the masters’ apprentices

In his memoirs, the Labor Leader Arthur Calwell recalls visiting a patient in a hospital in Fitzroy:

When I had left my friend’s room, a sweet smiling nun entered and he told her that he had just had a distinguished visitor. He named me as the visitor. The nun continued to smile sweetly and uttered only one word: ‘Antichrist!’

The incident comes to mind in respect of the tribulations now facing Victoria’s Democratic Labor Party. According to the Age, the DLP leaders are worried about ‘well-organised people from the even further right-wing fringe of the Catholic faith’, whom they accuse of branch stacking and other organisational shenanigans.

Peter Kavanagh, the party’s representative in the Victorian Legislative Council, says that the DLP’s traditions are under threat, a reference that, under the circumstances, seems extraordinarily ill-advised.

After all, Kavanagh leads a body descended from BA Santamaria’s anti-Communist maneouvrings of the late 1940s. The DLP emerged from the Catholic machine known colloquially as ‘the Movement’, which organized secretly within the ALP (a party to which Santamaria never belonged) and the unions. An early Movement document exemplified Santamaria’s blend of religion and politics by explaining that  ‘since only the Sacred Host and the growing ranks of the Movement … stand between seven million Australians and the Communist reign of terror’ members should ‘treat a note from HQ as if it were signed not by a Movement executive but by Our Lord Himself’.

And which branch would Jesus stack? Quite a few, it seemed, for the eventual Labor split of 1955 was deep enough to keep the ALP out of office for a generation. Many believers thought Santamaria’s activities divinely inspired: hence the nun’s willingness to identify a traditional Labor Catholic like Calwell as a walking incarnation of the Evil One.

Now, in the legislative assembly, the first leader of the Santamaria group (the party that became the DLP) was a certain Bill Barry. And Bill Barry was the grandfather of Peter Kavanagh, the same Peter Kavanagh now concerned by DLP members who speak of visitations from the Virgin Mary and ‘accuse their enemies of not being good enough Catholics, of not reciting the rosary passionately enough and of marital infidelity’ – all charges that, back in the day, were leveled against Calwell.

Historical irony: it’s a bitch!

Mind you, where Santamaria saw Australian as more-or-less permanently on the cusp of revolution, today’s plotters focus more on zygotes than international communism. That’s why the affair represents more than a storm in a baptismal font. Marcel White and Peter McBroom, the two men causing Kavanagh such headaches, are also active in the Right to Life, an organization with considerably more influence than the rump DLP. White wants the RTL to campaign not only against abortion but against contraception. He also wants Catholic prayers in its meetings, and a Catholic saint as its patron.

‘It seems to me they’re like religious zealots,’ says long-term anti-abortionist leader Margaret Tighe. ‘It’s crazy stuff, and I just hope that people wake up to it.’

Now, these are apocalyptic times and, around the world, every faith faces a tendency for milk-and-water believers to be shouldered aside by those who set their moral compass by the Book of Revelations.

That being said, when it comes to ‘crazy stuff’, it’s difficult to draw a clear distinction between the leadership and the fringes of the anti-abortion movement.

The Age notes, for instance, that White was once a protégé of Tighe and owes his position to her influence. Furthermore, last year, he gained a certain prominence by mailing out to householders unmarked envelopes containing explicit photos of aborted foetuses.

Pretty nutty, huh – especially given that they were received by a woman who had suffered a miscarriage.

But a few months later, a certain Victorian politician also took to spamming out foetal images, this time via email. Who was it? Why, Peter Kavanagh, of course.  Here’s the Geelong Advertiser: ‘On the question of whether it was good taste to send around an unsolicited graphic image, Mr Kavanagh said he had no regrets.’

Perhaps he does now, as the apprentices move to supplant their masters.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. What were all those stories about the Pope again, there was reinstating a Holocaust denier, condemning the use of condoms in AIDS ravaged Africa and sacking the local priest here in Brisbane because he isn't a homophobe. I must be getting old, Jeff. Back in my day we thought the separation of Church and State was a basic principle of democracy. Great article providing historical context, thanks.

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