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Liberalism is dead
In an interview with the Financial Times In the lead up to the recent G20 conference President Putin now famously said “Liberalism is obsolete”. What is clear is that populism and autocracy are on the rise, that there appears to be more behavioural similarity between powerful historic enemies than between former western allies, and that the world is becoming a less safe place for its global citizenry. Why?
The etymology of ‘Liberalism’ can be traced back to Liber the Roman god associated with freedom. Thus a liberal is one who is free, or seeks freedom. Modern liberalism was born through the 18th and 19th century period of Enlightenment and industrialisation. Thinkers such as John Locke sought freedom from the controlling narrative and demands of the Church and from political subservience imposed by Monarchy or State. Enlightenment thinkers believed the state should serve the people, not the other way around, and that civil society should not be directed by religion. Liberalism embraced the concept of individual rights, democracy, free market and capitalism.
To be a liberal today is to be tolerant, embrace diversity, and be a willing participant in the marketplace of ideas. In the Church to be labelled a liberal can be shorthand for not being a fundamentalist. In my Anglican tradition a liberal gives weight to scripture, tradition and reason. The recent Folau controversy is a very good example of weight being given to scripture alone, but not even scripture as a whole, but to an isolated verse (misquoted) then prescribed as law for all humankind. It is a strange quirk of history that many of today’s ‘Liberals” support the right of a bible quote being used to condemn a vast swathe of ordinary citizens, a situation from which enlightenment liberalism sought to move away.
If the alternative to liberalism is Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnston, Xi Jinping, Tayyip Erdogan, Benjamin Netanyahu, Mohamad Bin Salman etc then liberalism must be reformed. So what has gone wrong?
Politics is an expensive business, disseminating a political message has become increasingly dependent upon the largesse of wealthy and therefore powerful backers, both corporate and private. That political parties and politicians generally are tied to wealthy self-interested parties is obvious to the electorate and a major reason for the collapse of trust. That Christopher Pyne could so quickly transition from Minister for Defence to a commercial company that stands to gain from his previous political position is the latest scandalous example of the nexus between politics and a desire for wealth accumulation and advantage. It is not acceptable that political parties, especially those that espouse liberalism are clearly incapable of striking a balance between the democratic principle and capitalism’s insatiable appetite. If a choice is necessary, the choice is made for capitalism and against democracy. Four Corners exposé of the Murray Darling Basin Plan is yet another example of wealth gazumping democratic process and the interest of the nation.
It is difficult to see how this escalating trend towards capitalism at the expense of democracy is going to be slowed let alone reversed. However a first major step must be legislation to stop all donations to political parties, and for parties to be funded by the taxpayer alone on a pro rata basis.
Future historians will suffer from an over abundant choice when searching for Donald Trump quotes, but at the centre of it all will be ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’. Donald Trump, currently the most powerful western leader, has made an art form of treating verifiable fact with contempt and conveying his self-aggrandising narrative as the only legitimate story in town. This has allowed the unacceptable and misleading to be acceptable. Does it matter that a short view (creationist) of history can be taught to children as if it were fact? Well yes it does matter. Does it matter that the Christian Right can teach that Jews are the only people to have indigenous rights to Palestine? Well yes it does matter. Does it matter that the argument against vaccination can be taught as equally valid as the argument for vaccination? Yes it does matter. Does it matter that there is a flat earth society – probably not!
Above all it matters that a position opposing climate change science can be posited with equal value to science itself. This is doing incalculable damage to the future of life on the planet. Future generations will not have choices available to them that are available to us, they will be stuck with the choices we have made, or more truthfully, have failed to make.
Freedom of speech and balance are important and worthy principles, however in an age when a three-word mantra takes the place of a reasoned argument, media outlets have a huge responsibility to distinguish between an unfounded opinion and a well-documented and researched position. Freedom of speech cannot be total. Speech is communication within a context and speech is the forerunner of action - intended or not.
Politics and Religion cover the totality of life. Politics is the business of negotiation for common good within local, regional, national or international life. Religion is about how life and its values and virtues are celebrated. While how life is negotiated in the West has been shaped by the Judaeo/Christian tradition, nevertheless in a liberal democracy political fundamentals should be secular. That is not to say people of faith should not argue, as ably as they might, for the prevalence of religious virtue and values in negotiated arrangements for civil society. But it does mean that people of faith should not request or be granted privileges or favours that are not available to those without faith, or to those of a particular faith, or that are in competition with others’ rights. Nation states should be unequivocally secular. The Republic of Turkey is the latest example of damage done when secularism is lost.
In the US the influence of the religious right is so substantial that no political figure dare ignore it. The irony is that currently the religious right appears to shut its eyes to the absence of traditional Christian virtues such as honesty, fidelity, and care for the needy, as long as the president promulgates their ‘pro-life’ agenda, individual rights, gun ownership and promotion of Israel’s colonisation of the whole of Palestine with Jerusalem as its undivided capital.
In Australia the politically recognised voice of the Christian community is the Australian Christian Lobby, but ACL is not representative of my Christian voice or that of mainstream Christianity. ACL seldom, if ever, expresses concern about the growth of economic inequity, the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, social disadvantage, support for religious or ethnic minorities etc. ACL is almost entirely the voice of political conservatives within the coalition and their obsession with sexual and gender identity. Thus current freedom of religion debate has this obsession as its starting point.
The ideal of a liberal society is that all citizens enjoy the same freedoms, rights and privileges and that they are safeguarded under law. Parliament is the law maker, but increasingly in most western societies including Australia, the economic agenda always trumps the social agenda with the inevitable consequence that common good is lost. Governments everywhere have shamelessly privatised elements of civil life that should have always been retained in public ownership. If in the end everything is for sale, nothing is publicly owned, then those at the top of the capitalist tree will suck all that is common to their compound: environmental concerns become expendable, social concerns are of no account, and budgets are increasingly expended on protecting the wealth of those who have from those who have not. A nation state is not the sum of its individuals, it is the sum of its various communities and families. The triumph of the individual is the triumph of greed over responsibility and the triumph of transient wealth over intergenerational legacy.
Liberality is not only worth defending, its reform deserves investment and energy. Democracy is precious and must be safeguarded from the assault of capitalism. All individuals are equal, but all ideas are not. Religion should seek to serve civil society, not seek to shape it in its image. Good that is not common is not good. Every decision of parliament and every contribution to civil life must be judged by the way it serves common good.
Nathan and the ‘Deal of the Century’
To be born a Palestinian in one of the Middle East’s refugee camps, or in the Gaza Strip, or on the West Bank, is to be born into the chains of misplacement, occupation, or siege, and probably into poverty. So, is it attractive to hear that the world’s most powerful and wealthy country has a plan to spend $50 billion in your direction? Well no. It is not attractive because the reason for the chains and consequent poverty are not being addressed. It is not attractive because receiving the money will be conditional on acceptance that Israel has the right to continue the annexation of Palestinian land and that Israelis have rights, but Palestinians do not. It is not at all surprising that Palestinians, who were not invited to shape the content of the ‘deal of the century’, will not accept its outcome. Trump and Netanyahu believe the strong have the right to enjoy the bounty of their strength and that the weak must meekly accept this reality.
In my world this view is totally unacceptable and I will not accept the nomenclature of being ‘antisemitic’ for saying so.
Of the $50 billion, it is clear that the US intends to stump up nothing, or next to nothing, or the least with which it can get away. The US is expecting most of the money to come from wealthy Arab States. Parties to the deal intend that nearly half that money be spent outside Palestine in Egypt (Sinai), Jordan and Lebanon. This carries the intention that Palestinians who have been forced to live in refugee camps outside of Palestine since 1948 will accept another country as their permanent home. Presumably these countries will be expected to grant full and unconditional citizenship to those who have been refugees; a right Israel continues to deny Palestinians who have never been refugees and who have lived in what is now Israel for generations.
The chief power struggle underway in the Middle East is between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The US will be looking to Saudi Arabia to make most of the funding available for its ‘deal’. In turn Saudi Arabia will be keen to curry favour with the US in support against Iran. Since the overthrow (and now death) of President Mohamad Morsi, Egypt seeks constraint upon the power and influence of Iran. Thus the common thread uniting the coalition around the US and its plan for Palestine is not the wellbeing of Palestinians, it is the thwarting or subduing of Iranian influence.
Israel costs the American tax payer nearly $10 billion annually. Frequently loans have been forgiven and turned into grants. If 50 percent of this money were diverted over the next 10 years as grants to Palestine, perhaps the ‘deal of the century’ with all its faults could be engaged. But no, it is not simply an empty puff of wind, it is an insult, it is the cowardly attempt of a rich and powerful landowner to offer his vassal subjects a new set of clothes as long as they promise to keep to their allocated place and no longer challenge his right to do what he pleases with what is essentially theirs.
Lift the chains off the Palestinian people and they will develop their own economy.
Netanyahu and Trump would do well to be reminded of the confrontation between King David and the prophet Nathan (2 Sam. 12: 1-7). Nathan said there were two men who lived in a city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had vast lands and large flocks. The poor man had nothing but a little ewe lamb that used to play and eat with his children. A traveller came to the rich man: he was loath to take one of his own flock to prepare a meal for the wayfarer, but rather took the poor man’s lamb to feed his guest. David’s heart was kindled with anger against the man and asked who he was so that he could punish him.
Nathan said to David, you are that man.
Let the one who has ears – hear.
Further Protection of Religious Freedom is dangerous if it is primarily the protection of prejudice.
Humans are social beings. Thus rights are not disconnected from privileges and responsibilities. In this context the current debate on religious freedom has a problematic starting point. Using the Folau controversy as its example, those proposing a tightening of laws protecting ‘religious freedom’ are competing with the hard won rights of others. Any right or freedom must be honed by respect, respect for difference, respect for others and respect for the reality that any passion, no matter how deeply held, must be perceived as transitory pending new insights through learning, research, interaction with others and prayerful reflection, for we all ‘see through a glass darkly’.
Let us first identify the proponents. They are not Islamic extremists for whom religious freedom in a democratic country is not automatically reciprocated through civility and respect. They insist that those not like them are infidels on their way to perdition who can be legitimately helped along this path. They are not members of cults with a history of indoctrination and fanaticism who abuse the freedoms and privileges accorded them in a free society. They are not the indigenous people of Australia who are historically the ones who have suffered most through discriminatory practices. Their long held spiritual and religious rituals and practices have at best been misunderstood and at worse crushed into extinction. They are not Bahais, Sikhs or Buddhists, new-comers to Australia whose ethnic and religious identity are often intertwined. No, they are right wing Christians who overwhelmingly identify with one side of Australian politics, who are not persecuted, whose freedom to exercise their faith is not in any way under threat, who enjoy considerable governmental largesse through school chaplaincies taxation provisions etc, but whose obsession with sexuality and gender has been challenged by the voice of the LGBTIQ community.
It is hardly a matter of irrelevance that in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Church, Christians who have most identified in this manner have invested much energy in maintaining male headship in their Churches’ institutional and worshipping life, thus denying women a full expression of their leadership capacity.
In the Old Testament consideration of sexuality (and food) is undertaken through the lens of taboo, in Arabic - haram (forbidden). Sexual activity or food becomes taboo when it is considered unclean, when it is thought to pollute or corrupt. But on what grounds can food or sexuality be considered taboo? Before monotheism became fully developed, anything to do with another nation or people, and therefore its god(s), was taboo. Saul is famously chastised by Samuel for retaining perfectly good sheep he stole from the Amalekites after he had put them to rout! In the Old Testament, taboo remained strictly enforced even when Hebrew faith became monotheistic, because unclean is considered more pervasive than clean. Unclean undermines or pollutes what is clean. This is the gist of the rhetorical exchange in Haggai 2: 12-13. It appears right wing conservative Christianity is shaped by texts like the Haggai text and is more influenced by the Old Testament than the New testament.
In the New Testament Jesus completely turns this teaching on its head. He touches a leper, he does not become unclean, the leper is made clean. The woman with the issue of blood touches Jesus, he does not become unclean, she is made well. In company with the dead, Jesus is not made unclean, the dead are raised etc. The teaching of Jesus is that love overcomes hate, light is stronger than darkness, grace outpaces ungrace. Life lived in this manner does not need protection. Expression of prejudicial views toward others should not be protected.
Those Christians who want the protection of religious freedom laws appear to be wanting to protect their right to live out of the Old Testament concept of clean and unclean. In Acts 10 Peter was confronted with the difference between his old faith and the following of Jesus when, in his dream, he was told not to call unclean what God calls clean.
In the marriage equality debate it was said that legalising same sex marriage would in some way diminish ‘traditional marriage’. How so? Has it?
Everyone has the right to say and think whatever they like in the privacy of their own home – or do they? Does a man who believes in male headship as an expression of his religion have the right to demean and belittle his wife, depriving her of financial and other autonomy? She ought to have protection under the law from such abuse of religious freedom, not the other way around.
Every preacher has the right to preach whatever she or he likes from the pulpit of their denomination – but do they? Australian society is rightly concerned when an Imam incites extremism or violent behaviour, notwithstanding the Imam might claim his preaching is entirely consistent with his religious belief.
What about a religious teacher in School, (Church or public) who wants the right to teach a short history of the world, that humans lived amongst dinosaurs etc. Does religious freedom give someone the right to undermine childhood confidence in the exploration of multiple scientific disciplines, confidence necessary in the building blocks of knowledge? Whether it be throwing doubt into the proven value of vaccination, or questioning climate science on the basis that ‘God is in control’, such ‘religious freedom’ is very costly to society, for steps that could mitigate threat are shelved or abandoned.
If Australian citizens are being denied the right to worship as they please, their right should be protected. But is anyone being denied this right? If some religious institutions are being granted privileges that others are being denied, then that inequality needs correction.
What does need attention is political correctness gone mad. In the process of bowing the knee to a multi-faith society the religious seasons of Christmas and Easter are being secularised to the extent that their deep religious roots are denied full public expression. I do not wish to hear the banal ‘happy holiday’ I want to believe there is more to life than supermarket bargains.
Finally, in light of this week’s extraordinary attacks on journalists and journalism surely the freedom that needs protecting is the freedom of the press. Without a free and robust fourth estate democracy will wither and Australia will be reduced to the prevailing culture and fear of countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Journalists rely upon sources within the general public. Often these sources are whistle blowers. We are developing pattern of making whistle blowers the criminals rather than the people or activity they uncover. But that is another blog
Democratise Energy: Reform Taxation: Save the Planet
Stuck in a traffic jam every day on the way to work do you imagine this is the way it is always going to be – only a little worse? If your livelihood is agriculture, like your father and his father before him, you face challenges they did not have to face. Weather patterns are changing, droughts are more frequent and intense and the rains, when they come, are more torrential. Do you imagine this is now your lot and that as your children prepare to inherit the property, their experience will be the Murray Darling Basin 2018/19 on steroids? If you live in one of the mega cities of the world do you imagine that wearing a face mask to mitigate air pollution will be the norm if you dare to venture outside?
I have just come home from the cinema having watched the documentary 2040 Sadly Margaret and I were the only two in the theatre. This should be compulsory watching for everyone, especially politicians, for no, there is no reason to believe that this must be the future and that there is nothing we can do about it. There is a huge amount we can do about it that will improve the lot of everyone in all aspects of our lives, but it means a different attitude, a different mindset and willingness to change. But it will be the future if we stay with current policies.
Since the Australian federal election in May returned a Conservative government, claims are being made by the energy minister Angus Taylor and the resources minister Matt Canavan that they now have a mandate to do the irresponsible thing, to stay with current energy and climate policies. They have no such mandate. Science does not give them this mandate. The younger generation absolutely has not given them this mandate. The 60+% of the Australian population that has made it clear they want more to be done to protect the environment and mitigate global warming have not given this mandate. Our neighbours in the Pacific have clearly not given us this mandate. And equally important, hopes for a stable and growing economy into the future with huge growth in new jobs around new technologies has not given this mandate.
Angus Taylor, the energy minister claims that current policies have us on track to meet our international responsibilities and the 2030 promises we have made, as pathetic as they are. What on earth has possessed him to make this claim when clearly all the figures, including the government’s own figures, show we are not on track and that our emissions continue to grow not decline? This was demonstrated with stark clarity on the ABC’s the drum during the past week.
Senator Matt Canavan has attacked electricity generators for supporting a NEG or similar system which would continue a reliable supply of electricity while investing in new and renewable technologies. This extraordinary outburst demonstrates, if demonstration is required, that the federal government has absolutely no commitment to meeting our international obligations and will use every slight of hand at its disposal to mislead the Australian population into thinking that it does. One can only assume that governments, state and federal, are so addicted to mining royalties etc that they cannot conceive of other ways of managing the economy. This is not about jobs this is about political laziness and inability to take Australia into the family of the worlds most advanced countries.
Of course there are risks and difficulties in the transition. The 7.30 Report this week highlighted the reality that there have been unscrupulous players in the solar energy industry, as there are in every industry which takes advantage of private and public largess. (NDIS, vocational training, childcare, insulation etc). This does not mean that the industry should be questioned, but that care should be taken over those who seek to take, quick, cheap and unfair advantage.
Let me illustrate the title of this blog from one example. The producer of 2040 travelled to Bangladesh to witness the extraordinary achievement of the solar micro energy networks (solar panels and batteries) through which households produce their own energy and through networking with their neighbours buy and sell from one another. The network of one neighbourhood can be connected to the network of another neighbourhood and so on. The democratisation of the energy industry is the way of the future. The grid will not disappear altogether, but it will gradually become a far less significant player in the provision of energy to most families and households, including the fueling of their own electric vehicles. There is absolutely no reason why government policy could not encourage and incentivise the development of such networks throughout Australia now. Unfortunately we should not expect the present government to move in this direction any time soon. They are stuck on an out of date mode of taxation, in desperate need of reform, which is threatened by a major human need being resourced at home and available to all regardless of their wealth. As the advantages become clear and the profits are shared locally this will happen anyway, but more slowly than it should.
In poorer neighbourhoods throughout the world, especially India, this is the solution people need to lift them out of poverty. They do not need our coal, or anyone else’s coal, and they need to breath fresh air. The poor of the world need to be empowered to resource and profit from their own generation of energy. Poverty is not simply a lack of wealth, it is lack of choice. Self-generated energy gives such people hitherto unimaginable choice in business, education, employment, nutrition and health.
Coal is an old technology, big multinationals make the money, taxes and royalties are minimised, environmental agreements are kept by ignoring them, employment opportunities are minimised through automation, while dealing with Adani is dealing with a company with a track record of ignoring the law.
We have the technology to prevent the continuing increase in greenhouse gas density. We can implement this technology without severely impacting the global economy. Indeed the figures show that in the medium to long term the economy demands that we do, for the cost of not acting will be too crippling. In the lead up to the last election those with jobs invested in the mining industry were rightly concerned that they might face the dole queue if a party took government that wished to phase out this industry. There was an abject failure by those leading the political debate to commit significant sums into ensuring those affected would be trained into new technologies which promise local and regional employment on a grand-scale rather than a relatively small number of fly-in fly-out opportunities known to an industry which is becoming increasingly mechanised.
Democratising the energy industry out of the hands of multi-nationals and large companies does not only have a huge environmental impact, it also takes a major step towards breaking the wealth divide between those with wages and those with assets. Currently those with assets garner most of the world’s wealth at the expense of those dependent upon wages. Enabling ordinary citizens to resource one of their most fundamental needs – energy, is going to be strenuously resisted by those who benefit from a centralised grid system. That is why so much money is being expended by the energy and mining industry into maintaining the status quo at the expense of all our futures, and why politicians who benefit from them, protect them and argue their case at the expense of ordinary citizens.
How did this happen? I have never felt so depressed following a federal election result. It is not that one party has won and the other lost, but that hopes for genuine action on fundamental issues requiring reform seem to be dashed. At the top of the list is genuine policy to deal with carbon emissions. I am depressed because reasonable calculations show that the world will have spent its carbon budget for keeping temperature rise to 1.5 degrees within five years. For Australia to wait for the next election in another three years to join the rest of the world in responsible action will be virtually too late.
Both sides of politics understand two factors always underlie election results: self-interest and rallying around what is opposed, rather than what is supported. In this election Labor has done its best to outline a significant range of policies (right or wrong) and sought support from the electorate. On the other hand the coalition have not outlined a single policy that I can remember, having devoted all their energy in making the electorate afraid of Labor policy.
Many aspects of the Australian landscape are in desperate need of reform, but it appears almost certain none will be addressed during the next term of government. Reform implies movement from the known and familiar to a hoped-for better place. Movement always includes risk, imagined or real. For a group or nation to embark on such a step dynamic, empathetic and intellectually sharp leadership is required. These and other attributes undergird the trust required. It is hardly surprising that Bob Hawke is arguably the most reforming Prime Minister since WW2 and that he and Paul Keating laid the foundations for modern Australia. The polls have consistently showed that Bill Shorten was never going to be that person for the Australian people, despite formulating a formidable reform agenda. Taxation is in desperate need of reform. Indigenous Affairs is in desperate need of reform – Senator Dodson could have delivered this. Immigration is in desperate need of reform – Dutton can never deliver this. Above all climate and energy policy are in desperate need of reform – Mark Butler could have delivered this; in the meantime we are stuck with Melissa Price, the coalition minister for climate change denying and non-environmental policy making.
We need a government capable of standing on its own two feet, not humiliating the Australian people by bowing the knee to News Limited and the shock jocks.
That is another story, let me stay with climate policy.
The situation is now quite desperate. We do not have the luxury of spare time to ‘work things through’. Unless immediate global action is taken, we will pass further irreversible tipping points. We are already experiencing at least 1.1 degrees of warming and we know what difference that has already made to global climatic conditions. We know, for example, that 2 degrees will almost certainly wipe out all coral reefs. The cost of inaction is infinitely greater than action.
The mistake Labor has made in Queensland is to have missed the opportunity of pumping billions of dollars into that state to make it the national hub of climate change technologies and renewable energy initiatives. Such an investment would have delivered infinitely more jobs than will be lost as the coal industry is phased out. As it is, escalating global warming will cut a swathe through their tourist industry which is worth far more jobs that the mining industry ever will.
I hope everyone watched last week’s The Weekly and Charlie Pickering. Alan Jones, that superstar of self acclaimed intellectuals who are more knowledgeable than scientists, has been constantly repeating that Australia’s contributions to carbon emissions at 1.3% of the global total is not making the slightest difference. Charlie made the point that a little short of 50% is emitted by nations like Australia, the rest being emitted by the three or four big polluters. At 0.3 percent of global population we are significantly over our fair share. If other nations have this attitude nothing is possible.
With no disrespect to scientists, the science is not hard to understand. Lighter greenhouse gas traps less heat, denser greenhouse gas traps more heat. Heat is energy, and while one degree looks insignificant the extra trapped energy multiplies the effect of normal weather events resulting in the extremes of rain, drought, storms etc that have become so observable.
Electors over the age of 50 probably lost little in this election (those with franking credits may feel they have gained a lot). Those who lost terribly are those under that age and especially those who were too young to vote. The world of the future is not going to be a continuation of the Holocene, enjoyed by humanity for the last 200,00 years or so. It is going to be a far more unstable world in which those with financial resources will try to protect themselves and seek insurance from an industry with growing reluctance to write a policy, while those with fewer resources and living in low lying areas of the Pacific or Bangladesh will seek to move to where the more fortunate live.
This election has been like all previous elections, “about the economy – stupid”. We can only hope that before it is too late the electorate and its political leadership will realise this is a terrible mistake – it is not about the economy, but about the ecology -stupid. There can be no guaranteed health for any individual unless the total environment is healthy and there can be no stability for the economy if the very source of the world’s economic resource – the environment, is imperilled.
I call on the growing number of citizens who understand the perilous situation in which we currently live not to give up, to join the children in saying you cannot and must not steal our future simply because vested self-interest wants to draw an income from fossil fuels for a few more tawdry years.
No new mine must be allowed to start, and every endeavour must be made to help Australian citizens move to a zero-carbon footprint in the immediate future.
Rugby, Heaven and sinners
Israel Folau is a wonderfully talented athlete and a mesmerising joy to watch. Even those (can’t imagine why) who are not fans of rugby should be in awe of his skill. Also he is a transparently good man. Is he capable of hate? Only in as much that all human beings are. Was hate towards other human beings in his head as he took to social media – I do not think so. So what has gone so terribly wrong, both for him and for his fans, of whom I am unapologetically one.
Israel is a devout member of a Christian Church, open to all but especially attractive to fellow pacific islanders. In that sense his Church is both a place of Christian commitment and of cultural identity and belonging. That he wears his Christianity on his sleeve should be respected for its authenticity, and in a secular environment, for its courage.
Respect, or perceived lack of it, is at the heart of the matter. In Israel’s head he is condemning activity of which he thoroughly disapproves and finds culturally and spiritually repugnant. The problem is that in the heart of those on the receiving end of his message he is not simply judging activity he is condemning identity, the reality of who others are. In the past, including biblical times, it was assumed that homosexuality was the deviant behaviour of heterosexual people. If this view had continuing credibility then, as tough as Israel’s words might be, they could perhaps be accepted as the zealous views of a conservative Christian.
But this view is widely discredited. It is now overwhelmingly accepted (although clearly not completely), that some are born homosexual while the majority are born heterosexual: it is not a choice. While some may experiment with various expression of sexuality, the truth of the matter is that while most humans are heterosexual a not insignificant minority are homosexual by nature and cannot choose to be otherwise. Thus, as gay folk hear Israel’s words it is their being, not simply homosexual activity that is being condemned: it is being said they are unacceptable to God. How can this be? How could God possibly find any human being unacceptable for being who they are? A trite aphorism is “condemn the sin but not the sinner”. Unfortunately Israel’s words fall short of this sage advice, despite the fact he may well have thought this was what he was doing.
The debate surrounding Israel also touches other issues.
Freedom of speech can never be without limit. No one has the right to purposefully and publicly demean another human being. One of the strange rules of parliamentary democracy is that a politician can demean another citizen, fellow politician or not, under the protection of parliamentary privilege, but they are not free to repeat the same outside the parliament. While I still hold the title of bishop, I am rightly obligated to a standard of life expected of one holding that title. On the other hand I am now free from the obligation of office and feel freer to speak on matters of public life than I did while my words could be interpreted as representing the voice of the people of the Diocese.
As one of the highest profile members of the Australian rugby community, Israel is rightly expected to live by a standard that does not demean the code and his peers within it. He gains his profile, and not inconsiderable income from that code and is therefore obligated to respect and honour its rightful and reasonable expectations. Given some members of his code have already declared themselves to be gay, his words cross that boundary.
Freedom of Religion is a very topical matter of debate. I hold that freedom to be very dear. I have exercised that right over the last 50 years by speaking forthrightly in the arena of social justice as an essential expression of my faith. On more than one occasion a Prime Minister has told me to ‘stick with religion’, only to respond to the said Prime Minister that that is exactly what I am doing and why I am speaking. I am speaking out of my deeply rooted faith. However there is a limit even to this right. I am free to speak about the injustice of Australia’s refugee policy or the abject failure of government to address climate change, but I am not free to encourage anarchic behaviour as a consequence. I do not accept that Hell is a place, but is a metaphor for the most horrible outcome that could face a human being. The words carry far more than a condemnation of what is considered by Israel to be immoral activity. The words are therefore an abuse of religious freedom.
At another level Australian religious institutions benefit from government largess through forgone rates and taxes: taxpayer grants are received, especially for schools. This largess should necessitate conformity with Australian social norms. The taxpayer has the right to assume this conformity. At the ballot box the Australian taxpayers have expressed unequivocal support for inclusivity regarding sexual or gender orientation. Schools receiving government funding should reflect this expectation in their staffing and enrolment arrangements.
Israel’s social media comments also highlight the great range of Christian scriptural interpretation. Scripture speaks to scripture. One of the unmistakeable and foundational principles of scripture is respect for all life and in particular respect and honouring of humanity in all its diversity. We now understand that diversity to include gender and sexual orientation. On the other hand promiscuity has been and is rife in every generation. All too frequently this promiscuity has included experimentation that is demeaning and abusive. It is incumbent upon all Christians to condemn such activity.
The bible contains a multitude of images to convey life after death. Heaven and hell are the most well-known. Like all images they are severely limited in their capacity to convey meaning and truth. The Bible conveys a simple message - “God is all in all” To be embraced by God is life, to be without God is death, or nothing. Heaven then essentially means to be with God. To be with God means to be with everything that belongs to God. ‘Hell’ means to be without God. To be without God is clearly non-existence. How or whether it is possible for any human life to miss the outreached hand of God we must say with St Paul:
Now we see through a glass darkly
Later we shall see face to face
Now I know only in part
Then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known
Now faith, hope and love abide
And the greatest of these is love
Whose money is it: is the only choice Capitalism or Communism?
Stories of misdemeanours by the banking industry became such a widespread scandal that the holding of a Royal Commission was inevitable, despite the best efforts of many in power and influence to stop it. What is now apparent, however, is that the misdemeanours, as serious, indeed as scandalous as they are, are not the problem, the culture that lies behind them, a culture not restricted to the banking industry, is the problem.
The misdemeanours, charging fees for non-existent services, continuing to charge deceased persons, irresponsibly encouraging and making loans to gain commissions, etc, etc, are all symptoms of a pervasive culture in the finance industry that money is not primarily a means of exchange enabling the flow of commerce and daily living, but an end in itself. The finance industry, with the banks as the mastheads, has developed a culture that legitimises the making of money out of making money. In other words, money used as the vehicle to exchange a commodity of usefulness for another commodity of usefulness, or service, is not the primary objective. The objective is the accumulation of wealth regardless of whether a commodity of value or service is exchanged or not.
Soon after I retired, I worked in the Diocese of Salisbury, UK, in the period that included the global financial collapse of 2008. I was told, at that time, that approximately 25% of Great Britain’s economy revolved around ‘funny money’. That is, wealth not acquired through growth in the production of goods and services of value to consumer citizens either in Great Britain, or through export to overseas markets, but through manipulation of the market itself. Short selling is a well-practiced enterprise beyond banks. It is no more than placing very large bets on the rise and fall of stocks in the market. It adds no value other than accumulating wealth to those who practice it. Similarly, investments on the currency market are bets that one currency will rise or fall in relation to another. Because these practices, and others like them, occur on a very large scale, small ‘mum and dad’ investors find their meagre investments rising or falling out of any real relationship with the commodity itself. ‘Funny money’ to be of any worth must become real money. Because it is made without adding value, it means loss somewhere else, almost certainly to ordinary citizens.
This is one of the reasons why inequity is growing at a frightening rate. Those with money are making much more of it. Those with limited resources are finding themselves falling further and further behind.
Much commentary has occurred in recent years over the reality that while economic growth has prevailed, wages have remained stagnant. This is evidence that a culture of making money out of making money has prevailed over a traditional capitalist culture where individuals are rewarded for production, the creation of value.
This brings us back to the Commission report. The consensus is that the banks have been let off the hook, evidenced by the considerable rise in bank shares the day after the report was released. Certainly, the banks are being forced to change some practices and, if transparency through regulatory bodies with teeth is genuine, then the excesses of recent years will be curtailed. However, will the overriding culture that dominates the financial industry at large be changed? Most commentators at this stage seem to remain unconvinced.
The problem as I perceive it, is that capitalism in the last two or three decades has morphed into a system that does not reward genuine effort or work, but rewards those in a position to manipulate the financial and regulatory system for personal and corporate gain. It should be self-evident that the first loyalty of banks is to their customers. This is not now the case; their first loyalty has been to share-holders. This begs the question, should banks have shareholders, or should their customers automatically be their share-holders? Do banks have a serious and unresolvable conflict of interest between customers who should receive maximum service at minimum cost and shareholders who expect maximum return from minimum expense (customer service)? Exorbitant, obscene, salaries that senior banking staff receive in comparison with high levels of professional skill and responsibility in other areas of civil society distort the role of bankers, while commissions encourage malpractice.
The Prime Minister’s favourite and over used aphorism that in Australian culture ‘those who have a go will receive a fair go’ is not borne out in practice. Those who produce are not rewarded in the same way that those in the financial industry are rewarded. A case could be made for arguing that teachers should be amongst the highest paid in the community, given that their skill and dedication plays a significant role in the productive capacity of the next generation. A very able teacher may in fact be remunerated at less than one twentieth the remuneration of a banker.
The loss of trust currently being suffered by all institutions, including the Church, is hurting the cohesiveness and well-being of civil society. Institutions are by their very nature servants of society. When institutions become self-serving they lose the rationale for their existence, and trust is lost. Society needs institutions to provide, on a large scale, what cannot be provided by individuals. The activity of an institution should be uncompromisingly transparent to those they serve – the public. At the end of the day trust, rather than money, lubricates the moving parts of civil society. Loss of trust is very serious. The option is not the death of institutions but their reform.
Commissioner Hayne has asked whether banks are open to reform. He concluded that, on evidence presented to the Commission, the answer, at least for one of them, is no. But reform they must.
Politics must be reformed. The party system and the factions within parties are self-serving and self-preserving. Cross-party consensus over good policy making should return to the floor of Australian parliaments and financial gifts to political parties should be banned. Elections must be resourced by the piper who should call the tune, the tax-payer not the lobbyist. It is extraordinary that in the wake of the Royal Commission politicians of all colours have rushed to condemn banking practices and call for heads to roll, while new stories of political ill-practice and dubious morality continue to roll out, seemingly with no change or end in sight. According to the latest poll trust in politicians is lower than that of bankers – a considerable achievement given that trust in bankers is below 20 percent.
Churches and their considerable assets must become servants of the population at large – believers or not. Rather than arguing for greater ‘freedom of religion’ and protection under law, as many are doing; churches must abandon any aspiration other than to serve the common good of both corporate and individual Australia, for its physical and spiritual harmony and wellbeing.
While not its mandate, the Hayne Royal Commission has confronted capitalist practice in urgent need of reform. Unless capitalism is open to reform and becomes again the best system to serve the common good of global citizenry, it will become as toxic to the wellbeing of 21st century humanity as communism became to 20th century humanity. The reform will not come from within the banks, it needs to come from the grass roots and enacted by legislators who are prepared to put global common good above self-interest.
The Politics of Fear
It is well accepted there are few stronger motivators of human behaviour than fear. This is not news to people who exercise power and control. From time immemorial fear has been used by power brokers and politicians to manipulate and control public opinion.
Those in the Christian community know that fear and love are opposites. The former feeds on negativity, the latter on positive energy. As light banishes darkness so love banishes fear. I know this to be true, but I also know that for those whose lives have been conditioned by fear, the banishing of it is no simple matter. What is true for individuals can also be true of nations. If the body politic of a nation has become fear based and largely irrational, it can prove very difficult to change. Decisions become routinely fear based rather than based on fact and good policy.
This is not to say fear is not real, it is. Sadly, the widespread presence of domestic violence is one reason why far too many people live with genuine fear. When the cause of fear is personal and immediate, individuals measure the risk and the options available, and act accordingly. In the case of fear generated by serious illness, sufferers seek skilled advice from an expert in the field and opt for the course that is most suitable for them.
On a mass scale, fear operates rather differently. Usually the reason for the fear is not immediate, it comes as whispered rumour, reinforced by media story that loves to exaggerate the negative. It reaches a point when, with saturated coverage, it is assumed to be correct. It is easy to build fear through unfounded insinuation and inuendo. President Trump is a maestro of fear manipulation. According to him, only he has been able to solve some of the world’s most intractable problems while the reality is, he has ignited a cauldron of possible national and international disruption
Some years ago, there was considerable fear of a bird flu pandemic, on a scale that might have replicated 1919. What was required was not simply an adequate store of vaccine, but hard information. Hard information and analysis of that information considerably placated the fear and gave people, especially in Asia, helpful data upon which to change behaviour.
Over the last 24 hours debate and argument in the federal parliament emanated from concern for the health and wellbeing of asylum seekers imprisoned on Manus and Nauru; but it has quickly become the pursuit of political advantage and leverage, nourished through the fiction or fact of Australia’s border security.
‘Children overboard’ and the Tampa affair won the 2001 election for John Howard. That later evidence showed ‘children overboard’ to be a fabricated lie, did not alter the political victory, won as a result of this deception.
So many falsehoods or outright lies are currently being canvassed in the public arena about the asylum seekers imprisoned on Manus and Nauru. Are we seriously to believe the 1000 detainees are so sick that they would be immediately evacuated to Australia? If so, this is surely a terrible indictment upon the federal Government’s care of these vulnerable people. When Christopher Pyne faced this question from Barry Cassidy on Insiders last Sunday, his obfuscation and high dudgeon must rank, even for him, as one of the most bizarre political performances he has so far conjured up. That Richard Di Natale and Bob Brown would sign them all in, is hardly possible given they are no longer registered as medical practitioners.
Why should this legislation restart the people smuggling trade any more than moving more than 1000 to the US, or moving all the children off the Islands has done?
The Prime Minister’s announcement that he intends to immediately reopen the detention centre on Christmas Island together with his insistence that caring for the health and wellbeing of sick detainees will reopen the people smuggling trade is nothing less than an invitation to them to do this very thing. One cannot help but assume that, to make his point, he intends to instruct border force authorities to let a boat or two through, so ludicrous and dangerous has the whole matter become.
Why has it got to this? Since Tony Abbott became leader of the then Opposition and subsequently rose to become Prime Minister, Australian politics has become incurably binary. Good policy in service of Australia and its people is no longer the primary aim of parliament, retaining or gaining power is the primary aim, along with the crushing and humiliation of opposition. The dispatch box is no longer the place from which big ideas are contested, it is the place where party ideology is ruthlessly and uncompromisingly promoted and defended. There is absolutely no place for paradox in parliament, let alone compromise.
Those of us who are steeped in the Christian tradition know well that truth is seldom singular, it is most often paradox, it is seldom choosing between opposites, but embracing opposites. It is not, ‘this or that, but, ‘this and that’. Australia and Australians should never have had to choose between ‘secure borders’ and compassion for those in need. Our treatment of asylum seekers has been utterly shameful. Equally shameful has been the attempt to silence those who have informed us. It can never be ok to make one group of people suffer in order to satisfy a cause somewhere else, especially if that cause is nine tenths political. Those trapped for the last five plus years have become pawns in another cause, left to languish, to rot; as if somehow the safety of all Australians depends upon their suffering.
The parliamentary figure to rise above others in this context has been the speaker of the House, Tony Smith. He deserves the accolade of the nation for being what the speaker is supposes to be, an impartial umpire.
If as a result of debate and resolution in our parliament over the last 24 hours people smugglers begin again to ply their trade with a successful landing on Australian offshore territory, the blame must not be sheeted home to the legislation, but to a Prime Minister who is dangerously playing the fear card and virtually daring (inviting) the smugglers to come. Even if it is the only card in his pack, for the sake of the current asylum seekers and for the sake of Australian commitment to compassion, he should not play that card.
Although not official, we are already in the campaign for the next federal election. It seems clear that fear is going to be the primary card played. It behoves all Australians to weigh the facts that lie behind the card. Was it ever likely that a leg of lamb would cost $100 because of an emissions trading scheme? – No. Is it inevitable that renewables will turn the lights off and make electricity too expensive for any other than the wealthy? – No. The evidence is the reverse. Can Australia act in a moral and compassionate manner and still retain secure borders – Yes.
The reasons why the date for Australia Day are contentious, will not go away. Directions about dress code will not help, nor will sanctions on local shires who wish to hold citizenship ceremonies on another day. There is a more appropriate day, change to this date will not only remove contentious division about how the 26th January might be celebrated, but the change will greatly assist necessary dialogue about the evolving character of Australia and Australians, and of our place in the world.
The 26th January celebrates the success of one of Great Britain’s imperial ambitions. The arrival of Captain Arthur Philip and the first fleet was noteworthy, of course it was. It is a date that should be remembered in the national calendar. But the date has very little to do with the founding of Australia, or the birth of a proud and independent nation state. For approximately 100 years after the arrival of the 1st fleet, the land that was to become the nation of Australia remained several disconnected colonies of Great Britain, some of them, of course, penal colonies. During this time the land was legally understood to be terra nullius, the actions of settlers and colonial troops cruelly mirroring this assumption.
It was the process of federating over several decades, culminating in the Commonwealth of Australia Act on the 5th July 1900 and its proclamation on the 1st January 1901, that Australia was born.
This process was not easy, even today State identity is as significant if not more significant for many Australians than national identity. This is particularly so for residents of Tasmania, Western Australia and Queensland.
Over the 100+ years since Federation, Australia and Australians have evolved, just as life on the planet has and will continue to evolve. The demise of the white Australia policy, the long overdue recognition of Australia’s indigenous people as full citizens and acknowledgment in law that terra nullius was wrong have been some of the more significant components of this evolution. There is still a long way to go, not least in ensuring that Australia’s first peoples not only have the right, but are able to grasp the same opportunity for health, education, employment and life expectancy as all other Australians.
The celebration of Australia Day could be moved to the 1st January, or if this is considered too un-Australian, for it combines too many holidays in one bundle, then to 5th July.
The reason for making the change is two-fold. First it obviously removes conflict over what this day has meant and continues to mean for Australia’s first peoples. Their’s will always be a legitimate objection to the day, no matter what our political leaders might say. The concern cannot simply be dismissed as a ‘black arm-band view of history, it is a reality that 26th January marks a humiliation for indigenous people from which recovery was, and is, painful
But equally important, the change would focus attention away from a moment of past history, with a mixture of positive and negative overtones, to a day which demands attention to the continuing process of Australia’s becoming.
There are many issues about Australia’s evolving character and identity that deserve attention and if the date were changed to celebrate federation, the day could become one of renewal, imagining, of expecting what we can be. Dare I say, it could become a day when the people of Australia demand their elected members engage in bi-partisan policy making.
Let me highlight some matters of our evolving identity:
1. Clearly our democratic processes need to be re-thought, for they are not working. “He who pays the piper calls the tune”. The electoral process must become an expense to the tax payer so that politicians are once more accountable to the Australian people. For now, they are accountable to those who make political donations. Gifts to political parties from individuals, businesses, unions, multi-nationals and other financial entities must stop. Conscience votes should become the norm not the exception. It should not be possible for senators to be elected with a handful of primary votes. Parliament must become a place for genuine debate on policy, not a venue for grandstanding charades.
2. The anachronism of the monarchy needs to be resolved.
3. Australia’s place in the Asian region needs to be more independently asserted.
4. Threats to Australian life must be reconsidered and re-calibrated. Looking at our expenditure it seems we consider a military threat to be our greatest danger, hence the billions being expended on submarines and other military hardware. We don’t really need David Attenborough to remind us climate change is a greater threat, it is already costing us billions, a bill that will escalate in coming years.
5. We need to have a people’s convention about the roles played by state and federal authorities. What was decided, by way of compromise to bring us all together in the 1900’s is not necessarily serving us well in the 21st century. Those in power will want to maintain the inefficiency and duplication of our present system. We need to move beyond this impasse into a more appropriate and dynamic form of federation now and into the future.
I am therefore a very strong contender for a change of date, not simply to avoid the contention that prevails over the 26th January, but because we need a date which enables and encourages conversation about the evolving nature of Australia and Australians. It is no surprise that politicians will resist this change, maintaining the status quo is in their interest, but it is not in the best interest of Australia and its people.