Moral election choices

Mr Tony Kevin*

New Pentecost Forum - Voices of Hope!

North Sydney, Feast of Pentecost, 27 May 2007

 

 

I offer my respects to the Kuringai people on whose land we are today. And I am mindful of the major anniversaries we are marking this Pentecost weekend–the 40th anniversary of the referendum, and the tenth anniversary of the Stolen Children report.

 

After the high spirituality of Jojo’s talk, I am about to take you down to some “low politics”. I make no apology for that – because, consistent with our theme today of “Voices of Hope: how people of faith can help build a just and compassionate society and world”, I decided to offer a personal analysis of current Australian federal politics, and the important choice we face as voters in a few months’ time. 

To set the scene, a recent comment in Crikey (24 May) by Christian Kerr on results of a Morgan opinion poll – another poll that finds Kevin Rudd well ahead of John Howard as preferred Prime Minister:

It’s hard to disagree with pollster Gary Morgan’s comments:
This Special Roy Morgan Qualitative Research identifies three major themes. Mr Howard’s experience is the prevailing reason among electors who said he is a better Prime Minister than Mr Rudd would be; a vast majority of Mr Rudd’s supporters cite resentment towards the current Government’s past policies and decisions; and 'time for a change' was prevalent amongst Mr Rudd’s supporters.

I want to talk about why I am going to vote for Rudd, and explore some related political questions that are relevant, I believe, to the moral concerns many of us share at this New Pentecost Forum.

 

My starting point in looking at politics was precisely set out by Mary Bryant in the final Uniya newsletter Meeting Place, sent out a few weeks ago. And may I say how sadly I am going to miss Uniya. It filled a very special place for me.

Mary wrote in her article “Catholic Social Teaching and the way we work”:

Human dignity is the starting point and central concern of Catholic thinking about human rights. Each person is created in the image and likeness of God and so has an inalienable, transcendent God-given dignity. The Catholic tradition is opposed to anything that is anti-life or that violates the integrity of the human person.

I happily find myself in that tradition. I am also happy to work with people who, while not sharing my belief in God, share that same respect for human dignity.


The issue of Howard vs Rudd as sound economic, national security and more recently climate change managers (both claim to be those things, and there is a range of views on who has the better claim) is to me not a determining issue. To me, this election is determined by a second tranche of issues – issues that have to do with human dignity.


Because I believe John Howard in his policies as Prime Minister of Australia has repeatedly and flagrantly violated human dignity: whether the issue be, most importantly, the stalled reconciliation process; or East Timor’s needlessly bloody and destructive transition to independence; or gross mistreatment of asylum-seekers, and of David Hicks; or Australia’s involvement in the illegal and brutal Iraq War and occupation; or the persistent attacks on civil liberties in Australia and the general mean-mindedness towards Australian Muslims and non-citizens; or the misgovernance on issues like energy, water, poverty and insecurity of the lowest paid workers, and cover-ups of corrupt government practice in matters like wheat sales to Iraq. In all these areas, I see Howard as a morally failed leader. I suppose therefore that I am one of the voters the Morgan poll characterises as mostly motivated by “resentment towards the current Government’s past policies and decisions”.


I wonder how many other voters this time round will feel the same way? The Canberra commentariat’s wisdom until very recently was that only economic and national security policy, lately joined by climate change policy, will matter as election determinants. Now, because they cannot explain Rudd’s persistent ascendancy in the polls any other way, they are factoring in some personal leadership issues: contrasting recently discovered negatives of Howard’s age and staleness and visible grumpiness, with Rudd’s youth, fresh ideas and coolness under pressure.


I note parenthetically that Rudd has the knack of turning even apparent weaknesses into strengths. Look at how he made the issue that blew up this week of his wife Therese Rein’s business an issue of “middle-aged” (read “young”) politicians having to deal with the realities of an able wife’s legitimate career aspirations. I share Rod Cameron’s view on ABC Lateline on Friday that Rudd has handled this problem well – even before Therese Rein’s impressive decision on Saturday to divest herself of her Australian business. I think Howard will find it hard to gain any long-term polling advantage from the issue.


But to return to my main theme – are the human dignity issues I just ran through really irrelevant to most voters? Or, have many of us, perhaps subconsciously and subliminally, finally reached a thumbs-down moral judgement on Howard? Are the "he's old and tired, he’s been there too long, he’s becoming a bit arrogant " sentiments now being heard quite widely a camouflage for moral judgements that – in the modest and non-declaratory typical Australian style – many voters would not like to admit in words that they are making, but that they are in fact now making? 

Labor is for the most part staying prudently away from what I call the moral tranche of issues. They know the dangers there of stirring up Hansonite fervour and being mocked and wedged, Tampa-style, by hostile elements in the media. They look fair set to win by staying in the first tranche, while deftly playing some "old, tired, arrogant, cunning/clever Howard" personal cards as well.

Yet there are more than a few hints of difference for those who look for them. Most importantly, there is Rudd's impressive article in the October 2006 issue of The Monthly, “Faith in Politics” – I note the nice pun in the title. This is an impressive piece of writing. I am sure many of you have read it, but let me refresh memories on some key ideas in it:

… A core, continuing principle shaping this engagement [of the church with the state] should be that Christianity, consistent with Bonhoeffer's critique in the '30s, must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed … The function of the church in all these areas of social, economic and security policy is to speak directly to the state: to give power to the powerless, voice to those who have none, and to point to the great silences in our national discourse where otherwise there are no natural advocates ... the Gospel is an exhortation to social action ...

Another great challenge of our age is asylum seekers. The biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst is clear. The parable of the Good Samaritan is but one of many which deal with the matter of how we should respond to a vulnerable stranger in our midst. …

 

… Add to these the escalating failure of the Iraq war and the deteriorating security in our immediate region, complicated by our distraction in Iraq - all compounded by a failure to tell the public the truth on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Iraqi prisoner abuse and the $300-million wheat-for-weapons scandal.” …

 

The role of the church is not to agree that deceptions of this magnitude are normal …. [or] then we will end up with a polity entirely estranged from truth. … if the church is concerned about the truth - not the politics - of social inclusion, then in Bonhoeffer's tradition of fearlessly speaking the truth to the state, it should say so.

Wrapping it up, I’ll remind you of Rudd’s passionate conclusion – by the man who aspires to be our next Prime Minister:

There is a danger that John Howard's form of political statecraft will become entrenched as the national political norm. The prime minister's now routine manipulation of the truth poses significant problems for the long-term integrity of our national institutions, including the great departments of state. As time goes by, all are in danger of becoming complicit in protecting the political interests of the government rather than advancing the national interest of the country. There must be a new premium attached to truth in public life. That is why change must occur …

I have to say, parenthetically, that based on my experience of researching the SIEV X history, Rudd’s concerns about now-routine bureaucratic complicity in government manipulations of truth are soundly based.

 

***

For further indications of potential for real positive change, look also at Labor’s preselection of Colonel Mike Kelly for Eden-Monaro, and the way Kelly spoke out so strongly on Iraq War abuses on the ABC 7.30 Report the other night. Look at the firm Labor commitment to a governmental apology to the aboriginal people, so heartbreakingly necessary yet so cruelly rejected – again this week – by the Howard government. The sad story about the rejection in Alice Springs of a $60 million offered bribe to aboriginal people if they gave up their communal property rights, and the ignorant and cruel criticism of that decision in leading Australian media, shows how far we still have to go towards real understanding.

 

I am pleased also by how Peter Garrett is more and more being allowed to speak the truth on global warming, as public opinion swings round to recognising the huge moral seriousness of the issue for our children and grandchildren. Garrett made a very powerful speech in the House on Wednesday on this motion of public importance moved by Labor.

 

I also note the many issues on which federal Labor now prudently but ethically remains silent – the kinds of issues on which Beazley was far too quick to say “me too” along with Howard. To use a cricket analogy Howard used to be fond of, Rudd sensibly lets a lot of issues “go through to the keeper”. Sometimes, a considered silence can be a sign of strength.

 

In this I am reminded of some wise words by Father John Eddy, S.J., in the 2005 Uniya Lenten seminars “Honesty matters; the ethics of daily life:

Obviously there can be a right time for speaking, and a wrong time. Courageous speaking out may be a heroic necessity, but may nevertheless prove costly to the truth teller, and there are undoubtedly strategies which offer more prospect of respectful audiences than others.

Less comfortably, I note the way Rudd sometimes silently leaves more conservative Labor premiers to have their public say on issues like David Hicks. The implied message Rudd is sending to Howard here is that Howard will have nowhere to go if he tries to wedge Labor on these kinds of issues.


Generally, I am impressed by what Rudd does not talk about as much as by what he does talk about. He does not lie. He does not insult or abuse defenceless people. He keeps his focus on the matters that he knows are Labor’s electoral strengths. He chooses his ground on which to fight, and when forced to fight on other ground, he finds strengths there too.

 

***

It is looking more and more that Labor will win, and that the present unforeseen Coalition government majority in the Senate may be lost too. That will give a Rudd Labor government the potential for winding back bad laws and correcting past serious negligences and injustices. And may I say how important it is that, in Senate seats Labor has no realistic chance of gaining, they should not repeat their disastrous decision last time round in Victoria and Tasmania to preference Family First over the Greens. That gave the Coalition control of the Senate, from which so much bad legislation came. 

There are interesting moral questions arising from this analysis for us "bleeding hearts", among whom I am happy to count myself.

 

First, if Rudd wins, should we expect all good things to come at once? We should not. I do not underestimate the moral damage that eleven years of relentless Howardism have done to Australia’s moral decency. At core and at grass-roots level, we are still a decent people. But it will take time and patience to bring the level of public debate – especially among our political, business and professional elites, much of whose public discourse Howardism has intimidated or corrupted - back to a decent middle ground of instinctive and unstudied respect for human dignity.

 

A second interesting question if Labor wins - how much did the patient human rights-based advocacy by we bleeding hearts since 1998, against all the odds and in the face of withering scorn and contempt - contribute to the erosion of Howard's initial high moral credibility? ALP hardheads – the sort of folk who used to advise Kim Beazley - say we did not help at all. In fact, they say, we bleeding hearts have been a nuisance, distracting Labor into bitter internal divisions that Howard could exploit, especially on border security, thereby eroding the ALP vote in elections since 1996. Better if we had shut up, they say.

 

I don't think Rudd would agree with that, judging by his essay in The Monthly. And I think our sustained moral critique was necessary. Over time, it played a role in helping bump Howard off his public pedestal to his present quite strongly negative public persona.

 

A third question is, what should we bleeding hearts be doing in terms of public advocacy for the remaining months till the election? I tend to think that we should now go more gently. We should leave room for Labor to win, on its chosen ground. We should not help to give Howard any Tampa-type red-button issues to play, to distract and pump up the electorate. 

But a fourth question then arises - what consequential dangers might we run if we are too silent? Could a Prime Minister-Elect Rudd then turn around and say " I won the election without you people, now don't go telling me what you want me to do” - on issues like ending Temporary Protection Visas, ending use of Nauru or Christmas Island as detention centres, setting up a judicial inquiry into the people smuggling disruption program and the sinking of SIEV X as the previous Senate four times demanded, disengaging from the Iraq occupation, opening up Iraq War accountability issues, reviewing sedition laws.

 

My answer is in two parts. First, I think that church leaders in particular must continue to speak out, in firmly non-partisan ways, on issues in politics that are deeply moral. And I note Rudd’s words that Boenhoffer’s bravery as a church leader applies not just to societies in crisis as was Nazi Germany but to all societies at all times. Australian hurch leaders must continue to speak out on political and social issues that are at the same time moral issues.

 

Second, do we bleeding hearts in the wider community need, quietly but firmly, to make known our expectations of Labor now? Or is it better to trust in Kevin Rudd to do the right thing when he has the chance to?

 

I have not worked out a complete personal answer to this yet - I like Kevin, but Tony Blair’s record as a Christian socialist leader who went off the rails as British Prime Minister just gives me the shivers. I think Kevin Rudd is just as smart as Tony Blair - smarter, even. I hope his moral conscience also will be stronger than Tony Blair’s proved to be in office. The “Monthly” article, that I have quoted from extensively, gives me hope that it will.

 

***

 

To change the tone, a final reflection on faith in politics, in this Pentecost week, came out of my walking pilgrimage in Spain last year – I have just written a book on it, “Walking the Camino” . On this long walk I found – reinvigorated belief in the power of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit - wisdom, intelligence, good counsel, fortitude, science, compassion, and the fear of God. My two twelve-year old daughters were preparing for their sacraments of confirmation while I was far away in Spain. I sent them Spanish prayer cards, showing on one side a white dove bringing down, as tongues of flame, these seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.


On the reverse side, the cards bore the text of a prayer “Ven Espiritu Divino”, which I recognised as a Spanish transation of that wonderful Latin hymn “Veni Sancte Spiritus”, composed in the early 13th century by an English Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. Langton was a great bishop and a central figure in the dispute between King John of England and Pope Innocent III which ultimately led to the issuing of Magna Carta in 1215. I made my own rough-hewn translation of this prayer to send to my daughters, using my Spanish-English pocket dictionary, and I will finish by reading it to you here. I feel that this prayer, and its author Langton, are somehow relevant to the ideas I have tried to offer here today:

Prayer for Your Confirmation Day:


Come Holy Spirit, and send Your light down from Heaven. 
Father, Who loves the poor, take us into Your hands.
Light, enter into my soul; fountain of good counsel.
Come, gently lodge in my soul, relax me from my labours, be a cool breeze in the hottest hours, the joy which dries my tears, and strengthens me in my struggles. 
Come deep into my soul, Divine Light, and enrich it.
See how empty man is if You are not with us; see the power of sin when You do not breathe upon us. 
Water the dry land, heal the sick heart, wash our stains away, melt our coldness with Your warmth, tame our reckless spirit, guide us if we stray from the true path.
Share Your seven gifts with us, according to our faith as Your servants. Through Your goodness and grace, reward our efforts. Save those who seek salvation, and grant us eternal life. Amen

 


* Tony Kevin, with 30 years experience in the public service, is the former Australian ambassador to Poland (1991-94) and Cambodia (1994-97). He has been an honorary Visiting Fellow at ANU Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies since 1998. He was awarded the "International Whistleblower of the Year" in 2003 by the prestigious London-based NGO Index on Censorship for his SIEVX advocacy work. Tony is the author of the award-winning A Certain Maritime Incident (Scribe, 2004) recounting that history.

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