Australian Biography

Bob Santamaria - full interview transcript

Tape of 13

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Malcolm Muggeridge was astonished to come to your house and discover that the whole family was engaged in watching the football. How important has football been in your life?

Very important. If I could introduce a caricature. I used to live near the Brunswick Town Hall. Fifty yards to the north of the Brunswick Town Hall was St. Ambrose's Church. I used to go to mass there of a Sunday. Less than fifty yards behind was the school, where I had to go every day and about half a mile to the south was the Carlton football ground, and I went every Saturday, and those were the parameters of my life. So does that answer your question?

And at what age did you start going to the Carlton football ground every Saturday?

As far as I can remember - and I don't remember this, my father told me - he took me to my first game in 1921. So that's seventy-five years, seventy-six years ago. So I don't remember that game, but I remember at about that time.

Was your father a Carlton supporter?

Oh, my word. Yes. We don't encourage any other than Carlton supporters in our family.

What are the characteristics of a Carlton supporter, as opposed to a Hawthorn supporter or a Melbourne supporter?

Well, we regard Hawthorn and Melbourne supporters as pansies really. Carlton, Richmond, Collingwood, Essendon, they were the real supporters. I think you'd better rub that out in case I offend 22,000 Hawthorn members or whatever it is.

Would that bother you?

Oh, yes, I don't like to hurt them.

And what is it about football that has this incredible attraction for you?

Well, I want to say that it has much less of an attraction today. I still go every Saturday, but it has much less because it has been taken over by an economic philosophy that I don't like in any aspect of its life. It's been taken over by people who now produce football for television. In other words, it's no longer a game, and the players are no longer really faithful to a club. But originally, what it was, it was part of your local loyalty. The conflict between Carlton and Richmond, for instance, or Carlton and Collingwood, was a matter of the blood, and it was, I think, largely due to the fact that they were all pretty well working class people who used to go, except the Melbourne barrackers, who weren't. And it was a conflict of localities. And that's what I dislike most in what happens today. It's not a conflict of localities any longer. It's a conflict of incorporated companies.

And why does that matter?

Well, I like to labour under the illusion that anybody who put on the Carlton guernsey would, if necessary, die for it. I think it was an illusion, but some went pretty close. [Laughs] I don't believe that anybody would today. Look, it's a tribal thing. It's tribal.

Do you see it as a bit of metaphor for what goes on in the rest of life?

Oh really, you're intellectualising it. It wasn't like that at all. We didn't think those grandiose thoughts about it. It was just that we liked to be there and liked to win. And I still like to win, but it's not the same. A couple of Saturdays ago I saw the Carlton team who've got, I think - and I think most people think - the most aesthetic of the guernseys of all of the football clubs because somebody offered them 200,000 dollars, appear in pastel blue uniform. And I nearly sent back my ticket. And I probably will by the time I finish. In other words, there is no longer any bottom line. There is nothing that you won't do for money.

Did your wife follow Carlton as well?

No. She couldn't ever even understand what it was all about. I tried to persuade her to come to the football with me in the thirties. Carlton hadn't won a premiership in all the time that I'd followed them, from 1921. And we were finally ... in 1938, they were in the Grand Final. And I finally persuaded her to come with me. We were engaged at about that time. Anyway, we went into the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and it was before it had been remodelled as it is at the present moment. But there were still 90,000 people there. It was just ... it was packed to the gills. And so she duly fainted and as she was very light, I picked her up and put her over my shoulder. I looked around for somebody to help. Nobody wanted to even know you. So I took her outside and got some water, and resuscitated her, and then we turned round to go into the ground again, and they'd closed the gates, and Carlton won the premiership. And I didn't see them win the premiership til 1945. [Laughs] It was a great strain on the engaged relationship, I can tell you.

But you did forgive her, but it didn't ever bring her around to wanting to watch football?

Not really, no, no. She was too civilised.

And do you think that's the clue? You think you have to be a little bit uncivilised?

You've got to be, yes, you've got to be either a Celtic tribal or an Italian Mafioso, I think.

You said that you don't see metaphor in it. I heard you make a wonderful description of what it was that you liked about football, which I was hoping you might mention when you talked about how it was really a kind of concept of good and evil, and your side was good. Anyway I don't want to ...

No, well that is true. No, I don't want to exaggerate it. Let's put it into a proper ... into a proper perspective. But one of the incidents in my life that I prize more than any other was that, I think Carlton won the premiership in 1982 or '83 and the following year I was asked by the club to present the guernseys to the new players, and I thought that was the high watermark of my life.

Now, I want to go back and pick up on a few things in telling the story of your life we've sort of missed out on and I need to go right back to your childhood, and ask you what language did you speak in your house?

The first language I ever spoke was the Aeolian dialect, which is a mixture of Italian, Spanish, a bit of French and a bit of Arab, I think, and my parents used to speak that. And that was the very first language I ever spoke. And my mother told me the story of the embarrassment I caused her when I was three years old. We were in a train going from Brunswick into the city and I was talking loudly, as a kid of three would talk, in Italian, and everybody was scowling at me, I understand. And she was trying to hush me down. And she said, 'Look, don't forget these are Australian', and I said to her, 'What does it matter? We're Italians, aren't we?' and she accepted that and said no more. But that was the dialect I spoke. Then of course I spoke English at school. But later in life, in some way I picked up what we call the real Italian. I don't know how, but I did, and the trouble with the lack of familiarity with people now, who belong to the Aeolian - see, all those families are gone - is that I've forgotten a lot of the words in the Aeolian dialect, and I find myself, when I talk to my aunt, for instance, who's over ninety, at a loss for words, because she doesn't speak what we call the real Italian. But I know that better.

Were there many Aeolians in ... in ...

In Brunswick? Oh, I suppose there would have been about a dozen Aeolian families. That was about all there were.

Having acquired proper Italian, did any of this get passed on to your children?

I am sorry to say no. The ... None of them ... none of them actually speak Italian. You can't really, because my wife was Australian, and we used to always speak English naturally and unless you have that familiar background, you don't. One of my daughters studied Italian at the university, and to the great disgrace of the family, failed first year, which we never let her forget. [Laughs] But beyond that, nothing.

How do you feel about Italy?

Last night I saw a film. We had some visitors and we showed them this film. I don't think any of them liked as much as I did, but I've seen it umpteen times. It's called Avanti and it's got Jack Lemmon in it. And I can't tell you the plot, it doesn't matter. But one of the characters says, 'Italy is not so much a country as an emotion'. That's what I feel about it.

What kind of emotion?

Oh, beautiful emotion. I can't think of Verona or of Ischia or Amalfi without wishing I were there.

And as an Italian-Australian, or an Australian of Italian background, how do you reconcile those things? How do you feel about those two aspects of an identity?

There is no problem. I have never felt any problem at all except at one particular moment of my life it was a problem, but I feel if you're going to split yourself up into compartments, I feel aesthetically an Italian. I mean I like Italian music, I like Italian food, I like Italian literature but it has nothing whatsoever to do with your patriotism. I mean you're an Australian and that is it. And of course, you can understand that when Italy entered the Second World War on the other side, it was very difficult. I'm not talking about legalities, I'm talking about the emotions that one felt, but it solves a problem for me. I know who I wanted to win: it was my own country.

Have you ever thought of going back?

Oh well, no. You see I've got too many things tying me to the ground here. I've still, thank God, have eight children. I've got thirty-odd grandchildren, and some great grandchildren, and there's nothing I can do about that. If that were not so, I think I might.

Why would you do it?

Well, look, I ... I have just been there as a matter of fact, only for about six days, but while I come from ... my parents come from the south, and there are some beauties in the south that you really couldn't even dream about. But the cities of the Lombardy Plain are superb. And Verona is really out of this world. But even ... there's a city like Mantua in which Dante was born, and which I discovered that Virgil lived a lot of his life. It's very hard for me to describe, but when I saw that statue of Virgil, and three lines of the Aeneid that I hadn't read since my school days underneath, I just felt this is where I really belong.

And what does Australia mean to you apart from your nationality? How do you feel about Australia?

Well, I'll tell you what I feel about Australia. I think that Australia is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I think that we don't understand how fortunate we are to be born here. We could have been in Africa, we could have been in Rwanda, we could have been born in Yugoslavia, and nobody really realises it or thinks about it. And I think that we've made a complete mess of the country, which was avoidable, and I think we probably will lose it.

How have we made a mess of it?

We've made a mess of it economically, in this sense, that we have pursued policies under governments of both political parties, that unless they're forced on the governments, are absolutely lunatic. Their policies that the economists, of whom I don't count myself one, thank God, would call deflation. And anybody who studies the history of the Great Depression knows that what was fundamentally wrong was the deflationary policies: cutting and cutting and cutting. And this is what we're doing today. The result is that we haven't got eight per cent unemployed, as the statistician tells you. He defines a person being employed as one who works one hour a week. That person is employed. The truth is, that among the unemployed and the underemployed there are fifteen per cent. And we will soon rise to twenty per cent, who will be on the outer edges of Australian society. And we when I see Liberal and Labor members of parliament preening themselves, and talking about the wonderful record we have with inflation and so on, I'm driven to rather primitive reactions.

And why will we lose it?

Well, you have got to look at it strategically. We are 10,000 miles away from London, and we're 10,000 miles away from Washington. We are of no strategic importance to either of them. We now have independent powers. You've got Japan with 120 million people. We've got eighteen million. You've got China with over a billion. You've got India with a billion. You've got Indonesia with 250 million, I think it is. It is inconceivable, historically, that one or other of those powers looking at this country, that has got enormous agricultural and mineral wealth still, and can't exploit it, which is exporting its capital overseas for investment instead of developing it, that they're going to let that continue to happen, while they are under the pressure of population which they have. And what's more, I don't think we deserve to hold it under those circumstances. But I hate to think of the alternative.

So, what would be your scenario for what would happen?

Well, you know scenarios are ridiculous. I mean, because you're just simply imagining things, aren't you?

Yes, well imagination has its place.

One positive scenario is this: in the north-west of Australia ... First of all I've got a friend who was with me at school. He's one of Australia's most distinguished soldiers. He's now retired. He's as old as I am. He lived in Western Australia for nearly ten years. He headed the Australian Expeditionary Force into Vietnam, the first one. He said it would take 400 troops to take Western Australia and you could do nothing about it. And that's true. Now, the north-west of Australia, up in the Fitzroy and in the - what's the other one?

Ord.

... the Ord, has got I think half of the water supplies of Australia. The mineral resources are endless, and the agricultural resources are endless. Now, Indonesia is only on the other side of the water. Now, that's one scenario. And there's nothing you can do about it, simply because nobody wants to do anything about it. And I don't like that. I mean I think that this country is so wonderful in its wealth and in its beauty and so on, that for us to surrender it, as we are, seems to me to be a crime.

So to ask your own question ...[crew cough] So to ask your own question, what would you do about it?

Well, it's a bit late, isn't it? I mean you don't wait until six o'clock in the morning to ask what you're going to do the next day. But the first thing that you would do - acting on the assumption that time will be given - the first thing that you would have to do, would be to put the economy into order because unless the economy is in order, you cannot develop a defence structure that will defend your country. You've got to put the foundations in first. And to put the economy in order, you would have to pursue identically the opposite policies to those that are being pursued today, which sometimes are called Keynsianism, which sometimes are called expansionist and so on. And it's not difficult to do that, as long as you are ready to use the credit resources of the country to finance your development, without borrowing at ten per cent. It is the rate of interest on which we tried to found all of our development that makes it impossible to develop the country and there is no more reason why we should build a ... you know, when what used to be known as the transcontinental railway was built, between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie, to link up the two railway systems, from 1913 to '17, the Commonwealth Bank, which was founded in 1911, advanced the money to do that at one per cent interest. And got its money back. And there is no reason at all why you should do any more than that. But the banking interest in Australia has erected the fantasy that they are entitled to expand credit as much as they like, at whatever rate of interest they like, while the Reserve Bank representing the wealth of the community mustn't do that at all, because that's inflationary. Of course, that's a superstition. But, of course, they've now got all their consultancies and God knows what, where they pay people between 100,000 and 200,000 a year to develop these, what the Marxists call the superstructure of ideas, to justify their deprivations.

Given that ... given that you analysed that so clearly: the national interest is not served by the economic policies that both sides are adopting, why do you suppose they're adopting them?

Well, that's the celebrated sixty-four dollar question. I have always rejected conspiracy theories of history, because I don't think there are conspiracies, although you don't know, and therefore the idea of a wealthy bankers' cabal who is enforcing policies on us, I normally reject that. But if the rate of interest at which ... with which we hamper this country, which means that if you start a small business you'll pay thirteen per cent. If you go on the land you'll pay fifteen per cent. You can't succeed at that rate. If you want to borrow money for commonwealth bonds, you'll pay nine per cent to ten per cent. All of that ultimately is decided in Wall Street, it's not decided here. And it's enforced throughout the world by the International Monetary Fund. And that talks of sound economics and so on, and to me it's a great nonsense. Now, I find it very difficult to believe that neither Mr. Howard nor Mr. Keating can see that. It is impossible. And one can only come to the conclusion that they are coerced into. And I can see what the weapon of coercion is. We have now allowed ourselves to borrow just under 200 billion dollars abroad and the rate, the interest volume is altogether about eleven billion a year. And if you tried to break free of that - and there are some ways in which you can do it - you'd be afraid that the existing loans would be pulled out quickly and your currency would collapse. It would be worth facing, because there's no way out in what we're doing.

And you would take that risk?

Yes I would, doing a lot of other things as well.

What other things?

Well, one thing is this: you have got what are officially recognised as just under a million unemployed. There are actually much more than that. But, what happened at the time of the Depression in the United States, when you had a similar thing and Roosevelt came to power, was that he immediately began a major programme of public works, which he financed at very low interest rates, in order to put people to work. We've got a necessity for public works in this country, all over the country: ordinary roads and so on. But for instance, the north-west. For instance, the linking of the Clarence to the inner inside river system in Australia. All of these things can't be done, because you can't afford to pay the interest on them. Well you could very easily, to begin with, employ three or four hundred thousand people on those things. We organised that sort of thing at the time of the war through the Allied War Council, of which Theodore was the first chairman. That can be done. But it won't be done unless you can destroy this monumental delusion that the rate of interest has got to be fixed by overseas bankers.

And then once it was done, we could privatise them, couldn't we, and sell them off?

Well, I hope you're speaking personally. I wouldn't.

[Laughs] Yes, well I ... so what do you think ...

Privatisation is ... let's be perfectly clear on it. Privatisation is simply a technique whereby the mortgagees enter into possession. In other words, the people who've lent us the money, and who've got documents to verify it are no longer satisfied with the documents. They're afraid of a financial crash too. So they want the real thing. That's all that privatisation means. And they're pursuing that policy throughout the world. All of the talk about greater efficiency and so on is nonsense. Of course you can have greater efficiency. You sack a third of your work force and you'll get greater productivity. All you've done is to transfer the cost of keeping those people from their work to social services, which strikes me as, you know, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

One of the objectives of the National Civic Council was to do something about getting aid for the Catholic school system. How did you go about that, and could you tell me the story of state aid in Australia?

Well, I'd better begin with a corrective about your question. It wasn't to get aid for the Catholic school system, it was to get recognition of the claim to aid of all independent schools. I never believed that there was ... it was either possible or desirable to distinguish between the Catholic schools and the other independent schools. That of course had a difficulty, simply because the Catholic school system was very like the state school system, in the socio-economic group that it catered for. They were generally working class or lower middle class, and, of course, to say that you were aiming to get equal recognition for all independent schools meant that you had to take in Melbourne Grammar and Scotch and Shaw and places like that. And, of course, quite a number of people would say that's quite unfair, those people didn't need aid. And my argument was that the relationship should be between the state and the child. It had nothing to do with the socioeconomic condition of the parents. And if, of course, that money went to very wealthy people, well the state was entitled to reef it off them in ordinary income tax. You would simply devise a system where you would add endowments and so on to their normal income and so you could get to a just situation in that way. So with that framework, and that's quite fundamental to the approach that I had, the position that was taken by the Menzies government in the later part of the fifties - this was after the split - was basically - and I think Menzies said it on one occasion - that it was constitutionally impossible for the Commonwealth to provide for schools. That schools were - and education - really belonged to the states and therefore the Commonwealth was not in it. I thought that's a very good lawyer's argument, but it's not like that really. I ... there was no political device that you could use in order to bring about the solution of the state aid problem. Basically, what the DLP had to trade was its preferences. Its preferences determined who went into government. And the preferences had to be given according to a set of principles and the principle was that you would do nothing for Labor until it got rid of its Communist, or pro-Communist associations. That was the fundamental principle. The preferences were not to be traded for state aid. Of course a lot of people didn't believe that, but it was fundamental. Even if you attempted to do that - and I can say that I never was - you would lose your support. You can't go to people and say that the Communist issue is the main issue, and now let's trade that away for money. So [coughs] the thing lay dormant. The first time in which some opportunity appeared was in 1963 - oh, in 1961. There had been an election, I think at the beginning of 1961 and there had been an inflationary situation, and the Menzies Government, despite the DLP preferences, got the fright of its life. It got ... had a majority of one or two, no more than that, and it could have easily been destroyed if a member died and you had a bi-election. Because the tide was moving against it. And it was obvious that the DLP preferences might not help it. So, I thought to myself well, there is an argument here to talk to them about it. Before talking to them, which happened to be the Federal Treasurer, Mr. Holt, I spoke to Archbishop Mannix and said that I would like to put up a case to Holt. And my case - he agreed with that - and my case was this: I said to Mr Holt, whom I actually knew, 'Look, I am not here to say to you that the DLP preferences would ever be traded for state aid, they never would be, but you're in a very difficult situation and so are we. The tide is moving against you. There'll be a temptation on the part of DLP voters who come from an ALP background, [coughs] to be tempted by the economic situation to thrust ... not to follow the ticket. Now if you want to consolidate that, my view is that while I couldn't guarantee it, if you do something about state aid, that's also very dear to them, and you will consolidate it. It mightn't be good enough, but it's a sensible thing to do'. Holt listened. He actually gave me the impression of a person who was quite poleaxed, because he got the blame, as treasurer, for what had happened to the government, and he said that he would consider it and he'd talk to Menzies about it, and he'd come back to me. He didn't come back for a very long time. But then he asked me to see him and I saw him on a couple of occasions. Finally, as we got to ... it was in 1963 when the next election took place, there had been a lot of spectacular sort of events: the Goulburn Catholic school strike, where the Catholic schools were closed in Goulburn, simply because they couldn't accommodate them, the financial pressure was too great, and a lot of press attention had been given to the question. Anyway, he discussed the matter with me once again soon after that, and then nothing seemed to be happening. But on the eve of the 1963 election - and that took place, I think it was on the 22 November, give or take a day - he got in touch with me and asked me to see him. And he said that he'd discussed the matter again with Menzies, and Menzies intended to make some gesture - that's all that he said - and that I could tell Archbishop Mannix that something would be done to acknowledge the principle of state aid in the Liberals policy speech. But it was very interesting. I spoke to Archbishop Mannix about it, before the end of October as far as I remember, and it was lucky that I did. I could see that he was naturally delighted, because he had campaigned for state aid ever since he came to Australia in 1913, and he said, 'I have worked all my life in Australia for this. But in the end it's not due to my efforts, it's due to the efforts of the men', - was the phrase he used - by which he meant the DLP and so on. What was lucky about it was that I told him this before the end of October and he died on November 6, before Menzies had given his policy speech. So if I had not mentioned it he wouldn't have ever known. So he was quite happy about it. He died. And Menzies, in the policy speech, said that he would grant Commonwealth aid for the erection of science blocks in the independent school system, and there was one or two other minor things. Now the science block issue was not a very big issue, although it was becoming big, because there was a lot of emphasis being placed on the development of scientific studies in the schools, and this was very expensive expansion. The big schools like Scotch and Melbourne Grammar, they could have afforded it quite easily. But the Catholic schools would have been run out of business on that. So by giving the science block concession, he was doing something. So he duly mentioned that in that in his federal policy speech. I didn't get to know Menzies until many years later, until after he'd - well, it was some years later. He resigned in 1966. This was '63. And I ... without exaggerating it, I got on to fairly familiar terms with him, and on one occasion I said, 'How did you reconcile your grant of state aid for science blocks with your earlier statement that it was beyond the Commonwealth's power to', and he said, 'There are some things better not discussed'. And so that was the end of that. So the principle had been conceded and it was a matter of trying to expand the principle. To me, the vital expression of the principle would be if Commonwealth and or State Governments gave per capita aid, so much per year, towards the education of every child in the independent school system, Catholic and Protestant. And there seemed to be not much chance of that. The chance developed though - it just shows that chance does play a part - in 1967, four years later. In 1967 there was a state election in victoria. Previously, there had been a friendly-unfriendly relationship between Bolte's Liberal Party, which was kept in power in Victoria exclusively by the DLP preferences. I don't think Bolte's Liberals ever got more than thirty-six per cent of the vote, or thereabouts. And in the meantime there had been a quarrel of some sort between Bolte and the Country Party, which was under the leadership of a man called Moss. Moss was a very engaging man. His trouble was that he bent the elbow a bit and I think this might have had something to do with it. Bolte said that he was going to run the campaign on the his own. He didn't want the assistance of the Country Party or anything like that, and suddenly, when there was a division between the Liberal Party and the Country Party, who had worked in coalition, in effect, I saw that there was an opportunity, because if ... the DLP could never give its preferences to the ALP until they changed their policy on the Communist issue. But if you gave your preferences to the Country Party, rather than to the Liberals, it had an extraordinary effect. Bolte had a majority of twenty, as it was, but if you gave the preferences to the Country Party who were now his enemies, you could reduce Bolte's majority from twenty to one. And of course, that was a fate worse than death, because he would then be very much in the hands of the Country Party. So it was allowed to be leaked to the press that the DLP was thinking of giving its preferences to the Country Party, which avoided giving preferences to the ALP. Now, you kept your principles, but of course Bolte's situation would change quite radically. I forget on what day this was leaked to the press, but Bolte woke up immediately. And he got in touch with a very close friend of mine, who was the leading Catholic in Victoria, Sir Michael Chamberlain, and he was absolutely shaken by this proposal. So he said to Sir Michael Chamberlain that the matter had to be discussed and it had to be discussed within twenty-four hours.

[end of tape]

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