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Bringing Parliament out from behind the school toilets


Dirty school toiletsThe last two weeks of Parliament have been dispiriting. We have the right to expect that when our representatives gather in Parliament they will discuss what matters to Australian society and to human beings. That they should waste their time talking about a radio announcer, the party leaders' appeal to the other sex, and the sexual behaviour of one of their members is a betrayal of whatever trust we have in them. 

Whatever primary school children may talk about behind the school toilets, we would expect them to attend in class to what matters more seriously than politicians have done in Parliament.

Such self-indulgence has consequences. It breeds cynicism, the belief that what we have seen recently in Parliament is all there is. It encourages us to believe that a sufficient explanation of why policies are adopted and executed can be found by asking whom politicians hate, who is in bed with whom, and who has paid off whom. If that were all there is, then it would not matter that Parliament is scripted like a reality show.

It does matter, though, because Parliament holds up a mirror to our society. Cynicism is not destructive simply because it makes us accept bad behaviour as normal. Even worse, it makes us automatically dismiss any acts of apparent generosity or self-sacrifice. Instead of admiring and being encouraged by them, we immediately ask what were their real and base motivations. We assume that public life is a moral wasteland in which ethics are relevant only as a source of tropes for spin.

Once cynicism reigns in our view of public life we almost necessarily lose sight of what really matters: human dignity. When we are convinced that public conversation and the development of policy reflect only politicians' private agendas, it becomes painful to look steadily at the faces of those who are the victims of public policies. It is easier to look away and to become detached. Respect and honour are reserved for our private lives.

There is a close connection between respect for human dignity and dignified and respectful behaviour in Parliament. The former means that each human being is precious and is not to be used as an end to others' goals. That basic attitude is embodied in respect for the human beings to whom we relate in daily life.

Where respect in ordinary human relationships fails, as it has in Parliament these last weeks, we lose confidence that other human beings will not be used as means for political goals. The path that leads from Parliament to the brutalities suffered by asylum seekers in detention centres, Nauru and Manus Island is direct and well paved.

The reasons why Parliament has descended to its current depths have been well canvassed. They are not unique to Australia. The remedy is often sought in inspiring leadership. But leadership does not come out of a moral vacuum.

The present crisis invites us all to ask ourselves what matters, to resist the temptation to say of our private lives or of public life, 'That's all there is', and to protest when human dignity is infringed, both in the lesser sense of respectful behaviour and in the fundamental sense of the brutal treatment of those considered dispensable.

Those of us who believe that it would be craven to accept what we have seen in Parliament this week cannot expect a quick fix. We commit ourselves to serious labour. 

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Alan Jones, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, misogyny, sexism



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Existing comments

I absolutely agree. It is embarrassing that our politicians are on the world stage with that behaviour. Everyone that I have spoken to is less than impressed with their behaviour.

Pam Tobin | 15 October 2012  

It's obvious that Australia, indeed, Western Society is at a crossroads. The Islam ascendency which is forecast to last a century, China and India on the way to superpower status, the crash of Western economic power, the onslaught of liberal progressivism seeking redefinition of all manner of the foundations of the Judeo-Christian heritage are driving a disruption of confidence, even here in laid-back Australia. What we are witnessing in the Commonwealth Parliament is a jockeying for power to be at the helm. Julia Gillard, atheist, leftist versus Tony Abbott, Catholic Christian, conservative, are presenting themselves, as leaders to take our nation into the headwinds. Tony Abbott has my support because he is consistent and I can understand the foundations of his thinking. Julia Gillard, sadly, has auctioned off her leadership to a crew that are full of vindictive but very sparing with revealing just where their thinking is coming from and where it would take us. The next election has to reveal the shame that the thinking behind the ALP, the Greens and their policies want to require of all of us.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 15 October 2012  

Well said, Andrew - I fully endorse these thoughts. Does this situation reflect on the type of politicians we have voted into Parliament? A thought which must come to us all, but above all, what should and must we do about it? Apathy and silence is not the solution!

Peter M | 15 October 2012  

I would agree that in the last couple of weeks the antics in Parliament have reached a nadir of poor behaviour. Politicians can only implement their agendas through one source - power - and it's in maintaining or seeking power that behaviour is often motivated. In our Parliament, it's also shameful that the gender issue has been very relevant. The church is no stranger to poor behaviour either. I think in attempting to reach a 'better place' certainly a higher ethical standard is needed. Although we all have a personal responsibility to be the best people we can be, we can't do that in isolation. And the onus is on leadership to set the standard. We need to be a community that says "Respect each other, honour each other and love each other".

Pam | 15 October 2012  

I agree with Andrew, however as to the morality of this "Catholic Christian" Tony Abbott and his entitlement to leadership, the latest Quarterly Essay by David Marr, should give you serious cause for thought, Fr Mick.

Stephanie T | 15 October 2012  

"Once cynicism rules in our view of public life, we almost necessarily lose sight of what really matters: human dignity". A cogent appreciation of Australia's political scene under this Labor government, a far cry from what the ALP used to be and meant to so many greats of the past. What can you expect from a government that demands gender equality of numbers in its parliamentary representation regardless of ability; chooses to select for the major part of its governance ex-trade unionists representing only 18% of the workforce and, thus, only appox 6% of the population. How can we expect human dignity from a government that publicly promotes the destruction of human life through abortion, that protects criminal behaviors in its members, that disregards convention and ethics in the pursuit of its own ambitions and survival, and worse, disregards the law. Immature adolescents, both male and female,are guilty of toilet humour and attitudes. This parliamentary mob have not progressed from their adolescence. No wonder they hurl childish insults around the House calling each other names as do the immature adolescents. No wonder the parliament is a mess. Consign this mob back to the toiet block from which they have failed miserably to progress!!!!!

john frawley | 15 October 2012  

The criticisms are appropriate but the cause of the problem - and the solution to it - are clear, but require effort. Instead of standing back and complaining, more people should do something about it. More of us should the take the trouble and the responsibility of joining the political party we prefer and become part in selecting political candidates.

Bob Corcoran | 15 October 2012  

Yes, if there is one political issue that nearly all of us can agree upon, it is that we would prefer our representatives to behave with dignity, particularly towards each other. And it IS a political issue, for all the reasons you have given. However, I think it is a mistake to assume that all that talk about a radio announcer, and about misogyny and so on is not different from what matters to our society. On the contrary, it goes to the heart of what matters just as much as discussions about the economy, health and education do. If time was wasted, it was not necessarily wasted by everybody. In particular, Julia Gillard's speech was brilliant, timely and necessary. She did not waste a single moment of her precious time or ours, when she addressed herself to those who have belittled her in the ways they have, both inside and outside the parliament.

Kate Ahearne | 15 October 2012  

A sound summary of a very poor week in the parliament. That the ALP has employed a communications expert, [McTernan] to fire up their campaign is immensely concerning - and they follow like lambs to the slaughter. What he recommends, they do! Until both sides can be judged on policy - and not massive backflips and adjustments to appeal to electorates or crossbenchers - we will be in this position. There is no way that the gender war can continue and Julia Gillard should wise up on that and start playing the game and not the man. Imagine if Tony Abbott was accusing her continually of misandry - and raking up quotes taken out of context just to gain political expediency. The whole thing is bad on both sides and is an appalling example for our nation - despite Julia's numerous hits on Youtube. If it was not so serious, it might be funny!!!!

Frances | 15 October 2012  

It is dispiriting to read some of the blogs to this article, as their authors have failed to grasp Andrew’s main subject, which is about dignity and respect. Instead of seeing this as a problem generally in the Parliament and in our society at large, the bloggers divide along party lines, seeing their own people as dignified and the other mob as the ones who abide on the far side of the toilet block. Until we understand that the log is in our own eye, who are we to be saying that it’s all because of the bit of grit in their eye? Civil society is everyone’s responsibility and does not divide according to party preference. As for Andrew’s essay itself, my view is that while it is a helpful reality check, misogyny in our society is nevertheless a reality that has shown its colours flagrantly ever since the installation of our first (and not last) female PM. It is not an accident that this issue has risen to the surface in the Parliament because any intelligent person is aware of how it is driving some public debate in Australia, especially about the PM. It will be named for what it is. Penny Wong is wise to stop the gender conflict, though, as again misogynistic attitudes are not the problem of one party. She knows that. It is our social problem as Australians.

BUNYIP BLUEGUM | 15 October 2012  

Stephanie T has raised the issue of David Marr's essay on Tony Abbott as part of the comments here and I believe that that very essay is an indication of just what our politics and political processes are not revealing for voters, to give us the opportunity to see the clear differences between the two leaders and their policies. David Marr is promoting a liberal progressive take on where our nation is heading and is at pains to bring defeat to Tony Abbott's leadership aspirations because he is opposed to the foundations of such a course. What David Marr owes all voters is honesty about his own aspirations for Australia. Instead of sitting in judgement on Tony Abbott he needs to reveal his own agendas, for judgement.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 15 October 2012  

I think politicians sometimes descend to the level of the bad old days of the Melbourne or Sydney University SRC. There were, even recently, Australian politicians with some gravitas and a sense of what was and what wasn't important. I think the cause and remedy lie within ourselves who have, over the years, allowed political behaviour to degenerate to this level. We need to be more proactive in relaying this message to our elected representatives. We need to give them some clues as to what is expected.

Edward F | 15 October 2012  

Andrew, its seems you have missed the point. Bravo to our Prime Minister who gave an inspiring 15 minute speech in parliament and possibly the first head of state to raise misogyny as a relevant issue affecting 51% of the population. Yet you and others are already calling to put an end to the so called ‘gender card’ which makes me think you don’t understand the relevance of this issue in creating an equal and fair society for all. Surely, in the 111 year history of our parliamentary democracy we can afford more than 15 minutes on this very relevant issue. To put this in perspective, I have never heard calls to stop playing the ‘race card’ and I hope I don’t. Calls to silence the debate on sexism and misogyny only emphasizes what we already know – that women are not listened to in the public domain. This is the tip of the iceberg!

Lynda | 15 October 2012  

While the behaviour of our parliamentary leaders was perhaps less than exemplary last week, the combination of the radio announcer, party leader and speaker, gave the PM an overdue opportunity, in the minds of many people, to to say something at last about the "injustice of not saying", as Katharine Murphy put it. Even The Age sports columnist Greg Baum was reminded of his mother putting up with a lifetime of patronising men feeling entitled to call her 'luv' and she biting her tongue. The Gillard explosion may not have been the Gettysbug address but it provided relief to a great many people - me being one.

Paul Begley | 15 October 2012  

Human dignity? And the Vatican? Hardly! As for simplistic notions of Gillard being a leftwing atheist and Abbott being a right wing Christian, do spare us all pleez! Gillard knows not what she is but observing her antics over the years shows she is as much an opportunist as Abbott is. No self respecting DLP boy would join the Tories, he should be leading the Shoppos and doing his bit for Santa by keeping shop workers wages down to below subsistence wages, as they are today. Why pick on the Jones incident as 'proof' of a debacle? There are far more serious issues where the entire parliament has colluded and produced appalling legislation, such as Roxson's 'cure' for Gillards taxpayer funded gift to the rightwing Christian groups that infect our schools with so-called chaplains. No media comment on how that legislation can/will play out in the future? Forget Gillard's petulant rant about Abbott - she hardly has a monopoly on virtue does she? Besides, she has overreached in her claims and done us all a great dis-service by creating an impression that women cannot handle themselves against men. That may be her situation but it sure isn't mine.

janice wallace | 15 October 2012  

A wise and realistic parent may well judge the true character of a school by the state of its toilet blocks... In the last resort the attitudes behind the behaviour are of greater concern than the behaviour itself. I am absolutely sure we have the politicians we deserve.

Margaret | 15 October 2012  

So, Fr Mick, 'Tony Abbott has [your] support because he is consistent and [you] can understand the foundations of his thinking'. Like the thinking behind his statement that 'it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitude, abilities, and interests are different for physiological reasons'? Sounds a bit like 'Kinder, Kirche und Küche' to me. Stephanie T is spot on in her suggestion that you read Marr's essay; after that you might like to try Susan Mitchell's 'Tony Abbott: A Man's Man'. (You can borrow it on line from the SLV.) Or if you are generally relaxed about what is driving Allan Jones and 2GB please read Neil Chenoweth's article in today's AFR called 'Jones has fewer options in shock-jock economy'. You will find it at www.afr.com/p/national/jones_has_fewer_options_in_shock_F2cytT80OO0kqo5E3sNg3O

Ginger Meggs | 15 October 2012  

I totally agree with Fr. Mick Mac Andrew and John Frawley's comments. There is a palpable hatred of Tony Abbott by people of the left and the media. All this talk about misogyny is puerile and is just another bucket of mud to sling at the opposition. I notice there is no mention of the terrible misandry displayed by Gillard's speech and the celebrations with champagne when the Emily's List women got their way to legalise the "morning after abortive Pill"

Trent | 15 October 2012  

It's very sad to read comments after Andrew's article by those who should be above petty politics and the favourites game. Tony Abbot is consistent for sure - he stymies and rejects everything the government tries to do - not on principle - simply to oppose. And I'm not interested in whether someone's an atheist or a Christian - neither Abbott or Gillard have even proven themselves to be humane on many fronts, so it's all just labelling. I'll reserve my vote till the last minute - and it won't be for the two major parties. The Greens are the only civilised party with integrity and that show respect for human dignity (and please don't start with the abortion issue - it's a political non-issue/distraction)

AURELIUS | 15 October 2012  

Andy as I read your article I remember how parliament was in the days before the separation of the bunker in the hill. and I reflect how easy it is to get lost in separating otherness. I do yearn for a time when we can celebrate and love the richness our different ways of experiencing the world brings. I don't have an answer. One thing I know though is there is life in respectful exploring of the unknowing. And your words invite me into that space that sees each of us as children of Gods creation ...it is so easy to forget that each of us are from One

John | 15 October 2012  

Judging from Father Mick's comments about David Marr's Tony Abbott feature, it's obvious he hasn't read it and is just focusing on the same wall slamming incident the tabloids picked up. If you read the article, you'll realise it's actually very balanced, even to the point of flattering of Tony Abbott - quite a feat since Abbott stipulated that all comments he made during the interview with Marr were off the record and couldn't be used. But one point Marr made that I agree with is the Abbott is determined and driven - and doesn't let his Catholic beliefs get in the way of his political decisions and ambitions.

AURELIUS | 15 October 2012  

Dear Fr Mick, our Tony may have behaved how one might have come to expect a right wing, conservative "Catholic politician" (whether clerical and lay) to behave ("whatever it takes"), it is not how a Christian should behave. Whether it is dog-whistling over foreigners,degenerating the asylum seeker issue to rot-bottom, putting personal and party power before the national good, or taunting Julia with the vicious "dying of shame" mantra...his behaviour has been shame-ful. What on earth do you think being a Catholic is about?

Eugene | 15 October 2012  

Trent, what you call the 'morning after abortive Pill' was never 'illegal'. What the parliament did was to legislate to remove the power of a Health Minister to arbitrarily prohibit its import. It did it because Abbott mis-used that power, arbitrarily and contrary to expert advice, to deny women access to something to which they were legally entitled. In doing so he was blatantly imposing his own religious beliefs on all women, regardless of their beliefs. That is an example why most women and many men don't trust him. And if you think that 'all this talk about misogyny' is childishly silly and trivial (ie puerile), I suggest that you get out and talk to some of the many women that have been on the receiving end of it for years.

Ginger Meggs | 15 October 2012  

Good afternoon, Aurelius. I like much of what you say in your commentaries on Eureka Street. I cannot let you you get away with your concluding sentence in today's post, however. Whether we like it or not, the scientific truth known to all scientists etc around the world,regardless of religious adherence or belief in an almighty god,is that the life growing to maturity in the womb is human life in the human being, just as it is bovine life in a cow. The destruction of this life in a pregnant human being equates with the destruction of human life. Abortion in human society is thus a little more than a "distraction" and in fact is a political issue when governments choose to ratify such destruction in the Law. Truth is not always palatable, I know, but is none-the-less incontrovertible. When a society comes to accept the destruction of human life (in the matter of abortion for reasons overwhelmingly of self interest) that society has taken a giant step towards barbarity. We see the early effects of this in the progressive erosion of ethics, decency and respect for other human beings evident in our parliamentarians and some public commentators. Happy days, Aurelius!

john frawley | 15 October 2012  

John Frawley asks 'How can we expect human dignity from a government that publicly promotes the destruction of human life through abortion, that protects criminal behaviors in its members, that disregards convention and ethics in the pursuit of its own ambitions and survival, and worse, disregards the law'. Easy to say, but where is the evidence? As Abbott is at pains to remind us the law with respect to abortion is a state matter; there is no government member that has yet been convicted of criminal behaviour; and the defence of due process according to law is hardly evidence of disregard for convention and ethics. John of course is entitled to his beliefs, but he can hardly claim that they are evidence-based.

Ginger Meggs | 15 October 2012  

In general I look forward to your thinking and ethical leadership on current issues. However I think you miss a very important point in your comment today. The impact of the Prime Minister's rejection of sexism, misogyny and sheer unacceptable vindictiveness in relation to her father was long overdue. We are slowly learning the devastating impact of bullying and as Summers amply demonstrated in her lecture to Newcastle Uni. this is precisely what the Primes Minister has been subjected to for a long time. Standing up to this in a controlled and well evidenced way is a model for women and young people in similar situations. It restores some of our hopes that young women can have ambitions to achieve at high levels and defend themselves against this subversive tyranny. I see it as important leadership.

Mary Sheehan | 15 October 2012  

Does Andrew take the view that Peter Slipper's unfortunate but privately written observations, should NOT bear on his suitability to be Speaker of the Parliament, when such observations are outed as evidence in a court of law? Sectarianism is rife in our society. Tony Abbott's Catholicism and his comments (taken out of context) on abortion are the main reasons for the visceral hatred he accepts. Those of us who "commit ourselves to serious labour" (a poor pun Andrew) should start by belling the sectarian cat, inside and outside the Parliament.

Claude Rigney | 15 October 2012  

To JOHN FRAWLEY, I in no way support abortion, being staunchly pro-life. The point I maybe hurriedly tried to make is that as a political issue - it's a red herring. As Ginger Meggs pointed out, it's a state issue, and no matter what side of politics is in power at the time, the laws won't change - (at least in the pro-life direction). But politicians throw it into the debate arena to distract from issues they actually have control over, and it's a ploy to create an artificial bipartisan divide that ignores the real issues that differentiate left/right/centre.... The US is an extreme example of how abortion and homosexual rights are wrongly pushed to the top of election issue to distinguish the Republicans from the Democrats, and to give the chattering classes a simple prism with which to see their complex world. Let's stop hiding behind what we already know are our Catholic beliefs on the right to life, and tackle the reality of this political trickery. If people were really concerned about unborn babies, they be so blase about the current political and social hurdles in addressing the issue effectively and maybe actually reduce the number of abortions.

AURELIUS | 15 October 2012  

I generally agree with the observations of Andrew Hamilton but not this time.

I strongly applaud Julia Gillard's retort to Tony Abbott. Finally, she said aloud, forcefully and angrily, what so many women endure daily and silently, and what so many men fail to see, hear or understand

Overwhelminglly, the women I know are pleased to see sexism being called out, however grudgingly by many commentators. Perhaps the PM's anger has finally got people listening to and reflecting on the insidious remarks and behaviour that women encounter in their work, social and family lives.

The PM's anger and response was appropriate.

carinya | 15 October 2012  

Andrew I think your opening paragraph is a major problem for all women; you say that Parliament should curtail their activities to what matters most in our society, then you tell us that talk about misogyny and sexism is a waste of time. Like Lynda and Kate I agree that misogyny is alive and flourishing, it affects 51% of the population, it goes to the heart of what matters in contemporary society.
Did Jesus walk this earth and die in vain? Scripture states His message in regards to the women he met: they are to be respected and considered as gender equivalent in status to the men in society.
The process of evolution will not be stifled by backward thinking attitudes such as those adhered to by institutions that persist in gender domination over half our population! Your notion is that the behaviour in Parliament last week is more like schoolyard playtime than that of rational thinking adults. Surely what we see on TV is only a fraction of what our Parliamentarians achieve in Canberra.. But this last week I think a very important step has been made towards the dignity and status of all females.

Trish Martin | 15 October 2012  

Sadly, the voices of people like Carinya, Mary Sheehan and Lynda are few and far between amongst the readers and writers of this column. Andrew is often progressive but not on the discrimination and hatred that is embedded in our culture and society. So blinkered that you can't see women as human beings who are entitled to the same respect and rights as men. Finally, for the very first time, the PM has fought back. They've called for her to be guillotined, drowned etc they've done the most ghastly cartoons of her with dildos hanging around her neck, they've demanded that women get out of public life etc etc etc. And the MSM utters not a word,provides no criticism. And when finally the PM speaks for all women and says: STOP the hatred, STOP the discrimination, women and men of fair values support her. But not Eureka Street. Do you want women to put up with the denigration, the rapes, the violence, the threats, the discrimination - and forever say nothing?! Dream on Eureka Street.

annamack | 15 October 2012  

I agree with Father Mick Mac Andrew that Tony Abbott would be a better Prime Minister than Julia Gillard. Her failed attempt to save Peter Slipper, being removed of his job was disgraceful. Her attempt to accuse Tony Abbott, that he hates women during her vitriolic 15 minutes debate and that he is a misogynist, has turned the majority of voters agaisnt her. Maybe some people may think that her vitriolic speech was good, but to the rest of Australians, it showed how much hatred comes from the Left wing of the Labor Party and the Greens to Tony Abbott and the Conservatives. Voters have realized that under Rudd and Gillard there been nothing but mistake after mistake, failure after failure and plenty of hatred towards the opposition. It is clear, the majority of the people want an election now to elect Pro-God,Pro-Family and Pro-Life Tony Abbott to be our Prime Minister.

Ron Cini | 15 October 2012  

Absolutely, it has been like watching kids in the play ground only worse because none of it matters a toss. The 5 most powerful people in this country are all women, yet Gillard and others whine about sexism in this day and age. it's embarrassing.

Marilyn | 15 October 2012  

Interesting to note the number of responses to the Alan Jones debacle, and the name calling in Parliament. I would guess the response to the Assylum Seekers predicament , and other social justice issues, might not be quite as passionate

Bernie Introna | 15 October 2012  

I have no problem with people expressing their political opinions and preferences, but I get so angry when people use their religion as a crutch to prop up their selfish agendas, as if in some way to legitimise their venture. It's tantamount to heresy, and I see it as a cult.

AURELIUS | 16 October 2012  

Those who accept Andrew's invitation to "commit ourselves to serious labour" might be heartened to hear of a current community initiative aiming to restore respect to politics - respect for democracy, respect for individuals, and respect for the environment. Available (free) from the Victorian Women's Trust (www.vwt.org.au) is a book called A Switch in Time: restoring respect to Australian politics. It offers a base for discussion and outlines actions that any citizen can do. Sharing of ideas and experience is invited on the Trust's Facebook site. We are all responsible for taking part in democracy.

Jan Watson | 16 October 2012  

I have always been struck by the general dominance of male adversarial games in the conduct of our parliament. Discussions on dignity and standards should include awareness of this dominance. I have always been struck by individual females as far back (and further?) as Janine Haines as they steadfastly refused to participate in this culture. One of the characteristics of the current parliament is the dignity and focus of the women members and leaders. Gillard’s remarkable speech was a 15 minute resounding rejection of these established games. It comes as no surprise that some of media (who deliberately or inadvertently support this long-time parliamentary culture) have misrepresented her watershed speech. People can analyse, reject, criticise all they like. But Gillard has opened the stable doors on misogyny and the horses have definitely bolted.

Jane | 16 October 2012  

And to add to all this trash talk, on behalf of all Australian taxpayers providing their salaries, can I ask that politicians stop interjecting so rudely during Question Time? Have some respect for the rules of parliament and your constituents who want to hear the actual debate! If I behaved like them in my job, I'd be sacked and out of a job. Also, there are school children in the gallery with more maturity than these interjectors. I'd like to start a campaign to broadcast all the interjections made in parliament on an ABC4 or 5, so these faceless twits can learn some manners.

AURELIUS | 16 October 2012  

Fr Mick reminds me of the sermons I recall as a young feller, especially in Ireland and England, ordering me to vote for people because they were Catholic and against others because they were not. Experience told me, unhappily, that these orders should be taken with a grain of salt. It has also told me that politicians being Catholic is no guarantee that they will be good leaders or that their being atheists guarantees that they will be bad ones.

Dominic Nagle | 23 October 2012  

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