Daniel Mannix was a towering, instantly recognisable and somewhat caricaturable figure. Irish-born, he moved to Australia in mid-life after a career teaching seminarians at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, (where he became president) and was archbishop of Melbourne for decades (he died at 99). The subject of Mannix (Brenda Niall, Text Pubishing), he was controversial and contradictory: guarded with friends and warm to those in need, a keeper of Catholic tradition who challenged the political status quo (famously opposing conscription during WWI and supporting Irish nationalism) and championed modern architecture (he ensured Walter Burley Griffin’s then-radical design for Newman College at the University of Melbourne was approved). He was outspoken publicly but reluctant to dictate to subordinates, and an ascetic who lived in the Kew mansion Raheen. Advances in technology seemed to pass him by, yet when it came to social ethics he was decades ahead, illustrated by the fact that in the middle of the twentieth century he was already suggesting that indigenous people should be compensated financially for loss of land. In the hands of biographer of the Boyds Brenda Niall, he comes across, despite his fierce privacy, as a laudable leader with wisdom and a quick wit.
In Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man (MUP) journalist Gerard Henderson, who, like Niall, worked for Santamaria, gives a picture of Mannix’s protégé, an uncompromising, vibrant personality who criticised both Left and Right. B A Santamaria is spoken of as a mentor to Tony Abbott and an influence on John Howard, who visited Santamaria on his deathbed, but Santamaria couldn’t stand Howard and his politics, and recommended Abbott not join the Liberal Party. As a champion of small businesses (in which he grew up) and the benefits of small farming communities he was distrustful of capitalism. Here history was against him, but he also saw through the egalitarian claims of communism long before many others. In line with his Catholicism, in the many publications he steered, he took a conservative stance on medical and sexual ethics. Henderson is impressed by Santamaria’s ability to speak fluently and at length unscripted on his long-running TV show, ‘A Point of View’.
Neither politician nor clergyman, Santamaria was yet a huge influence on both the Catholic Church and Australian politics, and was most famous for his anticommunism, which split the Labor Party and led to the formation of the DLP (effectively keeping Labor out of power for years). Despite Henderson’s stylistic idiosyncrasies (including a tendency to dismiss dissenting opinions with a quick put-down instead of thoughtful rebuttal), some AWOL editing and some tedious reconstruction of the machinations of various Catholic organisations, those intrigued by Australian politics will still find much of interest here. And taken together, these two biographies tell us about an older Melbourne, the experience of immigrants outside the Anglo-Saxon mainstream, and the previously prominent place of religion in our society.