The Labour Party and the Catholic Church


In the last week I have been reminded twice that the Catholic Church has a great deal of sway in the Labor Party.  Today I read in the Australian that PM Julie Gillard has reaffirmed Labor Party opposition to gay marriage.  The PM’s opposition to gay marriage may reflect a personal, socially conservative, belief about the institution of marriage.  Or, it might reflect strident opposition from Catholic members of the Labor Party.

Earlier in the week I was reading up on the Federal Government’s root and branch review of school funding, which was launched in May of this year by Julia Gillard in her role as Education Minister.  There is a five member panel of experts overseeing this review.  The members are as follows:

1.  David Gonski is the Chairman of the review.  Mr Gonski is also Chairman of Sydney Grammar School which is an independent secular school for boys.   Further, he is the Chancellor of UNSW and the Chairmen of the Ingeus, the firm owned by Therese Rein, the wife of Kevin Rudd.

2.  Dr Ken Boston.  I don’t know where Dr Boston went to school.  He is a highly respected expert on eduction at all levels.

3.  Dr Carmen Lawrence, the former Labor Premier of WA.  Dr Lawrence attended the Dominican Ladies College and Santa Maria College.

4.  Kathryn Greiner, who is on the School Council of Loreto Kirribilli, a Catholic girls school.

5.  Dr Peter Tannock, who attended Christian Brothers College in WA.  

I am not suggesting that the panel members are biased in any way.  But as a group they are certainly well versed in Catholic education.  Catholic schools are a large part of Australia’s education system, with fully 20% of Australia’s school children attending Catholic schools.  Another 18% attend non-Catholic independent schools.

Catholic schools have a special funding deal with the Federal Government which is separate to the funding arrangement with other non-Government schools.  That special arrangement started with the Whitlam Government.  Before 1974 there was no Federal Government funding of non-Government schools.  Gough Whitlam introduced Government funding of private education, and in particular, he did that to support Catholic education.  I think that makes the point about how close knit the Catholic Church and the Labor Party are.

And why not?  I have always found it curious that there is not a closer alliance between the left of centre political parties and Christian groups.  Christians and social democrats are collectivists.  Both groups put community above individuality in their doctrine.  They are not liberals, and these are not conservative philosophies either.  Left of centre parties are by definition opposed to the status quo.  The Christian gospels contain the revolutionary messages that the first shall be last, community is more important than family, and pursuit of personal riches is wrong.  The institutionalised church may have become a powerful conservative force in Western society, just as many formerly left of centre political parties have, but Christian ideology is in its essence revolutionary.

In any case I have been reminded this week that the Catholic Church and the Australian Labor Party actually are pretty tight.

20 Responses to "The Labour Party and the Catholic Church"
  1. Surprising particularly in light of the fact that the underlying ethnic divide that led to the close relationship in the first place has been so bridged and forgotten. I wonder how previous generations would react to the way we can so casually throw a term like “Anglo-Celtic Australian” around

  2. Is it correct that “Before 1974 there was no Federal Government funding of non-Government schools”? I had thought it was Menzies and a quick google throws up the reference below? I can also find a National Archive reference to Malcolm Fraser increasing private school funding in the late 90’s?
    “In 1963 PM Robert Menzies took the step of providing State Aid (government funding) for independent schools. In Goulburn NSW in 1962 Catholic schools had shut their doors for a week – and dumped their kids on the State school system – to protest against a lack of government funding (State Aid as it was called). While Menzies funded independent schools (and won over many Catholic voters) Labor wrestled with the issue and resisted State Aid. This is the story of that strike and the 1963 election.”

  3. The ALP is opposed to gay marriage because of all the nasty Catholics in there?  Hardly.
    I remember being more than slightly bemused when, shortly after Tony Abbott rose to leadership of the Liberal Party, Craig Emerson wrote a piece in The Australian based on their shared Catholicism.  Fair enough, Craig self-identifies as a Catholic.  But this is a Catholic who left his wife for a bit of rumpy-pumpy with our esteemed Prime Minister (  Is that the sort of Catholic who’s likely to take a strong and principled stand on gay marriage?
    My local branch of the ALP (and presumably the other branches too) require new members to sign a pledge that they are not a member of ‘Right to Life’.
    Surely, it requires a massive stretch of the imagination to claim that the ALP’s policy position is being driven out of Rome.
    On the topic of education, however, it always struck me as rather peculiar as a child that the Government apparently assigned a lesser value to my education in a Catholic school than to my neighbour’s education at a state school.
    Of course, nowadays I can understand arguments about the marginal value of education dollars spent on children from lower socio-economic backgrounds than on children whose parents can afford to do something about it themselves.  Still, state schools take in rich and poor alike, and many Catholic schools are dramatically under-resourced compared to state schools in the same suburbs, and tend to take in some of the least fortunate members of society (particularly refugees).  It’s all a very irrational model for funding education, at present, and I’m glad five experts of such calibre are looking over it, quite irrespective of their backgrounds.

  4. Francis
    I don’t know what drives the Labor Party’s stance on gay marriage.  What is your take on it?
    When I said that it “might reflect strident opposition from Catholic members of the Labor Party”, I was speculating.  But that speculation doesn’t seem completely implausible given the history of Catholicism and the Labour movement in Australia, and the strident opposition of the Catholic Church to gay marriage.
    It is not stated or inferred anywhere in the post that the ALP is the puppet of Rome.  That would be an odd and paranoid view.  Moreover, my post is not intended to criticise the ALP or the Catholic Church.
    I was a member of the ALP back in the day and my estimation of the Catholic Church has grown over time, as a result of living in the Calvinist culture of the US, and as a result of learning a lot more about the role of the Church in Western history.
    My own view on gay marriage, as I have written before, is that it should be put to a plebiscite.  It is in essence an issue of public respect for gay relationships.  There is really no need for representatives of the people to decide whether gay unions should be conferred the same respect as unions between men and women.  Let the people speak on the matter.

  5. I guess for mine it just seems to be grasping at straws to blame this on the Catholics (accepting that you aren’t blaming anyone).  It’s as though the position of the Left is that it’s so manifestly obvious that an institution called “gay marriage” should be introduced, that the fact that such an institution has not been introduced is proof of some deep old-world religious conspiracy going on.
    I accept that I get that impression more from media commentary and shows like Q&A than from your post, though I don’t resile from my statement that it’s a stretch to think Catholics are influencing this particular policy position of a party whose policies (no Right to Lifers) and actions (JG/CE) seem so obviously anti-Catholic in all other respects.
    I also don’t accept the proposition that the Catholic Church has a “strident opposition to gay marriage”.  It is opposed to gay marriage, yes, but I think it reserves its stridency for issues that really matter to it on the ground, like social justice for the poor, sick and otherwise marginalised.
    My feeling is that the ALP remains formally opposed to gay marriage because it thinks the Australian public as a whole — and certainly not just or even mostly Catholics — wouldn’t wear it.  And if that’s what it does think, I don’t think they’re wrong.
    For what it’s worth, my view on the issue is that marriage as a whole should be abolished.  As long as we have laws for the welfare of children and the disposition of communal property in quasi-marriage relationships — which we do — there’s just no point to the institution.  What business is it of the government’s?  And why should I need the government’s endorsement of whom I choose to ‘marry’ and the manner in which I do so?  A marriage certificate stamped by a government is an unjustifiable waste of taxpayer money.

  6. Ummm …. no reference Sam in your reply to the fact that your historical analysis is factually wrong?

    Francis? The ALP really screens potential members for opinion on abortion? 

    Disclaimer: I am striongly pro abortion!

  7. Mark
    Your statement is that there was a program of direct Federal Government funding of non-Governmnet schools in Australia that pre-dates the Whitlam Government.
    You might be right.  It would be good to know the details.  I went to a presentation by the Western Association of Independent Schools recently where they went through the history of Federal Government funding of non-government schools.  There assertion, which I took on face value, was that systematic direct Federal Government funding of schools in Australia began with the Whitlam Government.  I will find out when I have a minute.  Cheers Sam

  8. Hi Mark
    Please see the following link on the history of school funding in Australia
    You will see that Federal school funding began with the Whitlam Government, as I stated in the post  It is well worth a read.  It seems that the Labor Party originally intended that only Catholic Schools would receive funding.

  9. Sam,

    Please tell me where it says in the reference ypou have provided that Federal school funding began with the Whitlam governemt? This is what I read in your provided link:

    “The Federal Labor Party after more than twenty years in opposition and following bitter debates decided that only by securing a proportion of the Catholic vote by changing its opposition to state aid for Church schools would it ever gain office. Subsequently, it went to the Federal election in December of 1972 with a policy of funding all schools on a needs basis. It planned that the wealthy schools would receive no assistance and that the majority of Catholic schools which were poverty stricken would receive the majority of their running costs plus assistance with capital grants.”

    How do you interpret that as what you have again claimed as having introduced state aid? Your reference says there was a policy by Whitlam of funding schools on a needs basis. Where does it say they introduced state aid for private schooling?!

  10. Whitlam may have institutionalized it, but it was certainly Menzies who introduced it and proved that funding independent schools was not the political suicide that everyone had always assumed it would be.   And in doing so, Menzies put the lie to the notion that Catholics would always vote Labor.  The Catholic School Strike in Goulburn in 1963 is really a fascinating story, and the Negus link is a good snapshot of it.  It’s a story that has resonance today, both for the education debate that started this and in other sectors too.  If the Stalinists in the ACT Government have their way and drive the Catholics out of the provision of health services in the ACT, for purely ideological purposes, I’ll be interested to see the consequences for the state-funded portion of the sector.
    Oh, and yes, the ALP screens members for membership of any political organization not aligned with the ALP, as well as any other organization it’s identified as being antithetical to the ALP belief system.  As the link I provided shows, the ACT branch (at least) has blacklisted only two such organizations:  Right to Life and International Socialists.
    Really quite perplexing, when they claim to advocate freedom of conscience on that issue.  I wonder how the Catholic members feel about it.

  11. Sam,

    Even the conclusion to your own reference contradicts what you have said and then wrongly defended?

    “State aid to Church schools was ended until 1963 when some concessions were made to the Churches. In 1973 further concessions were made to non-government schools.”

  12. Labor’s ‘stand’ against gay marriage is just the usual wedge politics. Standing for gay marriage will not give it any more voters (as most people who support gay marriage either vote Labor or give preferences to Labor) and will lose it votes (amongst swinging ‘battlers’, who they fear include a fair number of homophobic bigots.)
    Blaming Julia Gillard’s position on the Catholics is actually giving her much more credit for being principled than she (and most politicians) deserve.

  13. Mark
    I think this reference clears up our point of disagreement.   A quote from that article is as follows:

    “In 1963, the federal government began making specific grants to state governments for expenditure on school science blocks and apparatus for both government and private secondary schools. More than a quarter of this aid went to private schools.   …. it was Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s federal Labor government that began to directly fund private schools.”

  14. I reckon the policy against gay marriage is purely pragmatic – most ALP members would oppose such a stand but not enough to split the government over it, while the minority who support that stand would split from the government in a flash if an attempt was made to change it.  ‘taint always whether a view has a majprity that matters but the fervour of that view.

    It’s not bigotry, but I think the conservative church hoierarchies – especially but not only the Catholic one – have an influence on politicians out of all proportion to their actual influence on the electorate. That’s partly because of our penchant for electing old white males – a like-minded group – to represent us.

  15. “I am not suggesting that the [school funding review] panel members are biased in any way ..” – Sam

    Well I damn well am, because bias doesn’t have to be conscious.  That is an extraordinary composition for a panel with that role.  Who the hell appointed them, and why aren’t the P&Cs and the teacher’s unions up in arms about it?

  16. Sam, are you suggesting that the members of the panel who attended Christian Brothers schools will be unfairly biased *against* Catholic private schools?

  17. Do not underestimate the church-influenced conservatism of particular unions behind the ALP.  The Shoppies (SDA) were certainly notorious a decade ago for being highly intrusive in the private lives of their union staff (i.e. questioning choices of young organisers to ‘live in sin’, explicitly asking questions about Catholicism in job interviews etc).
    Joe de Bruyn, who has lead the union for almost 3 decades is an outspoken old-school Catholic, and has opposed Australian aid that might lead to abortions etc.
    For SDA staffers in Parliament include:
    Tony Burke
    Michael Danby
    Kate Ellis
    Nick Champion
    Sen. Jacinta Collins
    Sen. Mark Bishop
    Sen. John Hogg
    (Brian Harradine was also an ex-SDA state president)


  18. The SDA’s Joe de Bruyn comes out (oops, unfortunate pun) swinging against any action on gay marriage:
    This argument from Joe seems an odd interpretation of the political terminology:
    He said that supporting gay marriage would:”move the Labor Party to the left, vacating the centre ground, which the Coalition would occupy.”
    Surely the right to may whomever you chose could be equally seen as libertarian and thus the domain of the pro-individualists on the right?

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