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How effective is the Catholic Lobby?

Posted on 22 August 2018
How effective is the Catholic Lobby?
Political insiders are those forces in Australian politics which use economic clout, political connections, extensive networks and reliable access to decision-makers to consistently influence political outcomes. Outsiders, by definition, are those which lack these characteristics.

The Catholic lobby now doubts its own strength and influence. The education sector is a good example. While the church's major archbishops have guaranteed access to prime ministers and premiers at short notice, the lobby is still reduced to running robo-call by-election campaigns on school funding issues.

It has great residual strength through its social networks, numerical strength, financial resources and extensive social services, but its brand is damaged by the current child abuse scandals in the eyes of the public, and it often sees itself as hard done by and under siege. Its public campaign strategies are, therefore, a sign of weakness, not of strength, making it better described as an insider/outsider in a state of flux.

The strength of insiders and outsiders can change over time and from state to state depending on political and social circumstances. The status of insiders and outsiders may also vary according to the political issue. Both these reservations apply to the Catholic lobby.

The Catholic lobby never has been a full-blown political insider. The early Irish-Catholic church was an outsider during the Protestant economic, social and political ascendancy. It began to exert political influence through its association with the Australian Labor Party and through its upward social and economic mobility.

It was still locked into the Labor side of politics until after the Labor Split in the 1950s. By the 1980s it was strong on both sides of politics through the migration of many Catholics into the Liberal and National parties.

But at the same time, from the 1960s onwards, Australian culture had begun to change in ways which disadvantaged the church. The sexual revolution, producing legislative reform on abortion, divorce, women's rights and homosexual rights, began to isolate the church from majority community opinion. Although led more often by the left, this new culture was essentially cross-party, including many progressive social liberals. The church was increasingly tagged as too conservative, and usually on the losing side of these debates. Catholics increasingly lost influence in the new Labor Party.


"Catholic values have no natural political party home. The Catholic community is fractured and Catholic MPs hold diverse views. That makes any Catholic lobbying by bishops or agencies difficult."

Similarly, Australian economic policy, led by the Coalition but increasingly accepted by Labor under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, became increasingly individualistic and moved away from the collectivism enshrined in the traditional Australian settlement. The old Australia was one in which trade unions were strong and capital and labour existed in a rough balance. The new Australia, backed by most of the Catholics now in the Liberal Party, played on notions of individual aspiration rather than community.

Catholic values now have no natural political party home in which the full Catholic 'package' wins easy acceptance. The Catholic community is itself fractured and Catholic MPs often hold very diverse views. That makes any Catholic lobbying, either by bishops or agencies, difficult.

On social welfare and the economy the Catholic lobby is now decisively to the left of the political consensus represented by the two major political parties. Just look at the Catholic responses to the budget speeches by Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten. The June issue of Justice Trends, published by the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, paints a stark picture of the church's opinions, represented by its agencies, being totally disregarded on issues like wages policies, unemployment benefits, wealth distribution, international aid and development and asylum seekers and refugees. Official church positions have more in common with the Greens than with the big parties, other than some individual MPs.

On sexual morality issues the Catholic lobby, represented this time by the bishops rather than church agencies, is now clearly to the right of the political consensus on issues like same sex marriage, anti-discrimination and freedom of speech. On euthanasia the church is closer to the centre, remaining influential, but the wider community is divided.


The Catholic lobby is not easily characterised, because of its diversity. Historically it built its lobbying power up from a low base to a widely recognised status as an insider on many issues. That position is now precarious because many contemporary developments are especially challenging to its ethos and capabilities. As a consequence it is now scrambling to retain its influence.

From: Eureka Street Vol 26 No 16

By: John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and chairs Concerned Catholics Canberra-Goulburn.

Tags: Government

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