The battle currently being waged within the Australian Government between those on the right who prefer to be called conservative and those less on the right who prefer to be called liberals is tedious, but its eventual outcome will have a profound effect on Australian life if this side of politics remains in government. For Christians the struggle is particularly acute. Those who prefer to be called conservative most frequently, and publicly, align as Christian. Are the conservatives or the liberals more or less likely to address issues faced by 21st century Australia and are the conservatives or the liberals more or less likely to mirror Christian values? I want to address this question by looking at three issues central to Australian political and media life.
1. Inequality. The growing level of inequality in Australia and throughout the Western world is at the heart of political disquiet everywhere. Our inequality is demonstrated in a variety of ways but especially through:
· house ownership vs. house rental
· needs based educational funding
· escalating privatisation which too often favours shareholder profit at the expense of services to customers (cf banks and energy providers).
· pressure placed upon the poor through tightening of pension eligibility while the wealthy (private and corporate) avoid tax payment through family trusts and various schemes for tax avoidance or minimalisation.
So far it appears that those on the political right favour policies which increase inequity. It is a no-go area for conservatives to deal with the causation of escalating house prices through negative gearing etc, thus favouring investors over home occupiers. Gonski2 passed, but attempts to make school funding more equitable were resisted by the right. The right would privatise everything, maximising benefit to shareholder investment at the expense of services. The language of ‘entitlement’ from the right has been used to demean ‘Struggle Street’, while the benefits and entitlements of those in power are lauded. If a fundamental characteristic of Christianity is solidarity with the disadvantaged, it is very difficult to gain a glimpse of this from amongst those who espouse conservatism.
2. Energy Revolution There can be no doubt that the world is at the beginning of an energy revolution of the same magnitude as the industrial revolution, or the digital revolution. The revolution’s trigger might well be the challenge of climate change, but the driver is now the darling of the right - the market. The revolution is about the capacity of ordinary people to generate and access their own energy independent of a national or international supplier. This is a revolution of empowerment and it will contribute to the softening of what has become ‘neo-liberal capitalism’. Now and increasingly into the future ordinary citizens will access their own energy or will cooperate with neighbours to do so. This revolution will be of special benefit to the world’s poor and will contribute to a reversal of inequity. Poverty is not simply lack of wealth, poverty is dependence created through lack of opportunity. Dependence is demeaning. Full independence is a mirage. Interdependence expresses the life of a harmonious and contented humanity. The political right appears to be doing all in its power to delay this revolution. Delay is all that is possible, the change will not be driven by idealism or ideology, but by the market. The revolution is unstoppable. The more ‘conservative’ a politician appears to be, the more likely they are to oppose this empowerment and try to protect large companies whose future now clearly has a use by bar code.
3. An inclusive, harmonious civil society There is no going back. It is now more than 50 years since the White Australia policy was correctly abandoned and Australia opened up as a cosmopolitan, multicultural, multiethnic, multifaith society. All indications show that those who have chosen to make Australia home are almost always highly motivated, productive, flexible and imaginative. In short, they are almost always exactly the people that a country would love to embrace. It is also clear that problems arise if and when the country to which they have come, keen to make a contribution, implicitly or explicitly does not embrace them. That they come with their own ethnic, faith and cultural traditions should be assumed. It should also be assumed that these traditions will enhance the quality of Australian life. It appears again that it is those on the right of the political spectrum who would encourage a negative perception of those who do not conform to a European view of Australia
Writing as a Christian leader who has just read that the 2016 census shows a dramatic drop in Christian adherence, it is not at all helpful to bemoan the rise in numbers of other faith adherence. The Christian community deserves to be in decline if adherence to this faith inherently favours inequity, opposes empowerment, and fails to be honoured because its values and virtues do not build an inclusive civil society. It deserves to be in decline if it seeks defensively to hold on to historical but quickly disappearing status or privilege. As a Christian I unequivocally believe Christian values and virtues are infectiously attractive, as perhaps globally demonstrated by the popularity of Pope Francis. In Australia popular Christianity is not known for its deep humility, its desire for solidarity with the poor, its longing for the transformation of society. It is better known for private piety and the imposition of what it perceives to be a superior personal morality. Through Tony Abbott and Cori Bernardi Christianity is aligned with the conservative right, the idealism that by implication would have Australia less demonstrative of the world of the Sermon on the Mount.
In 1959 Quinton Hogg, chair of the British Conservative Party described Conservatism as: “not so much a philosophy as an attitude, a constant force performing a timeless function in the development of a free society and corresponding to a deep and permanent requirement in human nature itself”.
Political conservatism has its origins in the 16th and 17th centuries with Christian leaders such as Richard Hooker. These divines deemed economics to be subordinate to a conservative social ethic and capitalism subordinate to social tradition.
Tony Abbott and Cori Bernardi cannot be in a true conservative tradition if their belief in the rights of the individual blinds them to the reality that humans need to live in a ‘free and harmonious society’. Nor can they have any real understanding of freedom if the rights of the individual are prioritised over the demands of a truly free and equitable society. Rights are always conditional, the 21st century places conditions on the whole of humanity to rise above national let alone private aspirations to a level of global cooperation for common good that might undergird humanity’s otherwise tenuous tenure on planet earth.