American progressives have spent decades struggling with the moral politics of the right. But for the Australian left a morally motivated opponent is something new. Activists who developed their campaigning skills fighting neoliberalism in the 1980s and 90s risk being out maneuvered by a movement which fuses economic aspiration with family values.
In the old days right wing politics in America was all about getting government off our backs and dropping bombs on recalcitrant third world countries. But as exciting as it must have seemed at the time, Barry Goldwater‘s economic conservatism was not a big vote winner. So after Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 presidential campaign a new movement formed around activists like Richard Viguerie, Howard Phillips and Paul Weyrich. Viguerie was frustrated by Goldwater’s lack of interest in an alliance between economic and social conservatives while Phillips wanted elite, economically minded, conservatives to reach out to ordinary social conservative voters – the kind of people who cared more about drug abuse, busing, and abortion than they did about industry regulation or capital gains taxes.
Electoral politics is rarely about changing public opinion. More often it is about finding and mobilizing already existing beliefs and values. In 1976 Jimmy Carter, a born again Christian, won the presidency with the support of evangelical Christians. After Nixon an injection of moral values into political life must have seemed a welcome change. But when Carter’s administration threatened to withdraw the tax exempt status of Christian schools the New Right had an issue they could run with. This was the issue that propelled tele-evangelist Jerry Falwell into politics.
Rather than campaigning on abstract economic or social issues, the religious right focused on government policies which social conservatives saw as directly affecting their families and communities. For parents who were struggling to keep their children safe from drugs, teenage pregnancy, and sexual predators it was a powerful message. Liberals seemed to be hell bent on eroding the authority of parents. They ridiculed values like sexual abstinence and the work ethic and did nothing to help parents protect their children from a culture industry which glorified gang violence, drug abuse, and promiscuity. Bringing up teenagers was hard enough without having to fight the federal government as well.
If Family First win the balance of power in the Australian senate don’t assume that they will simply rubber stamp the Coalition’s reform agenda. While the party is likely to be supportive of changes to the unfair dismissal laws other reforms such as the full sale of Telstra and changes to media cross-ownership laws are likely to come at cost. Expect to hear a lot more about issues like joint custody, gay marriage, covenant marriage, mandatory filtering of internet pornography, and religious vilification laws.
Groups like the Greens will find that Family First are far better organized than One Nation and far more marketable than Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party. Evangelical churches like Hillsong are professionals at marketing , financially well resourced, and form a large part of the party’s support base. If Family First can win a senate seat then they will benefit from the media’s attention. More voters will hear about what they stand for.
To many suburban parents the idea of filtering pornography, making it legal to criticize Islam, outlawing gay marriage, and preventing lesbians from accessing IVF might not sound like the end of civilization as we know it. The Greens and other progressive groups will have a hard time convincing them if all they do is ‘expose’ Family First’s links to a Christian church or label them as bigots. To many Australians Christianity doesn’t sound like a bad thing. And don’t all Australians have a right to express their views on moral issues?
Family First won’t take votes away from the Greens but they will hurt the Labor Party. Labor is likely to respond by distancing itself from the Greens and gay activists. This will lead to tension on the left. There will also be tension on the right. It is hard to see Liberal partisans like Andrew Norton taking relaxed view of his party’s further drift towards hard social conservatism. Right wing think tanks like the Centre for Independent Studies have always struggled to hold together their economic liberal and social conservative wings.
Family First have a very small constituency. The Greens have far more supporters. But it’s never just about numbers. Any minority party that holds the key to senate majority has political power. And if Family First find themselves in this position then the tiny size of their primary vote will be irrelevant. Those who support socially progressive causes such as the recognition of same sex relationships, needle exchanges, and legal abortion will need to find supporters across old partisan lines. Chewing off chunks of Labor’s constituency will not be enough.