God, Howard and evangelical politics

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23 September 2004



Family First epitomises an international trend of ambiguously religious politics, according to Marion Maddox

SPECULATION that Australia’s newest religiously based political party, Family First, will hold the balance of power in the Senate has drawn an unusual level of attention to the role of religion in Australian politics. Family First's combination of broad appeal and sophisticated political operation - for example, in its pragmatic approach to preference deals - tells us something about the increasing confidence and sophistication of the Christian Right internationally. It also tells us a lot about the changes in Australian political life through eight-and-a-half years of Howard government.

‘We didn't see that there was a party solely working hard to look out for the conservative families,’ Family First leader Andrea Mason was reported as saying in the Australian on 10 September 2004. Why not? Overtly or implicitly Christian parties are not new to Australian politics, and conservative ‘family values’ are typically at the core of their agenda. Before the Christian Democrats there was Call to Australia and, before that, the Democratic Labor Party. Other religiously or spiritually inclined micro parties have come and gone with less attention (remember the Natural Law Party?). With Fred Nile farewelling 23 years in the NSW Legislative Council to stand for the Senate, why should the Family Firsters not have simply thrown their weight behind the existing socially conservative niche party?

We can get a clue from Family First’s striking parallels with recent developments in New Zealand politics. Despite minor parties’ hopes of the 1993 shift to Multiple Member Proportional voting, New Zealand’s conservative, family-oriented Christian Heritage Party floundered. High profile recruits were not enough to raise the five per cent vote needed to secure a seat in Parliament. Then, United Future New Zealand (UFNZ) was formed out of the avowedly Christian Future NZ Party and the centrist United, securing eight of the New Zealand parliament’s 120 seats. UFNZ currently sits on the government side, its confidence and supply agreement with the minority Labour government allowing it a high negotiating profile.

Family First’s policy profile has some notable similarities to UFNZ’s. The proposed Commission for Families to vet all new legislation for its impact on ‘the family’ looks like a direct pinch. The presumption of joint custody after divorce and sympathy for the ‘fathers’ rights’ lobby are other areas of overlap. Generally speaking, lots of detail on families and vague generalities in many other areas unite both parties’ policy pages.

At least equally significant is the two parties’ ambiguity about their Christian status. The Sydney Morning Herald (21 September 2004) quoted the Christian Democrats’ NSW director, Phil Lamb, complaining that Family First ‘have not got the word “Christian” anywhere on their website. I think that is quite deceptive. They are hiding the fact that they are Assemblies of God people.’

Deceptive or not, it worked for United Future. Their surprise 2002 election success - after a campaign in which broad appeals to ‘common sense’ produced a now legendary response from the TV ‘worm’ when UFNZ leader Peter Dunne appeared in a pre-election debate - left commentators the next morning groping for descriptions of the new parliamentarians. All but one had prominent Christian conservative credentials. A number already had distinctively Christian Right policy proposals on the public record, such as a plan to pay marrying couples a $100 bonus (so as to boost the institution of marriage) and, at the more extreme end, a proposal to publicly identify HIV carriers.

Nevertheless, after the election, the New Zealand press affected to discover, as if out of the blue, UFNZ’s ambiguously Christian identity. Newspapers sprouted cartoons of Trojan horses emptying Christian warriors from their innocuous-looking bellies.

Downplaying Christian affiliation has become a tried and true strategy of American conservative evangelical organizations such as Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition and the Heritage Foundation. During the 1990s, all of those robustly religious organizations began coaching their local leaders and campaign workers to avoid speaking what some strategists called ‘Christianese’ - the kind of overtly religious language, sprinkled with Biblical allusions and evangelical code-words (‘born again’, ‘sin’, ‘salvation’) likely to alienate secular voters. Instead, candidates and recruiters learnt to emphasise terms like ‘family’, ‘common sense’ and ‘decent’.

The result was significant election successes. The 1994 congressional elections, which delivered Republican majorities in both houses for the first time in forty years, enabling the conservative Contract with America, is a case in point. In many cases, voters often only discovered afterwards that the candidates they had supported in fact stood on explicitly religious policy ground. No one was more frank about the technique than early 1990s Christian Coalition executive Ralph Reed: ‘I do guerrilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag. You don’t know till election night.’

The appeal of ambiguously Christian rhetoric is not limited to minor parties. On the contrary, it has been central to the Howard government’s shift of the Liberal Party to the socially conservative right. The most prominent example is the Lyons Forum, the recently reconvened ‘family policy’ pressure group whose spokespeople typically deny it is a Christian organisation, while affirming that its members share Christian principles. Its track record includes increasing censorship, the reshaping of tax and family benefits to favour single-income families with a stay-at-home mother (first articulated in the Forum’s 1995 submission to the party executive on tax) and the Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill 2000 (first mooted by the Lyons Forum in 1997).

In each case, the skill was in not being too overt about any Christian alignment - not least because each move attracted significant opposition from mainline churches - while letting drop enough references to religiously charged ideas of ‘family’ so that voters attuned to receive the message would hear it, while others would not be alienated.

Other Howard government manifestations of a carefully pitched Christian Right ‘dog whistle’ include: the debate about ‘values’ in education, which, as the Sydney Morning Herald’s Mark Riley noted in 2003, seemed to mean ‘Christian values’, but never explicitly enough so that the concept could be taken on and debated; Health Minister Tony Abbott’s March 2004 speech on ‘The Ethical Responsibilities of a Christian Politician’, in which he stopped short of announcing any religiously mandated policy while declaring Australia’s abortion rate a tragedy and seeming to solicit Christian lobbying against it; and Treasurer Peter Costello’s appearances at the National Day of Thanksgiving and Sydney’s Hillsong Assemblies of God church.

Far from random or accidental, these implicit appeals to religious conservatism follow a well-documented American strategy. The most recent instance came when Liberal candidate for Canning Don Randall welcomed Howard to Perth’s Christian Life Centre on 15 September 2004, saying that the country needed a Christian leader, and that Latham, as ‘an atheist or agnostic or whatever he calls himself these days,’ would feel less welcome there.

Howard’s ostensible hosing-down - ‘although I come from a Christian tradition myself, I respect fully the secular nature of our society’ - could have been copied straight from the US religious Right textbook. It falls into a category of techniques which enable political leaders to send different messages to different constituencies at the same time. One observer of Christian Right strategy, Cynthia Burack, sums up: Christian Right leaders, she says, ‘practice small duplicities - such as apologies - in order to be misunderstood by the major population.’

Why would a leader want to be misunderstood? So that the secular majority can reassure themselves that nothing extreme was meant, while the most conservative hearers pay attention to the original message rather than the retraction. Consequently, leaders are able to appear simultaneously moderate and extreme, each kind of message reaching the audience most receptive to it. At the Canning launch, those who needed to be placated could accept the retraction. The conservative Bible-belt target audience, however, could go on believing Randall’s view, rationalising the prime minister’s distancing gesture as a necessary compromise for the sake of the ‘politically correct’ secular ‘elite’.

Family First’s move into ambiguously religious dog whistle politics, then, is well positioned to pick up on themes and patterns already established by the government. At the same time, the apparently rising tide of conservative Christian politics carries another message for Howard. Conservative Christians may well be prepared to go all the way with him on ‘family values’ - opposing same-sex marriage and adoption by gay and lesbian couples, campaigning for harder divorce, encouraging mothers of young children out of the paid workforce, and so on. But there are significant points of divergence. Much of Australia’s Christian Right has a lot more trouble with policies that increase social inequality and entrench a ‘user pays’ philosophy than either their secular conservative allies in Australia or their American Christian Right models.

Also, the racial ‘us and them’ politics which has marked Howard’s previous campaigns - the portrayal of Mabo and sacred site claims as ‘special interests’ holding the rest of ‘us’ to ransom and the pillorying of predominantly Muslim asylum seekers as child-abusing potential terrorists - has tested the loyalty of Christian conservatives within his own party and marked points of differentiation for evangelicals outside it. The most visible internal example was his staunch refusal to let a group of Liberal dissenters, many of them associated with the Liberals’ emerging Christian Right, cross the floor over mandatory sentencing.

Family First’s web site does not reveal an Indigenous affairs policy, but boasts the country’s first female Indigenous party leader. The centrepieces of its asylum seeker policy are children out of detention and speeding up processing so that no one is held longer than necessary for health and security screening.

Such policies echo the political patterns of other religious voices. Though the Christian Democrats take a harder line on asylum seekers than Family First, they have generally supported reconciliation. Their sole, fleeting epiphany at federal level occurred in 1998 when the Member for Macpherson, John Bradford, resigned from the Liberal Party after differences on, among other things, Howard’s 10 Point Plan tightening the conditions for Native Title. For his unsuccessful Senate bid in the 1998 election, Bradford pointedly shared his ticket with an Aboriginal Christian businessman, Kerry Blackman. Long-serving conservative Catholic independent Senator Brian Harradine is another example of how very conservative positions on family and sexuality combine with a sharp aversion to policies likely to increase inequality of other kinds.

If religiously inflected conservative politics achieves a stronger foothold in Australia after the 2004 election, that will mean significant changes. Australia’s secular Right, in recent times, found political advantage courting One Nation-friendly ‘racial resentment’. If, in future, it has to rely on sexually conservative but anti-racist support, it may find the political necessities demand some fast policy reconfiguration.

MARION MADDOX is Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at Victoria University Wellington, New Zealand. As the 1999 Australian Parliamentary Fellow, she wrote For God and Country: Religious Dynamics in Australian Federal Politics (Canberra: Department of the Parliamentary Library 2001). Her next book, God Under Howard: The Assault on Australia’s Soul, will be published by Allen and Unwin in February 2005.

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