The Census and Labor's Catholic vote


'Gillard's and Abbott's census hats' by Chris Johnston

Information gathered in the Census will play a central role in the planning of the next Federal election. Over the next year all manner of information will be collated, sliced and diced for a range of purposes. The most important for politicians and party strategists will be the collation of that material on an electorate by electorate basis. Groups will be targeted and messages honed.

This will include detailed data such as age profiles, income levels, family composition, education qualifications and religious affiliation. The 2006 census data has been twice sliced and diced. The second time was after the redistributions for the 2010 election.

When adjusted to reflect the results of the 2010 election this data presents us with an opportunity to compare religion, incomes and political outcomes in a finely balanced hung Parliament of 150 members. It presents some valuable insights which are likely to be confirmed by the 2011 Census.

In the 2010 election Christians (63.9 per cent of the population) tended to support the Coalition, but not by much. Of the 75 most Christian electorates, the Coalition holds 39, Labor holds 33, and rural Independents hold three. However, of the 50 most Christian, Labor holds only 20. Prior to the 2010 election Labor held 43 of the 75 most Christian electorates and 27 of the 50 most Christian seats.

The distribution of those with no religion (18.7 per cent of the population) ranges from 6.5 per cent in McMahon to 30.1 per cent in Kingston. Labor has less than half of the electorates that have the highest proportions of those with no religion: 33 of the top 75 and 23 of the top 50. So Labor appears to get no electoral benefit from those who report no religion.

How did Labor get enough seats to form a minority Government in 2010? The answer is found in the separation of the Catholic vote from the total Christian vote. Catholics (25.8 per cent of the population) provided the votes that underpinned Labor's electoral survival.

The Catholic population varies from 44.5 per cent in McMahon to 12.7 per cent in Mayo. Of the 75 most Catholic electorates Labor holds 46, the Coalition 28, and Independent Bob Katter, one. Of the 50 most Catholic electorates, Labor holds 33. Labor holds eight of the 10 most Catholic electorates. At the other end of the scale Labor has only 17 of the 50 least Catholic electorates.

So the more Catholic the electorate, the more likely it is to vote for Labor.

Is this a reflection of the socio-economic position of Australian Catholics? To test this we can match the most Catholic electorates with the median incomes of households across the electoral divisions. The incomes data shows a spread from Cowper, at $798 per week, to Wentworth, at $2307 per week.

Perhaps surprisingly, only 21 of the 50 most Catholic electorates are in the bottom half of the income ranking; 19 of the 50 most Catholic electorates are in the wealthiest 50 electorates; and 11 of those 19 electorates elected Labor members.

Labor's origins and its traditional base has been among lower income earners. But this was barely evident in 2010. In the bottom half of the household income scale Labor holds a bare majority: 38 of 75. In the poorest 50 it holds just 24. Labor holds 34 of the 75 wealthiest electorates. Its 72 seats in the hung Parliament are close to equally divided between the two halves of the income scale.

The data also ranks electorates by the proportion of families with incomes of less than $650 per week. Of the 50 electorates with the highest number of low income families Labor holds just 25.

These figures show that while low income earners have abandoned Labor, a solid base of Catholics have stuck with it.

Why did the most Catholic electorates vote for Labor in 2010? Why did so many Catholics prefer a party led by an atheist over a Coalition led by a committed Catholic?

One reason is that Catholics have traditionally voted Labor, and family voting practices have been maintained, despite the social mobility of recent generations. Another is that Catholic belief in social justice means that many Catholics prefer a party that is seen to be, or hoped to be, committed to a fairer and more egalitarian society. Social justice remains part of the Catholic DNA. 

The problem for Labor is that Catholics may lose faith in it as the party best placed to deliver fair and just outcomes. For Labor, much of its working class base has left the building, and many of its Catholic supporters are standing near the doorway bemused or angry.

The problem for the Coalition, and Tony Abbott in particular, is that he is coming under pressure to adopt policies that this large part of the Catholic constituency would regard as unjust. He does not want another Work Choices debate, which cost his party so dearly in 2007. That debate raised a range of social justice issues; fairness in the workplace cannot be separated from fairness in society.

Of course, the better the polls for the Coalition, the more likely Abbott will come under pressure to throw caution to the wind and revisit Work Choices.

A requirement of political success is the ability to attract non-traditional support while keeping your base. Between now and the next election Labor will have to do some hard thinking about what it stands for and who it represents. Should it adopt policies that will alienate its best base support in the hope of picking up new pockets of support?

Rather than this, Labor should re-engage with its traditional low income base. This presents its best chance of holding the Catholic base and restoring the non-Catholic Christian support it gained in 2007, but lost in 2010. It will also send a reassuring message to Australians of non-Christian faiths that this is a nation that cares about social justice and the protection of the poor and the vulnerable. 

Brian LawrenceBrian Lawrence is Chairman of the Australian Catholic Council for Employment Relations. 

Topic tags: Brian Lawrence, National Census, Catholics, Christians, Abbott, Gillard



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Existing comments

As long as Labor are in denial about central moral issues around marriage, abortion and justice to those with Judeo-Christian beliefs, members will continue to leech out of the party. I know a Labor supporter who was in the party for over 40 years and finally left the party as did his family. It was hard -he was called all species of rat but he could not reconcile his Catholic beliefs with the way Labor ignored his views.

Skye | 09 August 2011  

A classic case of confusing correlation and causation. It requires a much more sophisticated analysis (not simple/simplistic bivariate using a spreadsheet) to identify what really happened.

The article states: "Over the next year all manner of information will be collated, sliced and diced for a range of purposes." It takes at least two years for the ABS to publish Census information (there is a huge task in checking data before it can usefully be analysed) - does this mean that political parties (and others?) will be getting the information before it is properly checked? or, more important (I don't particularly care if political parties get dud information), before the taxpayer who paid for its collection?

Ian Ker | 09 August 2011  

Any political party or independent politician who promote abortion, contraception and sexual promiscuity should never be voted for by anyone.

The aim of the Catholic Church is to save souls and a by-product is social justice. We are all called to be honest, pure and to do God's Will in every facet of our life. We need the Social Reign of Our Lord Jesus Christ, badly.

Trent | 09 August 2011  

Brian is right. It seems that only tribalism keeps Catholics voting Labor when a critical examination of current policies and practices would predicate a move to the Libs. The Liberal Party is clearly and increasingly becoming the party of social justice, while Labor, although talking social justice, have in practice abandoned it to political expediency.

It's true, it's not easy to jump ship, as Skye has pointed out. As someone who has become a Catholic (having been raised a Presbyterian) I'd have to rate social justice as one of the main reasons. Changing political beliefs takes a lot of soul searching too. In my case I had parents who were strongly on opposite sides which made a keen interest in politics inevitable. Both went through the great depression, Mum in the private sector and Dad in the public. I guess their life views could be summarized as follows: Mum - work hard and make yourself indispensable to your employer. Dad - the government owes me a living. Not hard to guess which way I went...

Ian | 09 August 2011  

Trent's submitted feedback is what every loyal Catholic stands for. The aim of the Catholic Church is to save souls.

Ron cini | 09 August 2011  

Thanks Brian for stats from census. But what does it mean to tick the catholic box? Is it cultural or to keep a toe in the door to heaven?

Lumen Christ parish has 10% weekly participation at the Eucharist, rising to 30% for Easter and Christmas and when swelled by families for Baptism, Reconciliation and first Communion.
Our family of six and our friends cannot count on two hands the number of youth i.e. 14 -30 who ‘practice’.

The Catholic primary school has 50% non-Catholic and the Government schools have 50% Catholic.

My wife is parish catechist and sees less than 10% engage in the sacramental program and those who do rarely continue as ‘practicing’.

Catholic parents give much consideration for their kids High School weighing up to what’s available within 50 kilometers of Catholic, Christian and Government options.
Lumen Christi is fortunate to have an admirable and admired priest who now services five church districts. The Diocesan ‘give away’ Catholic Life is very much a ‘parish pump’ and the bishop’s language is ecclesiastical Vatican style that will win him friends in high places, but is incomprehensible to those who tick the census box ‘catholic’.

For the first time in my life I ticked an alternative to Catholic citing Buddhist, as that is more to my reality after 10 years experience in Cambodia.

So I must ask what does the 26% census catholic really mean? Michael Parer

Michael Parer | 09 August 2011  

Sadly Brian Lawrence is courting a fancy.

Since the 1996 election more Catholics have voted for the Coalition than the ALP. However rather than concentrating on to what extent Labor has, or has not, lost the Catholic vote the serious study should focus on the segments of various Catholic voters and their impacts and influences on both major political forces. Perhaps the question should be "Is there any such notion as the Catholic vote anymore?"

Lawrence's analysis is of a mid-20th century genre. One of the reasons for the decline of sectarianism in this country, and with it the death or re-modelling of a number of Catholic institutions from sporting and social clubs through to intellectual associations, is that Australians, especially Catholics, no longer see themselves in the Catholic/Protestant or Catholic/Non-Catholic paradigm.

The more relevant analysis for contemporary and immediate future generational purposes, is the Christian/Non-Christian and Religious/Secular differences.

Tom Cranitch | 09 August 2011  

An interesting analysis Brian! However, I am not sure what it means, especially the division of voters on religious grounds. I believe that Australia is a secular society and most people who nominate a religion on a census survey are non-practising and religious issues are irrelevant when voting. I notice on the current census form there is a category for 'No Religion', but I suspect most people will continue to tick one of the religions because of their cultural desire to be specifically identified for occasions such as Christmas, Easter, weddings and funerals.

I believe that both the Labor and Liberal parties are conservative in nature; tweedle dum tweedle di. I also believe that most people who vote for either major party have a similar political philosophy and idealogy, which is based on a pluralist multicultural society with a social democratic government. It is interesting that the most conservative catholics such as Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews and Joe Hockey are members of the Liberal party. These people would probably have been members of the DLP in the past when the Liberal party did not encourage catholic members.

With respect to the Catholic Church in Australia of which I am a practicing member, I believe our Church predominantly caters for conservative elderly people. Young people are alienated because of the Church's non-acceptance of social issues such as equal rights for women, artificial contraception, abortion and gay rights. Ideas such as the church's role to save souls are unhelpful and 19th century thinking.

Mark Doyle | 09 August 2011  

A lot of dedicated Catholics would reject completely Ian's opinion that a critical examination of policies and practices predicated a move from Labor to the Coalition. How he identifies the latter as the party of social justice surely has to be grounded in fantasy. If Ian was right, and to be a Catholic required one to vote for the Coalition, then the only self-respecting course of action would be to ditch Catholicism on the spot.

No, the real tragedy is that Labor in many areas only apes the Coalition, so that our civil polity is both dumbed down and mired in self-interest.

Stephen Kellett | 09 August 2011  

SKYE raises concerns about moral issues and cites beliefs about marriage, abortion and justice. It is a big step from beliefs to actions in such matters, and I suspect he or she would be compassionately helpful -- justice, after all -- to a family member, friend or fellow human seeking a divorce and/or having an abortion.So would or should TRENT. Each time I read TRENT's name on these pages I think of the Tridentine Cardinals dancing at the magnificent ball they held at the Council.There they made a gracious statement about the church being part of the wider world.The English Cardinal Duke of York was judged to be the best dancer.

Skye and Trent write about beliefs, but in my sociologist way of researching things, may I point out to them that Catholics practice contraception and have abortions every bit as much as non-catholics do.

Gerry Costigan | 09 August 2011  

An interesting essay.The Census results will not be released in time to influence the next Federal Election.The analysis is far too general to be of any real use.Last point many Catholics may nominate being Catholic for "tribal"reasons yet not be active in the Church anyway.
I was dismayed by the call from Church Officials asking "Catholics" (most non practising) to tick the box as to me such actions are hypocrtical at the least!

Gavin | 10 August 2011  

Gavin rightly, in my view, characterises the urging by certain bishops for non-Mass-attending Catholics to "tick the box" as hypocritical, because it is these same Catholics such clergy excoriate as lazy or misguided or worse. In other words, they are happy to associate with them unconditionally for statistical purposes but not otherwise. What this approach suggests is that those particular clergy continue to think of their religion in imperialistic rather than spiritual terms: Catholicism is an empire in whose lobbying size they take pride. I think it demonstrates the extent to which they have not accepted the historical breakdown of the temporal Catholic polity and never will. Nor apparently have they accepted that religious affection and affiliation are idiosyncratic states of mind, not indelible tattoos on souls. Such an attitude towards Church numbers is spookily like the fixation with which many politicians seek endless consumerist growth at the expense of other considerations.

Stephen Kellett | 10 August 2011  

With respect to the comments made by Mark Doyle.I would like to know where he gets his thinking regarding the role of the church in saving souls.The principle role of the Catholic Church to encourage all humankind to practice justice and love to our neighbour and then,guide us to heaven to our eternal reward.

John Tobin. | 10 August 2011  

I agree with this argument but I fear it is over-optimistic.The electorates mentioned are mainly non-Victorian. In Victoria there is a strong correlation between electorates with a high proportion of no-religion residents and a dwindling Labor vote, with strong Green support.The other inner city 'elites' as the Conservatives love to call them, are actually Liberal-voting yuppies. Any low income(including catholic) residents in these electorates are simply squeezed out between these two categories.

We should watch out for what has happened in the US, where blue collar workers, including Catholics, have been bullied by the Bishops, shouting loudly about abortion and gay rights, but silent on poverty and wage justice, into deserting the Democrats and voting Republican - totally against their own economic interests.

While Catholic organisations like yours, and many religious Orders, speak out for social justice, there is a deafening silence from most of our Bishops, and any who do stick their heads above the parapet are eased out or sidelined. Abbott doesn't need to worry about the official Church.He has friends in high places. It is among the 'aspirationals' that the church needs to speak out loudly against materialism, fear and prejudice.Those are the forces the Liberals appeal to.

Ann | 12 August 2011  

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