AUSTRALIA’S youngest sworn Federal Cabinet Minister is glad he never fell to the Communists.
Matthew Canavan was 17 and finishing high school at Chisholm Catholic College, Cornubia, when he flirted with the idea of being a Communist.
He was already a member of Edmund Rice Camps, a ministry started by the Christian Brothers, despite clinging to Karl Marx’s adage that religion was the opium of the masses.
Born to a Catholic Irish dad and Catholic Italian mum in Logan, the Queensland senator’s romantic Marxist days were over when he met a bunch of crazy communist students on his first day at the University of Queensland.
“That’s literally what happened,” he said.
“I spoke to them on the first day of uni and thought, ‘These guys are mad’.”
But the story of how this former religion-loathing student who has come to be known as one of Australia’s most prominent political conservatives – and a Catholic one to boot – starts with a beautiful woman.
During his university days studying Economics and Arts, Matthew met Andrea, another volunteer for Edmund Rice Camps.
The pair fell in love and began preparing for a lifetime commitment through marriage.
“And really when I rediscovered my faith was getting married and thinking about what that means,” he said.
“We got married in the (Catholic) Church and you had to have those interviews with a priest …”
The process of preparing seriously for the Sacrament of Matrimony and the subsequent birth of the couple’s first child got Matthew thinking.
“It wasn’t like a light went off and I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve got to go to Mass every weekend’, I just got more thinking about what Catholicism means and why it does connect you to the real world, what marriage means, having children …,” he said.
His mere thoughts sprang into a personal recommitment to the Catholic faith, and it was in the nick of time.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott had just been named leader of the Liberal Party.
“By that stage of my life, after having kids, I’d considered myself socially conservative and re-found my faith after getting married, and so I kind of liked Tony Abbott (a Catholic),” he said.
“I remember emailing a mate saying if they made Tony leader, I’ll apply for a job with him.
“We all sort of laughed (saying) they won’t make Tony Abbott leader; that’s not going to happen.
“Anyway, he was made leader, so I thought, well, this is a sign from God, so I’d better do it.”
Mr Abbott wasn’t in need of an economist, but then Shadow Finance Minister Barnaby Joyce, also from an economics background, had an opening for a chief of staff.
Senator Canavan worked the job for four months before Mr Abbott demoted Mr Joyce from office.
The political newcomer stayed in the role he had held under Mr Joyce and eventually joined the Nationals, which he refers to as “a real family party”.
He got his next big break in politics when Senator Ron Boswell retired and he was approached to try for senator.
“I initially baulked,” he said.
“I thought I’ve got a young family (and) that’s a big commitment. But I thought, ‘What have I got to lose – I’ll give it a go.”
Senator Canavan and his family of boisterous young boys moved to Toowoomba for pre-selection.
To his surprise, he won that first pre-selection for “Bozzie’s” spot and was named a senator for Queensland in 2013.
He was officially re-elected into his second term in the Senate last month following the federal election of 2016, and named Minister for Resources and Northern Queensland.
One week before his Senate role became official, Matthew, who now lives in Yeppoon, was in Brisbane to launch a book on the same topic that brought him back to the faith – marriage.
While personally in favour of traditional marriage, he said when defending his position, he barely relied on religion.
“Its origins are not religious or Christian or Judaic, they were Roman and a pagan society had this concept about marriage,” he said.
“Christianity and Judaism share a similar concept about marriage to those societies but there’s more that unites us about the general ideas of marriage than what divides us about believing in God or the afterlife or sin.”
To those who deride upholding traditional or religious practices, Senator Canavan also has some advice.
“I think this is almost the crux of this debate about traditional marriage and other broader issues, and it should be important for people of a non-religious background as well, that we are a secular society, we do have a secular constitution, but one of the fundamental elements of that is a protection of freedom of religion and belief,” he said.
“We should want to promote a society that can accept other people having different views on a concept as fundamental, traditional, cultural as marriage, while still deciding in a respectful way what the law should say about those institutions.
“So what should we do? We need to fight to keep those protections.
“As I say it’s not just a job in my view for religious people, it’s a job for us all.”
While he’s copped a fist of criticism and hate for his views, the 35-year-old father of four sons, with another baby due in December – possibly another son – is in no way fazed.
“The funny thing is in public life, I’ve become more assertive and confident about expressing my religious views in this role than when I was before,” he said.
“Because my professional career was an economist, my faith didn’t really manifest itself in a professional environment – it was something personal, it was my family, God and I.
“Whereas in this role, I obviously am sometimes brought into debates in the public forum that touch on faith-based issues or go to your fundamental beliefs about the world which for me are inherently mixed up with the faith I have.
“So it’s given me more confidence to speak about these things and not withstanding that yes on the ABC or certain forms of media they don’t really respect those sorts of views, but I don’t really care about that.
“I don’t really care what other people think about me.
“I agree that yes our society is becoming more secular – it’s a challenge for those of us who share a faith but it doesn’t cancel my confidence at all. I’m still willing to stand up for what I believe in.
“I hope to think that I have pretty thick skin going into this game.”
A lot of that thick skin comes from the graces of prayer.
He’s found life as a senator has given him more opportunities to study and ponder on Scripture.
“I wasn’t a particularly close reader of the Bible,” he said.
“I used to joke that it was because I was a Catholic, the Bible is important but listen to what the Pope says.
“But thanks to modern technology, you can be prompted every day to read a section of the Bible, which I am.”
His favourite Bible verse is constantly at the back of his mind when speaking up in parliament.
“My favourite bible verse is Matthew 7:1, ‘Don’t judge others as you will be judged. What you use against them will be used against you’,” he said.
“And particularly in this game when you are necessarily always judging other political parties, other people, criticising them, it’s a good one to try to keep you a little bit grounded at times and pull back your rhetoric in a more respectful way.”
But it’s the prayers of the faithful that’s really giving him top scores in the political game.
“I’m always humbled and touched when people come up to me and say, ‘I’m praying for you’,” he said.
“It does give you great strength and makes you very humble that there are actually people out there thinking about you and doing something in a very personal private way by praying for you.
“That does give me a lot of strength.”
By Emilie Ng