Bill Shorten's neglected Catholic background

Bill Shorten

No-one bothers to write that Labor’s new leader is 'of Catholic background', even though Bill Shorten, like Tony Abbott and other Coalition figures, is Jesuit-educated and, like the others, acknowledges it, writes Ray Cassin in Eureka Street.

Anger at the fact that Tony Abbott’s cabinet includes only one woman has been displaced in media attention by the exclusion of senior Labor women such as Anna Burke and Jacinta Collins from leading roles in the Bill Shorten-led opposition. The gender balance, however, is not the only demographic change in the major parties. As Matt Wade reported in the Sydney Morning Herald last month, nearly half of the Abbott cabinet are 'of Catholic background'. That’s roughly double the proportion — 25 per cent — of respondents to the last census who identified themselves as Catholics.

This is an historic shift. Australians who attended school in the 1960s and ‘70s, like the present writer, will remember that Catholics were then a rarity in Coalition cabinets and that the few who did make it, such as Phillip Lynch, had typically struggled to win Liberal preselection because of their religion. A sectarian divide between the parties persisted even after the Labor split of the 1950s severed what had once seemed a natural link between the ALP and the Catholic Church, and long after an earlier split had resulted in Joe Lyons becoming Australia’s first Catholic prime minister, at the head a Coalition government.

Has that sectarian/partisan divide now been consigned to history, and with it the antagonisms it generated? The 1996 election, in which the John Howard-led Coalition defeated the Keating government, bringing Australia’s longest continuous period of Labor rule to an end, was also the first federal poll in which more Catholics voted for the conservative parties than for Labor. The pendulum swung back in 1998, when Labor under Kim Beazley attracted slightly more than half of the Catholic vote, but it has been swinging ever since.

There is no longer a bloc Catholic vote, as there was before the 1955 split when more than 80 per cent of Catholics routinely voted Labor. The mere fact that someone is Catholic is no longer a broad hint about how that person votes. The shift Wade reports might, however, suggest where politically active Catholics are now more likely to be found.

As soon as the suggestion is made, however, it must be hedged with qualifications. First and most importantly, the phrase that gives Wade his statistical marker, 'of Catholic background', is an inexact one. It does not necessarily mean 'practising Catholic', nor is it a reliable guide to whether a person so described was raised by practising Catholics. Mostly it only tells us what kind of school that person went to.

The fact that nearly half the ministers in the Abbott cabinet are 'of Catholic background' is not an indicator of how they might vote on, say, same-sex marriage if the Coalition were to allow a free vote on a bill to legalise it, or on Medicare funding of abortion in the unlikely event of that issue again becoming a matter of political contention. Nonetheless stories noting the disproportionate number of Coalition cabinet ministers who are 'of Catholic background' can almost be guaranteed a run in the mainstream media.

FULL STORY Bill Shorten's Catholic background

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