16 December 2018

Trust in God and man

It's not really work
It's just the power to charm
I'm still standing in the wind
But I never wave bye bye
But I try, I try ...

- David Bowie Modern love
Having blown his precious first Hundred Days to define himself and his government, Scott Morrison has finally found an issue to make his own.

Conservatism needs religion, and vice versa. Conservatism is the default form of government in overtly pious countries. In postwar Australia, the Coalition consistently won government when people felt obliged to put bums on pews; this was particularly true in Victoria, South Australia, and Queensland, the states with highest church attendance; it was less true in the other states where church attendance was traditionally lower.

The last time a conservative government in Australia put its relationship with religion to the test was in 1961. Before then, marriage legislation basically ratified weddings consecrated in what were then the three major Christian denominations: the Anglican, Catholic, and Presbyterian churches. The changing demographics of postwar Australia saw increased numbers of marriages in Orthodox churches and synagogues; the Marriage Act 1961 removed the primacy of churches and even allowed for civil ceremonies facilitated by public servants or registered celebrants. It allowed for adults to be married despite church rules limiting marriage, such as where one party was not of the same denomination as the celebrant.

Churches were livid at what they saw as the intrusion of the secular state into their core business. Prime Minister Menzies, a church-going Presbyterian, felt the full force of ecclesiastical displeasure. His government had a one-seat majority in the House thanks to a misjudged economic policy that resulted in a credit squeeze; nervous backbenchers fretted at the government being denounced from the pulpits to a significant proportion of voters.

The following year, Catholic schools in the Goulburn diocese near Canberra locked students out and sent children to the local overstretched state schools. Church schools had been able to employ ordained clergy or devout loyalists as teachers, but the growing professionalism of teaching combined with the increased importance of science meant church schools could not compete with public schools for quality of education. Menzies found a way to mollify the churches without backing down: he lavished money on church-run schools so they could expand at the same rate as government schools did at the time, in response to the postwar baby boom.
Science teachers at Riverview have a lot to answer for.
Image (c) ABC

The Menzies government was returned handsomely at the following election, and the enduring lessons learned by the Liberal Party were:
  • Never, ever piss off the churches;
  • Throwing money at church schools means Liberals win elections;
  • (go back to the first point above, and repeat until you forget why you even suggested taking on the churches in the first place)
Liberals have noticed declining church attendance as well as anyone, but for fifty years it had no discernible political impact. After the downfall of former Anglican Archbishop Peter Hollingworth as Governor General(!) in 2003, Prime Minister Howard explored the possibility of a royal commission into church neglect and abuse of children; then Catholic Archbishop of Sydney George Pell warned Howard off the idea, comparing the very idea to the church schism under Henry VIII. Prime Minister Rudd often gave press statements outside his Brisbane church on Sunday mornings. As recently as 2013, incoming Prime Minister Abbott proposed a parallel form of marriage with more obedience and less recourse to no-fault divorce, in line with church teachings.

All that changed last year.
Never gonna fall for
(Modern love) walks beside me
(Modern love) walks on by ...
The postal ballot on same-sex marriage remains an unmitigated defeat for conservatives. They deployed all the tricks that had worked in previous campaigns - water-muddying, slippery slopes, scare campaigns against "our children" - and they lost two-to-three-against. Only 17 of the 150 electorates in Australia voted against same-sex marriage, many in electorates which the Liberals have no realistic chance of winning.

When she resigned from the Turnbull government, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells cited the same-sex marriage debate as a grievance for conservatives without any indication of how better the government might have handled it. This helps those of us who were never impressed with her explain to those who didn't know her well (including the notoriously obtuse press gallery) why she should never have been appointed a minister in the first place.

That sense of failure was compounded by the rise of Scott Morrison instead of Dutton to replace Malcolm Turnbull in August. Once the polls hardened against Morrison, it was the conservatives - not nervous Nellies in marginal seats - who came out publicly against Morrison. Even after dumping her from the ministry, he had to answer the question that Fierravanti-Wells posed but could not answer: what do conservatives expect the government to do?

The British model of conservatism, centred on the Crown, died with Abbott's conferral of a knighthood upon Prince Phillip. Australian conservatives never really defended the move, initially passing it off as A Distraction From The Main Issues, then as Tony Being Tony, watching with horror as the most conservative Prime Minister ever began tanking before their eyes. The American model of conservatism, interspersing Christianism with big business as described by George Packer, persists as a potent role model for Australian conservatives, despite its inapplicability:
Taking away democratic rights — extreme gerrymandering; blocking an elected president from nominating a Supreme Court justice; selectively paring voting rolls and polling places; creating spurious anti-fraud commissions; misusing the census to undercount the opposition; calling lame-duck legislative sessions to pass laws against the will of the voters — is the Republican Party’s main political strategy, and will be for years to come.
None of those remedies are available to Australian conservatives. US conservatives in the 21st century have consistently won elections by rallying their base against a broadly apathetic electorate, which doesn't work with compulsory voting in Australia. And yet, conservatives will go on SAD (Sky After Dark) virtue-signalling about The Base.

Morrison said that 70% of Australians are, however nominally, religious. The same people who maximise the reach of Australian religiosity when it suits them can constrict it: if you've ever heard the pejorative term "cafeteria Catholics", or if you've been jeered at for attending religious services at high holidays or for religious events surrounding birth, death, or marriage, you know not to trust this blithely proffered statistic. Religious freedom must be ecumenical: those most insistent on the sanctity of the confessional when crimes are confessed are most insistent that imams refer their parishioners to police at the merest hint of wrongdoing.
(Modern love) gets me to the church on time
(Church on time) terrifies me
(Church on time) makes me party
(Church on time) puts my trust in God and man ...
Politics is the art of the possible. So, in the context of contemporary Australian politics, and following the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse and Neglect, what is politically possible for the government to help religious organisations?

Never mind the Jewish voters of Wentworth. By process of elimination, we see that the recognition of "West Jerusalem" as the capital of Israel as the only feasible sop to Australian conservatives, who believe the decision will yield huge donations and other support from Australian conservatives as it has in the US. There is no large constituency that will punish the government for what might seem like a foreign policy technicality. Once again, we see Morrison as the answer to questions that simply never occur to anyone outside the Liberal Party.

People who understand foreign policy warned this government against its increasingly close ties with the current government of Israel. Now we see these ties have cost us closer relationships with Indonesia, a priority for successive governments since the 1960s. It has threatened Australia's relationships with other Muslim nations, who may use this country to express dissatisfaction with US policies at no cost to that country. Morrison has ignored the experts yet again. He ignored them for years over refugee conventions, and as I said earlier he has built his career on contempt for foreign policy.

The decision not to relocate the embassy "at this stage" is gutless, given the decision. Why would technocratic concerns about cost or propriety matter now that the decision has been taken? It might make sense as a sop to the Foreign Minister, Senator Marise Payne, who has never seemed comfortable with this decision - but only the press gallery have access to find this out, and they just aren't awake to the possibility of the Foreign Minister having a position that hasn't been announced.

Morrison has the gall to warn Australians overseas to watch out for reprisals. Part of the idea of Australian foreign policy is to safeguard Australians abroad. A government that knowingly makes a decision that imperils Australians abroad is failing a core duty to the nation and its citizens. Scott Morrison is personally liable for any Australian who cops so much as a slapped face over this decision.
(God and man) no confessions
(God and man) no religion
(God and man) don't believe in modern love
So, you just don't believe that Morrison is really that religious, or that a person's religion is a private matter that has no bearing on their public life. This is the position of the press gallery, which is so solicitous of politicians' private lives that when they burst out into the open like this they simply cannot cope. Morrison's religion is impeding his performance as Prime Minister, and disadvantaging the country, but they can't report on it because they dare not admit it.

But honestly, I hear you cry, the Liberals are just catspaws of the Business Council of Australia, and they are using this Jerusalem hoo-ha to detract from economic issues. Look to the past ten years or so and see how this relationship has broken down.

In 2004, when the Howard government secured both houses of parliament, the BCA pushed for changes to the workplace relations system that came to be known as WorkChoices. It dovetailed neatly with one of Howard's longterm obsessions, that working people could be pried away from the union movement to become independent contractors. As Howard's government fell apart, as policies failed and ministers failed and voters fell away, he doubled down on WorkChoices even as it became a rallying point for the wider labour movement.

The BCA continued to back the Liberals in pushing their policy agenda. In early 2010, as Abbott realised that he needed an economic policy platform to supplement his culture war and press gallery stunts, he went cap in hand to the BCA and they gave him their agenda, which the press gallery noted but failed to scrutinise. The 2014 budget was the result, where Liberal politicians were forced to sell the unsellable. Turnbull continued the industrial relations agenda and cut taxes, but Morrison has less flexibility and less goodwill than Turnbull had.

The BCA has an essentially unsellable policy agenda, and Labor will give them scraps off their table; this is more than they can expect from the hapless Morrison government. The more Morrison's government unravels, the more he will double down on Jerusalem. It will become his white whale, as WorkChoices was for Howard. If you want a politician to Stand For Things, to Show Us What He's Made Of - if you see politics as a performance art, like the press gallery do - then you have to allow for some individual politicians to be weird or irrelevant. The Morrison government is weird and irrelevant, hemmed in by its limitations on economic and climate policy (and energy policy, the point where these two imperatives intersect), by the US model of conservatism, and a general lack of both verve and imagination.

Morrison looked like going out dithering, putting out spot fires while having the whole show collapses around him. That's one model for losing government; this is what happened to Labor federally in 2013, to NSW Labor in 2011 and in South Australia earlier this year, and to the last (ever?) Liberal-Nationals government in Victoria four years ago. Now he's going down in what none but Liberals regard as a blaze of glory. Note that those who share both his fixation and his limitations won't thank him once the hurlyburly's done.


  1. Thanks Andrew. I've been trying to make sense of this without a lot of luck. I'll be interested to see how he reconciles a thumping at the polls should that happen. Would his prosperity theology suggest that God prefers Shorten and Labor over a Morrison government? He can characterise his barely average-rich-white-male as merit while he's in government, but if they get smashed I'll look forward to watching his head implode.
    Thanks again mate,

    1. More likely he would interpret it as punishment for not being sufficiently whatever he defines as virtuous.
      Rais, Perth.

  2. It could be argued that modern love to the Nationals is sex with a younger woman. They certainly have the form for that twisted version of what love is. They have no claim to classical religious conservatism.

  3. Morrison has claimed so many things are unimportant issues that he won't let distract him from the job; same-sex marriage, a banking royal commission, a Federal anti-corruption body. All things that were wanted by a large majority of the voting public.
    The one thing he has made his own as PM? Moving the embassy to Jerusalem. An issue that most voters would not rank in the top 100 issues facing the nation, and will attract not a single vote to the Libs that they don't already have.
    If this is what he is not being distracted from doing by other (actually important) issues, we better keep thinking of distractions.

    1. Jerusalem isn't even in the top 1000. Ditto for the non-existent problem of religious discrimination

  4. Yeah..It is such a pity that we have been lumbered with "Godwins Law" to stop us from making comparisons to the freneticism we saw in the dying days of other nasty orthodoxies mid last century.
    You know these "big " elections that really become a political cull ,the rotation of an era - "the end my only friend" party room house cleaning via the public's vote, the book end .
    It makes all of us wonder what will Australia be like afterwards, will Morrison resign from the Liberal party , the coalition is in tatters Murdoch's blown it , IPA ? have been outed . I feel that if the government changes as it should , it's going to be very hard to predict who will actually lead the Liberal party and what is to become of it .
    Cheers Andrew.