We all, no doubt, have some idea of what a “defining moment” is. We will have had our experiences of various “defining moments”: when we were courting and agreed to get married; in family life when a child was born; when in the class-room the teacher announced that we had received top marks for an essay on “An harrowing experience”, and proceeded to read it so all the class could enjoy it; on the playing field when we kicked the goal that got our team into the Grand Final; in church when we stood before the congregation to profess our faith in Jesus Christ.
There are also defining moments in politics. On a personal level that may have been when we first voted (for me that was in 1972 after I had reached 21, the voting age at that time). Another “defining moment” for me was during a visit to Canberra in November 1975. I was there on November 12 when the crowd outside Parliament House gathered to demand “Bring Back Gough!”
Nurturing Justice has often found it helpful to refer to defining political moments – some have been “personal” in the sense of having had a conversation with someone – like a five-minute conversation with a senior party researcher who has since become PM, or a half hour phone conversation with a Christian Senator one evening about legislation before the house, or a brief email from another Christian Senator asking me to send details of a serious scandal I had discovered which had the potential of embarrassing the PM, the leader of his party.
There is a well-known statement that “the personal is also political”. The statement reminds us that we should not try to avoid our political responsibilities. When we refer to a personal political “defining moment” we are not suggesting that that personal experience was more than that, of political importance for the polity. It may be a “defining moment” for me personally; but it did not serve to re-define the way political life unfolded. It may not have been politically relevant for anyone else. The fact that I voted in 1972, or the fact that I was present in Canberra on the 11 November 1975, have been important for me and my own political contribution and reflection. But these facts were not the facts I am referring to when I mention “defining political moments”. By contrast, the election of the Labor Government in 1972, along with its sacking in 1975, were indeed “defining political moments” in Australia’s political history. And so my blog is an attempt to reckon with these and other “defining political moments”, even to deepen my awareness of how they have impinged upon my own sense of political responsibility. In that sense the act of identifying a “defining political moment” must also always be a “personal” act as I seek to not only assist readers to understand “where I am coming from” but also to appreciate and respect how the reader’s political responsibility has also been defined by these similar personal experiences and these other significant political moments.
The aim of Nurturing Justice therefore, can be said to help clarify the character of political trends, an attempt to foster a better political understanding of what was and is going on. By identifying some or other “defining political moment(s)” we may not only clarify the past – we may also throw light upon what we now face in the present.
When I am pointing to these “defining political moments”, I have had to remind myself that I did not come to these insights on my own – there were other “moments” that pushed me to think more deeply about these matters. For example, my father and I did not share the same political views. But there was something that he did that commands my respect and in its own way had an impact upon me too. His public action, in its own way, was political and particular “moments” in his life confirmed aspects of my own emerging “Christian democratic” viewpoint. He had been Secretary of the Liberal Party branch in the Melbourne suburb in which he lived and in which I was raised. As a result of the sacking of the Whitlam Government in 1975 he publicly repudiated the Liberal Party, resigning his membership. It took me some time to appreciate what he had meant by that action. But he did so by appealing to the principles upon which the Liberal Party had been founded, and in so doing helped me, albeit somewhat indirectly, to see more clearly how a powerful pragmatic ideology had gained a vice-like grip on that party.
Another “moment” that could be mentioned here was the communication I received from a colleague at the Free University of Amsterdam in 2001-2 informing me of the public announcement by a prominent medical researcher that research on human embryos was possible in The Netherlands because of the importation of human embryos into that country from Australia. The newspaper report was clear in stating the researcher’s view that this enabled cloning research to continue despite a European ban.
These “moments” did not just happen. Their impact remains to this day. But in recognising this we also have to think about what they mean for how we view our future, which also includes our political future? Reflecting upon the way the “moments” of the past have influenced what we face in the present must, willy-nilly, lead is to reflect upon future outcomes of present actions.
Why are we concerned with identifying past “defining moments”? What has motivated us? Is it merely an inherent desire to “seize the day”? Are we wanting to take hold of our life in such a total way that we can then redefine political life in its entirety? Are we wanting to say that the narrative we develop by including all these “defining moments” is part of our effort to identify, if not to be, our own “defining moment”? Do we, in other words, want to establish ourselves as our own “defining moment”? Is our aim to develop our political understanding and our political argument to such an extent that we will be politically self-sufficient? Are we aiming to be recognised by others as the ones who have inaugurated the “defining moment” of a new politics?
Such a line of questioning may seem obscure until we realise that it arises at the centre of our lives because a particular commitment to human self-sufficiency has gripped us. In other words, the “defining moment” of this line of questioning arises from a “worldview”, a way of seeing ourselves and everything we do, and that commitment in fact has long been the dominant religious force in this polity’s “defining moments”. I concede that it sounds strange to refer to the liberal-humanist viewpoint as a religious viewpoint. After all Liberals (and liberals) will regularly tell us that it is “only” a secular view.
Now what I have been trying to suggest in this and previous posts of this blog, is that a Christian political option has indeed been a possibility in this polity ever since civil government was established, both before and after Federation in 1901. However such a possibility has been repeatedly blocked by Christians and their churches repeatedly and persistently deciding that the Christian political option needs to be accommodated to the liberal view of human self-sufficiency. There have been variations of this “accommodation” but the “defining moment” of all these efforts to somehow connect Christian discipleship with human self-sufficiency is to be found in the view that profession of one’s faith must remain “private” in order to ensure that politics remains “secular”. The deepest ambiguity in our political life in this country is to be found in the deep civic faith that public justice is only possible if political life remains “secular”, free of all the religious commitments that are viewed as private, and as a matter of civic virtue should be so viewed for the sake of building a tolerant society. That deepest ambiguity is the “defining moment” of our current political crisis. It is what joins the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in an underlying unity and conversely it is what requires them to seek to completely overcome their political opponent’s viewpoint.
We have said, as our byline, that Nurturing Justice has the aim of promoting a Christian political option for Australia and the South-West Pacific. So is it our aim that the Christian political option we seek will become a “defining moment” in our region’s political history? Let us not be too hasty in replying to this question. What are we wanting to do and to be in a political sense? At this edition of Nurturing Justice – as a political blog – (that by the alien, unsolicited, and potentially compromising advertisement at the bottom of its page shows readers just how fragile it is), now calls upon readers to join in a common effort in Christian political reflection. Let us consider this, not just in relation to our aim to develop a Christian political option, but let us think carefully as Christians (if that is indeed what we claim to be) about what our aim should be? How should our political engagement be a true and valuable enhancement, deepening and enriching of our Christian way of life? What then are we to say is the true “defining moment” for our Christian political option?
In working toward an answer to this crucial question let us look again at how Nurturing Justice has sought to develop a political narrative that draws attention to what I have identified as “defining moments”. The aim has been to examine more closely the current crisis in our parliamentary political life. We seek to show that the crisis is indeed also very much about the way in which we have come, as a polity, to view and to accept political parties.
To say it again: the crisis we face is not just about marriage – it is about our understanding of public governance, the role of parliament, the place of political parties, our own identity as citizens. The crisis about marriage has been with us as an ever-flowing, ever-rising stream, since at least the mid-20th century, with deeper roots to times before that. And now, as we have intimated “the crisis about marriage” is being used (possibly ignorantly) as a convenient cloak to mask the deep crisis in which our political parties, and the system they have constructed for themselves, are now embroiled.
Consider once again: as mentioned above, the Parliamentary wing of the Liberal Party in Opposition, made an in-principle departure in 1974 from their own party’s stated position that an elected government should be allowed to govern, and so they “threatened to block supply”. That was indeed a “defining moment”, not just for the polity and our contribution as citizens, but, as my father dramatically pointed out, for political life within the Liberal Party itself. It began a process that leads more and more to a kind of pragmatic absolutism.
And that “defining moment” has shaped the contribution of the Liberal Party ever since. Indeed it was at that May 1974 “double dissolution” election that John Howard won the seat of Bennelong. It was a decisive move to embrace pragmatism, effectively forsaking the political calling of being a Parliamentary Opposition and instead resolutely working to market themselves through deeply entrenched media connections as “alternative Government”, as “government-in-waiting”. (This is the view of politics endorsed by the ruthlessly self-interested News Corp that has been exposed for its criminal corruption so dramatically in the UK; Foxtel is not religiously or politically neutral; and keep in mind that this post – Nurturing Justice with all its fragility – comes into your email intray compliments of Telstra).
And so in party political terms the extra-parliamentary party (the rank and file members) is conscripted to serve the parliamentary wing. My father understood the rationale of the Liberal Party and its inaugural and constituted view that good public governance presupposes healthy grass-roots political activity. It initially enshrined a (humanistic) respect for the party as a public association, with a civic duty to promote debate and to encourage the exchange of views about policies and legislation. And so May 1974 (and not just November 1975) represents the “defining moment” when that initial political commitment fell away. And so the Liberal Party in its own terms has ever since, despite its presumptuous marketing therefore fostered political disrespect for itself. It continues to do so, albeit in fragmented and incoherent ways.
Another “defining moment” occurred in 2001 when Mr Howard, as Prime Minister, having been elected for another term, gave his support for scientific research that would result in the destruction of human embryos. This was contrary to his own promise to his electors during the previous election campaign. This then was a “defining political moment” because the Liberal Party, having given itself permission to depart from its own stated principles of parliamentary democracy, found itself surviving politically on this and other “moral” issues by the orchestration of parliamentary “conscience votes” as a facade of “how democracy works”. Rhubarb, pure rhubarb. And despite that, the device was also co-opted by its major political opponent (Labor) and so the major political parties converge on a view that their electoral power has to be maintained while moving away from a Parliamentary adherence to anything said on the election platform (we might as well forget what a party’s constitution says about its basic political beliefs!)
And our problem, as a national polity, is that it is not even recognised that they have both scrupulously avoided the very difficult political task of developing coherent policies about “marriage, family, reproduction, sexuality, and household life”. The Liberal’s plebiscite is to send a signal that they would like to do so; Labor’s opposition to the plebiscite is that they simply don’t want to be exposed for their failure to do so. They have both effectively privatised the legislative process in relation to such policies and from the last election decisively proved they do not have anything coherent to say about these matters to the electors at election time.
Party discipline is oriented to maintaining power rather than adherence to a party’s beliefs. Both “sides” have become adherents of “core” and “non-core” promises.
In these pages I have repeatedly sought to draw attention to the significance of these two events as “defining moments” of the difficulties our Parliaments now face in winning genuine political respect from electors. They now receive their votes at election at the expense of gaining their respect, even while they feed voraciously off public funding. If they had any genuine political scruples they would give the money back!
Having given up the task of being a political party that holds to its own set of political beliefs, they can no longer with good faith, explore and examine the party principles, platforms and policies of all other genuine parties that are active in our polity. To do so will only highlight their own vacuous marketing. They should be able to join in ongoing public debate about all matters political, and even when they beg to differ they should be using all their resources to find ways – in Parliament and outside of Parliament – to co-operate with their opponents in the state-crafting task of building, maintaining and extending public justice which remains the task of all citizens.
In other words the parties have lost the art of encouraging the development and the enriching of Australian extra-parliamentary political life through the contributions of political parties as positive associations of the public realm. They have lost it, and they need to find it again. And sadly they show no evidence of wanting to do so. That is our crisis; that is our current “defining political moment”.
Of course there is a need for our political community to engage in a serious reconsideration of “marriage, family, and household.” But that may well take us back to all kinds of other issues of “body politics” that are presumed to have been well and truly bedded in the ongoing nonsense of “political correctness”. Ask yourself in the midst of the current political crisis: who is talking about public respect for chaste courtship these days?
Nurturing Justice does not know how such a question will ever again make it to the public agenda. We do not know when or if those enamoured and addicted to the “two sides of politics” ideology will ever become aware of the crisis as we draw it. We are not about to make declarations that this spat over whether a plebiscite should held is itself a “defining moment”. Despite the flapdoodle on both sides, this “moment” is one that is very much under the influence of the above mentioned crisis in the way we, as a polity, have come to accept political parties. And there is enough evidence to suggest that both parties are presenting themselves in relation to the plebiscite in order to cloak their failures as parties.
The Liberal advocates of a plebiscite wants the national electorate’s vote to give the “defining moment”. But the electorate is severely under-educated about the role and function of the Marriage Act and its relation to the full panoply of laws and regulations. That is about understanding our legal system and is our ignorance going to be dispersed by simply “catching up” with the “rest” of the “progressive and advance English-speaking democracies”? Hardly.
Let me close by placing side-by-side two opinions. One suggests Australia is “backward” because
... we are the last English-speaking advanced country not to allow same-sex marriage. Peter van Onselen September 24th The Australian.
This suggests that by saying “yes” to same-sex marriage (his other term is “getting on the bus”) the Australian Parliament will know what it is doing. He is implying that this will be a “defining moment” in our “catching up” to the Enlightened.
The other opinion suggests that as a country we are in a frightful muddle, and this is as much for our judiciary as for our politicians, let alone ourselves the “ordinary man and woman in the street”.
Australian law on relationships is currently in a complete muddle. In various places around the country, there are marriages, civil partnerships or civil unions, registered de facto relationships, and unregistered de facto relationships, all of which end up being treated in almost exactly the same way as marriages at least once certain thresholds are met (and subject to proof if the existence of the relationship is contested). (Patrick Parkinson and Nicholas Aroney “The Territory of Marriage: Constitutional law, marriage law and family policy in the ACT Same Sex Marriage Case” 2014, pp.38-9.)
The chorus of opposition to the plebiscite now warns of mental health consequences. The plebiscite, they fear, will be a “defining moment” in further marginalisation. They may well be right, even if it be somewhat late in the political day for tis matter to be raised. But such warnings provoke further questions like: why might a plebiscite have become dangerous and injurious to the health of some marginalised citizens? Could it be, as we have suggested, that we are dealing with the consequences of a public policy failure of our political parties? Do we not have to think more creatively about mental health and the problems people face in self identification? Could it be that the country’s mental health is in some way related to the health of our political parties? Could it be that we have a mental health crisis in part because our political parties have strayed in such an unhealthy way from being what they should be? Could it be that we no longer have the confidence to engage in public debate because we, as a polity, have lost the art of engaging in public debate in a just and equitable way?
Of course we need open, considerate, well organised, public discussion, discussion about marriage, family nurture and how that relates to schooling and to all dimensions of public life. Of course we need ongoing wise care of vulnerable people and not only heed those caring for them who have the loudest megaphones. As much as we need to stand against the political exploitation of marginalised people, and we should be unremitting in our resistance to a consumerist society with its appalling attempts to exploit and mould fragile human sentiments and instincts. (see the possible unsolicited ad at the end of this post).
Of course our public debate needs to be moulded in such a way that is caring for all citizens and all their families and households. Of course we need public debate that takes seriously the comments and struggles of people in terms of their identity and their understanding of their sexuality. But we also need political parties to be diligent in doing their public duty in enhancing public debate, in respecting time-honoured institutions, and also to do so in this public debate; they should not be clamouring to shut it down. It would be far better to suggest the debate be extended and deepened. Instead, all they do is to give credence to the suspicion that they are afraid of having their political negligence exposed, of having to face the music of citizens who have been severely and repeatedly shortchanged by their ongoing blatant neglect and elitist self-interest.
Here I would suggest to readers that the place to start in identifying the true “defining moment” of our Christian political option, is exactly the same place we have indicated for our consideration of marriage, sexual union and family life – the teaching of Jesus Christ and His apostles.
The “defining moment” of our Christian political option is not our efforts to string together a compelling narrative, however important such an account will be. Our political narrative, seeking to link “defining political moments” can never, of itself, be the “defining moment” of our political task. At most it can be led by the confession that Jesus Christ the one-time suffering servant, Israel’s true and only Messiah, has been made our Master, our Lord, and encourage others to come to the Saviour of the world, the Good Shepherd. His redemptive work is our “defining moment”.
The task is also to find ways to encourage fellow citizens to join in the God-given responsibility of political service, to love our civic neighbours, all of them, in our own polity, and in our region and beyond, and to do so with public justice. Just like Pontius Pilate, we would not have political responsibility – even as citizens – unless this responsibility had been given to us “from above”. Our “defining moment” is found in the full restoration of God’s image through the True Image Bearer, Christ Jesus, who has borne it for us. That is where our political responsibility has firm ground. That is our only true ground.
For the moment let us consider Luke’s Gospel (22:23-30), Jesus’ definitive explanation of how His disciples – those having taken up their own cross to follow Him – should see their involvement in political life. Luke’s account tells us that the discussion came at a crucial time during the Last Supper, just after Jesus’ foreshadowed His betrayal, and just before His indicated His awareness of Peter’s pending denial.
They began a conversation among themselves as to whom it might be who could conceivably be the one who would betray Jesus and with their competitiveness thus stirred their discussion returned [once more ref Luke 9] to who should rank highest. And this is what Jesus said to them. “The kings of the peoples of the earth rule them as their lords. And those who carry out their authority are acknowledged by the peoples as their benefactors. But this is not for you. For the one among you who is already greater let him become as a new recruit; and the one governing become as a mere servant. For who is greater [among you]? The one reclining or the one serving? Is it not the one reclining? But [to consider my example] I am among you as one who serves you. [That’s my part in this. And you are those who have accompanied me during my [period of many] trials and what I deliver into your hands is the Kingdom my Father has delivered into my hands, that you may dine and drink with me in my Kingdom, at my table, sitting there upon the twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
There is much in this to consider.
The second resource I would make available for those readers who want to take this up, is an address, an MP3 audio, by Jim Skillen delivered in Durham, North Carolina, October 27, 2007 on a passage in Luke’s second book Acts 1:1-11.
For the moment both resources will suffice as an all too brief indication of the way in which Nurturing Justice seeks to identify the “defining moment” of a Christian political option. We shall have to return to this discussion later on in future posts.