NATIONAL AFFAIRS: News Weekly
A political vacuum waiting to be filled
, May 13, 2006
A leading Canberra journalist Gerard McManus observes that the major political parties are increasingly out of touch with mainstream Australian values. Now, with the Australian Democrats and the Greens seemingly in decline, could Family First be the party to fill the resulting political vacuum?When British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently addressed the Federal Parliament, one event went unreported - but not unnoticed: the fact that John Howard not only introduced Family First leader Senator Steve Fielding to Mr Blair, but the amount of time the two men spent together. No other politician received the same treatment.
That meeting signalled two things. First, it is recognition of how far Family First has travelled since it arrived in the Federal Parliament last July. Family First has surprised the commentators and has achieved extraordinary media attention.
The second thing that meeting signalled is that Family First has great potential, for there is a huge political vacuum in Australian politics as a significant proportion of the community become more and more disillusioned with the major parties.Potential
In order to translate this potential into reality, Family First needs to know what it wants to achieve. One obvious objective is to obtain the balance of power in the Senate. The Australian Democrats have imploded and the recent Federal and Tasmanian elections suggests that the Greens' vote may have peaked.
Australia does not have a history of strong political support for religious parties. Morals crusader Rev Fred Nile has never been able to extend his success beyond New South Wales or even beyond the NSW Upper House. It is interesting to compare Fred Nile's party, now the Christian Democratic Party, with the old Democratic Labor Party (DLP).
While the DLP's creation was the result of a religious fallout, the DLP did not campaign on religious issues. Although it held strong views on (for example) pro-life issues, many people associated that party with defence and state aid for non-government schools, and voted for it on that basis. At its peak, the DLP had five senators, at a time when the quota required was more than 16 per cent of the vote.
What the history of the DLP shows, and the rise of Pauline Hanson reinforces, is that there is a place in Australian politics for a cultural party - that is, a party which champions a set of values which have widespread community support, but which are not promoted by either of the major parties with enthusiasm.
Those cultural values do include issues of concern to Christians, such as race and religious vilification laws, pornography, pro-life issues, marriage and family values. But it includes much more - tax, help for small business, the amount of money spent on welfare typified by the cliché "dole bludger", the waste of money spent on welfare as shown by Aboriginal policies over the last 30 years, and providing essential government services such as telecommunications.
The Western world is engaged in a contest over a set of values. Certainly, there has been an acceleration in the disintegration of family values, authority and order, as well as notions of duty and obligation, since the mid to late 1960s.
The marriage rate is down one third, divorce has doubled, the birth rate has halved, single-parent families have trebled, abortions have reached 90,000 a year, drug dependence has sky-rocketed, suicide rates among teenagers and males in particular are up, while problem gambling is a major issue as state governments become more and more dependant on gambling profits to boost their coffers.
The 1960s was the decade of rebellion, protest, and cultural and social upheaval. But many commentators overlook the far more interesting 1950s, which formed the cultural movers and shakers of the following decade. People such as Bob Dylan, Germaine Greer and the father of the psychedelic drug culture Timothy Leary were actually children of the '50s.
The shock of the new, the sexual revolution, the clash with authority during the 1960s, were also inspired by the writers and intellectuals of the 50s - people such as French existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the fraudulent sexologist Alfred Kinsey and the architect of permissive parenting Dr Benjamin Spock.
Whatever might be said in favour of those new-found freedoms, such as the achievements of the civil rights movement and equality of the sexes, the downside has been profound. On almost every social indicator, things are getting worse rather than better.
Feminism promised women the chance to break away from the confinement of marriage, dependency on men, and the drudgery of having to care and nurture children. Women were promised sexual freedom together with career fulfillment.
But the Pill permitted many men to be more irresponsible and disrespectful to women. More than one third of young women are never going to be asked to marry. This is because many young men have realised that marriage is a risky prospect.
Either they have discovered they can have ongoing sexual relationships without the need to provide for a family, or they do not want to lose half their assets and daily involvement with their children because of marriage break-up they did not seek or want.
So-called safe abortion has left millions of women childless and full of regret later in life.
Many Western countries are facing a demographic disaster from the baby drought which will leave them practically empty in 50 years time.
The age of the Pill and feminism has had a profound effect on the way we think and behave, as well as our sense of personal obligation, restraint and self-discipline. Even champions of the '60s cultural revolution say that what we now have is not what they expected.
To quote Clive Hamilton, the executive director of The Australia Institute (and, in his own words, "a card-carrying member of the protest generation"):
"Contrary to the dreams of the young people of that era, the liberation movements did not create a society of free individuals in which each of us, released from the shackles of social conservatism, could find our true selves.
"We are richer and freer than humans have ever been, but - and here is the contradiction - we are no happier. For decades we have been promised that economic growth and the lifting of oppressive laws and institutions would take away the sources of our discontent. But it hasn't happened. ..."
Change has not only happened in the secular world. In fact, the single greatest antidote to these problems - Christianity - was also losing its way in that same period.
The Russian Orthodox Church - controlled during the communist era by the Soviet spy agency, the KGB, and used as a vehicle for global propaganda - became a member of the World Council of Churches. The mainstream Protestant churches adopted a social welfare message at a landmark conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974, and became susceptible to the political messages of the times; while the Roman Catholic Church underwent its own Vatican II revolution which precipitated the most rapid collapse in belief and practice in centuries.
The result was that the Christian churches began to be defensive about articulating their beliefs and values. For the first time they were susceptible to the argument that Christianity had to conform to the wider cultural environment.
The transformation of political parties in the West reflects these dynamics. There is no longer any philosophic rationale for major political parties and, in the case of the ALP, its factions. The major parties believe in very little beyond winning votes.
So what we have today is a fundamentally divided society - a society divided around cultural values.
Everyday Australians may not study history, but they understand something has gone wrong with society and families. They remember when things were different. That time was certainly not perfect, but they remember a time when families stayed intact, ate at the dinner table together and spent time with one another - when each family member understood and accepted their role and obligations.
Everyday Australians remember when people not only knew their neighbours, but spoke to them ... knew their names. And when their children addressed them as Mr and Mrs. ... They knew the family was where children were taught duty, manners, decency, discipline and self-restraint, and most of all respect.
At a political level, these same people - everyday Australians - are against selling Telstra, electricity companies and, most likely, Medibank Private, because they believe that governments have an obligation to provide services. They believe that the sale of the Commonwealth Bank has made us worse off, especially if they live in regional Australia.
They oppose the Howard Government's industrial relations changes - not because they are pro-union, but because they do not believe that having to negotiate one's wages and conditions with Coles or Woolworths, or even the local KFC franchisee, is an even contest. Nor are they all that happy with the idea that bosses can sack people simply because they cannot get on with them, even though they know there are troublemakers and whingers everywhere.
This is why Family First has a great opportunity, as well as a huge responsibility - and it is why the party faces an enormous challenge. Unlike the major parties, which have surrendered on the cultural war, Family First's support base wants to challenge the culture.
Interestingly, there is another party which is very much engaged in the cultural war - the Greens, which is the political arm of a broader movement. The Greens also has a lobbying arm which seeks to educate through action. Through various sub-groups and organisations, they lobby, protest and engage in all manner of activity and stunts aimed at educating people to their view of the world, and influencing the major parties.Broader war
If Family First wants to be successful, it must be more than a political operation. It must encourage those groups which focus on particular battles in this war, but also educate them about the broader war of which they are part. It will fail if it focuses exclusively on a narrow range of issues. Quite simply, the Australian electorate is too small to sustain an effective, narrow-based single-issue party.
What the electorate will sustain - and is clearly signalling it desperately wants - is a party which will be the fearless champion of ordinary Australians holding mainstream values.
- Gerard McManus is a senior reporter for Melbourne's Herald Sun. This article is part of a talk he gave to a Family First Party dinner in Melbourne on April 6, 2006.