Just how much has been left undone? – 2

“Nurturing Justice” is an amalgam. On the one side it is an appeal to fellow Christians to turn again to listen to the Bible and to consider our “way of life”. We ask ourselves: How can we encourage reflection upon how disciples of Jesus Christ can take up the full gamut of our human responsibility? On the other hand, we seek to also be a political broadsheet presenting “a Christian political option for Australia and the South West Pacific”.

Before Christmas, in the first post of this series, we sought to explain a close-to-home dimension of “secularisation”. We lament our Christian inability to resist the commercialised celebration that ignores the incarnation of God’s Son in our midst. That year-by-year co-option of the Advent season for commercial purposes manifests a deep spiritual inability to resist “secularisation”, and alternative Christian advertising – “Jesus is the reason for the season” – seems merely to demonstrate that we are continually in “rearguard action”.

The term “rearguard action” is a good one, coined by the heroic Abraham Kuyper in his memorable address “The Social Question and the Christian Religion” on November 9, 1891. “Nurturing Justice” is happy to be a contemporary footnote to Kuyper but despite our heroic ancestry, we are still in a “rearguard” posture. When the Biblical story shines with all its redemptive grandeur upon our path (as the Scripture Union motto had it: Psalm 119: 105) we are often dismayed by just how much we have left undone. And to stave off total despair, “Nurturing Justice” happily becomes a footnote to another “hero”, the Genevan reformer:

If sometimes, in various places, Religion is less flourishing than could be wished, if the body of the pious is scattered, and the state of a well-regulated Church has gone to decay, not only do our minds sink, but entirely melt within us. On the contrary, while we see in this history of Moses, the building of the Church out of ruins, and the gathering of it out of broken fragments, and out of desolation itself, such an instance of the grace of God ought to raise us to firm confidence. (From Calvin’s dedication to Henry Duke of Vendome to his commentary on Genesis).

So this is how “Nurturing Justice” functions in the footnotes of “Christian history”. But that, for us, is not enough. There is the “other side” of “Nurturing Justice”. We seek to make a contribution to political life today and we stand in need of a coherent Biblically-directed perspective on the day-by-day problems that confront us. We seek the articulation of a coherent political perspective.

Consider our resistance to the sustained efforts to legislatively harness the Australian Federal Parliament to the neo-liberal global movement to deconstruct and reconstruct marriage as a civil right. Our effort can be found in our archive and of recent times in the series Love and Compassion by Voting “Noe!” We may have persistently presented a “Christian political option”, but it is, as yet, merely a “rearguard action”, flagging a Christian political intention. It is still only intentional. As long as there is no ongoing and organised political organisation (i.e. the CPO party), with ongoing research and publicity arms across the region, with groups of citizens politically active in local communities, enabling our policy development to assist voters to stay in touch with, if not ahead of, recent political developments, such a blog, such a flagging of intention, is continually susceptible to being rendered “yesterday’s policy suggestion”.

This problem is not going away; nor will it be easily overcome. Hence “Nurturing Justice” has these two sides to its appeal.

On the one side, we seek to reckon with the kind of work that can be done by a Christian political blog in this political environment and do it as best we can. Christian citizens have an ongoing responsibility to think carefully and that means thinking very carefully about those things which we ought to have done which have been left undone. A Christian political option is about clarifying our ongoing political responsibilities for public governance.

But, in so far as we find ourselves in a perpetual “catch-up” phase, we are certainly not the only ones. In fact our Christian complacency may simply be a reflection of how we have imbibed and absorbed the regnant political complacency that has the entire polity in its grip. Dare we grab hold of the nettle and think deeply about the political complacency that is a key feature of politics and public governance in the liberal humanistic western world? Dare we admit that neoliberal politics is merely in a kind of perpetual “catch-up”, in which the dominant political expressions know little of the “ways of the Lord”?

How is this ubiquitous political complacency generated? If “Nurturing Justice” was to ever become the voice of a Christian Political Option party, it would have to overcome the significant stranglehold of the “two sides of politics” (the Liberal-National Coalition and Labor) as well as their sweet-heart deals with mass media (mainly the Murdoch, Packer and Fairfax empires and other prominent players as well). At least since the turn of the millennium, if not before, “both sides” of politics have been falling over each other in a competitive effort to get the advantage in the “catch-up politics” generated by the heirs of these media moguls. Their political “catch up” is, in general, focused upon whatever “issues” the mass media promote day-by-day. And, as we have tried to explain over and over, this manifests itself in a view of politics in which “winning is grinning”. The idea that a party should be characterised by a coherent political viewpoint, faithfully represented in the party’s manifesto and constitution, so that electors can be adequately represented in the houses of parliament, so that those elected can remain accountable when new legislation is voted, seems thoroughly quaint and even “out of date”. In fact, the “out of datedness” of this view of principled political representation is the exact corollary of the dominant neo-liberal “catch-up politics” ethos. Any CPO party will need to reawaken Christian people to their responsibilities, as citizens, for civil governance at all levels. Such an approach will not be easy!

A good example of late-in-the-day “catchup” has appeared in the last couple of days with the announcement of a public apology by the South Australian Premier. This was in the aftermath of a tragic accident resulting in death of a man who had been legally wed to his male partner under recent UK legislation. The South Australian death certificate was filled out with the entry “never married”.

Given Australia’s ties with the UK, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, jurisdictions where “same-sex marriage” has now been legislated and legalised, we can expect that there must be ongoing irritations, if not embarrassments, of this kind. Official papers and records can not avoid such issues of personal identity. Thus there has been a collision with the law as it stands in this jurisdiction. Still, these kinds of “collisions” are no recent development. In fact there have long been international consequences of the Marriage Act. One only has to think about the administration of passports of persons and their families from countries that legally allow for polygamous marriages. The subsequent twittered or buzzfeed moral panic may want to focus upon the embarrassment as a function of the current Marriage Act for the Commonwealth. But what should be focused upon is the regnant political complacency that has put off full discussion of the public legal issues so that who are also responsible for the conduct of public governance and administration can do so without their actions becoming politicised, and a celebrated cause of embarrassment to be twittered around the globe.

So in the face of such complexities with their personal (ethical) implications, there should already be policies and an understanding of proper procedure within the corridors of public administration, here as elsewhere.

Back in 2004 “both sides” of Parliament legislated a reform that confirmed and ostensibly strengthened the definition of (male-female monogamous) marriage. That is now, politically speaking, on the verge of being over-turned. And here is the crucial political issue that we now confront. Both major parties have failed to explain why their support for this legislation has withered away. Having safeguarded their respective “sides” electoral appeal by such strong support for the legislation, they then found that they could not, or dared not, justify their affirmative vote in political terms because they feared it would therefore split their party. The blank in their respective party platforms is a flagrant dereliction of political responsibility to the nation.

So, it is not the definition of marriage which causes the political problems. Nor is it citizens who happen to believe that marriage cannot be a same-sex relationship. It is rather a problem generated by the failure of “both sides” to adequately explain and expound the implications of their own support for reform on the previous occasion and and to do so in order to maintain public respect for marriage while giving due attention to the kinds of international connections that arise from time to time and which this South Australian event discloses in its own tragic way.

But in the intervening years since 2004 “both sides” have failed, failed utterly, to adequately and persuasively justify their previous reform effort in terms of how that should have had an impact on the administration of the kinds of inter-personal intricacies that have long since been on the horizon of public administration. The major political parties have simply walked away from the task of political education in these vital matters. When it was deemed convenient and electorally advisable to support the current definition of lawful marriage they did so. But their support was superficial and did not extend into political education of the whys and wherefores. They have absented themselves from the political task of political education about marriage however they conceive it. In many respects, the South Australian premier’s apology simply confirms the persistent cowardice of the political machines of “both sides” to adequately address the issue in its full policy range, in its institutional impacts. But of course, as public relation firms, rather than as political parties, they have not wanted to do that – it would be too much of a challenge to their share of the vote come election time!

But now, where are we to find the coherent and well-articulated policies, enunciated by wise and prudent policy researchers for the major parties? Where is the political view of how the Marriage Act should now be understood once it is redrafted to take these international complexities and developments into account, let alone to redefine marriage in these secularised neo-liberal neo-pagan terms? How is an informed debate of the full impact of the proposed changes to the definition of marriage to come about?

The South Australian Premier felt constrained to issue an apology for the hurt inflicted by this entry into the State’s death certificate and death records. But the public servant was simply following legislated policy. And when such deaths occur and complex issues of an international nature like this arise, public servants require clear and well drafted guidelines  which will enable them to show due care and compassion to those involved. But when the elected politicians have not anticipated such situations and given appropriate leadership as to how they should be dealt with, then public administration is in trouble.

Since the last overhaul of the Marriage Act in 2004, discussion of the complex task of public governance in which we are all implicated has been pushed, again and again, into the realms of a “conscience vote”. The sine qua non of the public political contribution of “both sides” has instead been party unity at all costs. Hence under-developed political discussion. The current Prime Minister is known to have endorsed his party avoiding such debate and policy development long before he entered parliament when he was speaking out about “family policy” as a prominent member of the Liberal Party. The “family policy” issue at the time was embryonic stem-cell research. That had been put on the “conscience vote” agenda by the then Prime Minister when he flagrantly reneged on his pre-election assurance that he was opposed to such research. The prevailing view has been that it would be political suicide for a party to develop a comprehensive policy programme on matters of “body politics”. Instead of developing due recognition of the responsibility held by all citizens for ensuring the integrity of public governance and legislation, the “two sides” have careered down a path where these matters are dealt with in the “private sphere” of a parliamentarian’s “conscience”.

“Both sides” have resolutely and self-interestedly walked away from this educative task! This is the other side of this “collective conscience” vote. It is an act of political cowardice that grips both “sides” and makes the issue even more contentious with the likely prospect of a farcical public debate. The problem is this: those parliamentarians who align with either party of “both sides” have yet to “catch up” with the fact that their parties have now become largely irrelevant to authentic political reflection.

There is much more to say on this but for the moment let us note that a Christian political option cannot avoid the local intricacies of public administration that may arise from legislation in other polities. As well, let us keep in mind that there is an ongoing task and we should never rest content by simply playing “catch up” politics.

Public justice may require “catching up” at times, but we must strive to get beyond a mode of political reflection that is merely concerned with “rearguard action”.

BCW

30.1.16

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