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Abbott, Santamaria and Catholic Liberals

  • 30 March 2010

Tony 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,