1915 - 1998 | VIC | Journalist & Broadcaster
Santamaria was Australia’s most effective and influential conservative commentator for more than two decades. A brilliant but divisive polemicist, journalist, television and radio commentator, he was reviled by his political opponents and idolised by his supporters. In 1936 he drove the creation of the Catholic Worker newspaper. In 1941 he established the Catholic Social Studies Movement which in 1957 became the National Civic Council. He was a major factor behind the great ALP split which kept Labor out of federal office for 23 years. His articulate and intense polemics on his Point of View TV program enraged or reassured viewers across Australia.
A brilliant writer and articulate European-style polemicist, Bartholomew Augustine (Bob) Santamaria entered public affairs as an undergraduate at Melbourne University, with a commitment – some say fanaticism – unseen in Australian student politics.
After finishing his secondary education at St Kevin’s College as dux of the school he graduated from Melbourne University in arts and law. Driven by religious zeal he was convinced at an early age it was his mission to save Australia from what he saw as a rising tide of secular materialism.
Santamaria declared himself an opponent of both socialism and monopoly capitalism, but through most of his public life, his writing and television broadcasts were dominated by the threat of communism and the alleged influence of communists on the Australian Labor Party.
In 1936, when he was 20 years old, he brought out the first edition of the Catholic Worker newspaper. As the founding editor he wrote most of the early editions himself.
In 1937, at the invitation of his powerful lifelong supporter Archbishop Daniel Mannix, Santamaria joined the secretariat of Catholic Action and was its director from 1947 to 1954. He founded and led the Catholic Social Studies Movement from 1941.
In the same year he started The Movement’s weekly newspaper, titled Freedom. On 11 June 1947 Freedom was retitled Australia’s National News Weekly. There were a number of small name changes until News Weekly was settled on as its title as of 5 August 1965.
The CSSM (renamed the National Civic Council in 1957) worked overtly and covertly to rid the Labor movement of communist influences, significantly shaping the great ALP split of 1955 and the formation of the Democratic Labor Party.
In Your Most Obedient Servant, Victorian writer and academic Patrick Morgan says Santamaria’s role in the split, which kept Labor out of office federally for 23 years and helped Henry Bolte win six state elections, made him the most reviled figure in Australian politics.
In 1960 Santamaria was given an editorial slot on the Catholic Church’s Sunday Magazine program on Channel 7. But he was kicked off the program shortly after the death of Archbishop Mannix, in November 1963. Mannix’s successor Archbiship Simmons believed Santamaria was too divisive inside and outside the church.
He was immediately approached by overt Liberal Party supporter Sir Frank Packer to come onto Channel Nine the following week at the prime time of 6.30pm to put his point of view about why he’d been dropped from the Channel 7 program.
He was initially sceptical about commercial television, believing the networks had little interest in his cause and the ABC was dominated by leftists, but accepted what he thought was a once-only offer from Packer.
But Packer then offered Santamaria on ongoing slot and the Point of View program was born.
The program was first broadcast at 11.50 on Sunday morning shortly before the 1963 election. At that time, broadcast regulations prohibited the televising of any entertainment or advertising before midday on Sunday, but Point of View was deemed “Independent Commentary”.
Packer initially saw the program as a short-term effort for the election campaign. But that meant Channel Nine would have to give the ALP equal time during election campaigns, or charge Santamaria a prohibitive price for what amounted to a 10-minute political advertisement.
Packer’s solution was to contract Santamaria to provide “ongoing programming” at a cost of 10 pounds a week.
The fact he was paying a set price week-in week-out meant the same price could be charged during an election period. While original film of those broadcasts has been lost, then general manager of Channel Nine, Nigel Dick, recalls that from the first episode Santamaria’s deliveries were professional and coherent, and regardless of a viewer’s persuasion, riveting.
For almost 30 years these extreme, anti-communist and anti-Labor polemics were broadcast nationally on Sunday mornings on Channel Nine, enraging his political opponents and encouraging his supporters. From 1976 to 1997 he also wrote a weekly column for The Australian.
Over time as broadcast regulations were relaxed the program was steadily moved to earlier and less watched time slots to make way for sports programs and the Sunday program.
Nigel Dick says: “His audience was the “Catholic brother and sisterhood” who would pass his key messages on to the wider congregation in later weeks. As Point of View moved to an earlier start-time, his concern was this group would have been at Mass – and would have missed his Point of View message”.
In 1974 the DLP lost all its Senate seats and it was officially disbanded in 1978 but Santamaria’s influence continued. In 2007, The Australian‘s political editor Dennis Shanahan reported that in September 1975 Santamaria advised Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser to block supply and wrote a speech for Fraser justifying the breach of convention which brought down the Whitlam Labor Government.
By 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, Point of View had become largely irrelevant, more often the subject of parody than outrage, and Santamaria concentrated his efforts on monopoly capitalism and the secularisation of public life.
According to former ALP National Secretary Barry Jones, few Australian contemporaries came near Santamaria’s influence, and none polarised public opinion or political commentators to the extent he did.
David Broadbent is a former Canberra Press Gallery correspondent for The Age and The Sun News Pictorial and covered Victorian State politics for the Nine and Seven networks.
Australian Biography page, Screen Australia Digital Learning website.
Your Most Obedient Servant - Selected letters 1938-96 by B. A. Santamaria, edited by Patrick Morgan, Melbourne University Press