For some time now Nurturing Justice has been emphasising that political debate cannot be narrowed down to merely a matter of “individual choices”, not even the choices of majorities. For public justice to be maintained in our form of parliamentary democracy, political parties are needed to state their political beliefs in terms of a comprehensive vision that explains to their candidate’s electors the basis of and the party’s view of the necessity of proposed legislation.
We keep all that in mind as we note with some surprise the tally of readers for our recent post of August 12th. That post by reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights raised the possibility that our local Australian political debate is simply flying in the face of what our Government has already committed us to defence and uphold. But that enduring ambiguity can not and will not be overcome merely by a surge in the blog-count, let alone the Twitter roll.
NJ makes no apology for continuing to post political argument. At times, as with this post, we will delve at length into our own archive and rewrite what we have posted previously. We will not shy away from providing, as best we can, extensive political argument that aims to clarify what is at stake in our public task as citizens to promote public justice.
In a previous post last November, we drew attention to a 2013 “join us or get out of the way” video sent around at election time by the Australian Greens. That artefact of political ruthlessness implied a political competition in which “threats” are from now on simply “part of the game”. It is ironic that this broadside against the norms of civic discourse doesn’t seem to have concerned the increasing of chorus of “Marriage Equality” advocates who are saying that a plebiscite portends all kinds of negative politicking. But it was that video that marked a very regrettable stage in our recent political and electioneering history and sadly it was consistent with other some “threats” – “we are watching you” – that were promulgated under parliamentary privilege by that party’s leader at an earlier time. And such veiled threats – whether “We’re watching you!” or “Join us or get out of the way!” – do not enhance political debate. They are pulpiteering dogmas designed to chill opponents – they are designed to close down authentic debate, even if the fear they induce is justified as “play acting”. They also say something like: join us or you’ll be wearing more the same!
Given our social-media ethos of instantaneous political gratification, we can expect to be told that any whiff of moral dictatorship noted in that 2013 video arises from our over-sensitivity rather than from that inaapropriate electioneering. It will be passed of as of no enduring significance, an ironic smiley face even as the unenlightened, the “over-sensitive”, see it as nasty. We would be counselled not to get too “uptight” about it.
Nevertheless, the unhelpful rhetoric of an erstwhile “third force” should not be evaluated in isolation. It actually emerged from a political process within the Parliament. The leaders of “both sides” had hitherto closed down debate that had been generated by this “third force”. The legislation they found acceptable enhanced their own electoral appeal, while marginalising, even if it were only for a short time, the dissent that had brought on the parliamentary debate in the first place.
Though I am not suggesting that the Greens should be viewed as innocent victims, it was rather convenient then (i.e. all the way back to 2004 and before than as well as subsequently) for the Liberal-National coalition and Labor to “wedge” the Greens’ legislative efforts in that way. And was there no electoral advantage in making it seem as if the Greens party was simply committed to having its leader’s chosen lifestyle given a parliamentary “thumbs up”?
Of course, that may have never been said, not in so many words. Yet apart from the electoral advantage gained by that “wedging”, the bi-partisan effort in 2004 to resolve the issue carried within it a significant political perversity that has not since been overcome. In fact it has deepened the crisis we face because the Australian parliament has been inhibited in its development of policies that would ascribe due and just respect to marriage, with proper protection to its integrity as an inherently male-female institution vital to our social fabric.
And this parliamentary inhibition surely reflects the sense of uncertainty, if not crisis, that pertains to married life across this country and beyond. And in that sense, yes, we are all involved in this political problem and, yes, we all should shoulder our own part in resolving it. But anyone who thinks that the Opposition Leader’s proposed “marriage equality” legislation or Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s plebiscite will resolve the political problem now facing marriage, are living in a neo-liberal Flatland; and so we have political debate where unexplained politically-correct abstractions about compassion and solidarity, designed to evoke friendly sentiments, replace genuine flesh-and-blood politics.
In previous Nurturing Justice posts, I have often drawn attention to the fact that from “both sides of politics” (a phrase, incidentally, regularly used by John Howard when he held the Prime Ministerial office) we are no longer being served by genuine political parties. Instead, standing behind the parliamentarians are publicly funded public relations firms that are employed to ensure that those elected on their “side” retain their seats in Parliament.
Though public funding of political parties was introduced in 1984, the slide away from genuine parties has been the norm since 1974-5, when the Australian electorate was called upon, from both sides, to resolve what has since been called the constitutional crisis. In the process, it was only Don Chipp (1925-2006) and John Grey Gorton (1911-2002) – even if then only in garbled form – and never the Liberal Party, and neither the ALP, coming to the assistance of the confused electorate to explain that a vote for Malcolm Fraser was to endorse the Liberal Party’s effective overturning of the view of Parliamentary democracy that was presupposed by its own party’s constitution and platform. This was a revolution within the party itself and was led by the party’s parliamentary wing in order to improperly win government. Of course the party constitution assumed that the Senate was to be accorded due respect; but a party’s numbers in the Senate – a house where the interests of States were to be overseen – were not to be used to thwart governance that orginated in the House of Representatives.
And since then: how has the political debate about public governance in this polity been characterised? Answer: In order to safeguard their respective standing in the electorate, both sides have consistently distanced themselves from their own party platforms when it was deemed appropriate to enhance their standing in the polls. In so doing they think they are accommodating public opinion, maintaining their share of electoral support and thereby increasing their chances of winning elections (if not the share of public funds that derive from the election).
And since that time “both sides” have also persistently failed to develop coherent policy options for what I have called the issues of “body politics” (marriage, family and household, abortion, euthanasia, research on human subjects, pharmaceutical research and also notably about the consequences of the decriminalisation of homosexuality (1981) for the support of same-sex friendships of all kinds (and not only those friendships which seek to maintain themselves as a sexual bond) to public life.
And it might even be that an unintended consequence of this elite political manoeuvring has also meant a denigration genuine friendship as part of our social fabric. At the very least the inability of the major parties to unequivocally address “body politics” suggests further research about the social consequences of populist libertarianism, not only from those advocating “same-sex marriage” but also from.
These matters have been concertedly removed from political debate and consigned to a specious realm where “conscience” is supposed to reign supreme; in other words these issues, when they are not considered divisive, have been privatised. Now, after decades of the “privatisation” of many public goods which previously were held in public trust by the State, it is the Marriage Act itself that stands on the cusp of being “privatised”.
The term “privatisation” itself is full of great irony. And we might be justified in asking some probing questions here about what our public debate about marriage truly represents. Would we be departing too far from reality to probe the commitments of the elite class of “movers and shakers” in Australian public life and suggest that an instinctive fear, born of post-modern incredulity, is at work among those of the political class who view their vocation not so much as service to their electors but as their personal career? Would a failure to amend the Marriage Act, to bring Australia in line with the libertarian developments of other western polities, constitute a threat to the pre-eminence of their political parties in our political life? And so we have continued to point out that the “neo-liberal” world-view – the assumed autonomy of unencumbered individuals and their choices – has manifested itself “on both sides” in the “privatisation” of party political programmes?
One consequence of this is that those entering political debate without the diffidence of “both sides” to a forthright policy platform of “body politics” issues, are regularly characterised as “extreme”, as “unrealistic”, as “intolerant”. And so the inability of the major parties to develop coherent policies on these issues is presented to us as a mere result function of their contribution to the maintenance of civic virtue!
To have a clear and comprehensive framework for policies, especially on these so-called controversial issues of “body politics”, meant, in former times, that some dissenters would end up resigning their membership and joining or launching other parties. As long as it was understood that a political party had to have such a comprehensive framework, then such a drift in party membership was to be expected, even if it were regretted.
What is a political party’s contribution? Is it not to give voice in the legislative process to a significant political viewpoint that is alive, or should be, in the electorate? But since the party organisation allowed itself to become subservient to its parliamentary wing the distinctive character of political party membership has been seriously blurred. Allegiance to the party’s constitution and platform is outweighed and displaced by a parliamentary discipline – increasingly oriented to public opinion and the defeat of political opponents and so to winning the next election.
And in this way the political party’s former purpose to give political voice to its own membership’s political viewpoint becomes somewhat irrelevant. Party membership now consists is accepting that the party’s strategists have been employed to devise a plan to gain or regain election under a traditional banner with whatever wording is thereby given to the election platform. And so it’s now a vicious oxymoronic circle. And the term “coherent policy”, at least at the parliamentary level, becomes a matter of deciding what rafts of policies will keep and increase the crop of politicians who align with “our side” of binary politics. Winning enough votes at the next election becomes the sine qua non of a contribution to this kind of parliamentary democracy.
The basic idea of this kind of political system is that it should be controlled by the ongoing distribution of entrenched privileges to those establishing their careers in the competition between these “public relations firms”. And as we have noted: sometimes such careers continue on with a “parliamentary phase.”
Such “politicos” then work as the obsequious agents of these self-defined political elites. We can readily read the results in the “Editorial Pages” of the Sun-Herald, The Age and The Australian but also elsewhere across our increasingly fragmented mass-media. And the powerful media, qua surrogate opposition, becomes overly absorbed with telling us about its own impact, reporting on what is “trending on Twitter” and other “social media”.
The above analysis also explains why “both sides” scrupulously avoid developing policies that draw attention to the responsibilities of political parties, namely the task of such publicly registered associations in ensuring a just system of parliamentary representation for all electors. Not only do the political parties of “both sides” avoid authentic political education, they perpetuate a serious misrepresentation that politics is primarily about the winning of elections, irrespective of whether it is they or their opponent who is going to win.
This is a heightened level of political miseducation pure and simple. It is a serious misunderstanding of political responsibility which should, however, be about the enhancement of citizenship as an indisepnsable part of public justice. Modern and democratic public governance has developed in ways that presuppose the unavoidable political responsibility of citizens whose participation involves promoting and upholding public justice in whatever social setting they find themselves. Such settings may indeed include marital or familial relationships. People’s households need not be excluded either.
And so, “Marriage Equality” and the proposed “plebiscite” continue to function ambiguously in our everyday politics. Even after the inconclusive 2016 poll, the Australian electorate is now being enjoined to make a further political judgment not just about the public value of an institution crucial to the fabric of our society, but also about its internal composition. But since when have civil government ever had the competence to create marriage? Did not the Marriage Act, from the outset, simply identify the leading characteristics of the type of marriage that would, henceforth, be accepted as lawful marriage within the Australian polity?
From this and our previous discussion, readers might well conclude that we are suggesting we would be better off having a plebiscite that probed and evoked the Australian electorate’s view of political parties and how we, from now on, should be represented in Parliament and how true accountability of elected parliamentarians to their electors is to be restored, how a political party should contribute to making Parliamentarians accountable to their electors.
Due to a persistent effort to put their party’s interests at the centre of Australian democracy, the major political parties have effectively undermined themselves as parties, and brought parliamentary democracy to its current state of disrepute in the eyes of citizens, with its all too ruinous state of “party politics”. And now it seems that these associations are expecting us, the national electorate, after years of political misguidance, to provide a mature political judgment about proposed legislation! “Marriage equality”, for all intents and purposes, looks and sounds like the angry deconstruction by a confused millennial generation of an institution that has already lost its former prestige even if it has been with humankind for millennia.
Messrs Turnbull and Shorten are clearly living in a mythological universe, a cloud cuckoo land, seeking assurance from Twittered evidence that their next pronouncement will coincide with whatever it is that is “trending” among citizens (i.e. those who will be called upon to vote at the next election). The 2016 election has not in any way dinted their view that the cumulative vote of sovereign individuals with their sovereign rights can sovereignly solve each and every problem, and can thereby magically make same-sex relationships, which clearly are not marriage, into marriage – all by legislative fiat. And meanwhile these major political machines constituting “both sides” of politics conclusively demonstrate their ideological bankruptcy by scrupulously avoiding taking sides since that would threaten party unity! What a sham! Do they truly want us to believe they are serious?
So we keep in mind that we are being brought to the plebiscite’s ballot box by politicians from “both sides” who have gained their political careers by becoming paid up members of these public relations firms (parties) that are now exposed for their political cowardice, having resolutely refused to develop comprehensive and coherent policy framework to support an institution before it was acknowledged as basic to the Australian polity, was also a basic structure (albeit in variant forms) of the pre-existing life of the land’s indigenous inhabitants. In point of fact an understanding of marriage is an integral component of any political vision, even while it is not, as such, a political institution.
The question is this: how can you have a coherent political vision if you now try to displace the male-female character of marriage with a legalised form of words purporting to ascribe generic “marriage” entitlement rights based upon “personhood” to whatever binary partnership may claim it? This is nothing other than the weasel words of a failed individualism, the ideology at the heart of liberal humanism. Is this the culminating purpose for which liberalism has been aiming since John Locke (1632-1704), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Alfred Deakin (1856-1919) and Frederick Eggleston (1875-1954)?
The equality of “entitlements”, in so far as they are distributed by law, is already a legislated political fact between marriage and civil unions (that may also include both heterosexual and same-sex relationships so established). So why is this fantastic (in the proper sense of the term) issue still on the agenda? Could it simply be that the major public relations firms that dominate our Federal Parliament are so committed to what is “trending” on social media, that they simply do not know how not to go ahead? Their commitment to the normative role of public opinion as measured by surveys on the one hand, and “party unity” on the other, seems to have left them with no choice.
Or could it be that the Australian polity is actually being coralled by stealthy international “movers and shakers” of global initiatives, into becoming a party to a longer term attempt to re-write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? (see our previous post) There’s now an emergent inner ambiguity in our politics, in our Government, our Parliament and Judiciary, about how we are to adhere to the UDHR and also to the International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The truth is that “both sides” of politics, with their respective public relations firms, are no longer capable of enunciating a political programme that requires policies that ascribe due public respect to the marital institution itself. It is not only marriage – the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life – that is being politically deconstructed here. It is the public respect that is due to this and all other institutions by all citizens that is now being subjected to a systematic effort to conscript public and legal power to contribute to what would be, if Parliament had creative ex nihilo power, the dissolution of marriage “as we have known it.” It implies that such public-legal respect for the marriage institution itself can be replaced by an abstract “compassionate solidarity”, legally certified about those involved in a generic union between two individuals which the “community” is now expected by law to call “marriage”. The Turnbull-Shorten commitment to this mythology will, we predict, in time render them both helpless victims of an empirical error – if they haven’t already begun to woken up to the fact!
This might be an appropriate plot for the narrative of a sentimentalist novel located in Flatland in which gendered individuals inter-relate with other gendered individuals to demonstrate their compassion and giving opportunity so that the “other” can give occasionally contracted binary solidarity. But how can a coherent political vision be developed from this two-dimensional attempt to redesign this basic and complex human institution? How can an abstract respect for a generic “personhood” fulfil the public justice requirement to give due respect to male and female humanity in their joint vocation as those responsible for bringing a new generation into the world?
Is it truly the case that it has only been in the last century (during what many have said is a moral decline of the west) that a fundamental fact of human civilisation has been discovered, namely that marriage is merely the legalising of a sexual aspiration to unity borne of friendship and that in previous generations this fact has been obscured by an unnecessary cloaking of such a sexual aspiration in gendered terms? If so, then marriage is only incidentally a male-female bond, and we are witnessing the emergence of a new social form. Meanwhile men are to be legally respected as (potential) fathers and women as (potential) mothers without any unnecessary impediments, or person of the opposite sex challenging their right to parenthood in this undoubted individualisation process. (We have been drawing attention to these efforts to open “up the market” for human seed (male) and eggs (female) since our Nurturing Justice 2008 articles).
Make no mistake; this attempt to enlist the Australian Parliament in this latest “western” and humanistic attempt to deconstruct marriage is now revealed as neo-liberalism’s dirty secret. This is neo-liberalism’s Whelan the Wrecker in Parliamentary guise. We are not only witnessing an attempt at a comprehensive libertarian makeover of marriage but this is part of a wider attempt to give expression to what is believed to be the future’s one-and-only viable world-view. The political pressure for such change is intense even if it is not put forward within a well-elaborated policy-framework; it not only comes internationally, from those same-sex couples who have had their “marriage” confirmed overseas, but it also comes from those who have contracted surrogacy arrangements in other polities and returned home with their offspring and in their train have commenced agitation, aided and abetted by major newspapers, for significant changes to laws in state jurisdictions.
And, at the same time, notice just how ineffectual are the voices of “religious” dissent, given the almost complete erosion of public trust in Christian churches and their institutions, by the effective and hypocritical deconstruction of marriage by sexual abuse.
But all this “deconstruction” hasn’t happened without attempts on “both sides” of the neo-liberal political fence – the Liberal Coalition and Labor – to harness what was taken to be the “Christian trend” that might have helped to restore party unity. In the US, as we know, the “Christian right” morphed into the “tea party” but such fundamentalist initiatives have all but collapsed in the wake of the Donald Trump “secularistic” belligerence. First there was Kevin Rudd’s October 2006 “Faith in Politics” a few months before he became the Labor Leader and Leader of the Opposition. In this piece Kevin Rudd made a challenging appeal to Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
… when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.
In retrospect, this essay seems to have been a part of Rudd’s initially creative effort to challenge the political orchestration of various forms of organised Christianity in support of conservative incumbents (Bush, Howard). But then Rudd’s later failure can be detected by the essay’s attempt to harness Christianity to a “leftward social democracy” without criticising his own party’s lurch towards the same neo-liberal economics and its libertarian ethics. If his was an attempt to unify Labor by an appeal to Christian teaching it failed. One wonders as well whether Rudd’s public embrace of same-sex marriage has simply assisted Labor’s embrace of an ethic more libertarian than one amenable to the exclusive male-female marital bond as taught by Jesus and the apostles.
On the other “side” Tony Abbott’s stint as Prime Minister seems to have been a last ditch attempt to assert the importance for the Liberal Party of the Christian social teaching that finds its source in Papal encyclicals since the late 19th century. But with the accession of Malcolm Turnbull to the leadership of the Liberal Party and the Prime Ministership, the Liberal-National Coalition is shown, as occupants of the Treasury Benches in Parliament to be just as confused and just as wedded to a libertarian viewpoint as their confused opponents, unable to give a coherent and comprehensive explanation of their public philosophy.
If we have only recently becomes alarmed at the way popular culture now takes for granted the paganism of this latest libertarian “discovery” that marriage is a civil right, then perhaps we have been asleep politically and also in other cultural ways as well. We have not been as alert as we should have been to what, for decades, has been before our very eyes. I am not just referring to the latest in film, television and literature that more explicitly than ever before gives expression to this switch. It is as if our lives have unfolded in an altogether new context, a switch in world-view of wide-ranging proportions.
We may have noticed how, over a couple of years, week-in, week-out, the young man we often met on our bus was slowly but surely transforming himself, so that when we met last week we found it very hard to avoid averting our eyes from her. That is the kind of everyday reality that can meet us if we have eyes to see it. And let us not, by any means, under-estimate the profundity of this switch – neither for the young person claiming a transgendered identity, nor for ourselves who have to pinch ourselves to verify that we are awake and not dreaming.
Meanwhile it is the Liberal-National Coalition and Labor parties who have, in fact, by their parliamentary opportunism, brought us to this situation by their 2004 amendment to the Marriage Act and by their failure to give any ongoing justification for doing so! Where have the parliamentarians who so resolutely voted on that former occasion been in the subsequent decade? Where is the developed policy and a rationale for marriage for us to consider in line with what they had so solemnly legislated? Answer: Nowhere.
Apart from anything else they were prevented from doing so by the political machine’s demand that they stay united in conscientious quietude! Coherent policy on marriage would undoubtedly split the party, but it did not then stop party advisors recommending a unanimous, or near to unanimous vote on the 2004 amendment, when this was seen as a crucial step to eventually winning Government.
And so the truth of the matter is that these “Ayes” from 2004 have not made much impact at all, at least not upon the public debate in defence of the 2004 amendment. Did they then vote for that amendment assuming it was in some ways like magic and therefore impervious to any later change? Amend the Marriage Act they did; but the problem did not disappear! This subsequent absence in public policy debate is damning evidence that though these parties may qualify for the massive share of public funding they receive for fighting elections, they no longer qualify as advocates of a coherent political vision that explains to the people of Australia what they have been doing to justify our trust. They may speak sweet words when they require political respect and compassion from the electorate, in order to harvest their share of public funds for every vote cast, but the parties machinations only welcome “visions” when they augment current public relations fads.
And if we still happen to believe that we should vote “Noe” in any upcoming plebiscite then the pressure is well and truly upon us to look again at ourselves in relation to the times in which we are living. If we, those who profess to be disciples of Jesus Christ, are out of step with the times is it because we are keeping in step with the Spirit of this Person we say we follow (Galatians 5:25)?
This series is not an appeal to the Liberal Party to return to some kind of covert Christian Liberalism, anymore than it is a call to the Labor Party to revert to what seemed to some observers to be a Christian Socialist strategy in Kevin Rudd’s efforts to put his party back on the rails. No, this site is for an authentic Christian political option. And what I am suggesting is that this nation’s political community – on “all sides” – has been moving further and further away from the attempt of its major parties to adapt their liberal humanist beliefs to traditional Christian understandings, not only of the role of government, but most decidedly of the responsibilities of marriage and family.
And if all that is so, then we Christian citizens are going to have to ask ourselves some equally serious questions about the corollary of the neo-liberal accommodation of an ostensibly Christian view, namely the degree to which we Christian citizens have actually been playing a game in which we accommodate ourselves to the basic tenets of the neo-liberal humanist commitment to human autonomy. Has our politics merely been an accommodation? If it hasn’t been that, where is it, where can it be seen in ongoing political terms? Where is the programme with policies that are comprehensive in scope, that are clearly enunciated to work for public justice as the way we show we love our neighbour – all of our neighbours – as ourselves? Or have we been too much caught up in the humanist religious drive to transform Biblical faith into just another expression of human self-sufficiency?
Sunday 21 August 2016