Tony Abbott's election as Liberal Party leader in December 2009 sparked a revival of the long-standing fear of Catholics in Australia. The concern was not that Mr Abbott was Catholic. Rather, the focus turned on his perceived social conservatism, writes Gerard Henderson in The Sydney Morning Herald.
If Tony Abbott is sworn in as prime minister next week, he will become the second Catholic to lead Australia's main conservative party in office. The other was Joseph Lyons, who left the Labor Party during the Great Depression and led the United Australia Party to victory in the December 1931 election. Lyons had deep religious faith but he never let it interfere with his public duties.
Much anti-Catholic sectarianism in Australia had dissipated by the middle of last century. This was partly due to Lyons' performance and partly due to the unifying effect of the Pacific War. But this sectarianism has not been eliminated.
This concern about Abbott's socially conservative Catholicism, which some saw as a manifestation of his one-time mentor, BA Santamaria (1915-1998) and his friend Cardinal George Pell, was kicked off by Rob Oakeshott, independent MP for Lyne, who told the Port Macquarie News that Abbott 'listens when allowed' and stated that 'his natural starting point is of concern for Australian politics where no separation of church and state exists in principle.'
Oakeshott was saying that Abbott could not be trusted because he was a social conservative Catholic who would take orders from the hierarchy.
In an article titled 'On Your Bike Tony Abbott,' published in the April 2010 issue of The Monthly , Professor Robert Manne wrote that 'throughout his life, Abbott has wrestled with the Santamaria legacy.' Manne, who is not a Catholic, neglected to reveal his own almost two-decade long close association with Santamaria.
Manne examined the debate about the role Abbott's 'Catholic faith was likely to play' if he became prime minister. Manne identified the 'left-wing version' with Liz Jackson, who profiled Abbott for the ABC's Four Corners in March 2010. He defined the Jackson position as depicting Abbott as 'an unreconstructed and old-fashioned Catholic who does not believe in the separation of church and state.'
FULL STORY Assault on Abbott over Catholicism made in bad faith (SMH)