Much attention has been given to Tony Abbott’s proclaimed Catholic conservatism but in fact this election campaign provides further evidence of the demise of Catholic conservatism in Australia.
In the early 20th century Australian Catholicism became aligned with Labor. Catholics were notably more likely to vote Labor. The influence of religion was most marked among middle-class Catholics. When Labor’s vote plunged Catholics remained most loyal. The shift of Catholic voters towards Labor was one aspect of the transformation in Labor from the fringe protest party of the 1890s towards a mainstream centre left force that inherited Deakinite liberalism along with populist statism and racism. The influence of organised Catholicism counted against socialists within the ALP but the Catholic hierarchy soon realised that they had exaggerated their positive influence within the ALP. Labor’s rightward shift was driven by electoral pragmatism. Labor appealed to Catholics on ethnic rather than specifically religious grounds, Labor offered Catholics as a minority the opportunity to defeat organised Protestantism and to enjoy the sight of Catholics holding high public office. This was ‘identity politics’; the provision of symbolic rewards. However material rewards were not forthcoming. Labor refused to offer public support to the Catholic school system, but attempts by the Catholic hierarchy to mobilise Catholic voters against Labor on this issue proved entirely unsuccessful.
The cultural wars of the First World War cemented the Catholic alliance with Labor. Archbishop Daniel Mannix delighted in his political role, yet there was nothing distinctively Catholic about it, Mannix surfed the wave of popular radicalism that also impelled Labor to the left and which culminated in Labor’s adoption of a socialist objective in 1921. Labor’s leftward shift proved short-lived party pragmatists in particular the Australian Workers’ Union and Labor politicians (now even more Catholic than before the war) dragged the party back to the centre. Catholic loyalty towards Labor was also reinforced by conservative political strategy. There were many more Protestant blue-collar workers than middle-class Catholics and the political right found that within limits an anti-Catholic appeal paid electoral dividends. The interwar cultural left found its geographical home in the Catholic countryside of Cootamundra and Albury.
In the interwar years dissent began to surface among many Catholic intellectuals and activists with the pro-Labor Catholic establishment. In 1920 some NSW Catholics launched a ‘Democratic Party’ in opposition to Labor. Catholic workers cheered Jack Lang’s Labor populism but many Catholic activists feared the influence of socialists within Lang’s Labor Party and flirted briefly with the populist radical right of the New Guard and the All for Australia League. As in Germany some conservative Catholics were drawn towards fascism as an alternative to established Protestant conservatism.
From the mid 1930s in Australia a new generation of Catholic intellectuals emerged that looked to the model of European Catholicism. Here they found a political tradition vehement in hostility to liberalism and democracy and which combined a rhetorical anti-capitalism with a vehement hostility towards socialism, trade unionism and the welfare state. For young activists such as B A Santamaria the political Catholicism of Europe was a revelation it offered to Australian Catholics the opportunity to escape the Irish sentimentality, anti-intellectualism and petty parochialism of their co-religionists for engagement in a great battle of ideas. This was a populist cause it pitted young Catholics against a complacent religious establishment politically dependent on Labor. Santamaria and his colleagues are comparable to those young Muslims of the contemporary Islamic diaspora who reject their immigrant parents’ political quiescence. In Europe the 1930s were a decade of triumph for the Catholic right, the German Catholic Centre party provided the parliamentary votes to install the Nazi dictatorship, the army of Catholic Italy, assisted by plentiful use of poison gas, conquered Abyssinia, Franco’s Nationalists defeated Spanish democracy and finally in 1940 the French national revolution replaced liberty, equality and fraternity by work, family and fatherland. These triumphs seemed a new counter-reformation, a successful crusade against the enemy within in the name of a return to a glorious Catholic past. After 1940 it all went horribly wrong.
The catastrophe of European fascism discredited the old political Catholicism. In post-war Europe political Catholicism remerged as a force of the moderate centre-right, that competed with the left by the advocacy of a familial welfare state. This ‘Christian democracy’ echoed the pragmatic accommodation that Australian Catholics had found with Labor by 1914. Yet in Australia the political Catholicism of the 1930s survived, its proponents erased the catastrophic history of Europe and presented themselves instead as foot soldiers against Communism. The 1955-57 Labor split in part pitted this group based in Melbourne against the Sydney advocates of a more pragmatic Christian democracy.
The Democratic Labor Party (DLP) seemed to represent the triumph of the Catholic conservative project. It successfully detached a large number of devout Catholic voters from Labor. Yet by the late 1960s it was apparent that the DLP had been a political dead end for Catholic activists. The split had so embittered Labor activists that there was no prospect of a reunification of Labor on the DLP’s terms. Within the DLP two competing approaches emerged. One sought to carry on the spirit of the 1950s anti-Communist crusade by a campaign against ‘permissiveness’. But some younger DLP supporters such as Gerard Henderson and Paul Duffy were cautiously critical of the extravagant moral conservatism of the DLP’s old guard and their nostalgia for an imagined old Labor Party. These young activists briefly floated a vision of the DLP as the nucleus of a new and dynamic conservatism that could supplant the Liberal Party. These hopes were dashed by the political polarisation and conservative triumph of 1974-75, but Duffy and Henderson’s project lived on in the personal trajectory of many DLP supporters towards the Liberals. This shift was aided by generational change within the Liberals. Menzies had called Catholics ‘papists’ but Malcolm Fraser welcomed Catholics. John Howard was a faithful follower of his parents’ conservatism but repudiated their anti-Catholic prejudices.
For devout young Catholics such as Tony Abbott who aspired to a career in politics the Liberals were the party of choice by the 1980s. However these Catholics faced the same dilemma as those of previous generations who had allied themselves with Labor: how to defend a distinctively Catholic position in a political party that had to appeal to a broader constituency. The DLP had failed to break out of a devout Catholic ghetto. It was naive to imagine that the Liberal party could be remade in the image of the DLP.
The Liberal Catholics of the 1980s entered a party with an established conservative tradition which particularly in NSW looked back to the populist anti-Catholicism of the early twentieth century. By the 1980s however anti-Catholicism had exhausted itself as a political force on the right. Catholics in the Liberal party now found they shared common social conservative ground with the inheritors of the old Protestant right. The paranoid and resentful populism of the old right could now be turned to new targets; these included the complacent North Shore elites that dominated the NSW Liberals, but also the cultural enemies within the nation, in particular Muslims. Right-wing activists, such as David Barker, moved back and forth between the NSW Liberals and Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party and cooperated in groups such as the Australian Christian Nation Association. The DLP had stood against White Australia but now many Catholic conservatives opposed immigration. Santamaria and his colleagues had dreamed that Australia might be the first nation where the Reformation could be reversed. However by 2010 contemporary Catholic conservatives, such as Perth Archbishop Barry Hickey could only interpret the appearance of an atheist prime Minister as a potential threat to Catholic school and healthcare funding. Their horizons were as confined as the old pro-Labor Catholic establishment.
Australian Catholic conservatives unlike those in Europe never had the opportunity to put there political dreams into practice, as a result they never saw them become nightmares. By 2010 Australian Catholicism conservatism meant no more than a nostalgic evocation of Santamaria’s name. Tony Abbott’s rise seemed a victory for Catholic conservatives but they had lost the war long ago.