John Howard has sounded an alarm about the culture war in Australia — warning that people are being “cowed” against stating their views on issues and that a dangerous anti-religious push has emerged — and branded as “pernicious” the Victorian government’s hostility to religious connections in schools.
Mr Howard said there was a “get Pell” mentality in “some sections of the media”, referring to Cardinal George Pell, who is about to answer questions before the child sex abuse royal commission and has been the subject of allegations of sex abuse by material coming from Victoria Police.
In relation to gay marriage, Mr Howard said: “There is nothing homophobic about supporting traditional marriage. Everybody did in the parliament in 2004.
“May I remind you that in 2004, when I inserted the definition in the Marriage Act, the Labor Party supported it. You ought to be able to have sensible discussion on these sorts of things. And you should be able to express a view on these things. But there is a sense in which people are so frightened of being accused of being discriminatory or intolerant that they don’t speak the commonsense view.”
Mr Howard said the standards of civil society in Australia were being undermined by a growing intolerance towards people who did not subscribe to a range of progressive views.
“I think the problem is that too few people are prepared to call it for what it is,” he said.
“I think people are cowed because they think, ‘I can’t say that because I might lose votes or I might offend somebody’.”
He said there was a new form of “minority fundamentalism” emerging, typified by the use of the anti-discrimination law in Tasmania to silence the Catholic Church from stating its position on marriage. Having read the document issued by the Catholic bishops, Mr Howard said: “How anyone can read that as offensive to people who favour same-sex marriage or gay or lesbian people is beyond me.”
He said the situation in Victoria under new guidelines for religious instruction was that “from now on you can sing Jingle Bells in schools but not Once in Royal David’s City or Silent Night”.
“This is pernicious,” he said. “I’m surprised there hasn’t been a greater outcry about it. Nobody is forced to believe in God. Nobody’s forced to follow Christianity. The observance of Christmas and all that goes with it is part of our culture. I must say I have never come across a person of the Jewish faith or of the Muslim faith who has complained that they have had Christianity forced upon them.”
Warning that such cultural intolerance would provoke a backlash, Mr Howard said one of the reasons Donald Trump was succeeding in the Republican primaries was that people felt he was speaking directly to them and shunning any political correctness.
While saying he “would tremble at the idea of Trump being President of the US”, Mr Howard said the Republican frontrunner was benefiting because other politicians refused to acknowledge public resentments. While he found some of Mr Trump’s comments “appalling”, his success was “a measure of how people feel”.
These comments recall his performance as prime minister when Mr Howard campaigned against political correctness, resisted the idea of a superior morality on the part of elites and had to manage the rise of Pauline Hanson, who exploited economic grievances.
Mr Howard expressed disappointment that the Abbott government had abandoned its proposed free speech changes to section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act after winning an election mandate on the issue. He said it was probably only with the Andrew Bolt case that people realised the application of this provision “was as spiteful as it turned out to be”.
Branding the climate of repression as “pernicious”, Mr Howard said there was “almost a fear” among people to articulate the views he was expressing because of concern they would “offend our multicultural ethos” or be “branded as intolerant”.
He said the Catholic Church as an institution had to be held to account for its cover-ups on child sexual abuse, given the number of priests who had been involved. But Mr Howard said: “It seems as if Cardinal Pell is being singled out to take the rap for the misdeeds of a whole lot of people and the evidence is that he was more active in trying to do something about it.”
He highlighted the fact one of Cardinal Pell’s critics, Father Frank Brennan, had recently warned of the need to ensure that Cardinal Pell, as a witness before the royal commission, was treated with integrity. Father Brennan said after the recent leaks of material originating from Victoria Police that the standing of the royal commission was an issue if one arm of a government involved in its commissioning was “engaged in unauthorised activity aimed at undermining the public standing of key witnesses”.
On same-sex marriage, Mr Howard said he would not have chosen a plebiscite. He felt the issue should be decided in parliament by a free vote. But, given the Abbott government had decided on the plebiscite path, the Turnbull government “had to honour that commitment”.
He said any authorisation of same-sex marriage had to contain religious freedom protections.
Reviewing the alienation of the public from the US political process, Mr Howard identified two fundamental differences between Australia and the US: Australia did not suffer the debilitating consequences of a constitutional bill of rights and the middle class had been supported by sustained real wage gains over recent decades, unlike the US. While warning that there were “sufficient similarities” between the two countries to make alienation from politics in this country a real risk, Mr Howard said Australia enjoyed distinct advantages.
“If I were an American, I would feel that it didn’t matter who you voted for because essentially the people you vote for can’t do anything, with gay marriage and Obamacare being decided by the courts,” he said.
“I have never embraced the idea that judges have infinitely more wisdom in making decisions about the social and economic future of the country than the rest of the population. One of the reasons some of these social issues are so hotly contested in the United States is that people don’t think they have been allowed to have their say.
“ I would be very concerned if we went down the American path and we gave to judges a power to determine these things.”