Labor courts faiths at climate summit

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50-or-so religious leaders who gathered on 9 December at Western Sydney University’s Liverpool City campus for the “Faith Leaders Climate Summit”. Photo: CNS, Jim West
50-or-so religious leaders who gathered on 9 December at Western Sydney University’s Liverpool City campus for the “Faith Leaders Climate Summit”. Photo: CNS, Jim West

After a year of pandemic church closures, the Religious Discrimination Bill and a plethora of other issues ranging from euthanasia in NSW to the Equal Opportunity Act in Victoria, it might seem odd that Labor would gather religious leaders together to discuss climate change, of all things.

But the 50-or-so religious leaders who gathered on 9 December at Western Sydney University’s Liverpool City campus for the “Faith Leaders Climate Summit” with Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese were treated to what came across as more of a “soft” campaign pitch to religious communities.

Present were some of the NSW Labor Right faction’s heavy hitters: the MP for McMahon, Chris Bowen, who after the 2019 election was outspoken in his view that Labor had alienated religious voters; Senators Deb O’Neill and Kristina Keneally; and Labor’s manager of business in the House of Representatives, Tony Burke.

Werriwa MP Anne Stanley was the only other member of Albanese’s Left faction at the summit.

Bowen, who has at points described himself as a “non-practising Methodist”, opened proceedings by detailing the creation stories of the various religious traditions, saying “we can all agree on this: our planet is a sacred place that must be protected for future generations”.

““The well of the church’s social teachings is indeed a deep one, and it has helped make me who I am today, given me that sense of belonging.”

Keneally introduced Albanese with the same pitch she gave at her FamilyVoice seminar appearance early last week, saying he was raised in “three great faiths”: the Labor party, the Catholic Church and the South Sydney Rabbitohs.

And Albanese, a lifelong fixture of the Labor Left better known for his appearances at demonstrations and inner west pubs than Mass, put himself forward as the Catholic Social Teaching candidate.

“The well of the church’s social teachings is indeed a deep one, and it has helped make me who I am today, given me that sense of belonging,” Albanese said.

He said the norm in his upbringing was “Church on Sunday. Bingo on Monday. Footy – and you followed Souths, Balmain or Newtown.”

“And you went to the Labor party branch on the second Wednesday of every month. It was what you did. It was what bound together that community.”

Albanese pitched Labor’s new climate policy, of a 43% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, as a “sensible policy” and “an example of using government as a unified force for good”.

Reaching out to faiths - but how adeptly? Labor leader Anthony Albanese gives an interview on 9 December. Photo: International Transport Forum/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Reaching out to faiths – but how adeptly? Labor leader Anthony Albanese gives an interview on 9 December. Photo:
International Transport Forum/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“At its heart is the element contained within the teachings of so many faiths.”

Participants also heard brief lectures from Western Sydney University academics and Rabbi Ben Elton of Sydney’s Great Synagogue, and were gathered into small groups with the MPs for further discussion and networking.

Labor, learning from its 2019 defeat, is pitching to religious voters based on the overlap between the great faiths and shopworn Labor themes like service provision, social justice and environmentalism.

Albanese was able to marshal a range of citations from ancient and contemporary religious sources to support his climate pitch. He quoted from Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, the Jewish Talmud, and Ecumenical Patriarch Barthomew of the Orthodox Church, sometimes called the “green Patriarch”.

He also said Muhammad “was known to be eco-friendly: recycling, planting trees and caring for the land”.

“Indeed, climate change may well have been the only issue Labor could pitch to religious leaders in public without suffering blowback from its new base of tertiary educated professionals.”

The Opposition Leader called for a “grassroots mobilisation” of religious Australians for the environment – but one wonders whether Labor, which self-destructed over climate change during its last term in government, is hoping clerical support might shore up its damaged authority on the issue among Western Sydney voters.

Certainly the party needs all the help it can get to sell climate action to a skeptical electorate, which remembers a decade of chaos in the wake of the “carbon tax”.

The summit was more of an exercise in bridging the worlds of elite opinion – NGOs and activists on the one side, and clergy on the other – than the start of a mass movement.

Indeed, climate change may well have been the only issue Labor could pitch to religious leaders in public without suffering blowback from its new base of tertiary educated professionals.

Since the same-sex marriage plebiscite activists are looking for any opportunity to punish the major parties for backsliding on “moral” issues.

Labor has in consequence been loath to get involved too deeply in the religious freedom question; certainly no questions were asked on the topic during the climate summit.

Albanese pitched Labor’s new climate policy, of a 43% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, as a “sensible policy” and “an example of using government as a unified force for good”.. Photo: CNS/Siphiwe Sibeko, Reuters
Albanese pitched Labor’s new climate policy, of a 43% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, as a “sensible policy” and “an example of using government as a unified force for good”.. Photo: CNS/Siphiwe Sibeko, Reuters

Labor’s 2019 review found that low-income outer-suburban voters, Chinese Australians and “devout, first-generation migrant Christians” were a cause of some of the most vicious swings against the party.

The same-sex plebiscite only widened the gulf between outer suburban and inner city constituencies. Twenty minutes in the car from Bankstown to Marrickville, in Albo’s seat of Grayndler, sees the vote in favour of same-sex marriage rise from 26.1% to 79.9%.

So it is hardly a surprise that Labor comes across as selfconscious when pitching to religious voters, insofar as it is speaking to a constituency from which it is increasingly alienated.

After religious communities closed ranks in the wake of the same-sex marriage plebiscite and shifted onto a religious freedom footing, Labor is also looking to rebuild its own bloc of religious “friendlies”.

Yet for an event hosting the heavyweights of the NSW Right there were surprisingly few clergy in attendance of comparable seniority.

“These omissions, along with a host of awkward phrases, mispronunciations and self-deprecating remarks, showed that Labor’s overall religious literacy really has declined in recent years.”

Newly-ordained Greek Orthodox Bishop Bartholomew of Charioupolis was the only Bishop present, although three Catholic Bishops sent representatives, as did the National Imams Council.

And despite a lengthy “Welcome to Country” and plaudits for the Labor MPs present, there was no prayer, and no formal introduction of the clergy and representatives present.

Every speaker gave their own acknowledgment of Australia’s First Nations, but the clergy who had made the journey to Liverpool to attend went unacknowledged.

These omissions, along with a host of awkward phrases, mispronunciations and self-deprecating remarks, showed that Labor’s overall religious literacy really has declined in recent years.

Since the 2019 election Labor has privately consulted with representatives of the major faiths, but does not seem to have received the message that in the current cultural status quo, religious freedom is fast becoming a precondition for authentic religious social teaching.

Without it, faith voters, their communities and their clergy become mere deputies of government and not partners in promoting the common good, whether on climate change or any other policy issue.