The curious case of Julia and the Christians
Has there been any politican in Australia's history more prone to cognitive dissonance than Julia Gillard? When she arrived into the Prime Ministership, her status – the unwed, childless, atheist woman – seemed to mark a decisive break with our long, mostly uninterrupted history of being ruled by married, child-heavy, Christian men. Even the man she deposed was once described as 'the most sincerely Christian Prime Minister Australia has had for a very long time'. Yet in ways big and small Gillard often seems to be acting so squarely against what must be her personal value set that you half expect her to whip off a face mask to reveal a cackling John Howard underneath, saying "In your face Australia! It was me the whole time!"
In some ways I can't help but applaud her audacity. After all, this is a woman who has fought to keep a school chaplaincy program alive, stood firm against gay marriage – a bout of intellectual gymnastics for which there should almost be an Olympic event – and who is now in the process of enshrining the right of religious organisations to discriminate against people that they find "icky" (not the actual legal word) in the hilariously titled Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill.
As a result, this week we had to endure the sight of Jim Wallace, the head of the Australian Christian Lobby and the sort of loathsome anti-Christian that explains why his religion is dying, trumpeting the fact that his superior negotiating skills had ensured the right of religious (read: state-funded) organisations to discriminate against people if it "is necessary to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of that religion''. Atheists, homosexuals, unwed mothers, men and women living in sin, people of other religion and even adulterers need not apply. One does wonder what Jesus might have thought about such exclusivity. While there's not a lot of evidence to suggest that such discrimination is a major problem in these religious organisations – schools, hospitals, charities and Sanitarium amongst them – the mere fact of actively supporting a human rights bill that enshrines her own place as a discriminated group is quite something to behold. Give it a few seconds and she'll probably say something about this country's Christian heritage again.
The truly confusing thing about these sorts of contortions is that for the most part the Australian electorate has been one singularly uninterested in the religious practices of our leaders. While our secularism is not so explicitly enshrined in the Constitution as is, say, America's, our general intolerance for religious justification of political ideal puts the US' church and state rule to shame. Half of our criticism of Tony Abbott stems from a general sense that he is too Catholic and Gillard isn't even our first non-believing Prime Minister. So, how have we gotten to a point where our most recent ex-Prime Minister, our current Leader of the Opposition and our currently serving, atheist PM all act as if Wallace and his ilk run the show?
I think the answer has less to do with the glory of Christ than it does with base electoral mathematics. In an amorphous society less bound by particular religious, familial or social political affiliations than ever before, our major political parties are becoming more and more aware of alienating those few voting blocs that they feel can still be relied on to vote as a bloc. To wit: serious Christians. But here's the problem: there's no real evidence to suggest that the anger expressed by the appointed leaders of the religious actually translates into anything close to a consistency in voting pattern. Indeed, it's only since 2007 that the idea of a Christian bloc has had much currency in the country's electoral analysis. (A quick Google Trend search for the Australian Christian Lobby seems to tell a similar story.)
Yet still the parties plough on as if America's deep south had moved in next door. Much of it can be traced back to the pall of fear which has driven our political scene in the post-Howard era. But while Howard was good at animating our fears, this current generation of leaders seems beholden to them. Howard redefined the status quo in such a way that deviating from the idea of Australia he stood for was next best thing to political suicide. Even the changes that Rudd stood for were, at best, cosmetic. Someone truly revolutionary would have been too much of a risk. And so this is the fear that drives today's politicians: a fear of losing power, of losing seats, of just flat-out losing. Operating in a knife-edge Parliament in the face of a dogged attack machine surely doesn't help.
But this kind of electoral reductionism beggars the entire idea of democracy and the give and take between citizen and ruler that it's based in. To put it another way, you might call it the idea of leadership. Too much that is done these days seems to be based in taking minor filings from one demographic column or another, as if groups of voters can be turned on and off like a light switch. But the truth is invariably more complicated than that, and few people are single issue voters these days.
What voters do want – and what Howard's enduring success proved – is someone who can tell a story about us as a whole. About what we stand for, what we're aiming towards. And while I disapproved of almost every single thing that Howard did as leader, that at least earns my grudging respect. He told us a story and we listened. One wonders what sort of grand success might lie in the future for the first of our prospective leaders with the charisma, intellect and passion to tell us something new.
Until that point, well, here's a picture of an otter crying while eating a watermelon. Is it a metaphor? Sure, why not.