Tony Abbott and the Reformation

As a good Catholic Tony Abbott probably doesn’t think too much of the Reformation but  reading a recent chapter in a forthcoming book made the blog think about some similarities between the Abbott Government’s first months and the Church’s response to the Protestant revolution.

The chapter is Power, control and religious language: Latin and vernacular contests in the Christian Medieval and Reformation periods. It’s written by Professor Peter Horsfield (a friend from RMIT) and will appear in the forthcoming Religion, media and social change (Routledge) edited by Kenneth Granholm, Marcus Moberg and Sofia Sjo. Peter’s chapter is about “Language (as) a fundamental component of communication and therefore a fundamental component of in the formation of individual and social identities, the shape of social knowledge, the functioning of social relationships and the constructions and contests of social power.”

The example of such a contest which struck the blog as having great contemporary relevance was the section in the chapter on the Reformation and the Catholic Church’s response. It is now a well-known story about how the printing revolution accelerated the pace of the Reformation and allowed Luther and others to reach out to wide national audiences in their own languages. The reformers were, as a result, revolutionaries using a revolutionary new communication medium, the printing press. On the other hand, as Peter points out, the Church was reliant on authority, oral communication and the confident assumption that it was right and its opponents wrong. “Luther’s media strategy presented his Catholic critics with a dilemma. In order to counter Luther effectively they had to so where he was having greatest impact: in the market, in the vernacular. Yet to do so undermined the grounds on which the church held its authority and power: that church leaders were the proper determiners of religious truth, not lay people.”

Sounds a bit like the current Government. They ‘know’ the truth, have centralised authority in the PM’s office with the senior ‘cardinal’ being his adviser Peta Credlin, and they respond to criticism by re-asserting their ideology and beliefs, condemning or removing contradictory advice and voices and relying on the official Latin gospel (in this case the News Corp tablets of ideological purity) and the oral communications of a small group of shock jocks. The Government even has its own Index of condemned heretical phrases, publications and communication outlets (the ABC, Guardian, Fairfax, Garnaut’s climate policy report and the Gonksi report).

They also have secular princes in the business community endorsing the ideology, Leigh Clifford on trade unions and Tony Shepherd on how government should function, even though these princes seem to have a few problems with their day jobs which might need sorting out before telling the rest of us what government should do.

In such a situation the Church couldn’t win against the reformers and had to play catch up later on by increasing reliance on its propaganda rather than simply relying on its authority. The Abbott style is confrontational and that of his office controlling. All in all a bit like the Church in the time of the Reformation. Now the Church did have some successes with the Counter Reformation and divisions among the Protestants became as acute as those between the Church and its critics. So Abbott and Credlin might have similar success. But the Abbott government can’t rely on the stake and the auto de fe (even metaphorically) to help silence critics, although history suggests the method is limited in effect because it creates martyrs, and the printing revolution has been supplemented by an even more extensive set of media outlets and channels and an audience broadly literate which makes it easier for critics to be heard.

Making the transition from Government to Opposition is often difficult. After 1996 the Beazley led Opposition made the mistake of thinking like a responsible government until it was too late and then just looked a bit ineffectual in doing so. Making the transition from Opposition to Government is also difficult (but a much preferable situation than the other transition) but a lot of it depends on sounding and acting like a government rather than an Opposition. The perpetual campaigning characterising modern politics also complicates things. So far the Abbott Government is proving a reverse image of the Beazley Opposition. If they keep it up they will have problems very similar to those some experienced in the 16th century.

Meanwhile, on the subject of communication revolutions the Korean economist (now at Cambridge), Ha-Joon Chang, mentioned in a Lunch with the FT interview (Financial Times Weekend 30/11-1/12 2013) that he thought the washing machine was more important than the internet. “I was not trying to dismiss the importance of the internet revolution but I think its importance has been exaggerated partly because people who write about these things are usually middle-aged men who have never used a washing machine”, he said, going on to mention all the other technologies which allowed more women to join the workforce and all the social change associated with that.