Journalists consider Pell political influence

The Australian Financial Review today publishes a feature in which two of its political writers analyse the influence on the nations politicians of Sydney's Cardinal George Pell, whom they call "Australia's most powerful churchman".

The article, written by Laura Tingle and Morgan Mellish, quotes Cardinal Pell's assertion that he has time for politicians from both sides of politics.

"I talk to a lot of people in the Labor Party. I don't want it to be suggested for a minute that I only talk to Liberal Party politicians," he told the Financial Review.

The feature mentions that former Labor leader Mark Latham paid a visit to Cardinal Pell before last October's federal election.

"He came to see me about what he was doing, and his hopes and ambitions, and church and state and all those things," Pell said. "There's nothing unusual in him doing that. It would have been somewhat unusual if he hadn't."

The feature says that while Latham's visit went unnoticed, a meeting with senior Coalition minister and devout Catholic Tony Abbott, did not. For several days during the campaign, controversy raged after the ABC revealed that Abbott met Pell before the cardinal publicly criticised Labor's education policy. Many, including Latham, alleged the powerful frontbencher and possible future prime minister must have encouraged the cardinal to attack the opposition.

The paper says that while there's no doubt Pell has developed close relations with Prime Minister John Howard's administration, his contacts on the Labor side of politics are also strong. It said he talks with a number of senior party figures, including Opposition Leader Kim Beazley, NSW Premier Bob Carr and Victorian Premier Steve Bracks, a former parishioner from the cardinal's days in Ballarat. He also has connections with the party's dominant NSW Right faction, which has traditionally produced Catholic leaders such as former powerbroker Johnno Johnson, who sits on the board of The Catholic Weekly.

Assessing the Church's influence on the political process, the article says that Abbott has managed to bring abortion back onto the agenda, and the cardinal has helped "stiffen the government's resolve in the debate over access to IVF fertility treatments by lesbian couples".

It says Pell has also done well in one of his key areas of interest, education. He helped secure from the Prime Minister public funding and subsidised student places for a new Sydney campus of the Catholic, privately run Notre Dame University in Perth. This was despite protests from the vice-chancellors of public universities, who argued Howard should not fund a private university when public ones were so strapped for cash.

The article quotes "church insiders" as saying that while he is represented in Canberra by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, he prefers to "do his own lobbying".

It notes that his lobbying has suffered a few "notable losses", such as the imposition of the GST, the Iraq War, and stem cells.

Pell's angels of influence (Financial Review 17/5/05 - purchase required)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Archdiocese of Sydney

Liberals say Abbott will pay for commitment to faith before politics (CathNews 8/11/04)

17 May 2005