John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University. He has written the following article for Eureka Street, which is reproduced with permission.
On the occasion of World Interfaith Harmony Week in 2017, Parliamentary Friends of Multiculturalism in Partnership with the Canberra Interfaith Forum and Religions for Peace Australia presented Emeritus Professor John Warhurst of Australian National University who gave the address on the topic of Government, Leaders and Faith in Australian Politics at Australian Parliament House Canberra, on Wednesday 15 February 2017.
There are many different types of Catholics with quite distinct Catholic voices in this election campaign. When the Church speaks we should expect diverse content despite the unifying force of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). The Plenary Council consultation has shown us where we stand as a diverse community, and further analysis shows that Catholics occupy the full spectrum of political opinion from the Greens and Independents, via Labor and the Coalition, to One Nation and the United Australia Party.
The Church must speak up to be relevant, but those who seek to ‘speak for the church’ must be brave. They risk exposing themselves to claims of bias unless they stick to a very narrow agenda and speak in extremely measured terms. Yet if they are too bland they risk being irrelevant to the sharp end of political debate and their intervention becomes little more than a symbolic ritual.
Statements do not stand on their own but should be measured against the dynamics of the political contest. It is not just ‘views’ but, more importantly ‘priorities’, that will be taken to support, oppose or even ‘wedge’ political adversaries. Every statement has a political consequence.
Election statements must not only make an impact, but should also be a faithful representation of the views of those they seek implicitly to ‘represent’. That is a difficult task. If they make an impact which cuts across the platforms of the major political parties, then they will divide their own community.
The best way to make an impact is to energise the Catholic community. Statements should have ‘legs’ in the wider electorate. This can come from media exposure, and each statement is invariably accompanied by a media release which focusses attention on the key messages; but competition for media attention is intense.
The real ‘legs’ are the ready-made implementation mechanisms of the church: parishes, schools, agencies, and volunteers, who can spread the messages on the ground. The Church exhibits this strength in its statements. The St Vincent de Paul Society (St V de P) has 60,000 members and 3,000 employees. Catholic Religious Australia (CRA) represents 150 or more congregations with more than 5,000 members. The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) reports that Catholic education has 100,000 staff and 770,000 students in 1755 schools.
‘The greatest need in raising the voice of the Church is to provide a greater sharpness and increased urgency. Bland content and style makes less impact than a prophetic voice.’
There are commonalities, including drawing on Pope Francis, in their search for a distinctive Catholic voice but important differences too. Their purpose is essentially also the same, though the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s call for reflection by Catholics and people of good will seems more passive and less urgent (and more self-interested in parts) than the others. Catholic Religious Australia’s concern for justice and advocacy for the most vulnerable is matched with Pope Francis’ call to move beyond partisanship to participation. It includes questions to ask political parties and candidates. St Vincent de Paul, whose statement is cross-referenced by Catholic Religious Australia, makes the point that its statement is informed by its members experiences in meeting with and helping others.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference calls its broadly based statement “Towards a Better Kind of Politics”, drawing on Pope Francis’ exhortation to offer a message of love, hope, confidence and goodness. The bishops acknowledge that ‘no one political party fully embodies Catholic social teaching’. Its media release emphasises palliative and aged care, protection for vulnerable people and the eradication of poverty, and freedom of religion including sensible anti-discrimination provisions for Catholic schools. The core of the statement emphasises these elements plus accessibility for Catholic education to all families, Constitutional recognition and active steps towards reconciliation for First Nations peoples, a just system for assessing asylum claims, social housing, a new integral ecology, and the strengthening of Australia’s Modern Slavery Act. It advocates at least 20,000 additional places for Afghan refugees. It concludes by enunciating four principles of Catholic Social Teaching (human dignity, common good, subsidiarity and solidarity) and offers a specific prayer for the election.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference is consistent with recent episcopal political interventions. But what the bishops miss is the opportunity to connect and identify with some other urgent concerns of many Australian Catholics. Despite the nod to a better kind of politics there is no mention of toxic political behaviour in Parliament House, negative campaigning, harassment and unequal representation of women and minorities, the demand for an anti-corruption commission, inaction on climate change and total lack of trust in our political system. Rather it is weighed down by caution and self-interest. It is, even so, ahead of the Government, and in some cases the Opposition too, on a rise in the rate of Jobseeker, at least 20,000 additional places for Afghans, and endorsing the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Catholic Religious Australia’s statement, a special extended issue of its regular publication, “Just Now”, has a sharper edge than the bishops because it reminds Catholics that we are called by our faith to act and to vote and to discern which party policies are ’most consistent with the Catholic ethos’. It calls for a vote for justice which puts common needs ahead of private interests, focusing on five key elements: the environment, First Nations people, refugees and asylum seekers, aged care, and disability, all based on Catholic Social Teaching. Even its rendition of Catholic Social Teaching has a sharper edge than the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference statement because it highlights Stewardship of Creation and the Preferential Option for the Poor. Lots of resources, including many outside church circles, are provided for those readers who want more. One imagines these resources being activated by keen members of religious institutes and put to practical use leading debates.
The call by St Vincent de Paul for “A Fairer Australia” is even more activist and energetic. It addresses five key policy areas: poverty and inequality, housing and homelessness, people seeking asylum, secure work, and First Nations people. It is the most extensive and intensive of all three statements, offering explanatory videos, a summary brochure, and policy papers for more information. Not only does it append a detailed research note from the Australian National University on “A Fairer Tax and Welfare System for Australia”, but it advises supporters that a report card checking how each of the major party’s policies “stack up against A Fairer Australia” will be forthcoming. Its “Tips for Members” advises how to start a community conversation, put a note in a parish or school bulletin, post on Facebook and write to or seek to meet MPs and/or candidates. This is an intense rather than armchair engagement with the electoral process.
The Catholic community is well served by this variety of approaches to electoral engagement by its peak organisations. Read them all please! These approaches vary in their scope and in their activism. The broad Australian Catholic Bishops Conference statement should be bolder on some issues. Catholic Religious Australia is more engaged and wrestles deeply with its task of promoting justice. St Vincent de Paul goes furthest in seeking to make a practical difference for the vulnerable.
Great effort goes into articulating these voices. The Catholic community should reflect on whether its concerns are being fully represented. If they are not, we should raise our own voices. The organisations themselves should be held accountable. The object should be put real democratic pressure on the Government, the Opposition, other parties, and Independents.
The greatest need in raising the voice of the Church is to provide a greater sharpness and increased urgency. Bland content and style makes less impact than a prophetic voice. Catholics in and beyond the pews who want action for justice will identify more with the Catholic Religious Australia and St Vincent de Paul approaches than with the institutional church.