Cardinal George Pell, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, held a “thank you” dinner for former Prime Minister John Howard at his official residence at Cathedral House last night.

The guest list for the private dinner has been declared confidential but the CEO of World Youth Day, Roy Wakelin-King, was believed to be in attendance.

Of greater interest is whether former political allies, such as Tony (The Mad Monk) Abbott and Tony Clark AM, former Howard appointee to the board of Tourism Australia and Telstra, joined the knees-up at the St Mary’s Cathedral precinct in College Street.

Anxious to demonstrate that the cardinal is an evenhanded fellow, a church official told Crikey that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd would be “dropping in for a chat” today after attending HMAS Sydney commemorations.

The close friendship between the hardline conservative Catholic Pell and the arid Methodist Howard was forged in ideological agreement over many years.

Both are devout believers in authority and hierarchy. They share a steely understanding of patronage as a device for creating loyalty among the courtiers, sometimes called the conga line.

When Howard spoke at last year’s 50th anniversary dinner for the grumpy old men’s fanzine, Quadrant, Pell, a regular contributor, was in the audience clapping enthusiastically.

Ballarat-born Pell, 66, whose episcopal motto is “Be Not Afraid”, has much to thank Howard for. When he needed political muscle to reinforce the Vatican’s medieval teachings on abortion and stem cell research, he turned to Howard and was rewarded.

When he took the begging bowl to Canberra for World Youth Day which will be staged in Sydney in July — along with a visit by Pope Benedict XVI — Pell received $35 million plus a contribution towards the $42 million compensation package to the Australian Jockey Club for the use of Randwick Racecourse for a papal mass.

But Pell’s chief reason for thanking Howard is the billions of dollars his government gave to Catholic schools with few strings attached. Fuelled by Howard’s largesse and state school funding cuts, Catholic and other religious schools streaked ahead, cherrypicking teachers from the public sector by offering better wages and funding lavish sports facilities.

On the eve of the 2004 federal election Howard personally announced a $4 million gift to Pell to finance the building of a Sydney campus for the private Notre Dame University. The announcement was leaked exclusively to the Sydney Sunday papers to greet the faithful on their way to mass.

Today’s newspapers make much of the fact that Howard did not receive a Knighthood of the Garter in the St George’s Day honors list released yesterday by Buckingham Palace. As one of Queen Elizabeth’s most loyal subjects, it was expected he might have qualified to become one of the Queen’s newest knights in a ceremony dating back 650 years.

Perhaps attention should now turn to the possibility of a papal knighthood during the Pope’s visit. Certainly Howard’s done everything possible to earn it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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