Australia’s Impending Election (10)

The Future of Christian Faith in Politics


In the two previous posts, I have republished two editions of NJ from late in 2006 here and here. My aim is to alert readers to the shifts that have taken place since then as the movement for “gay marriage” has morphed into “marriage equality”. The acronym “LGBTI” has now become a part of everyday political discourse that identifies an “aspirational community” whose civil rights are proclaimed far and wide since they are said to be in need of a new ethos of comprehensive inclusivity. It might even be said that “LGBTI” has become a world-wide “algorithm” for an anticipated advance in civil rights for all people everywhere.

Yes we have to reckon with the difficulties of resisting the international pressure to “marriage equality”, from legislation dubbed “progressive” but we need to keep in mind that neo-liberal advocates of such “progressive” legislation have gained Parliamentary and judicial nods elsewhere around the world. But we shall also have to take into account the significant resistance to what will easily be experienced in less developed countries (LDCs) as merely another facet of a western oriented, neo-colonial imposition upon their emerging democracies. They are going to have to put up with “our” western “rights oriented” ethical Weltanschauung which will make its impact upon their societies via constraining and in many cases the ubiquitous power of western corporations, markets and polities, whether they like it or not.

And this political movement is not going to go away, at least not in the short-term. Since 2006 Nurturing Justice has been explaining how this movement has been implicitly accommodated by the major political parties. They have first resolutely consigned the issues of “body politics” to “conscience votes”. But now that “gay marriage” has morphed into “marriage equality” as an integral aspect of rights for the LGBTI “community” with an international front, we see the dominant forces in the Parliament manoeuvring to endorse “marriage equality” without actually allowing the issue to be properly and extensively debated in public policy terms. Is that too much to say? No it is not.

Moreover, in an earlier era of the emergence of our parliamentary democracy, a party’s policy was supposed to be developed from the party’s “grass roots”. How now can that come about these days? We not only have an increased societal complexity. The parties we do have have long since abandoned the idea the idea that they are a party that has grown from “grass roots”.

Who yet has dared put a price in $ terms on the costs, not just of the plebiscite, but of the consequential responsibilities for the Australian parliament once the vote finally allows “marriage equality”? Where are the costings for ensuring ongoing effective public education about the subsequent public and legal requirements? How are schools, universities, social welfare, aged-care homes and all work-places, let alone sporting clubs and all manner of other community organisations going to be informed about what is then required?

The Privatisation of “Values”: Avoiding the Electorate’s Political Education 

Hitherto, the major political parties have scrupulously avoided the task of electorate education, let alone trying to assist confused citizens about the legislative innovations they continue to cobble together in order to bring forward such “progressive” laws. The parties have been taken over by “public relations” firms and electorate education, as well as party life at the grass roots level, that might have been expected to make a significant and positive contribution to local politics, is all but withered away.

We might ask, “Why?” But for decades the notion that a party, so privileged by its elected candidates having a part in serving in the nation’s parliaments, has simply assumed that policy is to be developed by the party’s elite and in this context the practical value of party membership at the grass roots level is all but extinguished for both sides. And meanwhile citizens who are required to vote (and thus assist these public relations firms from going into bankruptcy by the public funds that flow into party coffers at election time) simply have to wear it.

Nurturing Justice has sought to draw attention to how the Liberal Coalition’s threat to the Whitlam Government to block supply in early 1974 is a crucial turning point in our political history. That was when PM Whitlam called a “double dissolution” election and scraped back in for a second time, with a renewed Opposition that had given itself a precedent to depart from its own political principles whenever it saw fit in the future. This was also when the future PM, the member for Bennelong, was elected. And so the rest is history and we have had to live politically in the wake of that treacherous hijacking of the Government, Remembrance Day 1975. That is, Australian politics is now beholden to a two-sided unwillingness that continues to threaten the integrity of our political contributions as citizens: of the Liberal Party, that cannot look too closely at its departure from its original constitution as a grass roots party for citizens committed to its political principles (not unlike Angela Merkel’s CDU as a matter fact); of the Labor Party, that has failed dismally to draw attention to the Liberal Party’s “constitutional crisis” of 1974-1975, while also morphing into a party of competing factions, deals and branch-stacking while trying to hold onto, while limiting the power of, its industrial union roots and power base.

And so the development of  comprehensive marriage and family policy, along with commitment to electoral education of all citizens, and hence disciplined public discussion and political debate about the political dimensions of sex and sexuality, have been “privatised” and voters alienated from effective political involvement.

The Role of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships

The process by which this “privatisation” has come about requires further historical examination. Clearly, both “sides” have tended in their parliamentary legislation to operate on the basis of a shared agreement about the findings of the 1975-1977 Royal Commission on Human Relationships.

To give the two parties their due, that with the coming of age of the baby-boomers, and the increased complexity of Australian society, they may have considered comprehensive policy research and electoral education to have been beyond their increasingly entrenched, and secularised, party research capabilities. And so, here was very welcome “common ground”, a kind of late 20th century moral settlement to complement the earlier social settlement of the first decade of Australian Commonwealth (1901-1910)

The “privatisation” by which “body politics” and the political and public-legal dimensions marriage and family have been dealt with hitherto by both “sides”, certainly suggests that the work of the commissioners – Elizabeth Evatt AC, Anne Deveson AO and Felix Arnott CMG (Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane) – constitutes something like an “ethical settlement”. Could this 5 volume document help us understand how politics has become a competition between two “sides”? Could this give us clues to the ethical common ground shared by Labor and Liberal-National electoral machines?

The hypothesis put forward here by Nurturing Justice that is in need of further detailed research at this time is this: The findings of the Royal Commission on Human relationships is indeed social seed-bed for the taken-for-granted understandings of “human relationships” that prevail among our nation’s political elites. It is this seed-bed that also requires careful and comprehensive analysis for the impact of the leading ideas of the Commission’s report, not only upon the way in which they have a bearing upon our current political debate about “marriage equality” and the rights of the LGBTI “community” (which they most certainly do), but more generally upon what is taken-for-granted about the marriage and family, and of human responsibility writ large.

The presumption of a common ethical ground shared by what PM Howard referred to as “the two sides of politics” has aided the emergence of party elites who presume that politics is their public game.

And these two parties now face the difficult problem that they cannot actually engage any more in authentic electoral education without challenging their artificially constructed “party unity” from the top down.

Those who have read this far and who wish to engage in further research on the findings and subsequent impact of the 1975-1977 Royal Commission on Human Relationships: listen to the ABC podcast, “Public Intimacies”. A critical examination of how the commission’s classifications blur human responsibilities in marriage and family relationships can be found here.

1974-2016: From Political Party to Public Relations Firms. Privatising the Issues of “Body Politics”

Well, it has been a complex social and historical process. Yes it has been in part an amalgam of orienting the party to winning elections, to maintaining party unity by winning elections and avoiding explicit policy announcements that would open up deep ethical debates.

In the meantime deft footwork becomes the hallmark of “brilliant Parliamentary leadership” (and so solemn pre-election hand-on-heart declarations to the electorate subsequently become merely the “non-core” promises of Parliamentary realpolitik). Party unity becomes sine qua non of a party’s policy and legislative agenda. Party unity is more important than principled education from the standpoint of (diverse party) political philosophies in the national electorate.

This is the situation that prevails and we are now at a point where we are being asked to cast a vote which implicitly endorses this covert desire – at public expense – to safeguard the elite political interests of those whose jobs depend upon retaining electoral appeal through the dissemination and success of dodgy campaign literature.

At this point in this extended exposition of the current crisis in Australian public governance and politics, I wish to emphasise that Nurturing Justice is also my attempt to address the failure of “Christian radical” students of my own era (early 1970s), to actually continue the political work that we then saw as a necessary part of Christian discipleship. And so this NJ, although a “rearguard” action (in the historical footsteps of other Christian rearguards) is also a call to such fellow “Christian radicals” – whatever their line of work – to take up the urgent task that may require decades of ongoing political reflection to begin to make a positive political impact.

Liberalism’s Dalliance with Christianity

The underlying liberal humanistic political philosophy on both sides can readily be traced – albeit with different modern and post-modern redactors – to, among others, John Locke (1632-1704) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). From 1996 (i.e. during the Prime Ministership of John Howard) and up until the changeover from the “team” of Tony Abbott to the “team” of Malcolm Turnbull, the Liberal-Coalition’s leadership has at certain strategic points attempted to gloss the conservative “side” of its legislative agenda via alliances with various conservative Christian political movements and lobbies.

This has been evident in Peter Costello’s occasional oblique references to Edmund Burke (1729-1797), and the somewhat lame appeal to Christian democratic insights from late 19th century European initiatives – via Senator Eric Abetz (for the neo-Calvinist theology of “sphere sovereignty”) to Tony Abbott as an iconic promoter for Catholic Social Teaching via his friendship with the Sydney Archbishop now Cardinal Pell (Rerum Novarum, and later 20th century papal encyclicals).

Was it Abbott’s commitment to this latter trend that enabled him to lead his “team” to election victory in 2007? It is notable that his cabinet contained a good number of members with Catholic backgrounds. Although one would have to wonder whether “background” and “school”, let alone “religion”, have simply been cunningly manicured tweats.

Labor’s Challenge: Faith in Politics

On the other side, Labor’s electoral fortunes began to turn around when Kevin Rudd’s article “Faith in Politics” appeared in October 2006. In December 2006, he took over as leader. In that article, Rudd had counter-posed his alliance with Dietrich Bonhoffer and Keir Hardie’s “Christian socialism” over against what he said was Howard’s ambiguous and hypocritical alliance with right-wing evangelicalism.

This not only challenged the presumption that the Liberal Party had some right to the “Christian vote” – because it was pro-America in Iraq, on the “right” and “conservative”. It also seemed to hold out the possibility of a new “settlement”, at least within the party, a way of unifying the fragmentation that was so obvious within Labor ranks and heartlands.

Could this be the basis of a new “faith-based” Labor Party consensus? Many hoped so.

But if that was part of the conscious strategy of Rudd and his supporters, his subsequent demise and departure throws a somewhat different light upon the underlying pragmatic populism of a creative experimental attempt to forge a new political path for the Labor “side”. What seemed at first like an attempt to lift the left Phoenix from the ashes of our deeply compromised parliamentary democracy after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, failed utterly.

We are left wondering whether his and Julia Gillard’s efforts were anything more than last ditch experiments to reform the un-reformable Labor “electoral machine”. Did not their departure from the Parliament exude deep pessimism, a lack of bold lack of confidence in our country’s political future?

Rudd’s essay is still worth reading, but I suspect there is too much embarrassment on the part of the former Prime Minister and his supporters to really return to it as a signpost to Labor’s future (quite apart from his remarkable assertion that Mrs Thatcher’s “there is no such a thing as society” is a truism).

Those wanting to find a Christian socialist path for Labor will have to look at it and consider whether there is within it a coherent set of political principles for a political party’s ongoing work. Whatever else it has done by launching Bonhoffer’s critique of Luther’s two-kingdom view into the public realm, it does not provide a coherent political “world-view”.

And the subsequent political life and strife throws up too many difficult questions about whether Rudd and his supporters seriously misread their ability to reform Australian political life. They certainly have not prevented the elitist drift away from political parties to public relations firms that simply carry the old party names.

From Prime Minister to Our Team’s Captain:

But then Rudd & co are not alone in this. What PM of recent time cannot be accused of having indulged in “over-reach”. As with Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott after Rudd, it seems that a primary task of the Prime Minister is now to look away from the problematic character of the very (elite) vehicle he or she has relied upon to carry him or her to “leadership” in the “top job”.

This same problem is graphically portrayed in the current incumbent of the “top job”, the member for Wentworth, who has confusingly and ironically called this “double dissolution” poll. His political appeal is to the “unity” on his disunited “side” of the Parliamentary chamber. And so we have this exhausting and mind-numbing 8-week campaign – “a race for the lodge” – to determine who will be our “team leader”, who has got the better “plan” – in the eyes of a confused and disillusioned electorate.

Back to the Present:

Meanwhile, the PM and his Labor party opponent are bent upon turning the public gaze away from the long established inability of their respective parties to develop a comprehensive “marriage and family” policy platform even as they now stand on the cusp of promoting (or capitulating to) “marriage equality”. They are now unable to disseminate among the electorate a well articulated political viewpoint for their proposed policies on this matter. That is not how political education happens these days.

Since the political parties have been turned into public relations firms, policy platforms are transformed into mere “if you vote for us you are voting for this proposed legislation which will require $Xb funding.” The political parties cannot engage in comprehensive political education as long as their election “sweeteners” are delivered to voters by carefully formulated advertisement. Senator Wong has now foreshadowed an LGBTI human rights commissioner. I guess it would be too much to ask such a commissioner to investigate the implicit on-line threats delivered by election commercials sent out last election by the Greens telling everyone who didn’t support legislation for “gay marriage” to “get out of the way”!

Concluding Comments:

I guess that those who have bothered to read this far will conclude that Nurturing Justice’s author is motivated by a conviction that the coming election will be an important moment in the ongoing story that charts the path of Christian discipleship and its impact in Australian society, in its public governance, in its public affairs. That is of course true.

There are serious political dilemmas that confront us. We have tried here to describe some of the public and political developments that have led to these dilemmas, how and why they have arisen arisen and what they mean for those of us who would promote a Christian political option.

Let me conclude by saying that any political critique we might advance, of “gay marriage” or “marriage equality” legislation, let alone of the above mentioned Royal Commission on Human Relationships (1975-1977) will first require scrupulous self-examination and self-criticism in the spirit of Matthew 7:5.

We may well feel unprepared to face the political challenges that face us. Indeed, in this we stand with all our neighbours, fellow citizens, in this polity, and not only fellow voters but also so many of the candidates who are bravely putting themselves forward at this time. But are we prepared to face up to the possibility that it is an inner and spiritual weakness in our own “Christian way of life” that is also a cause and consequence of our confusion about our political responsibilities? It’s our “way of life” that requires such examination. Nurturing Justice is sent out in the conviction that these five weeks before election day are an opportunity to engage in prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:21) about our responsibilities as Christian citizens of this polity. 


Two Body Politics Issues:

Let me close by simply drawing attention to two issues of “body politics” of vital concern that have been fudged and misrepresented in our political life. They both have international dimensions.

We can recall the early years of the 21st century when embryonic stem-cell research became a “hot topic” after the Prime Minister consigned his pre-election opposition to the category of a “non-core promise”.

Even those who were fiercely opposed to such research, and stood in the Parliament to declare their Christian opposition to such research, with the exception of the late Senator Harradine, could not squarely face the fact, let alone talk about it in Parliament, of a lack of import and export controls governing the international trade in human embryos.

That meant that even before the PM’s “change of opinion”, that Australian researchers, Australian public money, Australian institutions were already engaged in cloning research. Instead of disclosing the true state of affairs and discussing that – including how our parliaments should legislate to come to terms with that state of affairs – the then Prime Minister led the Parliament and us all on a nation-spltting debate about the prudent morality of experimenting on “spares”.

As Nurturing Justice has ever since reminded readers, this was just the beginning and millions of dollars from Federal and State coffers were emptied into bio-research and all on the presumed “downstream economic benefits” that had been put forward by pharmaceutical interests. And so, debate in our Parliament, which generated heated public debate outside those walls, effectively ignored the international dimension of the issue in which we were already engaged.

This can be seen in two ways:

1. that embryonic stem-cell research was already being undertaken but in places outside the jurisdiction of the Australian Federal Parliamen in research projects with Australian researchers who were being supported, albeit indirectly, by Australian Government funding;

2. the failure of our Parliaments to legislate strict controls over the import and export of human embryos had already aided and abetted this research that was seeking to circumvent European law that prevented cloning.

The second example, is within our region. We can expect that there will be those who will loudly trumpet the LGBTI rights of individual persons across Melanesia and Polynesia and we should reckon with this – sexual orientation should not preclude anyone’s civil rights. But where is the firm political commitment in this country to resist “bioprospecting” interests? There have been cases of Australian pharmaceutical companies with prominent persons on their Boards (search it out), which have sought to gain legal rights to a people’s gene pool whether Nauruan or Tongan for their commercial research purposes.

27.5.16 (updated 30.5.16)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s