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Church leaders should not try to influence gov't

75% of Australians, and 76% of Catholic Australians, believe that religious leaders should not try to influence government decisions, an international survey has found.

The survey was conducted by the Washington based Ipsos Public Affairs on behalf of the Associated Press (AP) and polled respondents in the US, Canada, Mexico, South Korea, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, as well as Australia.

The United States had the highest proportion of respondents who responded favourably to the proposition. 37% of Americans thought it was okay for church leaders to seek to influence government, while 61% thought it was not. The most opposed to clerical influence in government decision making are the French, with 85% opposed and 12% in favour.

The countries with the highest proportion of Catholics in the general population (Italy 92%, Mexico 83% and Spain 80% Catholic) were in the main not favourably disposed to church influence in public life, with 63% of Italians, 72% of Mexicans and 76% of Spaniards voting in the negative.

The Australians surveyed were more or less reflective of the demographic breakdown of the country, from the point of view of religious affiliation, age, income and personal spiritual commitment.

26% of Australians say religion is 'very important' and 29% say 'somewhat important'. Slightly fewer say religion is not too important (20%) and not at all important (25%).

The Ipsos results come at a time when both sides of politics in Australia are actively courting the 'religious vote'. But perhaps more importantly, as social welfare in is increasingly outsourced to church organisations, these results show that voters are likely to be impatient of any decisions, especially in the social services sector, influenced along religious lines.

All the churches, including the Catholic Church, are now substantial providers of social welfare in Australia. On behalf of the Commonwealth, the Church operates Job Network Services, family support services and personal support services; the States contract the Church to provide aged care, disability services, employment services, housing and residential care and drug and alcohol services. Such contracts are worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually and are the churches' primary source of income. It is anticipated that the proposed 65 'Family Relationship Centres', the Federal Government's $200m attempt to revamp family law and reduce the traffic in the Family Court, will be outsourced to the churches.

As the trend to turn the churches into the main providers of social welfare for the state, it may appear to voters that church leaders are increasingly attempting to influence government decisions - whether that is the intention, or not.

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