There’s little prospect the Liberal Party will follow Labor down the disastrous path of a big split, writes Gerard Henderson.

Fear not. The turmoil of the Liberal Party is unlikely to replicate the Labor split of half a century ago which led to the formation of the breakaway Democratic Labor Party over which the Catholic activist B. A. Santamaria exercised considerable influence.

This is despite the fact that Tony Abbott described Santamaria as his first political mentor, in his book Battlelines.

In the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s there were very few Catholics in the Liberal Party. The governments led by Robert Menzies, Harold Holt, John Gorton and William McMahon usually had one Catholic in the cabinet. That was about it. The Coalition benefited from DLP preferences but most of those who left the ALP, or were expelled from it, did not join the Liberal Party.

It was different with the sons and daughters of those who left Labor at the time of the split and/or were followers of Santamaria’s movement. Many of them joined the Liberal and National parties and some of them are influential in the Coalition today. They include Abbott, Andrew Robb, George Brandis and Brett Mason. Kevin Andrews was involved with Santamaria on family issues before he entered politics.

When Santamaria died in 1998, Abbott wrote an obituary in which he claimed that “the DLP is alive and well and living inside the Howard Government”. His claim overlooked the fact that Santamaria liked neither Labor nor the Liberals. In private, and sometimes in public, Santamaria was critical of the Liberal Party’s leading figures – Menzies, Malcolm Fraser and John Howard.

Both Abbott and Andrews sought Santamaria’s advice before contesting Liberal Party preselection. He told them that, win or lose, they would be wasting their time.

The weakness of the conservative intellectual tradition in Australia is evident in the fact that a high proportion of the relatively few right-of-centre commentators have a background on the left. It also happens to be the case that many of the contemporary Liberals who are best equipped to prosecute an ideological argument come from a DLP background. The list includes Abbott, Brandis and Robb.

Abbott’s background should not be exaggerated in the current crisis within the Liberal Party. Abbott comes from a DLP tradition – but not Nick Minchin. Yet it was Abbott and Minchin who put Turnbull under pressure for supporting climate change legislation before the United Nations’ Copenhagen meeting.

Also it should be remembered that Brandis is one of Turnbull’s strongest supporters. Joe Hockey and Christopher Pyne, both of whom were educated at Jesuit-run schools, are two other prominent Catholic Liberal MPs who have supported Turnbull on climate change.

Turnbull himself is a convert to Catholicism. Howard, Peter Costello, Alexander Downer and Julie Bishop are not Catholics.

Two decades ago the Liberal Party was deeply divided on economic policy, including industrial relations. But, in time, the Howard and Costello forces prevailed and the party held office for more than a decade. Today the Liberals are deeply divided on climate change. However, there is no evidence any serious player wants the Liberals to divide the way Labor did.