The mystery of the Nile

Tony Smith, The University of Sydney

Fred Nile Fred Nile: An Autobiography, Strand Publishing, 2001 (261pp). ISBN 187-682-579-0 (paperback) RRP $19.95.

We learn about politics and Members of Parliament from scholarly writing, biographies, primary materials such as Hansard, and media reports. Perhaps the most controversial and deservedly suspect observations are found in memoirs. While there are exceptions, most such accounts are at best optimistic recollections and at worst, blatant attempts at retrospective self-justification.

Readers’ reactions to Fred Nile: An Autobiography are likely to be as polarised as the opinions people hold of this controversial parliamentarian. Reverend the Honorable Fred Nile has been a Member of the Legislative Council of New South Wales since 1981, originally as a representative of ‘Call To Australia’ and more recently as the leader of the Christian Democrats. Since 1988, Fred’s wife, Elaine, has been a member of the same Chamber. Most of the controversy surrounding Nile is directly attributable to the outspoken behaviour resulting from his decision to pursue fundamentalist religious goals in the secular atmosphere of New South Wales politics.

There are two reasons that the memoir seems an appropriate conduit for Nile to use. First, in this book he is able to bypass the media that he accuses of being hostile and unfair. Secondly, much of the motivation to which Nile attributes his political actions arise from private sources that are inaccessible to others and certainly can never be discovered through empirical observation.

First, it is understandable that Nile pursues the theme of media bias. Few Australian parliamentarians have been criticized so often or so bitterly for attempting to mould society to suit their personal beliefs, but party discipline means that few M.P.s have their personal beliefs interrogated. Occasionally parties allow ‘conscience’ votes, and on occasion a tearful M.P. refuses to toe the party line, but generally, backbenchers support the stance of the party to which they owe their preselection. By contrast, Members of minor parties and independents carry personal responsibility for a range of policies.

If the Sydney media have not given Nile balanced reportage, this is less because they have trivialised his attempts to apply the Bible literally to social issues, than because they have ignored his more moderate parliamentary work, but this is of course, a problem for all backbenchers and crossbenchers. Many readers will be ignorant of Nile’s contributions to legislation relating to Aboriginal Land Rights and tobacco advertising, and to inquiries into the intended closures of facilities such as the Letona Co-operative cannery and the Seaforth TAFE College. Few will be surprised however, by his sponsorship of current private members bills relating to public nudity, discrimination against heterosexuals, police powers, and life sentences, because his public image is of a wowser who advocates draconian punishments, even for crimes that have come to be accepted as victimless.

Secondly, Nile seeks to reveal his inner motivations. The cover blurb invites the reader to ‘Meet the Real Fred Nile’, but most observers probably think that he has always worn his heart on his sleeve very conspicuously.

Nile called his first speech a ‘call to arms’ and embarked on ‘prayer warfare’.

No reader will doubt Nile’s earthy reality as he recalls his working class origins. Nile was born in Kings Cross in 1934, so it is natural that he had developed firm views on the world before his election to the New South Wales Parliament in 1981. Psycho-biographers will be pleased that Nile describes his early years including his parentage—‘a Kings Cross taxi driver and a Kings Cross waitress’—an early addiction to gambling, his asthma, the influence of the war years, and his schooling at Mascot Public and Cleveland Street High Schools. Nile provides a sketch of a humble young man struggling to make ends meet as he pursues his chosen occupation. It is easy to warm to Nile as he tends gardens to survive and struggles with his studies, and especially when he reveals that his attitude to authority was far from perfect. He was something of a rebel at Bible College and belonged to a guerilla organisation dedicated to subverting the College’s strict regulations regarding communication between males and females. His code name in this secret society was ‘Nasser’.

Unfortunately, there is a distinct air of unreality about those sections where Nile probably thinks he is explaining himself best. When he attributes his motivations to direct revelations or insights or refers to ‘the word of God’, the memoir becomes over-simplistic and superficial.

The reader might manage a wry grin when Nile reports that God spoke to him in very specific terms, but problems arise when he assumes that others are motivated in similarly unearthly ways. This psychologising is a little reminiscent of President Bush’s assumption that anyone who is not for him is against him. In the black-and-white world, if you are not motivated by God, then you must be under the ‘influence of Satan’ like the organisers of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, or ‘deluded by the devil’ like some sincere politicians.

Early on, Nile referred to ‘unsaved’ friends, a label that seems terribly demeaning, and how he got away with attributing Elaine’s ‘unpredictable temperament’ to her Irish ancestry is anyone’s guess. Nile called his first speech a ‘call to arms’ and embarked on ‘prayer warfare’, appropriate terminology given that his greatest fear has been the ‘religious fifth columnists’ such as authors Ted Noffs (1979), John Shelby Spong (1991) and Barbara Thiering (1992, 1995) whose heresy consists in seeking to ‘modernise’ the Bible. His reference to the founding fathers as men who thought they were establishing a Christian Commonwealth Constitution, seems unfortunately archaic considering the pressures that have been brought to bear on Islamic Australians since 11 September.

Nile seems to have transferred most of his questioning and humility to his relationship with God. At numerous points he relates being beset by doubt, almost to the point of being immobilised. Then God spoke and all doubt vanished. God told him that his wife Elaine should join him in the New South Wales Legislative Council. God also granted him three signs that parliament was an appropriate location for a Christian: the chamber was originally a pre-fabricated church, the Members said prayers, and a Minister had been appointed to the Council in 1842!

Outside parliament, Nile’s achievements have been considerable.

Two major problems confront the reader who does not share Nile’s specific form of Christian faith. The first is that objectively, the voice of God has no more authority than any other inner voice. This is not to belittle Nile’s decisions. On the contrary, it is desirable that every person consults his or her conscience and acts in good faith. Nile’s critics would argue that resort to a fundamental religious position has prevented him from affording that same dignity to those of different opinion. The second problem is that when you can dismiss your doubts so readily, certainty can develop into dogmatism.

Outside parliament, Nile’s achievements have been considerable. He worked for the Wesley Mission and his Outreach role among the disadvantaged seems to have been inclusive and generous. He played leading roles in the activities of his chosen conduits—the Festival of Light, the Family Action Movement and Call to Australia. He wrote for the Sunday Telegraph and broadcast on 2GB, and helped organise visits by Jerry Falwell, Mother Teresa, Mary Whitehouse and Malcolm Muggeridge. These became his role models.

There is no doubt that Nile showed great courage through the years taking unpopular stances on issues such as abortion, censorship, drug law reform, family law, HIV and the Mardi Gras. This is the memoir of an idealist, but one who has little idea of how to pursue those ideals in an imperfect human society and who has no intention of being accommodative. Nile stresses his compassion for people, but he seems to be continually engaged in personal conflicts. When he used the term ‘witch-hunt’ for example, this caused great offence, whereas it is doubtful that others would have evoked such a passionate response. Perhaps because he has always felt besieged himself, he does not fully appreciate his own power to offend.

Democratic politics requires a degree of equality and this demands acknowledging that your opponents have as much right to put their case as you claim for yourself. Most observers would agree that Nile has been sincere in his religious convictions and that he has stuck to his principles—something that most parliamentarians aspire to do. Others however, would conclude that when he refuses to accept that his opponents are anything but evil, Nile’s fervour becomes egotism. Even when he compliments the media’s few ‘true professionals’, he sounds as though he is pontificating.

The story is told mostly in a good humour and occasionally the funny side is irresistible even to Nile’s serious world-view. Most parliamentary motions are carried ‘on the voices’ because everyone knows what the numbers are going to be. If two Members call for a Division however, then the bells are rung and the ‘ayes’ and ‘noes’ are recorded in Hansard. Once, when the Niles wanted Members to have their votes made public, they were the only ‘noes’. When their opponents pointed this out, Nile responded that invisible angels were on their side.

This memoir will deepen the divide between Nile’s supporters and his opponents.

Some wit responded ‘Angels don’t vote’. And of course this represents exactly the Nile enigma. There are no saints in parliament and indeed no saints in this earthly world, and to judge people by religious standards is inappropriate in any society, not just a ‘secular’ one. The term ‘Christian Democrats’ expresses Nile’s dilemma well. Nile might see his God as a benevolent dictator, but he conjures up an image of an authoritarian, vengeful Old Testament figure, to be feared rather than loved. Nile states a tolerant personal philosophy of loving the criminal and hating the crime. It would be tragic for the Christian Democrat Leader if the bulk of the Australian population ended up respecting Fred Nile the man, but deploring his message.

Nile has certainly remained loyal to those he represents, and in some ways, it is a pity that the many voters who trust him so well are not mentioned in the book’s dedication. It is a pity also that there is no index to assist the reader to locate material in an account that is partly chronological and partly thematic.

Most political memoirs are written in the knowledge that private impressions of public events are subjective. Fred Nile’s autobiography operates on the premise that informs his approach to politics. He expects that others should trust his judgment and accept that his personal experiences have objective validity. The cover blurb expresses a hope that Nile’s story will be of interest to both supporters and opponents. It is sure to be of interest, but this memoir is more likely to deepen the divide between those camps than to bring them closer together.

REFERENCES

Noffs, Ted (1979) By What Authority? Sydney, Methuen.

Spong, John Shelby (1991) Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: a Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture, San Francisco, Harper.

Thiering, Barbara (1992) Jesus the Man: a New Interpretation from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Sydney, Doubleday.

_____ (1995) Jesus of the Apocalypse: the Life of Jesus Christ after the Crucifixion Sydney, Doubleday.

Further biographical details of Reverend the Honorable Fred Nile M.L.C. and a transcript of his first speech can be found online at: http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/web/PHWeb.nsf/Members!OpenFrameSet.

Tony Smith is Associate Lecturer in Government and International Relations at The University of Sydney.

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