Mark Bahnisch is wrong. Bob Santamaria remains a considerable figure in our history.

Santamaria’s political thought may seem alien to Australian ears, but it was firmly founded on Catholic teaching. It stems from Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (“On New Things”) that discussed the relationships between government, business, workers and the church, opposed laissez-faire capitalism and socialism but supported the formation of unions.

It got a fresh lick of paint in 1931, when Pius XI issued Quadragesimo Anno (“In the 40th Year”), to mark the anniversary of Rerum Novarum and recast its message in light of the great depression.

Quadragesimo Anno restated the Church’s support for subsidiarity – the principle that matters that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organisation which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organisation.

Catholic thought still considers subsidiary to be a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom against the centralisation and bureaucracy of the welfare state. Pope John Paul II tackled the subject again in his 1991 encyclical to mark Rerum Novarum’s centenary, Centesimus Annus. The pontiff warned against “a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”

As for the impact of that political thought, well, wasn’t Bahnisch reading the newspapers last month? How could he have missed the fury from Labor’s old guard and unions on the left when Santamaria’s heirs in the DLP won a place in the Legislative Council in Victoria, in the very heartland of the split?

Premier Steve Bracks was forced to defend Labor’s preference policy against fierce criticism from two predecessors, John Cain and Joan Kirner and Electrical Trades Union boss Dean Mighell.

“Bartholomew Augustine ‘Bob’ Santamaria was one of the most reviled people on the Australian political scene at the time of the 1950s split in the Australian Labor Party,” Denis Shanahan wrote in The Australian on Saturday. He clearly still is.

It is pointless to revile anyone who is not influential. Santamaria’s opponents have confirmed his status as a considerable figure in Australian political history.

Peter Fray

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