What about the birds?

My vote on July 2 will go to the party whose leader can most satisfactorily answer the weightiest moral and economic question of our time. That question of course is

Have the birds got jobs?

Voters with a moral conscience will well remember the first raising of the matter in cinemas everywhere in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”1back in 1979. It is surely a scandal of modern times that the question is yet to be answered or even taken seriously by politicians. Our avian friends deserve much better.I want Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten to tell the Australian people honestly just what it is that their parties have against the birds, that this defining question of our age could remain unanswered for so long.Let there be an end to all frivolous political rhetoric and commentary.

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.


And when Manus fills up … ?

WANTED URGENTLY: uninhabited islands, disused prison hulks, surplus orbiting space stations … anything really.

Must be situated outside Australian territory. Managed by someone else. Human habitability preferred, but not essential. Razor wire supplied.

All expressions of interest to The Lodge, Canberra.

Boats and votes

The new Rudd Government’s emerging asylum seeker policy will be a thing of horror to many Australians, but unfortunately not the ‘right’ ones. What we’re now seeing is the long term impact on our culture of the Howard government’s demonising of asylum seekers, using them as electoral fodder, thereby appealing to the basest instincts and prejudices of a sector of the population.

Fast forward a few years, and we have a Labor Prime Minister who on earlier indications may have developed a policy enshrining decency and compassion, now perpetuating a thoroughly entrenched fortress mentality to appease voters in western Sydney.

The well of Australian multiculturalism has plainly been poisoned. And on these indications the erstwhile Australian spirit of generosity to the stranger, mortally wounded in a matter of months by the 2001 ‘Tampa election’ campaign, will likely take a generation or more to resuscitate, if indeed it ever rises again. For living as we now do in an age of unprecedented political disillusionment and disengagement, with serial hung parliaments a likely consequence, expediency will trump principle in the name of electoral survival. In this cold civil war, swing seat xenophobia will win and the world’s most vulnerable will lose.

If this is so, then the only hope for justice will lie in the moral formation of the next generation.

Simply trust

Mary Delahunty (Opinion, 11/3) joins a long list of commentators and public figures suggesting that Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s fight for legitimacy is fundamentally down to old-fashioned misogyny. Certainly the persistence of glass ceilings and salary discrepancies alone should warn us against doubting that a low view of women is some part of the equation. Sadly, it must be. However proponents of the Gillard misogyny theory too commonly overlook natural comparisons and at least one major event of still recent memory.

All Australian jurisdictions bar one have now enjoyed the leadership of a woman as head of government. To varying degrees most of those women have endured sexist attitudes in the exercise of their high office. But it’s frankly hard to think of one who has found the battle for the public’s trust quite so exacting or unyielding. At least on our admittedly distant observation, the same seems to have been true in overseas instances. Why then is Ms Gillard’s case different?

The answer may be a quality equally simple and old-fashioned: public trust. Australians will not quickly forget the June 2010 political assassination of Kevin Rudd and the circumstances in which it occurred. We watched the apparent genuine collegiality and even perhaps personal friendship of the then Prime Minister and his deputy. We heard the repeated pledges of confidence and loyalty on camera, some within a few days of the coup. Some of us even remember feature stories of Gillard spending weekends as a personal guest of Rudd and his family. And then we watched the clinical execution. And it was over.

We may not all articulate it the same way. But in the land of mateship and a fair go, there are many many better ways than that to win the trust of a nation.

Surplus talk

Hey, big spender: Howard the king of the loose purse strings
This will undoubtedly not end the frothing at the mouth on both sides of the house about the most holy surplus. But it sure does put a few things in perspective, and in ways we economic mortals can grasp. Worth some reflection by us all, and not least those of my friends who bang on incessantly about the profligacy of all Labor governments.

Oh by the way, it might mean we can afford to toss a few bob more in the overseas aid tin afterall, Mr Swan?

A coin toss

I’m trying to decide which major party I respect less. Labor for sacrificing the world’s poor to appease the god of economics, and insulting our intelligence with a spurious casuistic rationale? Or the Coalition for straining credulity beyond breaking point, with their feigned moral outrage? It’s a tough call. Guess I’ll just toss a coin. At least I have one.

The lonely Cardinal

Editorial Opinion: ‘Pell has failed the church and its victims’

This was a secular commentator, and sadly I think they’re right. Also sadly, the Cardinal has I fear lost a lot of respect in the past few days, from within and also beyond the Christian community – including from people like me, who’ve substantially respected him before. It’s the wrong response, and total silence would have been far preferable.

However I do have at least some sympathy for him. It is a tough gig indeed being at the top of any organisation, large or small, and the more so when questions of corporate liability for human suffering arise – usually with dollar signs attached. Its then that being in pastoral leadership is at its most invidious, because of massively conflicting responsibilities.

The leader is at once both corporate ‘CEO’ and responsible shepherd of souls. In our litigious age when suffering is measured in gold and silver, that places one between the rock of insurers, stakeholders and lawyers and the hard place of the innocent and helpless victims. Serving either means betraying the other.

I personally found myself in precisely that place about 20 years ago, though not on the same scale as Pell now finds himself in. Avoiding details, my church was pretty certainly morally responsible for an incident. As pastor my heart belonged to those affected. As local ‘CEO’ I was answerable to insurers, who demanded absolute avoidance of any admission of liability, on pain of uncovered losses which would have bankrupted us. The result: this pastor avoided the victims entirely, and they undoubtedly felt abandoned.

They say it’s lonely at the top; and they’re often right.

Just ugly

In a seemingly interminable announcement late in 2010, Federal independent MP Rob Oakeshott held the nation in thrall awaiting what amounted to his casting vote on which party leader would get the keys to the Lodge. In the process he foreshadowed a parliament with a new consultative character, which would be “beautiful in its ugliness”. Two years into the fragile life of that parliament, we might collectively respond: “Wrong, Rob. It’s just ugly.”

It’s hard to identify a less edifying period in our nation’s public life than this one, which has been characterised by a vile trade in vituperative personal insults hurled across the dispatch box in both directions, mirrored and egged-on far too much by a personality-obsessed media. In common public opinion the chief responsibility for this appalling state of affairs belongs to Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott. Certainly its ironic to recall that it was from his lips that the phrase “kinder and gentler polity” was uttered over the looming hung parliament. The contrast between that claim and the now grotesque reality might fall on the fact that it was made before Abbott found himself cruelly, by just the thinnest of margins, on the wrong side of the governing alliance. Abbott has been a man on a mission ever since, the PM’s office the tantalisingly reachable prize.

But does anyone seriously imagine now that the tone of the parliament would have been greatly different, had the governing boot landed on the other foot? Judging from Tuesday’s performance, would a narrowly aggrieved Team Gillard have dished out any less question time venom, from the camp of the vanquished?

What the Federal Labor caucus might care to contemplate is just how very different the past two years might have been for us all, had the fever of electoral paranoia not produced the midnight knifing of a revered first-term Prime Minister, to the savage detriment of the Government’s public trust.