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Politicians' Catholic background


Bill ShortenAnger at the fact that Tony Abbott’s cabinet includes only one woman has been displaced in media attention by the exclusion of senior Labor women such as Anna Burke and Jacinta Collins from leading roles in the Bill Shorten-led opposition. The gender balance, however, is not the only demographic change in the major parties. As Matt Wade reported in the Sydney Morning Herald last month, nearly half of the Abbott cabinet are 'of Catholic background'. That’s roughly double the proportion — 25 per cent — of respondents to the last census who identified themselves as Catholics.

This is an historic shift. Australians who attended school in the 1960s and ‘70s, like the present writer, will remember that Catholics were then a rarity in Coalition cabinets and that the few who did make it, such as Phillip Lynch, had typically struggled to win Liberal preselection because of their religion. A sectarian divide between the parties persisted even after the Labor split of the 1950s severed what had once seemed a natural link between the ALP and the Catholic Church, and long after an earlier split had resulted in Joe Lyons becoming Australia’s first Catholic prime minister, at the head a Coalition government.

Has that sectarian/partisan divide now been consigned to history, and with it the antagonisms it generated? The 1996 election, in which the John Howard-led Coalition defeated the Keating government, bringing Australia’s longest continuous period of Labor rule to an end, was also the first federal poll in which more Catholics voted for the conservative parties than for Labor. The pendulum swung back in 1998, when Labor under Kim Beazley attracted slightly more than half of the Catholic vote, but it has been swinging ever since.

There is no longer a bloc Catholic vote, as there was before the 1955 split when more than 80 per cent of Catholics routinely voted Labor. The mere fact that someone is Catholic is no longer a broad hint about how that person votes. The shift Wade reports might, however, suggest where politically active Catholics are now more likely to be found.

As soon as the suggestion is made, however, it must be hedged with qualifications. First and most importantly, the phrase that gives Wade his statistical marker, 'of Catholic background', is an inexact one. It does not necessarily mean 'practising Catholic', nor is it a reliable guide to whether a person so described was raised by practising Catholics. Mostly it only tells us what kind of school that person went to.

The fact that nearly half the ministers in the Abbott cabinet are 'of Catholic background' is not an indicator of how they might vote on, say, same-sex marriage if the Coalition were to allow a free vote on a bill to legalise it, or on Medicare funding of abortion in the unlikely event of that issue again becoming a matter of political contention. Nonetheless stories noting the disproportionate number of Coalition cabinet ministers who are 'of Catholic background' can almost be guaranteed a run in the mainstream media. Yet no one bothers to write that Labor’s new leader is 'of Catholic background', even though Bill Shorten, like Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne and Barnaby Joyce, is Jesuit-educated and, like the others, acknowledges this fact from time to time.

It may be that the press gallery sees no significance in Shorten’s 'Catholic background' because he supports same-sex marriage and perhaps also some other things that bishops don’t like. Is the gallery’s view that his 'background' somehow didn’t 'take'? If it is, that won’t do either. Malcolm Turnbull, who although not 'of Catholic background' is certainly a Catholic (he is a convert), also supports same-sex marriage. The truth is that these days even being a practising Catholic, rather than the nebulous 'of Catholic background', conveys nothing about the course a politician will choose on issues of conscience.

So what, if anything, does the historic shift that Wade reports really mean? It tells us something about the success of Catholic schools, which over several generations have transformed the socio-economic status of Catholics in this country. In that sense, the vague 'of Catholic background' label is probably appropriate, for it was the increased affluence that Catholics attained through education, rather than the sectarian nature of the 1950s split, that really dissolved the ties that once bound the church so closely to Labor politics.

Catholic schools do not, however, purport to measure their achievements chiefly by the number of highly-paid professionals among their alumni. They strive to inculcate an ethical perspective informed by Catholic teaching. How that goal is understood and imparted has changed enormously in the decades since Vatican II, and mostly for the better. Those who remember the intellectual narrowness — and in some instances the blatantly partisan politics — of schools in the preconciliar church will not mourn the passing of that era. It is reasonable to ask, though, whether being 'of Catholic background' still 'takes' as much as those who teach in the schools might hope.

I am not referring to issues such as same-sex marriage, which a pluralist society ought to be able to accommodate alongside traditional understandings. If some Catholic politicians do not feel constrained to heed the advice of bishops on upholding existing marriage law, it is a sign of maturity, not of the imminent collapse of traditional marriage. There are other issues, however, on rivwhich a gulf separates anything resembling Catholic teaching from the stance taken by politicians 'of Catholic background' in both major parties.

In the recent federal election, that was glaringly the case with the policies Labor and the Coalition adopted on asylum seekers. Since boat arrivals became a matter of political contention in Australia more than two decades ago, every level of the official church — the popes, the Australian bishops, refugee agencies — has condemned the political manipulation of xenophobia and urged Catholics to welcome those fleeing from persecution. Catholic schools have certainly echoed those calls, as the criticism of the Coalition’s asylum-seeker policies by students at St Ignatius College, Riverview, eloquently testified. If politicians 'of Catholic background' felt shamed by such criticisms, however, they gave no sign.

When they were at school, they must have been taught what the Riverview students are evidently still taught. Why didn’t it 'take'?

Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor.

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, Tony Abbott, Bill Shorten, Jesuits, Riverview



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Existing comments

Why do people think that "having a catholic background" or any other religion should preclude a person knowing this is a secular state and anti gay marriage is unfair>

rose drake | 16 October 2013  

Catholics and those who have received a Jesuit education are quite numerous, both in this country and worldwide and encompass the whole range of humanity, from saint to sinner. The purpose of a Christian/Catholic/Jesuit education should be primarily to transform people spiritually so that they might, in their turn, transform the world. Attempting to transform the world without this inner transformation could lead to disastrous and unwanted results: a little like in the Walt Disney movie "The Sorcerer's Apprentice". I think what really needs to happen now is for the Prime Minister to manifest the inner and outer abilities to lead this country. Refugee policy is just one aspect of social policy.

Edward F | 16 October 2013  

Thanks, Ray, for raising the question. Unfortunately, politicians are faced with the problem of a combination of short attentions spans and the fundamental need to be elected or re-elected, leaving little elbow room. When I was a boy, people marched in the streets down here in Tasmania about the Moratorium and the Environment, small movements at first but those who marched did not have faint hearts. Asylum seekers may be helped when the contest of ideas becomes more public and demonstrable.

Kim Chen | 16 October 2013  

I can think of two reasons it didn't take: a) many people are convinced that all refuguees coming by boat are not bona fide refugees, and b) many of the complainants of the government's attitude, are stakeholders in the business of refugees. Perhaps I can add a third reason, people have become rather cynical. There is clearly a big difference in those people fleeing Syria, desperately in fear of their lives, compared with the money that changes hands in transporting people across the sea.

shirley mchugh | 16 October 2013  

The focus on Catholic education here is useful and perceptive. The assertion about the values taught at Riverview, in the final sentence, also deserves much more attention in our media. One of the reasons it doesn’t is because many in the media have little idea of what those values are anyway. The photograph of Bill Shorten and his bride at his second marriage is also revealing, because the ‘background’ is not a Catholic church but an Anglican church. It tells us much about the social diversity of modern Australia and how ecumenical (and in fact interreligious too) Australia actually is today. The question has to be asked, what is Catholic? Or even, what is Christian? These are questions that exist inside Australian society at a deep level, not least amongst those who “protest too much” saying they don’t want anything to do with religion.

OLD POSSUM | 16 October 2013  

I would hope that the prominence of "Catholics" in public life means that they are there because of an instinct to serve the community, and in a broad sense want to "do good".

Eugene | 16 October 2013  

Very interesting article, Mr Cassin, particularly in its description of the disconnect between "practising" and "background" catholicism, probably the fault of catholic education in the schools rather than an index of high level Catholic education as was once the signature of Jesuit school education. At least, Shorten's "catholic background" represents 25% of the Australian population. Over 50% of his parliamentary party and 70% (18/26) of his Labor senate have trade union backgrounds, representing a mere 6% of the population. His "catholic background" is likely to have no effect on what he or his party does. That will be determined by the increasingly irrelevant and over-represented trade unions.

john frawley | 16 October 2013  

Shirley McHugh, it will be very interesting to hear your thoughts when Syrian refugees start turning up on boats reaching Christmas Island. Please keep us informed.

Paul | 16 October 2013  

The trouble with a Jesuit Education is it may also foster a very proud and pompous mind. Given their inferior socioeconomic status, the uneducated, the homeless, the children of single mothers and/or refugees, are not, as they the proud (and educated) have been indoctrinated to mistakenly believe; the called or the chosen ones of God. Yet, God’s ‘preference’ has always been for the simple.

Annoying Orange | 16 October 2013  

One cannot argue that Catholic education should form an 'ethical perspective informed by Catholic teaching'. It is of no little regret that in so many cases involving Australian politicians that education has failed utterly to produce the desired result. Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno (and other Catholic documents) promoted a corporate framework by which there would be institutionalised collaboration between collaboration and labour in order to promote the common good. Our 'Catholic politicians' have seemingly never heard of such principles. Franklin Delano Roosevelt promoted QA when commenting on the evils of concentrated economic power in the face of Republicans who condemned his New Deals as a Communist plot. These documents inspired many thinkers who looked for societies based on social justice - Jacques Maritain (Integral Humanism), Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed). Kant foresaw the necessity of social justice in any viable society when he noted 'it is the duty of the privileged in society to assist the underprivileged'. I don't expect our politicians to understand any of this and that reflects sadly on educators and us - the electorate.

John Nicholson | 16 October 2013  

"The truth is that these days even being a practising Catholic, rather than the nebulous 'of Catholic background', conveys nothing about the course a politician will choose on issues of conscience." I'd like to see some evidence for that claim (obviously I'm too lazy to search out the votes in Parliament myself) but my impression is that those who identify as Catholics are much more predictably conservative on issues such as euthanasia and abortion and vote according to Church teachings. I have a question for those elite, expensive Catholic schools which "strive to inculcate an ethical perspective informed by Catholic teaching" - wouldn't it be ethical to share your lavish resources with the poorer Catholic schools

Russell | 16 October 2013  

I can see that the same-sex marriage issue is becoming a red herring once again to create an artificial political divide between practicing and non-practiscing Catholics (just as it divides liberals from conservatives in the US and increasingly here.) It's a sinister ploy to avoid the harsh reality that NONE of our influential politicians can claim to be practicing Catholics if they heed the Magisterial document Gaudium et Spes – ‘Joy and Hope’ (1965), paragraph 63: "While an immense mass of people still lack the absolute necessities of life, some, even is less advanced countries, live sumptuously or squander wealth. Luxury and misery rub shoulders. While the few more enjoy very great freedom of choice, the many are deprived of almost all possibility of acting on their own initiative and responsibility, and often subsist in living and working conditions unworthy of human beings."

AURELIUS | 16 October 2013  

This article seems to have generated some latent anti Jesuit education feeling. Perhaps the greatest gift my wife & I have or will ever give my son was the eight years of education he received at St Aloysius' College, Milson's Pt. Jesuit education draws on a rational philosophy of education that has proved successful for over 400 years. Several Catholic schools which are not Jesuit as such, benefit from the Ignatian Sprituality program conducted in them which I understand is provided by the Australian Province. One way to be informed about & challenged by Jesuit education today (I am sure there would be several others) is to read the Rector's column in "Viewpoint" accessible from the homepage of the Riverview website.

Paul Crittenden | 16 October 2013  

Cynical manipulation of the populace’ xenophobia vis-à-vis refugees is not all that separates politicians of ‘Catholic background’ from Catholic teaching Ray. Less than twenty four hours after winning the recent elections, Andrew Robb, educated by the Christian Brothers and listed among the ‘notable alumni’ on Parade College’s web-site, appeared on national television and declared that ‘Australia is now open for business’. In other words all of those whose heart’s desire is making lots of dough can now be secure in the knowledge their new government is here to lend a helping hand. How comforting to know that our country, rather than being the place where we strive to reach our eternal destiny, is actually just a market place to trade stuff and make money.

Paul | 16 October 2013  

I have spent several years on the teaching staff of two Jesuit schools.I am amused at the way certain Jesuit values are immediately expected from ex-pupils who are in the public eye. Certainly, such values are discussed and promoted at these schools but my observations of pupils past and present is that the values they "take" or practise generally reflect those of the family that produced and reared them. Families have varied motives for selecting such schools - some are materialistic, some social ,some sporting,some educational,some religious .Many are an amalgam of all of these but they are the ones largely reflected in their later lives.

Patrick Walsh | 16 October 2013  

The Labor Party started with mostly Catholic Workers. The Conservative Bishops and ratbags heve claimed it and The Church has had it's day. It needs Francis to revive and get to the basic reality of JESUS.

Francis | 16 October 2013  

Our history illustrates the over-riding influence of the tribal, or the “ us and them” instinct. When religion played a predominant part of our lives, it showed up as sectarianism, among the dominating and the dominated, and the bonds among each group were strong. As religions failed to evolve to meet new insights and situations, religious bonds weakened, and their place was taken largely by bonds among the affluent, and to a lesser degree, among the ‘needy’. What has changed is who we now came to consider as “us” and who we now see as “them”. As Pope Francis struggles to bring unity (not uniformity) to all God’s children, we can hope to see greater inclusiveness so that eventually we can all take our place in the universal “Us”.

Robert Liddy | 16 October 2013  

Spot-on, Paul.

William | 16 October 2013  

I think it is ridiculous to assume that peoples' views are shaped by their religious convictions. Why do people not think also that religious conscience is restricted to Catholics? Presbyterians, Anglicans, Baptists et al also have religious consciences and are never included in these arguments. All persuasions have their own thoughts and convictions so let's not mention religion all the time but the individual's own thoughts.

LynneZ | 17 October 2013  

My life's experience has proven the dictum; 'In politics,never trust a lapsed Catholic'

peter cosgrave | 17 October 2013  

Edward F - I'm not sure that,since about 1960,the words "Christian/Catholic?Jesuit " are synonymous with regard to education at Ignatian Schools and Universities.

Peter Cosgrave | 17 October 2013  

The question "Why didnt it take" probably has a lot to do with what I see as the gulf between being a Catholic and being a Christian. Catholics wear their faith like a badge which they use to identify themselves to fellow badgees. This gives them the security to go about their business and provides them with validation. These are the ones who will screw anyone, anytime, anywhere and go to church and pray for forgiveness. Christians on the other hand look out for those less fortunate and treat others as they would be treated. I have seen a lot of Catholic politicians including the current Prime Minister but very few have been Christians.

John | 17 October 2013  

Perhaps it is only the rejects from the Jesuit/Catholic school system that take up jobs in politics. They have evidently learned what the values are and how to get around them. The current example from Animal Farm with the pigs with their snouts in the trough of taxpayers money shows they are aware of the moral issues and how to get around them. A great credit to the Independent and Private school system. These past students understand power and privilege and how to use and abuse them. Love the line that it is time to end the age of entitlement. That is the entitlement of the poor. No message or comment from the Sydney based Cardinal mentor of the PM either. Now there's a person who thrives on privelige, wealth and power. Sure to be more ahead.

Laurie Sheehan | 17 October 2013  

Can we please move on from idolizing a Christian/Catholic/Jesuit education? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus did not say: "Blessed are they who have received an education". However, elsewhere he did say: "You will know them by their fruit". i.e. Blessed are the merciful (mercifulness being the fruit) for they shall obtain mercy.

Game Theory | 19 October 2013  

Why is rejecting perennial core Church teaching on marriage a sign of a Catholic's 'maturity', rather than his or her schismatic mentality? And how is preventing a mixture of former asylum seekers (who are not fleeing persecution in Indonesia) and economic refugees from risking their lives in fragile boats and jumping the queue of genuine asylum seekers remotely contrary to Catholic teaching - notwithstanding what Popes or Bishops have opined in non-infallible utterances? Finally, how can pluralist societies that have legalised "same sex" marriage be said to "accommodate" traditional understandings of marriage? In the same way they "accommodate" traditional understandings of abortion as killing innocent children - ie, completely ignoring those views? Seems so: businesses and teachers who follow their conscience in support of traditional marriage are being persecuted in "pluralist" societies such as Canada and the U.S.

HH | 19 October 2013  

Interesting comment you made Peter Cosgrave. The Jesuits themselves, I believe, would be the first to admit their task is a daunting one. I'm not sure if you are one who subscribes to the view that all the lights went permanently out on the Jesuit ship in the 1960s, possibly as a result of Vatican Two. I don't regard that Council as disastrous. I know how easy it is for the best laid plans to crumble into ruin through no fault of the planners or those charged with their execution. Most education, for its ultimate success, relies on home reinforcement. As Australian Catholics become affluent I suspect they want Catholic (that includes Jesuit) schools to be more like the far more expensive non-Catholic independent ones such as Geelong Grammar or the MLC. Most of these schools have a religious affiliation which is possibly not as influential on their average attendee as in Catholic schools. I speak as someone with considerable knowledge and experience of both systems. This makes it harder. I don't envy the task of Catholic education these days: it's an uphill struggle.

Edward F | 26 October 2013  

yes a very telling piece, loved the final paragraph. why indeed? next installment?

Jennifer Herrick | 03 November 2013  

Become a Catholic and be a different person. It will be the greatest gift that GOD had given you. You will bear His badge with pride.

Clive Clements | 23 February 2014  

The education of Catholics in the 60s and 70s was successful in terms of social and economic liberation but also lead to a loss of social values amongst some in terms of an odious connection with the prior ascendancy. These aspirants have as their model a triumphal Christ and have turned their backs on a crucified and compassionate Jesus.

Michael | 20 April 2014  

Christians are great. I wish I knew one. I tried to be a Christian for about thirty years. Eventually, I gave up. I'd given all my money to the poor, devoted myself to good works, endlessly turned the other cheek, and where had it got me, my wife and kids? Living in poverty, virtually on the streets. I felt angry and bitter. Where was my reward, where was my solace? My kids and wife couldn't wait for the hereafter. They needed some sort of life now. Hence, I turned my back on my saviour. Instead, I returned to God without the intercession of his son. I abandoned Christian teachings. I turned solely to prayer and contemplation of the divine. Through prayer and reflection, I sought to find out from God what He wanted me to do - and then to do it. It's still a never-ending struggle.

Richard Mahony | 22 October 2014  

I find this an interesting article, being catholic myself. So many Australian politicians are from a Catholic background, more so than in New Zealand. I thought that Paul Keating was a candid politician, not afraid to label his enemies. I like the way Keating promotes an Australian Republic still. Phillip Lynch achieved much as a Liberal, having started as a teacher. The Church teachings on private life have little relevance to modern politicians, Labor or Liberal.

Michael Walker. | 06 June 2018  

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