Untangling Abbott from Santamaria


Abbott and his so-called mentors, by Chris JohnstonThere is always an appetite for anything linking Tony Abbott and Bob Santamaria. In fact much of the continuing interest in Santamaria's life and times stems from his connection, real and imagined, with the Prime Minister. For this reason the section of Gerard Henderson's new biography, Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man, on Santamaria and Abbott will excite considerable interest.

It comes within an informative chapter on 'Santamaria and the Liberals' and seeks to untangle an often quite confused story around Abbott, university Democratic Clubs, the National Civic Council and the Democratic Labor Party.

At various times, including in the chapter on 'The Making of a Liberal Politician' in his own book Battlelines (2009), Abbott has encouraged observers to play up the links. But it has never been entirely clear exactly what he is saying.

The two stand-out statements, both of which can be misinterpreted, have been first, that Santamaria was his 'first political mentor' (Battlelines, p xiii), and, secondly that 'the DLP is alive and well and living inside the Howard government' (Battlelines, p 11  ).

Repeated many times, the two statements have become conflated, and inflated to mean something like 'because of Bob Santamaria's influence over Tony Abbott the DLP is alive and well within the Howard government and now, by extension, within the Abbott government'. The presence of many other Catholics, including Kevin Andrews, within the Abbott Cabinet is often thrown into the mix as well.

All along it has never been entirely clear just what Abbott meant by either of these statements. Observers have been taken doe a ride by his tendency to exaggeration and his journalist-politician's love of a headline-catching line.

Henderson points out that the line about the DLP being alive and well within the Howard government (and through Kevin Rudd and the SDA within the ALP) was a 'generous assessment at a function attended by Santamaria's extended family. It glossed over the reality that Santamaria never really liked the Liberal Party in general-or the Howard government in particular'.

Re-reading at least one version of the statement (made in 2007) it is also clear that what Abbott was talking about was a series of conservative social policies instigated by the Howard government (on euthanasia, traditional marriage, pregnancy support counselling, etc) rather than Abbott's own personal influence or the government's economic policies; though Peter Costello, who had known Abbott in student politics, did rib Abbott that he was 'channelling Santa' on economic and industrial policies.

What is of equal interest is Abbott's portrayal of Santamaria as his mentor. Just what does he mean and what is a 'mentor' anyway? Henderson concludes that Abbott was 'influenced by-but not a follower of- BAS'.

Abbott has explained that he was impressed as a young man by Santamaria's courage as an 'advocate for unfashionable truths' and learnt a lot from his participation in NCC-sponsored activities.

Working out just what Abbott means, other than as a throwaway line, is complicated, however, by the fact that more than most political leaders he is a great one for mentioning mentors. That is an interesting fact full of possibilities.  

He is keen to pay his public dues to a number of prominent figures, including John Howard, 'the contemporary politician I have most admired', whom he ranks about equal with Santamaria, but also in different ways to Cardinal George Pell, John Hewson, Bronwyn Bishop and even Pope Benedict XVI.

In doing this Abbott may be drawing on the general meanings of the word 'mentor' found in any dictionary. These include 'friend and sage adviser' and 'wise and reliable adviser'. These definitions only hint at the implicit notion that mentors are older figures.

But Abbott is doing more than this. Mentors serve a political purpose. He is deliberately giving short-hand clues about what he stands for and whom he seeks to emulate. This is not 'guilt by association' but 'attractiveness by association'.

He is also associating himself more generally with tradition rather than change, an attitude to life and politics which says much about the man and is helpful in seeking to understand his general approach to contemporary political issues.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.


Topic tags: John Warhurst, Bob Santamaria, John Howard, Gerard Henderson, politics



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Existing comments

Yes John this all makes sense, but it is also exploited by Abbott's enemies who rejected anti communism and still venerate Foxe's martyrs
peter | 01 September 2015

Perhaps there are some individuals who achieve so little in the face of fanciful ambition that the only fame available to them is to attach themselves to other's achievements. Name dropping is so easy, requires little effort and produces wonder and admiration in the gullible. Poor old Tony has so far achieved bugger all, so why not attach himself to some others who have !!!!!
john frawley | 01 September 2015

It would be most unfortunate if Gerard Henderson's biography of B A Santamaria excited interest only or mainly because of Mr Sanatamaria's influence on the Liberal Party and on Tony Abbott in particular. Even if a nexus can be drawn between Tony Abbott's political beliefs and practices, one area where he and Mr Santamaria patently part company is in concise, clear and cogent expression. Even in his personal correspondence Santamaria's prose is a pleasure to read. Not for him the three word slogan. In everything he wrote no one was ever left in any doubt what he was saying. Whereas with Mr Abbott? Words fail me.
Uncle Pat | 01 September 2015

" associating himself more generally with tradition rather than change." Tradition works well in stable times, but in times of rapid change such as at present, it is necessary to extract the essence of the tradition and adapt it to the new situation the change has brought about. Preserving out-dated traditions in their out-dated forms is a slide to decay and death.
Robert Liddy | 01 September 2015

Are we not simply making a mountain of an insignificant political molehill? When Abbott goes to his maker, he'd be remembered for simply being the dullest PM in modern times; all that he achieved was "stopping the boats"!
Alex Njoo | 02 September 2015

Mr Santamaria’s exceptional skills as orator and wordsmith are not all that separate him from Tony Abbott, Uncle Pat. Abbott, like a of other conservative Catholics, was always enthusiastic in his support for Mr Santamaria’s anti-communism and opposition to left wing unionism, but Santamaria’s equally trenchant criticism of capitalism made no impression on him at all. Just three months before he died, in one of his last columns for the Australian newspaper, he described capitalism as being “both economically inefficient and morally corrupt”. (The Australian: 10/11/1987) There are no prizes for guessing what Abbott’s response to that might have been. Furthermore, right up to the day he died, Mr Santamaria was rightly proud of the fact that the Australian Bishop’s 1948 social justice statement on Socialisation was written by him and was accepted in full by the Bishops without changing one word. That document presented a vision for an Australian society and economy which Abbott has always rejected and I would bet London to a brick that Abbott never mentions it among fellow conservatives when ‘dropping’ Mr Santamaria’s name as John Frawley has put it.
Paul | 02 September 2015

A number of comments refer to Abbott's failure to achieve anything worthwhile and his seeming inability to express himself in anything but three word slogans. I would agree, but I'm also interested in understanding why. What is it, in his nature or nurture, that has produced such a negative person?
Ginger Meggs | 03 September 2015

If Tony Abbott were described as "a politician" all Australians would understand. It would be much more difficult to pin a simplistic tag on the late B A Santamaria. Even Gerard Henderson would be hard put to do that. Times have changed mightily since Santamaria died and many of the causes he supported are now part of history. He was, I think, not so much "a man of tradition" but "a man of Tradition" in that his cultural and spiritual roots were very deeply based in the Catholic culture of Latin Europe. Use of the phrase "a significant Australian Catholic thinker and writer" should be strictly limited but I think he was one. He also acted in the real world according to his deep rooted beliefs and remained true to them. Whatever you think of him, or the National Civic Council which he founded, they did, I think both remain consistent in their stated beliefs. Looking at Tony Abbott I cannot, myself, see any deep beliefs which consistently affect his political actions. He has changed policies with the consistency of a chameleon. I suspect it is power, just power, he is interested in.
Edward Fido | 04 September 2015

I knew B.A. and have had some acquaintance with Tony Abbott. Both are/were people of character and decency. B.A. had a vision. At its fundamentals – the level that respects human life from the moment of conception, the importance of the family, and the value of the Catholic faith and its vision to any society, and so on – I’m in total agreement. But slightly higher up, at the economic level, with great respect to him, I think he almost totally misunderstood the market economy. In fact, B.A. often confessed that he had no time for economics. This is somewhat understandable, given the parlous state of mainstream economics since the advent of Keynesianism, the consequences of which we still deal with. I don’t think it coincidental that Keynes, via Samuelson et al, spoke with what was deemed to be magisterial authority for almost exactly the time B.A. was involved in public life. Possibly it was that thinking, plus the prevailing myths it spawned surrounding the causes of the disastrous Great Depression (“It was laissez-faire capitalism!”) which induced B.A. to believe that governments could muck around with and thereby “ameliorate” economic forces with impunity. Whatever: as ‘Paul’ above very correctly notes, B.A.’s 1948 Social Justice Statement is a recipe for rampant socialism – or perhaps, some form of equally dirigiste corporate statism of the kind that Pope Pius XI suggested (non-infallibly) in Quadragesimo Anno; even today’s Greens would hesitate to put a signature to it. Tony Abbott has a much vaguer vision, if indeed it amounts to that. But it involves, I fear, a fairly dirigiste view of political economy himself. Not as radical as B.A.’s.; but his pet project – the paid parental leave scheme – shows how far he is prepared to mess around with basic economic realities, and I think that, like B.A., he really doesn’t get the market. Far more problematic, though, is the fact that he doesn’t appreciate the value of the Catholic vision as B.A. did. Sure, he’s offered some resistance to the mania for same-sex “marriage”. But anyone who embraces, as T.A. does, the Clinton doctrine that abortion should be “legal, safe and rare”, is someone whom B.A. would dismiss with the same contempt he had for Mao and Stalin. And rightly so. (Just don’t get me started on the other mob.)
HH | 05 September 2015

Well HH, at least we agree on TA. There is no depth or substance to the man. He is as shallow as a cardboard cutout, which is not something one could say about BAS. I'd be interested in your take on what made Abbott what he is.
Ginger Meggs | 06 September 2015

At no time did ‘Paul’ above ever ‘note that B.A.’s 1948 Social Justice Statement is a recipe for rampant socialism’ HH and I would ask you to do me the courtesy of not putting words into my mouth that I have never said. Mr Santamaria was no socialist; he was a Roman Catholic down to his bootstraps and his thinking and views on economics were informed by Catholic moral philosophy going right back to Aquinas. He understood very well the profound harm done to society by ideologies of individualism (and correctly located their origins in the Reformation); he was well aware of the injustices spawned by such ideologies, especially the inequities that cripple the small property owner; he was a constant critic of the unjust allocation of resources; and he was never in any doubt about the eternal purpose of created goods. It is on this latter point that capitalism, market economics, spectacularly fails; as he well knew, capitalism cannot tell us whence comes man, wither does he go nor why he is here in this world. It cannot tell us what we should produce nor for what purpose and it imposes no restraints beyond what is profitable and what is not. Capitalism has no quarrel with avarice, it encourages, indeed thrives on, acquisitiveness and its heroes are lauded for their ability to ruin competitors. In short, it is a soulless wasteland; morally corrupt in Mr Santamaria’s words, a conclusion he reached through his Catholic faith without any need whatsoever to seek illumination elsewhere. Thus, to suggest that he was a mere mouthpiece for the likes of Keynes and Paul Samuelson is to insult a man steeped in Catholicism and fully capable of thinking for himself.
Paul | 07 September 2015

1. Paul, what do you understand as 'socialism'? I understand it to mean the substantive takeover by the state of the means of production, distribution and exchange in an economy. The ALP calls itself a "democratic socialist" party. Yet B.A.'s 1948 Social Justice statement requires central control of whole orders of magnitude higher than the ALP's current version of democratic socialism. As I said, not even the Greens would dare to propose anything like the interventions he advocated. Thus, whatever your evaluation of it, B.A.'s "socialization" which you correctly drew attention to, is either rampant socialism - compared, say, to the ALP's "socialist" view today - or some corporate statist equivalent. 2. I didn't say B.A. was a Keynesian or a Samuelsonian: as I said, he had no time for economics as a discipline. (I'm told B.A. expressed scepticism as to the very existence of economic laws.) I merely surmised that it was possibly due to the dominant economic orthodoxies of his era that he believed one could intervene in the economy with impunity to counter the worst alleged aspects of capitalism. It doesn't follow from this in any way that B.A. wanted to implement the specific policy prescriptions of Keynes or Samuelson. 3. You and I obviously have a different take on capitalism ... or the free market, as I prefer to call it. As a keen reader of Aquinas, I fail to see how the main economic planks of B.A.'s 1948 statement can be easily inferred from St Thomas's philosophical and moral thought. Neither, I daresay, could such devoted Thomists as the 16th century Spanish scholastics, who pioneered free market thought in the West. (This is not, of course, to say that St Thomas was an advocate of the "free market", which was a concept that only developed centuries after his time.)
HH | 07 September 2015

G.M., interesting question. I think it's at least partly due to his B.A., who despised "capitalism" (as he imagined it to be) and believed one could direct the economy as one wished to noble ends. I've never heard T.A. support the free market in anything but the most qualified terms. I think he's a big government man, notwithstanding the absurd "pro-capitalist" caricatures of him on this site. Still and all, if we can criticize Abbott as being a cardboard cutout, where do we rank Rudd, Gillard and Shorten? I'm trying to think of something more insubstantial than one-ply tissue.
HH | 07 September 2015

It is difficult to know how to respond to you HH; it is difficult to know if you have actually read the Social Justice Statement of 1948 or, if you have, did you understand what you read. Forget about what I understand as socialism, it is Mr Santamaria’s bona fides you have questioned so let’s allow him to speak for himself. In just the third paragraph of that document, after defining socialism as a theory which in its strict sense advocates state control over the entire machinery of production, distribution and exchange, he clearly states that in this strict sense socialism is repugnant to Christian principles. He then spends some paragraphs elaborating what should be the true aim of political economy: creating the conditions wherein marriage and the family flourish; equitable distribution of material goods between the different members of society; ensuring that religion remains a vital force in society; and guaranteeing the liberty of society’s members who should be free to enjoy their rights and exercise their responsibilities. He next gives a fine description of what the family unit should be; not a ‘temporary association bound to dispersion’ with the death of the parents and the children’s status as adults but a continuum which ‘reckons its age not in years, but in generations’. It is government’s responsibility, he states, to encourage an economic order in which such a family thrives and he believed that that order would be one in which the majority of society’s members are working proprietors, where property ownership is so widespread as to set the character of society. Being a realist, he well understood that some forms of property tend to a dominating influence and ought not to remain in private hands but should be brought under public control. The principles of subsidiarity, of course, would demand that that public control be exercised by municipal or shire authorities rather than the central government but Mr Santamaria was quite comfortable with an economic order where government plays a role so long as private ownership is as widespread as possible, and the working proprietor remains the characteristic figure in society. And that, as briefly as I can put it, was his thinking on a Christian economic order. That anyone could read the Social Justice Statement of 1948 and describe it as a ‘recipe for rampant socialism’ suggest to me a wilful refusal to accept that a Catholic of Mr Santamaria’s stature understood what he was talking about when he rejected market economics.
Paul | 08 September 2015

Yes, Paul, tick, tick tick, all the way down. But how did all these noble ideals cash out in specific policies? That's where the rubber hits the road. From e.g., his 1943 Social Justice statement, "Pattern For Peace" Part B, "The Reorganisation of Industry" Recommended: the formation of industrial councils (IC) as the instrument for the control and regulation of industry: The IC is a body constituted by the State and endowed with sufficient legal powers to control all the operations of a particular industry. It is representative of workers, employers and other interests connected with the industry. The IC will govern an industry at least as efficiently (sic) as the Public Utility Corporation or a Government Department since it is composed of men with a particular knowledge of the problems of the industry. The IC will avoid the extension of State bureaucracy and domination, so inimical to the principle of freedom. (!!!) Functions of the IC: a. To determine wages and industrial conditions throughout the industry ... b. To CONTROL THE PRICES, wholesale and retail, of the products of the industry. c. To control the maximum rates of dividends from year to year. d. To plan the AMOUNT and QUALITY OF PRODUCTION from year to year. e. To plan the MARKETING of the product. f. To control ... THE NUMBER OF ENTERPRISES operating in the industry. .... i. In general to exercise COMPLETE CONTROL over the policy and development of the industry, including, in the case of a secondary industry, the supply of raw materials to other enterprises. (emph. added.) End of citation. There's much more. As you pointed out above, Paul, Santamaria explicitly condemned "strict" socialism. But so what? Under his plan, every businessman has the price of his products, their marketing strategy, the AMOUNT he produces, the QUALITY of his products under the TOTAL CONTROL of a government-instituted body, and he may be booted out if the IC decides there are too many enterprises in his industry !! Oh, but nothing in that is "inimical to the principle of freedom", no "State bureaucracy or domination there", we must understand! Socialism? No, not the faintest whiff!
HH | 08 September 2015

HH, I think the problem with TA is much more basic than any influence that BAS may have had. The following article makes interesting reading and strikes a lot of chords. But the question remains, what was it in his nature or nurture that has interfered with his 'growing up'? www.theage.com.au/comment/tony-abbott-boy-or-man--or-maybe-just-wired-differently-20150819-gj2fyj.html
Ginger Meggs | 08 September 2015

I think I understand HH. As one convinced of the superiority of an economic system whose raison d'être is private profit and which is prepared to destroy anything, no matter how good or decent, which detracts from the pursuit of profit, I think I understand your contempt for any ideas that suggest another way of organising society. And I must say that I do so admire your fortitude; notwithstanding the fact that your church has developed a body of doctrine that for more than a century has denounced capitalism in clear terms, you remain unshaken in your beliefs. In spite of otherwise sensible Catholics such as Mr Santamaria who was great on some things dear to your heart but failed to cut the mustard on market economics, and in spite of some popes such as Paul VI (Wall Street Journal, 30/3/’67) and the present one in your view (Eureka Street, 9 July) channelling Marxism, you remain a loyal son/daughter of the church. HH, I dips me lid to you.
Paul | 10 September 2015

The church denouncing capitalism, Paul? Define your terms. I like Pope John Paul II's approach in Centessimus Annus, and I regard him as a Catholic: "The answer [to the question whether capitalism should be the a nation's economic system. HH] is obviously complex. If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy,” “market economy” or simply “free economy.” But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative." That's my thought exactly. BTW, I should stress I acknowledge that Santamaria wasn't a "strict" socialist: and so I think one could be be a loyal Catholic and subscribe to the vision he outlines above. But I believe that that vision if seriously implemented would have (and has had) almost as disastrous an economic effect as "strict" socialism would have, and for the same economic reasons. That's why I call it rampant socialism (or corporate statism ... I'm not really stressed about the terminology, just the outcomes for real people): it's certainly much closer to full blown socialism than it is to a totally free market or to anything most social democrat parties advocate today. My own position is very much that of Ed Feser: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/the-road-from-libertarianism.html and expressed cogently in his talk "Social Justice Reconsidered": http://www.edwardfeser.com/unpublishedpapers/socialjustice.html Of course, not possessing the charism of infallibility, I could be completely wrong on the whole matter! I'd welcome your thoughts as to whether you consider that position Feser articulates to be incompatible with Catholicism.
HH | 10 September 2015

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