Jill, Duchess of Hamilton Notebook
bstaining from Asex during Lent is seldom mentioned. But Tony Abbott, the hottest name in Australian politics, has publicly referred to his Lenten sacrifice. Since becoming leader of the Opposition here at Christmas, the rise in the polls of this former trainee priest, nicknamed “the mad monk”, has been phenomenal.
With an election at the end of the year, aspects of religion are part of Australian politics like never before. Abbott’s muscular, conservative Christianity and his explicit religious profile is a threat to the present prime minister Kevin Rudd. Rudd, a former Catholic who converted to Anglicanism on marriage, now regularly poses on Sundays for press photos with church spires in the background.
Some facets of Abbott’s conservative Catholicism, though, do not appear to be pious. He says he departed from his seminary after three years because of the strains of celibacy. When journalists pose questions on sex he doesn’t hesitate to give straightforward answers. So facets of his personal life are well known: he finds homosexuals a bit threatening; at university he thought he had fathered a child out of wedlock, although DNA testing proved otherwise; he has advised his three daughters not to give up their virginity lightly.
A former lifeguard, he is frequently photographed as a bronzed “surfie” wearing his red Speedos, an item known colloquially as “budgie smugglers”. These tight, light briefs designed for vigorous swimming are a real Aussie sporting thing. The term originates from the smuggling of wild Australian birds – and an underpants incident.
If elected as Australia’s prime minister Abbott will be the first Catholic Liberal to hold this office. Paul Keating, who was also Catholic, was Labour. The old Catholic/Protestant divide has disappeared. With 27 per cent of the population baptised Catholic, Catholics are now Australia’s largest religion, and no longer only prominent in the Labour Party.
The big question is whether 67-year-old Cardinal Pell, a supporter of Abbott, will be sent to Rome. He is an ideal candidate to take on a senior Vatican job.
Religious women are also getting a high profile. New South Wales has three religious women in the top positions of government. The state’s first female premier, Kristina Kenneally, a devout Catholic, met her husband at the World Youth Day in Poland; Sydney’s first publicly elected Lord Mayor, convent-educated Clover Moore, who is a also a member of parliament, is a lay helper at the St Francis church in Paddington, Sydney; and the Queen’s first female representative in the state the Governor, Dr Marie Bashir, is a devout Greek Orthodox. Queensland, too, has its first female premier, convent-educated Anna Bligh who nearly took up the vocation of becoming a nun.
Australia Catholic tour groups are booking places in Rome for the canonisation of Australia’s first saint, Blessed Mary MacKillop, on October 17.
Such is the excitement about her elevation that Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist, remarked on the uncritical way it had been reported. While touring Australia giving sell-out talks on atheism he implied that, as the Church relied on faith, why could a person only be a saint after two miracles? Surely, it is not the miracles, but the prayers that attest to them that are important?