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. Yet no one bothers to write that Labor's new leader is 'of Catholic background', even though Bill Shorten, like Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne and Barnaby Joyce, is Jesuit-educated and, like the others, acknowledges this fact from time to time.
It may be that the press gallery sees no significance in Shorten's 'Catholic background' because he supports same-sex marriage and perhaps also some other things that bishops don't like. Is the gallery's view that his 'background' somehow didn't 'take'? If it is, that won't do either. Malcolm Turnbull, who although not 'of Catholic background' is certainly a Catholic (he is a convert), also supports same-sex marriage. The truth is that these days even being a practising Catholic, rather than the nebulous 'of Catholic background', conveys nothing about the course a politician will choose on issues of conscience.
So what, if anything, does the historic shift that Wade reports really mean? It tells us something about the success of Catholic schools, which over several generations have transformed the socio-economic status of Catholics in this country. In that sense, the vague 'of Catholic background' label is probably appropriate, for it was the increased affluence that Catholics attained through education, rather than the sectarian nature of the 1950s split, that really dissolved the ties that once bound the church so closely to Labor politics.
Catholic schools do not, however, purport to measure their achievements chiefly by the number of highly-paid professionals among their alumni. They strive to inculcate an ethical perspective informed by Catholic teaching. How that goal is understood and imparted has changed enormously in the decades since Vatican II, and mostly for the better. Those who remember the intellectual narrowness - and in some instances the blatantly partisan politics - of schools in the preconciliar church will not mourn the passing of that era. It is reasonable to ask, though, whether being 'of Catholic background' still 'takes' as much as those who teach in the schools might hope.
I am not referring to issues such as same-sex marriage, which a pluralist society ought to be able to accommodate alongside traditional understandings. If some Catholic politicians do not feel constrained to heed the advice of bishops on upholding existing marriage law, it is a sign of maturity, not of the imminent collapse of traditional marriage. There are other issues, however, on rivwhich a gulf separates anything resembling Catholic teaching from the stance taken by politicians 'of Catholic background' in both major parties.
In the recent federal election, that was glaringly the case with the policies Labor and the Coalition adopted on asylum seekers. Since boat arrivals became a matter of political contention in Australia more than two decades ago, every level of the official church - the popes, the Australian bishops, refugee agencies - has condemned the political manipulation of xenophobia and urged Catholics to welcome those fleeing from persecution. Catholic schools have certainly echoed those calls, as the criticism of the Coalition's asylum-seeker policies by students at St Ignatius College, Riverview, eloquently testified. If politicians 'of Catholic background' felt shamed by such criticisms, however, they gave no sign.
When they were at school, they must have been taught what the Riverview students are evidently still taught. Why didn't it 'take'?