Is Abbott Sending Holy Smoke Signals?
By Mike SeccombeAugust 30, 2013
Very little goes uncalculated on the campaign trail. So what was Abbott trying to tell us by speaking at a school with fundamentalist Christian values?
Tony Abbott’s choice of venue for the launch of the Coalition schools policy was telling.
It was a non-state school, of course, as might be expected from a Liberal Party that strongly favours private over public education.
Notwithstanding its eleventh-hour endorsement of the Labor government’s school funding reforms, based on the Gonski review, the Liberal Party as a whole maintains its long-standing elitist approach to school education.
Pretty obviously the Coalition’s recent conversion to the cause of needs-based funding of schools was made entirely cynically, on the basis of a perceived need to neutralise an issue on which the party was vulnerable to public opinion. One day education spokesman Christopher Pyne was bagging it and saying there was nothing wrong with the current funding model; literally the next, the Opposition policy had been reversed.
First Abbott said a Coalition government would honour Labor’s funding deal with the states for one year. Then, a few weeks back, when Abbott announced he had changed his mind and now was on a “unity ticket” with the government in respect of school funding, that promise expanded to four years.
However most of the money will not be spent in those four years. The bulk of the federal contribution to the Better Schools Plan, some $7 billion of the $10 billion, will come in years five and six.
So, by agreeing to a unity ticket on Gonski for four years, the Coalition has only put itself on the hook for about $3 billion.
Furthermore, if you read the education policy Abbott announced, with its coded suggestion of semi-privatising 1,500 state schools, it becomes clear the Coalition is as intent as ever on subverting the state-school system.
But we digress. Let’s get back to Abbott’s choice of venue for the policy launch – Penrith Christian School – and what it tells us about the next Prime Minister of Australia.
It is not the sort of non-government school which one usually associates with the Liberal Party. It is not one of those pillars of the establishment like Malcolm Turnbull’s alma mater, Sydney Grammar, or Julie Bishop’s St Peter’s Girls School, Adelaide. Nor is it a pillar of the Catholic establishment, such as St Ignatius Riverview, which produced Abbott himself, as well as the Nats’ Barnaby Joyce.
No, indeed, Penrith Christian School is not like them at all. The schools attended by the majority of Abbott’s front bench, while technically denominational, are more redolent of privilege than faith.
Not so PCS. The name says it all. It is a Christian school, fundamentalist Christian. On its website is a lengthy “statement of faith”. And the articles of faith included in it would, I suggest, be just a little surprising to the average secular Australian.
Divine healing for one.
“We trust our heavenly Father to protect and heal our bodies from sickness and disease…” it says. One wonders how a parent might compose a note to the school authorities, informing them of a sick child. Perhaps something like this? “Sorry, little Johnny will not be in today. God is apparently angry at him, and has not cured his pneumonia.”
PCS students are presumably not taught about evolution, for the statement of faith dictates: “We believe that the heavens and the earth and all original life forms, including humanity, were made by the specific immediate creative acts of God as described in the account of origins presented in Genesis, and that all biological changes which have occurred since creation are limited to variation within each species.”
But wait, it gets better. Not only are students required to “believe in the personality of the devil” who seeks to destroy Christian faith, but are threatened that if they “reject and despise” the Christian God they will suffer “the everlasting punishment of the wicked (in the sense of eternal torment)”. The parentheses are the school’s.
Naturally enough, the PCS articles of faith dictate that “the sexual act between a man and a woman, in the state of Holy Matrimony, to be the only pattern for sexual relationships endorsed, blessed and approved by God”.
It follows, therefore that “homosexuality and specific acts of homosexuality are an abomination unto God, a perversion of the natural order and not to be entered into by His people”.
And “the practice of attempting to or changing one’s gender through surgical and/or hormonal or artificial genetic means is contrary to the natural order ordained by God”.
We could go on, but that pretty much hits the highlights.
Now, there’s no suggestion Tony Abbott endorses these tenets of PCS. In fact he later specifically disagreed with the school’s views on homosexuality. But in the tightly controlled Abbott election campaign, that school was not chosen by accident.
So, was the choice motivated by politics or values?
It’s not a new distinction, in reference to the Opposition leader. In his incisive Quarterly Essay on Abbott a year ago, David Marr noted that before entering politics proper, there was only one Tony Abbott: the fiercely aggressive student of B.A. Santamaria who made little effort to hide his Catholic fundamentalist world view. This Marr called “values Abbott”.
Later came “politics Abbott”, who no longer so dogmatically enunciated those values.
But, Marr wondered, how could one work out which is the real Abbott?
“What,” Marr asked, “has been abandoned? What is merely hidden on the road to power?”
Subsequently, correspondence came to light between Abbott and his mentor Santamaria, dating to the time when Abbott had decided against life in the priesthood, and was moving towards politics.
The most interesting of the letters comes from late 1987, when Abbott was still a reluctant Labor voter, and trying to work out how he could carry the socially conservative values of Santamaria’s National Civic Council (NCC) into public life.
As recorded in a lengthy piece on the letters, “Abbott confessed he was sick of the NCC criticising unwelcome social and political trends from the sidelines. He wanted to change society by working from within.”
But he was indecisive about which of the major political parties was the better vehicle for carrying forward those views.
In his correspondence with Santa, Abbott worried that if the ALP were not “dominated” by Santamaria-style ideas, it would succumb to “the grip of the Left or of soulless pragmatists”.
The Liberal Party, on the other hand, was “without soul, direction or inspiring leadership”, and its members were divided between “surviving trendies and the more or less simple-minded advocates of the free market”.
Well, we all know now that Abbott decided to go with the soulless Libs.
But as we come to the end of this election campaign, which he will almost certainly win, it’s worth going back to the beliefs of values Abbott.
The NCC cites five “primacies”, which speak to its social conservatism, its hostility to the economic prescriptions of both the socialist left and the free-market right, and its strong belief in “Judeo-Christian values”.
Now, look at Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme, his relatively moderate position on industrial relations, his declaration this week that notwithstanding what he called a “Budget emergency”, he is prepared to take a decade if necessary to bring the Budget back to surplus.
These are not the values of the majority of the modern Liberal Party. These are the values of someone who accords primacy to his conservative social views.
One gets the feeling there is still much – apart from his policy costings – which Abbott is hiding. And one might wonder whether, once he has won the election, things will be revealed which will surprise the rationalist right of his own party.
Of course we can’t be sure yet, but every so often we get little clues to the continued existence of the old values Abbott.
Like the education policy launch at a Christian fundamentalist school. It’s like every now and then, he can’t resist the urge to stick it up both the secular/humanist left and the reptilian right.