Over the course of the next three years (and perhaps beyond) Australia will be governed by the Liberal-National Coalition led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison. I suspect it will prove to be the most socially conservative government of the last fifty years. Will this mean the end of substantial progress on issues such as climate change, treatment of asylum seekers, the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the aid budget, and social and affordable housing? I hope not.
Politics is not for the feint-hearted or thin-skinned. Election campaigns see arguments spun, opponents portrayed in the worst possible light, and appeals to fear. Once elected, politicians can rarely deliver the outcomes advocates seek. When forming policy politicians are constrained by the expectations of their constituency; the position of their party; their own perspectives and ambitions; the way the policies play politically, and the need to compromise to get legislation passed.
These messy processes of politics lead many Australians to regard politicians with contempt and cynicism, as untrustworthy people who pay lip service to the public good but cannot mask their compulsive obsession with their self-interest. I think this is unfair and inaccurate. Almost every politician I’ve met over a decade of advocacy entered politics out of a desire to serve the common good and make the world a better place. If you doubt this, read their maiden speeches. The purity of this desire may have diluted over time, but it remains a powerful driver for many. Indeed, the vast majority of politicians I engage with believe there are good and defensible reasons for the policies they support. Away from the cameras and the 24 hour news cycle, large numbers of politicians take up the interests of their constituents with decency, compassion, generosity and a willingness to serve.
Recognising these things leaves me hopeful that careful and constructive dialogue with the Morrison Government might reveal common ground upon which we can build. Dialogue of course means talking with each other, not simply at each other.
As I see it, progressive and conservative politics are marked by fundamentally different assumptions about power. Progressives tend to see our social, cultural, economic and political systems and institutions as serving the interests of the powerful and exploiting or marginalising those less powerful. At the heart of progressive politics is a quest for awareness of who is marginalised, exploited or oppressed and the effort to shape our social, cultural, economic and political systems so that they work in the interests of everyone.
Social Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to have a more benign view of power and our social, cultural, economic and political systems. While recognising that they are flawed, they nonetheless see these systems as serving the common good, and believe that the interests of those on the margins are best served through opportunities to participate in existing social, cultural, political and economic systems.
These are very broad brushstrokes. A comprehensive analysis would explore the nuances and acknowledge the diverse approaches within the wider conservative and progressive frames. But for my purposes broad brushstrokes are sufficient. Recognising the differing frames that social progressives and social conservatives employ helps me listen to those who differ from me. Social progressives do not have a monopoly on concern for the environment, refugees, asylum seekers, people living in poverty, LGBTIQ freedoms, etc. Conservatives have good grounds for concern over these areas too. But their approach will be different. For example, social conservatives are likely to favour approaches that offer incremental change, where Progressives often seek large-scale and rapid change. Social Conservatives will tend to place a high value on existing systems and institutions, where Social Progressives will often be prepared to undo them; Social Conservatives will frequently value voluntary action where Progressives are more willing to engineer change through mandated targets.
As I see it Social Progressives have two ways they might serve progressive causes over the next 3-6 years. Some will focus on articulating a Progressive case for change and seek to shape public opinion to elect a Progressive government in 2022. Others will enter into dialogue with the Morrison Government to find areas of common concern and ways forward that work on a conservative narrative. Maybe we need both approaches.
It’s 9.03 pm and I am sitting on a train from Sydney to Newcastle. It’s the end of a big weekend – up at 3.30am Saturday to fly to Melbourne to shoot a promo for a church solar panel program A Just Cause and Baptcare are partnering on. Back home around 10.30pm. Preached at my home church this morning, then off to Sydney to talk at a church about refugees. Should be home around midnight.
At times I wonder if it’s all worth it and then I hear the news that 37 children who were to be sent to Nauru are now going to stay in Australia. Given the hardened intransigence of our government prior to this I can only assume that they buckled to the pressure that was coming at them from all quarters. From state Premiers who wrote open letters to the paediatricians who refused to release the children from hospital to the Christians from Love Makes A Way staging sit-ins in politicians offices to the 209 grandmothers against children in detention I met in Canberra two weeks ago surging through Parliament House resplendent in purple and song to the churches offering sanctuary to the Baptist leaders who went to Canberra a fortnight back to share their concerns about refugees, the homeless and foreign aid to the Greens and their tiReless advocacy to the 7,000-8,000 people in Baptist churches who sent a postcard to the PM as part of our Jesus Was a Refugee campaign to the e-mobilisations of Getup! to the myriad of other individuals and civil society groups who have spoken out.
It is immensely rewarding to have been one small part of one of these grassroots movements and a reminder that it takes a lot of people each playing a small part to create a movement for change. As Thucydides is reputed to have said, “justice will come when those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are.”
So I’ll take a couple of days off then it’s back to the work of stirring up indignation in this little patch of earth on which God has placed me.
A few years back a brilliant tv ad was created which showed 2 teams of people passing a ball. You the viewer were asked to count how many times the white team passed the ball. And so you count…1,2,3,4,5. The ad ends, the correct answer is given and just as you are basking in the glory of getting it right the narrator asks “but did you see the dancing bear?” Dancing bear? The ad is replayed and you see some guy in a bear suit dance right through the middle of the teams passing the ball. And you missed it! It should have been bleedingly obvious but you missed it!
I grew up in a church that knew Micah 6.8: God has shown you what is good and what the Lord requires of you: to do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. We even immortalised the words in a popular Sunday school song, but somehow we didn’t see the call to justice. We were big on mercy and walking humbly with God; it was a church where people were extraordinarily generous and sacrificial in showing kindness; that nurtured a deep devotion to Jesus, but justice? It just didn’t register on our radar, and when it took the form of social justice it sounded altogether suspicious. To paraphrase a South American bishop, when he fed the hungry we called him a saint; when he asked why they were hungry we called him a communist.
The church of my youth, like most Baptist churches of the era, embraced a theology known as premillenial dispensationalism.Indeed to be a member one had to agree with this doctrine. Among other things this held that the world is getting worse and until Jesus returns would continue on a downward spiral to chaos. To this worldview individual acts of mercy made sense, but the pursuit of social justice was futile. It simply could not be achieved, and if by chance we did have some limited success, we would only be delaying Christ’s return.
Your church may have theologised it differently, but with a few notable exceptions, in mid twentieth century Australian churches justice was a missing dimension of discipleship.
By the turn of the millennium this had started to change. Churches were learning to see all of micah 6:8 – justice, mercy and walking humbly with our God.
Micah Challenge both reflected this changing paradigm and helped shape it. We were a campaign that did 4 things:
1. MC helped Christians see that poverty was an issue that should be front and centre for us. I remember reading John Stott’s Issues Facing Christians Today when it was first released in, I think, the early eighties. Stott observed that every generation of Christians has a blind spot and that in his opinion the blind spot of Western Christianity was the scandal of global poverty. MC set out to change that, to help us see the great focus on poverty in the bible.
2. MC helped Christians see that engaging with those living in poverty demanded more than personal acts of kindness. It meant grappling with the fact that poverty is created by systems that are fundamentally unjust. If you were a follower of Jesus your generosity in sharing your wealth must be matched by a commitment to buying goods made ethically, to a lifestyle that was ecologically sustainable, and wherever and however one could to combat the deleterious impacts of social, economic and political systems that trample on our fellow human beings
3. MC helped Christians see that following Jesus had a prophetic edge, that the Church’s role was not to be chaplain to the state nor a sect cut off from the state but to be prophet, to call the State to a just use of power. One of the great tasks of the church of our age is to discover what it means to be the church in a post-Christendom world. What does it mean to be the church in a world where we are no longer at the centre, where what was, I suspect, only ever a thin veneer of Judaeo-Christian values is replaced with a commitment to pluralism? MC helped us see that in part at least, it means becoming prophets, advocates and agitators for change.
4. MC gave Christians the tools they needed to exercise their prophetic voice. Once we discovered the call to justice we needed a way to do it. For many MC was that tool. For the first time ever they wrote a letter to a politician or signed a postcard or mustered the courage to visit their MP. Church leaders were emboldened to preach about poverty and not only our responsibility to share but our culpability in creating the conditions that kept people poor.
Of course MC was not the only factor responsible for this shift, nor for many even the most significant factor. Like most shifts in communities the shift to justice was multidetermined. But for many of us MC was our entry point to lived justice, the movement that helped us see the dancing bear. For others MC was a valued partner in a journey they had already begun. But for all of us mc helped us see and live all of micah 6.8: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.
TRANSCRIPT OF A TALK DELIVERED TO MARK THE END OF MICAH CHALLENGE AUSTRALIA (TO BE REPLACED WITH MICAH AUSTRALIA LTD)
In the last few months, the Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, has come under heavy attack. I myself have written a number of pieces in which I challenge the morality of policies Mr Morrison has introduced. I’ve noticed however that alongside questions of policy, people I know have started asking questions about his personal motivations and the authenticity of his faith. In my opinion, this is unfair. Here are my guidelines for why and how we should criticise politicians.
1. Politicians make public policy, and because it is made for us and on our behalf, policy should come under the blowtorch of public scrutiny. We should applaud good policy and protest when we consider policy bad. We should feel proud of good policy and get angry and disappointed at policy that hurts people. If the contestability of ideas is a key plank of a healthy democracy we should not shy away from robust, passionate debate about the things that matter to us.
2. Politicians are people, who like all of us, are a mass of dreams, hopes, fears, and contradictions. If you apply the blowtorch of judgement to my life you would undoubtedly uncover areas where how I live is inconsistent with what I profess, and discover ideas that I hold that are mutually contradictory. I’d be disappointed if you judged the authenticity of my faith on this basis. I am dismayed that the drive towards ever harsher treatment of asylum seekers has been spearheaded by three prominent Christians – Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, and Scott Morrison. I cannot see how they reconcile the tenets of their faith with the policies they’ve introduced. But this does not give me grounds for calling into question the authenticity of their faith anymore than my own inconsistencies would give you grounds for calling into question the authenticity of my faith. I think it right to ask them how they see the values of their faith worked out in their policies, but I’m not prepared to join with those who question the genuineness of that faith.
3. Except for those rare occasions they tell us what motivates them, I have no idea what drives a politician to do what they do. My experience of people suggests to me that motivation is rarely one-dimensional, that people are simultaneously motivated by any number of things, and I suspect the same is true of politicians.What is uppermost in Scott Morrison’s mind and heart as he drives forward Australia’s asylum seeker policy? I don’t know, nor do you, nor do I care. At the end of the day what motivates them is irrelevant to whether or not they are enacting good public policy.
So the upshot of all this is that I want to be rigorous and unabashed in my critique of the policies of our government, without allowing this to degenerate into personal critique.
How would you like to raise $22 billion for anti-poverty programs around the world? That’s not $22 million but $22 billion. Sounds impossible right? Well maybe not.
Back in September 2000 world leaders, including Australia’s Prime Minister, gathered in Geneva and declared that the new millennium would be one in which we would forge a new world.
We will spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected. We are committed to making the right to development a reality for everyone and to freeing the entire human race from want.
Inspiring words, but such words have been spoken many times before. Would these be yet another empty promise? Perhaps not, because this time the world’s leaders put measurable targets against their pledge. They set 2015 as the date by which eight millennium development goals would be achieved and set targets against each goal – the proportion of people living on a dollar a day would be halved; child mortality reduced by two-thirds; maternal mortality reduced by seventy five percent; the spread of HIV/AIDS reversed; and more.
For the next couple of years there was little action in Australia. Our Prime Minister returned home and it was as if nothing had happened. Our paltry aid budget continued to hover at around 0.25% of our national income and the aid program gave only lip service to the Millennium Development Goals.
So in 2004 two advocacy campaigns began – the Make Poverty History campaign and the Micah Challenge. Both aimed to mobilise Australians to demand that our Government keep its promise to the world’s poor. Make Poverty History focused its efforts on mobilising the wider Australian public, while the Micah Challenge focused on mobilising the Australian church. Over the following years rallies and concerts were held; tens of thousands of letters and postcards were sent to the Prime Minister; thousands of people visited their Federal politicians; thousands of poverty focused church services were held and sermons preached; all centred around one simple ask of the Australian Government: keep your promise. In particular we wanted to see a dramatic improvement in the quality of Australia’s aid, to see it focussed on helping poorer countries achieve the Millennium Development Goals, and a quantum leap in the quantity of Australian aid, from 0.25% of national income to the internationally agreed target of 0.7%.
People told us we were crazy, dreamers, wasting our time. But sometimes history belongs to the dreamers. Within three years of the campaigns beginning the Australian Prime Minister had committed the Australian Government to an aid budget in which the Millennium Development Goals would be placed front and centre and which would rise to 0.5% of national income by 2015. And so began a dramatic revision of Australia’s aid program.
As I write, this has already translated into an extra $8.5 billion assistance to the world’s poor and, assuming the Government keeps its promise, by 2016-17 will see another $14 billion on top of what would have been given had the aid budget stayed at 0.25% of national income. That’s tens of thousands more lives saved, millions more with access to clean water, and millions of people freed from the abject and dehumanising conditions of extreme poverty.
I remember talking to Bob McMullen, who was the Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance. He shared that there had always been politicians from all parties who wanted to see a better Australian aid program. What they lacked was support from the public. Bob had been a Minister in the Keating Government when aid was cut. To his dismay the Government didn’t receive one letter of protest. What the Make Poverty History and Micah Challenge campaigns delivered was the constituency people like Bob needed. And that made all the difference.
That’s how you raise twenty-two billion dollars.
This week a couple of hundred of those crazy dreamers will be in Canberra for the Micah Challenge Voices for Justice event. They will descend on Parliament House and once more push our leaders to keep their promise to the world’s poor. For the first time since this event began I won’t be able to join them. But they go because they know that advocacy works. Change on a scale we barely dare imagine is possible if only we take the time to speak up for justice.