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Untangling Abbott from Santamaria

  • 01 September 2015

There 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