If Tony Abbott is sworn in as prime minister next week, he will become the second Catholic to lead Australia’s main conservative party in office. The other was Joseph Lyons, who left the Labor Party during the Great Depression and led the United Australia Party to victory in the December 1931 election. Lyons had deep religious faith but he never let it interfere with his public duties.
Much anti-Catholic sectarianism in Australia had dissipated by the middle of last century. This was partly due to Lyons’ performance and partly due to the unifying effect of the Pacific War. But this sectarianism has not been eliminated.
Abbott’s election as Liberal Party leader on December 1, 2009, sparked a revival of the long-standing fear of Catholics in Australia. The concern was not that Abbott was Catholic – so were his predecessors, Brendan Nelson and convert Malcolm Turnbull. Rather, the focus on Abbott turned on his perceived social conservatism, which some saw as a manifestation of his one-time mentor, B. A. Santamaria (1915-1998) and his friend Cardinal George Pell.
This concern was kicked off by Rob Oakeshott, independent MP for Lyne, who told the Port Macquarie News that Abbott ”listens when allowed” and stated that ”his natural starting point is of concern for Australian politics where no separation of church and state exists in principle”.
Oakeshott was saying that Abbott could not be trusted because he was a social conservative Catholic who would take orders from the hierarchy.
In an article titled ”On Your Bike Tony Abbott”, published in the April 2010 issue of The Monthly , Professor Robert Manne wrote that ”throughout his life, Abbott has wrestled with the Santamaria legacy”. Manne, who is not a Catholic, neglected to reveal his own almost two-decade long close association with Santamaria.
Manne examined the debate about the role Abbott’s ”Catholic faith was likely to play” if he became prime minister. Manne identified the ”left-wing version” with Liz Jackson, who profiled Abbott for the ABC’s Four Corners in March 2010. He defined the Jackson position as depicting Abbott as ”an unreconstructed and old-fashioned Catholic who does not believe in the separation of church and state”.
Manne contrasted this view with an interpretation by the likes of journalist Paul Kelly. Namely, that ”Abbott is clear about the need to separate church and state” and ”is no more likely to impose his personal religious views than his no less religious rival, Kevin Rudd”. Manne described Jackson’s interpretation as ”more accurate”.
In a recent statement to the John Button Foundation, author David Marr sided with Jackson and Manne. According to Marr, Abbott cannot do what appears to matter most to him since ”the electorate won’t let him pursue his religious convictions”.
There are two problems with this. First, Abbott’s religious convictions are nowhere near as strong or conservative as Marr believes. Second, Abbott has never exhibited any desire to pursue his religious convictions in politics. As health minister in the Howard government, he did not attempt to dismantle Australia’s abortion laws.
Even Santamaria understood the division between church and state. In B. A. Santamaria: Running the Show, Patrick Morgan published a document from a private 1953 meeting that revealed Santamaria’s priorities in the early 1950s consisted of clean trade union ballots, state aid for all non-government schools and increased immigration leading to land settlements on small farms. That was a secular agenda.
Last weekend, The Sunday Age ran an exclusive by Royce Millar on the Coalition’s intention, if elected, to abolish the recently established charities commission. According to Millar, Abbott and his Catholic colleagues are responding to the wishes of ”church conservatives”, led by Pell. The suggestion is Pell does not want Catholic charities properly regulated by government.
The article was replete with mocking references to ”spiritual guidance” and a cartoon of Pell implying that he only wants to respond to God, not government. This is complete nonsense. Large parts of the not-for-profit sector are upset by the additional regulation imposed by Labor’s charities commission. This is not of exclusive concern to conservative Catholics.
The current issue of the The Economist contains a poorly argued article that condemns Abbott’s ”social conservatism” and maintains he has a ”defective personality”. Yet Abbott’s social conservatism appears to be popular in suburban and regional Australia, where most voters junked anti-Catholic sectarianism decades ago and few read The Economist.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.