A cultural shift to the right ?
Quite a few commentators have argued that the leftward shift I have described on economic issues in Australia has been matched by a shift to the right on cultural issues. The strongest proponent of this claim has been Jack Strocchi, but the same point has been repeated here and elsewhere. The problem is that culture is a big field, and it’s not clear exactly what we are talking about. So I’ll try to discuss some more specific points.
Next, as argued below, I don’t think we are seeing a great religious revival, particularly a fundamentalist Christian revival. Still the census figures give marginal support to the idea of a shift to the right. By far the most significant development in Australia in this respect is the gradual shift away from nominal Christianity, represented by growing proportions of people declaring “no religion” at the census. After rising steadily until 1996, this proportion fell slightly in the 2001 Census, a fact recorded with some satisfaction by George Pell, who apparently sees Satanists as preferable to atheists (I guess there’s just a trivial change of sign involved).
fn1. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m not too concerned with theological distinctions here. I’m using “fundamentalist” as shorthand to refer to religious groups with a strong emphasis on traditional sexual morality, little concern with social justice, and a willingness to get involved in the conservative side of poltiics. If anyone can suggest a better one-word description, I’ll be happy to adopt it.
As far as sexual behavior, gender roles and so on are concerned, I don’t detect any significant shift to the right. Rather, it seems to me that the liberal program on these issues has been implemented almost completely at the political level. There are a few remaining issues like gay marriage and IVF, but it seems to me that attempts to use these as the basis of wedge politics have been unsuccessful. A lot of people are ambivalent about these issues but the basic liberal premise of letting people live their lives in their own way will, I think, prove too strong in the end. The same is true as regards legalised prostitution, censorship and so on.
On the other hand, there hasn’t been anything like the revolution that was hoped for by some in the 1960s and 1970s. Although most people now expect to have more than one partner, and not necessarily to undertake a formal marriage, the basic assumption that you should find one partner and (try to) stick with them hasn’t really changed, especially if children are involved. None of the alternatives to the nuclear family imagined in the 1960s have come to anything much.
And while the legal and social barriers to women’s participation in employment have been removed, it’s pretty clear that the modal preference of Australian families with children is for 1.5 incomes, with the man normally seeking to work full time and the woman part-time, while women do the majority of household work (and, I think, make the majority of household-level decisions).
Unlike economic rationalism/neoliberalism, though, the project of a radical transformation of the family never entered the mainstream political debate, and was never embraced by the policy elite on either side. So the fact that this transformation hasn’t happened doesn’t really help political conservatives.