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Public faith and Perrottet



The elevation of Dominic Perrottet to the Premiership of New South Wales caused a flurry of commentary about his religious faith. In many parts of the media his politics and personality were framed by his Catholicism. I watched on with a degree of discomfort, and with a sense of possibility. Could some of the bigoted characterisations invite a richer conversation about the ideals and deeper narratives that enliven our public leaders?

Some of the interest and almost immediate opprobrium might have been a relief to Perottet. Being banned from Kyle Sandilands radio show apparently because of his socially conservative views is surely a silver lining. That the ban came while Sandilands and his co-host were talking on air to a psychic gives the context. But it does not explain why so much of the mainstream press utilised the religious framing and were suspicious, at best, of what it might mean. Even Media Watch, the ABC’s critical eye on the media and its biases, introduced the incoming Premier as ‘conservative Catholic, Dominic Perrottet’.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s first opinion piece after Perrottet became the frontrunner to take over from Gladys Berejiklian framed his ascendence through his religious commitments, with Stephanie Dowrick describing him as ‘a highly conservative Catholic with views that represent the most extreme end of a rigidly male-dominated institutional church.’ Dowrick considered it critical Perottet not be made Premier to contain the ‘growing representation of highly conservative Christians in positions of great power’ in Australia. The last comment obviously references Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Christian Pentecostalism, a part of his political identity much scorned but rarely fully explored, in a manner repeated in much of the response to Perottet’s assumption of office.

The ABC News online Perrottet ‘explainer’ suggested that his ‘family ideals are fierce’, citing his being one of 13 children, and having 6 children with his wife, Helen. The number of children has been given pointed attention, much of it beyond the legitimate questions about how the Premier will manage work and family life. This to say nothing of the grubby social media commentary that followed the recent announcement of a seventh child.

Perrottet’s school, attended two decades ago, was also highlighted, that ABC ‘explainer’ and other news sites initially claiming it was run by Opus Dei. Though the online piece now acknowledges that the school is independent with an Opus Dei chaplain, and though the prelature is no longer described as a ‘sect’, it is still described as having ‘historically been accused of secrecy, elitism and misogyny.’ Dan Brown’s job done.

This might all seem to be water under the bridge. The commentariat has moved on to the policy decisions the new Premier is taking as New South Wales transitioning through Covid response settings. Still, the issue hangs in the air and it’s hard to imagine a political leader from another religious tradition having their faith, or in most cases denomination, act as shorthand for their political identity. It’s even more difficult to imagine a non-religious contemporary politician being framed so quickly and critically by an underlying belief system.


'What is the underlying narrative and what are the consequent values of a political leader, what fires her moral imagination, and how is this played out in political action?'


As the dust settles somewhat, one thing worth considered is how pertinent or coherent the ‘conservative Catholic’ tag is. In the midst of all the commentary on his faith Perottet was doing a deal to allow Liberals a conscience vote on euthanasia. Such a deal makes it most likely euthanasia will become legal in New South Wales, an outcome Perrottet personally opposes. But his religious convictions weren’t getting in the way of pragmatic politicking. Or maybe his religiously grounded belief in human dignity, and so respect for conscience, was given priority.   

Perhaps more significantly for consideration of how faith informs his politics, though Perrottet’s social conservativism follows orthodox Catholic, and traditional mainline Christian, teaching, his economic vision of very free markets and small government might be considered to emanate from a different source. Perottet as Premier’s rhetoric has been more libertarian than Christian communitarian.

But just because I do not easily identify how some of Perrottet’s positions are grounded in Christian thought does not mean that they are not drawn in good faith from what is a broad and rich tradition. In his maiden speech Perottet identified four ideals that would guide his public life: service, generosity, freedom and opportunity. Freedom was the ideal he leaned into most strongly and his explanation provides, at least, the basis of a contest of ideas. He said, ‘I believe in freedom, because it is only by exercising freedom that individuals can develop the habits of generosity, hard work, fairness and concern for others [which are] the foundation for the pursuit of the good life.’

In an interview last year Perrottet argued that Christian thought is a legitimate ingredient in public policy debate in part because it has been a key element in the building of western polities. I would suggest it is a legitimate ingredient because it forms a part of the world view of some people who enter the public square. Just as other experiences and approaches to life might help form the disposition a public leader brings, so a faith commitment might provide a starting point for personal engagement that then requires testing in public language in the public square.

In the same interview Perrottet suggested that if you engage in a range of issues in public debate then it should be hard to be easily labelled. I would agree, too, that an authentic Christian response will confound the traditional left-right divide because its starting point lies outside this dichotomy. Equally, if the Christian tradition only informs some of your policy principals while others are based on other ideological or pragmatic commitments, then labels become more slippery.

Recently badgered by the breakfast TV master Karl Stefanovic, Perrottet described his faith as personal, falling back on a time-honoured alibi for those of faith about to clutch power. This seems to be the necessary bending of the knee to a bland secularism that flattens the experience considered relevant to public life to not much more than the technocratic in economics and an anything goes approach to social and community life.

It also lets the Premier off the hook from the kind of deeper scrutiny that comes when we move beyond the neat labelling of politicians. A fuller conversation might ask, what is the underlying narrative and what are the consequent values of a political leader, what fires her moral imagination, and how is this played out in political action? Equally, in what way does she compromise and fall short of that narrative and those ideals; in what way does she become incoherent? That’s a far richer conversation than counting children.



Julian ButlerJulian Butler SJ is a Jesuit undertaking formation for Catholic priesthood. He previously practiced law, and also has degrees in commerce and philosophy. Julian is a contributor at Jesuit Communications, a chaplain at Xavier College, and a board member at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Premier Dominic Perrottet departs a press conference (Book Mitchell / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Julian Butler, Dominic Perrottet, NSW Premier, politicians, faith, Catholic



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Existing comments

‘an authentic Christian response will confound the traditional left-right divide because its starting point lies outside this dichotomy.’ It does, lying in the four sectors of sin that ‘cry to Heaven for vengeance’.

roy chen yee | 02 November 2021  

It interests me, in this, which is supposedly the Age of Unfaith, when alarmists are saying we theists, especially Christians, are an isolated, threatened minority, when a clergyman raises the matter of the Faith of one of his own flock, a politician. Is that because most politicians tend to keep their Faith to themselves unless they are Pentecostals or Evangelicals? There are strident Catholics, like the former relatively short-term PM, Tony Abbott. Whatever Abbott's Faith, he was a rotten politician. As PM he refused to subsidise the local automotive industry. Consequently there is immense pressure for any major shipbuilding to be done in Adelaide at a premium. Pork barrelling? That's it par excellence. Dom Perrotet was reported as being under the former Premier's thumb at ICAC when it came to approving projects for her former lover's electorate. Whatever his religious beliefs, he's just another politician to me. The late Fred Daly, iron man of the NSW Labor Right in federal parliament and a Catholic himself, said the most dishonest politicians he knew were those who made a public profession of their Faith. Another Catholic politician, disgraced and jailed Brian Bourke, derided the totally honest John Cain as 'Calvinist Cain'. We need to move on. Let's see how Perrotet works as Premier. I'm not holding my breath.

Edward Fido | 02 November 2021  

The media are only wary of religious people whose beliefs appear threatening to their own beliefs. It seems that “conservative” Catholics are more threatening than “progressive” ones. Perhaps that is why media go after Perrottet but not Kristina Keneally, and Amy Coney Barret but not Nancy Pelosi.
When he was NSW Finance and Property Minister, Perrottet received a demand, “that I urgently remove the ‘Germain Greer’ plaque from the Sydney Writers Walk in Circular Quay” because of Greer’s “bigoted views on transgender issues.” He wrote that for democracy to survive, it must resist using state power “to enforce a ‘progressive’ agenda that criminalises dissent.” He stood up to the real bigots.
Unfortunately, few people have the strong faith of the widow and her seven sons killed for refusing to eat pork (2 Maccabees 7), but the slaughter of Christians in the 21st century continues, with at least 3,000 Christians being murdered in Nigeria just this year by Islamic Jihadists (Intersociety)
If people had a stronger faith, perhaps the evils of abortion, infanticide and euthanasia might not have reached current levels. Some John the Baptists are needed to confront the Herods of our day.

Ross Howard | 02 November 2021  

I've got to hand it to Perrotet, he's announced an inquiry into pork barrelling and distanced himself from the previous Premier's position on this. Perhaps he's just a decent man in politics, like the late Tim Fischer and John Anderson. Both were/are religious but didn't beat a drum about it. "Actions speak louder than words."

Edward Fido | 02 November 2021  
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Perhaps he is and let's hope so Edward. May I suggest that it is not the religion of politicians that irks so many of the voters, but the hypocrisy of so many who openly avow religious values. I could list more than a few but they might cause my post to be censored. As to 'counting children', that can go both ways - remember Heffernan's 'deliberately barren' accusation. For a good discussion of the place of religion in federal politics see < https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Senate/Powers_practice_n_procedures/pops/pop46/religionin21stcentury >.

Ginger Meggs | 03 November 2021  

Dominic Perrottet's school, Redlands, and its sister school, Tangara, which his daughters currently attend, ARE DEFINITELY Opus Dei schools. Yes, they are run by a foundation, PARED, created by Opus Dei to obscure its place in the running and administration of the schools. And yes, it was and probably should still be described as a sect within the Catholic Church. Another front was contrived to obscure this fact when the ultraconservative Pope John Paul II reclassified Opus Dei as the first and only so-called private prelature in the Catholic Church - whatever on earth that means. That is the truth of the matter. That said, however, those people who align themselves with the Opus Dei movement in the Catholic Church are very good people and represent perhaps the best Catholics in today's seriously flawed world both in their personal dedication and religious practice and in their Christian charity towards others. They receive a lot of unjustifiable flack from the aments like Sandilands et al for no other reason than the fact that their adherence to Christ's law and insistence on that disturbs the self-indulgence and collective conscience of our Godless society. It classifies them (Opus Dei) in the apostate mind as God's police force insisting on adherence to Christ's law. For the record, I am not a member of opus Dei, never have been and never will be. I doubt very much that Perrottet will be measurably corrupt - young, inexperienced and perhaps even naive - but basically a man of integrity, faithful to his ideals within the confines of Christ's law.

john frawley | 02 November 2021  
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Alas, John, no amount of distancing yourself from Opus Dei supports your view of authenticity. A malign force that framed the anti-modernism of the Falangists, Opus Dei collaborated with several military juntas in the Latinesque world to align Catholicism with despotic, corrupt and oppressive regimes responsible for the murder, disappearance and liquidation of thousands of nuns, priests, lay missionaries and others. Opus Dei's origins lie in a split in the Spanish Church occasioned by the rise of Franco, consequent upon the spread of liberty and democracy in Spain. Franco rose to power during the bloody Spanish Civil War when, with the help of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, his Nationalist forces overthrew the democratically elected Second Republic. The split in Catholic opinion, ever present since the spread of the Enlightenment, is still reflected in the struggle that Catholics have in coming to terms with the principle of liberty which, since the French Revolution, has never unequivocally been officially embraced by the Catholic Church as an essential component to becoming as fully human as Jesus was. 'Gaudium et Spes' (The Church in the Modern World) proclaims this change and those who play both sides follow an impossibly contradictory model of Church.

Michael Furtado | 03 November 2021  

Well observed, Julian, and even better responded to by Ross Howard. That said, I wonder what chance an Australian politician would have if she acknowledged a debt of gratitude to her Muslim or Buddhist faith. These days, Catholicism in the public square, apart from being the casualty of the Bishops' silence on child abuse - a purgatory that we shall all have to bear - is widely and respectably acknowledged to be a cloven hoof. Where else would one find Roy and me on the same page?Additionally, Perottet's singling out of 'Western' values, to a Jesuit, at least, should sound a note of caution, especially now that an Australian Catholic university has accepted a bribe to promote a line of thought that differs markedly from the Teilhardian notion of a universally evolving Christ. It may well be that it is this to which Dowrick alludes, since so much of what she writes resonates well with the kind of Judeo-Christian values enshrined within Eureka Street (or is your's intended to be a voice of dissent in that regard?). As for Stefanovic being a TV 'master', this misses it target by a country mile and weakens the tenor of your closing paragraph.

Michael Furtado | 02 November 2021  

I think you are on the money, John Frawley. Opus Dei does much good work, including a student hostel at London University where the majority of residents are of non-UK background and not Christian. Any large organisation purporting to be Christian or Catholic will have some bad apples. They are definitely not my cup of hemlock, but neither is Michael Furtardo's intellectual porridge. One is too hot, the other too cold. I always look for the sensible mainstream, God's 'hidden people'. The late Archbishop Michael Ramsey, highly regarded by his papal contemporary and the likes of Hans Kung, was my sort of Christian.

Edward Fido | 04 November 2021  
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With the greatest respect, Edward, I dare to doubt that either Archbishop Ramsey or Hans Kung, in addition to the constellation of names that you regularly feed us, would wish to be too closely associated with your views. The problem isn't so much your knowledgeable, warm and eloquent references to them, as those whom you contrast them with. For instance, Spong and Cupitt were great friends and colleagues of Holloway's and Robinson's and refused to be disassociated from them. What your comments lavishly illustrate are the unique ways in which your mind works: a study in contrasts and juxtapositioning raising more questions than answers.

Michael Furtado | 05 November 2021  

The juxtaposition of your bigoted commentary of our unashamedly Christian Prime Minister with your distaste for such commentary of Domonic Perrottet is a glaring display of YOUR shameful bias.

Pat Colgan | 05 November 2021  

An interesting analysis by Butler. If Perrotet’s religious views become evident they will be on display for public comment. At the end of the day it is what he says and does while in office that counts. “By their fruits you will know them.”

Ernest Azzopardi | 05 November 2021  

As an ethicist, Pat, I think that Julian's article, like his coverage of Prince Philip's life ('Wherever faith resides', ES, 29/IV) is full of the kind of necessary Jesuitical 'othersidedness', sometimes associated with casuistry, that calls for temperance when heads get heated and the boundaries upholding decency in commentary frayed. There are undoubtedly good people in Opus Dei - self-sacrificial, loving and hope-filled in their attachment to the personhood of Jesus Christ, and who should never be exclusively judged by the standards of an equally socially-just appeal that Jesus has for those who work at the other end of the policy scale in redressing injustice. The challenge for Opus Dei, as well as those formed within a contemporary Ignatian spirituality, is that with OD's main emphasis on a personal prayerful spirituality to carry one though corporate and family life, without equal attention to good works, is also skewed. The challenge when Dominic Perrottet talks about 'freedom' - always a necessary component when it comes to exercising human choice, especially in difficult moral circumstances that sometimes demand siding with the poor - is that reining it in can so easily be sidelined as limiting human choice and curbing natural, God-given talent.

Michael Furtado | 06 November 2021  
Show Responses

‘ reining it in can so easily be sidelined as limiting human choice and curbing natural, God-given talent.’ Well, there are four provinces or sectors of sin ‘which cry to Heaven for vengeance’, covering intrinsic as well as prudential morality. The obligation is not to ‘rein in’ Church teaching on any of them.

roy chen yee | 07 November 2021  

Were one to understand and applaud your words, Roy, I'm sure they would make as much sense as my second-last sentence above minus the offending 'with'.

Michael Furtado | 08 November 2021  

‘Were one to understand’. As is often said about people for whom English is not a first language, they understand more than they speak. As the concept of the four ‘sins which cry to Heaven for vengeance’ is well established in Catholic and even Christian theology, it can be taken that those for whom the Magisterium is not their language of choice understand more than they care to let on, a subterfuge that is a kind of taqiyyah of the heterodox.

roy chen yee | 08 November 2021  

So highly-informed, Roy and, judging from an absence of response, maybe a wee bit off-target? Why not decode, as a native English-speaker might for one of us lowlies, and identify what these four provinces or sectors are, so that we might engage them in manly, child-bearing embrace?

Michael Furtado | 10 November 2021  

You're dead right about our 'unashamedly Christian Prime Minister' Pat; he has no shame at all. His actions speak a lot louder than his words, as Ernest reminds us.

Ginger Meggs | 07 November 2021  

we have had catholics nick greiner john fahey and barry o farrell who have been members of the liberal party so what and our new premier likes money

Stuart Lawrence | 26 November 2021  

On the question of whether Mr Perrottet is indeed a member of Opus Dei, I would say two things: he has not denied it; and it is an organisation (if not a sect) which one does not join. One is invited to join. I know, because I have twice been invited in my long and tortuous development (I hope) as a human being.

Opus Dei seems to me to have all the ear-marks of a sect, so it worries me intensely that someone of Dom's current eminence is called "a Catholic", as if we were all as entrenched in puritanical and life-denying fanaticism as inductees of The Way.

Patrick Mahony | 01 January 2022  

Always the Christians crying about persecution while obscuring and downplaying the negative roles that you play behind closed doors, infiltrating and controlling politics.

It drives me mad that people use the term "person of faith" as if it's actually a positive virtue. It is not.

Perrotet is undoubtably Opus Dei, practically everything he says and does screams it, and his arrogance and mishandling of the Omicron outbreak is case and point.

He's proven to be worse than useless, a man who is more about his faith and arrogance than reality - so I think the characterisation of him as a Catholic first and premier second is extremely apt.

What we really need is less religion in our politics, and lives. End the tax exemptions for all religions and make them submit full financial statements that can be audited.

They are welcome to claim a tax deduction for any truly charitable work that they do. If they go bankrupt, good riddance. If you want to donate to Charity, do so with a secular charity that does real work. If you want to fund the legal defence of paedophiles, continue to give money to the Catholic church.

It's extremely pertinent that Perrotet supports the latter.

ME | 09 January 2022  

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