Mal’s folly

Ok here’s my take on the NBN debacle …Tony Abbott was ideologically committed to trashing Labor’s legacy, root and branch. He tasked his shadow cabinet members with crafting minimalist policies to replace Labor’s, so he could claim to be covering the bases in areas the voters would want, but in ways that would support his neoliberal philosophy (small government, minimal-spend, big business, anti-science).

That’s the beginning point of policies like Turnbull’s NBN and Hunt’s ‘Direct Action’ climate policy. Having started from that ideological base, the Turnbull government has little choice but to defend these policies to the last man. I still remember Tony’s launch of the Coalition’s answer to Labor’s NBN. The day he credited Malcolm T with virtually inventing the internet. (Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.) I recall that Mal, standing beside Tony to announce the plan, looked as comfortable as a pork butcher in a synagogue. But this was the price he’d decided to pay to stay within reach of the crown in an Abbott cabinet. To this day, my gut feeling has remained that Mal has known all along that the bastardised NBN policy that bears his name is rubbish.

But what do you do when in the fulness of time you’ve seized the coveted crown, and now it’s your job to lead the team to the election with the policies your ousted predecessor believed in (which you didn’t and don’t)? Well you do the only thing that won’t make you look an unprincipled prat. You lie through your teeth to defend what you know to be indefensible nonsense, and hope like mad either that your rhetorical skills will carry the day, or that your opponents will look even less impressive.

Welcome to the coal and copper future.

Why Pell is not the tree to bark up

I’m getting frustrated with much of the media commentary on Cardinal Pell and the Royal Commission. This isn’t about whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy, whatever that would mean. It’s about everyone’s failure to exegete the Catholic Church’s leadership structure. It’s understandable in the case of victims and the general populace; but media organisations really should do some half-decent research. Is that out of fashion nowadays?

My beef is that we’re all being misled about what Pell can do for us, for anyone. Yes, he can and darn well should answer for what happened in the past, including within his own spheres of knowledge, authority and influence. But he can do precisely nothing about the present and future, and I’m troubled that the victims are pinning hopes on him as a change agent.

The central question is who Pell now is as far as the Catholic church in Australia goes. The answer is … wait for it … NOTHING. Yes that’s right, Cardinal George Pell can now do nothing about anything that happens in the Australian Catholic world. What’s singularly unhelpful is the bandying about of phrases like “Australia’s most senior catholic” and “the third highest ranking” at the Vatican, and even in one case something like “CEO of the Catholic Church in Australia”. Many things are wrong with those pictures. In what follows I’ll elaborate what I understand to be the case. My Catholic friends might correct me on any nuances.

To begin with – even when he was still in Australia, most recently as Archbishop of Sydney, Pell’s authority over any other bishop in Australia was nil. The dioceses and archdioceses are each their own domain. At the episcopal (bishop / archbishop) level, it’s a flat structure. The (arch)/bishops are equals. “But hang on,” you say, “he was a cardinal, and the only one, right?” Yes indeed. But here’s where things are not as they appear to the typical observer. Cardinals don’t ‘outrank’ bishops as such. A cardinal is a Vatican official. In modern times, most of them are also bishops, and usually senior ones. But their authority as cardinals is related specifically to their Vatican responsibility. Some of them are physically based at the Vatican; others are scattered around the world. In the case of the latter, their local and Vatican responsibilities are distinct entities. They have no jurisdiction in any other bishop’s diocese, or any authority over any other bishop at the pastoral level. So even when he was still in an Australian role, Pell was no more and no less than the senior bishop of the Sydney archdiocese.

But further, he’s no longer in an Australian post. Yes he’s an Australian (presuming that moving to the Vatican, a separate nation state, doesn’t change his citizenship). But his entire role is within the Vatican, where his portfolio is entirely disconnected with his national origin. He has authority specific to his brief within the Vatican structure, in the Secretariat for the Economy. He may be a senior figure in the Vatican bureaucracy, but he doesn’t even have a key to a toilet block in Australia (so far as I know).

By all means grill the guy about what happened in Ballarat, Melbourne and Sydney. And please God, he may now repent of and even apologise for some things in the past. And may there be some healing for someone somewhere as a result. But please dear Australian commentariat, do some basic research (if Wikipedia’s good enough for Environment Minister Greg Hunt, it’s good enough for you), and save abuse victims from any more false expectations and dashed hopes for change than they already suffer.

Fair fighting in the public square

published here at On Line Opinion

Where two or more people are caught in a seemingly intractable dispute yielding only mounting frustration, the first word on the lips of a half decent mediator will be ‘listening’. The parties will be asked how much of it they’re each doing. Most commonly an answer is unnecessary, since real listening is nigh impossible when everyone’s talking. Relationship counsellors sometimes suggest rules for ‘fair fighting’. One of the basics is a 3-step listening exercise: Party ‘A’ speaks without interruption; party ‘B’ speaks back what they think they heard; party ‘A’ confirms or clarifies.

Some ‘fair fighting’ rules would go a long way in our national life right now. We’re not merely having a tiff. We’re hard at it on several fronts simultaneously, and it’s fair to suggest that not much listening is happening in any direction. There’s the treatment of asylum seekers, the nature and definition of marriage, the rights of indigenous Australians, the sharing of the national wealth, educating the next generation, religion in state schools, and even the very future of the planet. And there are probably more. That’s a lot of talking, and some of it’s barely started.

Let me submit, therefore, a range of observations and suggestions for fair fighting in the public square.

If instant communication’s the prize, then our 24/7 news cycle is a logical winner. However real communication comprises an even balance of speaking and listening, and tweets and headlines – the new media of choice – are a limited substitute for the former and thoroughly inadequate for the latter. The mythical moment when the stream of ready information burst the banks of our consciousness, came long before Twitter. But now the stream is diluvian and rising exponentially. Time will not allow us to follow the links or read much below the headline. So for most of us, the tweet has become the story. If the headline fails to capture the heart of the narrative, as it inevitably will time and again, then listening will not be served. And when listening goes, respect and trust go with it. Sub-editors owe it to the public to put clarity before cleverness in headlining. We all owe it to one another to seek thoughtful clarification before suspending relations and wheeling out the guillotine.

Secondly, we’d do well to avoid hasty conclusions about what lies in the heart of the speaker. Despite what we too commonly read in opinion columns, few if any of us know much about the inner thoughts, plans or feelings, even of some people we’re close to. Few political commentators, for instance, really know the inner motives or agendas of Gillard, Rudd, Abbott or Turnbull. Yet we read half-page columns daily, predicated on such assumptions.

When we’re all psychic, reasoned political discourse is challenging enough. But passions are considerably more volatile when the subject is something nearer to the heart, such as the nature and definition of marriage. Into that mix must be added one of the more perplexing lines of thinking to take root in our culture, the notion that disagreeing with the way someone lives or behaves is fundamentally born of fear or hatred. A minute’s reflection on the art of parenting alone, ought to at least cast doubt on that premise. Yet it shatters trust through our community almost daily, and nowhere more so than in discussion of same-sex relationships. That in large measure underlay Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen’s recent plea on the ABC’s Q&A for “… a respectful discussion on these matters …”. Such a discussion is possible only when all parties are willing to suspend judgement to allow patient, mutual, and genuine listening.

Lastly, perhaps the most disturbing latter day intrusion to our democracy is censorship. Censorship used to be state-directed constraints on four-letter words and explicit or violent screen images. Now it’s source is as much street level, in the form of calls for restrictions on the expression of opinion. Every time (and it’s hardly often) a major newspaper such as The Age publishes a piece which makes a case for the ‘wrong’ side of a major theme in national life, such as the mining tax, religion in state schools, or climate change, bloggers and letter writers will demand an end to the pollution of the public consciousness with such allegedly ‘unenlightened’ ideas.

George Orwell might wonder whether to laugh or cry. But what matters more is the health of community discourse. Whether the opinion in question is majority or minority held, or by what proportion, is largely irrelevant. If we didn’t essentially believe that the healthiest societies are those built on equal opportunity, we’d have found something more efficient than democracy a long time ago. A democracy cannot remain stable or mature without the right to be heard and respected, remaining universal.

At any given point in the continuing national conversation, any one or more of these major subjects will be at the fore and on the front page. Right now, same sex marriage is at centre stage. We could maintain the prevailing trend of lazy headlines, character attacks and one-word labels, to the thunderous applause of the gallery. That strategy, however, is long on adrenalin and short on trust. Alternatives? Well, there’s always listening.

Let’s have a real debate

The recent publication of Lindsay Tanner’s “Sideshow” has in some sense given us all permission to question the health of politics in Australia, and especially of political coverage by media outlets. Tanner’s very valid concerns have a much wider application, however, than politics itself. The age of instant global communications – with it’s doorstop interviews, sound bites, tweets, banal slogans, character attacks and spin, is fast altering the complexion of public discourse on all manner of subjects. It’s largely not for the better, and intelligent debate is one major casualty.

The present assault on religious education and chaplaincy in state schools is but one example, and part of a wider media phenomenon. In a free, democratic and diverse society it’s only to be expected that the place of religious belief in public life will be debated. This is as it should be, and neither Christians nor other faith believers should fear such engagement in the public square. However in the interests of balanced and informed dialogue a bit of common wisdom in how the debate is conducted might go a long way, if it is to merit the term “debate”.

The basics of constructive debate include inter alia caution with hearsay, resisting conspiracy theories, attention to the meaning of language peculiar to certain groups, and great care when quoting phrases without a context. What is frustrating about much of the coverage thus far in the print media generally, and The Age in particular, is the singular lack of attention to such values, even by seasoned commentators. It shows in some of the alarmist and polarised language now being used by columnists and taken up by some among their consumers. The subject is too important, however, to be reduced to trite sloganeering or half-baked analysis.

Recent reporting, for instance, has rendered famous the use of the phrase “make disciples” in connection with the work of Access Ministries in Victorian state schools. Fuelled apparently by apocalyptic visions of defenceless children before an invading force, armed to the teeth with black bibles, handcuffs and mobile pulpits, angst rages through letters columns and talkback radio segments. Digital space is all abuzz with lines like “Lie to kids”, “Out to convert” and “Caught lying again.” Not so very different from the political headlines we see these days, and hardly more sophisticated. What’s also in common is the creeping replacement of thoughtful social analysis with sound bites targeting people and denigrating characters, but yielding little actual insight.

Like any organisation or professional circle, the Christian community uses peculiar sets of words, phrases, images and metaphors, some drawn from the Bible itself, others from a variety of contexts in Christian history. Just as it would be unwise for a layman to draw conclusions from language used in a medical conference, a constitutional debate or a sci-fi chatroom (among an endless list), so it serves none of us well to lift an evocative phrase from a very specific faith context, and broadcast it in the public domain without the most careful of research. Doing so may make for arresting headlines, but it too rarely serves the cause of truth. Without truth, trust diminishes and constructive debate becomes impossible.

Slogans commonly represent a rejection of historical context as something that matters for current application. If a phrase is deemed useful as an ideological mantra, then no one wants to know where it came from or how closely the new usage resembles the original. If one wants to rid the world of the scourge of religion in the quest for some global atheist Utopia, then “secular” makes a great mantra, especially when combined with the words “education” and “free”. It doesn’t matter that the drafters of Victoria’s model for state education had neither faith nor ‘un-faith’ in mind when they envisioned a system “free and secular”. What matters rather is the usefulness of “secularism” to the cause of messianic atheism. Atheism per se is politically naked; secularism, which essentially means plain boring impartiality, provides it a fine respectable suit of clothes to wear to the public square.

Nor is the religion in schools “debate” the only context in which today’s beloved sloganeering style of journalism puts a damper on intelligent dialogue about religion. The phrase that’s really had the fourth estate all agog in the past decade is “separation of church and state”. It’s become as irresistible to crusading social commentators as a solitary bush dunny to a swarm of blowflies. It’s so exquisitely utilitarian to the pursuit of blessedly God-free public discourse. Pertinent facts include: (1) that no such phrase appears in the Australian Constitution which in fact protects religious expression;1 and (2) that it’s US origins have to do with keeping the government and any religious group organically distinct from eachother, particularly in contrast with the British model of an ‘established’ church. None of this is any challenge at all, however, to members of today’s commentariat for whom the only history that isn’t all ‘crap’ anyway is the convenient kind.

The socio-political landscape of today’s Australia is perhaps more complex than it has ever been, and this will hardly diminish with time. In the interests of harmony and cohesion, we all need and deserve the kind of public discourse that arises more naturally from even-handed research and careful scrutiny, than from two-second quotes and endless tweets. Only then can we have public dialogue with substance. Let’s have the real debate we need about religion in schools specifically, and public institutions generally.

One thing’s for sure. When words like “preacher” start to be applied to the Grade 1 religious education class at the local primary school, it’s time we all asked questions.

  1. The Constitution enshrines a “principle of state neutrality” as distinct from “separation of church and state”. Reference: Ch 5 § 116 The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

Published today at