The decision of the Prime Minister to withdraw from the ACL’s conference has raised questions about the capacity of political leaders to legitimise or challenge the views of particular groups.
Jim Wallace’s most recent diatribe has left no doubt that the ACL is not representative of the Christian community; rather it is the mouthpiece of a hardline minority.
How to manage such groups is vexed in a pluralist democracy like Australia. While some advocate starving them of oxygen, for others confronting discriminatory language is seen as the only way to defeat it.
Gillard is not the first Australian prime minister to confront this dilemma.
John Howard, for instance, was forced to choose between two options when dealing with the spectre of One Nation; ignore Hanson in the hope she would fade away or repudiate her. He chose the former approach.
The problem for Howard was that this was never seen as a genuine effort to contain One Nation, but rather tacit approval of Hanson’s views. By the time Howard did move to repudiate her, the damage had already been done.
Gillard is also not the first prime minister to court the ACL and despite the perception that this was a natural constituency of the conservatives, Kevin Rudd pursued the group aggressively. Using his Christian ethos to oppose the ravages of economic rationalism, Rudd sought to challenge the relationship between the Liberals and the Christian Lobby.
Gillard has sought to follow a similar strategy, but the prominence of the issue of gay marriage during her prime ministership has put the nature of the ACL’s platform under the spotlight. As a result, Gillard has found herself on the wrong side of the debate.
In a scenario not dissimilar to Howard’s treatment of One Nation, Gillard has tried to walk both sides of the street in her dealings with the ACL. While openly declaring herself an atheist, she has emerged as an unlikely champion of the Bible and shares the group’s opposition to gay marriage. In agreeing to speak at the ACL’s conference, Gillard was no doubt intending to further strengthen her conservative credentials.
Wallace has form when it comes to making offensive and provocative statements, but last week was a bridge too far for Gillard and she moved quickly to distance herself from the ACL – dumping the conference.
Beyond Blue’s Jeff Kennett has argued, however, that the Prime Minister should have still attended and made the most of this opportunity to challenge Wallace’s views. The fact that the ACL has refused Kennett’s offer to take Gillard’s place suggests an invitation would never have been extended to the Prime Minister if she was expected to challenge the group’s views. But Kennett is right when he argues that discrimination and bigotry must be countered at every opportunity.
All too often fringe groups are able to spread fear and misinformation to their members unchallenged and here the authority of the position of prime minister can be used as a powerful weapon against ignorance. Such an intervention can also send a message to the broader community that these views are out of step with mainstream values.
For instance, while Howard was wrong-footed on One Nation, he showed real leadership on the issue of gun control. By assertively taking on the gun lobby he risked alienating some of the hardliners of his own constituency, but won plaudits from mainstream Australia in the process.
Gillard herself has shown a capacity to take on her more extreme opponents. Her interview with Alan Jones is a case in point, where the Prime Minister faced-off against the hostile interviewer and his audience.
In order for the intervention to work, however, a leader must draw on their own conviction to stare down their opponents. Simply treating these groups as constituencies that must be courted and appeased, rather than challenged, can only legitimise their agendas. There is no point going into the lion’s den expecting to win votes.
The ACL’s money and profile makes it a disproportionately powerful group in Australia. Gillard’s association with the lobby can only have reinforced that. Gillard is now moving quickly to distance herself, but she has been caught out backing the wrong side.