Not since the red scare of the 1950s has a party that did so badly at the polls generated such excitement — and fear — among the politically aware. The Family First Party’s fans have seen the 2004 federal election result as the beginning of a turn to Christian values by voters; its critics agree. The two sides differ only on whether or not this is a welcome development.
Now as it happens I agree with those who think that it would be a very bad thing if Family First held the balance of power in the Senate (though not as bad as the Coalition having a majority in its own right) — but let’s try and keep our heads, shall we? Far from presaging the rise of the Christian right in this country, FFP’s showing at the recent federal election reveals just how little we have to celebrate/worry about on that front.
Take, for example, their actual vote. As at 15 October, some 210,000 House of Reps voters had given FFP their first preference, a shade under 2 percent of the vote. One Nation and the Democrats, by way of comparison, got a little over 1 percent each and that has, rightly, been taken as a sign of failure. Sure, 2 percent is not bad for a first time player, but it is not exactly the Weimar Republic. Unless, of course, this marks the beginning of something big, and this is where a little analysis might help.
First of all — is Family First a Christian party? Certainly it has ties to the Assemblies of God, a pentecostal/evangelical outfit founded here in the 1930s which has experienced some growth since the 1970s, and now claims in Australia 1,000 churches and 170,000 adherents. But FFP has consistently denied any formal connection between itself and the Assemblies of God (AoG). In fact, it denies any connection even with religion: ‘It’s not a Christian party,’ FFP’s leader, Andrea Mason, said in mid-September, ‘It’s a secular party, it’s based on family values.’ The AoG agreed: its Victorian president declaring that while some AoG members were standing as candidates for FFP, the church itself was strictly non-partisan.
While no-one seriously believes these claims, they do confirm that the FFP and the AoG are perfectly well aware that there is no place for religion in Australian public life, contrary to the slightly fevered claims of the likes of Miranda Devine, Andrew Bolt and the Australian Christian Lobby. (It would be an interesting project to plot the FFP strongest election showings against the location of the 1,000 AoG churches. After all, the FFP’s vote wasn’t all that much larger than the AoG membership, which probably tells us something about its failure to break out of its heartland.)
If the FFP is not (publicly, at least) Christian, is it perhaps Right? Here, too, the message is pretty mixed. Any perusal of their website, their public statements, their policy pronouncements show them to be clearly right of centre on most issues — but not all. On Iraq, on the detention of refugees, on the privatisation of Telstra, unexpected pronouncements have been heard. The best summary offered is that they are ‘Left on social justice, Centre on conservation and Right on balancing budgets and economics’. They sound, in fact, suspiciously like the Lib-Lab convergence.
It’s true that they don’t much like homosexuals — but who in public life (apart from the Greens and the Democrats) does? On same-sex marriage they have lined up with Howard and Latham and on gay parenting they have stated their views with remarkable moderation: ‘There is insufficient evidence to support the stance that children brought up by same sex couples derive the same benefits as those reared in households with mums and dads.’ And when one of their supporters publicly endorsed the idea of burning lesbians to death, the leadership was quick to denounce the idea.
But what is really important about the FFP is not merely that it is not very Christian and not very Right. What is important is that it is in no sense at all ‘Christian Right’. When we use this term we always have in mind the US phenomenon — a religious movement with deep social roots that has reshaped American public and political life profoundly. Since the 1970s, the Christian Right in the United States has been riding a wave of religious fervour (the born-again phenomenon) shaping it to conservative political ends through its network of churches, media (some 200 television and 1,500 radio stations) as well as books, magazines and newsletters — and, above all, the efforts of hundreds of thousands of activists in local communities, school boards, and ultimately Republican Party branches.
Australia has seen nothing like this ever in its history (the US is on its third such Great Awakening as it is called) and shows no signs that it ever will. Australian public life has always been solidly secular. This is a country in which politicians eschew the blessings of God in their speech-making; in which celebrities almost never thank Him for their awards (and get mocked if they do); where even our currency does not trust in God. It’s not that Australians don’t have religion; it’s just that they have never shown any great evidence of wanting it to play any role in politics. The refusal of the FFP and the AoG to fess up — while no doubt bad for their immortal souls — is a good sign for the rest of us, reaffirming the strength of our secular traditions.
Over the next three years the FFP may well decide to stake out the Christian right territory for themselves, if they come to believe that a reasonable chunk of such territory exists — but they will be competing with the Liberals and, especially, the Nationals, who are likely to do to the FFP what they did to One Nation (namely, absorb their policies and voters).
Not very Christian, not very Right and not at all Christian Right, the FFP are likely to prove another short-lived moment in the long history of the failure of Christian politics in this country.
If we have little need to be alarmed about the Christian Right in this country, we would be well advised nonetheless to be alert to their activities. Next week Graham Willett looks at what they are up to.
Greg Craven, ‘The new Centralism and the Collapse of the Conservative Constitution’. Paper presented as a lecture in the Department of the Senate lecture series, Parliament House, 14.10.2005
Tony Abbott, ‘A Conservative Case for Federalism’, The Conservative, September 2005, p5
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