Memories of the Movement: John Cotter, Catholic Action and the Early Cold War

Phillip Deery

The following is based upon two long interviews I conducted with John Cotter, a ‘rank and file’ member of Catholic Action, in 1999. We first met at a conference on the Cold War, organised by the Melbourne Branch of the ASSLH in November 1998. He agreed to share with me some of his precious recollections – precious, because the literature on the Movement is so sparse and the voices of its participants are so silent. The secrecy that Cold War exigencies imposed upon Movement operations has endured. John Cotter begins to peel away some of that secrecy. The following deals only with the formative period from the late 1940s until the mid-1950s. Thereafter, Cotter became a full-time organiser for the National Civic Council, first in NSW, then Tasmania where he forged a close working relationship with James McAuley and Brian Harradine, and finally in Victoria where he was the pivotal link between the NCC and the Federated Clerks’ Union. He was the endorsed DLP candidate at several state and federal elections and was also active in the Knights of the Southern Cross.

Probably, one of the most decisive influences on my political life was the period I spent inside a Catholic junior seminary. From early 1948, when I was fifteen years old, to November 1951, I attended the Sacred Heart Apostolic School, at Douglas Park, south of Sydney. The atmosphere of religious life in a silent monastery was an appropriate preparation for the secretive politics of Catholic Action. I studied with a young man, Terry Knight, who had worked a few years ‘in the world’. He told me quietly about how he and two others, Frank Duffy and Jimmy Macken, had infiltrated the Communist Party’s Eureka Youth League on behalf of a secret group of Catholics in Melbourne. Terry claimed that they could put up with everything in the EYL ‘except the free love’. Years later he told me that Duffy ‘got the shit beaten out of him when the Comms discovered who he was’.

Around this time, in 1948 I think it was, Edgar Ross from the Communist Party debated with Dr Paddy Ryan MSC in the Rushcutters Bay stadium. The topic of debate was ‘Communism is in the best interests of the Australian people’, and we students were urged to pray for Dr Ryan in chapel. Fr. Kevin English MSC (another influence on my life and a relation of Jack Mundey) surprised me by suggesting that Edgar Ross won this important debate because he spoke the language of the workers far more than Paddy Ryan. In the seminary, we were also told about the persecution of Catholic prelates, Mindzenty, Stepinac and others, by Eastern European communist parties, and this sharpened my Catholic and anti-communist attitudes.

The books from which we were obliged to read aloud, for speech and elocution training, also had an impact on me. They included Herbert Philbrick’s I was a Communist for the FBI and Louis Budenz’s This is My Story. Budenz was an American communist who converted to Catholicism. The Fr. Superior also informed us of the sensational defection of a Communist Party leader, Cecil Sharpley whose revelations were published in the Melbourne Herald. This had a great impact on me, especially since my atheist father, a great fan of Chifley and an ally of Lloyd Edmonds and Maurie Crow in the Federated Clerks’ Union, had told me earlier about some of the rigged union ballots.

In the winter of 1949 I remember studying for my Leaving Certificate with a lighted candle on my desk because of the electricity restrictions caused by the communist-led coal strike. Fr. Superior assured us that it would be a hard struggle for Chifley and the anti-communist forces to defeat the dedicated atheistic communists. We, as junior seminarians, were obliged to do all we could to assist this struggle with prayer and penance. This became more urgent after a newspaper was read to us by one of the priests describing how someone’s briefcase flew open on a Brisbane railway platform revealing secret Communist plans. But the big news from the ‘outside world’ concerned a Mr Laurie Short of the Ironworkers Union and how his supporters in the union were actively fighting the communists. From this point, Short began to exert a continuous influence on my political life.

I started working for the Industrial Group in the Ironworkers’ Union in Melbourne in 1952. The Moonee Ponds/Ascot Vale ALP sub-branch president got me doorknocking. The aim was to support ALP Group candidates against ‘the Coms’ in the union elections. Then, I never knew of Santamaria’s organisation to which, later, I was to devote over twenty years of my life. It was the Labor Party for which I was campaigning. My ignorance of The Movement changed one Friday, when I heard the priest in St Francis Church, Melbourne, read out to the congregation, as he did each Friday, personal devotional letters and petitions to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. I had written one letter. When he read it out, the priest called the ALP Industrial groups something I had never heard. He said, ‘the Catholic Social Studies Movement’.

I boarded with my Irish relations in Moonee Ponds. I had visited Old Aunty Cis since my early childhood. She worked as a ‘domestic’ for Archbishop Mannix. She always wore black clothes and spoke the pacy Irish language of the Old World. I could never understand her repeated reference to ‘God’s rissole’. After I lived with her for a year, I realised she was referring to one of the faithful departed: ‘God bless ‘is soul’. More decipherable were her views on News Weekly which she thought too expensive for the size: ‘Nowt much noos in thut teeny ting’. News Weekly was promoted by Mr Moloney, who lived in the same street. He also encouraged me to listen to the ALP assistant state secretary, Frank McManus, on the ALP’s own station, 3KZ. My father’s people had been close neighbours and friends of Arthur Calwell (or ‘Artoor Colwell’ as he was called by the Irish). Maternal grandad, Martin Aloysius Tierney, remarked when Chifley died and Evatt became leader: ‘Evatt has never been a man of the people and never will be’. But, generally, the Brunswick Tierneys were Evatt supporters. I played cards with them every Friday and Sunday night. They never baited me. They raised the name of Santamaria now and then unfavourably but at that stage I didn’t know him.

In 1952 I joined the Ascot Vale Catholic Young Men’s Society. Until then I was not in the know. Even in the churchyard after Mass a group of men went silent when I approached. There was something secretive being discussed which stopped the moment I entered their company. This clandestine mentality was introduced one night to a local meeting of the CYMS. A guest speaker urged us to be on the alert: if we noticed a group of cars parked outside a house, we should write down the numberplates and hand in the details to the next meeting. Most of us shook our heads in disbelief and I thought to myself: there are Catholics and there are Catholics.

One night in 1953 the older members of the Ascot Vale Labor Party sub-branch took me to the Exhibition Buildings. It was not a Labor Party affair but a Catholic Church rally. In the car on the way in I felt out of depth with the elders’ conversation: they seemed so much in the know about things. It was a massive rally, packed to the rafters. On the stage was Archbishop Mannix, sitting up ramrod. The special civic guests were R.G. Casey, one of the most senior politicians in the Liberal Party and the Minister for External Affairs, and Dr Evatt, the parliamentary leader of the Labor Opposition. Casey dressed stiffly, with medals and bright ribbons and a morning suit of black coat and grey-black trousers. I had not before witnessed such formality. Dr Evatt wore an ordinary baggy grey suit that hung on him loosely. Over one arm he carried a gabardine overcoat and his hand clasped a large grey felt hat. I remember thinking he looked like a blow-in.

The main speaker was a very short cherubic faced man, Mr B A Santamaria, from Catholic Action. So this, I thought, is the face to the name! He spoke like a machine gun. Arms waving after he warmed up; hands and finger gestures galore. His rhetoric carried me along. But my lasting memory of that night was Dr Evatt’s speech practically grovelling to this young Santamaria. It was so amazing it was difficult to believe. The other lasting memory of that night was going home in the car and Dinny Moloney complaining all the way that Evatt’s garb had that night let us down socially. ‘What does he think we are?’, he kept repeating.

In 1955 the Brunswick West parish group leader of the Catholic Social Movement, Eric Feldtsheer, invited me to a series of recruitment lectures called the ‘Rookies Course’. This was my first formal step into the Movement. It was to change my life for the next 30 years, if not permanently. The drive into the first night of the Rookies was quiet. Instead of a car-full of Catholic Actionists, as I expected would be the case, I was the only passenger. But soon I saw bodies moving silently in the half light around St John’s church hall, East Melbourne. There were one hundred or more there. There were none of the usual Catholic noises about the place: piano, choir practice, card players, Irish dancing. People stepped faster too, even urgently. No waiting outside the door with a cigarette and a broad smile to greet familiar faces. It was all move along and get inside. And inside there was no churchlike greeting. Instead: ‘Name?’ a severe face asked as it peered down a list on the bare wooden table – the credentials table. Once credentialled, I moved to a group that did not talk. They looked at me as though I was an inquisitive Trojan Horse. Yet some were pro- Arthur Calwell people from the Flemington parish: perhaps, I thought, it might be a Catholic Worker do. But the men in charge that night looked too urgent for that. They took themselves very seriously. Every action was quick and deliberate. They looked more like a special brand of plain-clothed detectives than relaxed Holy Name men. The officials all seemed to smoke their cigarettes with intensity. The presentations were dramatic but credible.

For one evening weekly over six or eight weeks the speeches went on. There was coverage of the global strategy of world Communism, given by Bob Santamaria. The main speakers I remembered were Fr Harold Lalor SJ, Hugh Slattery, Frank Duffy, Frank Clancey and Frank Neenan. The problem was to decide whether this worrisome presentation was real or not. When I caught the tram home later, the world had a refreshingly normal look. It was nice to be back in it again. Thinking over the facts as presented demanded a lot of consideration. The unattractive side was the intensity of the operators of the Course. The attractive side was the regular attendance of ‘normal’ outsiders like myself. I noticed some League footballers were there; one was a Brownlow Medal winner from St Kilda; another was Carlton’s ‘Muncher’ Molony, my mate, and brother of Fr John Molony whom the money was on for next Bishop of Ballarat. Fr Molony was a Rome graduate, a Ballarat priest icon, and later the Movement chaplain in the Ballarat diocese. The ecclesiastical chair of The Movement, Bishop O’Collins of Ballarat, regarded Fr Molony highly: he later became a Professor of History.

If these people were joining the Movement, why isn’t everybody? Probably the thing that helped my conversion was the attendance of my former classmate from Assumption College Kilmore, Johnny Wright. ‘What do you think of it, Johnny? Is it stretched, Johnny?’ Johnny and his brother Jimmy were onside but Bruce, the eldest brother, was pro-Catholic Worker. Decisions! I noticed there were no girls my age or younger there.

Fr Harold Lalor SJ was a dynamic speaker. He looked too severe to be an attractive character and he dragged hard on his cigarettes. But you could hear a pin drop. He supplied an exaggerated spiritual framework to the political details of the laymen speakers. I remember being struck by the fact that the mere mention of Mannix brought applause. Dr Mannix was the keystone here, the absent presence. The Rookies Course with Fr Lalor at the helm was a kind of lay novitiate, a tense religious mission. The great sin was apathy. This is a decision between you and God. From now on it’s your conscience. But there was no sign of Irishness in it. No Daniel O’Connell, no Jimmy Scullin, no John Curtin, or Ben Chifley. No old Labor orthodoxy. This was only for Catholic anti-Communist thoroughbreds.

I remember clearly a big meeting immediately post the Rookies meetings. Fr Lalor spoke. It was a packed audience of Movement members. He was in his Jesuit robe. He created a night of breathless intensity. Martyrdom was in the air. People really did lean further and further forward in their seats. Absolute silence during his pauses. Suddenly he finished with ‘God love you!’ Earshattering applause. The Jesuit stood there like marble. Even when the audience broke up, Fr Lalor still stood there as if hypnotised by his own oratory.
The other speaker was Bob Santamaria. Listening to Bob’s speeches after one had committed oneself to the Movement almost gave that ordinary lay secular commitment the force of perpetual monastic vows. Santamaria’s speech was serious like Lalor’s but had light with shade. Early on, he always raised laughs over football, then over himself somehow, either as a peasant or whatever. He represented himself as a ‘true blue’ football follower always in the outer, never in the Member’s. Into his speeches he would make clever comments about Sydney Catholics or Dr Evatt. He would quote some old story about some saint that everyone had learnt at school such as God pushing St Teresa of Avila off her horse. And he would refer to manning the same polling booth as Sam Cohen, a Jewish ALP Senator. Sam, he said, insisted on chatting with him and Bob kept trying to get away but Sam insisted on shaking hands. Bob told that audience that Sam’s handshake was ‘greasy’. An unhealthy hum rose from the audience.

Once a member of the Catholic Social Movement, I summoned up the courage to sell News Weekly. There was a wrought iron news stand managed by the Limbless Soldiers in Elizabeth Street just up from the Flinders Street Station. I bought my supply from the limbless soldier there and steadily I increased my order. I was surprised by my sales success and soon I was being noticed by the Movement hierarchy. But there were costs: in Sydney, Dr Paddy Ryan MSC physically turned his back on me in disgust at my joining Santamaria.

Allowing for my memory and for the frequent changes in the names of titles and roles, it was the ‘parish’ group leader who played a central organisational role in the Movement. He was the key person, the organiser of the work distribution, the announcer of the Headquarters line, the booster of morale, the fortnightly group meeting chairperson. There was a time in Melbourne in the early 1960s that groups had a ‘three man executive’ but there was at least one group that could not maintain a ‘three man executive’ because there were only two people in the whole group. But the idea was to share the load for the leader. These rank and file group leaders were the motor of the Movement.

The ‘parish’ leader operated on the standard six point programme of group activity: recruitment at the group, union and political levels; census intelligence; propaganda; and fundraising. The ‘soft’ jobs were letters to the editor and politicians, letterboxing, rallies, demonstrations, protests, conferences, and waving banners. The ‘hard’ job was the doorknocking. This was supposed to be done one night per week. Parish groups usually met in a home; sometimes in a hired room or hall; or a convent school classroom – rarely a presbytery. Smaller conferences, both national or state, were held in various monasteries or convents or Catholic school halls; occasionally we met in Belloc House, a Jesuit Institute. For large conventions and rallies we used Xavier College in Melbourne and, in Sydney, the Sacred Heart Monastery at Kensington.

But the Movement was actually structured from the top down not the bottom up. The National Executive, consisting normally of full-time officers from the states, met in Melbourne quarterly. A National Conference occurred yearly. Very little came up from the floor. Usually a whole day was made available to John Maynes to speak on ‘industrial issues’. But most of the time Bob Santamaria made all the speeches.

Before the Split in 1955, I don’t think there were many formal structures, even in Victoria, but after the Split, the national headquarters in Melbourne became the hub. The national office contained the Victorian office. The Latrobe Valley had a full-time operation under Des Devlin with concentration on the Gippsland Trades and Labor Council because of State Electricity Commission power generation for Victoria. The other states were so weak they depended almost entirely on the national office until the 1960s. This served to consolidate the authority of Santamaria.

Through my personal involvement in the Movement and its successor, the National Civic Council, I became convinced that the bulk of our rank and file were, like me, working class Catholics who were not anti-Left (most of us, after all were, Irish) but anti-Communist. Certainly our people were religiously and morally conservative. And I can understand how Bob Santamaria was interpreted by the general community. But most of us continued to think of ourselves as Labor people. My own background was Catholic, Irish-Australian and consistently unionist. My paternal grandfather, his brothers, sons, nephews and a niece all worked on the railways in Melbourne. My maternal grandfather, Martin Aloysius Tierney, lost his job during the 1917 conscription crisis. He took out his Labor Party ticket every year. In his early Ballarat days, he and the future Labor Prime Minister, Jimmy Scullin, courted girls from the same potato-growing and railway gatekeeper family in Bungaree.

Even Bishops did not forget their roots. Young Jim O’Collins, for example, was a Gas Workers unionist at Port Melbourne and worked closely with Charlie Crofts, a pioneer of the ACTU. Later, he was the Bishop of Ballarat and chairman of the Episcopal Committee of The Movement. When I stood for the DLP in 1980, I informed him with some trepidation that my second preferences would go to the ALP candidate. His Lordship simply said: ‘Them Liberals never were no bloody good’. But by then I had left The Movement, the NCC and Bob Santamaria and started a life ‘in the world’. But how that happened is another story.