Why I Won’t Vote my Values

Why I Won’t Vote my Values

A repost of an article published in June 2016.

The day of the 2010 Federal Election I cast my vote then took my eight year old son to his soccer match. Lachlan’s team was made up of kids from the Christian school he attended, which meant the majority of the parents at his game that day were evangelical Christians. When conversation turned to the election I commented that I had voted for the Greens.

The response shocked me. Mouths dropped open and with exasperated voice a number of the parents asked how I could possibly have voted for the Greens. After all, they were in favour of same-sex marriage! I pointed out that they were also in favour of a strong international aid program at a time the major parties were reducing aid; that they were in favour of considerate treatment of refugees at a time when both major parties were playing some pretty ugly politics with refugees; and that on balance these things swung my vote. It didn’t help. In the eyes of some of these parents it was as though I had voted against God.

So, how should we vote? I see four patterns.

First, some vote purely out of tradition. Their parents voted Liberal and they vote Liberal. Always have, always will.

Second, some vote out of self-interest. Their vote will go to the party that they believe will put money in their pocket and public services at their disposal.

Third, some vote for their moral vision. Their vote will go to the party that they see representing their values.

Fourth, some vote for justice. Their vote will go to the party they believe will do most to promote a just society.

No prizes for guessing that I sit in category 4 and my critics that Saturday belonged in category 3.

I’m not here to spruik for the Greens, the ALP, the Coalition, Family First, or any other party. What I do want to do is open up a simple question: what should influence the way a Christian votes? I’d like to suggest that we need to bring together two things: a Christ-shaped vision for what our communities can be and a clear understanding of the role of government.

First, the gospel gives us a vision for what our societies can be. The message of the gospel is not that our soul can go to heaven when we die but that God is at work to redeem and renew the entire creation. That means renewing and redeeming individuals, communities, economic, social, cultural and political systems, and the planet itself.

Second, government has an important but very limited role to play in moving society toward this vision.

For most of western history we got this horribly wrong. From the conversion of the emperor Constantine until the peace of Westphalia we saw the church and state working in tandem to try and command a Christian society into being. It was an unmitigated disaster.

Cromwell’s England was painted like this

Pointless enjoyment was frowned upon. Cromwell shut many inns and the theatres were all closed down. Most sports were banned. Boys caught playing football on a Sunday could be whipped as a punishment. Swearing was punished by a fine, though those who kept swearing could be sent to prison.

On Sunday most forms of work were banned. Women caught doing unnecessary work on the Holy Day could be put in the stocks. Simply going for a Sunday walk (unless it was to church) could lead to a hefty fine.

During his time as head of government, he made it his task to ‘tame’ the Irish. He sent an army there and despite promising to treat well those who surrendered to him, he slaughtered the people of Wexford and Drogheda who did surrender to his forces. He used terror to ‘tame’ the Irish.

And so the very first call for freedom of religion recorded in the English language came from the founder of the Baptist Church, Tomas Helwys, when he wrote a tract calling on the king to protect the religious freedom of Muslims, Jews, Christians and atheists.

Christendom gave way to pluralist liberal democracy. This severely limits what the government can and can’t do. To say a society is liberal means there are fundamental freedoms and rights that must always be respected. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of conscience to name a few. To say it’s pluralist means we accept that we will not all think the same, believe the same or live the same way. In a society such as this the role of government is to ensure every individual and every group is able to share in he benefits of society while pursuing the lifestyle and the values they choose.

In other words, the role of government is to facilitate the common good, ensure public goods such as education, infrastructure and health systems are accessible to all, and to make sure every citizen and every group of citizens is treated justly.

So what does this mean for voting? For me it means I ask two questions

  1. Which party will ensure public goods for all citizens?
  2. Who is excluded, vulnerable or oppressed in our national/globalcommunity? Which party will secure justice and inclusion for them?

The question I won’t ask is which party will legislate my personal vision of morality. It is not the role of the government to force people to live by Christian ethics. It is the responsibility of Jesus followers and the church to live in such a way that people see the merits of following Christ and living his way. I will endeavour as best I can to live virtuously and I will vote for justice.

That lump of coal stunt looks even more lame now

That lump of coal stunt looks even more lame now

Last year Scott Morrison, then the Treasurer, carried a lump of coal into Parliament during Question Time, where he brandished it about, saying

“This is coal. Don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you…It’s coal that has ensured Australia has for over one hundred years enjoyed an energy advantage that has delivered prosperity”.

He went on to describe the Opposition as suffering from the malady of  coalaphobia and possessing an

“ideological, pathological opposition to coal as being part of our sustainable and more  certain energy future.”

Yesterday the  international body responsible for updating our knowledge of climate change, the IPCC, release its latest report on keeping temperature rises below 1.5 degrees. Their report included this paragraph:

In modelled 1.5°C pathways with limited or no overshoot, the use of CCS would allow the electricity generation share of gas to be approximately 8% (3–11% interquartile range) of global electricity in 2050, while the use of coal shows a steep reduction in all pathways and would be reduced to close to 0% (0–2%) of electricity (high confidence). While acknowledging the challenges, and differences between the options and national circumstances, political, economic, social and technical feasibility of solar energy, wind energy and electricity storage technologies have substantially improved over the past few years (high confidence). These improvements signal a potential system transition in electricity generation (IPCC SR15 SPM p33)

The report notes that keeping temperature rises to 1.5° would have significantly fewer impacts upon the planet and the well-being of its people then a rise to 2°.   The Great Barrier Reef, for example, is likely to  diminish in size at 1.5° temperature rise,   but at 2° would  likely disappear completely.

This has  certainly wiped the smug tone from the government’s defence of coal,  but not their determination to see coal as an ongoing part of Australia’s energy mix  long into the future.  The conversation we should be having is how we  will replace coal with renewable forms of energy over the course of the next  couple of decades.  We have time to do it and to do it right. Instead we have a government burying its head in the sand, denying the IPCC report has any significance for us, and declaring support for the coal industry.  I think we all know who the pathological ideologues are.

Protecting the right to discriminate. What should the marriage equality legislation do?

Protecting the right to discriminate. What should the marriage equality legislation do?

The nation has voted for the recognition of same-sex marriage, and the challenge in the coming days is to legislate it. Many Christians are calling for a raft of provisions that protect their right to discriminate.

The principle that it is unlawful to discriminate against somebody on the grounds of their sexuality is already part of Australian law. The Sex Discrimination Act was modified in 2013 to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and intersex status as grounds upon which  discrimination is not permitted. It applied to employment; education; provision of goods and services; providing accommodation, housing or land; membership and activities of licenced clubs; the administration of Commonwealth laws and programs.

There are a number of exemptions to the Act. Religious bodies and educational institutions are exempted if the discrimination is necessary to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion, or necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.

It’s important to point this out, because it seems that some Christians are under the impression that they currently have the right to say and do whatever they like with regards to gay, lesbian, intersex, bisexual, transsexual people and that somehow the recognition of same-sex marriage is going to strip them of these rights.

If you run a small business, it has been illegal since 2013 to refuse to employ somebody on the grounds that they are gay or to refuse to provide a business service to a person on the basis that they are lesbian. Marriage equality hasn’t changed this. If a gay couple walk into a shop today and order a naming day cake to celebrate the adoption of a child, it is already illegal for the  shopkeeper to refuse to bake the cake on the grounds that s/he doesn’t approve of gay people adopting children.

When members of Parliament sit down to thrash out the legislation on same-sex marriage, they have no mandate to either tighten or loosen the antidiscrimination laws nor the exceptions to the anti-discrimination laws. If there is some tweaking that needs to be done in order to maintain the law, it should be so. But there should be no fundamental rewriting of the antidiscrimination legislation. Religious bodies and educational institutions should continue to be free from provisions of the anti-discrimination legislation if the discrimination is necessary to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion, or necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion. Churches and schools should remain free to discriminate in employment where the staff position is necessary to maintaining their religion. The marriage equality legislation should not be used as a mechanism to remove these exemptions.

Neither should the marriage legislation be used as a mechanism to extend exemptions to places they don’t currently exist. For example, the suggestion by Christians that business operators should not have to bake cakes for gay weddings, or wedding reception businesses run by Christians should be free to refuse venue hire to gay couples would represent a repudiation of the current antidiscrimination legislation. When Christians argue for this to be part of the legislation, they are asking our parliamentarians to do something they have no mandate to do.


Why Parliament & Not a Plebiscite Should Resolve the Question of Same-Sex Marriage

Why Parliament & Not a Plebiscite Should Resolve the Question of Same-Sex Marriage

The modern world has been distinguished by what David Bentley Hart calls a “tilt to freedom.” Beginning with the demand that kings be subject to the law, there has been a steady process of enlarging people’s freedoms and a consequent diminishing of the coercive power of the State and of one human over another.

The fundamental principle underlying this is the equality of human beings, by which is meant that a person’s value and a range of fundamental rights comes from belonging to category of human. (In the past value and freedoms were linked to other categories such as anscestry, gender, culture, skin colour or religion). This does not suggest that all human beings are the same – we have diverse genetic endowments and diverse socialising – but that we choose to treat all human beings as if they have a common value and a common set of rights.

On this basis we assume that all people should have equal access to the privileges and benefits of our society. No-one should experience discrimination on the grounds of something incidental to their being human – eg race, religion, gender, sexuality – unless distinctiveness in a particular area is requisite for the type of grouping envisaged. For example being a woman is reasonably seen as a pre-requisite for belonging to a women’s group and sharing the faith of a particular religion pre-requisite for a leadership role in that religion.

This means that the social institution of marriage should be accessible to members of the LGBTIQ community on the same grounds as those who are heterosexual, unless it can be demonstrated that there is something about marriage in of itself that would preclude same-sex couples. Those who oppose marriage equality do so on the grounds that there is in fact something about marriage itself that makes it suitable only for opposite-sex couples. I find their arguments unconvincing and cannot see any grounds upon which it is reasonable for the state to continue discriminating against LGBT people on marriage.

But my point here is this. The question of whether there is something about marriage that makes it inherently applicable only to opposite sex couples cannot be decided by popular vote, which is what the plebiscite will effectively turn out to be if it is held. The only question is, is there something inherent to the institution of marriage as understood and practised within Australian society that excludes it from applying to couples of the same sex? If there is, the Parliament should refrain from legalising same-sex marriage even if the majority of the population are in favour of it. And likewise if they find there is not, the parliament should legalise same-sex marriage.

Has Malcolm got his Mojo back?

The Federal government released its 2017/18 budget last night. On first glance it represents a radical departure from the infamous “lifters and leaners” budget  delivered by the Coalition just a few years ago. As a commentator in one of our broadsheet newspapers noted, this is much more the sort of budget we expected from a Malcolm Turnbull prime ministership.

The underlying narrative  has shifted from the notion that we are spending too much  and must therefore make cuts to spending, to a recognition that we can increase  revenue and maintain our spending while simultaneously reducing our deficit.   Two significant revenue raising measures have been introduced –increased tax  on the banks and a Google tax to make sure that multinationals don’t evade paying taxes, and an increase in the Medicare levy by .5%. These measures,  along with the increasing government revenues that flow from a growing economy, are being used  to ensure the National Disability Scheme has the funding it needs,  to restore gonski style funding to the schools,  to increase funding for homelessness,  and some pretty decent infrastructure projects. Alongside this there is the now apparently mandatory projection of substantial increases in defence spending out over the next 20 years.

I’m quite astonished to see the Coalition government increasing revenue  and spending, but I welcome it warmly.  It strikes me that  we squandered the opportunity of the boom years. With rivers of gold pouring into Treasury,  the boom was surely a time to stack away hundreds of billions of dollars into sovereign  wealth funds that would then generate income for the time when the boom wore off  and we faced the challenge of maintaining our living standards at the same time as our population was ageing. Instead we delivered year after year of tax cuts. A return to revenue raising will allow us to have the services we demand of government.

If there’s been a turnaround in the domestic narrative, the budget shows there is no turnaround in our global narrative. The foreign affairs and Department of Immigration portfolio statements use all the language of being a good international citizen, yet $300 million has been slashed from an aid budget  already sorely depleted; there is a welcome increase in the number of refugees we will settle to the order of two and half thousand more per year, yet  considering we face the worst displacement crisis of history  and Australia assumes such a small fraction of the burden of care, it seems very inadequate to the scale of the crisis. Moreover we will continue to expend well over $2 billion a year on offshore detention and preventing boats from arriving in Australia.  There is no indication government will engage in the work required to build a genuine regional framework that will provide a long-term  approach to providing protection for refugees and asylum seekers. And yet again there is no indication that we will up the ante on climate change.

Has Malcolm got his Mojo back?  It certainly looks that way,  at least when it comes to domestic policy. We may even be seeing glimmers of the Scott Morrison who entered Parliament a small liberal and humanitarian.  Internationalism? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Life Skills for an Age of Populist Rage

Populism is everywhere at the minute. It’s particularly pronounced in the rise of Trumpism and Hansonism, but is found on the left, the right and the centre whenever people seek to win over an audience with arguments that confirm the fears, biases and prejudices of that audience but fail to take account of the breadth and complexity of  the issue being addressed. And although I try my hardest to avoid it, I dare say that in the 400 odd posts in this blog, I may well have had occasions where I too have been guilty of populism.

Populism is ugly  because it posits simplistic solutions to genuine problems, and in the process people get hurt.  Here are eight principles that may  lead us to a better path.

1) Always read/dialogue with those who disagree with you with the intention of learning from them.

For many years of my life I read only those who saw the world through the same framework that I did, and surprise, surprise, the arguments of those I opposed seemed so fragile I almost felt pity for those who held them. When however I started to read the best representatives of the views in opposition to mine I discovered not only that they frequently possessed intellectual rigour but that they helped me see the issue more clearly.

2) Be critical of power, including  your own.

Some people have a rather benign view of power, assuming that people and institutions always act with purity of heart and mind. Others have a cynical view of power, assuming that those with power always use it in their own interests. The first approach yields uncritical trust in power that treats its favoured leaders as though they were Jesus himself, while the second yields a biting cynicism that can see nothing but the devil. Yet the world I live in is one in which people which human beings are neither all good or all bad. As Aleksander Solzenhytsen put it:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being” The Gulag Archipelago

I expect those with power and the institutions the stand behind them to be capable of both misplaced self-interest and enlightened other-interest and to be capable of both at the same time. This demands that I be critical, recognising and exposing naked self-interest and praising genuinely good other-interest. It demands I do the same for myself, learning to practise the discipline of self-critique.

3) Listen to the affected

The most powerful moments of change and repentance in my life have come from listening to the stories of those who were most impacted by particular policies or practices. My views on refugees, indigenous well-being, poverty, sexuality and so much more have all changed as I’ve listened to the stories of those  who are marginalised, trodden down, and exploited. They taught me to  see the impacts of policies  and practices on real human beings and impart a wisdom that only those on the underside of an issue possess.

4) Remember that our most valuable institutions were hard won but easily lost

Some of our social institutions serve to do little more than entrench the power and the interests of the elites, but the central institutions of liberal democracy that provide the foundation for the ways we  live took centuries to develop. Yet they can be quickly lost to populism. Freedom of speech, conscience and religion; respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every human being; the rule of law; freedom of the press;  prohibitions on discrimination against people on the basis of their religion, sexuality or gender; and the like  should be protected with tenacity. This is why  I was alarmed by the recent outbursts of President Trump  declaring the press to be “the enemy of the people”  and declaring that the judges who struck down his  immigration laws were “bad judges”. By all means let us disagree with what the press  says  and launch legal challenges to  the judgements of courts, but when we start defaming the institutions themselves, we begin wandering down a very dangerous path

5) See the yearning that lies behind the rhetoric

It has been my experience that  behind deeply objectionable and offensive ideas/behaviours frequently lie yearnings  that are good.  For example, many of those clamouring for  harsh treatment of refugees are driven by a yearning  to live in a community that is safe and that feels like home.  These are good yearnings  and by identifying them  and honouring them it is often possible  to find a shared space that allows us to identify better ways to satisfy those yearnings.

6) It matters what you value and dream about

When we are faced with difficult choices, and particularly the choice between easy self-interest and the more difficult  pathways of love, generosity and grace,  it is our values and the kind of world we dream of belonging to that provide us with the fortitude to either take the more difficult pathway or surrender to self-interest.

7)  The right to have an opinion doesn’t make it a good opinion

Everybody has the right to their own opinions, beliefs and values,  but this does not mean all opinions are equally truthful.  People should always be treated with respect, but  ideas and argument should always be open to critique, evidence and debate  and we should not be afraid of saying that some arguments are simply weaker than others.

8)  We need respectful but robust debate

On any given issue we need to treat each other with respect, kindness and generosity, but at the same time we need to be able to disagree, to push each other on the merit of our arguments  and their consequences intended and unintended.  It is debate like this that exposes the weaknesses and fragility is of our arguments and enables us to  collectively embrace that which is strong.

These principles are of course easy to lay out, but more difficult to follow. Yet in this age of populist rage I think we need to work harder than ever  to live them out.




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