Politics, prayer and patriotism on the campaign trail

The historic highlight of this federal election campaign may turn out to be the self-imposed agreement by the major parties not to campaign on Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Anzac Day, three days out of the five-and-a-half week campaign between April 11 and May 18.

Effectively, this may mean from Friday until Thursday.

Despite their trepidation that the campaigning may lose momentum during the Easter-Anzac Day week, Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten have taken this decision on the grounds, it would appear, of respect for the sacred character of the days in question.

Scott Morrison at a Remembrance Day service last year. There is a self-imposed agreement by the major parties not to campaign on Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Anzac Day. Photo: AAP

Scott Morrison at a Remembrance Day service last year. There is a self-imposed agreement by the major parties not to campaign on Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Anzac Day. Photo: AAP

As one media report explained, it came down to a choice between politics, prayer and patriotism. Yet the arguments for the ban have not been clearly articulated. Perhaps they were just recognising that politics would be an unwelcome intrusion and so made a virtue out of a necessity.

What could be more important than continuing the campaign which will decide the governance of our country for the next three years, paving the way for decisions on many of the major social and economic questions that are at the heart of our democracy?

Perhaps it was an astute balancing act between showing respect for our traditional Christian religious days and the day often described as being at the heart of our civic religion.

To have suspended campaigning over Easter but not on Anzac Day or vice versa may have raised awkward questions and generated more debate. What about other days, such as the beginning of Ramadan on May 5, for instance?

The constituencies may overlap but remain distinct. According to census data, Australia remains a nominally Christian country, but less than 10 per cent of our community attend weekly religious services.

Even adding an Easter "bump" in attendance, only a very small minority of Australians will observe Easter in a religious way. For most it will be family holidays, watching sport and consuming Easter bunnies or bilbies.

Anzac Day, the One Day of the Year, is an especially popular day among the military and returned services communities, featuring dawn services, mid-morning marches and community breakfasts, lunches and two up competitions.

The wider community, including churches and schoolchildren, certainly engages with the day and some ceremonies attract healthy crowds, but it too remains a minority event in terms of active participation.

Both days are also controversial. The special pulpit given to church and military leaders is disputed by others in the community as exaggerating their influence unduly.

In the distant past, religious holidays were widely respected and observance encouraged. But those days are long gone.

The churches are in decline and increasingly marginalised, given the revelations by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse of extensive criminal conduct. The reputation of the military is rising in many ways, given uncertain times and security threats, but the current debate about the expansion of the Australian War Memorial shows that when the issue becomes excessive celebration of war rather than commemoration of past sacrifices it is firmly resisted.

This self-imposed political campaigning ordinance is in contrast with the general trend in respect for Easter in particular, but also Anzac Day. In the distant past, religious holidays were widely respected and observance encouraged. But those days are long gone.

Sunday shopping has broken down the observance of Sunday. The combination of consumerism and capitalism has won that battle hands down.

The same is now true for the intrusion of professional sport into these sacred days. This trend is world-wide and across all sports. The National Rugby League has scheduled a Good Friday match since 1993 and the Australian Football League has recently followed.

There has been an extensive debate, with the churches springing to the defence of the days and the Returned Services League wishing to preserve the morning of Anzac Day especially.

The anti-sport arguments are instructive because they are parallel to the anti-campaigning arguments. The church leaders argued, in a losing cause, that Good Friday should be left in peace out of respect for Christianity and traditional observance, giving the community a time for reflection, peace and quiet and traditional family get-togethers.

Sports and political leaders eventually could not resist change, but they have gestured towards traditional values by incorporating aspects of Anzac Day, including the playing of the Last Post, into the sporting events. On Good Friday charitable causes, like the Good Friday Appeal, are supported by the television networks as a sort of quid pro quo.

This ban on election campaigning contradicts these general trends but may still be welcomed if it is noticed at all by most people, though not for the special character of the days in question. Trust in government and the major political parties has fallen dramatically.

For many Australians, political campaigning is an intrusion. We are force-fed elections and in a federal system we have so many of them. Because NSW had a state election last month one-third of the Australian community will have to suffer three months of virtually continuous political campaigning.

Furthermore, modern campaigning via the mass media is especially intrusive. One report commented that: "Ordinarily, days like these would be used for major policy announcements, heavy advertising and strident messaging". Who wants such heavy and strident intrusions?

The lesson of all this may be that the community are quite happy not to have politics intrude on their lives for five or six solid weeks every time an election is called. There should be campaign free days each week of election campaigns regardless of when they are held. With this restriction, political communication during elections might even improve and become more appreciated by the community.

  • John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the ANU.