Allegations of anti-Catholic sectarianism, a long-running political party in a bitter split over disloyalty, political intrigue and allegations of spying: somehow, we’ve been transported back to 1955, the year that Bob Santamaria orchestrated the great schism in the ALP.

This time, though, it’s the Democratic Labour Party that’s being split.

In his Senate speech yesterday, Senator John Madigan severed relations with the DLP — and, in the process, denounced a staff member, Rachel Carling-Jenkins, as an informant,  saying she had been secretly monitoring him on behalf of the party.

“It has become apparent to me that the DLP’s own worst enemies are within its own ranks,” he explained.

The irony — it burns!

The DLP sprang from Santamaria’s Movement, a Catholic-based organisation that combined quasi-Leninist discipline and apocalyptic anti-Communism to mobilise secretly inside the labour movement. Whatever spying Carling-Jenkins might be up to, it’s doubtful her operations compare to the formidable intelligence system maintained by the Movement leaders in the early 1950s, when Catholic parishioners were secretly graded by Santamaria’s operatives as either “RELIABLE”, “SUSPECT” or “DEFINITELY NO GOOD” (“an enemy in the camp”).

The eventual Labor split — and the formation of the Democratic Labour Party, with its loyal Catholic vote — helped keep the ALP out of power until 1972.

Well, first as tragedy, then as farce, as they say.

More than anything, the shenanigans in today’s DLP (basically now a microparty) illustrate just how much the country has changed.

A few weeks ago, Attorney-General George Brandis blamed Fairfax and the ALP for a concerted attack on Catholicism. He cited Dyson Heydon, the former Justice of the High Court: anti-Catholicism is, apparently, “the racism of the intellectuals”.

There was a time in which anti-Catholic sectarianism possessed real force in Australia. After the Easter Rising in Ireland — and in the wake of Archbishop Daniel Mannix’s role in the defeat of the conscription referendums — Catholicism loomed in the conservative imagination rather like Islam does today, a mysterious faith based on peculiar rituals and adhered to by immigrants (Fenians!) connected to violent conflicts abroad.

Even in the immediate post-war years, a Protestant Federation campaigned openly to reduce Catholic influence and expose what it called “Catholic treachery”.

In the late ’40s and early ’50s, Santamaria could build a base in the labour movement because the church was strongest among unionised working-class immigrants from Ireland and Italy. But the formation of the obsessively anti-Communist DLP also reflected the gradual rightward shift of that constituency, as a generation of immigrants became more prosperous and more integrated.

Today, as Jonathan Holmes points out, the Catholic Church has become an impeccably establishment institution:

“In a Liberal-National Party Coalition government, the Prime Minister, the Attorney-General, the Treasurer and some five other cabinet ministers are Catholics — a situation unthinkable in the overwhelmingly Protestant Liberal Party led by Robert Menzies.”

In that context, Brandis’ claims of sectarianism are simply bizarre, unless you suspect (as some conservatives apparently do) a nefarious agenda in the reporting of child abuse.

As for the DLP, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the party has re-oriented itself to “preserving, protecting and building on the family” — pretty thin gruel compared to the days when activists could explain how “only the Sacred Host and the growing ranks of the Movement … stand between seven millions Australians and the Communist reign of terror”. Motoring enthusiasm almost seems a better electoral bet.