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Tony Abbott's career echoes that of his political hero, B. A. Santamaria

The Prime Minister's willingness to be associated with the late Alan Reid's novel shows a high level of self-awareness.

Right-wing Melbourne ideologue Bob Santamaria (1915-98) was Tony Abbott's formative political hero. The Prime Minister still cherishes his memory. Signs of Santamaria's abiding presence in Abbott's imagination have continued to pop up recently, given that 2015 is Santamaria's centenary year. On July 30, the Prime Minister will launch a biography of Santamaria written by Gerard Henderson, a fellow former acolyte.

In a fascinating prelude to the Henderson book, Abbott has thrown his support behind the publication of a novel conceived in the 1950s, in which his lifelong hero Santamaria looms large. This novel, graced with a foreword by the Prime Minister, was just published for the first time, even though it was written decades ago. It is called The Bandar-Log: A Labor Story of the 1950s. Its author is legendary Canberra journalist Alan Reid, who died in 1987.

The well-read Reid derived the title of his novel from Rudyard Kipling. It represents the Hindi words for "monkey people". The unattractive people in question are the political figures who precipitated the self-destructive schism in the Labor Party in the 1950s, which is known popularly as "the Split".

Reid gave the characters in his novel Florentine-sounding names (such as "Kaye Seborjar" or "Carr Domineco") to summon a Machiavellian atmosphere, but the people associated with the Split on whom these characters are based are readily discernible.

The two leading protagonists at the time, and in Reid's novelised version of events, are federal Labor leader Dr H. V. Evatt (Seborjar), and Catholic organiser and ideologue Bob Santamaria (Domineco). Seborjar, like Evatt, is secular and nakedly ambitious ("He'd sell his mother if it helped his ambitions"). Domineco, like Santamaria, is suave ("a pope in a lawyer's suit") and pious. He is bent on a "Messianic mission".

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Early on, the two men, as they did in real life in 1952, form an ultra-pragmatic alliance. This pure marriage of convenience eventually ends in acrimony. Reid's novel culminates with his fictional Labor leader, as Evatt did in October 1954, hypocritically denouncing the Santamaria-like character in the novel as a "papal fascist".

Despite his story's stirring climax, Reid failed to get his novel published. A timid local publishing industry assumed that Evatt, whose paranoid streak Reid did not disguise in the novel, would sue for defamation if it ever appeared. The project was put on hold. A court case in 1961 failed to break the impasse.

The Bandar-Log affair was first examined in depth in a 2010 biography of Reid that I co-wrote with Professor Ross Fitzgerald. Last year, Fitzgerald undertook to edit a set of surviving galley proofs of the novel held in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. He was backed by Ballarat publisher Anthony Cappello.

Getting the Prime Minister to provide a foreword to the finished literary product was the icing on the cake.

In his foreword, Abbott expresses some unease at Reid's willingness to characterise Santamaria (Abbott's guru, no less) in the same, unflattering way that all the other power-obsessed characters in the novel are presented. The Prime Minister also points out that the modern Liberal Party, as well as today's ALP, is what it is because of Santamaria. The Liberal Party was once a Protestant outfit whereas Abbott's cabinet today contains numerous fellow Catholics. This flip in demographics can be traced back to Evatt's denunciation of Santamaria, which alienated many Catholics forever.

The split with Labor was exceptionally bitter for Santamaria because his natural political home, as he ever admitted, was in the right wing of the party. Santamaria's influence behind the scenes took off in 1941, when right-wing figures in the Victorian branch of the ALP recruited him as a factional resource.

The Labor right's favoured treatment shaped Santamaria for life. He always doubted the seriousness of the Liberal Party.

Santamaria's non-idealistic attitude to the Liberals rubbed off on his latter-day disciple, Abbott. Abbott only became a Liberal after Santamaria's fast-diminishing relevance declined even further in the 1980s. It was a second-best option.

Abbott's eventual association with the Liberal Party eerily resembles Santamaria's earlier factional connection with Evatt. It, too, is overly pragmatic – all about accessing the levers of power. The connection, while fuelled wonderfully by raw aggression, does not have a deep mooring in abiding bedrock principles.

The resulting weathervane aspects of Abbott, with his surprises and U-turns in government, is on a par with the volatility and overexcitement that characterised the bewildering interaction in the 1950s between the Prime Minister's future hero, Santamaria, and the unruly Evatt.

Symmetry between the 1950s and the Abbott era is why Reid's newly revived fictional recreation of the failed Evatt-Santamaria bromance resonates so powerfully with the Prime Minister. His willingness to be associated with Reid's tale of cynicism in high places shows a high level of self-awareness.

Stephen Holt is a Canberra writer. (Disclosure: Holt co-wrote an introduction to Ross Fitzgerald's edition of The Bandar-Log, though these comments are his own.) sjholt@fastmail.fm

The Bandar-Log: A Labor Story of the 1950s, by Alan Reid (edited by Ross Fitzgerald). Introduction by Ross Fitzgerald. Connor Court Publishing, May 2015. RRP: $34.95 (paperback)

Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man, by Gerard Henderson. Miegunyah Press, August 2015. RRP: $59.99 (hardback)