Friday, October 01, 2004

The Rise of the Christian Right in Australia

Australian Policy Online discusses how and why John Howard is following in Bush's footsteps by pandering to the Christian right.

The increasing political sophistication of the Christian right has seen them shy away from overtly Christian language in favour of more neutral terminology. The Howard administration has adopted this tactic, speaking (ad nauseam) about 'family values' - on the eve of the last Australian budget Costello managed to say 'family values' 14 times in a two minute-ish interview (I was counting).

"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 the face of prevailing social trends, recent Howard policies are geared towards people living the 1950's-esque model of the nuclear family, with a stay-at-home mother, working father and obligatory (preferably white - 86 refugee children are still locked up in detention camps) children. Substantial bribes are offered to women for having babies; a $3,000 lump sum.

At the same time Howard is actively undermining the rights of single mothers and gay mothers, framing his policy in terms of 'Children's rights':

"John Howard announced on August 2 that the federal government would move to allow states to outlaw single women's and lesbians' access to in vitro fertilisation (IVF), he was at great pains to emphasise that this was neither discrimination nor an attack on women's right to reproductive choice. Rather, he claimed, it was an assertion of “the fundamental right of a child within our society to have a reasonable expectation ... of the care and affection of both a mother and a father”...

...At the top of Howard's target list are sole mothers. The government's punitive approach to women with dependent children who leave their marriage has become very clear. Over the last 18 months it has undermined the Family Court, encouraged the questioning of no-fault divorce, reduced maintenance payments, cut funding to legal aid, lowered the children's age cut-off point for the sole parent pension, eroded after-school and vacation child-care services, and, just last week, decided to inflict “mutual obligation” conditions on all recipients of sole parent payments."

APO notes:
"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’. "

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