Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Sectarianism in the SMH

In case some of you missed today's Sydney Morning Herald and Gerard Henderson's article about the rise of religion in Australian politics and the new sectarianism, here it is:
(10 points for naming what the formally important building in the picture is).

"Sneers Bring Fear of old Divide.Sneers bring fear of the old divide
Gerard Henderson
December 19, 2006

In Australia, old-style religiously motivated sectarianism has been out of fashion for many decades. In other words, it is no longer acceptable for a majority grouping of Protestants to discriminate against, or look down on, a minority grouping of Catholics. This reflects changing attitudes on the part of the main Christian churches along with greater tolerance of difference within Australian society.

However, as the success of the Democratic Labor Party in the recent Victorian state election demonstrates, there appears to be a new sectarianism in the land. Now there is a tendency on the left of Australian politics to regard a number of committed Christians with contempt - socially conservative Catholics and Protestant evangelicals alike. They are dismissed because of their views on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research involving the destruction of human embryos, homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

This became evident when Peter Kavanagh, whose grandparents Bill and Mary Barry were founding members of the DLP, won a seat for the party in the Victorian Legislative Council. The DLP was established following the disastrous Labor Party split in the mid-1950s, which was initiated by the ALP's federal leader, Bert Evatt, who was almost certainly suffering from mental illness at the time.

The DLP was not a Catholic party. Robert Joshua (its inaugural president) and Jack Little (who won a Senate seat in 1967) were not Catholics. But most DLP members were - including the four others who, over time, won Senate seats (Frank McManus, Vince Gair, Condon Byrne and Jack Kane). Also the DLP had a relationship, at times uneasy, with Bob Santamaria's Catholic organisation which, from 1957, was called the National Civic Council.

The DLP was formally wound up in 1978, some years after its remaining senators lost their seats at the May 1974 federal election. However, some members never accepted this decision and the party was reformed in Victoria in 1984. It was essentially run out of John Mulholland's kitchen and received almost no media coverage until Kavanagh won a seat in the Victorian upper house and Mulholland narrowly missed out.

John Cain, who was the Labor premier of Victoria from 1982 to 1990, sounded off on The 7.30 Report last Wednesday, declaring: "They're a voice for a rabid sectional sectarian dissent group and they're clinging to some of what I regard as the fringe issues about abortion and in-vitro fertilisation and stem cell research, issues about which the mainstream of the electorate has made up its mind." It was as if such positions on private morality have no right to be heard in a democratic society.

Joan Kirner, the Victorian Labor premier from 1990 to 1992, weighed in with a similar criticism. She objected to the fact that the DLP and the ALP had engaged in a preference swap deal in some seats and maintained that "Labor should put our preferences with the people who are like-minded in terms of social justice and social reform and that is not the DLP". This put-down overlooked the fact that the DLP is broadly sympathetic to Steve Bracks's Labor Government on social justice issues and closer than the Greens to the ALP on economic policy. Kirner's real objection to the DLP turns on its stance on private morality.

The Age also weighed into the debate with an editorial on what it termed the "dead party walking". There were references to the "doleful tolling of the bell", "Marley's ghost", "Ebenezer Scrooge" and so on. Even the original DLP's platform of anti-communism was sneered at and reference was made to the party's "desultory primary vote that, in other democracies, would mean ignominious loss rather than an extraordinary win".

Well, it's true that Kavanagh won less than 3 per cent of the primary while Mulholland just missed out on more than 5 per cent. It's also true that Kerry Nettle won a Senate seat for the Greens in NSW in 2001 with less than 5 per cent of the primary vote. That's how proportional representation works.

The real objection to the DLP's most recent success in Victoria is similar to that which followed the election of the Hillsong-aligned Family First senator Steve Fielding in the 2004 Senate election. Namely, that individuals who advocate their positions on private morality have no proper role within a modern democracy.

The old sectarianism objected to Catholics involving themselves in politics because they were Catholics. The new sectarianism has no objection to Christians becoming active in politics provided they concern themselves with issues of public morality. For example, social justice, asylum seekers, global warming, reconciliation and so on. It is only when some Christians also get involved in advocating their position on matters of private morality that they ignite opposition.

That's why Kevin Rudd's recent essay in The Monthly in which he argued that Christians "must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed" was widely welcomed. Rudd also wrote that he saw little evidence that "a preoccupation with sexual morality is consistent with the spirit and content of the Gospels". No problem there.

In modern times it's fashionable to be a Christian believer who proclaims a social agenda. Witness the success of Tim Costello, for example. Yet, among many commentators, it is not acceptable for Christians to talk in public about private morality. Witness the ridicule which is heaped upon the Health Minister, Tony Abbott, for example.

In the final episode of the ABC TV comedy The Glass House, Abbott was sneered at as "the holy Health Minister". No such contempt would have been directed at a religious political activist like Tim Costello. Likewise, in the Crikey newsletter last month, the comedian Guy Rundle engaged in a rank sectarian attack on Catholicism in general and Abbott in particular. He would never write such lines about Islam.

In a democratic society Christians should be just as entitled to state their views on private morality as are Christians who state their positions on public morality. Those who refuse to recognise this are engaging in the new sectarianism.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute."

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