Christian voters can look forward to receiving special information packs about the election from the Australian Christian Lobby this week, which is bound to send yet another shudder through the inner-city left.
The bogeyman of the 2007 campaign is the idea that there is a growing religious right in Australia – an ambitious movement of social conservatives carrying the banner of Jesus, eager to take control of national politics. In God Under Howard, Marion Maddox described a Federal Liberal Party beholden to Christian groups in the same manner that the Republican Party in the United States is influenced by evangelicals. The disproportionate power held by Family First, the conspicuous musical enthusiasm of the Hillsong Church, and the revelations about the Exclusive Brethren all seem to support this view.
If this is the case, well, such is the nature of representative democracy. Theorists may declare that democracy reflects the voice of the people but it has always been susceptible to highly co-ordinated special interest groups. Organised groups with strong institutions and well-defined agendas do well in a democratic competition. But it is not at all clear that there is a religious right in Australia with the ambitions and influence ascribed to it.
The Prime Minister is fond of describing the Liberal Party as a fusion of two distinct philosophies – liberalism and conservatism. As a result, some in the ranks of the party are undoubtedly social conservatives motivated in part by religious sentiments.
But their policy influence is dramatically overstated. Eleven years of the Federal Liberal Party in government has hardly seen regression in ethical policy. We can criticise their reluctance to push for liberalisation in some areas, such as gay marriage, at least until recently. But the Government’s record demonstrates a regrettable attachment to the status quo, rather than a desire to return to the God-fearing moral codes of the Victorian era.
Neither does Family First match the description of a religious right. Its focus may be on gay marriage, internet pornography and reducing rates of abortion, but there is little material difference between Family First’s policies and the policies of the major parties.
And when we investigate the party’s platform further, it becomes obvious that on economic issues Family First is well to the left of the Labor Party on foreign ownership, privatisation, tax, workplace relations and free trade. Voters who believe that the ALP has gone soft on many key economic issues such as industrial relations would do well to have another look at Family First.
Similarly, most Christian groups are moderately left-leaning. Modern Christianity wields ambiguous and empty phrases such as social justice as easily as any Labor backbencher.
This is no surprise – the Bible provides little explicit support for free market capitalism.
The concept of a religious right appears to have been imported wholesale from the US, and uncomfortably shoe-horned into Australia’s public debate. Australia, as a country with a small and wealthy population, will always partly depend on imports. But not everything that is imported is easily integrated into the culture or embraced by consumers. Twinkies – the heart attack-inspiring rolls of cream and sponge cake – have never found a willing market in Australia despite being ubiquitous in the US. Rhetoric about the religious right is just as inappropriate in Australia as the Twinkie. The religious right, to the extent that it exists, is small and has little impact on public policy.
Why, then, the breathless hyperbole? Politics is mostly about opposition and demonisation. Perhaps the fantasy that the right wing of Australian politics is a cookie-cutter, sorry, biscuit-cutter duplicate of the hated US Republican Party helps build group solidarity on the secular left.
But isn’t there enough to enrage the left without awkwardly importing ideas from overseas? Surely rhetorical exaggeration and indignation is one area where it would be better to grow local.