A Catholic was elected leader of the Federal Liberal Party last week, and no-one noticed. How things have changed!

Furthermore, he was opposed in the ballot by another Catholic, and the man who dropped out of the race was also a Catholic; two of the three candidates for deputy leader were Catholics.

Is sectarian Australia now dead?

The late Sir John Cramer, John Howard’s predecessor in Bennelong, would have very mixed feelings were he alive today.

On the one hand, he would find it difficult to accept that the seat he had held for a quarter of a century had fallen to Labor; but on the other hand he would be amazed beyond belief that the majority of Liberal politicians who offered themselves for leadership positions last week were Catholic.

Such a situation not so very long ago was utterly unimaginable.

Cramer was the lone Catholic in the overwhelmingly Protestant Liberal Party that swept to power under Bob Menzies in 1949 – and he felt it keenly. Menzies – in many ways the least sectarian of people – had a habit of joking whenever Cramer walked into a room: “Hush, boys. The papist is among us.”

It was rare and unusual, even 30 years ago, to find Catholics in the Liberal ranks; the party was, as Judith Brett has written, profoundly Protestant and more than a little suspicious of Catholics and their supposed clannishness.

That Catholics are now prominent in the Liberal Party suggests that profound changes have taken place in the religious-political divide that characterised much of the 20th century.

The sectarian politics of the 1950s, when the Labor Party split over communism, and much of its Catholic conservative wing left to form the Democratic Labor Party, and the subsequent political battles over state aid, were ugly and bitter.

The Labor Party, once regarded as a natural home for the Irish Catholic working class, grew increasingly suspicious of the Catholics remaining in its ranks while elements of the Liberal Party fought hard against visionaries like John Carrick, then NSW general secretary of the Liberal Party, who sought to court the Catholic vote, chiefly through the issue of State aid to non-government, especially Catholic, schools.

It is perhaps evidence of a less sectarian society that by the time Nick Greiner acceded to the Liberal Party leadership in NSW, and later the premiership in 1988, the fact that he was a Catholic barely resonated. And when he was succeeded by another Catholic, John Fahey, not a single eyelid was batted.

It might be argued that the influx of upwardly mobile Catholics into the Liberal ranks has pushed the Liberal Party of Menzies into more socially conservative policy positions, but some of this was already happening in the 1960s when the Liberal government was relying on preferences from the DLP which also held the balance of power in the Senate.

Currently, it is hard to find Catholics prominent in the ALP. Indeed, those that are identified as “practising” Catholics say privately they face significant hurdles in running for party office, notably from the secular left and women active in the pro-female and pro-choice Emily’s List.

Has the religious bigotry that marked Australian political life from the conscription battles of World War One at last subsided? Or are we still seeing ripples from the Labor split more than half a century ago?

One who was not convinced that it had changed much was the late Bob Santamaria. In a conversation a decade ago I made this observation, but he shook his head and said quietly: “No, bigotry has not gone. It is religious belief that has faded, but once that returns, if it does, back will come the old hatreds.”

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey