On Insiders last Sunday I commented that Rob Oakeshott held the view that Tony Abbott was not a suitable leader of the Liberal Party since he was a socially conservative Catholic. In particular, I said that Mr Oakeshott believed it was dangerous to have a Catholic like Tony Abbott running the Liberal Party.

This comment is correct.  I have made it before – most recently in my Sydney Morning Herald column on 18 December 2012.

Tony Abbott was elected Liberal Party leader on 1 December 2009.  On Tuesday 2 December 2009, the Port Macquarie News carried the following comments attributed to Mr Oakeshott:

The election of Tony Abbott as Liberal leader is a major step backwards for Australian public policy, Lyne MP Rob Oakeshott said. The independent yesterday launched a stinging attack on Mr Abbott, whose election he said marked the “rise of the far right” within the Liberal Party.

“This is not just a shift to the right within the Liberal Party,” Mr Oakeshott said. “This will drag debate within the parliament to the far right as well.”

Mr Oakeshott said Mr Abbott could “lay claim to being one of the makers of One Nation in the 1990s by allowing the far right wing to get organised within his very own electorate office”.

“I know Tony Abbott personally having ridden on the very first Pollie Pedal with him way back in 1996,” Mr Oakeshott said. “He is a good man who listens when allowed. However, his natural starting point is of concern for Australian politics, where no separation of church and state exists in principle and language is inflammatory by design.”

Mr Oakeshott’s claim that Tony Abbott was “one of the makers of One Nation” is totally false.   More seriously, his reference to Mr Abbott “natural starting point” was a comment on the fact that the Liberal Party leader is a socially conservative Catholic.  So, presumably, was Mr Oakeshott’s assertion that Tony Abbott only “listens when allowed”.

Mr Oakeshott went on to claim that Mr Abbott’s “natural starting point” was a “matter of concern for Australian politics where no separation of church and state exists in principle”.

You have to go back to the days of anti-Catholic sectarianism in Australia to find a non-Catholic politician accusing a Catholic politician of being a threat to the division between church and state. It is notable that Rob Oakeshott offered no evidence to support his assertion – which he repeated in his statement of 19 December 2012.

Contrary to Rob Oakeshott’s claim today, I did not accuse him on Insiders of “anti-Catholicism”. I doubt that he would have made a similar reference to, say, Malcolm Turnbull. What I said was that Mr Oakeshott disliked Tony Abbott because of Abbott’s Catholicism.

This is correct – and I stand by my comments on Insiders. For Mr Oakeshott to refute my position, he has to explain precisely what he meant by the reference to Tony Abbott and the separation of Church and State.  So far, he has not done so.

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