Why Australia needs the Vatican


Tim FischerPaul Kelly, in his new book, The March of Patriots, tells a version of a well-known story. It is John Howard's instruction in 2003 to his then Minister for Education, Brendan Nelson, a Catholic: 'Don't create any problems for us with the Catholic schools'.

Howard left Nelson in no doubt that he didn't want him aggravating that sector. He wanted a good harvest of Catholic votes.

Don't Get the Catholics Off Side is a theme to keep in mind when considering the politics surrounding Tim Fischer, former Deputy Prime Minister and National Party leader under Howard, in his current new role in the Vatican, known as the Holy See in diplomatic parlance.

Despite his political background on the conservative side of politics (or perhaps because of it, if he is seen as a political turn-coat), Fischer's appointment as the first Australian appointed solely as Ambassador to the Holy See continues to be viewed with skepticism in parts of Canberra. It still generates vocal Opposition criticism.

For some, including his former colleagues, Fischer, a prominent Catholic, has been bought off by Kevin Rudd with a non- or half-job in order to suck up to the Catholic community. It is seen not just as a thank-you to Fischer for bipartisan services rendered at the 2020 Summit and elsewhere, but also as a ploy to help deliver the Catholic vote.

South Australian Liberal Senator Alan Ferguson has used Senate estimates to criticise Fischer's role. Ferguson doubted in no uncertain terms whether there was anything useful to do at the Vatican, a state he described as one you could walk around in a good morning. Furthermore, he argued that the Vatican has no parliament or government as we normally understand it — how, therefore, can Fischer find enough to keep himself occupied?

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials explained that Fischer's recent work included discussions on security, food shortages and climate change.

These criticisms by Ferguson show a great deal of ignorance. The Vatican may have no parliament but it certainly has an extensive bureaucracy. Cardinals act as ministers presiding over expert staff. The Australian Ambassador to the Vatican is responsible not just for interrogating a few acres in Rome, but for ensuring an Australian entrée into a huge global church.

Fischer's defence of his position and his outline of the intelligence networks available only in the Vatican, which I heard first hand recently as part of a delegation organised by Catholic Social Services Australia, sound credible.

Fischer spoke of the Vatican as a hub of power and information. He stressed its strengths in assisting Australian entrée to Central and Latin America. When Rudd visited the Vatican Fischer was able to coordinate a meeting with religious leaders, including 11 Australians based in the Vatican as heads of their respective religious orders.

Whether or not the Opposition criticisms are well-founded, the question remains whether Ferguson and company in the Senate are forgetting Howard's dictum. There are political risks, and very few obvious benefits, involved in waking a sleeping giant. Rudd certainly lives by Howard's advice.

One can only wonder whether Malcolm Turnbull agrees with the tactics of his senators in attacking Fischer, questioning the legitimacy of the Australian position in the Holy See, and ultimately perhaps disturbing the sensitivity of some Australian Catholics who see their team under fire.

One also wonders what Cardinal George Pell thinks of all this criticism, as he certainly takes the Vatican seriously and knows its bureaucracies very well. Far from being affronted he may even think that he himself, rather than Fischer, should be Rudd's main intermediary between Australia and the Vatican.

Like Howard before him Rudd certainly wants to keep Catholics on side. It is not clear whether criticising Fischer and the Vatican job will damage Opposition relations with the Catholic community, but the possibility is certainly worth Turnbull's attention.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and at The Flinders University of South Australia. He is Deputy Chair of the Board of Catholic Social Services Australia.

Topic tags: tim fischer, vatican, ambassador, catholic, kevin rudd, john howard, nelson, geoge pell, alan ferguson



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Existing comments

Interesting comment on the day (Nov 4) when Australian Anglicans and Roman Catholics are asked to pray for each other. Hopefully Kevin and Tim did so, for one another at the least.

Charles Sherlock | 04 November 2009

As someone who worked in the Vatican for 12 years (albeit for an organistaion that had a 'special status' - Caritas Internationalis)I agree entirely with John Warhurst's analysis though the benefit is not one way. Holy See experts deal more with documents rather than people and so they need the dose of reality that comes from full-time ambassadors dealing with flesh and blood issues.

Tim Fischer should follow UK Ambassador Francis Campbell's example and make the post political and focused on justice and peace issues. Through Francis's efforts, the Pope was the first investor in bonds for the International Financial Facility proposed by then Chancellor Gordon Brown and gave the cause of using such bonds for child immunisation in developing countries huge publicity, resulting in its US$2 billion fund today. A tiny example of what is possible.
Duncan MacLaren | 04 November 2009

Professor Warhust said: 'One also wonders what Cardinal George Pell thinks of all this criticism, as he certainly takes the Vatican seriously and knows its bureaucracies very well. Far from being affronted he may even think that he himself, rather than Fischer, should be Rudd's main intermediary between Australia and the Vatican.'

A very good article spoiled by a snide anti-Pell aside. Tim Fischer does his job, and the Cardinal does his. There is no overlap and nor would the Cardinal be small-minded in that way with regard to Mr Fischer.
Fr John Fleming | 04 November 2009

Don't Get the Catholics Off Side? Is there really a catholic vote any more? I agree that the Catholic vote was pretty significant in the 1950s, but post-Vatican II secularism being what it is, any good pollster would have to begin by separating the practicing Catholics from the "cafeteria Catholics" who pick and choose what they personally wish to believe.
Nathan Socci | 04 November 2009

Tim Fischer was not a lazy politician with regard to his electoral and his party; he was an industrious Minister, always well-briefed on his portfolios. To my knowledge he never exploited his catholic faith for political purposes. Whatever the PM's motives in appointing him Ambassador to the Holy See I cannot see Tim being other than industrious in fulfilling any brief given to him by the PM and/or the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I can see him getting to know, and learn from, the other 69 foreign reps in the Vatican. He will make sure to maintain two-way communication with the Australian Embassy in Rome.

True he might also indulge his enthusiasm for rail transport but I'm sure he will be coupling it with other objectives he thinks might be to Australia's advantage. Tim is there not because he's a Roman Catholic but because he's a Catholic in the true sense of the word who happens to be an exemplary product of the Jesuit education system in Australia.
Uncle Pat | 04 November 2009

I was in Rome the other day and had lunch with the good ambassador. It was fascinating to learn of his involvement on issues such as climate change, the Millenium Development Goals and religious freedom in oppressive countries. Given the existence of the Holy See's diplomatic network, I am one Australian who welcomes our tapping into it - not for the purposes of evangelisation but for furthering laudable humanitarian objectives for the well being of all.
Frank Brennan SJ | 04 November 2009

This is really a comment on Fr Frank Brennan's post.

"I am one Australian who welcomes our tapping into it - not for the purposes of evangelisation but for furthering laudable humanitarian objectives for the well being of all."

Well said Fr Frank. The tone of John Warhurst's article seemed to be heading back to the 1950s, resurrecting sectarianism. And, I agree with Fr John Flemming's protest at the snide remark about Cardinal Pell.

I think Tim Fischer will be the one to allay any suspicion that the Holy See posting is a cushion for retired Catholic pollies. And, at the same time, allay suspicions that Catholics don't have any other social agenda except that of liturgical occasions.

That a Catholic has been appointed as the first Australian ambassador to the Holy See should not preclude future appointments of non-Catholics to the post.It should all depend on the needs of Australia at the time and not a set script.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 05 November 2009

I have long been an admirer of Frank Brennan, and it was a privilege to work with Tim Fischer, whom I found to be a decent, humble, hard-working man, but I cannot share their enthusiasm for the so-called Holy See. Haven't we somehow turned the simple prophetic message of Jesus into an industry? Both the Anglicans and the Lutherans manage to preach the Gospel without the benefit of a miniscule country of their own and a diplomatic service to go with it. And the Vatican service, along with those of other non-democratic states, has sometimes got it horribly wrong, e.g., by (along with other major powers like Costa Rica)recognising the infamous Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo in the late 1930s.
Peter Downie | 05 November 2009

I doubt very much that Cardinal
George Pell sees himself as the link between the Vatican and Australia. I think the Cardinal sees himself in a much larger role. There are about 100 Ambassadors to the Vatican living in Rome full time so Tim Fischer is hardly unique. Just imagine the rotating dinner invitations which must surely require an excellent computer program to ensure all the return invitation niceties are complied with. Tim's only problem with the Vatican is that it does not have a railway; at least not yet.
Ken Fuller | 08 November 2009

re Peter Downie's comment, the following is from Wikipedia.
' It is commonly believed The Holy See established diplomatic relations with Manchukuo in 1934. In fact, the Holy See never did it. Bishop Auguste Ernest Pierre Gaspais was appointed as ┬źrepresentative ad tempus of the Holy See and of the Catholic missions of Manchukuo to the government of Manchukuo┬╗ by the Congregation of Propaganda Fide (a purely religious Vatican body responsible for missions) and not by the Secretary of State responsible for diplomatic relations with States.'

Gavan Breen | 10 November 2009

If the Wikipedia article is accurate, I take Gavan Breen's point about the technical issues in the relationship with Manchukuo.For the rest, I stand by my comments, which I understand happen to accord with an opinion expressed some months ago in The Tablet, by the Jesuit Cardinal Martini.
Peter Downie | 13 November 2009


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