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Abbott, Santamaria and Catholic Liberals


Tony Abbott, Benedict and usTony Abbott is the most prominent current Australian political leader with ties to the Labor Split of the 1950s, through his personal association with B. A. Santamaria, the leader of the Catholic Social Studies Movement.

The Movement was central to the politics of that Split. It produced the Democratic Labor Party which was not only anti-Communist and socially conservative but was also traditional Labor in its economic policies. 

Other current politicians have connections through their parents and through its residue in party and union politics. But no one else has ties as deep as Abbott, who stresses the closeness of his association with Santamaria, his personal inspiration and mentor from school days onwards.

Abbott joined the Sydney University Democratic Club, supported by Santamaria's National Civic Council, before he moved on to the Liberals. Abbott often reflects on the consequences of this period, including the rise of Catholic Liberals. He has been known to observe enigmatically that the DLP is alive and well within his party.

Abbott has personified church ties with politics through his relationship with the man he has called his confessor, Cardinal George Pell. In the past the relationship of Catholics with their church authorities has contributed to Protestant distrust. And the Liberal Party has been deeply Protestant in its composition and beliefs.

As Malcolm Fraser recalls in his recent memoirs, when he asked his parents what was wrong with Catholics he was told 'Well, they are different. They are not Australians; they owe their loyalty to the Pope.'

The transfer of Catholic allegiance from Labor to the Liberals at the parliamentary level has been the most dramatic shift in Australian politics over the past 50 years. The astounding numbers have attracted attention, but many questions have been left unanswered about the impact of their arrival on the party. Has the transfer shaped the Liberals, matters of life-and-death morality like euthanasia and abortion aside?

Abbott himself explored this question in his Sir Philip Lynch Memorial Lecture in 2004. He argued that the influx had 'broadened the Liberals' social and economic base' and made the party less starchy and more eclectic. It had changed Liberal culture by providing more feel for the underdog and making it less wowserish. But he concluded that there had been no really major distinctive Catholic contribution to party policy debates.

His analysis may be right but it neglects the more sensitive area of policy. Now Paul Kelly, the national political commentator in The Australian newspaper, has opened up a rich vein of speculation. In regards to Abbott's parental leave scheme, funded by a tax on big business, Kelly reckons he sees a distinctive Catholic Liberal approach, or at least an Abbott-Catholic Liberal approach.

In particular he recognises a Catholic social tradition as espoused by Santamaria, a tradition suspicious of the market and of big business. Kelly goes so far as to argue that this new policy 'shows Abbott's emotional preference for Santamaria over Howard'.

He argues that Abbott represents a departure from the Liberal mainstream. He makes him sound like the Independent Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine, another with deep roots on the Santamaria side of the Split and a commitment to Catholic social teaching.

Kelly needs a lot more evidence and more examples before his proposition holds that Abbott is deeply indebted to Santamaria in his policy stances. But he raises two fascinating questions. First, is Abbott drawing on some instincts deeply lodged in Catholic social teaching? The evidence is slight. Certainly if he is then it is just one strand in church thinking.

The second question is whether Abbott is a one-off or represents a larger group of Catholic Liberals. There are certainly enough other senior Catholic Liberals, like Joe Hockey, Kevin Andrews and Andrew Robb, to make a difference if they constitute a distinctive and coherent group. But in fact there are as many different types of Catholic Liberals as there are Labor sub-factions. They are on all sides of the party.

Nevertheless you can't change the demographics of a political party as much as the Liberals have changed without ultimately questioning aspects of party philosophy.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Flinders University and a columnist with The Canberra Times

Topic tags: tony abbott, ba santamaria, cardinal george pell, catholic social teaching, catholic liberals



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Existing comments

I would like someone to look at the odd coincidence (statistical blip?) that so many of the Liberal Party Catholics attended Jesuit schools - Abbott, Hockey, Nelson, Pyne, McGauran, probably others.

I suppose it is a trivial question and potentially divisive and need not be taken seriously. But assuming that traditional Catholic Labor politicians attended Brothers' schools - Christies, Pats, Marist - is there a message here?

And is there a similar story on the distaff side?

Frank | 29 March 2010  

Yet another thought provoking article in Eureka Street. This publication is very valuable to the thinking Catholic (and non Catholic for that matter). Congratulations to all involved. As for Mr Abbott's ties to the Catholic church and George Pell, well one has to be somewhat sceptical. Would Jesus Christ support the refugee policies of the Howard government and future Abbott government. Would Jesus Christ support free and open access to health care or would he favour a private health system that only the wealthy can access. Would Jesus Christ support work choices or a system of industrial relations that had an independent umpire which was fair to both employee and employer.

I do find it very difficult to understand how Mr Abbott can resolve the clear conflicts between his religion and his pronounced policies! In turn I dont believe that the vast majority of Catholics have moved over to the Liberal Party and perhaps the Liberal party needs to be wary of the ones that have.

Andrew Teece | 29 March 2010  

Paul Kelly's analysis is naive. The problem for Liberal Catholics is they can never totally reconcile themselves with the social teaching of Church when it comes to the world of work and employment. The Liberal Party are still wedded to a notion of relationships at work and a model of employment that has been staunchly criticised in the Social encyclicals for 150 years.

It is interesting how rigidly Liberal Catholics cling to Church teaching on matters of "right to life" but seek to disassociate themselves from the clear teaching of the Church on work and labour.

Mark Perica | 29 March 2010  

I would like someone to look at the odd coincidence (statistical blip?) that so many of the Liberal Party Catholics attended Jesuit schools - Abbott, Hockey, Nelson, Pyne, McGauran, probably others.

I suppose it is a trivial question and potentially divisive and need not be taken seriously. But assuming that traditional Catholic Labor politicians attended Brothers' schools - Christies, Pats, Marist - is there a message here?

And is there a similar story on the distaff side?

Frank | 29 March 2010  

When I left Christian Brothers High School Lewisham in 1955 we were advised by the brothers 'boys join the Labor Pary, join a union and be your PP's right hand man.'

I have generally stuck to that advice.

Chris J Develin | 29 March 2010  

I too have noticed the strong Jesuit link with these Catholic Liberals.
As an old Patrician Brothers boy from Sydney I was inculcated with the 'three pillars':
Catholicism of the Irish bent.
The Labor Party.
Rugby League.

I have since wandered far and wide but see no need to deviate from those basic principles.

Conversely, we all knew that Riverview boys were arrogant 'born to rule' rugger types who spent far too much time in the company of priests - not much has changed.

chris | 29 March 2010  

An interesting article for political connoisseurs. One of the commentators mentioned the trivial issue of Liberal Party Catholics being educated by the Jesuits; this reminds me of my membership of the Communist Party of Australia in the 1970's when most members had a Catholic education. What does it mean? Probably a good education. I was educated by my parents who had a strong social justice attitude and an Irish and German background, which was enhanced by the Mercy Nuns and the Christian Brothers. This background has allowed me to develop a liberal philosophy on both social and theological issues. One of my influences has been the life and political philosophies of the Irishman James Connolly, who was a Marxist and devout Catholic. It is not surprising that the Australian Liberal Party has attracted a number of Catholics; this party is a better fit for Catholics who are morally conservative and socially liberal for people such as George Pell and Tony Abbott. However, where are the liberal women in this group. Our society would be better if everyone had a better knowledge of history and understanding of different opinions plus better skills for rational and logical thinking and reasoning.

Mark Doyle | 29 March 2010  

'Nevertheless you can't change the demographics of a political party as much as the Liberals have changed without ultimately questioning aspects of party philosophy'. John is 100% correct in saying this, but Tony Abbott's rise to leadership has nothing to do with Liberal party philosophy or being Catholic. It has only to do with Tony Abbott. Abbott is a tough, brawling politician, given the nod for the leadership by the Liberal heavies in order to lead the opposition by OPPOSING. The danger to any country is greatest when powerful and ethical leaders, like John Curtin, appear in their midst. Tony Abbott is such a leader. So Australia beware! If Abbott is elected PM it will only happen if our country is in dire peril.

Claude Rigney | 30 March 2010  

The connection between Abbott's religious belief's and the policy's he adopts are problematical to say the least, as they are for his political opponents as well. Neither party is able or willing to alter funding for abortions or altering access to RU-486. While Santamaria was an Integralist and committed on matters of principle he was never confronted with belonging to a political party or to winning political power. Decisions taken by both major parties are influenced more by pragmatism than by principle. Political purity counts for nothing if you do not have the numbers - on both sides of politics.

len | 30 March 2010  

NO-one ever told us how to vote at school - that would have been some kind of manipulation and would have been recognised as such.

I think Abbott is on to a more real Australia - while Labor may say they are for the working man they cannot translate their utopian ideas into reality - Rudd's neglect of the Aborigines is a total disgrace - his apology was just so much hot air for all that it was a nice gesture.

Abbott is much more down to earth and in tune with the realities of life. I think in time people will realise this. Many can't stand Rudd waffle any longer.

Skye | 30 March 2010  

Tony Abbott dosen't need the support of liberal catholics or conservative catholics. He has the support of Loyal Catholics, loyal to the Pope and loyal to the Magisterium and staunch admirers of the late Bob Santamaria.

Ron Cini | 30 March 2010  

A thoughtful article - but what points does it make in the end?
That the Liberal Party has "been taken over" by the Catholics ? No - it makes a point that a particular faction within the Liberal Party has a prominent posoition.

Look at the ALP and do a careful study of the religious background of the parliamentary membership both at all State and Federal levels and you may get a similar picture.

Nick | 30 March 2010  

Reading the submitted comments on Warhurst's contribution, I can't help thinking that the Catholic church and those allied to its dogma have not moved far, at least historically speaking, from the days of the Inquisition. The Catholic Church seems to breed the kind of people who introduced syphilis and influenza to the world they conquered, imprisoned and enslaved the indigenous population of the countries they colonised.

We should be concerned that the Opposition's frontbench is dominated by people who share the same religious philosophy that has largely been responsible for so much of human grief in the history of Western culture. Perhaps, we should all remind ourselves that history has a habit of repeating.

Alex Njoo | 30 March 2010  

Tony Abbott resigned from Malcolm Turnbull's font bench on "principle" because he (Abbott) opposed the emissions trading scheme.

Yet he remained on John Howard's front bench throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles. He was therefore (and remains) complicit in the Shock & Awe bombing of Baghdad, waterboarding torture, children behind razor wire, the rendition of suspects to Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Morocco, and Uzbekistan, the abandonment of David Hicks to his USA torturers: and multiple other abuses about which the Howard government did nothing.

What does this say about Tony Abbott's "principles"?

Gordon Rowland | 31 March 2010  

I would agree with Claude that 'Tony Abbott's rise to leadership has nothing to do with him being a Catholic' and much more to do with his combative pugilistic style which suited the born-to-rule heavies in the Liberal Party.

Claude says that 'If Abbott is elected PM it will only happen if our country is in dire peril'. I suggest that if Abbott is elected PM our country will certainly be in dire peril, not because of his Catholicism, but because of his lack of principles, as Gordon has pointed out.

Ginger Meggs | 03 April 2010  

Alex Njoo: Most of the European explorers/settlers who unwittingly gave influenza to newly-discovered native peoples were protestant or nonreligious, not Catholic. (Influenza was already present in mainland America.) Syphilis went the other direction - from America to Europe via European sailors (of all religions and none). Nobody had any idea why this happened until the devout Catholic Pasteur showed that infectious diseases are spread by microorganisms.

The Catholic Church has always been the strongest opponent of the conquest, imprisonment and enslavement of the indigenous population of the countries which Europeans colonised.

The Catholic Inquisitions, for all their faults, were by far the fairest and most humane court system which the world had ever seen up til their time. They introduced most of the features which we most cherish in our civil legal system today.

Ronk | 06 April 2010  

Your article mentions the “DLP” and hence, provides an opportunity to promulgate the view that because the Liberal Party has factions and divisions, most notably in the area of Social Policy, the timing has become right to exercise the option of reconstituting the DLP Australia wide.

This has been ongoing for the past 2 and a half years and observation tells us there still remains, within the Australian Christian culture, a strong recognition of what the Party stands for.

There is a growing trend in Australia away from the two major parties brought about by perceived “weak” social policy not to mention factionalism as well as a continuum of unfulfilled election promises.

The DLP is an alternative option for Australian voters representing the strength of democracy combined with a strong sense of purpose and commitment to the Australian people; to conduct Government within good moral and ethical principles and to build and prosper the Country for the benefit of all Australians.

The DLP will be contesting future Elections throughout Australia.

David McCabe
Federal President
Democratic Labor Party

D McCabe | 06 April 2010  

As always, John Warhurst writes with balance and wisdom. Given the importance of Bob Santamaria's influence on Australian politics in the second half of the 20th Century, there is every reason to look at the possibility that his influence survives through Tony Abbott and others. In his debate with Bruce Duncan, occasioned by Duncan's reflection on the life of the recently deceased Rosemary Goldie, and in subsequent newspaper articles, Gerard Windsor minimises Santamaria's impact on Abbott. While he makes some valable points, derived partly from his own personal knowledge of the people and events involved, other commentators, like Paul Kelly, Louis Nowra, Michael Duffy and Warhurst, differ from him - and are able to quote Abbott's own words on the subject. It is disappointing that neither the recent Four Corners program on Abbott nor the Q & A program featuring him made any mention of Santamaria. It is good that the likes of Warhurst, Henderson and Duncan are addressing the issue from different perspectives.

Michael Costigan | 07 April 2010  

Did I say Gerard Windsor when of course I meant Gerard Henderson? It was late at night and I was needing sleep. Anyway, they both, like many of the others we are discussing, are good Jesuit boys.

Michael Costigan | 07 April 2010  

I agree with Gordon Rowland and Ginger Meggs about Abbott “lack of principles” which actually which can NEVER be reconciled with his (ALLEGED) Christian beliefs.

Abbott has completely failed to consider the some of the basic tenets of Christianity:

That you do NOT look upon another human being with scorn and condescension - regardless of status or colour or creed, etc. this being a most serious sin (eg regarding refugees as less than human and when they are actually in need of protection and shelter).

Abbott has failed to consider (as a Catholic absolutely MUST):
1. The right of every person to human rights and not demonising people who are genuinely doing it tough
2. The right of every person to adequate food, shelter, protection
3. The right of every person to equality of access to education, health, employment and basic services
4. The right of every person both present and future generations, to live in a safe, healthy and secure environment
5. The right and duty of every person to contribute to society to the extent that they are able
6. The right of every person to live according to their own beliefs, to the extent that those beliefs do not impact upon the rights of others.

Archbishop Wilson said: “The Catholic Church does not take sides in politics but proposes the above essentials to be in the criteria… We have survived the Global Financial Crisis and continue to be a strong economy…need to consider what type of country we really need”

Thus far, all we hear on the media, and from Abbott, are demands arising from extreme personal greed.

MCS | 22 August 2010  

there should be no place in australian politics for religious nutters

harold | 17 July 2012  

To take Abbott seriously as Warhurst and the comment makers, beggars belief. He does not espouse the principals of Santa Maria, the DLP or the Church itself. Abbott is all about Abbott. He will be a disaster if he ever becomes PM.

Garry Evans | 27 May 2016  

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