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Kristina Keneally's rational Catholic conscience

By Tony Smith - posted Monday, 25 October 2010

New South Wales state election next March looks certain to end the 15 year reign of the Labor Government. Many MPs will lose their seats because voters have become disillusioned with Labor's broken promises, policy failures, unprincipled ministerial behaviour and instability.

Paradoxically, while Labor's popularity has declined, the personal standing of Premier Kristina Keneally has grown. But this apparent inconsistency in public approval is not the only complexity about Premier Keneally. While Australia's Labor Prime Minister embraces atheism and the federal opposition boasts a number of Catholics, Keneally's faith makes an interesting study.

Traditionally, Catholic-Labor links have been so strong that wits described the Church as 'the Labor Party at prayer'. Catholics in a distinctly Irish republican culture who felt socially powerless tended to vote Labor while protestants supported anti-Labor parties.


Over the last 50 years however, religion and politics have changed radically. The sectarian divide has weakened and political scientists have noted newer links between religious and political behaviour.

Marion Maddox has noted the opportunistic way that the federal Coalition exploited the rise of the "megachurch" such as Hillsong, whose conservatism mimics American fundamentalism. Gary Bouma has argued that as the state manages conflicts, attention is moving from inter-Christian sectarianism to relations between majority religions and the fastest growing, such as Islam and Hinduism.

In a secular, postmodern, multi-faith society, some religious stances appeal more because they are committed to mutual respect and tolerance.

Some politicians, and not just those of the Fred Nile Christian Democrats, project images of an arcane, wowserish Christianity. In considering constitutional reform and in demanding greater assimilation of migrants, the Coalition Government (1996-2007) regarded Christianity as central to Australian values, and the current Federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott shows great enthusiasm for Catholic orthodoxy.

By contrast Premier Keneally represents a growingly assertive Catholicism which might be described as progressive, rational and independent.

Keneally has stated plainly her belief that Catholic women should not be excluded from ordination. This potentially brings her into conflict with the Vatican and the Australian Catholic bishops.


In explaining her decision to support a bill to remove anomalies from the Adoption Act so that same sex couples would be eligible to adopt, Keneally noted the importance of allowing all MPs a "conscience vote". She described how her conscience was informed by Catholic teaching about the "primacy" of conscience and the importance of actively developing the conscience.

These specific stances on women's ordination and same sex adoption and the more general principle of the importance of conscience are courageous. When the issue of same sex marriage was raised during the recent federal election campaign, both Prime Minister Gillard and Opposition Leader Abbott subjugated their personal positions to a vaguely understood general social expectation.

When Keneally became premier, her opponents and sections of the media accused her of being a puppet. They argued that she had been installed by Labor factional power brokers as a premier they could easily manipulate. Keneally denied she was subject to undue influence and said she would be her "own woman".

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This article was first publish in Eureka Street on October 15, 2010.

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About the Author

Dr Tony Smith is a writer living in country New South Wales. He holds a PhD in political science and has had articles and reviews published in various newspapers, periodicals and journals. He contributed a poem 'Evil equations' to an anthology of anti-war poems delivered to the Prime Minister on the eve of war.

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