Home » Columns

Costello’s hopes should have burned out after sermon

23 February 2009 1,174 views No Comment

PETER Costello’s chances of heading the nation should have been extinguished, not because he failed to grab the shadow treasurer’s position offered last week or because he continues to posture around his backbench pew like a Morris dancer, every time there’s a leadership issue in the Coalition. No. He’s blown it via a video featured on YouTube, which has shocked many loyal Liberal voters who are left wondering what the hell he stands for these days.

I’m referring to Costello’s videoed Australia Day address to the Catch The Fire Ministries. There seems little doubt that he produced this cinematographic epic at the request of Pastor Danny Nalliah, head honcho of the firebrand US Pentecostal-style church. Nalliah is the man who claims that Victoria’s burned and broken townships were the result of a vengeful God getting his own back on sinners, who allowed new abortion laws into the state. Informed Liberal voters will also know Nalliah is from a rival party: Family First.

So why would Costello make a film to support a candidate of another party? Could it be to cement political ties with Family First in the Senate or even to cement personal ties with a newfound Pentecostal God. But supporting someone who would later blame Victorians for their dreadful sufferings, even as they lay burned and bleeding in intensive care units across the state, showed extremely poor judgment on Costello’s part. Yes, he outwardly showed outrage at Nalliah’s comments but he sought no formal apology from the Pentecostal preacher and made no comment about his ongoing relationship with Australia’s Pentecostal movement. If Costello were a serious contender to the Liberal throne, he would have publicly ended it then and there.

Costello’s video is both disturbing and laughable at the same time. If you’ve seen a couple of episodes of the new forensic body language TV show, Lie To Me , Costello’s facial expressions take on extra meaning. The angled eyebrows, the omniscient and pontifical smile and the flicking tongue. He’s the Tom Cruise of Australian politics. Don’t worry about balancing budgets and dumping deficits, Saint Peter is now out to save Australia’s soul with his own brand of politicised religion.

Like the Pope or the Dalai Lama he welcomed the faithful to the video with, “I bring you special greetings …”. And then, “What greater gift is there than the gift that God has given us in Jesus Christ and the Cup of Salvation?” It’s already sounding like an excerpt from The Da Vinci Code . “One of the things that has been absolutely central to the development of Australia and the foundation of our society is that biblical heritage; that heritage we have through the scriptures and the Ten Commandments. It’s been the basis of our peaceful tolerance of each other and of order …” What can you say? Government policies on employment, social welfare etc don’t count toward maintaining law and order? And how many “Christians” attended the Cronulla riots? “If we walk away from those God-given commandments then we as a society will be threatened with the breakdown of that order, will be threatened with losing our heritage and losing opportunities. There are many people today that are telling us that religion is all a lot of superstition, that the laws that have been laid down; and respect for individuals and property; and for our creator are a load of nonsense. If we fall for that trap, if Australia falls for that trap, then the very basis of our society and its order will be threatened.”

Is this really the language of someone who is able to separate church and state? It’s certainly the language of someone who sees himself as part of a group of religious adherents (“we”) that are separate from the rest of us (“Australia”). Costello’s allusions to the God-fearing start to the nation are laughable. So is his fuzzy logic that draws respect for individuals and property as one and the same with a religious outlook on life. In case he hadn’t noticed, there have been hundreds of pedophile priests and ministers before the courts in the past 25 years. But it’s his fear that we will all be swallowed up by a big black hole if we abandon religion that is at the heart of his video. For most rational Australians the fear of a bushfire or a market meltdown surely must loom larger.

Notwithstanding this, the gist of what he said is not all that different from a speech he gave to the Hillsong Church a few years ago. It was primarily the delivery and the commitment that dramatically intensified in his message to the Catch the Fire Ministries.
So is Australia really ready for a leader with strong links to US style, fire and brimstone evangelism? I think not. Especially as Costello’s addresses to religious groups rival in number the very few speeches he’s delivered in recent times to the federal parliament.
We already have a Prime Minister who is the titular head of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship. Since Kevin Rudd’s ascendancy, this group in federal parliament is rumoured to have grown to more than 90 members. In a democracy you’d expect that the ratio of committed Christians in the parliament would mirror the same ratio as it is in the community. Far from it. Using figures from the latest census and the 2006 National Church Life Survey on the numbers of Australians who call themselves committed Christians, there should be 19 members of the PCF, not 90. So how is the political culture of a large secular nation such as Australia being seemingly hijacked by the nation’s Christian churches?

And it’s not just at the federal level. The NSW Liberal Party has been heavily infiltrated by Opus Dei and recently members from both Liberal and Labor parties supported Fred Nile’s benchmark moralist call to ban topless bathing on Sydney beaches and take us back to the time of Queen Victoria. And while the Christian Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, used the Quakers to rally against John Howard’s involvement in Iraq and Rudd holds up Christian theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer as personal role models, they never mention the insidious effect that the Australian Catholic Bishops have on gay rights or the Australian Christian Lobby on internet filtering.

For a while at 3pm on Saturday, Costello’s Australia Day address was temporarily taken down from YouTube with the message “This video is no longer available”. Fortunately for those of us interested in freedom of speech and expression, it was back up again a couple of hours later. As the majority of the comments make clear, it’s scary stuff.

The Australian, February 23, 2009