Rare is the occasion when an Australian is scrutinized in Serbia. Generally we are able to go about our business with only a raised eyebrow or friendly cry of ‘My cousin lives in Sydney!’ My research trip, however, seems to have been perfectly timed to match two events that threw Australia into the Serbian public sphere. The first was the rather unfortunate defeat of Serbia at the hands of Australia’s ‘Socceroos’ in the world cup, which drew several unpleasant remarks in cafes (and at the archive). The second was the swearing-in of Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

On June 24th, 2010, in a desperate attempt by the Australian Labour Party (ALP) to reverse its drop in popularity, Julia Gillard replaced party leader Kevin Rudd. Rudd, once the saviour of the ALP, had in the past year become its greatest liability, with opinion polls showing a growing number of Australians considering him ‘gutless’. With an election looming at the end of this year the party needed a new face. Gillard challenged Rudd and won, assuming both the leadership of the party and the position of Prime Minister of Australia.

Since then, the Australian press has been at pains to emphasise the vast difference between the current and former Prime Ministers, and religion quickly became a key theme. Days after she was sworn in, Gillard became the focus of a would-be scandal in the Australian press when during a radio interview she revealed that she did not believe in God and had no intention of participating in religious rituals to win over voters.  The difference with Rudd could not have been more stark.

During his tenure as Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd was quite vocal about his own faith, attending church services, and frequently writing about the role of the church in political life. In an article in The Monthly  in October 2006, a year before his landslide electoral victory, Rudd castigated the ardent secularism of Australian political life:

A Christian perspective, informed by a social gospel or Christian socialist tradition, should not be rejected contemptuously by secular politicians as if these views are an unwelcome intrusion into the political sphere. If the churches are barred from participating in the great debates about the values that ultimately underpin our society, our economy and our polity, then we have reached a very strange place indeed.

Rudd was trying to tackle the strong anti-religious sentiment in Australian politics, particularly amongst the left, that sees the influence of the church as a kind of impurity or infection, similar to that identified by Sarah Shortall in regard to France. While in France this can be attributed to the discourse of Republicanism, in Australia it is linked much more to fears of  our political culture becoming ‘Americanized’. To think religion and politics in Australia conjures up the image of populist TV demagogues cynically whipping up religious ferment to buy votes or sell used cars. In many ways, the anti-religious strand in Australian political culture is an opposition to politics becoming a kind of fashion show where beliefs and principles are exchanged according to the latest trend.

For this reason, although some in the Australian press have argued that Gillard’s atheism will cost her votes, it is more than likely that it will strike a chord with voters. Gillard’s lack of faith is not unique in the history of Australian politics, and particularly not in Labour Party history. Almost all of the post-war leaders of the ALP have been out right atheists. However, Gillard seems to have taken her atheism one step further than her predecessors. When past Labour Prime Ministers were sworn-in they kept up with tradition and took their oaths, swearing on the bible. Gillard appears to be the first to refuse the good book. Far from being a handicap, in the context of Australian politics this may actually be a strength. As an article in the Sydney Morning Herald recently noted, for many Australians it is not religion that counts, but belief. Conviction is what is important. Cast in this light, Gillard’s atheism is the flip side of Rudd’s overt faith. Both are opposed to the cynical manipulation of religion in politics which is seen to be part of American political culture. For Rudd, this meant claiming a continuity between Christian faith and social democracy, for Gillard it means renouncing even the most hollow of religious gestures.

If Rudd and Gillard’s beliefs are two sides of the same coin, it begs the question: what is the currency in which they are dealing? Terms like ‘conviction’ and ‘belief’ come with a heavy theological baggage in tow but it is a stretch to claim the whole phenomena solely for religion. In my own research, belief, conviction and faith are all emerging as central components in communist thought, and I’ll post in the future about the way in which belief is operating in some of the primary sources I’m examining. But the case of Rudd and Gillard is a nice reminder that this theological baggage is not limited to the radical political movements of the 20th century or to feudal monarchies, it is alive and well in contemporary parliamentary politics.