Does Perrottet’s religion matter?

Mark Stephens takes a step back from the furore around the Catholicism of NSW's new premier, and considers the place of faith in politics.

It was a British PM who purportedly coined the truism: A week is a long time in politics. But in the last week, NSW has tried to own that sentiment.

The sudden resignation of both the Premier and her deputy led to hasty evaluations of their potential replacements. And when it came to the job of Premier, both of the candidates were summarised by their religion.

In yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald, the Reverend Stephanie Dowrick argued that the newly installed Dominic Perrottet should not be successful precisely because he was a conservative Catholic. Irrespective of our own feelings toward Perrottet, Dowrick’s argument signalled something important, yet strange, in the cultural zeitgeist about religion and politics.

For many, there is an instinctual dread of theocracy. And the gut-level intuition is that a publicly religious politician will impose faith (and morality) on a non-religious populace. That fear then provokes an equal and opposite reaction. If someone is overly religious, they should be excluded.

What is strange in all of this is that both theocracy and its counterpoint violate the spirit of Australia’s secular polity. The whole point of Australian government, enshrined within our constitution, is that we don’t place a religious test upon our leaders. Atheist, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Jew – they’re all welcome at the leadership table.

The real test of our leaders is whether their deepest convictions can contribute to the common good. Which means asking how they will serve and bless those with whom they disagree. In a multi-cultural, multi-faith world, mutual benefit relies on a commitment for all to flourish without requiring uniformity.