Tanya Plibersek talks up Labor’s Catholic ties in pre-election pitch to faith voters

Senior Labor frontbencher and leading progressive Tanya Plibersek has described her Catholic upbringing as an influential force on her politics and said the party’s religious roots in social justice will guide a Labor government.

In a speech that sought to position Labor as a safe option for faith voters, Ms Plibersek said a long line of Catholics had shaped the party over generations and the party would fight the next election on the principles of social justice embodied by Jesus and Pope Francis.

Senior Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek has given a speech emphasising Labor’s Catholic social justice roots and said the party will fight the upcoming election on the principles of economic justice. Credit:Jessica Hromas

“Economic justice has always been Labor’s mission and it’s no coincidence that Catholic social teaching played an outsized role in our party’s history,” Ms Plibersek said in a lecture commemorating Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix in Melbourne on Wednesday night.

“Economic justice is what we’ll be fighting for in the next eight weeks.”

Drawing on her Catholic upbringing, Ms Plibersek said her parents were “devout believers” and she went to confession every week as a child, saying the church’s teachings had shaped her sense of right and wrong.

“There is no doubt in my mind that growing up Catholic has influenced my politics, as it has for so many in the Labor Party and the labour movement.”

She said social justice principles were what “Christ taught his disciples. It’s what Pope Francis teaches us today. It’s what motivates me. And I know it’s what motivates our leader, Anthony Albanese”.

“The fight for economic and social justice is what motivates the next Labor government.”

The speech forms part of a broader attempt by Labor to restore ties with faith communities after its shock election defeat in 2019, which was in part attributed to a loss of support among some Christian groups and economically insecure, low-income voters.

Ms Plibersek, the MP for Sydney, Labor’s education spokeswoman and a leading figure in the party’s Left faction, has spoken in the past about her Catholic roots. But she is better known as an outspoken advocate of the types of progressive policies – such as same-sex marriage, abortion rights and strong action on climate change – that are popular among inner-city voters but have fractured the party’s traditional vote in heartland seats.

Ahead of the 2019 election, Ms Plibersek spearheaded the party’s sexual and reproductive health strategy, the central pillar of which was making access to abortion pill RU486 and contraception more affordable. The policy was cited in Labor’s 2019 election review as one of the issues that was harnessed by conservative groups to peel Christian voters away from the party.

“Announcing Labor’s sexual and reproductive health strategy 10 weeks from the election enabled conservative groups to target Christian voters in marginal electorates around the country, and in traditionally safe Labor seats in western Sydney,” the review found

Mr Albanese has steered clear of such policies this time around, instead pitching himself as a prime minister who would govern from the centre.

“Labor is the party of mainstream Australia,” Mr Albanese told the Daily Telegraph this week, where he answered questions on a slew of so-called hot button progressive issues. Asked whether men could have babies, he said “no” and described Captain Cook as a “world-changer”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has repeatedly cited his faith as a guiding force in his life, and famously invited the media into his Pentecostal Church mid-worship during the 2019 campaign. He has also sought to repair relations with faith communities after the government shelved its religious discrimination bill last month. In an address to a Lebanese Maronite Catholic Church service in the marginal seat of Adelaide seat of Boothby in February, he said he was “devastated” at the outcome but did not regret the attempt.

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