Government, Leaders and Faith in Australian Politics

World Interfaith Harmony WeekOn the occasion of World Interfaith Harmony Week, Parliamentary Friends of Multiculturalism in Partnership with the Canberra Interfaith Forum and Religions for Peace Australia commemorated UN Harmony Day on the Topic of Government, Leaders and Faith in Australian Politics at Australian Parliament House Canberra, on Wednesday 15 February 2017. Guest Speaker for the occasion was Emeritus Professor John Warhurst of Australian National University.



UN Interfaith Harmony Event

Sponsored by Parliamentary Friends of Multiculturalism in Partnership with the Canberra Interfaith Forum and Religions for Peace Australia
Parliament House
15 February 2017


Faith has a special place in Australian politics. It is constantly prominent in the public discourse. Just this month, for instance, one of the standard issues in so-called ‘old’ Australian politics over almost two centuries, government financial support for faith-based schools, has shown it is still far from resolved. Furthermore, reaction against government policies towards migrants and refugees also has a strong faith component. While religious groups are defending traditional marriage against progressive changes in one aspect of the so-called ‘new’ cultural politics.

Yet, unlike the United States of America, government support for faith-based activities is a commonplace in our country. There is no equivalent in Australia to the Johnson Amendment enforcing religious-state separation which new US President Donald Trump has recently sworn to overturn. That amendment restricted the participation in election campaigns by faith-based organisations receiving federal funding.

On the contrary there is no effective separation of church and state in Australia although the term is sometimes used loosely as if it applied. The church has actually performed as the state for a very long time in many areas of service delivery where the state was absent. In the USA there is a ‘wall’ between church and state, while in Australia, especially given educational developments since the 1960s, church and state are arm-in-arm.

Two further aspects of the context should be noted. Firstly, there has been tremendous damage inflicted to respect for faith by the shocking revelations about the extent of institutional child sexual abuse in many faith-based organisations revealed by the current Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Some faith-based organisations, including the largest of all, the Catholic Church, may take generations to recover their reputation, if at all.

It is also important to note that the place of faith in Australian political life is full of complexities and apparent contradictions. This is not widely understood because reporting of affairs of faith is often superficial and sometimes ignorant; but the complexities and contradictions should not be surprising because the faith communities themselves are so large that they are a reflection of the great diversity in Australian society. Many have communities within communities. Just about every social and political aspiration in the wider community finds an outlet within one faith community or another, sometimes within the same faith. Faith-adherence is no predictor of political inclinations.

My remarks this evening will elaborate on three aspects of faith and politics in Australia: faith and government, faith and political leaders, and faith-based contributions to the broader political debate.

Government and the Constitution

Faith and politics are inseparable in Australia not just because religious adherence is so wide-spread (about 70% according to the Census). This close relationship exists because there is no effective constitutional separation of church and state despite constitutional provisions which may give that impression because they look remarkably similar to American constitutional provisions. Section 116 of the Australian constitution reads:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

This section prevents the federal government setting up an established religion and protects the rights of believers and non-believers in several ways. Despite this provision separation has not been enforced by the High Court in the few cases that have come to it for interpretation, primarily the big education case about 50 years ago, known as the Defence of Government Schools case. This case was resolved in favour of continued federal government financing of private schools.

Faith communities are embedded in the operation of public life and government policy. This is quite a paradox when compared to the separation which exists in the US where religious adherence is much stronger than in Australia and where religious interventions in politics are so high-octane.
The key to the Australian situation is the low-key and laid-back nature (what sociologist Gary Bouma has described as ‘low temperature’) both of religious adherence in Australia and of opposition to religious activism and state support for religion. What is known euphemistically as State aid for Australian non-government schools (actually massive federal and state government financial support) is embedded in conventional ways of doing things here.

Recently Rebecca Huntley, the respected social researcher, said this of Australian society in her new book, Still Lucky:

Our religious convictions are largely utilitarian. We baptise or Christian our children in the hope it might give them the edge when choosing private schooling later down the track. Some of us only seem to care about Christian rituals when it looks like ‘the Muslims’ are trying to take them away.

This generally relaxed nature of religious adherence and observance in Australia is matched by equally relaxed opposition to the religious delivery of government services in fields like education, aged care, hospitals and social services. A dedicated secular lobby exists to oppose this state of affairs, especially in the field of education, but it is clearly a minority interest and generally a fringe political player, less organised than religious lobbies.

The Personal Faith of Leaders

Within this faith context our political leaders have reflected the Australian community. They are rarely more enthusiastic about observance than the social norm. There is some dispute about my conclusions (see Roy Williams, In God They Trust, who finds more religiosity among prime ministers than I do) but my study into “The Faith of Australian Prime Ministers” for the Australian Prime Ministers Centre at the Museum of Australian Democracy in 2010 revealed that only a relatively small number (9) of our then 27 (now 29) Prime Ministers, who have all been Christian of one sort or another, have been notably observant. Less than half have taken their faith seriously. They have included James Scullin and Joseph Lyons in the 1930s.

Most have been what I called conventional or nominal Christians (12 out of 27 at the time of my study), or agnostic (six out 27) just like the society from which they were drawn. By ‘conventional or nominal Christians’ I mean either Christmas and Easter type Christians or Census and tribal Christians. Many have not been especially observant even when, like Paul Keating, they have had clear tribal identification with a faith community, in his case Irish-Catholicism. Some of the most observant, including John Howard (Methodist cum Anglican), Kevin Rudd (Catholic cum Anglican) and Tony Abbott (Catholic), paradoxically have come to office in recent years when faith measured by church attendance in the wider community has appeared to be in decline. The latter two (Rudd and Abbott) were the two most observant prime ministers ever. It became an aggravation and a point of contest between them. Rudd was described as ‘the most sincerely Christian Prime Minister Australia has had for a very long time’. Abbott described him as a fraud.

Even when they have had their own personal faith-based preferences, like support for Catholic education, historically prime ministers have been constrained by what is acceptable to broad Australian social conventions. This means there was little sympathy historically for faith-based preferences around the Cabinet table.

There have been some exceptions to the rule however. The main one has been the chaplaincy program in schools established by John Howard in 2006 and maintained by subsequent Labor and Coalition prime ministers, religious and secular. This program was successfully contested in the High Court in 2014 in the School Chaplaincy case, but continued after administrative adjustments were made to the method of its financing. Financing now takes place indirectly through state and territory governments rather than directly to schools. Current funding is $244 million over four years to 3,000 schools.

Nevertheless, in another way, it is notable how such mixed Christian faith has played a prominent role in inspiring Australian leaders to pursue a life of altruism in public affairs whatever their personal record of institutional observance. This has applied even to leaders such as Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser who were either agnostic in Hawke’s case (although his father was a Congregational minister) or not especially interested in the case of the Presbyterian Fraser. They have reflected how their social values and career choices drew heavily on the spiritual dimension of their childhood faith traditions.

Hawke, for instance, recalled that even after he left the church:

The basic Christian principles of brotherhood and compassion…would stay with me for the rest of my life…to guide me in my future career.

The Voice of Faith in Politics

More generally the voice of faith is generally respected in the public square when it takes a stand though not necessarily followed by action. Such respect is both for the status in the community of the office held by those who are speaking and the values their institutions espouse and for the organisational strength that is presumed to stand behind the voice. Faith-based organisations still have some political clout, however, as mentioned earlier. Just how much remains to be seen.

Faith-based advocacy is often assumed to be predominantly conservative. And indeed there are some powerful conservative faith-based voices. Public attention is frequently focussed on organisations like the evangelical Australian Christian Lobby, active and innovative in professional lobbying for the last decade or so, or the powerful Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, purporting to speak for a quarter of Australians, which are to the forefront in the fight against the legalisation of same sex marriage.

But the reality is that the progressive voice of faith communities, though often flying under the radar, is constant and sometimes even emanates from otherwise conservative groups like the two mentioned above. No one church or faith-based organisation is totally conservative or progressive. That is why the voices of faith are often best examined on an issue-by-issue or sector-by-sector basis. The one faith community can be both conservative and progressive at the same time, an idea which is at odds with the blanket left-right adversarial politics of the major political parties. In fact, outside sexual morality issues the churches are more progressive than society at large.

In contemporary society there are many issues, including defending asylum seekers and refugees, opposition to human trafficking and slavery, advocating for social protection of the most vulnerable, supporting community housing for the homeless and acting responsibly in international aid and development, on which faith communities work strongly together and speak out loudly in unison.

Because these campaigns are often not given the credit that they deserve I will take some time to expand on this point by giving some examples.

(i)The more than 70 organisations led by the Refugee Council of Australia, which called on February 3 for an immediate evacuation to Australia of all those people held in detention centres included at least a dozen faith-based groups. Some of these are quite small, but others are broadly representative of big Christian churches and communities, including the largest Catholic lay organisation, the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council, the most progressive of the major churches, the Uniting Church in Australia, and World Vision Australia, led by the high profile man of faith Rev. Tim Costello. Other participating organisations, like the activist Refugee Action Coalition, include an active faith-based committee to plan campaigns such as Palm Sunday rallies with faith community involvement.

(ii) In social services the collaboration known as Major Church Providers (MCP) includes the Salvation Army, Anglicare, Unitingcare and Catholic Social Services Australia. During the Global Financial Crisis in 2008-2009 it was this faith-based collaboration which did most to make sure that the government response to the GFC did not neglect the impact on social services. As a consequence the government stimulus package included housing stimulus and other welfare measures.

Since then the MCP has been a constant, though admittedly unsuccessful, voice urging the federal government to raise Newstart unemployment benefits to a living wage equivalent. The progressive faith-based organisations have often been to the left of the major party consensus on this and other matters, taking up causes Labor chooses not to touch. This often means common cause with the Greens, somewhat ironic given that the Greens are the most secular of the major Australian political parties.

(iii) Faith-based organisations have been prominent in community opposition to the drastic cuts instigated by the present federal government to the budget expenditure on Australian aid. A number of international development agencies have collaborated in campaigns such as the Stop the Clock initiative and Micah’s Draw the Line campaign. Organisations involved included the Church Agencies Network (CAN) and Micah Australia.

CAN is a consortium of eleven Australian church-based aid and development agencies which are members of ACFID. It works with its constituencies to “inspire and empower people, providing avenues for them to engage in overcoming poverty and injustice”. In its December 2016 Pre-Budget submission it called on the Australian government to

redefine the core objective of Australia’s official aid program so that it focusses principally on reducing poverty and ‘achieving measurable sustainable development goals’ rather than focussing principally on pursuing national interest

Micah is a coalition of 15 churches and Christian organisations, together with nine associates, speaking up for justice and a world free from poverty. As well as the bigger churches Micah’s membership includes the Churches of Christ and the Baptists, and the associates include Hillsong, the Lutherans and the Salvation Army.

Unfortunately, these faith-based organisations are ‘swimming against the tide’ in trying to make an impression on a foreign policy dominated by trade and security concerns.

(iv) Other notable faith-based collaborations have taken place around gambling reform (Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce), opposition to human trafficking and slavery (the Just Work network and Australian Catholic Religious against Trafficking in Humans), affordable community housing (Australian Catholic Housing Alliance and many other church programs and campaigns). On these and other issues faith-based organisations have almost always worked alongside secular NGOs and within secular peak organisations, like Australian Council for International Development and the Australian Council of Social Service, through institutional and personal membership. Churches and individuals of faith have often played a leading role in setting up these peak organisations.


Thank you for listening to me this evening.

The contribution of faith-based organisations to our national conversation should be robust and must be further encouraged. Certainly it should not be ruled out of order. They are among those who speak for the most vulnerable. Australian democracy would be much poorer without it.

However, the discussion and collaboration is so far largely inter-Christian rather than inter-faith so there is considerable room for expanded collaboration. The inter-Christian collaboration should become a wider inter-faith collaboration in which non-Christian faiths choose to become more actively involved and are actively encouraged to do so.

This is unavoidable. An increasingly intrusive mass media and a growing focus in modern political campaigning on telling personal stories means that there is now a greater openness demanded about the role of belief and non-belief in the lives of political leaders and organisations. The faith community should welcome and take up these opportunities to tell their story.

John Warhurst
February 13th
John Warhurst is Emeritus Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, Australian National University.



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