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Catholic lobby the insider outsider



Political insiders are those forces in Australian politics which use economic clout, political connections, extensive networks and reliable access to decision-makers to consistently influence political outcomes. Outsiders, by definition, are those which lack these characteristics.

Parliament House has a cross on its roof, half of which is rusted and cobwebbed, the other half lush with green growth. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonThe Catholic lobby now doubts its own strength and influence. The education sector is a good example. While the church's major archbishops have guaranteed access to prime ministers and premiers at short notice, the lobby is still reduced to running robo-call by-election campaigns on school funding issues.

It has great residual strength through its social networks, numerical strength, financial resources and extensive social services, but its brand is damaged by the current child abuse scandals in the eyes of the public, and it often sees itself as hard done by and under siege. Its public campaign strategies are, therefore, a sign of weakness, not of strength, making it better described as an insider/outsider in a state of flux.

The strength of insiders and outsiders can change over time and from state to state depending on political and social circumstances. The status of insiders and outsiders may also vary according to the political issue. Both these reservations apply to the Catholic lobby.

The Catholic lobby never has been a full-blown political insider. The early Irish-Catholic church was an outsider during the Protestant economic, social and political ascendancy. It began to exert political influence through its association with the Australian Labor Party and through its upward social and economic mobility.

It was still locked into the Labor side of politics until after the Labor Split in the 1950s. By the 1980s it was strong on both sides of politics through the migration of many Catholics into the Liberal and National parties.

But at the same time, from the 1960s onwards, Australian culture had begun to change in ways which disadvantaged the church. The sexual revolution, producing legislative reform on abortion, divorce, women's rights and homosexual rights, began to isolate the church from majority community opinion. Although led more often by the left, this new culture was essentially cross-party, including many progressive social liberals. The church was increasingly tagged as too conservative, and usually on the losing side of these debates. Catholics increasingly lost influence in the new Labor Party.


"Catholic values have no natural political party home. The Catholic community is fractured and Catholic MPs hold diverse views. That makes any Catholic lobbying by bishops or agencies difficult."


Similarly, Australian economic policy, led by the Coalition but increasingly accepted by Labor under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, became increasingly individualistic and moved away from the collectivism enshrined in the traditional Australian settlement. The old Australia was one in which trade unions were strong and capital and labour existed in a rough balance. The new Australia, backed by most of the Catholics now in the Liberal Party, played on notions of individual aspiration rather than community.

Catholic values now have no natural political party home in which the full Catholic 'package' wins easy acceptance. The Catholic community is itself fractured and Catholic MPs often hold very diverse views. That makes any Catholic lobbying, either by bishops or agencies, difficult.

On social welfare and the economy the Catholic lobby is now decisively to the left of the political consensus represented by the two major political parties. Just look at the Catholic responses to the budget speeches by Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten. The June issue of Justice Trends, published by the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, paints a stark picture of the church's opinions, represented by its agencies, being totally disregarded on issues like wages policies, unemployment benefits, wealth distribution, international aid and development and asylum seekers and refugees. Official church positions have more in common with the Greens than with the big parties, other than some individual MPs.

On sexual morality issues the Catholic lobby, represented this time by the bishops rather than church agencies, is now clearly to the right of the political consensus on issues like same sex marriage, anti-discrimination and freedom of speech. On euthanasia the church is closer to the centre, remaining influential, but the wider community is divided.

The Catholic lobby is not easily characterised, because of its diversity. Historically it built its lobbying power up from a low base to a widely recognised status as an insider on many issues. That position is now precarious because many contemporary developments are especially challenging to its ethos and capabilities. As a consequence it is now scrambling to retain its influence.



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and chairs Concerned Catholics Canberra-Goulburn.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Catholic Church, clergy sexual abuse, Philip Wilson, Mark Coleridge, Frank Brennan



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Existing comments

St Paul's letter to the Romans has, correctly, been called the "Constitution of Christianity". It is addressed not to the church but to the "saints". Many Christians believe that the gospel is political in nature. Reading Romans in a snail-like manner doesn't reveal that to me. The Catholic Church is diverse, thankfully, and lobbying for political purposes is part of the mix. As for influence, its poverty should be enough.

Pam | 17 August 2018  

"Catholic values have no natural political party home. The Catholic community is fractured and Catholic MPs hold diverse views. That makes any Catholic lobbying by bishops or agencies difficult." Very true! I like the way Pope Francis has stressed the need to care for Earth our Common Home in 'Laudato Si' and also his expressed wish for a 'poor Church for the poor'. The Australian Greens seem to me to be the political party with policies closest to the values of the Gospel, although some of their policies aren't. I think the greatest challenges of our time are climate change and poverty and these are both interconnected. Climate change will lead to millions of climate refugees in the future. Another vital challenge for our politicians is to provide affordable accommodation for the 116 000 homeless people in Australia. I really recommend readers view this week's TV program 'Filthy Rich and Homeless', available now on SBS on demand. Our country is rich enough to provide affordable accommodation for all, as Finland has done. Please email our major party politicians on this issue. They have not done near enough in this area. In recent years homelessness has risen sharply, rather than decline.

Grant Allen | 17 August 2018  

“The Catholic community is itself fractured….” If you’re not whole, how can you be ‘holy’, set aside for a purpose? God’s purpose is whole: ‘progressive’ culture is not part of caring for the poor, the sick, strangers, widows and orphans.

Roy Chen Yee | 18 August 2018  

I share your non-recognition of the gospel as "political in nature", Pam; though this is not to say that the Good News does not have implications for the body politic, locally and internationally, as evident in the Old and New Testament scriptures, history, and the Church's social teachings. I can also identify in the main with John Warhurst's outline of the historical influence variegations and vicissitudes of the "Catholic lobby", with a caveat that while it is comparatively weaker than in earlier generations, its effectiveness is far from defunct, as evident in the part played by networks such as the Australian Family Coalition and the Australian Family Association in the recent defeat of the Northern Territory's effort to have the federal government's ban on euthanasia overturned. With increasing internet capability and widening disenchantment with PC extremities, it would not be surprising, even, to see a resurgence of what has been a durable lobby - as even its critics admit - in Australian politics and life (though I would not expect to see a total identification of the Church with the political ideology of any one party).

John | 18 August 2018  

Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner's, God works from the inside out.

Oliver Clark | 20 August 2018  

John Warhurst's article does not tackle does not tackle 2 basic issues 1. The Royal Commission into Child Sexual abuse shows that the Catholic model, all male all theoretically celibate, is a disgraceful failure. 2. A lot of the church's power comes from receiving government. funds for schools, hospitals, aged care etc. Recipients of these services may be of any religion or these days, mainly none. Graduates of Catholic schools who continue to attend Mass have been estimated as low as 5%.

Jay Keys | 21 August 2018  

Jay Keys, Undoubtedly the child abuse has blackened the name of the Catholic Church and summoned its very structures and modus operandi into searching review. However, where is the evidence for the requirement of priestly celibacy itself being responsible for the abuses, as your first point suggests? What of priests - God knows how many - who actually live up to the demands of celibacy for the sake of the Gospel and whose conducting of their lives yields good fruit? What of the numerous incidences of child abuse perpetrated by those who are not committed to celibacy? The unsuitability for some priests for celibacy may indeed contribute to abuse, but this is distinct from the requirement of priestly celibacy as such.

John | 22 August 2018  

Mr Warhurst has it that: “The Catholic lobby is not easily characterised, because of its diversity. Historically it built its lobbying power up from a low base to a widely recognised status as an insider on many issues. … its brand is damaged by the current child abuse scandals in the eyes of the public.” This familyist distracting of attention from familyism is anti-competitive differentiation of equal and inseparable rights of the family’s helpers. This illegal anti-competitive product differentiation reinforces acting out grooming and been groomed behaviour. This abusive procreation service provision within the family inverting gift and need misrepresents gift- roles of helpers of the family as having status in selecting students that can only belong to need- identity of the family in selecting its helpers. Oliver Clark for Job’s Trust.

Oliver Clark | 13 October 2018  

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