Religion and republicanism in Australian politics


Within days of becoming Prime Minister, Julia Gillard declared she was an atheist. Sensing this would not go down well with voters, she soon backtracked, explaining that she was actually an agnostic.

In contrast, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott wears his Catholicism on his sleeve. And it's often said Kevin Rudd and John Howard were our most overtly religious prime ministers.

The interviewee featured here has devoted his working life to observing what motivates politicians. He is particularly interested in their religious beliefs. John Warhurst is a highly esteemed professor of political science, and one of Australia's most astute commentators on politics.

This interview is part of a series of conversations with prominent contributors to Eureka Street to mark the 20th anniversary of the journal. For many years Warhurst has written with deep insight into the political process, helping readers understand the inner workings of politics and politicians.

Warhurst was born, grew up, and received his school and university education in Adelaide. He attended the Jesuit St Ignatius College in Norwood before going to Flinder's University where he gained a BA with Honours in politics and economics, and a PhD in politics.

A career as an academic followed, with teaching positions at the Warnambool Institute of Advanced Education, the University of London, the University of New England in Armidale, and the Australian National University in Canberra where he is now Emeritus Professor of Political Science.

Warhurst has never been confined to the ivory tower of academia, and always sought to share his insights and ideas with the broader community. He has a long-running weekly column in the Canberra Times, and makes regular appearances on TV at election time.

He is probably best known for his prominent role in the Australian Republican Movement (ARM). He has been a public activist for a republic since the early 1970s, and has been both the ACT convenor, and national chair of the ARM.

When asked what motivates him he says: 'I am passionate and determined about an Australian republic because only then can Australia fully reflect its distinctive, independent national identity. It is a logical, necessary and natural evolution of Australian political and constitutional identity.'

Warhurst has been honoured with a number of major awards, including an Order of Australia in 2009 for services to political science and to the community. In 2010 he received a fellowship from the Prime Minister's Centre at the Museum of Australian Democracy, Old Parliament House, in Canberra for a research project entitled 'The Faith of Australian Prime Ministers'.

He is a prolific author, with some of his later books including Behind Closed Doors: Politics, Scandals and the Lobbying Industry; John Howard's Decade; and Australian Political Institutions.

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant with a master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity. 

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Australian republic, John Howard, Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd



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Existing comments

John Warhurst is also one of the most personable, positive and thoroughly decent people one could ever meet.
Anonymous | 26 August 2011

We won't accept a banker's republic because we know the only successful republics are people's republics. That is, by the people, of the people and for the people.

Greig WIlliams | 26 August 2011

Excellent video, thank you Peter I rely on Eureka St to provide measured commentary on the issues that concern Australia as a society. As a Canberran I am fortunate also to have John Warhurst's objective view on these matters on a regular basis. Pleased to see the role he plays affirmed.

Marilyn Hatton
Marilyn Hatton | 26 August 2011

I must have missed Warhurst speaking about republicanism but I didn't miss his promotion of Eureka Street as a status quo e-journal with a modest hope for mild change.

One of the problems with those who promote any religion at all and who seek to represent some sort of 'peoples voice' for Australia becoming a republic is that they are starting the journey wearing their religious blinkers.

Here I am thinking of the over domination in the 'official' republican cause of Roman Catholic 'republicans'.

Unless and until these people promote a very clear separation of church and state any moves to an Australian Republic will still leave 'religion' in a very favoured spot in Australian political social and economic life.

We need to remove the parallel-state status of religion, so it is no longer tax free as-of-right. We need to remove any and all state subsidies that go to religions simply because they are religions, and we need to remove payments to religious bodies that do the work of the state.

Religions are bleeding ordinary taxpayers to the tune of multi-hundreds of millions, even billions, of untaxed activity simply because they are 'religions'.

On top of that, religion intrudes daily into political life far more than Warhurst is prepared to accept in this video clip, which clearly set out to show Warhurst as an non-threatening pro-religious commentator satisfied with and supportive of the political processes at work here in Australia.

Any republic designed by Warhurst would clearly retain the primacy of the Christian church over the 'people of the commonwealth', a less than satisfactory situation to this republican.

Janice Wallace | 26 August 2011

Did I miss Warhurst speaking about republicanism?

Those who promote any religion at all while seeking to represent ‘the peoples voice' for Australia becoming a republic is that they start the journey wearing religious blinkers.

Here I am thinking of the over-domination in the 'official' republican cause of Roman Catholic 'republicans'.

Until these people promote a very clear ‘wall of separation’ twixt church and state any move to an Australian Republic will still leave 'religion' in a favoured spot in Australian life.

We need to remove the ‘parallel-state’ status of religion, so it is no longer tax free as-of-right.

We need to remove all state subsidies going by virtue of their religious status and we need to remove payments to religious bodies subcontract the work of the state.

Religions bleed taxpayers multi-hundreds of millions, even billions, of untaxed activity by virtue of being 'religions'.

Religion intrudes daily into political life far more than Warhurst seems prepared to accept.
The video set out to show Warhurst as non-threatening, a pro-religious commentator largely satisfied and supportive of political processes in Australia.

A republic designed by Warhurst would clearly retain the primacy of the Christian church over the 'people of the commonwealth'.

Janice Wallace | 26 August 2011

Although I am a left winger, and have a political science university degree, I am yet to be convinced that Australia should become a republic. I do not like the idea at all. It's not so much the person occupying the throne that counts - although the present occupant is superb - it is the system. The institution of the crown - the Westminster system of government, even in the seemingly strange way we do it here with Crown's representatives, to my mind, is the best. We are very blessed in this country. Few countries enjoy the stability that we have. When change does come, which it will, I hope we retain the title Commonwealth of Australia. Republic is an ugly, outdated word in the western world. Most western republics had to fight wars for democracy. We did not. Let us remember that.

LouW | 26 August 2011

Come to think of it, I did not hear John mention republic either! How did that into the discussion? Anyway, I enjoyed the interview very much.
LouW | 26 August 2011

The issue about religion in our pluralist secular society should be nothing more than a freedom to practice any religion. We should eliminate Christian biases in our secular institutions such as in the Federal and State Parliaments by stopping practices such as the reciting of the Christian 'Lord's Prayer'. Other practices such as funding of religious schools should be conditional on adherence to government educational standards. With respect to the issue of Australia becoming a republic, this is a question of severing ties from our colonial past and becoming totally independent.
Mark Doyle | 26 August 2011

I note that some of the comments on this video and article advocate for the complete removal of religion from the government. By ignoring the laws governing human nature and by breaking the bounds within which they operate, the human person is lead, not toward progress, but towards death. This, nevertheless, is what they want to do with human society; they dream of changing its natural and traditional foundations; they dream of a Future City built on different principles, and they dare to proclaim these more fruitful and more beneficial than the principles upon which the present Christian City rests. No, we must repeat with the utmost energy in these times of social and intellectual anarchy when everyone takes it upon himself to teach as a teacher and lawmaker - the City cannot be built otherwise than as God has built it; society cannot be setup unless the Church lays the foundations and supervises the work; no, civilization is not something yet to be found, nor is the New City to be built on hazy notions; it has been in existence and still is: it is Christian civilization, it is the Catholic City. It has only to be set up and restored continually against the unremitting attacks of insane dreamers, rebels and miscreants. omnia instaurare in Christo. That the State must be separated from the Church is a thesis absolutely false, a most pernicious error. Based, as it is, on the principle that the State must not recognize any religious cult, it is in the first place guilty of a great injustice to God; for the Creator of man is also the Founder of human societies, and preserves their existence as He preserves our own. We owe Him, therefore, not only a private cult, but a public and social worship to honor Him. Besides, this thesis is an obvious negation of the supernatural order. It limits the action of the State to the pursuit of public prosperity during this life only, which is but the proximate object of political societies; and it occupies itself in no fashion (on the plea that this is foreign to it) with their ultimate object which is man's eternal happiness after this short life shall have run its course. But as the present order of things is temporary and subordinated to the conquest of man's supreme and absolute welfare, it follows that the civil power must not only place no obstacle in the way of this conquest, but must aid us in effecting it. The same thesis also upsets the order providentially established by God in the world, which demands a harmonious agreement between the two societies. Both of them, the civil and the religious society, although each exercises in its own sphere its authority over them. It follows necessarily that there are many things belonging to them in common in which both societies must have relations with one another. Remove the agreement between Church and State, and the result will be that from these common matters will spring the seeds of disputes which will become acute on both sides; it will become more difficult to see where the truth lies, and great confusion is certain to arise. Finally, this thesis inflicts great injury on society itself, for it cannot either prosper or last long when due place is not left for religion, which is the supreme rule and the sovereign mistress in all questions touching the rights and the duties of men. Hence the Roman Pontiffs have never ceased, as circumstances required, to refute and condemn the doctrine of the separation of Church and State. Pope Leo XIII, especially, has frequently and magnificently expounded Catholic teaching on the relations which should subsist between the two societies. "Between them," he says, "there must necessarily be a suitable union, which may not improperly be compared with that existing between body and soul. He proceeds: "Human societies cannot, without becoming criminal, act as if God did not exist or refuse to concern themselves with religion, as though it were something foreign to them, or of no purpose to them. As for the Church, which has God Himself for its author, to exclude her from the active life of the nation, from the laws, the education of the young, the family, is to commit a great and pernicious error.
Trent | 27 August 2011

Mark, we are totally independent. In reality, there are no ties to GB left to sever. I need a more convincing argument than that when it comes to the republic issue.
LouW | 27 August 2011

Thanks Trent; Your posting is one of the best arguments I've ever seen for the formal separation of Church (or any religion for that matter) and State.

Ginger Meggs | 28 August 2011

When Trent advocates a 'necessarily suitable union' between church and state , I am reminded of those countries - Spain, Italy, the Philippines, sundry central and latin American states - that have long 'benefited' from such a union, and I am all the more convinced that it should be avoided at all costs.
Ginger Meggs | 28 August 2011


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