In her weekly slot on RNZ’s Morning Report this morning, Australian political commentator Kerry-Anne Walsh discussed prime minister Julia Gillard’s decision to pull out of a speaking engagement at the annual conference of the Australian Christian Lobby. Gillard cancelled because she objected to “offensive” comments made by the ACL’s leader Jim Wallace, who had suggested that the health risks posed by homosexuality were worse than those caused by smoking.Walsh commented that she thought it strange that Gillard had agreed to address the ACL in the first place, given that she’s an atheist, to which host Geoff Robinson suggested a possible explanation: “votes”.
Well, no. For a start, whatever Gillard might have said to the ACL, she’s never likely to win the Christian right over to her side.But far more important, both Walsh and Robinson seemed to overlook the fact that as prime minister, Gillard is answerable to all Australians. Members of the ACL are as affected by government policies and actions as any other Australian citizens, and it’s entirely right and proper that Gillard should have agreed to speak to them.
Her decision to cancel smacked of political convenience. It may have been prompted by fear of a backlash from the gay lobby, whose votes are important to her (especially in view of the battle between Labor and the Australian Greens for the support of left-leaning inner-city dwellers).But all political leaders should make a point of confronting those who oppose them. It demonstrates that they believe in what they’re doing and are prepared to defend themselves before a potentially hostile audience. It also forces them to explain themselves more convincingly than they might in front of a fawning crowd of supporters. That’s surely good for democracy.