What more is there to say?
We are faced with the consequences of the dogmatic privatisation of political beliefs about marriage, family and household. Such privatisation is a dominant presupposition in our national political discourse. It is maintained, in the main, by our major, and also some minor, political parties. The mass media follow limply along in this destructive trend.
As a nation we daily witness our moral impoverishment on many fronts, and so we stand in need of a better appreciation of the intimate interface of marriage, family and household with the public legal order as the key institutions of our national economy. The renewal of our nation’s life will not arise without a rediscovery of the great value in reaching out with hospitality – from our households, from our communities and from our homeland – to those beyond, to neighbours up the street, to people elsewhere in our region and across the country, to those beyond our shores.
The fact is that we may find it very difficult to see any connection between the way we understand marriage, family and household life and the plight of the asylum seekers cruelly housed on Manus Island and on Nauru. But political understanding has everything to do with the way we treat our neighbours, all of them, with justice. Our political perspective must include our acts of outreach, our attempts as families, as organisations, as a nation to reach out. And our outreach as a nation to the married couples, the families, the households among those housed in those off-shore detention centres is, despite the attempt of the Government to deny it, our outreach, and it is characterised by a cruel lack of welcome and hospitality.
Consider what would happen if a car travelling to Point Lonsdale was hijacked on the Westgate Bridge and the thieves dropped the family off on my doorstep at Point Lonsdale (100km away). The family knocks on my door and I say – “I’m sorry you can’t come in. If I look after you this might encourage further Westgate bridge hi-jacking. But I’ll ring the police and you can spend the night in the local gaol.”
What we are dealing with on Manus and Nauru, as John Menadue indicates, is a profound national scandal, aided and abetted by political parties that no longer have the moral backbone to do otherwise. They no longer know how to advocate for justice in regards to marriage, family and household. It sadly confirms our national guilt, and it confirms our thesis that our political parties have failed in an important phase of national leadership. And the failure is our own as well and it has depths we will find very difficult to face.
Our Government is very quick to make concessions by appeal to the principle of state sovereignty when dealing with the militarist oppression that is implicit in Fiji’s parliamentary democracy as well as with Indonesia’s colonial rule in West Papua (ominously at the other end of the Melanesian crescent). But there is simply a merciless fanaticism involved in the way in which we Australians, via successive Governments in Canberra, want to suggest about these people at Manus and Nauru who have been desperately seeking social space to live their lives and grow their families and form their households. We are saying to them that since they allowed themselves to be duped by illegal people-smugglers then they need to take responsibility for their actions and now go away.
It is as much for the well being of these so shabbily treated people, that we need a serious political change in the way in which we understand all human relations. This situation involving 1700 persons on Manus Island and Nauru occurs at a time when there are millions desperately seeking a place of safety where God’s gifts of life can be enjoyed. This state of affairs is another confirmation that we desperately need renewal in marriage, in family life and in hospitable house holding.
What it means is that we need an altogether completely new kind of national politics in which genuine political parties play their indispensable but limited part. This would mean crafting a parliamentary politics that gives due respect to the various ways of life of electors without requiring them to resile from their deepest commitments. As it is the “two sides” allow themselves to force all citizens to choose between them and so keep them in the political comfort to which they have become complacently accustomed. It is a style of politics that is hollowing out our political convictions.
Instead we require a new appreciation of political life and our part in it. This will be a viewpoint in which legislation will have to embody sufficient parliamentary compromise even if these compromises are to be made by the representatives of irreconcilable political viewpoints.
But that is at this point only a hope for the future. Now, the parties, though willingly allowing themselves to be financed from the public funding of election campaigns, have long retreated from the difficult task of reaching out to local communities in genuine political education. Just as we do not now know what Labor and Liberal stand for in terms of any coherent political philosophy, so also we have little idea what their underlying political beliefs mean for these key institutional loci of our economy. By embracing the neo-liberal ideology, they have embraced their own wilful ignorance about what they stand for. And conscience votes are simply another phase of this neo-liberal privatisation.
As a nation we no longer know why these parties exist, and what their long-term programme is apart from their own self-preservation. They are now practical nihilists. We are fed slogans parading as policies that read more like bids at an auction. If we bother to follow media reports about what is happening in our parliaments or councils we may catch glimpses of some far off longer-term legislative agendas that are in the minds of some of the members of these parties. But as parties they seem to have stopped talking about such things long ago. They have perfected the art of furtively bringing bills into the parliament that they know will be controversial. The Victorian Labor Government is notorious for these kinds of tactics. But they do not have it on their own. Parliament these days bespeaks a statist libertarian view. All sides, especially “both sides”, engage in these tactics and give ample proof of their public education failures by the material they leave in our letter-boxes at election time.
One only has to consider the activities of local branches of political parties in one’s own suburb – if they exist. When have they ever used their considerable resources to convene public lectures or seminars to which all are invited so that citizens have an opportunity to appreciate their political vision? One would have thought that as privileged players in our public governance, these parties would be eager to receive face-to-face feedback from those of other political beliefs. Consider: when did you last have a knock on the door from a party member conducting a survey of political attitudes in your street?
So, where, exactly, are citizens to learn about the challenges and problems of public governance? The answer seems to be that the parties have given up on this task. And would we be wrong in suggesting that it appears that their main objective now is to use their considerable power to hold onto power, despite the widespread public incredulity, by preventing voices and opinions that ask difficult questions and expose their all-too evident political weaknesses?
Take the prospect of a plebiscite on “marriage equality” as a case in point? Why are so many running scared about a plebiscite? It would have been a classic “no-brainer” had the parties been engaged in forming civic discourse for decades as they should have been doing. But they run scared precisely because of their inability to promote and maintain public justice for marriage, family and households and their failure to engage their electors in discussion about such policies! I am not talking about a legislative agenda, although that is important. I am simply pointing out that after years of ongoing public agitation about “same sex marriage” the two major political blocks have come up with no clear policy framework to put to the Australian people, nor have they been able to develop a platform for coherent reform of the Marriage Act. Nor have they used their resources to form the kind of debating environment that they now think we can simply form ex nihilo!
As it is they still haven’t explained why they have now changed course from the path mapped out by reforms they legislated in 2004. Labor says it will make SSM a part of the party platform from 2019; we have argued that the Liberal Party (and some Nationals) now concede that marriage qua institution is always a matter of whatever is deemed “politically correct” at any particular time. But why? Why do they believe that justice to same-sex couples and their households is going to be further advanced by yet another legislative change to the Marriage Act? Are we really to believe that Parliamentarians should be freed now to change the Marriage Act in order to assist some young people to avoid the heartache and disappointment they may experience when, with same-sex attractions, they are told that their relationship, whatever else it may be, is not a marriage? Are we to simply flag through a change to the definition of lawful marriage as if the purpose of the Marriage Act is to ensure some kind of therapy to those who now feel a 21st century kind of exclusion because of an understanding of marriage that has been with the human race for thousands of years and which is still maintained by an overwhelming majority of the earth’s peoples?
There are questions like these – difficult questions; questions that are hard to ask and even harder to answer – that the political parties should have been working on at least since 1981 when homosexuality was decriminalised across the Commonwealth. To be sure the political parties are not the only actors to have failed. But they have, as privileged associations of those elected to Parliament, neglected the task of providing well elaborated political perspectives on human relationships that should have followed the Royal Commission on Human Relationships 1975-1977. And such socio-political perspectives should have become an upfront part of their respective party political articulations. We now inherit the consequences of this monumental failure. As I have said, it is not just the political parties. But it certainly is their responsibility. We won’t get out of this mess without the political parties in this country undergoing reform, root and branch.
Moreover, Nurturing Justice is responding to our ongoing Christian community responsibility to love our neighbours with public justice. Given our Christian failure to develop a coherent political programme at federal, state and local levels there is no grounds whatsoever for complacent self-righteousness. The problems are our problems, in the roots and the branches of our hopelessly dispersed and feeble expressions of political concern.
And so the political parties are already exposed by the public-legal ignorance of citizens concerning the full political implications and consequences of such a change. Oh yes these Johnny-cum-latelies will put themselves forward as those who can prepare the nation for the change and they are obviously keen to extract as much credibility and kudos from the crisis, and its impending tensions, to shore up their depleted reputations. But these tensions are not now something that can be easily side-stepped or dismissed. The crisis in marriage and family and household is not going to go away with “marriage equality” legislation. The consequences will have to be confronted and it is not going to be all sweetness and light.
There has been no explanation of the implications of this proposed change for Australia’s adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in particular of Article 16. See also the 1966 ICCPR). There has been no discussion of how this nation is being corralled into joining a neo-colonial offensive by the self-defining “advanced” and “progressive” nations – and their over-rich corporations and global initiative foundations – against the overwhelming majority of jurisdictions that do not subscribe to this deconstruction of marriage. This is just for starters. There is also too little discussion about how this might inflame those – within our national community and those outside of it – who are prone to “radicalisation”, those who may be disposed to interpret such a change as yet another example of western decadence.
And so, if we haven’t noticed already:
Neither a plebiscite nor a parliamentary vote is the way to go. What is required is a new political perspective. If Christians truly believe that marriage, family and household life are gifts from God then they should also become aware that their calling as citizens is also part of their discipleship. A Christian political option is not the secret of some gnostic sect, nor is it a task for some self-proclaimed spiritual elite. It is simply a facet of our lives, made meaningful in our lives by the ministry and rule of Jesus Himself, in service to God and neighbour.
In this country, what is needed, in truth, is a new “political settlement”. That will require a a new understanding of what parliamentary democracy requires of us and that will require study and persistent effort to appreciate the normative demands of public justice. We need to work in the understanding that as a nation we have work to do if we are to become mature in our understanding of public justice.
It will require all sides (and not just “both sides”) to rediscover that parliamentarians are representatives of electors not delegates commissioned to act on their own initiative by party headquarters. An election promise is an agreement – it should be kept: pacta sunt servanda.
It will require a disciplined parliamentary philosophy by which elected members stay true to their election platforms – no core and non-core promise flapdoodle – but then that means that an election platform needs to finds its character in the context of a political party’s clearly formulated political beliefs that are publicly known: what is public governance? what is citizenship? what is parliamentary representation? what are our current pressing political needs? A party must be prepared to lose public support if it is to maintain its commitment.
It will require us to look again at how citizens can best be represented in our parliaments and that means changes in how we elect parliamentarians for this federated commonwealth. We need to look again at how we “do politics” in a comprehensive way. How should our Federal Parliament be structured? How should we understand the positive role of political parties? A renewal in our system of proportional representation is called for at all levels.
It will require this nation to grow up. Political maturity takes seriously the need to keep on talking with our civic neighbours with whom we have the deepest disagreements. A healthy polity requires that. But it is not just about “talk”. It is also important that we work for a system of public governance in which all citizens are justly represented, and the deficit we have in this regard at this time certainly needs to be overcome. More state-crafting is needed if our parliaments are to justly represent the people who, it is claimed, are represented by it. We need to be weaned off our devotion to “two sides” politics, to forsake the “winner takes all” notion of parliamentary representation.
If we are to ascribe the respect they deserve to marriage, family and household by adherence to a way of life that is thankful to God for His many gifts, then we are confronted with a political task of great consequence.