Gerard Henderson and Relative Hypocrisy


I’ve been doing this media and writing thingy since only April 2005. For decades before then, I’ve been religiously reading the Sydney Morning Herald. It’s a habit from senior high school, when I had a rather conservative English teacher named Mr Scott.

We were all huge fans of Mr Scott. He used to entertain us with cynical comments and his trademark polka dot ties. He also taught us to avoid clichés in our creative writing exercises and introduced us to the drugged-up world of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. We were all most upset when he later resigned and went off to write speeches for Nick Greiner on the eve of his landslide victory against Barry Unsworth.

Scott virtually ordered us to read the SMH every morning. He’d even test us on its contents in class from time to time. If we got bored, he recommended we at least look at all those penis cartoons that Reg used to draw for David Dale’s ‘Stay in Touch’ column on the back page.

But strangely, Scott didn’t have much time for SMH columnist Gerard Henderson. As I was to find out in university, a lot of Liberals didn’t have much time for Henderson.

Henderson is an interesting chap. Back in 1993, when I joined the NSW Branch of the Liberal Party, my conservative friends used to tell me that Henderson was about as conservative as Don Chipp. (Then again, those were the days when, as one conservative MP put it to me, Henderson was too busy writing policy for the Australian Democrats.)

It was hard to pick where Henderson stood on things in those days. He certainly had a healthy respect for Paul Keating and his ‘True Believers’ agenda of economic and social reform. At least that was the impression I got. He certainly didn’t like the Liberal Party very much.

So why was ‘Hendo’ so unpopular in Liberal circles in those days? Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he’d allegedly left John Howard’s office in such a huff and a puff. Back in 1995, Howard told me over dinner at a Gladesville Italian Restaurant: ‘I like Gerard. He’s highly intelligent, though not as intelligent as he thinks he is.’

In recent times, Gerard has been somewhat more loyal to Howard and the conservative side of politics. Admittedly he did write the following description of Howard in The Age on 26 May 2004:

It is uncertain how long Howard’s political career will last. However, at the moment, the one significant blot on his record in public life turns on a certain lack of empathy in dealing with individuals with whom he does not identify at a personal level: for example, Asian Australians in the late 1980s and asylum seekers in the early 21st century.

Henderson suggested ways of convincing conservative MPs to show greater empathy to asylum seekers and to soften mandatory detention laws. If this is what my conservative friends meant when they described Henderson as a closet Democrat, then I guess every true conservative and liberal would have to be hiding in Don Chipp’s closet!

I’m not sure what Henderson’s views on mandatory detention of asylum seekers are now, although I certainly intend to find out. It’s Henderson’s views on the relationship between religion and the State that are the subject of the present analysis.

I was certainly cheering from the sidelines in October 2004 when Henderson criticised some journalists for making an issue of an alleged meeting between Tony Abbott and George Pell. That story really hotted up when Tony gave that death-stare to Tony Jones on ABC TV’s Lateline show.

Henderson rightly castigated journalists for only agreeing with the Church’s involvement in politics when it supports trendy Leftist causes. But as soon as the same Church insists on ‘traditional’ values or meets with politicians who support such values, journos go all moralistic and wax lyrical over the separation of Church and State. Wrote Henderson:

The fact is that, like it or not, Church leaders invariably involve themselves in politics The argument over the proper division between Church and State in Australia tends to turn on a political assessment. Clerics who advocate a Leftist agenda are welcome to be heard in the media. But traditional conservatives whether Catholic, Anglican or fundamentalist Christian are expected by many commentators to remain silent. And when they do speak they and their friends are treated with suspicion. It’s a new form of sectarianism.

Yep, double standards alright. If you’re only going to support the Church’s freedom of speech when it suits you then you can hardly be taken seriously on Church-State relations.

That was October 2004. The weird thing is that hardly 18 months earlier, in April 2003, Henderson was using some rather anti-clerical language himself when discussing the attitudes of Christian Churches to the second Iraq War. Henderson described as ‘vomitous’ the show of hospitality the Vatican showed to former Iraqi V-P (and Chaldean Catholic) Tariq Aziz. Henderson compared it to ‘welcoming to the Vatican the second-in-charge of, say, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime or Josef Stalin’s Communist dictatorship. No doubt unintentionally, it sent out a message that despots are welcome at the Vatican.’

No doubt many Iraqis would agree with Henderson. They would also agree with such a description of meetings between the Vatican and President George W Bush. But I guess Pontiffs have been hosted by some interesting regimes and met with all kinds of ‘interesting’ politicians over the years. Sometimes, to achieve results, you have to talk to ugly people in power.

The only vomitous thing about the whole Church position on the Iraq War was the pomposity of Henderson’s language in recommending the Church be ‘well advised to step down from the pulpit for a while and assess their own responsibility for the present conflict.’

Huh? The Church responsible? For what? Henderson castigates the Christian Churches for being part of ‘the so-called peace movement.’ He writes that ‘[n]o group within the West protested more actively than the Christian Churches’ and that ‘there is considerable evidence Saddam Hussein and his advisers, including Tariq Aziz, took considerable comfort from the give-peace-a-chance line that found expressions within the Governments of France, Germany and Russia and the so-called peace movement.’

So there you have it, folks. By questioning the moral basis of the Second Iraq War, the Vatican and other Christian leaders are giving comfort to despots!

Henderson ‘s view was critiqued in The Age some days later, on 19 April 2003, by the Rev Dr Peter Matheson of the Uniting Church. Matheson made this prophetic remark: ‘The basic reason for the Churches’ profound and unrepentant opposition will become clearer in the months and years to come.’

Abu Ghraib. AWB. False intelligence over WMDs Without meaning to sound irreverent to Trinitarian readers, it seems the Holy Spirit moved the Churches to make the right choice on this War before these issues hit the headlines.

Still, that didn’t stop Henderson from revealing his own sectarianism.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.