Christians owe it to the nation not to desert the public square
Politics is often seen as an unseemly business. The German chancellor Otto von Bismarck once reportedly said: “To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making.” While this may be a truism in regard to political process, it should not be seen as a reflection upon every politician. Clearly, there are some who stand apart from the crowd.
One such politician is John Anderson AO, who is widely regarded as a man whose political priorities were always subservient to his faith in God and sense of duty to the people of Australia. Leader of the National Party and Deputy Prime Minister from 1999 to 2005, he retired from politics in 2007.
John is married to Julia and they have five children.
This interview is from the Winter 2013 AP publication.
John, you played a key role in the Howard government, rising to Deputy Prime Minister. What led you into this particular calling?
I really had no particular desire to enter public life, other than a broad interest in public policy and a desire to share my views on the issues of the day. As a young man I never had any ambitions to be a member of federal parliament or a deputy prime minister. When I found myself in those positions I was completely surprised.
The immediate reason for my entry into politics was that several senior party people, including my sitting member, Frank O’Keefe AM, urged me to do so. Frank was retiring and he thought I would be a good candidate for the seat. As a Christian, I saw this invitation as God opening the door on a new sphere of service for me, and in retrospect it certainly was.
Were there any particular qualities that they saw in your life that they thought especially suited you for a public life?
I became involved in politics shortly after the election of the Hawke government. I had just become the secretary of the local branch of the National Party (not willingly, I should add). One day in that capacity I had gone to a meeting of delegates in our region and our federal member, Frank O’Keefe, made some comments about the incoming government. He referred to one of them as “un-intellectual”, another as “someone who looked as though he hadn’t had a shower”, and a third, who had no sense of dress because he came into the chamber without wearing a tie. I passed a comment on what he’d said, and I began my opening remarks by declaring, “as someone who actually went to university, had a shower this morning, and is wearing a tie, I’d like to say x, y and z ….” and it caught his attention. I think he thought, “this young fellow can communicate”, and that became the trigger for him to become my sponsor. I was only 27 when I won the preselection – it was apparently a landslide – so I think I was too cock-sure by half, spruiking the advantages of youth. I now understand why the wisdom of years should not be so lightly dismissed. Nevertheless, my youth seemed to impress the delegates and they decided they wanted someone young. I won the right to run for the seat for the party. But between that time and the actual election in 1984, the electoral boundaries were redrawn and the seat was abolished. So I was left high and dry.
I subsequently ran when the member for the new electorate retired, and he prevailed upon me to run in his place. That was Ralph Hunt, a man for whom I had huge respect. He was a well known Presbyterian and again I felt God opening the doors. At that time I felt an almost irresistible call to continue to try those doors, even though I was not a particularly keen politician.
What do you mean by that?
I am much shyer than people realise, and I don’t enjoy the limelight. I do enjoy a robust debate, but that’s a different thing altogether. I have a real dislike of being in the media.
Is that for family reasons, or personal reasons?
It’s partly cultural, I think. My father believed that if you were going to be in the papers it should be on the sporting pages. Otherwise, no decent human being should feature in the media. It’s also partly because I find myself at variance with the values of almost all of the modern mainstream media. While I enjoy the company of many journalists, I simply cannot sit comfortably with their secularised, cynical, and disrespectful views of the world.
Did you have any particular life experiences that influenced your decision to go into politics?
I think we’re all a product of our upbringing. My mother died when I was very young and so my father had a sad life. I was always conscious of the courage with which he confronted it. He’d been badly injured during the Second World War. He had never wanted to be in the army and he loathed the whole idea of war and of conflict. Nevertheless, he felt it was his duty to defend Australia. That led me to have a deep commitment to duty.
My father was a nominal Christian but he did instil in me his strong moral conviction that telling the truth was of paramount importance no matter how small the matter. He also taught me the importance of doing your duty, even if I found it inconvenient and unappealing.
The formative influences on my political convictions took place in the mid-’70s, just before I went to university. I remember watching one of Sydney’s busiest arterial roads for over an hour in my last week of school. I think I saw only one or two cars pass by because the state had been hit with yet another major strike that crippled the oil refineries. The Redfern mail exchange was always out as well, so I couldn’t get my mail.
All this industrial unrest led Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister of Singapore, to warn Australia that it was in danger of becoming “the poor white trash of Asia”. Public finances and inflation were also out of control.
Not long after I began at university I remember that the Whitlam government was dismissed and I think I really believed that I belonged in a country that was in danger of fulfilling Lee Kuan Yew’s prophecy. I thought my generation was about to lose the kind of opportunities that should have existed in such a fortunate country.
What did you believe you could achieve through the political process?
I think with the benefit of hindsight I was a little naïve at the beginning. I have always believed that politics was important. For me, this meant communicating and translating good ideas into public policy. I was convinced this could be achieved through constructive debates where ideas are presented in mutually respectful ways. I thought that it was almost impossible to achieve good public policy outcomes from distorted and dishonest debate.
Sadly, our society is now so dominated by the influence of moral relativism that debates are rarely decided on the merits of the case. In fact, political discourse has become so debased that capable people with good ideas hold back because they don’t want to be demonised when their views run counter to the prevailing “political correctness”. As we listen to all the hype about how our best days are still in front of us, I don’t think we will find a way forward because we don’t know how to have an honest debate anymore. Although there are ways forward for Australia, I am not confident that we will secure that future.
You are obviously concerned about the present political process in Australia and its captivity to relativism and “spin”. How important is a strong moral sense to politics?
Politicians need to have strong moral sensibilities. I was fascinated to read in a recent editorial of The Asian Wall Street Journal this statement: “As Western culture asserts ever more proudly the superiority of its moral relativism, the more it might want to listen to religious traditions that argue on behalf of moral absolutes and the inherent dignity of every human being.” I don’t think I could have put it any more effectively. We need to realise that a debate conducted according to the rules of moral relativism will be a debate that very often fails to get to the truth of the matter, because the speaker and the audience believe that truth is both elusive and relative. I think this is a really serious situation and explains why politics is viewed by so many with disfavour.
Are politicians the ones to blame for this failure?
They are partly to blame. However, politicians are members of the broader society that put them there; they most often reflect the values of their constituents.
Recently at a large breakfast function a woman asked me: “Are you distressed by the standards of current public debate?” I replied by asking her: “Before I answer your question, may I ask how you feel about the way your children and grandchildren communicate with one another in social media behind the anonymity of a keyboard?” I sensed instantly that the whole room got the point. We’ve thrown civility away. I think that what’s happening in Canberra, Macquarie Street, other state parliaments, and in local government. It’s a reflection, unfortunately, of where we are as a society. When people ask me, “why can’t we have a more reasoned debate?” my response is that we can have such a debate if we allow others the courtesy to present their views without being interrupted, ridiculed and demonised for what they say. Until this happens, the possibility of fruitful debate will elude us.
Do you think the church is in some degree responsible for this state of affairs?
I suspect that one day God will put the church on the mat and asked why it has held on to the truth so lightly. In many sections of the Christian church people are no longer convinced that the truth is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ and that the Scriptures are true and trustworthy. This is what is undoing us in the church.
I was fascinated to hear a very senior Asian western observer say, “The West has become such a vacuum philosophically that it doesn’t know how to handle the strength of Islamic belief ”. I think he made a very good point. Many Christians have lost confidence in the reliability of the Bible and this, in turn, has left us uncertain and directionless in what we believe and how we should act.
Are some politicians too utopian in their hope for political reform?
Yes, because it’s not political reform we need. It’s a recovery of the beliefs that drove the values that drove the ethics that made us a free society.
As a Christian, are you concerned about governments becoming increasingly intrusive and interventionist?
I believe governments have an important but limited role. I think we need to understand that the idea of separation of church and state is a biblical one. It surely derives from Jesus’ statement that we are to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s”. We plainly have government for a good purpose: Paul says it is God’s agent to promote order, discipline and to restrain evil in society.
Since government is given the “power of the sword” to contain wickedness, authorities clearly have a responsibility to restrain evil in their own communities and to protect citizens against external threats. Frankly, I find it staggering that Australia now has the lowest defence budget in real terms since the 1930s, which was a very dangerous and unstable time. It was stupid then and it makes no sense now. We are living in a very unstable world with all sorts of tensions to the north. I think we are mistaken if we believe that we’ll be given our place at the international table when we are busily decimating our defence budget.
Conversely, I also think governments are involved in too many things that don’t concern them. I don’t think governments should be dictating our cultural values or insisting that our children be taught revisionist history. Nevertheless, politicians think they should be providing the nation with its cultural narrative and the “true” story of our past. That has only happened because our society no longer has an
overarching explanation of our past and present to which everyone subscribes. The fact that we’ve got to a stage where such a narrative is being provided by people for whom we have little respect – members of the political class – tells us something about our present condition.
I know I am using strong language but my great hope is that the situation in Australia can be reversed. However, our future will only be secured if we successfully confront the challenges before us. This will require a different set of attitudes reflected in better parliamentary debate and a greater willingness to own the decisions that arise from it, even if from time to time they are uncomfortable or make demands of us that we would prefer to avoid.
Do you think the government is making unwarranted intrusions into our lives today?
I have already mentioned how the political class is re-writing our cultural values, which I think is regrettable.
Beyond that, I am very concerned about the government’s approach to public finance. We’re in danger of going down the European road, where people think that it’s the government’s job – which really means the tax-payers’ job – to look after us.
Ever since the 1960s our society has increasingly become self-obsessed, and narcissistic. Self-gratification has become the order of the day and people are obsessed with material comfort. This has led to irresponsible borrowing and unpaid debt. And when debts can’t be paid people have said, “Well, the government – meaning, the tax-payers – must bail us out.” And then governments, made up of politicians wanting to be elected, have said “yes”, all too often.
Do you think religious freedom is a big issue in the West today?
Absolutely. The most basic and fundamental right of any man or woman in a free society is freedom of
thought and belief, and then the right to express that belief. It is being sacrificed today. I have little doubt that if we continue down the current road in a whole range of areas, it will become impossible and even illegal for Christians to express many of their beliefs in the public square. I can foresee a situation where my children will not be able to tell their children, as that the best place for sex is in the confines of a happy, committed, heterosexual relationship. It’s quite possible that in a few years’ time that would land them in court.
Are there other areas where you feel some deep concern?
One issue that concerns me is the proposed use of anti-discrimination legislation to restrain the right of churches and Christian institutions, including schools, to employ people who subscribe to their beliefs and values. I think those tendencies are very dangerous. I find it staggering that it’s so easy now to mock the church and Christian values. People ignore not only the basis for our free, civilised, and prosperous society, but fail to recognise that if you don’t occasionally tend to the soil in which the crops of your freedoms are grown, the crop will one day fail.
Are you satisfied that our Westminster federal system of government is in Australia”s best interests?
Yes, I believe it’s an unbelievable blessing. I am not convinced that we should revise our form of Westminster government because I don’t think the problem lies in the structure that our forefathers devised. I believe, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
I think the acknowledgment of the dignity of each individual and their right to have a say in their lives in the public sphere via the vote is a wonderful privilege. However, built into it are the checks and balances that no one individual can obtain power or exercise it for too long. And those things reflect our dual nature. We are stamped with the dignity of God and yet destroyed by our own self-serving.
What do you think is the most fruitful means of bringing about social renewal in a society today?
I believe that society is only the sum and total of the individuals that make it up. If change is to occur it will take place only because people are transformed by the renewing of their minds. It was the transformation of sufficient European minds (particularly in Great Britain) through the Reformation and the subsequent great revivals that so civilised our society. What a tragedy if we were to throw it away forever.