A review essay of B.A. Santamaria, A Most Unusual Man by Gerard Henderson (Miegunyah) and While We Were Young and Foolish: A Memoir by Greg Sheridan (HarperCollins).
When Bob Santamaria was in the final hours of his life, he was visited at his deathbed by the then-prime minister, John Howard. Such a visit was inevitable. Howard’s hero, Robert Menzies, had been kept in power for 16 years by the Labor split, the result of a process Santamaria had put in train. Howard himself had won power by campaigning against the “elites” and “political correctness”, a campaign made possible by the culture war staged by the vast array of right-wing front groups that Santamaria had founded, from the Australian Family Association to the Council for the National Interest. And a favoured son of Santa’s, Tony Abbott, was by that time a rising star in the Liberal Party and spoken of as a future prime minister. Proper respect was being paid.
And yet the visit itself can be seen as sadistic, because the truth was that B.A. Santamaria loathed John Howard, seeing in the “new right” Anglican/Methodist suburban solicitor the embodiment of a certain type he had come into politics fighting: the business class, the representative of the Chamber of Commerce, a sycophant by nature, who substituted the Crown and cricket for a belief of any depth. Whatever Santa’s sins, if he was right about a beneficent God, he had surely slipped into unconsciousness before the Rodent hovered over him.
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Santamaria’s loathing for Howard, attested to by numerous first- and second-hand reports, doesn’t get much of a mention in Gerard Henderson’s new biography of the man. That is not the only omission, readers will be surprised to learn. This latest, and surely last, life of a man who played a dominant, shadowy role in Australian politics for five decades is by turns scrupulous, exacting, slanted, perfunctory, useful, irritating and not a little odd, much like, well, you can see where I am going here. Reviewers and previewers have praised it, but with the tone often reserved for someone who has made a model of St Patrick’s Cathedral out of matchsticks, the credit due to the solid execution of a task that is utterly incomprehensible. The book has surfaced briefly and then disappeared again, although that is now the fate of most books in Australia’s post-cultural culture. That wouldn’t have happened a decade ago. And two decades ago it would have led to weeks of shouty debate, a proxy war about the country’s pasts and futures. Now that we live in an eternal present — the sort of realm that Santa himself would have seen as the final victory of secular nihilism — there is nothing for it to attach to. This biography arrives at a time when much of our political history is not only being forgotten, but it holds no sway over the present, in a country that has been thoroughly refashioned. That essentially makes this two essay/reviews dwelling in the same space, instructions for neophytes, and an argument with the book in question. Those ageing lefties for whom the name “Santamaria” occasions a special kind of headache may well be able to skip numerous paragraphs.
Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria was a Brunswick-born child of Italian migrants, his father a prosperous greengrocer and liquor store owner in the little Italy of Melbourne’s inner north. His intelligence got him to Melbourne University in the early 1930s, in an era when most Catholics barely made it to year 10 and a Protestant establishment barred them from the higher reaches of the professions. In Australia, Protestant/Catholic sectarianism ran high, due not least to the concerted opposition to World War conscription by the country’s archbishop Daniel Mannix, who would come to be Santamaria’s patron and nemesis.
In the wider world, the Church was in a state of transition and challenge. For decades it had opposed the spread of capitalism and commerce to ever-wider areas of social life — the drift to the cities, for example, or the rise of agribusiness over family farming, among other causes — but in 1917 it had been presented with a fresh challenge. The Bolshevik revolution had created a global secular movement, spread to every corner of the world. An earlier revolution — in Mexico, in 1910 — had resulted in mass Church dispossession and the killing of priests and nuns. Militant atheism was on the march at the same time as the world had been plunged into a global depression. Santamaria joined, and quickly rose through, the Campion Society, a Melbourne version of Catholic political societies springing up across the world. Their politics mixed left and right themes, fiercely opposed to capitalism itself, but also to the extension of the state proposed by socialists and communists. They proposed instead what we now call the “stakeholder” society, in which the country-to-city migration would be reversed and many more people would become landholders, farmers growing partly for their own family’s use, tradespeople rather than office workers and the like. G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc were the two great public figures of this movement — at the height of their fame each had the celebrity status that someone like Noam Chomsky or Ron Paul enjoys today, attracting crowds of tens of thousands to evenings devoted to debates on economics.
But this movement — which had, in part, originated from Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 Rerum Novarum encyclical, which advocated a social contract guaranteeing workers’ rights — suffered a crisis at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, when a reactionary general, Franco, launched an uprising against a newly elected left-leaning republic. The civil war that eventuated was brutal, with atrocities on both sides — including the murder of priests and nuns, and the demolition of churches from the republican side — but Franco’s rebellion was clearly illegitimate, and it soon attracted the active support of Hitler and Mussolini. The Catholic movement split, with some beginning their journey to the right, and even the far right, and others, such as the American Catholic leader Dorothy Day, founding the resistance movement that helped lay the basis for the anti-war movements of the 1960s.
By now, a young Bob Santamaria had understood politics to be his calling, and an activity for which he possessed many talents. He was extremely lucky to have been born in Australia, where the Labor Party still had a home for a Catholic right. Had he been elsewhere, Bob Santamaria would undoubtedly have become a fascist — a fact attested to by his defence of Franco in a famous debate at Melbourne University, and by an honours thesis that was an approving study of Italian fascism, something that has been of enormous embarrassment to his supporters ever since.
Santamaria’s sympathy to fascism was evident in his lack of enthusiasm for participating in a war against it — or the war for national survival that it became when Japan entered it in 1941. Wangling out of military service through influence, the 26-year-old worked through a publication called Catholic Worker, whose focus remained a civilisational critique of capitalism, rather than the struggle against the radical evil of Nazism. But he and other Catholics were turning their attention to the communist movement, which, thanks to the alliance with the USSR, was enjoying great prestige and influence. The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) made great strides in the trade union movement, and Santamaria and co. began an “industrial movement” to contest its influence. When the war ended, an enormous appetite for social change arose, of a sophistication far beyond the political discourse of today. It was not unusual for contesting pamphlets by the CPA and a reply by Santamaria under one of his dozen or so pseudonyms to sell 50,000 copies each, in a population of 7 million, only 10% of whom stayed in school past 14. Santamaria was the lynchpin of both “The Movement” and of the “Rural Movement”, aimed at re-ruralising Australia, with returned soldiers turned into prosperous landholding peasants (Santa’s word), in cantons supervised by watchful bishops. His 1945 book The Earth, Our Mother was not merely Australia’s but one of the world’s first sustained assaults on environmental destruction — decades ahead of its time in that respect, utterly crackpot in others.
However, much of this radical heritage would be lost to memory by the path that Santamaria took, which was to take on the Communist Party, and in fact the secular, muscular left within the Labor Party and the leadership of trade unions. This was done first through a clandestine organisation “The Movement” working within unions — which then went legit as the National Civic Council (NCC) in the late 1940s (it’s more complicated than that, and Henderson maps it usefully — for specialists, anyway). The conflict within the party led to the 1954 Split, where a Democratic Labour Party departed (save for in NSW) and ran a full separate ticket, giving their preferences to the Liberals. For decades, Santamaria has been blamed for bringing this on, against the attempts of Labor leader “Doc” Evatt to maintain basic party discipline — thus denying Labor an election victory in the 1950s, and certainly in 1961. Critics of Santamaria have pointed to the success of Labor in NSW, where they held state power for 40 years, and where the Church’s leading bishops loathed Santamaria and his methods. Much of Henderson’s focus in this book, the heavy centre of it, is a detailed defence of Santamaria against the “wrecking” charge and, to a lesser degree, against the NSW bishops. Henderson makes a reasonable case that Evatt was more to blame for the split than Santa’s organisations, something that left-wing historians such as Paul Strangio have also suggested — and a case easier to make as the years have gone by, and the full degree of Evatt’s early-onset dementia has become clear in retrospect. But to be honest, only a specialist with equal depth of knowledge would be be able to judge whether Henderson has given an accurate assessment or stacked the deck against the secular left. And given the shifts in the very nature of Australian society, one cannot see anyone but specialists being interested in it.
Which goes to the heart of the problem that this book has. To work, it would have to do what the best biographies do — Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde, for example — and give us just enough general background for the subject to be defined in the foreground, and their actions given context. This was a struggle that both sides saw as epochal and expressing the fate of humanity. In Australia, it produced the most extraordinary series of events in which a Communist Party-led strike in the Hunter Valley coalfields ended with the Labor government using the army to drive the men back to the pits at bayonet point, a steelworkers’ strike in the Sydney docks caused a group of current and ex-Trotskyists (including a future governor-general John Kerr) to mount a challenge to the CPA-led union (which was, erm, somewhat less than scrupulous in its electoral methods) and pretty much opening the portal whereby the CIA and its precursors entered Australian politics — all of it culminating in an attempt to ban the Communist Party (and anyone deemed a communist, i.e. any militant leftist) and intern them in camps. The High Court case by the CPA against this was run by … Doc Evatt, ALP leader, and a former High Court judge. When the law was struck down, Menzies made it a referendum issue, which he (narrowly) lost. And they say Australian history is boring.
The details of some of this make it into Henderson’s account of what Santa wrote to the Bishop of Echuca about Archbishop Gilroy’s view of arrggggghhh, but not enough of it, and none of the atmos, the temper of the times. Henderson is simply incapable of that at a constitutive level, and perhaps an author can’t be criticised for what he is simply incapable of, but it means that anyone lacking a mental map of the period can’t read this book without having another one on the go (such as, ironically, Stuart MacIntyre’s Australia’s Boldest Experiment) to try to work out what it was all for. What a missed opportunity! And what a one-sided portrait of the era it gives us. For Henderson, the communists in Australia are a null set, without content. He considers neither why they could command leadership of a third of the union movement (the reason Evatt was so keen to keep them onside), nor that simultaneously, they could barely keep their deposit in Reps elections (save for Fred Paterson in Queensland). The solution is in the puzzle itself. Australian unionists voted in Communist leaderships because they fought harder for rights and conditions in an arbitratration system that had deprived labour of as much or more power in setting an agenda as it had taken away from capital in the Harvester judgment of 1907.
The Industrial group’s leadership weren’t only aiming to see off a force held to represent Soviet interests, they wanted to return to a model of industrial co-operation, in which workers’ demands would be shaped and moderated by a leadership attuned to industrial “harmony”, not conflict. The behaviour of unions today echoes this long-ago split, with groups like the Shoppies and the NUW providing torpid leadership, all-in deals with companies, and conservative social views that don’t reflect the opinion of their memberships. The DLP, with its preferences and four senators, may have restrained the Libs from any outright assault on the labour system, but it also held in place a censorship regime that was about the direst in the Western world, a suspicious attitude to higher ed, and outright opposition to the expansion of secular education. Through this struggle, the Catholic school system gained state funding, an enormous coup in a British-derived country with a secular tradition. Santamaria promptly told the education bishops he had got them the money, he would be taking 10% off the top for himself. Accusations of this, made at the time, were labelled anti-Italian (it was the time of the Godfather movies) until they were revealed in the 2000s. They make no appearance in this book.
That’s Henderson at his best/worst, ignoring inconvenient facts. There’s no other way to write it, since Henderson himself joined the organisation in 1966. By then a spiritual and political malaise has started to grip the NCC, Santamaria’s key organisation. The long and indefinite alliance with capitalism was starting to eat into its soul, as the very decadence Santamaria had predicted it would bring was now coming to pass, with the rise of the consumer culture, the youthquake and everything that we now call the ’60s (or to use the Australian term, the ’70s). Soviet communism may have fallen into torpor, but all the energy was with the new Third World variety, from Havana to Hanoi. That the war against complex and hybrid forces — anti-imperialist, nationalist, communist etc — was turning into a vast atrocity was of no import. B-52s, the bloody coup in Indonesia, the apartheid-era South African government, the Pinochet coup that restaged Franco’s victory 40 years on — all was supported in the pages of News Weekly, the NCC’s wacky/bloody flagship publication.
None of it gets a mention here. Instead there is a deep examination of the NCC that occurred in the 1970s, based around Santamaria’s increasing megalomania — by the late 1960s, he was coming to be the sole speaker at NCC and other Movement group conference, giving eight of nine papers across the course of a weekend. Many of those from the non-Catholic anti-communist movement, and not bound up in the mystique, found it exhausting. “Like Fidel Castro,” Peter Coleman observed. This is also the point at which the author enters as subject. Henderson had been attracted to the NCC in the mid-’60s as a student at Melbourne University, and rapidly became a rising figure within Santa’s organisation. But over the years he claims he became disenchanted with Santamaria’s autocratic style, and also his oppositionism and kulturpessismus — his sense that he was fighting a losing battle against the forces of atheist nihilism, and that the Christian West had already been lost. Others have suggested — amazingly, this doesn’t appear in the book — that it was Santamaria who became disenchanted with Henderson, seeing in him not someone who could take up the struggle, but a young man on the make, already looking for a chance to rise in the political mainstream. This all culminated in a 1974 conference at which seven of the nine papers were to be given by Santa, with Henderson permitted to give a dissident view of internal organisation, and someone else speaking on “Hope”, a topic Santamaria was happy to delegate because, as Henderson remarks in one of the occasional moments of dry wit in the work, “he believed there was none”. At the last moment, Henderson’s paper was cancelled, and he left the organisation, ending up in the Fraser Liberal government. It’s not impossible that, by this time, Santa was using one of the many techniques one develops in such small group organisations, encouraging someone, of their own accord, to fuck off.
The arch British Trotskyist John O’Sullivan once remarked that his colleague Tony Cliff’s four-volume biography of Lenin read like the “the biography of John the Baptist, by Jesus Christ”. Hendo’s book is like a gospel by Doubting Thomas. There is so much about Santamaria that Henderson doesn’t particularly like or approve of — his early anti-modern radicalism, his hatred of the Liberal Party, his opposition to the Hawke/Keating neoliberalisation of the economy, his iron grip on the organisations he ran — that he must pare them all away in order to praise what attracted the author in the first place, Santamaria’s anti-communism. But even this was complicated by Santamaria’s willingness, once the Cold War had concluded, to break bread with old enemies — having the occasional lunch with Bernie Taft, the leading figure of the CPA in the 1960s when the battle was at its height. Santamaria, unlike some of his followers, does not appear to have shied away from the legitimacy of political violence in a cause. His autocratic — hell, his Jesuitical-Leninist — method of running the NCC suggests he was one of those men remembered as good because he never had the opportunity to be bad. He recognised in Communism a parallel system of total belief, and though he saw it as satanic, adversarial, he could recognise that it had a majesty that the nihilistic politics of the post-everything West lacked. He was willing to lunch with Taft — quite possibly, by the ’90s, he was simply lonely, surrounded by people who did not share his ardour — and many others. Henderson is plainly irritated by the fact that Santamaria preferred almost anyone over spending time with John Howard.
Valuing Santamaria only for his anti-communism — and misconstructing it to conform it to the secular, allegedly pro-democracy beliefs of the “anti-communist”‘ movement dominated by Mitteleuropeans such as Frank Knopfelmacher and Heinz Arndt (whose daughter Bettina, sex guru of the ’70s and ’80s, has finally stopped trying to shock him, now that he’s dead) — Henderson takes Santamaria at his word on his last decades: that he had failed at his task and was now eking out a last act. That was less self-deprecation than it was misdirection, for in his last decades Santamaria had shifted to a social guerrilla strategy, starting up a dizzying array of front groups to fight what were not yet known as the culture wars. At the same time he began on his period of greatest fame as the presenter of short Sunday morning TV essay Point of View, thus memorialising him to a generation of Australians who, at the time, were children looking for the cartoons. On Point of View, and in his weekly column for The Australian, he became the rather strident and bitter figure many remember without much regard, banging on about decadence and feminism, and increasingly devoted to the US alliance. His attacks on Labor continued, not for any remnant communist infiltration but for its alleged takeover by a “new class” of secular-humanist types. Their extension of that worldview was what he fought through an extensive series of “front” groups, 30 or more over the years, set up as ostensibly independent outfits, such as the Australian Family Association, or the Council For the National Interest.
This, it should be noted, is the era in which Santamaria gained a new and final set of followers, famously including Tony Abbott and Greg Sheridan, as detailed in the latter’s memoir, When We Were Young and Foolish. Much has been made of the Santamaria-Abbott link; Henderson suggests it is overstated, and he is half-right. Abbott is a British Catholic, his father a convert, and he has never shown much interest in a dissident politics outside power. Santamaria maintained his belief in such insurgent politics — although he was not above seeking the establishment’s money in donations — and thereby established a continuity in his life. Abbott has been making himself up as he goes along, for 50 years, and the result — nihilism, he is not much of anything — is plain to see. By the late 1970s, their springtime, the cultural war politics on campuses had become pretty thin stuff. Though it may not have felt so at the time of the Fraser years, the progressives had won, and Australian society was heading steadily towards a secular and unideological suburbanism, with the “new” class of culture and knowledge producers just beginning to flex their muscles. What Santamaria thought of this latest round of recruits is not made explicity here (not all his documents are yet available), but Henderson has uncovered one verrrrry interesting fact, and that is that Santamaria was deep-down an anti-Zionist, noting that, given what had been done by the Jews, he didn’t have much time for the moral outrage against the PLO and that Israel “should never have been established”.
Not unusual for a Catholic born in 1915, but significant in the context of the late 1970s, because Israel and Zionism had become the cause around which the generation of the right were coalescing. Any suggestion of moral equivalence between the Zionist terror of the 1940s, and the PLO’s of the 1970s was anathema at the time. One wonders what Santa really thought of them or their cheap mysticism: both Abbott and Sheridan tried and failed to last through seminary training, and Sheridan has a gimcrack mysticism — recording his vision of a woman in white at an altar — on which he bases much of the meaning of his life. His stated assumption that he believes “God wants me to be in Australia to do what I’m doing” is part of that, as is his approving citation of Peter Costello’s belief that his wife was saved from cancer by divine intervention. Such simplistic theology, for intelligent people, is usually held, in our era, to be discredited by the Holocaust (as the thing itself and as a measure of radical evil in general). If God is omnipotent, He is obviously a sadist. But establishment religiosity has no problem believing in a God that would let 6 million Jews burn, while reaching down to soothe the brow of one sick shiksa. That is simply faith as narcissism, childish specialness, which arises on the right as the spread of the market undermines all other institutions. It’s not impossible that Santamaria’s sense of despair came from the quality of those wanting to follow him, not the indifference of millions.
So, an account of how Santamaria worked through fronts in the final political phase of his life, how he set them up, when, what role he played, etc, would have been of great interest and a completion of the life. But Henderson gives us only a listicle of these groups, and there it is left. The book runs out of puff long before Santa did. Was that a simple lack of diligence? Or does Henderson not want to spend much time contemplating the eagerness with which Santa took to the essentially duplicitous politics of the front group? Like many on the right, he had learnt the technique from the left — the German Communist Willi Munzenberg in particular — and he took on its spirit, that of relying on a conception of most people as “useful idiots” (the phrase was attributed to Lenin; falsely so, it now appears). Holding such groups at arm’s length is vital to their success, for one must generate a sense of a magical silent majority out there, invisible to the “elites”. They’re invisible and silent because they don’t exist. There are just a few operatives, and behind them, someone like Santamaria himself, an extension of his old habit of writing under 20 names.
Whatever intimations the Howard government might have made of a renewed conservative order, one doubts it would have satisfied Santa. He had lived long enough to see the churches sold off and converted into apartments and cafes, church schools unable to exclude secular teachers, and Mardi Gras on ABC. No tomorrow, but there was Gomorrah. Yet he fought the fight to the end, and the NCC fronts played a role in some final twist in social policy. Chaplains in schools, a recentring on fathers’ rights in divorce, Mardi Gras back off TV — by the early 2000s many might have supposed that the times, having changed, were a-changing back. In his end was his beginning, fighting dissident minority action, standing against the great rolling tide.
To have delivered a full and synthesising portrait of the man, a life of him would need to turn on that point, just as Santamaria’s world turned around the idea of an unyielding truth, world beyond. Like the Marxists he opposed, Santamaria had a life whose excitement — the conviction that one is engaged in a struggle of epochal significance — was hidden within endless hours of political drudgery in a peaceful city at the every end of the world. Henderson’s evocation of the NCC offices, housed in a Federation-style villa, is well made: one day like another of lists, organising meetings, letters to the editor, the boring pamphlet, the tedious meeting, all of it enlivened only by Santamaria’s habit of locking himself away for 24 hours to get a speech off-book and pitch-perfect. That is what this sort of politics is, a vocation best summarised by the aged Trotskyist giving a speech to a dinner party at the time of France’s May 1968 uprising, in Trevor Griffiths’ play The Party, berating the young for their adventurism, as opposed to the life of party work: “Imagine a life like that. Imagine a life without … success.” That was the Movement and its successors to a T. Henderson damns Santamaria for driving the movement to splits on two crucial occasions, seeing its dissident style as a refusal of possible success, which could have been got by a more friendly relationship with the Liberal Party and other institutions of the Protestant mainstream. One suspects that it was at this moment that Santa realised that young Henderson might not be Movement material. He split and split in the way Lenin did, and for the same reason — because you can’t cut through unless the edge is sharp. What did worldly success matter to a man who saw this world as the shadow of the greater one? If Santamaria ultimately became a hardened shell of what he had once been, the fault was not in public failure, but in success: Point of View screwed him up in the way that TV screws anyone up. To make a presence in it is to make camp in a hall of mirrors, and no one comes out more than half-alive.
But he maintained a fidelity to his political-religious core moment to the end. There is no division in his life at anything other than the superficial level of policy, and Henderson cannot make the whole of it comprehensible because he is entirely out of sympathy with that originating moment, that of the Catholic reactionary-revolutionary of European style Down Under. After pages of discussion of the Rural movement, Santamaria’s book The Earth, Our Mother and the passionate proposals for the resettlement of the Australian countryside with farming families, Henderson concludes: “All very romantic.”
That is pathetic, a failure of the biographer on any number of levels. Santamaria’s rural politics were simply the Australian version of distributism and subsidiarity, expressions of the Catholic Social Movement that swept the world for half a century. Hardly romantic, the movement was a response to the appalling poverty and squalor of urban capitalism (and the challenge of state socialism from the other side), and saw in the natural world a direct expression of God. To believe that the world should be remade in this way was grounded in the notion that Man was fallen enough without needing to be further tempted. The despoilation of the Australian landsacpe that Santamaria remarked upon was something he saw an expression of this, a way of being lost to ourselves.
There is no one in Australia who is less suited to understanding this aspect of Santamaria, or how it relates to his anti-communism and culture warriorism, than Gerard Henderson. For decades Henderson has shown himself to be the least impressed by any grand notions in politics. At his best, he provides a useful corrective; at his worst, increasingly on display, he is guilty of pettifogging nitpicking often indistinguishable from cynicism, and with a thorough-going envy that poisons all it touches. The snide note on Santamaria’s radical social politics is the mark of someone who cannot imagine politics as being anything other than working with what is, rather than as bringing something new into being. To not do that misses the energy and force that power Santamaria through six decades of politics, but it also serves Henderson”s purpose, which is to damn Santamaria on his methods and excesses but to present him as a champion of liberal democracy against communism. By shearing off his support for Franco and his enthusiasm for fascism, Henderson is able to ignore the continuities that made Santamaria a man of the Cold War, capable of advocating policies of great ruthlessness and violence, and seeing in them a test of fidelity. The more atrocious the act, the greater demand it made of you, the worse you were for making petty quibbles about method.
Liberal democracy was one such method, but there were others. They were on display elsewhere, such as Latin America, where in 1954, the United States overthrew the reforming Arbenz government and installed the first of a shower of dictators and generalissimos. The US act coincided with the creation of death squads in these countries by the CIA’s head of operations, Frank Parkin, focused on murdering labour leaders and social activists. This founding act taught the Latin American left one thing: that ostensible democracy was a fraud, and even the most modest reforms to entrenched oppression would be crushed. The inevitable result was that opposition began to take on ruthless and military-style organisational methods in return, all of which was seen as communistic. The same occurred in south-east Asia, where South Vietnam was hived off as a client state before all-Vietnam elections — which Ho Chi Minh would have won — could be held after the departure of the French in 1954. This sparked the Vietnam War, which would consume the whole of Indo-China in the ’60s. At the same time, in Indonesia, in 1965, land reform movements were labelled as Communist, the party was accused of fomenting a coup, and a mass bloodletting began, which would result in up to a million murdered. By 1973 this would culminate in the mass bombings of Vietnam, the destruction of Cambodia, and the Pinochet coup in Chile, destroying an elected socialist government, and using a dictatorship to enforce the world’s first neoliberal regime. By the 1980s, dirty wars in Guatemala and El Salvador would consume the lives of more than a quarter of a million people.
The NCC, through its News Weekly publication, was resolute on the crimes of the left, in China and elsewhere. But for these parallel depredations it had only praise. The dirty war in Guatemala was as bad, on its own scale, as the Holocaust or the Gulag, and much of it was directed at indigenous people; the Vietnam War was a high-tech slaughter on a peasant civil war, killing more than a million directly, and millions more indirectly. The failure to cow subject populations only caused an urge to redoubling efforts. In 1966, as the killings continued in Indonesia, News Weekly ran an editorial condemning them — because they were targeting ethnic Chinese. The paper urged Indonesians to get back to killing communists and choking the rivers with them (this was the year Gerard Henderson joined the NCC). At home, the NCC stood against abortion decriminalisation, no-fault divorce, state-funded women’s refuges, homosexuality decriminalisation, anti-discrimination laws, and much else that we now believe to be essential to a secular civilised society.
Throughout this all, Santamaria kept faith with his apocalyptic worldview, even as many of the movements the NCC urged the crushing of championed the very land reform he had once advocated. Liberal democracy was a means not an end. But very little of this gets any discussion here. It can’t, because Henderson’s claim has to be that the fight was asymmetrical, and all the good was on one side. Yet the right side of the Cold War was so intertwined that no ultimate moral clarity can be found. The NCC was of course entwined with the Mitteleuropean anti-communists formed around the Congress for Cultural Freedom — an international group revealed in the 1960s to be a CIA front. Indeed, as Timothy Weiner revealed in his CIA history Legacy of Ashes, it had been founded by Frank Parkin, the death-squads’ inaugorator. They were, for the Company, two wings of the same operation.
Henderson’s claim, repeated by others, was that, for all their methods, the right were on the correct side of that conflict. It can only be defended by leaving out vast swathes of what Santamaria said, wrote and authorised. Henderson may well do much of this as a less-than-conscious process. The book’s fragmented form may be a final defence against the truth about the movement from which Henderson himself sprang. His horror at Santamaria’s occasional lunches with Bernie Taft in the post Cold-War era — and his quoting of communists who claimed that a communist takeover of Australia in the 1950s (of which there was no chance) would have produced a blood-letting — is because he cannot admit that Santmaria would have seen the use of such violence as justifiable, in other contexts, and in his own cause. we now know that Franco’s victory was followed by between 250,000-400,000 executions of leftists, a huge slaughter, and an agenda setter for what was to follow. Santamaria, this extraodinary figure, deserved one more full biography that might help explain the man and his era to the future.
Henderson has done much useful work, whose accuracy historians can assess, and the falling short is partly a lack of diligence — perhaps the watching-briefs on Fran Kelly and David Day in Media Watch Dog could have been foregone in the service of integrating transcripts and evoking the background in the sodding book — but it is also an unwillingness to consider the subject in full, perhaps because of what it might say about the author in part. Henderson, after all, went on to work for Howard, who, knowing how much he was loathed by Santamaria, nevertheless sought is deathbed blessing, a weird reverse last rites on competent conservatism in Australia.