Friday, September 16, 2005

OPINION: Conservatism, Family, Religion and Wedges

In recent times, there has been much discussion about the relationship between conservative politicians and religious organisations. Speculation has arisen about links between Mr Clarke and Opus Dei and between Mr Howard and the Wahhabi sect of Islam.

We read of fringe Christian groups bankrolling and endorsing Ross Cameron’s campaigns in the federal seat of Parramatta. Then there are revelations that the Attorney General will be having dinner at the home of a man who is bankrolling Saudi Islamist fundamentalism in Australia. Mr Cadman’s appearance recently at a function hosted by a Lebanese group with close links to the Syrian Ba’ath Party have also not been all that helpful.

It seems that religious extremists are being co-opted to the conservative side. On the surface, this seems troubling. But according to Tony Abbott, there should not be anything sinister about church-going Christians (and by extension, mosque-going Muslims) entering Parliament.

At one level, religious groups should find a natural home in a socially conservative party. Mr Howard made a personal effort to secure a preference deal with the Family First Party. But after FF put the sale of Telstra last and look set to play a role in potentially derailing the industrial relations reform package, many will be wondering whether getting religious people involved in secular political issues is really a good idea.

So allow me, dear readers, to place my 2 cents worth into this political mass debate. We need to revisit conservative first principles. Conservatism has a number of features.

Firstly, conservatives are fairly happy with the status quo. They do not support revolutionary change. They prefer the more Darwinian model of evolutionary social change.

Secondly, conservatives prefer governments to keep their grubby hands out of as many matters as possible. Government is there to guarantee certain basic features such as the rule of law, defence and foreign policy. We don’t want to see Crazy John or Mad Ron running the Commercial List of the Supreme Court of NSW. Nor do we want an American businessman like Rupert Murdoch controlling our foreign policy (even though in practice this is probably already happening).

But most importantly, conservatism wants to preserve certain basic values and institutions, the most important of which is the family. A truly conservative government will always act to preserve the family.

Conservative governments encourage religious groups to get involved in social welfare, and this is largely to do with the fact that these groups foster and promote the very family values that conservatives allegedly uphold.

Families are sacred, regardless of what colour or ethno-religious group the family members belong to. And when families are split apart, conservatives find the process inherently abhorrent.

Which raises a number of basic questions. To what extent are conservatives concerned about the splitting up of mixed Aboriginal families that took place up until the 1960’s? What steps has the government taken to assist and compensate families that were taken from their parents? Are part-Aboriginal children and families worth less than other families?

To what extent has this allegedly conservative government considered the impact of its industrial policies on families? What family impact assessment has been undertaken on the impact of removing various leave provisions from industrial awards and agreements?

Why are families of asylum seekers split apart? Why are family reunion programs in immigration programs tightened?

And what role will religious groups play in the implementation or development of policies affecting families? Will the Coalition consider arguments put forward by the likes of Senator Fielding in their policy development? Or is the Family First Party only good for providing preferences?

Are conservative parties really interested in having the shared Abrahamic heritage of religious elements reflected in their policy? Or will religion only be used as a means to play wedge politics and gain ethno-religious branch stackers?

More importantly, how are conservative values and institutions benefited by the insistence of some allegedly conservative politicians to demonise and ridicule certain mainstream religious communities? Why is anti-Semitism (be it of the anti-Jewish or anti-Islamic variety) becoming more and more acceptable in mainstream conservative discourse?

Why hasn’t John Howard openly reined in Bronwyn Bishop and Sophie Panopoulos over their infantile and imbecilic remarks? Would Mr Howard have reacted differently if another ethno-religious group were targeted?

If Australian conservative politics is to maintain some integrity, it must address these difficult questions and find rational answers. Otherwise, it risks descending into a quagmire of populist prejudice and tabloid pseudo-intellectualism.

And whilst wedges may make an excellent and filling snack if you missed lunch, they are not all that filling as a coherent social policy platform.