Religion and Politics in Australia

The separation of Church and State is the basis on which Australia builds its relationship between religion and politics. This doesn’t mean that our religious beliefs and practices are not allowed to have influence and impact in the public life of our country. This article sets out how religion and politics relate in a country which accepts that there should be a separation of Church and State.

In Australia, the State accepts that religious groups and their members have the same rights as other interest groups to push for policy developments in accord with their values and interests. It also accepts that the State does not have a legitimate role in using its power to enforce religious observance or to interfere in the internal affairs of a religious group. The State does nevertheless have a legitimate role in preventing religious groups from undertaking activities which damage the rights of people outside the group, or violate and abuse the fundamental human dignity of their own members. The Commissions of Inquiry into Child sexual Abuse in religious institutions are examples of such interventions.

In short, the State does not get involved directly in religious affairs, and is not directly anti-religious in the way it acts. It may be officially indifferent to religion, but in fact it assists in various ways the educational, health or social services provided by religious groups. It does this in much the same way as it offers help to non-religious community organisations seeking to meet the special needs of disadvantaged groups within the wider community.

Governors and governments from the beginning of European settlement funded religious activities: the salaries of chaplains to work with convicts; grants for religious schools prior to the introduction of the state, secular schooling systems; and financial assistance for the construction of church buildings. This was because Australia has generally seen religion as an asset and a resource with a double role: that of building-up cultural, social and spiritual capital on the one hand, and playing a counter-cultural critiquing of Australian society’s spiritual and social ills on the other.

“Social capital is about the value of social networks, bonding similar people and bridging between diverse people, with norms of reciprocity”. Underlying all this is a commitment to the common good as expressed in the term adopted in the Australian Constitution Act 2001 for the Australian Federation – the Commonwealth of Australia. “Commonwealth is a traditional English term for a political community founded for the common good.” A commitment to the common good is one of the core values underlying the social cohesion of Australian society and one which religious groups in Australia have consistently tried to nourish.

Religious groups are free to argue their case for laws which they believe will enhance the common good. They are not free to impose those views on others against the wishes of the community.


1: Frances O'Kane, A Path is Set: The Catholic Church in the Port Phillip District and Victoria 1839-1862, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1976, 7.

[2] Tristan Claridge, Social Capital Research at, accessed 3 Aug 2010.

[3] "Commonwealth" in Wikipedia, at, accessed 28 May 2011, quoting from the Oxford English Dictionary (, 1989, 2nd ed., v-iyV0EE-153&hilite=50045157&queryword=commonwealth&first=1&max_to_show=10&sort_type=alpha&result_place=1&search_id=Hr0v-iyV0EE-153&hilite=50045157; Harrower, Religious Policy (2009), 241-242.

[4] Thomas Keneally, "Eureka and the Common Good: a Federation Centenary Reflection", in A Fair Society? Common Wealth for the Common Good: Ten Years On, Sydney: The Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, (2002), 9-10. The articles in the booklet call for a recommitment from Australians to this basic value. See also Harrower Religious Policy (2009), 241-242.

© Frank Purcell, Shepparton Interfaith Network


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