Inside Canberra's Catholic lobby

Catholic Social Services AustraliaI 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.


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 QuinlanFrank Quinlan is the executive director of Catholic Social Services Australia.

Topic tags: Quinlan, Catholic Social Services Australia, Greens, Labor, Liberal, Coalition, Gillard, Howard, Abbott



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Existing comments

Well put! Let's work with what we've got (or will have) and not moan about what might have been or how it was in the good old days. This article reflects, dare I say it, a real sense of 'moving forward' with a sense of optimism and hope.

Go well CSSA as you embark on yet another new journey towards the practical implementation of the Gospel for all people.

John Southwell | 18 August 2010  

I am surprised how naïve some people are in believing that the policies of the Greens are “very close to those of the Catholic Church”. If people would take time to read the policies of the Greens in full and also the official policies of North Korea, you would find very few differences. There is a lot of promotion of the “common good” in both of them. There is no place for faith-based schools either in the policies of the Greens or the ideology of North Korea. It seems selling a Utopia based worldview remains effective, as we still have a large pool of naïve people, even in Australia.
Of course if the aim is to get rid of faith based schools and if somebody believes churches should pay taxes, the Greens are the right party.

Beat Odermatt | 18 August 2010  

"...and any truth which is ignored by those in power eats away at it's bearer until the bearer of the truth is unable to function as a member of the society and fades into obliviom or rebels ... such is life"

Greig Williams | 18 August 2010  

Thanks for this explication, Frank.

Noting the concerns of Beat Odermatt, Greens policies are somewhat closer to those of the Catholic Church.

This is in contrast with the Exclusive Brethren, who see global warming as the start of the End Times, after which they will go to Heaven and the rest of us won't.

That's the meaning of Exclusivity, and it accounts for the Brethren support of the Liberal Party so long as its leader publicly states a certain Denialism.

Do the Liberals still accept Exclusive Brethren donations?

David Arthur | 18 August 2010  

'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.'

Beat, Frank Quinalan states clearly that on some issues it may be easy to use Greens influence. This is how a democracy and lobbying works.

Elizabeth | 18 August 2010  

Well done, Frank. You bring great wisdom and delicate balance to an important conversation.Keeping doors open and engaging in dialogue is so vital for the Church and the whole of our society. I am proud of the way you and Catholic Social Services Australia seek to follow such an approach.

(Bishop) Pat Power | 18 August 2010  

Congratulations. If only there were more commentary like this. It is insightful, honest, Christian and practical.

Sheelah Egan | 18 August 2010  

Yes, it seems that the Greens are closer to the essence of Christianity in relation to others than is the party that supported the mining bosses and their billions of dollars. Let us act like a Christian country and show compassion and provide support to the poor, the sick, the refugees, the teachers striving to make up for shortcomings of struggling parents, ...
And let's accept that the majority of relevant scientists are right and we need to halt and reverse global warming asap.
(The Greens seem to be the only group that ticks all the boxes.)

Geoff | 18 August 2010  

Thank you for expressing so cogently the stance that we are called to take as Christians living in a democracy. It gives me great confidence in the leadership of the CSSA. May you be blessed as you continue to work with whoever is in government to bring about a greater respect for the human dignity and welfare of those you represent.

Ern Azzopardi | 19 August 2010  

It really makes sense to use the Greens to get a message across. It was not so long ago the same lame idea was sold in Germany and many people voted for the Deutsche Nationalsozialistische Arbeiterpartei (DNSAP). They did not mean for the Nazi Party to run Germany, most people just “tried to make a protest and to get a message across”. The result of this protest vote changed history. They sold their souls to the devil for a cheap ticket to Utopia. Some seem never to learn!

Beat Odermatt | 19 August 2010  

It is a pity we cannot rely on the integrity and expertise of far too many potential “leaders” of the country as economic managers who will also look after “ordinary“ citizens and especially the poor and vulnerable. It appears to be only about craving personal power and pandering to the demands of the likes of wealthy mining companies, etc.

It is only when the likes of Joseph Stiglitz NOBEL prize-winning economist and former World Bank chief economist make a comment that we realise what is required for an truly equitable system from which all citizens can benefit (one of the important tenets of Christianity). Stiglitz is not afraid to point out:

That “TIME WAS OF THE ESSENCE during the World Financial Crisis and Labour - by ACTING SWIFTLY, saved Australia from Recession (“unfortunately absolutely necessary - even if mistakes and cost overruns were made in the process“)“.

At the same time Prof Stiglitz CRITISED right-wing politicians for being the very "architects'' of the downturn. He said economic advisers who had been praised by "the other side'' of politics “were the very ones who had designed America's "economic mess” - a deliberate volatile economic situation during which the already-wealthy reap the benefits at the expense of the vulnerable in society (a violently anti-Christian concept and a threat to harmony among people because the “fruits of the earth” are being cruelly seized by those intent on looting and pillaging the earth’s resources for their own self-agrandisement and personal power).

Thank you Frank for your insightful article.

M.Stewart | 19 August 2010  

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