A few months ago I commented, in relation to Tony Abbott’s speech at a book launch, how newsworthy it was “that a federal minister can hold his own in a serious intellectual discussion.” Today Abbott is at it again, launching the Selected Letters of Bob Santamaria at the State Library in Melbourne.

Judging from the extract in The Age (also reported as news), what he has to say this time is less intellectual and more personal – but also of more obvious political relevance.

Abbott’s key message is that Santamaria’s influence in Australian politics is greater than he expected, and that the National Civic Council lives on most effectively in the Howard government.

After initially putting his effort into a single political party – first the ALP, later the DLP – Santamaria in his later years spread it across all parties. Despite his pessimism, this strategy has enjoyed remarkable success. The right’s continued control of the ALP, and the ex-NCC group’s growing influence within the right, are perhaps its biggest gain, although for political reasons Abbott is disinclined to emphasise that.

Instead he stresses the growing Catholic presence in the Liberal Party, and the importance of Santamaria to him personally – things that Abbott seems to have become more explicit about over the years. The Liberal Party is certainly changing. As its class basis weakens, so does its cosy establishment Protestantism, and it has come to look more like a band of ideological warriors – among whom the NCCers are an important element.

But Abbott’s intellectual forthrightness is sometimes the enemy of his political interest. This is a very explicit spelling out of the religious agenda, especially for an election year:

“This Government’s decisions to overturn the Northern Territory’s euthanasia law, ban gay marriage, stop the ACT heroin trial, provide additional financial support for one-income families, and try to reduce abortion numbers through pregnancy support counselling show that the tide of secular humanism was not as irreversible as he thought”.

Perhaps he figures that under Kevin Rudd the Labor Party will not be fighting too hard to defend our secular heritage against the Santamaria-inspired onslaught.

Peter Fray

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