Culture

If We’re Serious About Getting Rid Of Fred Nile, We Need To Pay Attention When He’s Not Being Entertaining

Fred Nile's a fringe-dweller in every respect but one: the power he wields.

Conservative NSW politician and grumpy old man The Rev. Fred Nile is gaining attention for all the wrong reasons again, after Tweeting that the people who managed to free themselves from the Martin Place siege shouldn’t receive bravery awards because they didn’t help others –especially women — escape.

In case there was any possibility that Nile had made a halfway-decent point about showering people with awards for the sake of it, he went on Sunrise this morning and blew that out the window by saying “the only man really there was the man with the gun”. Nile’s since qualified that he meant the man wrestling with the gun, but the internet’s predictably blown up anyway with everyone from Sydney state MP Alex Greenwich to GetUp to calling on Nile to apologise and resign.

It’s easy to dismiss Nile as a fringe crank, mainly because in almost every sense that matters, he is. The “moral majority” Nile so enjoys claiming to represent never seems to get around to voting for him; Nile’s Christian Democrats only ever poll about three or four percent in NSW elections, just barely enough for Nile or one of his counterparts to scrape into the Legislative Council on preferences. He’s a reliable source of outlandish, outrageous and generally idiotic comments about things like homosexuality, which puts him in a weirdly symbiotic relationship with publications that make hay off of reporting them; I used to work for Sydney-based LGBTI newspaper the Star Observer, and a Fred Nile-said-something-awful article was always the quickest and easiest way to break the internet.

Nile’s reputation as an Old Man Yells At Cloud makes him come off as fairly horrible but essentially harmless, like a block of raw tofu, or an ibis; reporting on this latest controversy, the Herald quaintly described him as a “colourful NSW MP” despite the fact the man is, literally and figuratively, the colour of porridge. But Nile and his ilk do a lot of damage behind the scenes when no one’s looking; together with the equally fringe Shooters and Fishers Party, the Christian Democrats hold the balance of power in the NSW Legislative Council, meaning that they can regularly ram their weird views into law in return for supporting government legislation and exercise far more power than their tiny support base would normally entitle them to.

In June 2013, Nile secured the government’s support for a controversial bill that would give personhood rights to unborn fetuses, known as Zoe’s Law, in return for his support for a government push to privatise Newcastle Port. Women’s rights campaigners vigorously opposed Zoe’s Law, concerned it would erode already-fragile abortion rights for women in NSW, but the bill passed the Lower House with a large majority in November 2013 and might have become law if it hadn’t lapsed with the dissolution of Parliament before the election in March. Nile also did his damndest to abolish secular ethics classes in schools back in 2011 by threatening to vote against the Liberal government’s industrial relations reforms.

Nile’s by no means the only minor-party figure who does weird things with the immense power and responsibility a Parliamentarian has. In June last year NSW Shooters and Fishers Parliamentarian Robert Borsak, best known for getting called an “utter failure” in Parliament and shooting endangered elephants in cages on safari, torpedoed an Upper House bid to launch an inquiry into the government’s massive Westconnex motorway, a gargantuan infrastructure project that has been dogged by claims of inadequate processes and conflicts of interest. Borsak decided to oppose the inquiry after Roads Minister Duncan Gay promised him the motorway would be rejigged so it wouldn’t hurt Ashfield Park, a few streets away from where Borsak lives. When the prospects of an $11 billion motorway hinge on whether or not it runs past some dude’s house, the way we choose to govern ourselves is in a very strange place.

Guys like Nile and Borsak are always good for a laugh, an outraged Facebook post, or a collective head-shake, but they’re quietly beavering away at their strange and often nasty agendas whether or not we’re paying attention to their latest foot-in-mouth moment. Both are up for re-election in March, and chances are they’ll stay exactly where they are. If we’re serious about getting rid of people like Nile, holding them to account when they’re not being entertaining would be a good way to start.