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COVID 19 and Messaging
We all know that successful communication is tied to messaging. Why is it then that the Australian community is receiving such appalling messaging in the ongoing COVID 19 crisis?
Bad new is seldom, if ever, a successful lever for improved human behaviour. Indeed it can often be the opposite, a signal that it is everyone for themselves. If everyone is not going to survive, I will do my best to ensure that I do, even if this means taking more than my share and pushing others out of the way. This in part explains the unseemly panic buying which the prime minister has called ‘un-Australian’.
For the last fortnight and more the news has been dreadful, indeed quite frightening. Because Margaret and I are in the vulnerable age quartile we have been successfully frightened into not going out except to shop once a week. If I were a 20-year-old, I would not be so easily frightened. The frightening news gives very little incentive to the young, fit, and healthy to keep all the social distancing guidelines that have been ubiquitously present in any messaging. Added to this of course has been extraordinary confusion in the messaging. What on earth possessed the Prime Minister to say he would give one last shot at the football before it was closed down. Or what on earth was in his head or the head of his advisor to say getting your hair cut was ok as long as you were not there longer than half an hour. Or what makes five at a wedding safe, but 10 at a funeral will be ok.
Last night, on 7.30 Report, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer either did not understand the questions put to him by Lee Sales, or refused to answer them. He sounded like a spin operative on cue from the government.
The problem that has to be turned on its head is that looking after number one is Australian within a culture overseen by an ideologically driven neo-liberal government. Look at the Minister for Social Services in operation, it appears his interests and that of his party come before anything else. “Everyone who has a go will be given a go”. Within a neo-liberal world view, private enterprise is rewarded and investment in the social economy reduced to the lowest level with which the government can get away. In this world we are taught not to rely on any form of back up – that is left-wing socialism. It is little wonder we have a prime minister who notoriously has great difficulty in expressing genuine empathy, for to show empathy is to fail to encourage self-reliance.
The messaging could and should be turned on its head. The message should be loud and clear that if all the social distancing measures were followed then we could be out of this reasonably quickly. This is the good news and it is not pie in the sky. The virus cannot survive unless it is passed on. Zero contact prevents the passing on. It is within the wit and capacity of Australian society to do this. We are not doing what we could and should do because the reward of doing so is not being made crystal clear. It should not be necessary for these appalling queues outside Centrelink. They are there because bad news breeds bad outcomes. Good news promotes good outcomes. People will be able to go back to work sooner rather than later as long as everyone of us makes the effort to isolate or self-distance denying the virus the capacity to be spread. China has apparently done it – so we are led to believe. Japan and South Korea are doing it. Do we lack the inner fortitude to do it? No I do not think so. We just lack the messaging which tells us that in this discipline lies our salvation. This torture can end without waiting 18 months for a vaccine.
It should be noted we have been struggling with the same flawed messaging in relation to global warming and climate change. For too long those of us who have wanted action, have fallen into the trap set by denialists to emphasise the serious situation in which we find ourselves. The reaction has been to ridicule what has been said to be apocalyptic nonsense.
At last, global warming messaging has changed, emphasising the good news that action on climate change is economic good sense as well as environmental good sense. Action on climate change creates jobs, long term reliable jobs and increases the employment rate while safeguarding vulnerable industries like tourism and agriculture. Action on climate change does not take us back to the dark age but forward to an age of far greater cooperation, flexibility, and community cohesion. The question is whether changing from a message of gloom and doom to a positive message of genuine advancement has come too late.
And so with COVID 19, negative depressing and confusing messaging is reaping what it is sowing. Is it too late? No it is not. Listen to Melbourne based Professor Peter Doherty, the Nobel Prize winning epidemiologist. Now is the time for every Australian to hear that everyone will reap the benefit of social isolation, that the benefit can be observed in a few short weeks and that it is possible that 2020 need not hold the foreboding that it currently holds either in terms of health or the economy.
COVID 19 and climate change, two ‘wicked’ problems, are similar in terms of response required. Put the economy before the environment and both will ultimately collapse. Put health before the economy and both will flourish. Keep making ‘proportional responses’ and both will be on life support for months.
Being Church in a pandemic context
From the perspective of Church, would the present situation be best described as a crisis or an opportunity?
A satisfactory definition of ‘crisis’ is that it is a turning point. For at least the last three decades the Church has been in a turning point. Old ways do not suit the modern demographic. Church on Sunday morning has been in gradual decline.
The present context could make this decline terminal, or it could set new patterns, ways of behaviour, new cultures of being Church that are more appealing, and appropriate, especially to families and young people. What is obvious is that if Parishes and Dioceses have no strategy to lead the Church through at least the next 6 months, the result might see the demise of many. With appropriate strategies this may prove to be a God given opportunity for new life and direction.
Some immediate Strategies
Longstanding research shows that if contact is lost for six weeks or more it can be very difficult to restore, especially with those on the periphery of the Church.
The Parish roll should be carefully examined to determine the best way of maintaining pastoral care of each parishioner. For many, this contact may be satisfactorily maintained electronically, but care should be taken to ensure that none are taken for granted. Some/many will require more personal care, by phone or perhaps even in person. There will be far too many for the Rector to shoulder on her/his own. These names should be allocated to others who are known to have the skills for pastoral contact.
If any members of the Parish should contract the virus, it will be necessary to have a developed plan of care.
Those who have self-isolated, particularly the elderly, information should be sought as to how such persons are receiving essential supplies.
The Parish doors should be known to be open to parishioners and the wider community for people to pop in say from 9.00.am – 3.00.pm. each day. The Church should feel open and welcoming. Perhaps background music might be playing. There might be a place where folk can go and light a candle. It may well be necessary for two shifts of three hours each to provide a listening ear. (Time will tell if this is necessary).
Sanitiser must be available at the door of the Church and the pews wiped down regularly.
Regular caring programmes should be maintained, or adjusted, wherever possible
Demands on communication and administration will increase and not decrease. Once a pattern emerges more volunteers may be required to carry the load. It will not necessarily be the case that volunteers need to go to an office, much of this work could be done from a home computer.
It will be necessary for Parishes to have a clear strategy about financial sustainability. Parishioners should be encouraged to invest in the long-term life of the Parish. If finances drop substantially it may well prove impossible to start again when the pandemic is over. A well drafted letter should go to all parishioners. Those who are not giving electronically should be encouraged to do so. For those whose giving is in cash, the parish could provide money boxes to be taken home and the weekly giving deposited therein.
The above are thoughts for the immediate future, as time goes by longer term strategy should be developed.
Panic vs The Commons Covid 19
Supermarkets and stock-markets in the last ten days have demonstrated the human capacity for panic, with an outcome exceeding the damage sought to be avoided. Supermarket shelves are empty, not because of corona virus, but because of panic buying with no immediate cause and effect from the virus; while the stock market has plummeted as individual investment choices have increasingly been driven by the behaviour of others.
“Don’t panic, don’t panic” cried corporal Jones of Dad’s Army as he ran around in an uncontrolled and irrationally manic state.
All human beings experience a rush of adrenalin when faced with an emergency, but whether this adrenalin morphs into uncontrolled panic, or a heightened capacity to respond with reason, is a test of individual and shared character. The shared response matters as much, if not more, than individual response, because. as the present crisis demonstrates, we are as dependent, if not more dependent, on what we share, than on what we control individually.
For centuries human society was blessed with “commons”, the ideal what was shared equitably was beneficial to all. Ordinary people pastured their flock on ground that was common to the community. However, as resources became stretched the temptation to exploit before others did the same, became too great; with the desolate outcome that the provision was lost for all. Medieval toilet-roll shelves became bare! This situation is alive and well in the 21st century. As natural resources dwindle, especially in industries such as fishing, the temptation to exploit becomes too great, with the loss of the industry.
That human beings are no less dependent upon ‘commons’ in the 21st century receives far too little attention, because we have been culturally conditioned, by increasingly right-wing governments, to accept privatisation as the solve-all of every situation. Transport, health, education, natural assets, care of the aged, childcare, the prison system etc, all are perceived to be delivered more cost effectively if privatised. Whether that is true is one matter, but whether they are delivered equitably, fairly, and with best social practice outcomes, is quite another. Society is conditioned to assume private or personal self-interest serves everyone best. This proves to be a falsehood when calamity strikes. In the face of the bushfire crisis people trusted their neighbours, the local fire brigade and the community to pull together. In the face of the corona virus the world needs to pull together, but national self-interest often gets in the way. At community level the same can occur when action to slow the spread of the virus potentially hurts some business interests more than others. Mercifully we have experienced great generosity and self-sacrifice as many businesses have put the interest of the community above their own. What is deemed best to slow the virus is obviously detrimental to a wide range of interests.
But the situation it is even more problematic. In the bushfires, strength and consolation was achieved through contact with one another, drawing strength from each other. Strong advice in the face of the current threat is the reverse, isolation, everyone by themselves, if not for themselves. It is somewhat counter-intuitive to believe the best thing we can do for one another, as well as for ourselves, is to stay apart. For this to work there must be the highest possible level communication and the highest-level of trust in that communication. While it is said Australia is in front of the pack economically to deal with the crisis, in this vital area of trusted communication, at least at a political level, we are way back in the pack.
The communications highway must be one of the most important commons we all share. It must be equally available to all without fear or favour. Its capacity to fulfil its task is as much dependent upon the trust that can be placed in it, as much as the content it delivers. In our present crisis the highway’s capacity to fulfil its role and mitigate the tendency to panic, has been severely compromised by indulgent and inadequate leadership. The problem is most serious in the US, which is led by a president whose word is simply not believable. When trust in leadership is at the lowest ebb, information is not only confusing, it is counter-productive, as Trump’s address to the US nation demonstrated. Apparently, his intention was to calm nerves, especially on the stock-market, only to find that as soon as he had finished the market plummeted.
What about Australia? Who is to be believed when they speak? According to recent polls only about one third of Australians have confidence in the Prime Minister. His problems are accentuated by a cabinet in which many seem completely incapable of telling the truth, while others seem only capable of uttering incomprehensible nonsense.
Social isolation is clearly an absolute necessity, however for it to work in the longer term it is going to require a lot more thought than simply advocating its necessity. Those who have contracted the virus are being asked to isolate for 14 days until they become clear, and hopefully immune to further contagion. The rest of the community, particularly the elderly and vulnerable, face the prospect of several months’ isolation, if they are to successfully ward off the possibility/probability of infection.
As the government has wisely appointed a former chief federal police officer, Andrew Colvin, to head the aftermath of the bushfires, I would advocate for a similar person to become the regular spokesperson to guide the community through what will probably be a long autumn and winter of self isolation for many people. No one in government should be tasked with this responsibility. It needs to be someone in the medical field who is trusted. Dr Fiona Stanley comes immediately to mind, as does the current Australian of the year, Dr James Muecke. While this is not their field of expertise, they could be briefed relatively easily, daily if necessary. Their chief asset being trust in the wider community, an asset the nation badly needs right now.
Is institutional loss of trust terminal?
Analysis shows that institutional trust is stronger in developing countries than in the Western world. Given trust is the oil that enables human interaction and wellbeing, from family life through social fabric and commerce, to nation building: is western civilisation now in terminal decline? What can individuals do about it?
The season of epiphany came to an end last week with a focus on the transfiguration, one of the few events in the life of Jesus important enough to be recorded in each of the three synoptic gospels. The season of epiphany celebrates the nature of God as revealed in Jesus. In turn, as life in its fulness reflects the nature of God, epiphany is also a celebration of what human life can be like when we reflect our true nature. On the mount of transfiguration the three disciples are challenged to delve into this truth when they hear a voice saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased: listen to him!” True listening is at the heart of trust.
To assist their understanding, two iconic figures stand beside Jesus, Moses and Elijah, the law giver and the prophet. The disciples are to understand these roles are not just emblematic of the life and ministry of Jesus, but they are windows into the nature of God and therefore the nature of life itself.
The law giver: Law requires submission, but to what are we to submit? Jesus’ summary of law is love; therefore we are to submit to love, not mindless rigidity. The law of love acts as the boundary keeper for a bountiful life. Freedom is all too frequently misunderstood as autonomy, the capacity to do as one pleases. Nothing could be further from the truth. Freedom is experienced when all is well in a world of multitudinal and criss-crossing relationships and responsibilities. Law exists to guide individuals and communities along this complex path. Law becomes the antithesis of its intended purpose when it occupies a pedestal requiring obeisance rather than being the towel carrier, wiping the feet of all. Trust can multiply and grow when law is a towel not a weapon.
It is tragic that in the western world, law and religion have become associated with oppression and control rather than liberation and freedom. Conservative or fundamentalist, Christians, Muslims and Jews equally turn what should be a gift into a burden. There are elements of sharia law that safeguard, but equally there are many that oppress and excuse violence. There are elements of Christian canon law with foundations in grace, but equally there are others that unapologetically put the institution first and are prejudicial towards those whose identity and gender do not match expected norms. There are elements of the sabbatical tradition that celebrate life and wellbeing, but equally there are others that are exclusivist, even racist. In these circumstances law is seen as the weapon which protects the powerful and entrenched.
Trust becomes possible when law (life principles) are honoured, and undermined when used as a weapon to protect the powerful and privileged. Biblical law prioritises the good of community,
only honouring individual rights in this higher context. The western world has moved far from this biblical principle. In our world individual rights are permitted to take precedence over common good. When law protects the powerful and privileged there can be no trust.
That law apparently permits governmental action while keeping secret the basis for that action is an abuse of power and undermines trust.
That law confirms that journalists can be raided when doing their job, if the truth is inconvenient to those in power , undermine democracy.
The Prophet: It is tragic that Christians as well as many in the wider community understand prophecy as predicting the future. This may well be an acceptable definition, but it is not the biblical understanding. Scripture understands the prophet to be the truth teller, often the one who holds a mirror to the face of a nation, its people, and its leadership. Truth telling can be very painful, for it is human nature to silence or disparage the truth teller rather than honestly respond to the truth being told.
The New Testament highlights prophecy above other ministries, and yet the modern Church appears reluctant to engage in this most significant task, often excusing itself on the basis that it should remain above politics. The utterances of Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel and above all Jesus were highly political. Any intervention on behalf of the vulnerable, the downcast, under-privileged, is by its nature political
We now live in a world where inconvenient truth is often dismissed as fake. This phenomenon is not restricted to the US and its president. It is alive and well in Australia: unfortunately Australian politics is now riven by this spectacle. Because it is alive and well in the political world, it becomes acceptable in other spheres of civil society.
It is quite shameful that whistle-blowers receive little protection, indeed all too frequently they are made to bare the cost of their truth telling, rather than becoming catalysts for change and correction in the matter they have highlighted.
January 2020 has been the hottest ever recorded on the planet: Finland has experienced unprecedented above zero temperatures in its north, Antarctica has had several days that have reached 20 Celsius, Penrith was for a short time the hottest place on the planet, etc. We need no more evidence to confirm the plight we face, and have known we face for decades. Some of the feared predictions of science have now proven to be conservative. Yet a small minority of the Australian government has the power to prevent genuine action on climate policy. It is criminally outrageous.
Foundations for trust are slowly and methodically built. These foundations will withstand occasional mistakes and disruptions. But when greed, self-interest and love of power rather than service become culturally entrenched, then trust becomes a fatality and the essential pillars of a civil and progressive society are very hard to restore.
We are now at that point in Australia. Politics and politicians will not pull us out of this morass. But a strong and robust community can and will. Ironically the bushfires have shown the calibre of regional community life. Trust that is alive and well in local communities can reinfect similar values in national life. It is up to individual Australians to be what leadership in many institutions have failed to be, and show that self interest as ubiquitously demonstrated at the top, will not be tolerated.
Australia turns its back on the rule of law.
Australia’s efforts to block an International Criminal Court investigation into alleged war crimes in
Palestine are inexplicable, given the court’s brief to investigate abuses from all sources, be they
Hamas, Palestinian paramilitary, or Israel.
This intervention takes Australia’s growing, one-sided, support of Israel to a new high. By denying
Palestinians the right to justice, and protecting Israel from justice, Australia undermines the rule of
law as the standard by which international behaviour is to be judged, and if necessary, sanctioned.
Through this intervention we risk further undermining what moral authority we have and provide
comfort nearer at home for the ‘might is right’ approach to international relations.
Australia is a signatory to the Rome Statute that set up the ICC and ratified that statute in 2002.
Since that time Australia has supported many of the investigations and prosecutions undertaken by
the ICC. Australia has used or called on others to use other International legal systems to reach
agreements on contentious issues such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
(UNCLOS) under which agreement on a sea boundary between Timor Leste and Australia was
reached. Australia has made calls on China to follow a similar process in solving the territorial
disputes in the South China Sea.
In December last year the ICC announced that a five-year preliminary examination had found
sufficient evidence of war crimes committed in Palestine to proceed with a full investigation.
The court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda said, “In brief, I am satisfied that war crimes have
been or are being committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip”.
The alleged war crimes that were the focus of the preliminary investigation include the Israel
Defense Forces (IDF) intentionally launching disproportionate attacks in Gaza and the transfer of
Israeli civilians into the West Bank. It also indicated it may expand the scope of the investigation to
investigate IDF lethal and non-lethal means against demonstrators since March 2018 – in actions
to oppose the Palestinians Great March of Return.
The alleged war crimes that Palestinian armed groups are being investigated for include
intentionally directing attacks against civilians, using protected persons as shields; wilfully
depriving protected persons of the rights of fair and regular trial and torture and outrages upon
Not surprisingly Israel (along with the US) is not an ICC member and has disputed whether the
court had jurisdiction over the Palestinian territories, on the basis that Palestine is not a state. The
ICC prosecutor indicated that she believes that the ICC has jurisdiction, but given the complexty,
has requested that the court’s Pre-Trial Chamber confirm this opinion.
Australia filed an amicus brief on Friday 14th of February, indicating Australia does not recognise
Palestine and requesting permission to make full argument. Statements by the Prime Minister
indicates that this Government asserts that the ICC lacks jurisdiction to conduct an investigation
because Palestine is not a state. Following Palestine’s admission to the UN as a non-member
State, Palestine was admitted as as a state member of the ICC in 2015. Although Palestinian
groups are also being investigated, the Palestinian Authority is clear it wants the investigation to
proceed and for justice to be done. Australia is in a minority of countries that does not recognise
the state of Palestine. Only a handful of other countries (Austria, Germany, Brazil, Hungary and the
Czech Republic) have intervened to file similar briefs contesting the court’s jurisdiction.
As a signatory to the ICC and as a past supporter of its investigations, why has Australia
suddenly decided to intervene to oppose the ICC’s jurisdiction over alleged abuses and war
crimes in Palestine?
Questions need to be asked of the Australian government.
• Why cannot Palestinians look for legal recourse to the abuses, theft and violence they have
• Why should Israel not be held to account for any war crimes it may have committed? Why is Israel
exempt from standards that apply to other countries?
• Why, given that both Israel and Palestinian groups are being investigated, is Australia opposed to
the investigation proceeding?
Palestinians recourse to the ICC for abuses and possible war crimes to be properly investigated
should not be opposed. Australia should let the ICC do its job – investigate, and if necessary,
prosecute perpetrators of grave crimes, no matter their source.
No Australian interest is served by taking such a partisan position on the issue of Palestinian
human rights. This intervention by the Australia government is promoting a culture of Israeli
impunity. Further, through this action the Australian government encourages and promotes the
most extreme elements of the Knesset and Israeli civil society whose racism, prejudice and
exclusivity make any proposition for peace based on fairness and equality the most forlorn hope.
As a responsible middle power and known close friend of Israel, Australia should be using its
influence to encourage voices on both sides of this long struggle who wish to reach out in respect
and reconciliation across the divide and build bridged of mutuality and concord.
The Australian government and the Australian people face major international grievances much
closer to our shores. We need to be known as a country that unwaveringly stands for international
law and justice, otherwise we put our own more immediate interests at great risk. Where trust
exists, even the improbable is possible. Without trust nothing is possible. International law and its
observance lays a foundation for trust.
Finally, Netanyahu and his fellow ministers in the Knesset, constantly insist the Israeli army is the
most moral in the world. They should then submit to the investigation and prove it.
Trump’s definition of Peace: The strong prevail – the rest submit
The so called ‘peace plan’ now made public from the White House is no peace plan at all. There has been no attempt to camouflage its support for Israel’s most ambitious, expansionist, plans. It lauds Israel and blames Palestine for aggression, indeed making it clear than any part of the plan that accedes anything to Palestine will be contingent upon Israel judging that Palestine is compliant and servile. In other words there is no guarantee that even the crumbs on offer to Palestine would ever be delivered. It is improbable that a Palestinian State would ever be granted, even under these Swiss cheese conditions. It is a plan for Israel to take as much of the West Bank that it can with as few Palestinian residents as possible. It is, as many commentators have said, a plan for permanently entrenched apartheid.
The Australian government has ‘welcomed’ the plan. What was in its head in doing so? It is inconceivable that Australia, which fought so hard for the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, would now endorse apartheid in Palestine/Israel.
Let me try for a moment to put the best (if it is possible) interpretation on this unfortunate message. Clearly the prevailing situation, which enables Israel to incrementally take over the West Bank in a thousand cuts, is unacceptable, cruel, humiliating, a source of continuing violence and the cause of on-going security problems. This status quo, enabling Israeli aggression and colonisation has prevailed for far too long. Every year less and less Palestinian land remains while more and more Palestinians are imprisoned for objecting to this outrage. Hope is progressively snuffed out.
So, what is the alternative? There must be a circuit breaker. Perhaps the best light that can be put on the government’s response is not that it is welcoming the details of the plan, for any government interested in peace and justice could not welcome them, but what is being welcomed is an intervention which calls for a different way forward.
The problem is that the way forward being offered is totally unacceptable, it is known to be unacceptable, Netanyahu and Gantz are almost certainly relying on it being rejected by Palestinian authorities, in order that they can continue their slow strangulation of the Palestinian people and in the process claim they offered a way forward which was rejected.
So what can be put on the table.
Palestinians and Israelis have one unpleasant reality in common, they are both badly let down by their political leaders: the racist, extreme right-wing government in Israel and the fractured and in-effective Palestinian Authority in Palestine. These politicians serve their own political interests and power rather than the peaceful future of their people.
It is my contention that if an independent, non-political, anonymous, poll was taken about the future of this much torn corner of the planet, a considerable majority of Palestinians and a not insignificant minority of Israelis would vote for one state with equal rights for all. Any sane person should agree that this is the most desirable outcome for all, given facts that now prevail on the ground. The problem with such a plan is that it faces hurdles that are as high externally as they are internally. The external hurdle is the rise and rise of dangerous nationalism that threatens the peace of the world. This nationalism crosses all political, religious, and ethnic boundaries. Its frightening face is Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, Janos Ader, Jair Bolsonaro, Xi Jinping, Mohammad Bin Salman, Ayatollah Khomeini, Vladimir Putin etc. all of whom interfere in one way or another, on either side of the Israel/Palestine impasse. Palestine is the pawn of other’s agendas as well as Israel’s ambition. Even more insidiously, the Christian evangelical right of the US to which audience Trump constantly plays, is opposed to such a plan, willing the dominance of a Jewish theocracy that simply does not exist.
What needs to be agreed by the free world is that when human rights prevail, when justice is given prominent place, when diversity is seen as strength not weakness, then peace will prevail, and prosperity will replace conflict.
As a first step the Palestinian community, on their own, or with the help of Jordan, (Jordan has as much right as the US to put forward a ‘peace plan’) should put forward a version of such a bold plan, or another plan which the international community can support, as a counter to the Trump takes over proposal.
This could include:
If such a plan were to be presented by the Palestinians then it should be welcomed by the Australian government in the same way, in the same spirit, and for the same reason that the present plan has been welcomed – but more honestly and vigorously.
What cannot be allowed to happen is for the current status quo to roll on year after year, decade after decade, for this will simply corral Palestinians in Bantustans and cement Israel’s place as a pariah state. This fate is as serous for Israel as it is for Palestine.
In the meantime the most able young Palestinians and Israelis should be given the fullest possible exposure to each other and to their peers in the global community. Restrictions should be lifted for travel, and opportunity given, especially to the most able young on the Gaza strip, for overseas education and opportunity.
People who have been exposed to and communed with those who had previously been thought of as foes, can never turn back. What had been assumed to be true is proved to be false through dialogue and friendship.
The current and prospective leadership of Israel, who have stated there will never be a Palestinian state on their watch, will never agree to such a proposal, but that is not a reason for withholding it.
The Trump proposal is shameless. Israel must choose. It must either choose a magnanimous future with Palestinians as equal partners in a prosperous and harmonious future, or it will have chosen a path that necessitates its children and their children maintaining an apartheid regime by military might in perpetuity. Not to choose is always to choose.
Australia Day – For some
The Prime Minister has made it clear that any conversation about a changed date for Australian Day is a distraction not to be tolerated. Why? Given the ‘statement from the heart’ and a more broadly accepted understanding that white possession following 26 January 1788 led to dispossession of the indigenous people, why would fair minded Australians not agree that another date is more likely to lead all Australians into a more nuanced understanding of our past as well as a more unified and respectful future?
It seems as if I am always picking on the Prime Minister. I sincerely wish it were otherwise. Not that it would be worrying him, for I am sure he has not read anything I have written, and like the unfortunate Matt Kean, has never heard of me.
I would love to understand where he is coming from, but this insight completely evades me. We share the most basic of narratives, the Christian faith, but where this has led him and where it has led me are two totally divergent paths. It is not that I think he sits more lightly to his faith than I, or that I sit more lightly than he, but while my faith has led me on a path of acknowledging good in what is shared or common, his faith appears to have led him on a path of understanding good in term of what is cocooned personally or privately. My understanding is that life is the sum of all other lives that have intersected with me – lives for which, as a consequence, I have become accountable and responsible. This is where Australia Day comes into my purview.
I came to Australia from Britain as a young 18-year-old to work on the land. I rode to work each morning past the Aboriginal settlement in East Armidale NSW, a reserve, home to the city’s indigenous community, the Gumbaynggirr. It did not occur to me that the people deserved more than pity for their circumstance: that their dignity, self-sufficiency, rich culture, and extraordinary knowledge had been painfully and systematically stripped from them over one hundred years and more. Added to this, I was later to discover the ancestor of my boss, Henry Dangar, had owned Myall Creek at the time of the infamous massacre and had shown zero empathy for the Kamilaroi people slaughtered by his stockmen. Further, he did his best to ensure justice was denied on the assumed basis that a white life was worth more than a dark one. I have been on a very steep learning curve during my 60 years as an Australian, which has meant a completely different attitude of mind. My argument is that while Australia has also been on this steep learning curve, our institutions, symbols, and iconic celebrations, have yet to catch up.
The annual pilgrimage to Myall Creek is now a rite of passage for Australians who wish to understand and absorb the complex narrative of white occupation. It is not a matter of having a ‘black arm band’ view of Australian history, as John Howard once described any attempt to better understand our troubled past. It is a matter of wanting to understand elements that shape our present, that we might be better equipped to forge a more inclusive, just and prosperous future for all. Why is it acceptable to live with consequences that have caused between a third and quarter of all incarcerated people in Australia to be indigenous? Almost every indigenous family has or has had a family member in gaol.
On16 August 1975 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam poured a handful of Daguragu soil back into the hand of Vincent Lingiari, Gurindji elder and traditional landowner. He was reflecting the reality that Australia’s indigenous people have, and always will have, a place in Australian life that later comers can never assume.
I am firmly of the view that January 26 is not, and can never be, the best date to celebrate Australia Day. I will no longer participate in events slated for that day.
I have just read James Cook by Peter Fitzsimons. Despite being very well researched I am conscious that Fitzsimons loves to use imaginative flourishes in his telling of the story. Nevertheless, his depiction of the Maori deploying strong and at times violent resistance which ultimately led to the NZ treaty of Waitangi, is in stark contrast with Australia’s indigenous, largely drawing back from engagement thus allowing early legislators to erroneously base ownership laws on the lie of Terra Nullius. That this presumption was not overthrown by the High Court of Australia until the Eddy Mabo Case in 1992 indicates how slowly a proper understanding of indigenous rights and the honouring of indigenous culture and history has taken and continues to take.
It is no longer tenable for iconic occasions such as Australia Day to celebrate what amounts to the dispossession of the indigenous people. I know we dress the day with welcome to country and other overlays of indigenous culture, but the fact remains this is not the right day and never can be. Many other days would be more appropriate, such as the celebration of federation. But a simple solution could be no particular day, but one empty in the calendar such as the fourth Friday of a given month that can then be dressed with all the meaning that a modern, reconciled, multi-cultural Australia would like to clothe it.
I am not the only one who puzzles over the fact that the Prime Minister chooses not to be leader and prefers to stay in his old trade as a marketer. If you or I were Prime Minister, why would we not want to lead? There are several opportunities. Climate change is one, there is a wonderful opportunity to lead Australia into a technologically modern, green energy exporting, new job providing, vibrant, forward looking society. But no, he wants to keep us in a fossil dependent, asset stranded future, lagging behind the more creative new economies of the world.
The same applies with indigenous affairs. He has the chance to step beyond Gough Whitlam in leading us all into a future through which Aboriginal knowledge and culture enriches non-indigenous Australians: and autonomous, indigenous Australians benefit from all the resources of wider Australian life.
So Scomo, why don’t you lead? Is it because you lack the skill? In which case you should not have become PM. Or is it because your party does not want you to lead, requiring you simply to market a narrow and increasingly irrelevant ideology? If the latter, you are a captive not a leader. Civil society will increasingly need to fill the void until such time as a political leader from either side of politics attracts the imagination of the Australian electorate.
Conservatism, Beauty and Sir Roger Scruton,
The philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton, the darling of contemporary conservative politics died on 12 January 2020 aged 75. Tony Abbott is reported to have said that if John Locke is the father of western political conservatism, Roger Scruton is its contemporary intellectual son. However, from their words and actions, it appears Tony Abbott and presumably his fellow right-wing fanatics never read, or perhaps understood, much that Scruton wrote or thought.
As Elizabeth Farrelly eloquently wrote in A beautiful life: this Tory was my godsend (SMH 18 Jan 2020), Scruton’s lifelong vocation and passion was his advocacy for, and love of, beauty. He judged beauty to be more than subjective aesthetic opinion, but an objective reality which redeems heals and feeds the soul. To Scruton a life without beauty is no life at all. The reason why Notre Dame is to be rebuilt, ISIS’ destruction of archaeological treasures in Iraq and Syria are so shocking and Trump’s threat to knock out some of Iran’s cultural treasures is so crass, is because such action destroys the very soul of individual and corporate humanity. In like manner the loss of Australian bush following the catastrophic bushfires is going to prove far more costly to Australian life than the loss of homes, shops and infrastructure, which can and will be rebuilt. Scruton’s view, for example, thoroughly justifies the courageous and successful attempts by RFS specialists to save the ancient Wollombi Pine grove in the Blue Mountains. Farelly’s example, as banal as it may sound, of table settings and the use and cleaning of grandma’s beautiful silver being as important as the food being served, makes the same point.
In contrast, when one looks at the lives and words of conservative luminaries such as Tony Abbott, Barnaby Joyce, Craig Kelly, George Christensen et al, one might be forgiven for asking “wherein does beauty lie”?
Scruton began his life as many (most) young intellectuals do, as a committed leftie. What changed his mind was the Paris revolution of 1968 which he judged to be ill-tempered and undisciplined anger, disconnected from rational thought, bent on tearing down what had been because of its failures, without knowing what to put in its place. Consistent with his passion for beauty, he wanted to conserve the best of the past that it might be sustained into the future.
This is the hub of the matter and where Abbott and his coterie of admirers have so misunderstood Scruton. He was a true conservative, and they are not. This can be clearly illustrated by Scruton’s environmentalism and his abhorrence of economics being given the seat of honour in political discourse.
Those who have read his Green Philosophy: How to think Seriously about the Planet (Atlantic Books 2012) will know that his commitment to beauty shines through, as does his understanding of oikophilia (p253ff). Roughly translated, oikophilia means love of house or home. Oikophilia, he argues, is the appropriate response to the challenges presented by climate science, which he accepts as a given. There is none of the energy sapping, nonsensical, intellectually moribund, ideologically driven, mining industry funded, stalling and undermining of policy which so tragically identifies the right of current Australian politics. Where I personally differ with Scruton is his putting of all his eggs in the basket of national patriotism. He argues that all human beings share an innate love of home, of place and that this natural love and desire to protect can best be activated by citizens working to protect that which is precious to them at home. He decries International treatises as worse than useless because, he argues, only those who have inherited centuries of law making (the Europeans) will honour them.
I strongly disagree. It is now clear that the Australian continent is more open to the excesses of climatic change due to global warming than almost anywhere else on the planet. To love Australia its beauty, its flora and fauna is not enough. If Morrison has anything right, it is his insistence that Australia, on its own, will not make much difference to the warming impacts that await us. Therefore we must use every lever available to us, to influence the rest of the world into accepting higher and higher emission standards. In recent years of Australian coalition government, we have done the reverse, used our best resources to weaken those aspirations. The love that very citizen of the world has for their native home is crucial, but it must be expanded into an equally passionate love of the whole planet, for like any organic entity we are as strong as our weakest point.
This brings me to Scruton’s understanding of freedom. The Australian right is besotted with the idea of individual freedom and rights. “Any form of authority needs to get out of the way to let the individual ‘get on with their life’”: as less than eloquently put by Barnaby Joyce in his bizarre Christmas Eve video message from his cow paddock. Scruton’s view was that freedom cannot be understood aside from authority. According to Scruton, conservatism is not about freedom, but about authority, and freedom divorced from authority is of no use to anyone — not even to the one who possesses it. To Scruton there were various levels of authority of which government is one, and not necessarily the most important. Authority is wielded in the context of family. No individual can properly enjoy the wonderful freedoms and fulfilments that family loyalty provides without understanding the authority that family necessarily demands of all its members.
The same applies to the natural environment. As long understood by the world’s indigenous people, the natural order has an authority which is ignored at our peril. This is what it means to be conservator, recognising the authority that history, legacy, family, beauty, the natural environment necessarily holds over all human life. The right wing behaves as if none of these authorities exist and that exploitation can and must happen, because economy (meaning wealth generation) must always reign supreme.
This brings me to the third point. Scruton was aghast at the right’s exultation of economics and the free market as the pinnacle of all human endeavour. He understood that all societies are bound by the laws of supply and demand. But he argued that what makes a society worth conserving are those elements of life that are outside pure economic understanding or valuing. This fact was again clearly illustrated by the recent bushfires. What evacuees took with them were not items of economic value, but items of personal memory and family identity. Scruton’s point is that an appropriate political mode of understanding and conserving the essential ingredients of societal life has been subverted by the language of economic theory - neo-liberalism. He argues this has led to a narrow, utilitarian understanding of politics, inimical to the more expansive organic conception of politics and society which is necessary if a society is to constructively evolve within a vastly dynamic and changing environment.
Sir Roger Scruton was an old-fashioned conservative, worthy of that name. Those who currently march to the conservative drum appear not to have read him or understood him. It is therefore fair to ask, who or what have they read? Where is their intellectual base? One can only hope that there is a more solid base than that of conspiracy theorists who label serious conservation, a left-wing plot.
How good are the fires
The country clearly owes a debt of gratitude to the Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government for their sterling leadership, their visionary approach in vastly changed and challenging circumstance and for their assurance that under their leadership all manner of things will be well. There is no need for concern. How good are the fires!
Let me try to summarise the reasons why the nation should be grateful:
Thanks to the Prime Minster for coming back from his Hawaiian holiday. It is so reassuring to hear words of comfort like “Australians are resilient people, we have had bushfires before and will have them again, nothing to see here, this is all part of a normal cycle”.
Thanks too for linking the efforts of firies and a host of volunteers to the magnificent effort of the cricketers. The connection must be obvious for all to see.
Thanks for making sure that everyone is comforted whether they want comfort or not. Shaking hands or giving a hug to those who clearly do not wish to be touched might be considered assault from anyone else.
Thanks for the continuing assurance that while the government has always made the link with emission and climate change this is far too complex a crisis for any legitimate link to be made to the fires. Well, that is very reassuring. Of course fires are caused by lightning strikes and arsonists. Where I live on the coast it has refused to rain for months. Australia has been burning since the beginning of spring and where I live, we have been sucking in smoke every day for the last five weeks or more. Thanks so much for reassuring us that this is normal. I will probably fall off the perch before the long-term health implications affect me, so no need to worry here, let the younger generation look after themselves I say.
Thanks to minister Angus Taylor for complimenting Australia and Australians on how we are exceeding all expectations on emission reduction. It is so reassuring that he is minister for something that is clearly so important to him. The fact that we have recently done our best to sabotage a broader and more effective global alliance is clearly a misunderstanding and we should have every confidence that the minister who has a Rhodes scholarship reputation for fiddling facts on almost everything, is thoroughly trustworthy here.
Thanks for confirming what we feared, scientists, the reserve bank of Australia, fire chiefs, global consensus, the insurance industry, defence force chiefs, the business council of Australia, are all wrong. Climate change and global warming do not need to concern us, the little we might do will make no difference, so keep to present policy I say (in fact no policy at all), don’t worry about wiping out the tourist industry, or large sections of agriculture, or even Australia’s reputation internationally, all good here. (My overseas friends are saying international press are ridiculing our Prime Minister – how dare they).
Mr Morrison let me bring you up to speed with life where I live. On New Year’s Eve fires swept through our community with even more devastating consequence than three weeks ago. At midday with no power and no telecommunication we needed a torch to get around the house. Many of our friends have lost their homes, whilst business after business has lost their livelihood. The devastation is beyond words and almost beyond belief. And now the community faces the same reality all over again tomorrow. We are of course but a small microcosm of the whole nation.
The team of volunteers at our local evacuation centre that my wife coordinates comprise those who have themselves lost their homes. They struggle to cope. With the roads impassable, others willing to help cannot get in. With deepest respect, some members of the government department overciting the centre are beyond their capacity level in these circumstances. Too often the fall-back position is to rely on rules which should guide principle but not override need. We serve people not rules. Rules are of no value if they get in the way of service. More often than not needs fall outside ‘rules’. Meeting need is more important than rules.
One who has stood up as a leader is our local State member, Andrew Constance, he has had no smart words to offer, he has simply cried with his neighbours and is deeply respected.
Do I have hope, Yes, I have hope that young liberals, (who genuinely believe in and want to address the very serious situation we face), will oust the present crop of politicians and offer leadership which will restore respect and trust and take us down the path of new industry, technology and capacity. The time for fossils (human and mineral) is over. Those who occupy positions beyond their skill level should stand aside.
God so Loved the world
Looking back on the year 2019, one could easily be forgiven for being somewhat disappointed in global humanity’s lack of commitment to a harmonious future. Sure we have drawn more people out of poverty into an ever expanding global middle class, but as if to prove that economics or material wealth do not guarantee wellbeing, we seem again to have slid backwards on almost every conceivable measure of ‘peace on earth amongst people of goodwill’. In Australia it has been necessary to call a royal commission into almost every arena of the human enterprise, because of abject moral failure.
But amid a world which remains depressingly the same, just a little more sophisticated – the light of Bethlehem continues to shine – if only we have eyes to see, or ears that are keen to hear.
We are here tonight not simply to celebrate the most famous human birth in history, a birth upon which history pivots, but to immerse ourselves in the light first recognized by shepherds and Magi, and the truths it conveys. Summing it up, Paul was to famously write ‘there is much in life that is and will remain a mystery, but in light of Jesus three ‘pillars’ or virtues remain, faith, hope and love, and the greatest of the three is love.
For a short while tonight I want to focus on hope, that virtue without which the human enterprise collapses – for without hope there is only fear. Is there a reason for hope despite all the evidence to the contrary, well, yes? The fact that the birth of Jesus demonstrates that God is, was and always will be on the side of humanity, is itself enough reason for hope. This birth informs us that despite all the evidence to the contrary, every human life has equal value, that power ultimately lies in the hands of the just, that truth ultimately prevails, and as demonstrated by Greta Thunberg, a little child shall lead them.
This is where our hope lies and this is the gift not only that Christ’s birth brings, but that the Christian community is obligated to carry into the world.
So, what has gone so terribly wrong? Conflict or disharmony usually arises out of fear: most commonly that resources are too meagre to go around. Either those with more than their fair share initiate conflict to protect the advantage they enjoy, or those with little, engage in conflict to secure their basic needs; usually without success. Ironically as more people globally join the middle class, the greater becomes the prospect of conflict over resources which are, and always have been, finite.
In 1949, the year before he died at age 46, George Orwell wrote his prescient novel, ‘1984’. Orwell enjoyed a privileged childhood, being educated, like Boris Johnson, at Eton College. Unlike Boris he was a social democrat, fearful of power that can so easily slip into oligarchy - power exercised by a few through a deceitful populism. In his novel he imagined a time when every moment, almost every thought, of civil society would be monitored by the state – ostensibly for the peoples’ security. The state, Orwell imagined, would build and retain a constant state of fear by constructing and waging continual warfare in which there would be no distinction between international conflict and domestic considerations, for the former would be waged with the latter in mind. While I am the first generation not to have been called up for war, nevertheless we live in a constant state of warfare. Australia has been involved in almost every conceivable conflict going around for most of my life-time; and in addition, we frame domestic policy as war – war on terror, war on drugs, in doing so we justify what would otherwise be inconceivable, the incarceration of those seeking asylum and the criminalization of whistleblowers.
Western democracies, not just dictatorships, are framed by fear. Political victors this century have not been those who have convinced the public of the need for transformative change, but the party that has most ably convinced the electorate they should be fearful of the other side. We can budget for a billion dollar extension to the war memorial or multibillion dollar expenditure on submarines that may or may not be delivered in the 2030’s, but we are not able to find money to better manage our national parks or care for the elderly in our society, or transition to sustainable future.
Into this morass of fear induced ineptitude a remarkable and enduring shaft of light drills through the darkness. The light is clothed in love and inspires hope. Hope is the opposite of fear and dispels it, as light dispels darkness. A naked, vulnerable child is born in a stable. But this is no ordinary child, in him truth becomes incarnate, an invitation is extended, life is on offer. If material existence is all there is, as the commercialism of Christmas seems to suggest, life in its naked meaninglessness is laid bare. But the birth of Jesus says no, life is about relationships, connections, beauty, love and self-giving. To miss this is to miss everything
Here for a moment the invisible becomes visible, there is and always has been a plan, an intention, a purpose. Life is not simply a matter of fickle chance in the midst of which survival depends upon getting to the trough before others. No, life is about intimacy, vulnerability, generosity, hospitality and service. Those of you, like Margaret and I, who had for a while to evacuate our home because of the fires, had to choose what we took with us. Almost everyone would have chosen the same things, things of little or no monetary worth, photographs, journals and diaries, mementos of family and symbols or reminders of significant moments in life’s journey. The rest could be left to the flames, as ultimately it will be.
Because Christian hope is firmly fixed on the destiny to which we travel, it shapes the way we journey. Glimpses of this have been clearly on display as amid tragedy or disaster human beings have risen above their circumstance in selflessness and service. Glimpses will also be on display today as we gather with family and friends at a meal. While the exchange of gifts has its place, far more important are customs and rituals that deepen bonds of kinship and belonging.
“We brought nothing into the world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out” is solemnly intoned at funeral services. It is true - in part. It is true of wealth and material possessions, despite all the emphasis advertising and political promising place upon them. But we do not come into the world empty handed, we bring the DNA of our common ancestry, the striving, living and dying of all who have gone before us. We will leave behind our own footprint for those who come after. Who we are, what we do, what we become, matters. And that is not all, accepting the invitation inherent in the birth of Jesus, the child in Bethlehem, we journey into eternity embraced in the love of all those who have lived before us and who will live after us.
And now 2020 awaits. Its shape is not predestined, that is the remarkable thing about divine grace, we are left with the opportunity of our own shaping, for good or ill. May this light, which darkness cannot put out, keep us on a path that enables life to be celebrated in all its fullness.