In politics it does not take long for throwaway lines to become established mythology and later perceived truth. The possibility that Tony Abbott might become prime minister is focusing attention on his political background and how this might influence his current attitudes.
On Insiders last Sunday, reference was made to concern among Liberal Party “hard-heads” about “Tony Abbott’s DLP tendencies, a tendency towards populism”.
Similar comments have been made elsewhere by commentators and politicians alike. Christine Wallace has quoted two unnamed Howard government ministers as stating that “in 18 months Australia will get its first DLP government: the Abbott government”. Labor minister Craig Emerson maintains that “Abbott has aligned himself with the economic prescriptions of B.A. Santamaria”. Moreover, Peter Costello has written that the Opposition Leader “worked closely with the DLP in his student days”.
Now for some facts. The Democratic Labor Party grew out of the 1955 Labor split and maintained parliamentary representation in the Senate until the double dissolution election of 1974. It was formally wound up soon after.
When the DLP bowed out of federal politics in May 1974, Abbott was just 16. In other words, he had no adult connection with the DLP or its prominent senators Vince Gair, Frank McManus and Jack Kane.
The economic debate in Australia took off after the recession of the early 1970s and due to the Whitlam Labor government losing control of the economy in late 1974. By the time Australians focused on economic problems, the DLP was no longer a player in political debate.
From 1955 to 1974, the DLP was primarily focused on opposition to communism. Hence its emphasis on foreign policy. It also had an interest in social policy – particularly child support, state aid for non-government schools and immigration. The DLP was the first political party to oppose the White Australia Policy. The record indicates that the DLP was not focused on economic policy and tended to support the approach of the Liberal Party in this area.
There were economic populists in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s including Country Party leader Jack McEwen and such Labor identities as Jim Cairns and Rex Connor. But economic populism was not a feature of the DLP.
Abbott is on record as describing Bob Santamaria as his first political mentor. By the time the two met in 1976, the Catholic political activist Santamaria was head of the National Civic Council and was best known for his Point of View television commentary program. Santamaria tried to influence the DLP, with varying success, but was never a member. It is simplistic to equate Santamaria with the DLP.
It is true that Santamaria ended up where he began – as an outspoken opponent of capitalism. This was his position as the inaugural editor of the Catholic Worker in 1936. And, in the decade before his death, he was an opponent of economic reform advocated by the likes of Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard.
But for most of his time in the political debate, Santamaria’s interests focused on foreign policy, opposition to communism, education and social policy. He was also active in attempting to preserve traditional thinking within the Catholic Church.
As Abbott makes clear in his book Battlelines, by the early 1990s he was intent on a career as a Liberal Party politician. Santamaria was on a different political plane. In 1983, in his column in The Australian, Santamaria wrote that he could not support Malcolm Fraser and the Liberals, and declared that he would vote informally.
Not long after his 1983 defeat by Hawke, Fraser himself lost faith in the Liberal Party. As Patrick Morgan documents in his book B.A. Santamaria: Running the Show, by 1992 Santamaria was working with Fraser and La Trobe University academics Robert Manne and John Carroll with a view to setting up a new protectionist and interventionist political party. This is confirmed by Fraser in his book Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs.
By the mid-1990s, Abbott’s principal mentor was not the then economic populist Santamaria but rather the economic reformer Howard – about whom Santamaria was reportedly very critical. When Abbott successfully contested the Liberal Party pre-selection for Warringah in 1994, he asked Santamaria for a reference. After a day’s consideration, Santamaria declined – commenting that Abbott was wasting his time in the Liberal Party. Santamaria proffered similar advice to at least one other Liberal who became a cabinet minister in the Howard government.
Abbott has remained a public admirer of Santamaria. Just as Keating was impressed with the political verve of the populist NSW Labor premier Jack Lang, so Abbott appreciates the commitment of Santamaria.
Keating was no Langite in government. As a cabinet minister in the Howard government, Abbott did not attempt to implement Santamaria’s agenda. To maintain that he did is mythology.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.