The increasing number of sneering secularists in our midst focus primarily on believers of the Christian faith — with particular emphasis on socially conservative Catholics. The voice of the sneering secularist can be heard regularly on the ABC and in Fairfax Media publications. However, The Saturday Paper provides a boutique outlet for attacks on Christianity and especially conservative Catholicism.
In last week’s edition, for example, the lead story by Mike Seccombe is titled “How the church is splitting Liberals”. Needless to say, the institution in question is the Catholic Church. The subheading explains the writer’s thesis: “Just as Santamaria’s forces once split the Labor Party, hardline Catholics are again threatening to divide politics — this time on the conservative side.” It speaks volumes for the continuing anti-Catholic sectarianism in Australia that The Saturday Paper should lead with a story on present tensions in the Liberal Party with a reference to BA Santamaria, who died almost two decades ago, and the Labor Party, which split in 1955.
As Gough Whitlam wrote, Santamaria (1915-98) was the most influential non-Anglo-Celtic figure in Australia’s 20th-century history. Santamaria, whose parents were born in Italy, set up the anti-communist Catholic Social Studies Movement, commonly termed the Movement, in 1942. In 1957 its name was changed to National Civic Council.
It’s true that Santamaria’s Movement, which was Catholic, involved itself with the Industrial Groups (many of whose members were not Catholic) in disputes within the labour movement. In the late 1940s and early 50s, the two organisations combined in taking on the communists in the trade union movement along with communist fellow travellers in the Labor Party.
Santamaria was not a member of the ALP and could not have split the party. The principal figure in the Labor split of the mid-1950s was Labor leader Bert Evatt. After failing to defeat Robert Menzies in the 1954 election, Evatt switched his allegiance from supporting to opposing the Industrial Groups.
It is widely accepted today that Evatt was not of sound mind when he attacked the Victorian ALP and Santamaria in late 1954. This set in train the Labor split, which divided the ALP federally and in Victoria, then spread to Queensland in 1957.
Seccombe’s view that “sixty-odd years ago a group of mostly religious social conservatives led by a Catholic zealot divided the Labor Party and condemned it to a protracted term in opposition” is simplistic. In his authoritative biography Evatt: A Life (NewSouth, 2016), John Murphy acknowledges that it was Evatt who “struck the match that triggered the explosion” that split Labor in 1955.
In his Labor and Santamaria (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2017), Robert Murray writes: “Bob Santamaria made mistakes enough but it is hard to avoid the judgment that Evatt caused the split, in his own bid for survival” after Labor’s 1954 defeat. Murray, who was an ALP member between 1964 and 1970, writes that by the mid-50s Evatt had “succumbed to paranoia as mental illness deepened”. Seccombe’s theory that Santamaria’s forces split Labor six decades ago is absolute tosh. But it provided The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent with an excuse to run an anti-Catholic sectarian line with respect to the contemporary Liberal Party.
Seccombe does not regard the present dispute in NSW as being about the rights of rank-and-file members vis-a-vis the party executive. Rather, he sees it as an “insurgency” by “the political/religious hard right” to do to the Liberals in 2017 what Santamaria allegedly did to Labor in 1955.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott, along with Jim Molan, Walter Villatora and John Ruddick, has been in the forefront of the campaign to reform the NSW Liberal Party. Seccombe’s line is that Abbott, an admirer of Santamaria, is attempting to take over the party. He depicts Abbott as Santamaria’s “apostle”. Note the intended ridicule of religious bent.
This is an extraordinarily superficial view. When Christopher Pyne was recorded at a recent Liberal Party meeting supporting Malcolm Turnbull and criticising Abbott, he claimed the support of George Brandis and Marise Payne. Pyne, Turnbull and Brandis are all Catholics.
It is true that, in addition to Abbott, socially conservative Catholics within the federal Liberal Party include Kevin Andrews and Michael Sukkar. But Eric Abetz is also in this group and he is not a Catholic. Nor is George Christensen.
So Seccombe’s theory that Santamaria’s conservative Catholic apostles are attempting to take over the Liberal Party is just nonsense.
For the record, Santamaria once advised Abbott not to run for Liberal Party preselection, since the Liberals in the early 90s were not worthy of support.
His influence on Abbott has been exaggerated.
According to Seccombe, Cory Bernardi, who stepped down as a Liberal and formed the Australian Conservatives after the election, is doing a Democratic Labor Party to the Liberals.
The DLP, which enjoyed Santamaria’s support, was formed after the Labor split and was strongest in Victoria and Queensland. The DLP delivered its preferences to the Coalition and ahead of Labor and saved the Coalition from defeat in 1961, 1969 and possibly 1958.
While acknowledging that “the DLP was not entirely Catholic”, Seccombe argues that “it was the new home for conservative Catholics; the Catholic progressives stuck with Labor”. This is hopelessly wrong. Labor did not split in NSW and South Australia, where most members of the Catholic hierarchy supported the ALP and opposed the DLP.
Seccombe seems unaware of the influence of socially conservative Catholics in the Labor Party in NSW throughout the second half of the 20th century. Think Paul Keating and Lionel Bowen, and more besides.
The row in the NSW Liberal Party is about rank-and-file rights. Not religion. Last Sunday, at what Seccombe terms the “ominously titled” Party Futures conference, more than 60 per cent of delegates supported preselection by plebiscite. The meeting took place at a well-attended function at the Rosehill racecourse during daytime. Only a sectarian conspiracist would see a Catholic “insurgency” in such an event.