Belief’s no barrier in politics

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Senator Kristina Keneally speaks to the crowd during the Let Them Stay! Emergency Rally at Martin Place in Sydney, on Sunday, 1 September 2019. Photo: AAP, Joel Carrett

By Kristina Keneally

Ten people have held the office of Premier of New South Wales since 1986, from Barrie Unsworth to Gladys Berejiklian.

By my count, at least 5 of those people are Catholic. I am one of them – I even have a degree in Catholic theology, worked for a Catholic charity, Vinnies, and met my husband Ben at Catholic World Youth Day.

And Mike Baird, while not a Catholic, is a practising Christian who once contemplated entering the Anglican ministry.

Despite this record in NSW, some sections of the community are reacting quite furiously that another person of faith – and another Catholic to boot – is taking the top job.

“No one – including Premier Dominic Perrottet – is seriously trying to turn Australia into a theocracy.”

In decades past, there was hostility between Anglicans and Catholics in Australia, with clear efforts to keep Catholics out of certain jobs, including in public service. The good news is that this sectarianism is largely gone.

The bad news is that there are still pockets of Australian society that strongly oppose and look down their nose at people of faith participating in political debates or holding public office. This is just wrong. Belief in God is not – and should never be – a barrier to serving in parliament or participating in politics.

No one – including Premier Dominic Perrottet – is seriously trying to turn Australia into a theocracy.

Australia is a democracy, which means all citizens have a right to participate in political parties, vote, and run for office – regardless of their gender, cultural background, or religion.

Newly elected Premier Dominic Perrottet speaks during a press conference at NSW Parliament House in Sydney, Tuesday, on 5 October 2021. Photo: AAP, Dean Lewins

As humans, we are both physical and spiritual.

After all, one only needs to look at the deeply spiritual stories stemming from ancient Aboriginal culture – one of the oldest continuous cultures on Earth – to understand that humans have always had a spiritual dimension.

People bring all their experiences – including their spiritual lives, however expressed – to their political activities.

Australia has no official religion. We are a modern, multicultural, and multi-faith community.

“They might also want to remember that Perrottet is hardly the first Catholic premier to sit on the losing side of a conscience vote.”

And no one – including Premier Dominic Perrottet – is seriously trying to turn Australia into a theocracy where the rule of law is replaced by the rules of any one religion.

Some of the furious reactions to Premier Perrottet have focused on his positions on certain conscience votes or certain debates in the Liberal party room. Those working themselves into a lather would do well to remember that conscience votes and party room debates are open, democratic processes – a contest of ideas – that resulted in settled outcomes. And in those processes, Perrottet lost.

That’s how democracy works.

They might also want to remember that Perrottet is hardly the first Catholic premier to sit on the losing side of a conscience vote. Twice I opposed the use of embryos in stem-cell research. Twice I lost, and twice I accepted that the democratic majority took a different view.

Although Perrottet and Keneally are both Catholics, she doesn't agree with his views on protecting the Seal of Confession for priests confessing to abuse. Photo: CNS, Chaz Muth
Although Perrottet and Keneally are both Catholics, she doesn’t agree with his views on protecting the Seal of Confession for priests confessing to abuse. Photo: CNS, Chaz Muth

Sometimes I wonder if those who look down on people of faith and try to stop them from entering political debate simply lack confidence in their own positions. After all, it is easier to shut down views you disagree with than have a debate about them.

And, though Perrottet and I are both Catholics, I don’t agree with all his views.

For example, unlike the new Premier, I think the Catholic Church’s record of covering up child sexual abuse in parishes means it has forfeited its legal right to secrecy when a priest confesses to committing such abuse.

But again – no one person could make that decision in our democracy. The laws that force the Catholic Church to disclose confessions of sexual abuse were passed by the parliament, following the findings of a royal commission.

“There might be any number of good reasons to oppose Dominic Perrottet … But opposing Dominic Perrottet because he is a person of faith is not and should not be one of them.”

But here’s another thing we should all remember – most day-to-day decisions that come before a Premier engage more in the earthly than the heavenly realm.

Jesus said, “Give back to Caesar what is to Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” but, understandably, the Son of God didn’t give any specific advice about whether stamp duty should be phased out, or if the Ruby Princess should be allowed to dock.

There might be any number of good reasons to oppose Dominic Perrottet – for example, his scandalous mismanagement of the workers’ compensation scheme, Icare, or that under his watch, Western Sydney motorists pay the highest road tolls in the city.

But opposing Dominic Perrottet because he is a person of faith is not and should not be one of them.

Kristina Keneally is Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. This article first appeared on eternitynews.com.au