In the Aftermath of Legislative and Political Error

The political error implicit in Prime Minister’s announced plebiscite is deep. It is also multifaceted and multi-layered. And the wording of the proposed ballot paper:

“Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” with a direction to enter the words “Yes” or “No”

is only the merest tip of the political iceberg of the Member for Wentworth. We have already drawn attention to the fact that our public debate about marriage cannot avoid the judgement of the High Court in 2013 which included the statement:

“Marriage” in s 51(xxi) includes a marriage between persons of the same sex.

     We may not be able to avoid Malcolm Turnbull’s personal commitment to changing the Marriage Act to bring it into line with his personal views (i.e. that in law a same-sex relationship should be ascribed the status of a marriage, or at least will be once the Marriage Act says it is). But since our parliament’s Prime Minister is also a trained barrister and lawyer can we expect him to fully argue the case from both sides and thereby show how it is possible to take issue in a juristic sense from the High Court’s egregious empirical mistake, and to do so before he attempts to pull the rug from beneath those who argue for a retention of the Marriage Act’s definition of marriage? Does he dare to do that?

Let me direct readers, once again, to the examination of two constitutional jurists of that 2013 statement in the High Court ruling with their serious criticisms raised against its presumptions.

Fully part of Nurturing Justice‘s concern is the furtive political way in which this matter is being dealt with – not only by the Prime Minister and his colleagues on his side of the Parliament, but also by his political opponents (i.e. in the Labor Opposition and the Greens). Would we be completely off the planet to perceive the possibility of an iron fist of statism within the silk legal gloves of the liberal sentimentalism endorsed by many in the Federal Parliament, including the PM? Has he actually addressed and clarified that dimension of his political beliefs?

We do not think so; as we have pointed out, the sine qua non of his commitment to the Liberal Party is to the absolute importance of maintaining its parliamentary unity, and so we judge that it is that unity that he is seeking to uphold and so, on his watch, public debate that seeks to give marriage its due will simply have to take second place until this process – born from an attempt to make him leader and maintain party/ coalition unity – runs its course.

But to move on. The Member of Wentworth’s political error at this time is not solely a matter of submerging his own “same sex marriage” policy commitment to his view that party unity is the sine qua non the Liberal Party’s political agenda. Yes, that is the fake political view which, since 1974, has been in the balance as the Liberal Party embraces the pragmatic view of matching the “desirable” with the “achievable” (John Howard’s view of politics). For the Liberal Party it is the party’s self-interest that they will continually try to make equivalent to the “national interest”. The party operates with the view that they can even violate their own stated principles if, by doing so, they enhance the party’s power. As stated last time: this is a public relations firm that tries to market itself as a political party, committed to the “common good” and the “national interest”.

And so an ongoing correction of the historical record is also part of the Liberal modus operandi. The utter failure of the Liberal Party to show itself capable of acting as a Parliamentary Opposition persists to this day, except in these times when they seem to be learning this lesson (i.e. of being in “opposition”) while occupying the Treasury Benches! It is truly quite pathetic. And meanwhile the entire country is held hostage to their entrenched political failure, a basic weakness, so easily discernible, when we consider how ineffective they and their similarly privileged rivals have been in positive political education..

They persist in manufacturing a mythical view of national economic probity to hide this inner contradiction and so they simply resort to the mantra that national economic development is always threatened by the Liberal Party’s opponents, except, of course, when in retrospect, they ideologically massage the historical record by a latter-day appeal to the policies of the  Hawke-Keating Governments, as if “they” (i.e. Labor) were simply adhering to “our” (i.e. Liberal) underlying principles. And with this, as well, we see the dominance of the Liberal Party’s elitism that coincides with a persistent attempt to feed off entrenched established power, whether in the media, the corporate world, forays in church and religious circles, not ignoring their under-cover marriage with the legal profession, a covert de facto relationship they share with their Labor rivals.

      Readers may well be tired of this state of affairs but Nurturing Justice continues its commentary not only because of the way political debate about marriage is persistently malformed by Liberal Party presumption; we are concerned with the way in which political debate per se is tending to promote serious malformations in many dimensions of our social responsibility, quite apart from the perpetual undermining of our accountability as citizens for public governance.

     On the one hand a plebiscite on “Marriage Equality” presumes far too much with respect to a citizen’s grasp of the law and jurisprudence. And then, on the other, the Labor Party and the Greens, in opposing the plebiscite are conveniently hiding behind the fact that they haven’t engaged in anything like the necessary public education. A plebiscite, quite apart from other unseemly consequences around the country, will certainly expose their public policy educational failures as parties, not just since the last election but for decades.

     Just over a year ago, the Liberal Coalition realised, in their attempt to draw public attention away from their own emulation of the parliamentary anarchy they screeched about when in Opposition during the Rudd-Gillard years, that their electoral survival depended upon stitching up a deal to replace Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. And here is the crucial point I wish to put before Nurturing Justice readers.

A Christian democratic political option needs to rightly and justly interpret this changeover; historically, we deem it to be an important, even culminating, step in the Liberal Party’s “development” (we resist saying its complete demise although it may well be that). So what was the political character of this leadership change? Our view is this:

in so doing the Coalition parties have effectively decided that henceforth, whatever the Parliament enshrines in the Marriage Act will have to be considered by them, that is from their “side” of politics, as the “politically correct” definition of marriage. The political view they have implicitly adopted is that marriage law will from now on be subservient to majority sentiment, i.e. to what is politically correct. But more than that. This is a commitment that implies that it has always (i.e. from 1901 and the coming into force of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act) been a matter of what was “politically correct”. The transition that has been effected is one that now views the previous definition of marriage as itself a “politically correct” definition for its time. And so, by stitching up a deal for a plebiscite on “gay marriage”, to effect a leadership change, the Liberal Coalition has embraced a policy that presumes that the correct way to see marriage, family and household in legislation is only ever what is politically correct, i.e. whatever the major powers of social life say it is. Previously, within the Liberal Party (and in other parties as well), there was a liberal-pragmatic accommodation to a Christian view of marriage and what was inherited by the overwhelming majority in the population, whatever their religious affiliations or none. And that seemed to give public-legal respect, if not endorsement, to the male-female institution that Christians presuppose to be basic to our human identity coram Dei. And this same pragmatic-liberalism is also why a genuinely Christian political option with a comprehensively articulated policy for marriage, family and household has not been disclosed in this polity’s political life. Why? Because a “halfway Christian political philosophy” does not bring about a Christian understanding of public justice.

     At this point in this discussion I wish to keep to the problem of the Liberal Party and will return to say a brief word about a Christian political option in conclusion.

To put it in philosophical terms: the Liberal Party of Australia has now embraced a nominalist relativism as absolute. If the phrase “nominalist relativism as absolute” sounds ambiguous or contradictory then you have identified the problem pretty well. Whatever the Marriage Act is referring to, the Liberal Party believes it is but a social construction to be given the “marriage label” by parliamentary decree. It follows that this view of marriage will now mean a new chapter will have to be written in the Liberal Party’s attempt to correct its own historical record to bring it into line with whatever the current elitist “politically correct” aspirations decree on that emergent “side” of politics. According to this new Liberal modus operandi marriage has only ever been (at least since 1901 in this country) what has been decided to be “politically correct” by the “social powers.” And now, by putting public legal emphasis upon individual human rights, by making marriage itself into a civil right, the Liberal Party has once more redefined its Parliamentary duty whatever the outcome of the plebiscite! Allegedly, marriage now comes into its own as merely a legally endorsed contract between two sovereign persons.

One has to wonder why this bi-polar, or dyadic residue (i.e. two persons, why not three?) of Christian marriage is deemed so necessary by the purveyors of this new “politically correct” view. But the Liberal Party, by maintaining that its own parliamentary existence is the most important principle governing its own political contribution, has well and truly taken a path where appeal to Christian teaching within its ranks is now, more than ever, merely cosmetic. Perhaps some senior party members will try to do so and they may be indulged for a season by the party’s “new breed” under the unifying influence of their new “team captain”. But such teaching has already been left far behind. Such old guard will be viewed as obscurantists, preserving some entertainment value just like Statler and Waldorf in Sesame Street.

The main game for a Christian political option remains as it has ever been and though we will continue to live in the aftermath of legislative and political error, it will still be necessary to give ourselves to the task of developing a raft of comprehensive policies for marriage, family and household relationships. But Nurturing Justice would suggest that to try to do so as a part the current plebiscite debate – based upon the above identified nominalistic relativism – may well be beyond our current political capabilities.

We have a lot of work to do to deepen our understanding of how public governance should ascribe justice to all, and to deepen insight into how assistance should be rendered to all those struggling in their families and the forming of their households. From some, the demand for “marriage equality” in legislation is beginning to sound like a request to release “marriage” so that it can deliver its “therapeutic” salve to those feeling excluded from wedding celebrations – as if changing the Marriage Act is somehow going to magic away some deeply rooted personal problems, whether these are physiological, genetic, psychological, cultural or generated by social exclusion and violent abuse. No one should deny that there are great opportunities for extending pastoral care to people and to helping them face whatever dilemmas and cruel difficulties they confront on their own, with their friends or in their households. But changing the Marriage Act is not going to meet these needs, and the parliamentary endorsement of a legal error based upon an empirical mistake may well throw up new obstacles to any ongoing advance in such neighbourly care.

But what advance can we followers of Jesus make if, in seeking to promote justice for all in His Name, we discard the pearl of great price in this vexed matter, His authoritative teaching concerning marriage, family and living together?

BCW

16.9.16

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