Sunday, 21 June 2015

MANNIX by Brenda Neill

Text Publishing, 2015, 439 pages

Review by Phil Shannon

Daniel Mannix, Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne for half a century, could be a bit of a rebel.  As Monash University’s Brenda Niall recounts in her biography, the Irish nationalist and opponent of conscription in Australia during the first world war would show his disdain for the British monarchy by sticking postage stamps, bearing the King’s image, on sideways.

The one-time Labor Party-supporting champion of the working class, however, spent his last decades splitting the party and keeping it out of government, whilst white-anting the trade unions, by unleashing his literally secret weapon, the Italian grocer’s son from Brunswick, Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria, in a clandestine, anti-communist offensive.

Born to a tenant farmer in Ireland in 1864, Mannix was always conscious of the grim and violent past of British rule in that colony.  This survived his seminary training and he retained his Irish republican sympathies when he was sent to head the Church in 1913 in Melbourne, the then seat of federal government.

Mannix condemned Britain’s murderous reprisals for the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin which declared an ill-fated independent republic.  Alone amongst Australia’s Catholic Archbishops, Mannix “took the side of the rebels” and declared himself for Sinn Fein, Ireland’s radical nationalist republicans.  Unwilling to see colonial lives sacrificed for British empire, Mannix opposed, and helped defeat, the two conscription referenda during the Great War, adding that ‘the working class would pay the highest price in the war and then be forgotten’.

Mannix openly supported Labor and his working class parishioners in north Melbourne, and, during the seamen’s strike of 1919, said ‘the worker must get a fair share of the wealth he produces’ and that people are ‘more sacred than property’.

The worm in the apple of this putative Red priest, however, was anti-communism, an ideology shared by all the Catholic hierarchy.  Mannix sought to promote Catholic leaders in the secular world, beginning in the politically turbulent 1930s, to ensure that if people ‘are to move along safe lines, the public mind should be leavened by Catholic principles’.  ‘Safe lines’ meant stopping the Red Menace.

It was fine to give coins to the poor, as Mannix did on his daily walk to his Cathedral, or to organise welfare relief, but just don’t let the workers do anything about their lot that might actually challenge capitalism, or the Church.

Santamaria’s publicly nameless and secretive anti-communist strike force was Mannix’s insurance against any such outcome.  Mannix “ensured funding for The Movement” as it organised ‘Industrial Groups’ to overthrow Communist Party leadership of key Australian trade unions and it penetrated the ALP to campaign against its left, splitting the party in 1954-55 and keeping it out of office until 1972 courtesy of the anti-Labor preferences of his splinter Democratic Labor Party.

Santamaria was Mannix’s lever for directly influencing public political and industrial policy in the way an Archbishop could not openly do.  In a 1961 interview on ABC TV, two years before his death, Mannix called Santamaria ‘the saviour of Australia’.

Niall, for her part, is in fairly comfortable proximity to the Mannix-Santamaria ideological cosmos.  Communism, she agrees, “was a cruel failure”.  She puts down all Communist Party union leadership to “ballot-rigging, intimidation, physical force and mass apathy”.  Her first job was research assistant to Santamaria and, although she claims not to have been aware of The Movement at the time, Niall would probably have been right at home with its politics as demonstrated by her going on to work for Santamaria’s anti-communist News Weekly as book reviewer.

Niall’s wooden anti-communism is complemented by a largely unreflective Catholicism.  The Mannix hobby-horse of state aid for private religious schools is assumed to be a good and just thing.  The ethics of Church wealth is unchallenged (as is the hypocrisy of the worker-friendly Archbishop living in wealthy Kew, in the conservative electorate of Liberal Prime Minister, Robert Menzies).  “Atheistic communism” (simplistically reduced to Stalinist horrors) is assumed to be undesirable.

Niall’s academic career was in English literature, not history, and her personal background that of Catholicism not Marxism.  Unsurprisingly, therefore, her portrait of Mannix is closely intimate rather than politically substantive.  Arcane points of Catholic doctrine and institutions tend to crowd out a fully rounded analysis of Archbishop Mannix who, like the majority of working class Irish Catholics at the time, was mocking of the Union Jack, cold on conscription and who could be numbered with the unionists and the left but who wound up undoing all this as a remote control leader of the anti-democratic, anti-communist Catholic right in Australia.

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