Coalition celebrates a religious Easter

Catholics are in power this Easter, with the highest proportion of ministers of that faith occupying senior positions in a Coalition government.

Of the 19 cabinet ministers, at least eight are Catholics, nearly double the proportion of Catholics in the general population.

The Prime Minister Tony Abbott as well as his Treasurer, finance, trade, communications, education, agriculture and social services ministers are Catholics and at least four others belong to other Christian denominations.

Asked about their Easter plans, half the Abbott cabinet confirmed they would be attending church. And while almost a quarter of the country's population ticked ''no religion'' in the 2011 census, nobody in the Coalition cabinet would admit to being an atheist.

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, a Catholic who plans to attend four church services over the weekend, said: ''I'm no saint but I try to go to all the services that are part of the Easter ritual.''

The Catholicisation of the Coalition has been a trend in Australia over the past several decades, said John Warhurst, an expert in religion and politics at the Australian National University.

Asked whether the Abbott government was the most powerful coalition of Catholics assembled in Australia, Professor Warhurst said: ''I don't think there's any doubt about it. Many of the same [Catholic ministers] were in the Howard cabinet . . . but they didn't enjoy the level of influence they have now.''

Members of Parliament tend to be more religious than the general population, says Professor Warhurst, adding that while it was ''probably a controversial point'', he believed public service was more highly valued by those with a religious upbringing.

Professor Warhurst says the migration of Catholics from the Labor Party to the Democratic Labor Party and then to the Liberals happened for social and economic reasons. Catholics have become wealthier, he says, and Labor more secular, making it less appealing for socially conservative voters.

Another expert, Roy Williams, said at one stage during the prime ministership of Robert Menzies there was only one Catholic Liberal member in the House of Representatives. The most striking example of the trend was during the 2009 Liberal leadership contest, in which all three contenders - Mr Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey - consulted with Jesuit priests.

But it is difficult to trace the public policy impact of having so many Catholic ministers at the highest level of this Coalition government.

''On some issues, it's probably made the Liberal Party more conservative,'' Professor Warhurst said, citing issues such as same-sex marriage and opposition to euthanasia.

He said, however, that if Mr Turnbull had won the 2009 leadership ballot, Australia would likely have a Catholic prime minister who supported same-sex marriage.

''It'd be an interesting sociological study,'' said Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews, who advocates socially conservative policies.

''For me, it's always a matter of trying to balance the economic prosperity of the nation and the market economy … with ensuring that we also provide that safety net for the most vulnerable in the community. I think that's always a tension.''

smh.com.au, with Matt Wade, Gemma Khaicy

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