Many voters had never heard of the Family First party before the 2004 election. When candidate Steven Fielding won a Victorian Senate seat (due to an ALP preference deal gone wrong), many Australians thought that a far-right, Christian-based morality had suddenly landed in our political system. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Since 1996, John Howard’s Liberal Party has been slowly importing US Christian Right values and our media has barely registered this profound shift in social and public policy. ALP Foreign Affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd recently wrote that the Liberal Party’s newfound message is that if you believe in “family values” and “moral values”, the Coalition is the only party for you. “It is based on the false proposition,” Rudd argued, “that somehow God has become the wholly-owned subsidiary of the Liberal Party.” Separation of church and state, the natural order under secular democracy, is being challenged from within.
Marion Maddox aims to examine this shift. She charts the personal story of Howard himself and reveals a man in love with the notions of monarchy, empire and conservative values couched in religious symbolism. It wasn’t long before he embraced a love of God and the market. Together, a potent force was born. “Under Howard,” Maddox offers, “the market has taken on divine qualities.”
The religious right here has learnt many lessons from its American brethren; achieving power requires latching onto one of the two major parties. With Howard as Prime Minister, this was an inevitability. A few examples will suffice. His belief that heterosexual marriage is the “bedrock” of society, campaigns for “values-neutral” public education and encouraging women to be stay-at-home mothers, all create an environment where a 1950s past that never existed can be transplanted into a 21st century looking for stability amid the current twin bogeymen – terrorism and moral panic.
Howard’s message is having an effect. Ian Worby is chief executive of the ever-growing United Christian Broadcasters. He appreciates a government that listens and acts for the Christian community.
“There is great concern that as Australia has become more secularised,” Worby recently argued, “there has been a shift away from our early Judaeo-Christian values. There is a resurgence, some people might call it a revival. We’ve seen this in the last couple of elections and from some of the comments by the Prime Minister and Treasurer in public forums.” God Under Howard makes it clear that this growing electoral base needs to be satisfied, policy-wise, and the Coalition is delivering. Maddox presents a persuasive argument that shies away from demonising individuals of faith. They are not her target. Instead, she highlights the ideological similarities between conservative churches such as Hillsong and Howard’s Government. A denomination that celebrates wealth as God’s blessing and supports personal satisfaction fits Coalition dogma perfectly. “Such theology is a neat fit,” writes Maddox, “for a government that stresses market capitalism and privatised economics over social welfare and collective responsibility for one another.”
The recently revitalised abortion debate provides ample support for Maddox’s disturbing thesis. It is evident, despite the obsequiousness of those suggesting otherwise, that a number of conservative, Christian men in the Government are determined to make women’s bodies their domain. Maddox warns us that unless we want to enter the realm of America’s decaying democracy, where the line between church and state is hopelessly blurred, we must fight to reinstate our democratic traditions.
Antony Loewenstein is a journalist based in Sydney.