Family First is undoubtedly a striking development in Australian politics though not for the reason that its fans seem to think. I have argued that we have no need to fear the Family First Party, that it is not particularly Christian, nor particularly Right, and not at all ‘Christian Right’. Yet before the election, Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine were telling us that it represented a breakthrough for Christians into the mainstream.
This drumbeat has continued since, with Gerard Henderson, Greg Sheridan and the like joining in, all operating, however, via a quite remarkable indifference to the fact that the party got something less than two per cent of the vote.
So, why should we on the left care? Freud made the point once that studying pathologies is one of the best ways for us to understand normality. As with the individual, so too, with social and political formations. I am not therefore suggesting that we should ignore them. In the first place, the FFP is not at all a bunch of cranks. Or, more precisely, if it is a bunch of cranks, it is headed up by thoughtful, clear-eyed and reasonably sophisticated political operators, men and women with a plan and the nous to advance it. Compare their performance to date with that of One Nation at a similar point in its rise if you doubt this.
Can the party keep this up and make its wider plan work with the same success? Here we are entitled to our doubts. In denying their Christian roots, in asserting that they don’t have a ‘spiritual agenda’ for the nation, they are on solid ground.
Australians have never shown any great enthusiasm for religion in public life and FFP’s repeated denials that they are a Christian party are well-advised. Their talk of recruiting Muslims is, if nothing else, an interesting development and presents a challenge to those who want to portray them as having a crypto-Christian program. But even if Australians’ aversion to public religion wasn’t enough, there is the problem of ‘which Christianity’. Frank Devine, even while welcoming the rise of the new party, admitted that its chief backers, the Assemblies of God, are inclined to be ‘scratchy’ about Catholics. Frankly, the whole religion thing, while it delivers volunteers and a passionate engagement that the main parties would kill for, is probably more trouble than it is worth.
In the absence of Christianity, the FFP has embraced ‘the family’ as its policy focus. Here, surely, they must be on safe ground? Who, after all, could be against the family? Getting John Howard to agree to have ‘family impact statements’ attached to all proposed legislation would not have been all that difficult a task. But, and this is the problem: who are ‘family’? According to Andrew Evans, families are ‘Mums and Dads, Grandpas and Grandmas, boys and girls, heterosexuals, and singles’. Gay families, obviously, can go to hell (presumably literally). But as soon as the discussion moves beyond the platitudinous, ‘the family’ gets complicated. Single parent families for example. John Howard discovered this when he toyed with the idea of banning same-sex adoption in the ACT: the single and the gay overlap in messy ways, making clear-cut discrimination hard to legislate. Are the FFP really wanting to repeal the divorce laws or abolish the single-parents pension?
Even if the FFP is smarter, or more simple-minded, than Howard and can find a definition of family that works for it, it is still not at all clear what counts as ‘family-friendly’. How on earth are we meant to decide whether the privatisation of Telstra is good for families? Or, when the right to dismiss workers unfairly comes before the parliament, will FFP side with the employers’ families or the employees’? The tawdry realities and hard choices of parliamentary life is going to rub off some of the FFP’s shine sooner or later.
Ultimately, though, the biggest threat to the FFP’s ambitions are not its opponents but its friends. It is hard to imagine a single family-focussed policy that the FFP could put forward that Howard would be compelled to reject, or any of its rhetoric. There is virtually nothing to stop the Coalition stealing the Party’s clothes, as it did with One Nation.
At the moment the FFP stands where the Greens stood in the mid-1990s, as the happy recipient of the first preference votes of the disaffected. The Greens have gone on to parley that into a significant, enduring and growing presence in the political system. If the FFP are to emulate the Greens’ success and become a real party of right it will need to overcome some obstacles. Firstly, it will need to broaden its base, to expand over the next three, or at most six, years to capture and hold five to ten percent of the vote, and to transform that vote into seats in the Senate. It is not likely that they will get ALP preferences again (although who knows where the ALP is going and how bad it will be when it gets there), so winning seats will be a harder task than it was this time round.
But if it needs to broaden its vote, it will need to narrow its program, to be in a position to offer something that the other parties can’t pick up. And it is difficult to know what that might involve. The Greens have captured much of the liberal and radical left and there is probably another five or ten per cent going begging there if the ALP goes any further right. But it is very clear that there is no space in the political market place for a faith-based party or any demand for a family-based politics that isn’t available to the Libs and the Nats.
The FFP are in for hard times and all of us are in for an interesting ride.
Lakoff, George (2004) Don’t Think of an Elephant, Carlton North, Scribe
Lally, J. (1978) ‘Really Educating Teacher’. Paper presented at SAANZ Conference, University of Queensland
Marcuse, H. (1964) One Dimensional Man, Boston, Beacon Press
Williams, W. and J. Rennie (1972) ‘Social Education’ in D. Rubenstein and C. Stoneham (eds) Education for Democracy
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