The anti-Catholic sectarianism that was so strong in Australia during the first six decades of the 20th century has scant outcomes today. However, its legacy has led to a profound misunderstanding of Catholics and Catholicism among some commentators and historians.

Two examples illustrate the point: namely, the second episode of Howard on Menzies: The Making of Modern Australia, which aired on ABC television on September 25. It featured John Howard and many other commenta­tors but was written and directed by filmmaker Simon Nasht. Then there is the article on the Shop Distributive & Allied Employees Association by Royce Millar and Ben Schneiders in Fairfax Media’s Good Weekend magazine (“Shop­ped Out”, September 3).

If the “history wars” are a reality, then the Liberal Party is losing. In 2005, the Howard gov­ernment provided an additional $7.5 million to Film Australia to produce “high-quality documentaries on Australian history”. One of these films was Menzies and Churchill at War, which aired on the ABC in October 2008.

The documentary, written and directed by John Moore of 360 Degree Films, ran left-wing his­tor­ian David Day’s line that, in 1941, Australian prime minister Robert Menzies wanted to replace Winston Churchill as British prime minister and that there was substantial support in influential circles in Britain for him to do so.

As readers of my Media Watch Dog blog will be aware, Day has not been able to provide the name of one historian of modern Britain or one Churchill biographer who supports his view. But Menzies and Churchill at War is shown in educational institutions as an authoritative work of history.

The idea for Howard on Menzies came initially from the Menzies Research Centre. The first episode, which covers the period from Menzies’ birth to the royal tour of early 1954, contains no historical errors. However, the early part of the second episode is seriously flawed.

Take the Labor Split of the 1950s, for example. The comments by Howard and Greg Sheridan about the period are fine. But Linda Cropper’s narration, written by Nasht, repeats the anti-Catholic prejudices of the time.

Labor leader Bert Evatt lost the May 1954 election. He subsequently turned on the Victorian branch of the ALP, which was strongly anti-communist. This is Nasht’s script: “Opposition leader Doc Evatt sees enemies everywhere, especially the anti-communists within his own party. When he challenges these mostly Catholic members to choose between their politics or the Pope, they choose the church.”

This is the old hoary myth that Catholics follow the Pope on all matters and put their loyalty to the Holy See above their commitment to their own nation.

Apart from that, Nasht’s comment is hopelessly wrong. Even before the Labor Split of 1955, the Catholic Church in Australia was divided over politics. About half the members of the Catholic hierarchy, led by archbishop of Melbourne Daniel Mannix, supported the anti-com­mun­ist activities of Catholic layman BA Santamaria. And about half, led by the cardinal archbishop of Sydney, Norman Gilroy, believed Santamaria’s political activities should not be sanctioned by the church.

When, largely at Evatt’s initiative, the Split occurred, Mannix and his supporters went with Santamaria, who supported the breakaway anti-communist parliamentarians who later formed the Democratic Labor Party. Gilroy in Sydney supported those who stayed in the ALP and opposed the DLP. In fact, many prominent Catholics remained in the ALP after the Split, including Arthur Calwell and Patrick Kennelly. In time, Gilroy sought the Vatican’s intervention to resolve the conflict. In 1957, Pope Pius XII ruled in favour of Gilroy’s position and against Mannix. So much for Nasht’s assertion that the Catholics who ended up in the DLP followed the Pope.

Nasht’s script is also misleading about the impact of the defection of diplomats Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov from the Soviet Union’s embassy in Canberra on Menzies’ victory at the 1954 election. Yet this episode of Howard on Menzies is intended to be sent by the Menzies Research Centre to schools as an educational tool.

On any analysis, the SDA is one of Australia’s most successful trade unions. It has no history of violence or financial corruption and its members are among the best paid retail and fast food workers in the world. The union, until recently under the leadership of Joe de Bruyn (who remains SDA president), consistently opposed reforms of Australia’s highly regulated industrial relations system such as the Howard government’s Work Choices legislation.

Since Coles, Woolworths, McDonald’s and the like are heavily unionised, it stands to reason that the SDA wants as many Australians as possible employed in the workforce at the highest possible hourly rate of pay.

In recent times, the SDA has come under some criticism for agreements negotiated with employers. It’s possible the SDA might have cut better deals for its members in some instances. But even some former and present left-wing trade union officials concede that de Bruyn and his colleagues have been impeccable operatives in the cause of the SDA’s members and the trade union movement.

Yet the whole focus of the Good Weekend article by Millar and Schneiders is that the SDA is too Catholic. Indeed, in a 4300-word piece, the word Catholic is mentioned on 16 occasions.

The Fairfax journalists even accuse the SDA of adopting communist dictator Joe Stalin’s methods. Millar and Schneiders are so emotional about the SDA that they write: “Stalin only ran the Soviet Union for three decades. In 36 years, Joe de Bruyn was not once challenged as SDA national secretary.” How unhinged can you get? The journalists conven­iently overlook that there were no free elections in the Soviet Union and that Stalin murdered his opponents. Their essential gripe with the SDA is that its leadership has been socially conservative and that until recently it opposed same-sex mar­riage.

Like Nasht, Millar and Schneiders appear to believe that Catholics obey the church’s orders on all matters. This is bunk, a hangover from the anti-Catholic sectarianism of old.