JOHN WARHURST. The power of the Catholic lobby. (Canberra Times 27/9/2018)

Sep 29, 2018

The continuing education funding controversy invites scrutiny of the power of insider politics. Political insiders are those who use economic clout, political connections, extensive networks and privileged access to decision-makers to consistently influence political outcomes.  

Is the Catholic Church such a political insider? The ominous media references to the powerful Catholic education lobby benefiting unduly from the recent federal education funding announcement, regarded by its many critics as a political fix or a special deal for a special interest, suggest it may be.

Yet the Catholic lobby itself now doubts its own 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 it still decided to run byelection campaigns for school funding recognition. It has great residual strength through its social networks, numerical strength, financial resources and extensive social services, but its brand is badly damaged by the current child sexual abuse scandals and it often sees itself as under siege. This makes its status uncertain.

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

In the case of education funding the Catholic Church drew on all its resources, arguments and levers. The National Catholic Education Commission engaged with the federal government. Each diocese, sometimes equivalent to states and territories but often smaller, used its education office chiefs to lobby hard, sometimes assisted by professional lobbyists. Supporters of Catholic schools undoubtedly made their views known to MPs, some of whom were sympathetic Catholic MPs on both sides of politics. But doubts remained.

The favourable financial outcome was initiated by Bill Shorten’s Labor, itself not especially close to the Catholic lobby, and, with an election looming, the Coalition matched it under electoral duress. The question of which of the various strategies adopted by Catholic lobbyists proved successful may be the wrong question. Perhaps like most lobbying the effect is cumulative and success not reducible to a single element.

The Catholic lobby has never been a fully-fledged political insider. The early Irish-Catholic church was an outsider during the Protestant economic, social and political ascendancy. It exerted early political influence through its association with the Labor Party and later through its own upward social and economic mobility.

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

But at the same time, from the 1960s onward, Australian culture began to change in ways which disenfranchised church interests. Legislative reforms on abortion, divorce, women’s rights and homosexual rights, began to isolate it from majority community opinion. This new culture was essentially cross-party, including the left and progressive liberals. The church was increasingly tagged as conservative and was usually on the losing side of these reforms. Catholics increasingly lost influence in the new Labor Party.

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 up individual aspiration rather than community solidarity.

Catholic values now have no natural political party home in which the full Catholic “package” wins acceptance. The Catholic community is itself fragmented and Catholic MPs’ views cross the political spectrum.

On economic matters and social justice the Catholic lobby is now decisively to the left of the major party political consensus. Look at the Catholic responses to the Budget speeches by Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten. The church’s opinions, represented by its agencies, are often disregarded on questions of wages policies, unemployment benefits, wealth distribution, international aid and development and asylum seekers and refugees. Some official church positions have more in common with the Greens than with the big parties.

The new funds will be phased in over a decade and be distributed on the basis of the socio-economic status of each school.

On sexual morality, however, the Catholic lobby, represented 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 religion.

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 challenge its ethos and capabilities. It is now scrambling to retain its influence, although the education sector is its strength.

How will this apparently big education funding victory sit with the larger Catholic community? It will be widely celebrated as a success because its schools are seen a badge of achievement for its community. But no Catholic can disregard the many questions of fairness and justice for poorer students which have been raised by independent experts such as the Grattan Institute, and by Catholics themselves, including Adrian Piccoli, the former NSW Education minister.

Fairness is too often framed in terms of equity between the three major sectors, but there must be transparent fairness within the Catholic school system, too, within and between dioceses and states. Such internal system-wide fairness is often neglected in the education funding debate and applies not just to the Catholic sector but also to the independent and government school sectors.

John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Chair of Concerned Catholics of Canberra Goulburn

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