I have been asked frequently in recent weeks who Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA) would like to see win the Federal Election. The truth is that we do not endorse one party over another.
CSSA seeks to bring the message of the Gospel, as interpreted in Catholic Social Teaching and as lived in the experience of Catholic social services and the people they serve, to all members of parliament, and each of the parties to which they subscribe.
Frankly, the task is often very difficult to define clearly in practice. The recent robust discussion about the merits and limitations of various parties in the current election campaign highlights the difficulty that the Church can sometimes have in being clear about its role in influencing politics.
Perhaps this is because the task of political influence seldom involves the linear path from Gospel values, to a careful understanding of the needs and aspirations of vulnerable people, to well conducted research, to sound and effective public policy expressed in effective and just social programs and better legislation.
The real task of political influence is frequently undertaken late in the evening, when the House of Representatives or the Senate is sitting but the public galleries are empty.
For those of us 'outsiders' seeking to influence the political agenda it is always an 'away game'. As visitors we are welcome enough, but we have no office, nowhere to gather thoughts privately, and frequently no colleagues with whom to discuss options and ideas. The opportunity to influence a new public policy can be fleeting. It can appear by chance, or follow an arduous and strategic build-up over months or years.
The task always requires allies amongst sitting members, because it is our elected representatives and no-one else who can pass legislation.
CSSA seeks to build such alliances across the whole of the Parliament. It is ironic that as we face this election we seek to build alliances with a Prime Minister who is doubted by some because of her self-confessed atheism, a Leader of the Opposition who is doubted by some for being too close to God and the Church, and the Greens who are doubted by some as being anti-Christian.
In recent years, CSSA has been involved in important issues with each of these groups.
Under the Howard Government, we supported the development of a national network of Family Relationship Centres, established in the community to provide counselling and support to families experiencing difficulties. Interestingly, it was not Tony Abbott who led this charge, but the then Attorney-General Philip Ruddock.
While Abbott's detractors might have suspected him of seeding such 'family focused' initiatives as part of his Catholic pro-family agenda this was not the case. Our links to the Coalition were far broader, and their policy development process was supported far more deeply than through a single Catholic representative.
More recently, the early response of the Labor Government to the Global Financial Crisis provided a different model of engagement. In this case, CSSA and other church based service providers prepared a report on the likely impact of the crisis. Julia Gillard responded personally by gathering the church groups together to discuss concerns and then establishing a Community Response Taskforce to respond to the crisis.
She continued to meet with church representatives and other leaders to monitor progress and listen to concerns.
The Australian Greens have supported many of the causes CSSA has prosecuted.
The Greens are a party of review in the current parliament. That means they can explore issues, ask questions, and steer legislation towards compromise outcomes. Their work in steering the Government's stimulus measures toward jobs packages is a case in point. On issues such as the Northern Territory Intervention, asylum seekers, mutual obligation and rights of the unemployed, the Greens, mainly through Senator Rachel Siewert, who has responsibility in these areas, have advocated policy positions very close to those of the Catholic Church.
In a letter entitled 'Catholic culture for true humanism', Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, Archbishop of Bologna, points to some of the challenges that those seeking to bring a Catholic voice to the political process encounter:
'In this field the disciple of Jesus will be able to rejoice at times over unsuspected agreements with unbelievers, in the defence of an ethical principle or in a practical choice. Further, he will listen with respect and with sincere interest to the opinions of all because he does not forget that, as St Thomas repeated often, "Every truth by whomever it is said is from the Holy Spirit".'
Cardinal Biffi goes on to say 'Politics, we are used to saying, is the art of the compromise.'
Whoever is elected to government on 21 August, and wherever power rests between the major and minor parties in the House of Representatives and the Senate, it will be a compromise. No party has on offer the full suite of policies, programs and legislation that we would consider ideal.
Nonetheless, we can rejoice that Australian voters, free to vote for whomever they choose without fear, will have distributed that power by selecting their representatives. We can rejoice that citizens will be supported in that task by independent and trustworthy institutions commissioned to faithfully return the election results.
CSSA and other agencies and advocates will then recommence our task of diligently working with elected representatives to promote a fairer, more inclusive society that reflects and supports the dignity, equality and participation of all people, knowing that ultimately we will have to settle for less than we would hope.
UPDATE MONDAY 23 AUGUST 2010:
Julia Gillard was right at the weekend when, quoting Bill Clinton, she said 'The people have spoken but it is going to take a little while to determine exactly what they have said.'
Regardless of the efforts of both the major parties in coming days to explain how their minority vote might be translated into a mandate to govern, the reality is that neither major party commanded the support of the majority of the voters.
There will be much analysis in the weeks and months ahead as to why this might have been the case, but it is impossible to ignore the conclusion that a large number of 'the people' rejected the ideology, lack of vision and lack of differentiation between two major parties who have engaged in something of a political duopoly over recent years.
Policy determined in focus groups convened by political parties, as distinct from political representatives, must inevitably see parties fighting for the diminishing space at the centre of the spectrum of public opinion. That is no basis for leadership.
A minority government, led by either major party, will be required to take a different approach if it is to provide stable government for any length of time.
As Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott begin the process of courting the independents and minor parties we are already hearing words like 'consensus' and 'power sharing'.
Without a majority of seats once the votes are counted, the successful prime minister will be the one who has successfully negotiated stable government with the independents and minor parties. It seems likely that this will have required the all too familiar excesses of party politics to have been suspended.
When I quoted Cardinal Biffi last week saying 'Politics, we are used to saying, is the art of compromise', I really had little idea what would unfold over the election weekend!
While unfamiliar to federal politics in Australia, minority government is familiar and successful in other countries around the world and may yet yield some welcome results for Australian voters seeking leadership towards the common good.
Frank Quinlan is the executive director of Catholic Social Services Australia.