Although the collection and publication of BA Santamaria’s voluminous correspondence under the auspices of the Victorian State Library is an event to be welcomed for the insights it will bring both to Australian biography and political history, it’s also worth pausing to evaluate some of the claims made about his status as a political thinker.

Writing in The Australian, Dennis Shanahan echoes conventional wisdom: “…he was also hugely admired by his supporters and is still considered one of the most influential Australian political thinkers of the 20th century.”

There’s very little evidence to support such a view, and none on show in the material published on the weekend.

Santamaria’s political thought remained frozen in the 30s. Drawing inspiration from French Catholic intellectuals, some of whom flirted with fascism, his vision of Australia’s future was deeply reactionary, characterised by protectionism, moral authoritarianism and fantasies of an ordered largely agrarian society derived largely from 19th century Romanticism. Such political thinking was influential in practice only in the construction of regimes such as De Valera’s Irish Republic, Salazar’s Portugal and Franco’s Spain.

Of interest is the revelation that Santamaria sought to capitalise on what he saw as the disorder of Whitlam’s government by founding a “non-political movement” which might respond to an “emergency” by taking power. These corporatist and semi-fascist fantasies appear to have had little impact, despite Santamaria’s liaison with Malcolm Fraser in the lead-up to the Dismissal.

Santamaria, even after the threat of Communism had passed, never gave up on his dream of founding a morally conservative and economically reactionary party. In reality, the best chance for his “new party” was the attempted amalgamation of the DLP and the National Party in the mid-70s. The attempts he made subsequently to interest right wing Labor groups in coalescing with Tories never had any basis in political reality.

Santamaria’s vision of Australia was always driven by a suspicion of democracy and an alarmist apocalypticism. It has little to teach now in terms of contemporary thought. His enduring legacy is almost entirely destructive. The shift into right wing politics of some Catholics would have happened anyway through sociological and political change. Another political figure whose legacy is ripe for re-evaluation, Dr Evatt, may have done Australia a great service by belatedly ensuring that Santamaria’s political thought was cast onto the margins of Australian politics.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey