Faith, politics and Australia’s ‘run of religious PMs’

Australia’s Catholic leaders can have a powerful voice in politics, if they choose to exercise it through their pulpits and schools. They use it sparingly and, this year, they have been conspicuously quiet.

So, the appearance of Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher alongside Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese at St Mary’s Cathedral School last week raised eyebrows within the flock; was this a subtle endorsement of Labor to form government?

“Mark that as the day the church sent a signal in the election,” said a senior executive in a Catholic Church organisation, on the condition of anonymity.

Fisher met Albanese for a private tête-à-tête before escorting him and education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek to the Labor leader’s alma mater, St Mary’s Cathedral School. A smiling Fisher left before the politicians’ press conference.

Albanese was coy. “I know His Grace very well,” he told reporters afterwards. “We meet regularly.”

It suits the Labor leader to emphasise his Catholicism; it’s a message to wavering voters of faith that he respects and understands their beliefs, especially given the enthusiastic Pentecostalism of his rival, Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Fisher, who a few years ago said he was shocked by the resurgence of anti-Catholic sentiment in the community, would be aware that an Albanese election victory would again leave the Roman church dominating political leadership in Sydney, the country’s most Catholic city.

The NSW Governor Margaret Beazley and the leaders of the two main state parties, Dominic Perrottet and Chris Minns, are also professed Catholics and graduates of the church’s schools.

Albanese would be Australia’s eighth Catholic prime minister, following the likes of John Lyons, Ben Chifley and Paul Keating. There had only been five from a total of 27 when Australian National University academic John Warhurst did an analysis in 2010, but Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull lengthened the list.

Some say Albanese is being disingenuous about his religious status; Liberal senator Hollie Hughes has accused him of being a “politically expedient” Catholic who only associates himself with the Church when it suits him.

Her issue was Albanese calling for Warringah candidate Katherine Deves to be disendorsed for offensive statements about transgender people while silent about a deleted tweet by Labor Senate candidate Mich-Elle Myers. The tweet said, “I’ve had enough of the Catholic Church and the s**t that comes from their mouths”.

Hughes described Albanese as “a complete hypocrite”, repeating comments she made in The Catholic Weekly. “He’s professing to Catholicism as a faith while remaining completely tight-lipped on Ms Myers.”

Yet, a senior executive in a Catholic organisation points out most Catholics are “nominal” ones, and even a cultural affinity with the church counts. Albanese has described himself as a non-practising Catholic whose views on social justice were shaped by his Catholic upbringing.

Church-watchers who read the St Mary’s event as an endorsement of Albanese for prime minister noted that Fisher has not met Morrison during the election campaign. Some dismissed suggestions of favouritism, arguing Fisher’s decision to greet Albanese was simply polite, given he lives at the cathedral. Continue reading

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