ANTI-CATHOLIC sectarianism has been part of Australia since European settlement in 1788. It waned in the 1940s and was substantially diminished by the 60s but never totally went away. This explains the re-emergence of the Democratic Labor Party and BA Santamaria in contemporary political debate with reference to the Prime Minister and the Coalition government.

In current political parlance, a reference to the DLP or Santamaria is frequently intended to send out a subliminal reminder that Tony Abbott is a conservative Catholic. The DLP, which was formed out of the Labor Party split in 1955 and wound up in 1978, had a predominantly but not exclusively Catholic membership. Santamaria (1915-98) was a prominent Catholic political activist with an Italian name who had a significant involvement with, but did not control, the DLP.

The Prime Minister has always acknowledged that Santamaria was one of his early mentors. But the DLP went out of existence while Abbott was still a university student, a fact completely missed in David Marr’s Quarterly Essay Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott. The current DLP, represented in the Senate by John Madigan, was essentially set up by the children and grandchildren of the original DLP members.

These days, the words DLP and Santamaria are frequently used as terms of denigration. During an appearance on ABC News 24’s The Drum last month, Erik Jensen (editor of The Saturday Paper, forthcoming) referred to “those protectionists … in the National Party and those people who have DLP tendencies in the Coalition”. Sure, the Nationals are in the Abbott-led Coalition. But the DLP is not.

In The Sydney Morning Herald last Saturday, Mike Carlton was at his sneering best (or worst) in his column titled “Still killing the ABC: it’s Santa’s ghost”. Carlton made use of a clip from Santamaria’s Channel 9 Point of View program, which went to air in 1985, to have a go at the Prime Minister. The almost complete recording was uploaded on the web last year and picked up by the Business Insider website this year. A portion was shown recently on the ABC’s Insiders.

In his 1985 broadcast, Santamaria called for the abolition of the ABC, describing it as a bastion of “extreme left-wing politics”. He quoted then Labor prime minister Bob Hawke as saying “there is a pattern of bias in the ABC”. Santamaria took particular exception to a decision by the ABC to pay for job transfer expenses of the homosexual partners of its employees.

Unlike Santamaria, Abbott has never called for the abolition of the ABC. Never. Santamaria was a practising Catholic born in 1915. It is scarcely surprising that, almost three decades ago at age 70, he expressed opposition to public expressions of homosexuality. This has nothing to do with Abbott, who has gay friends of long standing, including Michael Kirby and the late Christopher Pearson.

Carlton used his column last week, which was promoted by The Sydney Morning Herald, to describe Santamaria as “a prominent Cold War political agitator of the hard Right, a religious bigot and red-baiter and an economic crank who believed Australian prosperity would rise from the agrarian toil of a pious Catholic peasantry”. Carlton added that “notoriously” Santamaria “was a mentor to the young Tony Abbott”. This is mere abuse.

In view of the fact the DLP and Santamaria have become part of the current political lexicon, it is important to temper the rhetoric with some facts.

The DLP, which had senators from the mid-50s until the mid-70s, was not focused on economic protectionism. That was the ground of Country Party leader Jack McEwen and left-wing Labor Party identities such as Jim Cairns. The DLP’s priorities were foreign policy, anti-communism and education (particularly government support of non-government schools). The DLP’s economic policies during the two decades of its existence were in the mainstream.

Santamaria’s opposition to communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam and Cambodia proved to be well-grounded, as the surviving victims of such totalitarian regimes have affirmed.

Santamaria was not a religious bigot. During his public career, Santamaria enjoyed good relations with non-Catholic believers, agnostics and atheists alike. He was an early opponent of the White Australia Policy and in the 50s criticised what he termed “the sacred cow of one hundred per cent Anglo-Saxonism” in Australian society.

It is true that in the 40s and 50s, Santamaria advocated small-scale farming in this country. Economics was never his strong point. However, to be fair, it should be noted that the government-run post-war soldier settlement schemes were also motivated by a flawed belief that small farms could work in Australia.

My 1982 book Mr Santamaria and the Bishops was critical of many of Santamaria’s economic policies and political judgments. It’s just that Carlton’s rants are both ill-informed and over the top.

Patrick Morgan’s excellent edited collections of Santamaria’s correspondence and papers titled Your Most Obedient Servant and Running the Show, which were published by MUP in 2007 and 2008 respectively, give a balanced idea of Santamaria’s agenda and personality. And in Wrestling with Asia: A Memoir (Connor Court, 2012), Frank Mount describes Santamaria’s focus on Asia in the 60s and 70s, and his advocacy of a non-communist Pacific Community. It was a novel idea at the time.

As Morgan documents, in 1953, at the height of his political influence, Santamaria set out his political agenda at a private meeting of his organisation. He wanted compulsory unionism along with clean union ballots, government assistance for non-government schools, land settlement on small farms, and immigration. These are not the aims of a crank or a bigot.

Santamaria was a man of his generation. The theory that Santamaria continues to exert considerable and/or improper influence some 16 years after his death is but a myth invoked for political effect to score points against Abbott and the Coalition by the use of subtle sectarianism.