You are here

The Rise of Reactionary Religious Politics in Australia

Published in Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life, Issue 72

Australia the Secular and Irreverent

Australia, at least since Federation and the establishment of a single nation, has never been a particularly religious place. Whilst the majority of the population are nominal Christians, there are a healthy number (some 27%) who profess 'no religion' or 'no answer' in the official census [1]. Only one in seven people are regular church attendees. Whilst Protestant religious conservatism has been somewhat of a feature among the ruling class, just as Catholicism of the Irish and Southern European variety has been among the working classes, the evangelical variety of Christianity has traditionally made little headway in Australia, least of all politically. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to generalise that Australian culture has conventionally been irreverent towards religious claims, rejecting "wowserism" (strident "moral" opposition to drink and sexual expression), with deep-seated suspicions of priests and other members of the clergy (an unusually large percentage of Australians were raised in religious orphanages), and a no-nonsense approach towards matters of metaphysical speculation.

Of course, it has not always been this way. Numerous anthropologists have commented on the extremely deep spiritual connection that the traditional indigenous communities had with the land. In terms of institutional religious politics however, the European colonial application of religion were simply functional elaborations of property and class and borne of the fear that the English ruling class were experiencing with the rise of radical influence of ideas arising from the French and American revolutions especially egalitarian republicanism and secularism. Indigenous religious belief was discounted to zero value - a spiritus nullius, if one will - whilst for the Irish social relationships arising from English colonialism were replicated: "The righteous English Protestant regarded the Irish with dark suspicion and short contempt. And fear . . . Popery and priestcraft, expressed in resistance to English rule, were seen as a sinister menace to that higher order of civilisation which the English so passionately believed they represented. As in Ireland, so in Australia: there, planted with the colony itself, grew an exacerbated form of the Irish social relationship of prejudice, fear and hatred." [2]

The first Catholic Mass was held under police surveillance and was conducted by a convict priest, with specific regulations drafted by the governor which stated that the Mass was "an extension of liberal toleration", that the convicts must show "becoming gratitude" and must not use the occasion for "seditious conversation". As is obvious, such religious discrimination was combined with equal prejudices against nationality and class to ensure the rulership of the English, the Protestant and the proper aristocracy, which was only removed from conventional Australian culture after a lengthy campaign by the Catholic establishment against communist influences in the Australian trade union movement in the 1950s [3], which achieved little except splitting the labour movement, ensuring state-funding for religious schools, and keeping the social-democratic Australian Labor Party out of national government for some twenty three years.

For nearly the entire latter quarter of the twentieth century successive reformist (Labor) and conservative (Liberal-National coalition) governments in Australia, both State and Federal, kept well away from letting religious opinions dictate policy implementation. There were exceptions, such as the election of the fundamentalist Reverend Fred Nile to the New South Wales state parliament in the early 1980s, however this was generally seen as the reaction of a tiny oddball minority against an ascendant bipartisan wave of secular rationality in moral issues. The influence of fundamentalist religious dictates was steadily removed during this period over issues such as abortion, homosexuality, in-vitro fertilisation, divorce, drug use, and prostitution and in many cases with progressive and secular leadership coming from religious leaders themselves [4].

The New Circumstances

Suddenly however, reactionary religious views have made a comeback in Australia, in part through some initiatives from the conservative Federal government under the leadership of John Howard and also indicated by the surprising result of the new Family First Party, who received about 1.5% of the national vote and managed to have a Senator elected after receiving preferences from the major parties. Demographic analysis by John Black reveals that a substantial portion of Family First voters came from working-class Labor-voting areas, significant assisting the re-election of the Howard government [5]. Family First's pre-election publicity expressed concerns about "Satan's strongholds", which included "Brothels, gambling places, bottle shops, mosques, temples - Freemasons, Buddhist, Hindu etc, witchcraft" and one election aide for the Party received national coverage when he publically proclaimed that "lesbians are witches and should be burned to death" during a debate in the marginal seat of Dickson. Since the election, Family First has made national headlines on at least one other occasion with a proposal to establish a "ring of firewalls" similar to what operates in Saudi Arabia to block objectionable material (e.g., pornography) from entering Australia via the Internet. These would be paid for by a compulsory annual levy on all Internet users.

However it is not just the political fringe that has started espousing "traditional" religious views. The conservative Catholic Minister for Employment, nicknamed "the mad monk" in the trade union movement for his "smash it up" approach to employer-employee arbitration, meet with Sydney Archbishop George Pell and Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart prior to the election. Since the election, Abbot called upon the Catholic Church to intensify its campaign against abortion, and sought to ban abortions after twenty one weeks. The Acting Prime Minister, John Anderson, weighed in saying that the number of abortions has "got out of hand" and his Party colleague Minister De-Anne Kelly suggested that Medicare benefits for most abortions should be withdrawn. Fortunately on this issue, the Prime Minister reigned in the conservative parties, sensing a split as moderates such as Marise Payne and Minister Nick Minchin opposed the moves and the Labor opposition remained united behind the leader's statement that the issue was one between women and their doctors.

In recent weeks, the leader of the West Australian state Liberal Party, Colin Barnett, confirmed plans to rollback gay and lesbian law reform by raising the age of consent from 16 to 18, to ban same-sex couples from adopting and to ban settling property disputes in the Family Courts. In announcing the plans, Barnett stated that there was "nothing more fundamental in our society than the institutions of marriage and family", which obviously have higher status that individual self-determination, equal rights and consensual agreements between adults. If successful, this would represent the first government in the world in over a decade to actually reverse legal gains made by gays and lesbians. With no sense of self-contradiction, Barnett also stated "I don't support any discrimination on the grounds of age, religion, sexuality, whatever". Again however, faced with a serious political backlash and the possibility of internal dissent, the conservative leader is trying to steer the debate away from the upcoming state election by claiming; "I don't think the wider community really wants to be confronted with gay issues".

These examples are part of an evident wider trend. Less than a year ago, the Federal Treasurer, Peter Costello, who had hitherto be known for progressive views on multiculturalism, an Australian head-of-state and aboriginal reconciliation, joined a group of evangelical pentecostals called "Catch the Fire" who are based on "a return to faith and the values on which our society was founded - the values of the Ten Commandments, respect for other people, respect for their property". Michael Ferguson, a noted campaigner against adoption rights for same-sex couples, has just entered parliament having taken the marginal Federal seat of Bass in Tasmania, and another evangelical, Louise Markus, has entered parliament through being elected to Sydney's northwestern seat of Greenway. However the real initiation of all these changes, has not been since the Federal election of late last year, but rather the Federal ban on same-sex marriages and from adopting children from overseas which occurred several months earlier.

It was the complete failure of the Labor Party to oppose the conservative government on these issues that provided the first substantive victory for reactionary religious opinion for some decades in Australia. The decision by Labor came under significant criticism by parties such as the Greens and was the source of a great deal of internal division and loss of support within the party, which has hitherto been previously the source of significant reform for secular law reform. The decision by the Labor Party to support the government on the bans was primarily led by the conservative Catholic faction within the party and in particular, the shadow Attorney-General, Senator Nicola Roxon. Like their previous insistence for a "conscience vote" rather than a binding policy on parliamentary members, the fundamentalist Catholic wing of the Labor Party readily cedes ground and undermines party unity when it suits their theological purposes.

Preparing for the Offensive

It's not as if there were no warning signs. In a 1988 referendum, Australians rejected 69% to 31% a proposal "To alter the Constitution to extend the right to trial by jury, to extend freedom of religion, and to ensure fair terms for persons whose property is acquired by any government". The fact that the referendum was lost was no surprise as Australia's seem to have a tradition in rejecting referendum proposals. What was surprising was the margin of rejection given that, in practise, the proposed amendments already existed in law. More than ten years later Clive Bean [6] questioned whether
bipartisan secularism had meant that religious affiliations in electoral politics were irrelevant. Bean's warning of the possible rise of religious-based politics, unfortunately mostly fell upon deaf ears with the assumption that none would be so foolish to raise their head a fundamentalist religious politician, given the "secular and irreverent" attitude of Australians.

This attitude has led reactionaries to phrase their political agenda in terms of "family". Thus organisations like the Australian Family Association, one of the main anti-secular religious lobby groups, do not actually express their support for biblical teaching, but rather in terms of "natural family values", to use the phrase of their current President, former conservative parliamentarian David Perrim. The AFA gloats over its victory to ensure that same-sex couples cannot marry or adopt children, they seriously discuss the possibility of mandatory Internet content filtering, they seek punitive policies against illicit drug users, they seek to abolish a woman's right to reproductive rights, to restrict cloning and stem-cell research, and they wish to enshrine marriage as social institution that is above personal choice.

These are clearly the immediate aims of the religious reactionaries in Australia. In the longer term, one can envisage that they seek to institute their metaphysics as social law and incorporate their organisations within government structures themselves. In order to achieve those aims they are forming alliances with multiple strategies. Conservative politicians are joining religious and "family" organisations and being instructed by fundamentalist religious leaders. Populist media commentators, such as Andrew Bolt, are also joining and promoting these forces. Within religious organisations themselves, liberal and progressive theological thinkers are finding themselves under internal challenge.

The reactionary religious movement in Australia has parallels with the events occurring in the United States. Under these circumstances, an old ally of secularism - that of science and the scientific and health community - must be rigorously employed to oppose religious-derived legislation (one prominent religious state MP used to be a harsh critic of heart transplants - until he needed one himself). The right of individuals to the self and of adult mutual consent has strong resonance within the Australian community - legislation that turns back, say, the right of women to control their reproductive system or homosexual acts - is unlikely to succeed. Even voluntary euthanasia has widespread support among Australians. Likewise, rather than seeking "equality" in recognising same-sex marriages, a more effective tactic is to remove the legal recognition and special legal benefits of the ceremony altogether, that is, to take a secular approach.

There are causes for concern and optimism in the current Australian political environment with regards to the rise of religious reactionaries. Concern, because there should never be any doubt of what their final agenda is - a religious state. The Christian churches did not give up direct political control of Europe willingly, any more than contemporary Islamic rulers would give up their rule. They are quite prepared to utterly ignore any preachings of goodwill towards all or moral behaviour to ensure their institutional power. Optimism however exists because of the deep-seated respect for freedom of conscience, freedom of religious choice (including of course, none at all), and equality in all rights. As long as progressive individuals organisations concentrate with this political agenda, then the prospect of Australia being a religious state remains distant.


[1] See the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Year Book Australia 2003 (Population, Religion)

[2] Patrick O'Farrell, quoted in Dr. Barbara Thering's presentation "God's Experiment: Australian Religion", Walter Murdoch 1982 lecture.

[3] Specifically the formation of the "industrial groups" and the Democratic Labor Party. Just proir to the 1958 election the Catholic Archibishop of Melbourne, Dr. D. Mannix, publically advocated a vote against the Australian Labor Party on the grounds that "Every Communist and every Communist sympathiser in Australia wants a victory for the Evatt Party". The ALP lost the election 46% to 54% on a two-party preferred basis.

[4] One only has to cite for example, the Roman Catholic Father Peter Norden's work for drug reform, the work of the Anglican Church on homosexual law reform from the Reverend W. G. Coughlan onwards, the role played by Baptist mayor Reverend Tim Costello in campaigning for the decriminalisation of street prostitution etc.

[5] John Black, How Family First made Labor Last, Online Opinion, December 17, 2004

[6] Clive Bean, "The Forgotten Cleavage? Religion and Politics in Australia", Canadian Journal of Political Science/
Revue canadienne de science politique Vol XXXII: 3, 1999