor Party. So that the aegis of the fight ... you would be under the aegis of the Labor Party through the Industrial Groups. The first thing was got in about '45 or 46, the clean ballots. The second thing was about the same time, the Industrial Groups, supported by Labor and really the wins ... We won in a lot of small unions, but the big unions were the ironworkers, the engineers and so on, the miners. The Communists pulled the miners' strike in July-August 1949, but they'd had two years of almost continuous striking. Right down the eastern seaboard from '47 to '49 and there was a very strong consciousness by this time, of the Communist problem. Well once the miners' strike was beaten, and following on that, the Industrial Groups won the northern district of the Miners' Federation, then Laurie Short's work in the Ironworkers' came to fruition in '51, when the court decided that there were false ballot papers and so on, put in. And there was a pretty wholesale collapse on the Communist side from, I would say, '51 to '53.

And that put you in a very strong position, didn't it?

Very strong position, yes.

So what happened ...

But don't forget ...

... with that position?

Well don't forget that you're in a strong position when you won, and everybody - not everybody - but a number of people have said and have written, 'Well why did you continue?' The fact that you continued showed that you had other objectives. But of course, the point is, having won, if you pulled out, they'd win next year. It's a ridiculous proposition. You have to maintain an organisation as long as there is an attack. And really, that attack lasted until the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties in different ways. But a number of opponents said, 'Well having won, you remained in being, you were really after control of the Labor Party', because just as the control of the unions would give the Communists control of the Labor Party, if the Industrial Groups controlled the unions, they'd control the Labor Party. Well, there's no doubt at all about that. I mean who wins the unions - it's less so today - controls the Labor Party, and the question that you had to face was, if you went down that line in order to defend your victories in the unions, what did you do with your influence in the Labor Party? And of course that became the great issue at the time of the split.

And what was your answer to that question?

My answer to that question is quite simple. All the people who were members of the Movement, and people like Laurie Short and like Lloyd Ross and others who were in the Industrial Groups, were what you would call today, old time Labor Party members. There was a Labor Party philosophy. The Labor Party philosophy had been an amalgam of the efforts of left-wingers like Lloyd Ross's father, Catholics like Scullin and Calwell and so on. There was a Labor Party ethos. It was working class and lower middle class. And my ... I had no real problem, we continued. That's what the sort of party that you would dedicate yourself to maintaining. Not what it is today, when it's a party of the more or less academic middle class. And that's why they, in the last election, they lost 600,000 votes. So that was my answer.

You've said that you were conscious of the fact that you had to deal with the need to keep ballots clean, so that the Communists wouldn't rig, and you did that through legislation. And that the other thing that you had to do was to make sure that you were, as it were, legitimised as a non-sectarian force by your association with the Labor Party leadership. Can we talk now a little bit about your relationship with the Labor Party leadership. First of all, what was Arthur Calwell's relationship to the Movement?

Well in the very early stages when the Movement was formed at the beginning of the forties, Arthur Calwell was one of the people who wanted to bring it into existence and I would say that from 1941 to 1944 I thought I was on a very friendly and confidential basis with him. He was a Bert Cremean's close friend and I used to discuss matters with him as I would ... he wasn't a member of the Movement, with any member of the Movement. Around about '44 his attitude changed. I thought that it changed because I didn't have the same attitude as he did to the referendum on Commonwealth powers. I don't know whether that was '44 or '46. It might have been '46. He wanted, and the Labor Party wanted, the transfer of sixteen powers belonging to the states to the Commonwealth. I was in favour of that, not that it mattered whether I was in favour of it or not. But we used to write along that way in News Weekly as it was then. But we said we wanted a guarantee that there would be no industrial conscription. In other words, that in pursuit of an economic plan, you wouldn't compulsorily call up men as they had been in the Allied Works Council during the war and send a man living in Melbourne up to Darwin. Calwell's attitude was that was no good to him: he didn't want any conditions. And from that moment he became quite hostile and it became quite difficult at the end. His secretary, Jack Cremean, who was Bert Cremean's brother, told me that I was mistaken, that actually his antipathy to me began much earlier than that but I wasn't aware of that. So my relationships with him until about '45-'46, whenever that referendum was, were I thought, perfectly friendly.

Did he offer any actual material help to you when ... for example, any practical matters that you needed to do?

No, not really, but he did do one thing that was very important. During the war, you couldn't start new papers, because of newsprint controls and therefore we couldn't have started Freedom which became News Weekly. Well he was a main factor in making, bringing representations to the government that we should be given a newsprint licence and I was very grateful to him for that.

Did you ever reconcile with him?

I wanted to, but he didn't want to. I have told this story before, that I found it quite a shattering thing really. He hadn't spoken to me for a number of years, and he was quite hostile and I understood that because he gradually became opposed to the Industrial Groups and he adopted an opposition line to us, within the Labor Party, which is perfectly legitimate. He had a different idea. But although we had not spoken for a number of years, he had a young son, and whether he was nine or eleven of age I forget, but this young boy got leukaemia and died, and not long after that I ran into Arthur Calwell in Robertson & Mullins bookshop, and I knew it was taking a risk, and I went up to him and I said, 'I know that you don't want to talk to me, but I want to say to you that I understand what you're going through and I really am sorry', because I had my own children. And I was amazed. He said, 'I don't want sympathy from you', and I knew how deep it was. And it was just like that. I think about him, it was a great misfortune, because in many ways he was a very considerable man. He would have made a good prime minister.

Do you think that it was difficult for him having decided to be against the Movement, and being himself a Catholic, that he was perhaps torn internally ...

Yes, I think he ... I think he was.

... and he projected that feeling on to you?

I think so. I think that there was another aspect to it and I'm not sure about this. He had been, during ... He was older than I was. During the conscription period he had been a very loyal supporter of Dr. Mannix, and I think he idolised Dr. Mannix and I think that as he went into public life and got into the Curtin ... or the Chifley Cabinet, and he was away, and as I got to know Dr. Mannix better, and became quite close to him, not consciously - it just happened - I think he resented that. But I may be wrong, but I think it's right.

There were a lot of people at that time who were very torn in their feelings, especially Catholics who weren't part of the Movement. [Santamaria: Yes] Do you think that people who were Catholics, who weren't part of the Movement felt a little bit like second class Catholics?

I think ... I don't know how many of those there were. I really believe that there's a difference between what you call practising and non-practising Catholics. I think that the great majority of practising Catholics were pro-Movement. I think. We didn't take a poll to prove that, but one of the things that I was conscious of was that when Evatt attacked us, and precipitated the split in October 1955, I knew that this was going to be as big as conscription and the conscription campaign, and in the conscription campaign a lot of Catholics were very badly hurt: dismissed from their jobs and so on. And I thought it could be the same. And while I could have taken the Movement down the particular line of resistance and to ... in which it ultimately went, I realised that a lot of other people could be hurt in this, and I remember saying to Dr. Mannix on the night that Evatt attacked us, 'This is going to be the problem. Others are going to be hurt if we go down the line of resistance and so while it ought to be our decision, I'd rather you took the decision, because you represent them, I don't'. And he wouldn't do that. He said, 'No, you have got to work out what you're going to do yourselves. You make the decision'. We argued for over an hour. And in the end he insisted. I had consulted all my associates, and we had to make the decision. And I remember Dr. Mannix saying, 'I want you to remember that you made the decision, but now having done that, I want you to know that I would have made exactly the same decision'. But it was after, not before. But the point that I'm trying to make is that I understood the position of those who might be injured and who had no responsibility for what we were doing.

Calwell, succeeded by Evatt as ... So you were confronted by ...

No, it was the other way round. The other way round

Sorry, sorry, we'll start that again. With Dr. Evatt as leader of the ... of the Labor Party ... no before that. Sorry I really am thrown. Let me get this succession right. What was your relationship with Ben Chifley, and what did you think ...

I never had any relationship with Ben Chifley, I never met him. I admired him, because I think he was a great prime minister. I don't think that he was sympathetic to us, until in 1949, at the time of the miners' strike, he realised what the Communist Party was trying to do to his government, which was to destroy it, and then he became strongly anti-Communist in his public statements. But I don't feel that he had much sympathy for what we were doing. And on the other hand, although I didn't know him, I had a high regard for him. But I didn't know him.

When Dr. Evatt became leader, what was your first contact with him?

Well I had none. I certainly was out of sympathy with ... [INTERRUPTION]

When was your first contact with Dr. Evatt?

I met Dr. Evatt in 1953 at a function. He had been leader of the Labor Party, I think, since 1951, when Chifley died. This function was in the Exhibition Building in Melbourne. There was a reception given to two cardinals by the Catholic archdiocese of Melbourne, and there were 25,000 people there that night. And I had to move the reception, a vote as it were, and that was supported by Casey, who was Minister for External Affairs, and Evatt. And afterwards he came up to me and introduced himself and said, 'We must talk', and so on. You know, I thought I can put that on the long finger. In 1954 - I think that was the year of the Queen's visit to Australia - I got a phone call from his ... one of his secretaries called Albert Grundeman that the great man wanted to see me, and he would be in Melbourne, and I didn't want to see him. So I discussed it with Dr. Mannix who said I couldn't refuse an invitation by the leader of the Opposition. So I did meet him at the Windsor Hotel, and we had a very long discussion and I was confirmed in my view that I'd rather not have met him.

What was it about him that made you feel that?

Well simply because I didn't believe him. I found him ... he was a very strange man. You see his ... while he was not ... I think, he was not a Communist or anything like that, he had always been on the left-wing side and I regarded him with a bit of suspicion. But when I got into this discussion with him, nobody could have been more supportive of every Movement attitude. When he came to power, which he thought would be soon, he would solve the Communist problem in forty-eight hours. He would introduce legislation that would put all union elections on the one day and make them compulsory voting, which he couldn't do. And by doing that, he said, 'Once you bring the mass of unionists into the vote that'll be the end of them'. And then he was very keen on my plan of land settlement and he promised strong financial support for that. [Laughs] He said to me ... oh he was going to solve the problem of state aid, and he said, 'Well now, I will need people in my Cabinet who will be strong for these positions and can defend them when I move in this direction'. He said, 'Would you have any particular people in mind?' and I said, 'The one that I'd have most in mind was Stan Keon'. I said, 'He's outstanding'. 'Yes', he said, 'He could be Prime Minister of Australia'. So, you know, it was a feast of love and I remember going home to my wife that night and I said, 'For the first time in my life I've met a man without a soul'. I knew that if he had views they were the opposite but he said all of this with the greatest sort of sincerity.


Well he wanted Industrial Group support in case he became leader of the Labor Party and, of course, it paid us that a man like Evatt should be saying that the Industrial Groups were good things. To have Calwell saying it - well Calwell's support could always be dismissed that he was a Catholic and it was really fraternal feeling. But nobody would suspect Evatt of fraternal feeling. So it really paid us to have Evatt there, rather than Calwell. And that is why the attack on us, except for one reason, was quite irrational on his part. If you were to talk to one of his members then who became a minister in the Whitlam Government, Clyde Cameron, Clyde Cameron says, and he will repeat it to you, that if Whitlam [Evatt?] had won the '54 election or the '55 election - well, the '55 election was after the split - if he'd won the '54 election he would have been in a position where he would have had to do anything that we really asked him to do and therefore he must have been desperate in '55 when he attacked.

And do you believe that it was the loss of that election that changed his attitude?

Oh no, his attitude had changed. Oh the '54 election? No, he said that it was. He said that we set out to defeat him in the election, which was crazy. It was important to us that he be there, and important if he became prime minister, that he be there. No, what ... the way he changed was that the attack that he was brought under as a result of the Petrov Royal Commission, where it turned out that three of his secretaries - Grundeman was one, Allan Dalziel was another, Fergan O'Sullivan was I think his news man - that they had all had contacts with the Soviet Embassy. Now I'm not saying guilty contacts. I don't know whether they were guilty or innocent but it was blazoned in the paper and the fact that the leader of the Opposition would have on his staff three people who'd had relationships with the Soviet Embassy was really death to his political ambitions and he was then immediately brought under attack in the Labor Party caucus. And again and again they tried to get rid of him. But that wasn't us. I didn't want to get rid of him. I was ... well by that time, of course, a lot of other things had come into it, but it paid us to have a person like Evatt there.

[end of tape]

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