This is a scary book.
I believe I am reasonably well informed and quite well read about politics in Australia. Hence, I have thought of myself as being at least as able as the next person to see through real and imagined anti-democratic conspiracies which might mislead or confuse the Australian people. Yet before reading this well researched, moderately toned account of the impact of right-wing Christians in this country, I never realised just how great their influence is. Nor did I realise how such an ordinary person as John Howard could possibly contrive to build so much of his success on the manipulation of public opinion.
I was raised in a Scottish Christian Presbyterian, socialist household. Beyond my youth, I bought into the socialism but not the Christianity. I do remember bits and pieces of the Christian faith however, and some lines from the Bible. Reading in Maddox’s book how the religious right currently views Christianity, I cannot believe that the interpretation of Christianity, pretty damned constant for 2 millennia, could change so much over just the last 30 or 40 years.
The money changers in the temple did get ejected by Jesus, didn’t they? And he was pretty sympathetic to the plight of the poor, wasn’t he? And as I recall it, there was that business of the eye of the needle and camels that created something of an impasse for the rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. However, reading Maddox’s account of how some on the Christian right see goodness rewarded by God through personal wealth-building does not tie in with what I remember from my youth.
Maddox documents superbly how right-wing Christianity has captured Howard and several of his government ministers. She shows how he has used and abused the Christian Church to foster his political ends. She details how he has manipulated power since his blundering days of yore, when his comments expressing racism were interpreted, diagnosed and explicitly named for what they were (i.e. racist), and which in 1989 led him to lose the leadership of the party to Peacock.
Since then he has learned. His minders have got him to adopt a new tack. His fighting style has changed. He himself no longer leads with his (racist) right. He has learned to “feint”, coming in behind someone else who has made an extreme right-wing statement (perhaps at Howard’s behest) with an “I understand” comment. “I understand where Jim is coming from but …” or “I understand what Jo is driving at but …” But the “but”, seemingly disagreeing with Jim or Jo and sounding like the voice of reason, is but a shade less extreme than the original. This strategy, leading to that “softer” tone, as Maddox reveals, leaves Howard seeming to be more moderate, less extreme. This is very clever - and very scary.
Howard’s style of divide-and-rule is fascinating. It is the separation of “us” and “them”. I suppose most of us are already aware of this in respect of Aboriginal people and asylum seekers. Maddox outlines how, at different times, “Howard’s ‘Us’ has excluded same-sex couples, mothers in the paid workforce, single parents, step parents, stay-at-home fathers, feminists, migrants, Aborigines, churches, Muslims, other non-Christians, unions, ABC listeners, the tertiary-educated and more”. Divide “us” from them; keep “us” apart from the other.
The influence of the Lyons Forum, described by Anthony Albanese as “an organised right-wing religious cell in the Liberal Party”, is quite staggering. Maddox presents plenty of evidence to support her charge that the policies and strategy of this forum “are plainly indebted to those of the American New Christian Right, which developed a well-funded intricately organised and think tank-supported power base for the Republican Party following arch-conservative Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964”. We all are much aware of the rise of the Christian right in the politics of the US and in President Bush’s recent re-election. It is the extent of that influence on politics here that is truly worrying to an Australian readership.
Maddox also reveals the power of the right-wing think tanks such as the Centre for Independent Studies. Until reading this book I had not known that Western Mining Corporation’s CEO, Hugh Morgan, was instrumental in kick-starting that organisation. I had only recently, however, seen the link between that organisation, right-wing propaganda and the right-wing media.
In an incredibly poorly researched CIS paper, Helen Hughes and Jenness Warin argued that the “socialist utopia” created by Nugget Coombs was responsible for virtually all the problems of remote Aboriginal communities and that in essence, the solution to Aboriginal problems was for Aboriginal people to cease to be Aboriginal. Dreadful stuff. So dreadful that an Aboriginal colleague thought it was a spoof. But no.
It was then picked up by Christopher Pearson, the right-wing correspondent in The Weekend Australian, who devoted his whole column to the work of Hughes and Warin. Maddox first identifies, and second, explores this sort of linkage of the right-wing think tanks and the right-wing media.
It is, by and large, a depressing but important book. Fortunately for all of us, Maddox feels able to finish on a positive note. “Australia’s democratic, egalitarian soul has sustained serious assaults from a government which encouraged our worst and endured ‘small target’ silence from an opposition that refused to bring out our best; but it is not destroyed … Howard might keep winning elections but, in between, he has not entirely had his way with Australia’s soul.”
Australians owe Marion Maddox a debt for pointing out the risk to our national soul posed by Howard and his links with the Christian right. Given the influence of the right-wing think tanks on our national psyche and the complicity of our media in these anti-democratic forces, academics who, even today, remain one of the few groups able to speak out, need to be in the forefront in defending the nation’s soul. We cannot all do so with the writing skills, the eye for detail nor the even handedness of a Marion Maddox. But we must try.
We can be confident that there will be some blistering attacks on this book by those on the right. And yes, “Howard and company” will inevitably condemn those in academia who speak up as “elites”. His “us” will continue to exclude “the tertiary educated”. Such condemnation should be worn as a badge of pride. The alternative, to remain silent, is both unacceptable and socially unethical to those like me who believe that the academy has a responsibility to the community it must serve.