Kevin Rudd’s appearance on the ABC’s QandA program was always going to be a drawcard. Whether you were looking to see him roundly criticised for everything from challenging for the leadership to the PNG asylum seeker policy, hoping for some substance, or just wanting to see some sign that Labor might not be doomed at Saturday’s election, there was a reason to tune in. And he didn’t disappoint.
This format – alone in front of a live audience – is where Rudd reveals both his best and worst self. Best, in that he can let rip on issues where he feels real conviction. Worst, in that he has a terrible poker face where his temper is concerned. If he’s getting angry with a line of questioning, you can see it.
There was a little of both last night. He completely failed to break through on the issue of superannuation, and at one point looked ready to give host Tony Jones an ear-bashing when the latter challenged him on his constant use of the misleading ‘$70 billion black hole’ phrase. (For the record? The number was confirmed by both Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey and Shadow Finance Spokesperson Andrew Robb – but not during this election campaign, and not on the current set of Coalition policies.) On the other hand, his ability to admit where he’d made mistakes in the past, and to own those mistakes rather than make excuses, went over well with the audience.
Where both sides of the man came together was on the question of marriage equality – and it was an amazing thing to see.
The questioner described himself as a ‘pastor’, and gave a rambling statement about Rudd changing his position on various issues, before zeroing in on marriage. It wasn’t quite a case of a trembling finger of rage pointed from the pulpit, but it was close. The questioner actually quivered. It was clear that, whatever else he’d said, the real reason for his anger was that he felt personally insulted by Rudd’s change of heart on marriage equality.
Rudd started off mildly enough, but then asked the questioner whether his view was that homosexuality was normal. The pastor answered with the claim that ‘we’ – he and his fellow pastors – performed weddings between men and women, that the Bible was clear on marriage and homosexuality, etc, and why didn’t Rudd believe the words of Jesus. At that point, Rudd’s whole demeanour changed. His words became passionate, and his manner full of conviction; and he took the questioner to task. Watch it:
For political tragics (like your obedient correspondent) who loved The West Wing, it was a familiar moment – a leader pushed too far on questions of social justice, fighting back as a member of that religion. There was no doubt that Rudd didn’t give a damn about that questioner’s vote, or the votes of anyone who felt the same way. Nor was he simply trying to grab the so-called ‘gay’ vote – his earlier announcements on the subject of marriage equality had already signalled his intention to introduce legislation, and support it. Rudd, simply, was telling it like he saw it.
But there was something else going on, something not immediately obvious. Rudd’s answer wasn’t just a declaration of support for marriage equality. It was a line in the sand.
There are any number of people or groups on the other side of that line, including influential factional bosses of his own party such as Joe de Bruyn of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Union. Arguably the biggest, however, is the Australian Christian Lobby.
This group claims to represent ‘Australia’s Christians’. I’ve written before about the staggering misrepresentation in such claims, and how virtually no media outlet bothers to correct them. The ACL is homophobic, anti-choice, anti-secular education and little more than a mouthpiece for certain fundamentalist groups. Hiding behind the mantle of ‘Christian’, it has, in the past, successfully spooked Premiers, Prime Ministers and Opposition Leaders, and political parties have bent over backwards to answer the imperious ‘policy questionnaire’ it sends out at election time. (The notable exception is the Greens, which has, at least some of the time, politely told the ACL where it can put its questions.)
As the issue of marriage equality has grown in Australia, the ACL’s tone has become ever more shrill, to the point of hysteria. It seeks promises from political leaders that they will not tamper with the ‘sanctity of marriage’, and for the most part, the parties have made such promises. Whether directly – as in the case of the Rise Up Australia Party (another mouthpiece, this time for a Pentecostal church – Catch the Fire Ministries), or indirectly, as in Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s weasel words about a possible party room discussion sometime in the distant future, the ACL gets what it wants.
In the past, Rudd did his fair share of pandering to Australian Christians. Even then, his language was considerably less enthusiastic than some. During a 2007 ‘debate’ with former Prime Minister John Howard hosted by the ACL, Rudd repeatedly hammered the points of tolerance and diversity, and acknowledged the fact that Christians were not a homogenous mass devoid of individual thinking. Nonetheless, the fact he was prepared to take the time to address the ACL showed Rudd acknowledged its power as a lobby group.
Because, let’s not forget, that’s what the ACL is – a lobby group. The clue is in the name, people.
The pastor who angrily demanded of Rudd that he ‘live by Jesus’ words’ was Matt Prater, from New Hope Brisbane. It’s one of those ‘non-church churches’ that claims to provide an alternative to the mainstream churches – which, according to places like New Hope, have lost the ‘truth’ of God’s message. This is exactly the kind of place that signs up to the ACL.
Prater was singing from the ACL hymn book. He was not simply asking for a religious exemption from having to perform same-sex marriages – he believed all Australians must live by his church’s interpretation of select portions of the Bible (and the Old Testament, at that – Jesus was silent on the question of homosexuality and same-sex marriage). That’s called Dominionism (so-called ‘God’s kingdom on earth’), and it’s the backbone of the ACL’s principles. Nobody gets a choice, because ‘God knows best’, and the ACL (and its affiliates) know what God wants. And politicians have let these religious groups get away with it, giving them – at best – a cautious wag of the finger.
After last night, though, the ACL and those who subscribe to its tenets are on notice. Rudd signalled that, as far as the Labor Party is concerned, the ACL’s influence is irrelevant.
That might not be entirely true – never underestimate the power of the pulpit. Just ask the Catholics who were around when the Democratic Labor Party split off from the ALP in the 1950s. It’s possible Rudd hammered a pretty big nail in Labor’s coffin last night.
What matters, though, is that the issue of marriage equality last night become important enough that a major party was prepared to send a message to a big lobby group that it would rather do without the votes than compromise its support.
And – no matter what the outcome on Saturday – we shouldn’t lose sight of it.
Goodness knows there will be few enough moments of which we can really feel proud when we look back on this campaign. We should celebrate what we can.