Which party do Catholics support?

Pollytics blog today reports on an Essential Research survey on religion and party affiliation. It finds that the religious divide in Australian politics, with Catholics tending to favour Labor, and Protestants tending to favour the Coalition, remains alive. According to this survey, 50% of Catholics support Labor and only 29% support the Coalition.

Other surveys, however, find that among Catholics the Coalition has been catching up on Labor. The chart below tracks 40 years of data using the party id (”think of yourself as Labor, Liberal…etc”) question rather than which party the respondent supports at the current time. Pollytics says that Essential’s question was which party the respondent felt “closest to”, but perhaps this is building in too much of the Rudd bubble.

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Sources: 1967*, 1979, Australian National Political Attitudes Survey; 1987-2007 Australian Election Survey.

Realignment of Catholic support towards the Coalition is what I would expect given other social and political trends. Religion was a major fault line in Australian society when the two-party system was formed, and this was reflected in party support. I haven’t re-read it recently, but Judy Brett’s history of the Liberals has a very good account of this.

Brett argues that anti-Catholicism amongst Protestant Liberals limited their party’s appeal to Catholics. This faded with the decline of the religious divide in Australia, but party loyalties are often formed early and experiences of early adulthood can influence voting for many decades.

These days, many younger people don’t even know that there was a major Catholic-Protestant split in Australian society, or regard it as an irrelvant historical fact, so their religion is likely to affect their politics in other ways. As the Labor Party these days is probably more distant from the cultural-moral teachings of the Catholic Church than the Coalition, it would not be surprising if there was a Catholic drift away from Labor.

*In 1967, Labor had 44.3% support among Catholics, and the Democratic Labor Party 9.9%. Combining the two is problematic electorally, given DLP preference flows, but I think reflects the underlying Catholic allegiance to Labor parties.

13 thoughts on “Which party do Catholics support?

  1. “As the Labor Party these days is probably more distant from the cultural-moral teachings of the Catholic Church than the Coalition” – Depends which teachings, I would argue that most (but not all) of Catholic Social Teaching is more in line with Labor policies.

    Interesting – From the graph, I wonder what explains the upwards trend in Catholic support for Labor/DLP during the late 70s and 80s? Also, note how the Howard era had a relatively small impact on Catholic support, it rose a little but it wasn’t a big shift.

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  2. Krystian – Overall, I can certainly see, in a historical perspective, why Catholics would find Labor more appealing – indeed, left-wing philosophies are perfect for people who find authoritarian, top-down organisations appealing:) Despite the best rationalising efforts of Catholic classical liberals, I think the Catholic Church is left-leaning on economic issues (with an exception for its own massive real estate wealth, of course). However on cultural and sexual issues the Catholic Church is a very poor fit with the ‘progressive’ attitudes of left-leaning parties. Abortion, gay marriage, anti-discrimination law etc all put progressives and Catholic doctrine miles apart. In practice the Liberals end up going along with most of these changes, but they are not the enthusiasts for it that many in Labor are.

    Not sure about what happened 1979-1987 – though there could be something of an artificial dip with residual DLP support lost in the ‘other party’ category.

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  3. Yes, but I think Catholic doctrine and the profile of Catholics in general are two different things – I think many people who identify as Catholics wouldn’t go along with all Catholic teachings (I think this is particularly the case with the teachings about sexual issues), especially in the last 20-30 years. These surveys don’t contain any information about people’s attitudes to specific issues, but rather assume a person who identifies as Catholic accepts all Catholic teachings.

    “I can certainly see, in a historical perspective, why Catholics would find Labor more appealing – indeed, left-wing philosophies are perfect for people who find authoritarian, top-down organisations appealing” – Remember though that the Catholic Church helped bring down communism.

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  4. “Remember though that the Catholic Church helped bring down communism.”

    Yes, though as I point out to Catholic friends who are fond of this fact, it took a brutal communist dicatatorship to make the Catholic Church look like a force for freedom.

    I agree that there is widespread Catholic disobedience on sexual matters. So what do you think has caused these trends (keeping in mind that there is a general structural shift against the Liberals over the same time period)? One contender may be a changed class position of Catholics, though I noticed in the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2007 that Catholics are still more likely to give themselves a lower class self-description than Anglicans: working class 31%/27%; lower middle class 32%/29%. Though the differences are fairly small.

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  5. I expect the Catholic population (along with Anglican) is ageing rapidly and there is usually a drift to the conservative side of politics as people age. Possibly because what is considered conservative has shifted to where they are.

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  6. The Irish Catholic working class is not what it was. The working class is now a mix of cultures, ethnicities and religions, while Catholics as a group have moved up the social and economic ladder. You would expect then Catholics as a group to be more conservative politically.

    And of course the Labor Party itself is not the bastion of Catholicism that it once was. How many Catholics are there in Kevin Rudd’s Cabinet?

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  7. The Catholics from families who have been in Australia for many generations — most of them originally of Irish or Italian descent — may indeed have moved up the social and economic ladder — generally speaking, and on average.
    But their places at the “lower end” of the ladder have been filled by plenty of more recent arrivals from the Philippines, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, India, Vietnam.
    It also seems like the collapse of faith in the last three generations has been more pronounced among the “old” socially established Anglo-Irish Catholics than among more recent arrivals. Compare on old, well-established parish like St. James Gardenvale (Brighton), where if you arrive five minutes late for Sunday Mass you will usually have no trouble choosing your seat amongst an overwhelmingly middle-aged Anglo congregation, with a much poorer outer suburb like North Dandenong or Doveton, where it is already standing-room only five minutes before Mass is due to start, and the church is a sea of Asian faces, many of them children.
    If — and it’s a big if — you assume that voting behavior is driven by economic interests, then perhaps the growing number of poorer, Labor-oriented immigrant Catholics who practice their faith is counteracting the declining population of Coalition-leaning “old Catholics”.
    It would be interesting to see if the figures could be broken down more precisely by what sort of Catholics the respondents are: rich or poor, Anglo or immigrant; a weekly Mass-going Catholic or a “once or twice a year” cultural Catholic; a Latin Mass-lover or a member of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (for the uninitiated, they’re the ones who like to speak in tongues like some Protestants do); an ardent pro-lifer or a “social justice” Catholic.
    But I suspect that no secular social researcher is ever going to ask the right questions to pick up these actually quite pronounced intra-Catholic differences!

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  8. Alan – Interesting, thanks. Your data requests exceed my time and in some cases the data sources, but the 2007 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes finds:

    Australian born Catholics: Coalition 39%, Labor 40%.

    Overseas born Catholics: Coalition 30%, Labor 43%.

    So your theory is looking pretty good.

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  9. “So what do you think has caused these trends (keeping in mind that there is a general structural shift against the Liberals over the same time period)?” – I think that the Essential Research findings may not be so intuitively implausible as you think, given my logic.

    “Yes, though as I point out to Catholic friends who are fond of this fact, it took a brutal communist dicatatorship to make the Catholic Church look like a force for freedom.” – Well, but it didn’t just look like one, it was a force for freedom. And in the end, look what it took for the US to get involved in WW2 – Does that mean that the US was any less committed to freedom?

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  10. The ALP has never been as universally committed to progressive social policy as it has been to leftish economic policy. There’s long been a socially-conservative constituency, within the parliamentary party, the wider membership and the voting base, and this is strongly associated with the Catholic proportion of the membership.

    So from where I sit, it’s hard to see which way the causality runs here – are less Catholics supporting the ALP because it’s become more supportive of progressive social policy, or is the ALP more supportive of progressive social policy because there are less socially-conservative Catholics among the membership?

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  11. Krystian – My point wasn’t that the Catholic Church was not a force for freedom in central Europe in the 1980s, but rather that it has only been a force for freedom when the status quo is tryanny. Usually, it resists expansion of social or economic freedom.

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