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Teal candidates and the Catholic vote



Perhaps the most dramatic individual result of the Federal election was that Menzies’s seat, Kooyong, has fallen to a Teal independent, Dr Monique Ryan. Xavier College sits in the Kooyong electorate, and Dr Ryan is a parent at the College.

Dr Ryan proved to be an impressive candidate who ran as a good a local campaign as I have ever seen. It was marked by a strong engagement by many locals, and especially among professional women, and older residents. The campaign also affirmed that people can make a difference to the process through their involvement.

The impressive nature of the result is not simply measured by the profile of her opponent, the outgoing Australian treasurer, Mr Josh Frydenberg, but because, at least in my view, he himself was an excellent local member, who fought a determined campaign. Mr Frydenberg had engaged well with local schools, charities, small businesses and sports organizations, even when the demands of office were so high. He was also an outspoken voice against antisemitic views that can still afflict our society.   I suspect history will judge him highly for his contribution to Australia during the pandemic. He deserves to be recognized for his service, and in the words of Labor stalwart, Graham Richardson, he will be a great loss to the Australian Parliament.

Dr Ryan’s victory was part of a bigger picture in this election, particularly in the victory of Teal independents in six seats (to which we could add the victory of independent  incumbents in Indi and Warringah). For the Liberal party, here in Kooyong and in the adjoining seats, the fall of seats to Teal and Labor candidates, not only means a loss of talent, but a blow to diversity within the Party – a married gay man, a woman born in China, a female doctor and the most senior  Jewish figure in Parliament.

The rise of Teal independents, along with some Labor successes in neighbouring seats, marks some very significant frustration in traditional Liberal heartlands with a seeming paralysis around climate policy. There is undoubtedly a perception of alienation of many women from the processes of the Liberal Party. Both these points would be made widely by analysts. I would also argue that there has been a long-term erosion of support among traditional Liberal voters around the refugee issue and concerns about policy towards our first peoples, and that there may be a religious dimension to this.


'There might be a correlation between an aspect of Catholic schooling and Church presence, connected with Ignatian spirituality, and the erosion of the Liberal vote and the rise of Teal independents in these same areas.'


I had read in the lead-up the election that there were concerns in the Liberal camp about the influence of the Catholic schools’ network in the Kooyong race. Five large Catholic schools – Xavier, Loreto, Genazzano, Sacre Coeur and St Kevin’s have a very significant presence in this part of Melbourne. Four of them share an Ignatian heritage through the religious orders that run them. The Jesuit parish of Hawthorn also falls in this space. While undoubtedly there is a certain relational aspect to this, in the large networks of friendships and family connections, I suspect that a deep dive into the result might show some important points of tension around policy, and especially among these school communities with a Jesuit and Ignatian tradition.

As I reflected on what I suspected was at play in Kooyong and which had a certain impact in Higgins and Goldstein, and marginally in Chisholm, I was struck by what seemed a similar pattern in Sydney with North Sydney, Warringah, Bennelong, Bradfield, and to a lesser extent, Mackellar. The two Jesuit schools of St Aloysius and Riverview, along with two Loreto schools and the Jesuit parish in North Sydney, occupy this space. And it is possible that it has had an impact in Adelaide on Sturt and adjoining seats, through the Jesuit parish at Norwood and Saint Ignatius College and Loreto.

What do I mean by this Catholic and Jesuit/Ignatian factor? Certainly, there was no effort by parish priests or school administration, or the Church itself, to promote a particular vote in these areas. The days of Catholics being told how to vote have long gone. Nor am I suggesting that most Catholics did not vote for the Liberals or the ALP. But I suspect there has been a not insignificant movement over time among Catholics that is starting to have an impact electorally.

Firstly, there have been long-term concerns around refugee policy. Even those who may reluctantly agree with the border control policy of the Liberals (and Labor to a significant extent), are deeply uncomfortable with how refugees and asylum seekers have been treated once in Australian care. The night-time raid and detention of the Nadesalingam family in Biloela, the disputes over minors in detention, which involved our Jesuit school in Adelaide, the almost indefinite detention of asylum seekers in hotels, highlighted during the Djokovic saga in the Australian Open, the unyielding rigidity around Temporary Protection Visas, no matter their contribution to Australia, have all sat uneasily with a community that traces its own existence to migration. The advocacy of Jesuit Refugee Services, prominent in Jesuit schools and parishes, has had a long-term influence on attitudes in our communities. At Xavier, the Xavier Social Justice Network has involved many with face-to-face contact with refugees. The important connection with students of refugee backgrounds through tutoring at the Friday Night School has also touched the lives of many of our students.

Climate policy has also been a growing focus of concern in Catholic circles, especially since Pope Francis’ Laudato si’, and the Jesuit commitment to respond has steadily grown. While there may be disputes about solutions and modelling, and there can be a certain naivety around the impact globally of policy in Australia, at a moral and ethical level, the argument that we need not act because in itself no action by Australia will impact climate change, simply lacks moral coherence. The argument for action as global citizens sits easily with global church that is catholic (universal) in name. There is no necessary challenge to conservative parties around climate change policy as demonstrated in Britain and Germany. Indeed, an argument could be made that support for conservation generally sits easily with a conservative disposition.

There are other issues that appear to have further resonance in Catholic circles, and which are perhaps given greater emphasis in schools of Jesuit and Ignatian heritage. Foreign aid levels sit uneasily with a community that has many international connections. The Maytime Fair here in Melbourne, and the Indian Bazaar in Sydney, are loved and long-term awareness-raising features of school life. There are also strong connections with our schools and our first peoples, which predispose us towards serious consideration of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. And finally, disquiet around how some Liberal voices, along with some bishops and conservative Christian groups, prosecuted the same-sex marriage debate and other areas of equity and care of LGBTI individuals, has eroded connections of some Catholics who may consider themselves Liberal supporters in these heartland seats.

Legitimately, there will be Catholics, as well as other Christians, who point to a raft of issues around the sanctity of human life, or to traditional understandings of family and marriage, or who have different views of the role of the State, or who worry about the erosion of respect for Judaeo-Christian values in our society, or who fear attacks on religious freedom on the left of Australian politics. Such Catholics see in the Liberals a Party that comes closest to representing their values. And a similar analysis could be undertaken for the long-standing relationship between many Catholics and the Labor Party. The new Prime Minister himself, Anthony Albanese, is an example of this. Moreover, there are many if not most Catholics, who consciously at least, do not really factor in religion in their voting choices.

The point of this reflection is not to prosecute a political position per se, but to offer a suggestion, and it is tentative, that there might be a correlation between an aspect of Catholic schooling and Church presence, connected with Ignatian spirituality, and the erosion of the Liberal vote and the rise of Teal independents in these same areas. If it is indeed the case the interesting point is that there is evidence of an influence in can shape attitudes that arises from the ordinary life of our schools and parishes as they attempt to promote both faith and justice.





Fr Chris Middleton SJ is the rector of Xavier College in Melbourne.

Main image: Independent candidate for Kooyong Monique Ryan speaks to voters at a pre-polling centre in Hawthorn on 18 May. (Daniel Pockett / Getty Images) 

Topic tags: Chris Middleton, election, AusPol, Catholic, School, Xavier, Dr Monique Ryan, Kooyong, Ausvotes2022



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Existing comments

Chris' mapping of Jesuit schools and Teal overlap need not stop at the rabbit proof fence. Kate Chaney appears to have taken Curtin - and her educational pedigree includes John XXIII College, Mt Claremont - a college formed from an amalgam of Jesuit and Loreto schools. Though, it should also be acknowledged that the former sitting member, Sarah Hammond, was also a JTC graduate.

Bill Burke | 24 May 2022  

An interesting article but to accredit the change to the Jesuits is a long bow. The Jesuits, especially in Melbourne, have much to redeem. They were major players in that terrible Santamaria business. They were instrumental in giving us luminaries such as Tony Abbott and Kevin Andrews, among others. As for the “Catholic vote”, it is harder to define these days. Until the 50s the “Catholic vote” was go to Mass, care for the poor, vote Labor. Catholics played a significant part in Labor’s formation. Many historians suggest that Santamaria, DLP/NCC, et al gave upwardly mobile Catholics an initial step away from Labor, without going all the way to the conservatives at first. Thank you Jesuits.
Interestingly, the rise of the “Teals” might have given well-to-do Catholics an opportunity initial step away from harsh conservatism without going all the way to Labor. History mirroring history? With less than 10% of Catholics attending Mass regularly, it is hard to see the bishops have much “leadership” re a “Catholic vote”. Fisher (an ex Jesuit boy) and his predecessor (remember him?) issue pronouncements to encourage adherence to conservatism. But does anyone follow their directions? A hot provoking article.

Peter | 25 May 2022  

Spare us the privileged and self-congratulatory analysis. You simply cant draw this long bow. Hawthorn, St Kevin's, Xavier, Loretto, Genazzano were all enclaves of privilege and all had staff (the boys schools) which were rife with decades of secret sexual abuse of minors. And who would know if that is still not the case? Of the 4400 institutional abusers reported to the RC (the tip of the iceberg) only about 200 have faced the legal orchestra.

I'd hardly be trumpeting Xavier as an example when they boast about the successful transition of a teenage boy to a female, and only have co-ed for girls to grade 4. Emotional health in schools is more important than educational success and so is gender balance.

As for the rise of the Teal independents, that's down to a clever Holmes a Court backing them financially and their championing of the bandwagon climate change cause.

Francis Armstrong | 25 May 2022  

Interesting argument but not sure where Allegra Spender from Wentworth or Dr Scamps in Mackellar fits into it (although in the latter case, the Liberal Falinski is a Riverview alumni).
Perhaps those who professed a deep Christian affinity forgot Proverbs 29:18 “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
I suspect Mr Frydenberg paid a heavy price for some of the comments he made in the early stages of the pandemic & profligate spending without proper accountability (especially to future generations) during it. Dr Ryan prosecuted the case brilliantly during the head to head debate with Mr Frydenberg.
I hardly think an endorsement of Frydenberg as a “talented” contributor to Federal Parliament by Graham Richardson counts for much. After all, Richardson was largely responsible for installing Obeid as an MLC in NSW at the expense of Graham Freudenberg.

Paul Crittenden | 26 May 2022  

A lively essay, awaiting psephological evidence to confirm Chris' hypothesis. Also some equally fascinating counter-responses, despite the inevitable curmudgeonliness that makes it pointless for Chris to contest.

That said, the Curtin result detracts from Chris' analysis, since the defeated candidate mainly had Notre Dame on her escutcheon and a reputation for keen association with some extremely wealthy and deeply fundamentalist Westralians who once had the likes of Fr Prendiville, a conservative Jesuit, barracking for them.

Chris occupies a critical role in the Jesuit firmament, given his highly influential leadership of Jesuit schools, which undoubtedly educate that section of the Catholic elite who are most ingrained in a theology of justice before all else, the hallmark of contemporary Jesuitry.

Thus he is well-positioned to respond to one aspect of Francis Armstrong's challenges, which would be to usher in the co-educational future of his school as well as, now that Catholic Education has conceded that the dignity of a child takes ethical precedence in matters of gender dysphoria, opening up the treasures of a Jesuit education to all who seek it.

With anti-discrimination exemptions hardly mattering he should apply for 'full-funding' since 'the Catholic School is, first and foremost, for the Poor'!

Michael Furtado | 04 June 2022