The Church in politics: divided and conquered

Last week, Family First Senator Steve Fielding was accused of acting decisively against the family by providing enabling support for the Federal Government's new media laws.

As soon as the legislation looked like being passed, major media players rushed to take advantage of the new opportunities. James Packer's PBL announced a partial sell-off of its media assets and an expansion of its gambling operations. It later emerged that Senator Fielding had met with Packer, and some commentators are speaking of a cosy relationship between the two that has included positive media coverage for Family First. Fielding's support for the legislation was ostensibly based on his dubious assertion that media ownership has little or no influence on content.

Labor MP John Murphy immediately challenged Fielding to explain why he "stood up for Australia's richest man to make him $4.5 billion richer out of the anti-family misery of poor people who lose their money out of poker machines and casinos".

Last year, some Catholics were thinking that Fielding might take over where the wily Senator Brian Harradine left off, in that he would use his proximity to the balance of power in the Senate to effectively protect values shared with Catholic teaching. It appears, though, that Fielding could be more vulnerable to manipulation by big business and senior figures in the Howard Government than first thought.

Much of the Government's reforms are incompatible with Catholic social teaching and other broadly Christian values, so neutralising Family First is a priority.

So far, John Howard has so far been quite successful in overcoming Catholic hostility with his repeated assertion that there is 'no one Catholic position' on issues such as industrial relations. 

Howard would have been aware of the contentious nature of such a statement, so it must have come as a pleasant surprise to him that it has only been challenged by a few individuals such as Fr Frank Brennan, sj, and not by something stronger such as a statement from the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

Last week, Australian National University Professor of Political Science, John Warhurst, delivered the McCosker Oration at the Catholic Social Services Australia 2006 Conference, which took the theme Church and State: A Meeting Place. The speech, which was titled "Catholic Voices in Australian Politics", charted the fragmentation of what used to be an identifiable 'Catholic vote', which is an indication of the success of the Howard divide and conquer strategy.

To illustrate the links between the ALP and the Catholic Church in days gone by, he retold the memorable story about the Catholic who always genuflected at Labor Party branch meetings because the faces were all the same as those at his parish church.

Warhurst points out that a clear majority of today's practising Catholics supports the Coalition, and that there are now a great many Catholics in senior positions in federal and state non-Labor politics.

But the most significant change in the Howard era is a revolution in the way Catholics do their politics.

Warhurst quotes David Marr's assessment that "conservative Catholics have joined the Liberals and made the Coalition side of politics more conservative as a result". He goes to suggest that the crude anti-Catholic slogan "Get your rosaries off my ovaries" resonates with many in the community as being the way Catholics do politics. 

The systematic application of Catholic social teaching in position papers produced by bodies such as the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council (ACSJC) is being obscured by the rabid activism of the Catholic pro-lifers, which often remains questionable even when it is backed by the scholarship of Bishop Anthony Fisher. This increasingly prominent Catholic voice appears to enjoying the support of individual Catholic leaders as much as the more measured ACSJC positions that go through a rigorous Bishops’ Conference approval process.

The fragmentation of the Catholic vote has worked well for the Howard Government.

The Church in politics remains divided and conquered. The Catholics in politics who count - including Kevin Andrews, Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott - all give priority to party loyalty over Church teaching. While he has around his table, such "devout Mass-going Catholics who are very strong supporters of this [WorkChoices] legislation", Howard can get away with his claim that there is no definitive Catholic position. This has echoes of Margaret Thatcher's famous "there's no such thing as society".


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