Fred Nile A.D. 2015

Timothy Lynch, Macquarie University

In March 2015, morals campaigner and veteran politician the Reverend Fred Nile was re-elected to the New South Wales Legislative Council, with his Christian Democratic Party receiving 2.75 per cent of the popular vote (NSW Votes 2015). During the election campaign, Nile had stressed two issues that are at the heart of his current political activities. First, he presented himself to the electorate as someone who had ‘campaigned hard’ for traditional moral values throughout his 34-year parliamentary career (Nile 2015b). This was an implicit acknowledgment that society has abandoned such values and that his political activity is now essentially symbolic. The second theme of his campaign concerned the threat posed to ‘our national heritage and freedoms’ by those wishing to implement sharia law and a ‘compulsory Islamic halal food tax’ in Australia. On one hand, this is, as his critics point out, a relatively recent area of concern for Nile. On the other, Nile’s antipathy to Islam is entirely consistent with his long-standing belief that Australia is under threat from malign, indeed diabolical, foreign influences.

A number of commentators had expressed surprise that Nile had decided to contest the 2015 election. They had assumed (as had I) that, having just turned 80 and been recently widowed and remarried, he would retire from his long political career. Since Nile did not do so, the sorts of detailed and highly critical accounts of his political achievements and legacy that might be expected did not appear. Journalist David Marr had, however, written such an assessment in 2008—interestingly, he also predicted that Nile would not retire in 2015. In an article called ‘The power of one’, Marr used such examples as abortion, the Gay Mardi Gras, legalised casinos and brothels and public advertisements that featured unclothed models to argue that ‘sooner or later, everything [Nile] rages against comes to pass’ (2008). He described Nile as having been unable to achieve much, if any, meaningful change despite his long tenure and periodic control of the ‘balance of power’ in the Legislative Council. According to Marr, Nile had more lately found it difficult to attract positive attention to the moral issues that most concerned him, and much of what had once been his constituency had been poached by John Howard and Pauline Hanson. He argued that this was the reason that Nile had become increasingly vocal on such issues as Islamic terrorism, refugees and immigration.

Nile had described Marr in his auto-
biography as one of his most jaundiced and unreasonable detractors.

For his part, Nile had described Marr in his autobiography as one of his most jaundiced and unreasonable detractors (2001, pp. 209–210). Yet Marr had, if anything, understated Nile’s political failures. This is not simply because he mentioned only a few examples of the sorts of law reforms and social changes opposed by Nile that subsequently came into effect. More fundamentally, the task that Nile and other conservative moralists set themselves in the 1970s proved impossible to achieve, and they were seriously mistaken about the nature of the changes then occurring in Australian society. In particular, they grossly overestimated the latent support in the community for their campaigns.

In the 1970s Nile and others had claimed that they would ‘keep Australia a decent clean society’ and thereby avert the danger that civilization would ‘crumble in ten years’ (cited in Cettl 2014, p. 78; see also Nile 2001, p. 147; Cameron 1984, p. 979). In 1973, Nile was active in the formation of the Australian Festival of Light, a group composed primarily of conservative Christians opposed to the legal reforms that had been implemented by Labor governments in Canberra and South Australia, or that were in the process of being implemented. In each case, these governments had recently come to power after decades of conservative rule. The Festival of Light was initially most concerned about the relaxation of censorship laws, which had actually commenced in 1970 under the Gorton Coalition government.

Nile and other leading members of the Festival of Light argued that only a small number of immoral and self-interested ‘misfits’ was in favour of such reforms, and they published dire warnings about the consequences of the introduction of such measures as ‘no-fault’ divorce laws, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality and recreational drugs (for example, Bowen 1985, p. 11; Nile 2001, p. 147; Shilton 1978, p. 7). They also claimed that the aims of their own movement were supported by the overwhelming, albeit silent, majority of Australians (Hilliard & Warhurst 1974, p. 16; Nile 2001, p. 94). Nile stood for the Senate only a year after the foundation of the Festival of Light, and then founded his own political party (initially known as Call to Australia) in 1977 and turned his attention to the New South Wales upper house.

In the 1970s Nile and others had claimed that they would ‘keep Australia a decent clean society’.

From the time of his election to the Legislative Council in 1981, however, Nile has witnessed a succession of New South Wales state governments, both Coalition and Labor, do considerably more than allow gambling and the commercial sex industry to flourish, and fail to outlaw abortion or the Mardi Gras. The seemingly outrageous predictions of the Festival of Light about the sort of society that would come about if secular humanists and other miscreants were able to implement their agenda have in fact been realised. Laws that criminalised homosexual activity were repealed, and the age of consent for male homosexuals was subsequently lowered. Inheritance and property rights were granted to same-sex couples, along with the right to adopt children. Liquor licensing has been effectively deregulated, and a ‘harm reduction’ approach to illegal drugs adopted (with a safe heroin injecting room established in Sydney’s Kings Cross).

The supposedly socially conservative Howard Federal Government, which came to power in 1996, made no changes to the availability or funding of abortions in Australia, and actually made the abortifacient RU486 more easily accessible. Howard also declined to take the measures demanded by Christian advocates to force Internet service providers to block pornographic websites, so that since the late 1990s pornography, including that of the most explicit and extreme kind, has been available to anyone with access to, and the ability to operate, a computer.

Nile’s claim that such reforms were enacted at the behest of a very small group ‘promoting’ or even ‘pushing permissiveness’ in Australia was always problematic (for example, Call to the Nation Committee, 1977; NSW Hansard 1982, p. 2107). Even before he entered Parliament, it was obvious that the ‘silent majority’ was more than willing to slide ‘down the slippery path to moral, social and spiritual decadence’ (Australian Federation of Festival of Light Community Standards Organisations 1990a, p. 1). Survey data of the 1960s and 1970s reveal ‘substantial support for a permissive stance’ on such issues as the availability of contraception, abortion and sex education, and the liberalisation of the laws relating to divorce, prostitution and liquor (for example, Hasleton 1975; Wilson & Chappell 1968). Australians also took immediate advantage of the removal of restrictive legislation in the 1970s. Pornography found a ready market, and audiences flocked to ‘R-rated’ films and theatrical performances that featured nudity, strong language and sympathetic portrayals of homosexuality. The 1973 ‘sex-comedy’ Alvin Purple remains one of the ten most profitable Australian films ever made (Film Victoria n.d.). Risqué television soap operas also proved very popular, and one of the first political activities conducted by the Festival of Light was a demonstration outside the Sydney headquarters of the network that broadcast Number 96 and The Box, the two best-rating programs on Australian television (Nile 2001, p. 93).

Nile gradually ceased making assertions about the Festival of Light marshalling the silent majority.

The number of divorces in Australia dramatically increased following the introduction of the Family Law Act of 1975 and, although the divorce rate subsequently declined, it remained higher than at any time prior to the reform. A significant number of Australians were obviously keen to take advantage of what Nile called ‘The Family Destruction Act’ (2001, p. 147). This reform was itself a response by the government to popular dissatisfaction with laws that had made violent and otherwise unhappy marriages difficult to end. Economic and demographic factors, including the transformation of the Australian economy, the increasing participation of women in the workforce and the end of the ‘booming’ post-war birth rate, had fundamentally changed Australians’ ideas about the status of women, parenting, domestic violence and the rights of children. Morally conservative attitudes to monogamy and promiscuity, the belief that marriage was ‘for life’ and that unhappy couples should remain together ‘for the sake of the children’ had themselves become minority views by the 1970s (de Vaus 2004, p. 23; Kaspiew et al. 2009, A–3; Riches 1979, p. 212).

Nile gradually ceased making assertions about the Festival of Light marshalling the silent majority and preventing the collapse of the morals of the nation. He began instead to issue ‘call[s] to all Australians’ to join his effort to ‘reverse the … process of social disruption and conflict in our … society’ (Call to Australia 1987, p. 5). Thereafter he found it necessary to stress the role of ‘Christians and churches’ in bringing about the miraculous transformation of ‘a nation … where greed, materialism and selfishness are the dominant creeds, and where impurity, immorality and anti-God movements are rampant’ (Australian Federation of Festival of Light Community Standards Organisations 1990b, p. 2). In more recent times, Christian Democrat electoral and other broadcasts, and publications such as Family World News, which Nile edits, have emphasised his ‘faith’ and ‘tireless’ advocacy, and they either avoid discussing any actual achievements or point to measures that he has ‘introduced’ into Parliament or ‘lobbied for’, or for which he is still ‘fighting’ (‘Christian Democratic Party’s Annual Dinner’ 2014a; Simon 2014). Nile has his sympathisers in the media, such as the contrarian conservative commentator Miranda Devine, who either cite or defend him as they castigate feminists, ‘leftists’ and others. Even they, however, apparently regard Nile as someone who engages only in well-meaning but sometimes counter-productive political gestures (for example, Devine 2009, 2012, 2013).

Nile’s antipathy to Islam is relatively new.

Nile’s antipathy to Islam is, as Marr and others have claimed, relatively new, and the electoral material and campaign information on his social media indicate that he has used it to attract the support of members of Middle Eastern Christian congregations as well as the more xenophobic of ‘Howard’s battlers’ (for example, Christian Democratic Party 2015; Nile 2015a ). However, there are continuities here with Nile’s condemnations of those whom he believed sought to ‘overthrow’ Australia or ‘our Australian way of life throughout his career’. In the 1970s, he accused the ‘deviants’ campaigning for reforms to laws relating to drugs, censorship and homosexuality of weakening the moral fibre of Australians, and thereby their ability to resist foreign invasion. Others involved in such campaigns were supposedly dupes or even agents of Moscow (Australian Federation of Festival of Light Community Standards Organisations 1975; Hilliard & Warhurst 1974, pp. 15–16; Nile 2001, p. 86, pp. 105–106). In a more apocalyptic vein, some were accused of either deliberately or unwittingly doing Satan’s destructive work (Southern Cross Crusade 2000AD 1990, p. 3; Australian Federation of Festival of Light Community Standards Organisations 1990a, p. 3).

Shortly before the 2015 election, an article in Family World News exhorted readers to pray for God’s help in overcoming both Satanic designs on Australia and the Islamic threat to the world (‘Prayerpoints’ 2014, p. 8). Its author also called on God to bring about the ‘special destiny of Australia, the Great Southland of the Holy Spirit’, and to maintain ‘His special supernatural favour’ for Nile and his Christian Democratic colleague in the Legislative Council. The article thus not only conflated Islam and the diabolical, but linked both to Nile’s lifelong view of the troubles of the world and the role that he and his supporters have in addressing them. Nile and his coterie regard themselves as divinely chosen to stand up against evil, but they now realise that they must rely on the miraculous power of God, rather than the support of a moral majority of Australians, if they are to prevail against it.

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Dr Timothy Lynch is a tutor in Anthropology at Macquarie University and The University of Sydney. He is co-ordinator of the Open University program for the Department of Anthropology, Macquarie University.