Australian Biography

Bob Santamaria - full interview transcript

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Given that Dr. Evatt was being accused of being a Communist sympathiser, wouldn't being close to the Groups have helped his cause in showing that he wasn't, rather than repudiating them?

Well I thought what he thought, that it was a great advantage to him to have the Industrial Groups obviously thinking well of him because really it led a group of people who would never have voted for him in a fit to consider voting for him. And I think that if it hadn't been for the desperation which was induced by the Petrov Commission, that he would never have done what he did. But underneath ... as I think Hayden points out in his autobiography, underneath Evatt was always and was suffering increasingly from a kind of schizophrenia and I think he could be two people at different times. But certainly, the point is that if the Industrial Groups thought that he was a good thing, it was politically advantageous to him. And just as it was politically advantageous to the Industrial Groups that Evatt should be praising them. Therefore, here, the Petrov Commission was a shot that nobody had anticipated, that led him in a different direction.

But given that the Petrov Commission was making him look more and more like a Communist sympathiser, and pointing that finger out at him, distancing himself from the Groups would only have enhanced that view of him as a Communist. One would have thought that it was a very poor strategy for him to ...

No, it was ... it was a good strategy for a man in a desperate situation who had a good knowledge of history. At that moment, I don't know how many people thought that he was a Communist sympathiser. The case against him was that three or four of his secretaries had those close relationships with the Soviet Embassy. And ... but when he was in a position in which now, as a result of the cross-examination in the Petrov Commission, he was being threatened in his own caucus, and there were two or three attempts to dismiss him as leader. He knew that the tide was running against him and whatever might have happened outside, there was nothing that could have stopped the caucus' attacks on him. Now I think that at that point, in one of those moments of illumination or lunacy, which only a person with strong historical knowledge has, he suddenly ... he realised that he had to get on an entirely new tack. He had to get new forces behind him, to save him. And what he did was, was to go back to the left-wing forces of the Communist Party, because they were the other big force in the Labor movement and the way of engaging their support completely was to attack the Groups. Now, if he attacked the Groups, of course, he would forfeit their support and so he had to have a way in which he could get the support of a lot of people, who had thought well of them. And he knew that the sectarian issue was the issue that he could import into that struggle and that's why he focussed a great deal of his attack on myself personally, because of my name. He knew me quite well by this time. He was apparently thoroughly approving of the line of activity we were undertaking. But as the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, John Douglas Pringle, said at the time to me, he said, 'If your name had been Smith and not Santamaria, he couldn't have got away with it'. But he understood it, and this is where Evatt, the historian or the intellectual, was so clever. He wrote a history of Heffron, the Labor Premier of New South Wales. It's called Australian Labor Leader. It's not a very well-known book, but Heffron was an associate of Billy Hughes at the time of the conscription campaign and Heffron, in his notes, unpublished notes, which Evatt publishes, says that Billy Hughes deliberately attacked Dr. Mannix during the conscription campaign, in order to make a sectarian fight of the conscription campaign. In other words, he would get support, by attacking Catholics that he wouldn't otherwise get, for conscription. And if you look at Evatt's book on Heffron, all of that is quoted in full and Evatt says, at the end of his description, that he wasn't convinced that Hughes had lost votes. You can see that he believed that Hughes gained votes as a result of making conscription a sectarian fight. And I'm quite convinced that he had that in mind when he attacked us, and I think he did say in one press - in one statement - he was quoted as saying that for every Catholic vote he lost by attacking us, he would gain two Protestant votes. In fact, he got only one Protestant vote, and it wasn't enough. I don't know whether that's clear or not to you. It's a bit involved.

Certainly the ... the name Santamaria was used somehow or other to associate with a kind of Spanish Inquisition ...

Exactly, yes. The Amalgamated Engineering Union, which had got back ... fallen back into Communist control published 250,000 copies of a leaflet called Santamaria: Cloak and Stiletto Strategy or something like that. You can see the word 'stiletto'. So that I am quite sure that Evatt had that in mind when he decided to make the attack. He needed Communist support. He had to forfeit our support, but the danger was that he would lose other support in the community, but he thought he could pick it up by making it a sectarian attack.

And what was your response this?

Well, it wasn't very brilliant. I had never been in that situation before and I had never been known publicly or anything like that. It was that really that made my name public for the first time. And, of course, even that was used, that the fact that my name hadn't been public - there was no reason why it should be public - was shown as a sign of sinister, secret conspiracies. If they'd known how many letters I had sent to the press on different things which had duly been thrown into the wastepaper basket without publication, it would have been hard to make that stick. But my response was quite simply that you had to answer, on the defensive, on the back foot all the time, simply trying to bring out facts. But that was not a very rewarding strategy. Now, the real answer came, of course, when he set out to expel from the Labor Party - attacking is one thing, but to expel the leaders of the Industrial Groups. And they were partly concentrated in Melbourne. So what he did was - and I could foresee this - he would get the federal executive of the Labor Party to meet. He would ... he would launch his attack at that executive. He would put an official complaint in against the people, McManus and others, and he would seek their expulsion from the Labor Party. That was clear to me on the day that he attacked. It was clear that that was the only way that he could go. And that was on the 5th and 6th of October. I had to think out, you know, where would you go in that eventuality. You could have two clear choices. I could try to influence the Movement to bow the head, let the storm blow over our heads. That meant that all your friends on the executive would be expelled and you would have proved yourself a coward really. The alternative was, whatever strategy you chose, that you would meet the attack head on in the Labor Party, apart from publicity. And it was those two alternatives that I put to Archbishop Mannix on the night of the 6 of October. 'Which way do you think we ought to go?' and it was there that he said to me, 'No, that's your decision, it's not my decision'. And it was then that the answer really came, because it meant that you'd fight his complaint on the federal executive, you'd fight it at the federal conference, and you didn't know where that would lead you to, in the end, but you'd made up your mind you'd fight. Is that clear?

Why did you decide that way?

Well I decided that for two reasons, and when I say 'I decided', I again go back to the fact that I did submit the matter to Archbishop Mannix, because of my recognition that there were Catholics who had nothing to do with this, who would be damaged. But I also had to discuss it with all my colleagues and they were consulted as fully as I was, in it. But my own ... but if you're asking for my personal view, I thought if you go down the line of bowing your head, they will expel all of those who are of any ability from the Labor Party. And if you want to start again, well they've all gone anyway. Secondly, you would have betrayed your own friends and that wasn't a romantic view. Your followers won't have any time for you either. So you've really got no alternative. You've got to fight.

Was that agreed to by all your colleagues?


There wasn't a dissenting voice?

I rang ... the people that I had to ring were the state secretaries of the Movement in every state, who were the national executive. I rang them on the morning of the 6 October. I said to them that I wanted to get them to get together as many members of the state executive as they could by lunchtime, if they could, that it was an emergency, and to put the alternatives to them, and I wanted a report in the afternoon. I got a report from every state secretary by five o'clock, so that I was able to see Archbishop Mannix at seven-thirty with our mind made up. And there was not a dissenting voice at that point.

Now, you'd decided on this course of action.


What was the next significant event that put this to the test?

The next significant event was the meeting of the federal executive of the Labor Party, which took place in Melbourne. I had envisaged that, and I thought that Evatt couldn't win at that federal executive, basically because I thought that we were six all, and he couldn't therefore carry a resolution expelling my associates. We could stalemate it. What I didn't know was that one of our six had gone overseas and, unfortunately, had either been unable to or had not undertaken ... not looked after the matter, but I think he had been unable to make sure that his proxy was of the same view as himself. So that when that federal executive met in Melbourne, where I thought we would be six all, we were down seven - five, and that seven five was quite critical. I was a little disappointed.

You'd looked after so many details in your time, that was a fairly crucial detail.

Yes, and it's a strange thing. I had no knowledge at all that he had gone overseas and I still don't know how it happened. But it didn't ... that's how it turned out.

But that wasn't entirely the end of the matter, was it?

Oh no, oh no. Then it went right through, I think all the details would be absolutely boring and it would be very difficult for ...

But the ... the ... the place of the Hobart conference?

Yes, well the critical issue, there were many things. That was in December, 1955. The Hobart conference took place in March 19 ..., December '54. The Hobart conference took place in March '55. And I knew that ultimately that's where it would get to and that would be the decisive forum. So I had a look at the numbers there, and I was quite convinced in January that we'd win that because what would happen would be that at Hobart the federal executive, having expelled the Victorian ... the whole Victorian executive, and reconstituted the Victorian Branch of the party, would then send to Hobart those whom they had put in place of the old Victorian executive's representatives. Is that clear? There were six from each state [who] used to go to federal conferences. So they would all turn up at Hobart. We would send our six on the basis that we had been invalidly expelled. Evatt would have his six. Now the convention of the Labor Party in that situation was well established. It had been established at the period when Lang was expelled from the party. It was that both disputed delegations were kept out. The remainder of the conference then voted on which delegation should be admitted and I knew we had a majority. The interesting thing was that one of the two great architects of the numbers - one was Kennelly, the federal secretary of the party, and the other was Clyde Cameron of South Australia. I thought that persons like Cameron and Kennelly would have worked that out as well as I had. But Cameron says, and has published in his reminiscences, that when he got to Hobart he was devastated. He discovered that they were down. And so he had to do something. He says, I think, that he said to Chamberlain, the federal president of the Party, that they couldn't leave it there, he said, 'We would be bloody fools to leave it at that', and they would have been. So what did he do? He simply overrode the convention of the party. He called the federal executive together and the federal executive validated their nominees. Now the federal executive didn't have the authority to do that but they acted on that by main force and therefore they had a majority at the federal conference. And they then proceeded to abolish the Groups and so on. So as I've pointed out to him since - in very amicable discussions, because these are old things - to that point, 'As far as I was concerned, I was perfectly happy that the issue should be decided within the framework of the party's constitutional structures but if you are going to rig a federal conference against us, that's the end. There is no other court of appeal that we can go to. And then we had to consider whether we began a party that ultimately became the DLP'. In other words, in the electorates, to fight a war of attrition, that you might be able to win the conference by using those methods, but you'll never be the government and I said, 'It was your decision to override the constitution that led to the formation of the DLP'.

An alternative strategy would have been to try and take over the federal executive.

Well you couldn't. We were out by that time. There was no hope. See, without the Victorian representatives on the federal executive you'd always be in the minority. No, there was no alternative but either to give in right away, and there were people who wanted to give in, or ultimately to say, 'Rig the conference and we'll start something else. That will mean that you can't be the government, until you come to terms with ... we've got no desire to keep Menzies there, we've got no desire to keep Labor out, we're Labor people. But you can't tear up the constitution and do us over and think that that's the end of the day'.

What was going through your mind as you contemplated setting up a breakaway party?

Well fundamentally, only whether it was possible. It's all very well as a bright idea: cowboys and Indians, if you like. But could you get away with it? Could you get branches of that party in each state? Could you get a sufficient vote behind it? All of those questions were extremely doubtful. I remember the person who became our main opponent, was our opponent at that time, was the auxiliary bishop of Sydney, Bishop Carroll, who was Cardinal Gilroy's adviser. He said to me, he said, 'Who do you people think you are?' He said, 'Lang wasn't able to establish a breakaway party in all states. Do you people really believe that you can do what Lang couldn't do?' and I said to him, 'I don't know. But somebody's got to make the attempt'.

How concerned were you at that stage, because by that stage it was becoming clear that New South Wales, that the ... that the Church in New South Wales was of a different view from the Church in Victoria. How ...

Not only the Church in Victoria, the Church in every other state. Every one. Bishop Carroll and the Cardinal decided to go down that road on their own at that stage.

Why do you think they did that?

Well, there are various reasons which have been given. One reason is ... given, is that they were trying to preserve the existence of the Cahill Government in New South Wales. A second reason that has been given was that this was due to the fundamental hostility, antipathy that had existed between Sydney and Melbourne. They were determined that a Melbourne organisation wasn't going to give the final decision. And the third was that being clerical in mind, they were quite determined that the final voice would be the bishops, not laymen. Now I have thought that out very carefully over the years. I'm quite sure it wasn't the preserve to Cahill Government, because I knew what the Cardinal thought of the Cahill Government, which wasn't much. He'd told me. Secondly, as for the hostility between Sydney and Melbourne, well it's an influence, but not good enough. But the determination that lay people were not going to give final decisions in political matters was good enough and I'm quite sure that that is so. The interesting thing is that Professor Patrick O'Farrell, who I think is emeritus, or still professor of history at the University of New South Wales has written a number of books on the Irish Catholic influence in Australia. He was not in Australia at the time so he wasn't involved. Now he's considered the whole thing, and he has come to the same verdict: that it was the determination to impose clerical control on political patterns, rather than anything else and he says that what happened in Australia was parallel to what happened at the time of Parnell crisis in Ireland, before the turn of the century. I think that's right.

The other suggestion that's been made was that in New South Wales there was a great sense that Catholics were generally doing better in the Labor Party hierarchy than they were in other states, so that there wasn't so much a sense that there had to a resistance to an effort to control the Movement.

No, that really is not so. If you ... after the intervention in Victoria and after the Hobart conference, I had warned my friends in New South Wales that it was inevitable that Evatt would attack them too. And if we had not had the Australian Labor Party anti-Communists, which became the DLP in Victoria, and defeated the Cain Government as a result, they were gone. But if you look at the history of the time, the opposition to Evatt's intervention in New South Wales was as strong there, on the executive, as ever it was in Victoria. There was no sense of 'I'm all right, Jack'. It was only when the Cardinal and Bishop Carroll got to each person, man by man, and were able to swing them personally on a single issue, which was told to me afterwards by one of the leaders in New South Wales, that the opposition began. I have no doubt that at that time the reaction in New South Wales was exactly the same in Victoria.

And what was the single issue?

The single issue was this: the person who had been state secretary of the Movement in New South Wales was a person called Roy Boylan. He was a friend of mine. And Roy Boylan, ultimately faced with the issue went with the Cardinal, as we used to say at the time. Now I didn't again into Roy for about six or seven years. But about six or seven years he came to me in my own office and I was very glad to see him naturally, despite the history, and the discussion got around to the fact of what had persuaded him to play his part in the defection of New South Wales and he said, 'You've got to understand what was put to me'. He said, 'I am a convert', he said, 'I wasn't born a Catholic. And it was put to me quite clearly, to whom was I going to be finally loyal? To the Cardinal or to this layman in Victoria', myself, and he said, 'You can understand in the end I had to go the other way', and I said, 'I can understand'.

So it wasn't only Evatt that was demonising you as a person?

Oh, by that time, once the thing started and Bishop Carroll was really operating very powerfully in New South Wales, I think that the bulk of the Movement in New South Wales were with us until it was put on that basis. That's a very powerful thing to say to a Catholic: 'Are you going to be disloyal to your own Bishop in order to be loyal to a layman in another state?' It's very powerful.

And it was put that way rather than loyal to an archbishop in another state?

Oh no, there was no question of ... well later on they raised the Mannix issue and so on because there were two stories that ultimately ... there were two stories about Dr. Mannix that ultimately gained currency. One was that it was actually his policy and I was simply the executor of the policy. And the other one, when that didn't work out really well - nobody really believed that - was that Archbishop Mannix, who was then - what in 1955 - he must have been about, he was over ninety - that really he was senile and he was in the hands of a Machiavellian layman who was determined to purse his interests, even to the point of splitting the church. So they had five bob each way.

Yes, 'Machiavellian' was a word that came in useful for your opponents.

Well it sits naturally with Santamaria, doesn't it?

Now, tell me about the setting up of the DLP. What actually, in practical terms, had to happen?

Well, we had the basis of the Movement. In Victoria, the Victorian executive had been effectively replaced by the end of February 1955, before the Hobart conference. But the Industrial Groupers, including the Movement, controlled - and it's a long time ago so my numbers may not be exactly accurate - there were under 300 branches of the ALP in Victoria, and the Industrial Groupers, including the Movement, controlled between 250 and 270 of them. So the branches of the ... old branches of the ALP, on the basis that they were loyal to the old executive, which a Supreme Court judgment had said was the valid executive, they simply became the foundation of what was known as the Australian Labor Party Anti-Communist. In April, I think it was, 1955, the Labor Government, the Cain Labor Government, was split on the floor of the house. There was an election, and the Australian Labor Party Anti-Communist put up candidates as well as the ALP in all electorates, and gave its preferences to Bolte. And the result was the defeat of the Cain Labor Government. That was the Achilles Heel in New South Wales, because if that happened in New South Wales exactly the same would happen to the Cahill Government and that led Evatt to pull a back a bit, and take another year before he attacked them. So at that point it became important to start the DLP in New South Wales, what became the DLP. But, of course, they still had a hope of winning in New South Wales and they were resisting ... all of our forces were resisting, and it took another year, pretty well, before Evatt got rid of them, only because he had the Cardinal onside. So once that happened, the question in New South Wales came: do we get another - set up another branch of the Australian Labor Party Anti-Communist? And there was a lot of toing and froing about that as to whether it could be done with the whole of the church against you. One of the people who was most keen that it should be done was John Kerr, who became Governor-General of Australia later on, and he used to be pressing me very strongly that we ought to do something. He was, at that stage, a queen's counsel, who'd appeared in the Ironworkers' case and had been of very great help to Laurie Short. So finally, ultimately, when the Evatt forces had taken over the Labor Party executive in New South Wales, we decided to set up the DLP. We didn't set it up in Queensland, because, while Gair was Premier and friendly to us - he was in government, he controlled the executive there - there was no point in doing anything about that. But I knew that in the end they'd go for him too. They couldn't afford to leave him there. And when they went for him, I think it was in '57, then Gair founded what was known as the Queensland Labor Party. It wasn't in the DLP but ultimately it joined the DLP, so it spread throughout Australia. That's rather boring, isn't it?

Not really, no. Why did John Kerr urge you, do you think?

Well Kerr had been a very strong supporter of the Industrial Groups. [Coughs] And I believed that if we started the DLP in New South Wales he'd join it and there was quite a historic occasion, when Jack Cain had agreed that we'd start the DLP in New South Wales, that I went to Sydney on a Sunday and I saw ... with Jack Cain, I saw John Kerr, Jim McClelland and another person whose name I won't mention because he became a judge of the Supreme Court and he's still alive. And I thought that I was going to give them the liberating news that we were on the march, and I thought that they'd put themselves at the head of the band. But one after another they said, 'No'. Jim McClelland has said that he didn't believe we had any chance. John Kerr's attitude was slightly different. John Kerr told me, many years later, that he didn't come from the same background as us. John Kerr was a Protestant. As long as it was a clear division within the Labor Party, he would have been with it but in New South Wales, where it was very largely Catholic, he just wouldn't have felt at home. And I could understand that too. So he didn't join us. So that's how it happened.

You are a very persuasive person.

No I'm not.

[end of tape]

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