Nick Jensen, Same-Sex Marriage, and Public Faith

I wasn’t going to say anything about the recent furore surrounding Canberra couple Nick and Sarah Jensen’s plans to divorce if same-sex marriage is introduced in Australia, but I think it’s worth noting a few points. (If you haven’t read the article yet, I encourage you to do so before reading on.)

I’ve written a number of times (on this blog and on social media) about how Christians might approach the issue of same-sex marriage (you can find a couple of my posts here and here), and I won’t bother rehashing those arguments here.

What I would note are the following two points:

Firstly, I think Nick and Sarah do actually identity a crucial issue. For Christians, the meaning of marriage is not (or should not be) so much to do with legal recognition of the union. Rather, for Christians (and people of numerous other faiths), the significance of ‘marriage’ is the recognition of the union ‘in the sight of God’. This is something that the secular State cannot—and should not be asked to—oversee. The State’s recognition of unions has to do with the legal framework around it; it has nothing at all to do with the religious significance of that union.

Secondly, I think the Jensen’s make a serious blunder both in regards to their interpretation of how same-sex marriage would impact the current arrangement, and in regards to how they are going about engaging in issues of public faith.

In regards to the former, Nick notes the following in his article:

When we signed that official-looking marriage certificate 10 years ago at Tuggeranong Baptist Church, we understood that the state was endorsing marriage, as currently defined, as the fundamental social institution – with all that this implied.
But if this is no longer the case, then we no longer wish to be associated with this new definition. Marriage is sacred and what is truly “marriage” will only ever be what it has always been.


The truth is, “marriage” is simply too important. It is a sacred institution, ordained by God. It has always been understood to be that exclusive relationship where one man and one woman become “one flesh”. Any attempt to change the definition of marriage by law is not something in which we are able to partake.

It seems that the Jensen’s were under the impression, when they had their marriage solemnised by a representative of Tuggeranong Baptist Church on behalf of the State, that what the State was thus endorsing was a/the ‘biblical’ view of marriage. It was not. The secular State, as noted above, simply cannot do that. Rather, Nick and Sarah had what may well have been a lovely ceremony that had, to be sure, religious elements attached to what is essentially a legal agreement, for which the State can and should provide the framework.

In this regard, absolutely nothing has changed, and absolutely nothing would change if same-sex marriage was legislated.

When Nick and Sarah were married, they were sharing the legal definition of ‘marriage’ with people who have no faith inclination, people who may be on their second/third/fourth/whatever ‘marriage’ (for whatever reason), people who have ‘open’ marriages, and numerous others who don’t view the institution in the same way as the Jensens.

Apparently, none of this was a barrier for Nick and Sarah. Same-sex couples being able to be ‘married’ in the sight of the State, however, indicates to the Jensens, it seems, that the ‘sacred institution’ of marriage has finally been lost.

This is absurd. The fact that the Jensens have chosen this point as ‘the end of marriage as we know it’ makes them look either extraordinarily naive or somewhat vindictive.

And this brings us to the next point.

In regards to how the Jensens are going about engaging in issues of public faith, I think they have fallen precisely into the trap of presenting a tone or posture that reeks of “We’re taking our bat and ball and going home”. This, to my mind, is a petulant form of Christianity that exhibits all the traits of ‘losing badly’.

My suggestion, for quite some time now, is that we as Christians take note of what the Jensens have rightly recognised concerning the nature of the legal recognition of unions as being distinct from their religious significance, and voluntarily (and graciously) ‘hand back’ our ability to solemnise ‘marriages’ on behalf of the State. The State can do that for itself, and the Church can offer (non-legally recognised) ‘covenant ceremonies’, which speak of the significance of the union ‘in the sight of God’ (and people can decide for themselves if they participate in either or both of these ceremonies).

Such a voluntary ‘handing back’, done in the right spirit, would, I think, act as a kind of circuit breaker in the current debates. If we, as the Church, were to acknowledge that we had no real right to be acting on behalf of the State in regards to solemnising legally recognised unions, I think—if it was done with the right tone/posture—it could be taken as an act of good faith, allowing us the requisite space to dialogue about how churches (and other religious institutions) could identify (non-legally recognised) unions ‘in the sight of God’, and be allowed the freedom to do so.

As it stands, I fear that (with the inevitable introduction of same-sex marriage) many Christians will adopt the sulky posture of the Jensens (though perhaps not going to—or threatening to go to—the same lengths), and that it will confirm for many what they’ve always suspected: that Christians want to force their views on everyone else and, when they don’t get their way, they act like entitled idiots.

I don’t think it has to be this way.

Asylum Seeker Policy and Christian Nonviolent Civil Disobedience

Yesterday (Friday, March 21, 2014), a couple of my good friends were arrested in (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection) Scott Morrison’s electoral office.

As people of deep Christian faith, they held a prayer vigil in Mr Morrison’s office (as an act of nonviolent civil disobedience), praying for asylum seekers (and asylum seeker policy), and for Scott Morrison personally. When asked to leave, a number of them (peacefully and politely) refused and were subsequently removed by police officers. You can read about the action in this SBS article, or in this article from the Bible Society. Greg Lake (former Australian Immigration Officer and whistleblower) wrote an excellent blog post about the action that you can find here.

I wonder how you feel about it all.

I make no claim to speak on behalf of the group—I was not involved in the action on the day, and have not been appointed as spokesperson—but I wanted to offer a couple of reflections on what happened on Friday.

Firstly, I’ve noticed a little bit of commentary emerging asking the question as to why these protesters popped up now and not while Labor was in government.

The truth is that they didn’t just ‘pop up out of nowhere’; they’ve just not gained as much attention until now.

I know a number of people in the group very well, and I know for certain both that they opposed Labor’s harsh policy measures towards asylum seekers while Labor was in government, and that the plans for nonviolent direct action began well before the 2013 federal election. In regards to the first point, these people have been perfectly consistent in opposing bad asylum seeker policy from both major parties. They do not have a chip on their shoulder against the Coalition specifically (or Mr Abbott or Mr Morrison personally), but have consistently opposed dehumanising policy no matter from where it emerges. In regards to the second point, I know that planning for nonviolent direct action on this issue was in process well before the election because I was personally present at meetings where it was discussed. (As just one example, a group of us ran an information evening [‘From Despair to Action’] at Paddington Uniting Church in April, 2013, discussing many possible responses to attempt to fight against the ever-growing despair about asylum seeker policy, including a discussion of NVDA possibilities.) Though it could very well be argued that asylum seeker policy has hit its lowest point ever as a result of the 2013 election, it has been suggested that nonviolent direct action on this issue has been justifiable for quite some time now.

The line being run here (that they must be partisan hacks who fail all measures of consistency) is simply not true.

Secondly, I wanted to note that the action, at its core, was intended to be redemptive.

The action, from the outset, was specifically (and stringently) nonviolent , and the pray-ers/protesters were not only praying for vulnerable people caught in these harsh policy measures, but they also prayed for Scott Morrison himself. This was not done in a condemning or judgmental way, but as Christians praying for one of their elected leaders as well as praying for the redemption of their brother. Scott Morrison has consistently spoken of his Christian faith (including in an extraordinary maiden speech in parliament), and these pray-ers were praying for him too. The dehumanisation of others has the effect of dehumanising us all, and Scott Morrison is directly responsible for the dehumanising policy on this issue. As I have previously suggested, nonviolent action in this area must include a redemptive focus on Scott Morrison himself, and this action certainly included that idea as a central element.

Thirdly (and finally), I wanted to speak about the ‘success’ (or otherwise) of the action.

It is too early to tell how ‘successful’ the action has been. There has already been a few predictably negative reactions, but I have been pleasantly surprised at some of the favourable endorsement/soft endorsement of the action.

In regards to any action regarding asylum seeker policy, I guess the true measure of ‘success’ is as to whether or not it changes things for the better for the people caught up in the harsh, dehumanising measures. (This must be the goal, rather than media attention for the sake of media attention—or, worse, for nothing more than the self-seeking promotion of people involved.)

This could either be direct change (as in, making life better for asylum seekers through direct contact and/or direct measures), or indirect change (through ‘changing the conversation’ or helping move attitudes towards a more compassionate place, which ultimately leads to better treatment of asylum seekers in a ‘direct’ sense).

Obviously, the aim of Friday’s action is the latter.

As I noted above, it’s too early to tell what the outcomes will be, but there are some good early indicators that it has been reasonably well received in many quarters. This was the first act of civil disobedience on asylum seeker policy in Australia in a long time, and it has made its point in a firm but gentle way. There was no violence. There were no angry people yelling and screaming. There was no personal condemnation of Scott Morrison. In addition to this, the people involved have been consistently seeking to keep attention very much on the issue, rather than themselves.

It’s also important to note that the strategy of nonviolent action is not to convince everyone of the position. The aim is to shine a light on an unjust situation (allowing people to see the crisis for what it is, perhaps for the first time) and, hopefully, to move people from where they are to being a little bit closer to a more just position. Some people will never be convinced but, again hopefully, the majority of people of good will can recognise injustice when it is in front of them and adjust their own position, perhaps only slightly, to a more compassionate one.

Single actions on their own cannot really do this is full, but many small actions might, over time, work towards achieving this goal.

The action may have ‘succeeded’, then, at one level, simply by making space for many conversations this week about how best to resist the evil that is our current asylum seeker policy while not dehumanising those responsible for the (dehumanising) policy. There are moral and strategic questions that need to be discussed in order for change to happen, and at least some space for those conversations to happen has been created due to the action of those on Friday. Interestingly, there have been at least a few reasonably positive affirmations from people who have not previously been in the ‘NVDA camp’.

Finally, in regards to the issue of the ‘success’ of the action, I’m reminded by one of my mentors in the spirituality and practice of nonviolence that

We are called upon not to be successful, but to be faithful.*

This in no way undercuts the fact that strategy and outcomes need to be very carefully considered, but it is good to hold the two in firm tension.

Perhaps this action has opened up (even in a small way) the possibility for more people to see that something must be done, that ‘regular’ people can do something, and that Christians (I believe) have a significant responsibility to stand alongside the vulnerable in our world. Perhaps it will ignite many more small movements towards shining a light on the current dehumanising policy and inspire creative acts of justice and human kindness towards vulnerable people. Perhaps these small movements, over time, can see policy change for the better.

This, at least, is my prayer.

If you have been inspired by this action and are wondering how you might get involved, I list just two of many opportunities here:

1) If you are interested in Christian nonviolent direct action, there is an opportunity on Easter Saturday (2014) to join with other Christians and people of goodwill for a peaceful prayer vigil outside Villawood Detention Centre (in Sydney), which will include an ‘act of prophetic witness’ which may include civil disobedience (though you certainly don’t need to be involved in the civil disobedience part to nevertheless join with the peaceful prayer vigil). You can find the details here. ***Update: Due to developments concerning the Villawood Detention Centre, it has been decided that this action will not go ahead as planned. Please see the link for more information.***

2) If you are interested in getting involved ‘directly’ with making life better for asylum seekers and refugees in Australia, see the wonderful work of Welcome to Australia. For churches, see the Welcome to My Place for Dinner website for how this might look for a church or for individual Christians during Refugee Week 2014.


* Often attributed to Mother Teresa.

A Reflection on Sameness and Difference for Australia/Survival/Invasion Day

It seems to me that one of the significant causes of tension around Australia/Survival/Invasion Day is the increasing tendency towards narrowly defined (and increasingly aggressive) nationalism in majority Australian society.

Now, please let me say this clearly: there is nothing necessarily wrong with being proud of one’s nation or culture or identity. Having a positive (though not blinkered) view of one’s identity is fine; it’s when this identity seeks to define itself over and against the other in negative terms that we have the beginnings of the problem.

In the words of Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, this type of situation ends up in exclusion, which can manifest itself either as a cutting off from interdependence (the other becomes the enemy), or as the disintegration of the difference (the other becomes assimilated).

This is the sort of thing, I think, we’re seeing around ‘Australia Day’ (as well as ANZAC Day and in general conversations that include discussions of ‘national identity’), in regards both to attitudes towards Indigenous Australians and towards ‘new’ Australians. The only options, it seems, are either full assimilation or (therefore necessary) separation. One can either (quite literally) lose themselves in the prevailing culture, or they can, as is so eloquently put in numerous social media memes, f@#k off!

Such a limited and aggressive understanding of identity is distressing in so many ways.

But is there really no other option? Are we Australians so small-minded that ‘sameness’ is really the best that we can come up with?

I don’t think so. Though the angry voices for ‘unity’-based-on-exclusion are usually the loudest, I am convinced both that there is a better way and that Australians, in general, are clever enough and big-hearted enough to embrace it.

In Volf’s words:

We are who we are not because we are separate from others who are next to us, but because we are both separate and connected, both distinct and related; the boundaries that mark our identities are both barriers and bridges.*

Surely we can be sophisticated enough to recognise difference within our larger category of what it means to be ‘Australian’. We can be different but still united; we can be united but still different.

(In another post, I may seek to explore the theology of this in more detail. I’ll say here simply that this is part of the very core of Christian theology.)

This, it seems to me, would allow us to recognise that Indigenous Australians can ‘be Australian’ in a different way than I, as an Australian of British heritage, am, and that different Indigenous Australians will do so in a variety of ways (i.e. there is not just one way of being an ‘Indigenous Australian’). In the same way, more recent arrivals to our shores should be able to embrace what it means to be ‘Australian’ without needing to lose what it is that makes them who they are.

Personally, I can’t see how ‘being Australian’ can mean anything else.

* Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, p. 66.


Like so many, I’ve been deeply saddened today by the news of Nelson Mandela’s passing. To be honest, I don’t quite understand this sense of mourning for someone I never personally met, but I think millions of people around the world are sensing the loss of someone who embodied something ‘good’. I can’t explain this sense of grief I feel, but I do feel it.

(I’m sure I can’t possibly understand the impact on South Africans today, and I won’t pretend for a moment that I can.)

Of course, when someone as high-profile as Mr Mandela dies there is always a mix of epitaphs; some seemingly pushing for immediate sainthood, others suggesting that the person (or their legacy) was not-so-perfect after all.

It is true that Mr Mandela was not perfect. He was human. There were personal and public failings that are there for the record, and it makes no sense either to forget them altogether or to focus solely on them.

In regards to his achievements, however, I have been thinking all day about a conversation I had with a man named Lethula when I was fortunate enough to travel to South Africa earlier this year. We happened to be travelling at a time when Mr Mandela was reported to be very close to death, and it seemed quite likely, at the time, that he would pass while we were in South Africa. For Lethula, Mr Mandela seemed to symbolise hope in an otherwise impossible situation. He spoke of living under apartheid (as a black man), and he spoke of what it was like now.

In Lethula’s words, “Tata means everything to us. He showed us what was possible.”

This, it seems to me, is (at least one of) the most significant achievement(s) of his life. He embodied the hope that things could change for the better—that beauty and wholeness could come out of ugly brokenness. A generation on from the victory over apartheid, the question still remains as to how deep the reconciliation runs (not to mention how well Mr Mandela’s legacy has been carried on by those who have come after him), but the one thing that I don’t think can be denied by anyone is that Mr Mandela symbolised the possibility for a better future.

In light of Madiba’s passing, and as we reflect on his story and achievements (and, yes, perhaps even some of his flaws), I think it’s worth asking the question as to where we go from here. Nelson Mandela was an amazing human being, no matter which way you look at it. But what does it mean for us?

I would suggest two things.

Firstly, I think we need to be careful to remember that the types of things that he stood for and the types of injustices he stood against are very much still relevant today. This fight against social injustice is not over. The victories of people like Nelson Mandela don’t relegate such struggles to the past. Systemic injustice is alive and well, and in many cases it’s living right under our noses. We don’t value the memory of Madiba by burying the struggle against injustice with him. In the same way, we don’t honour his legacy by forgetting that he was despised and feared by many of the types of people who are praising him today. He stood up to powerful forces of hate and injustice, and they hated him for it. They stole 27 years of his life in prison. It is worth remembering, then, that to stand with Nelson Mandela is to stand against the self-interest of the powerful, and to challenge injustice in all its forms. We must not let his memory be co-opted by the powerful and his example be emptied of its extraordinary activist force.

Secondly, as difficult as this sounds, we must be careful in raising the memory of Madiba to super-human heights. To forget that he was a normal person—an actual human being— is to cut off the possibility of following in his footsteps. There is a terribly disempowering tendency to focus on the achievements of extraordinary individuals, often moving their memory, as an individual, well beyond the constraints of reality. Once this happens, it becomes impossible to think that change can happen without one of these historical giants coming along and making it happen. And this is why we need to remember that Nelson Mandela, as courageous and wonderful as he was, did not change everything by himself. Martin Luther King Jr did not fight the battle for civil rights in the U.S. by himself, and Gandhi did not do what he did all by himself either. These people may become the symbols of the change that happens, but they do not make it happen on their own. Thousands and thousands of ‘regular’ people just like us struggle and fight and die to see that change come about. Though their names may be forgotten, their significance is no less important. I am convinced that it’s right and proper to honour Nelson Mandela at his passing, but I am also convinced that we need to remember that what he symbolises is something much greater than himself alone.

So, farewell Madiba. Thank you for all that you did, and all that you left behind. I pray that we would take up your challenge.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and the Parable of the Scorpion and the Turtle

I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent election in Australia – about the campaign that Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott ran and the signs that are emerging even now about the kind of Government he will lead.

Many ideas have been floating around my head as I ponder these things, but I keep coming back to one, over and over again: the parable of the scorpion and the turtle.

Let the reader make of it what s/he will.

A turtle was happily swimming along a river when a scorpion hailed it from the shore.

A scorpion, being a very poor swimmer, asked a turtle to carry him on his back across a river. “Are you mad?” exclaimed the turtle. “You’ll sting me while I’m swimming and I’ll drown.”

“My dear turtle,” laughed the scorpion, “if I were to sting you, you would drown and I would go down with you, and drown as well. Now where is the logic in that?”

The turtle thought this over, and saw the logic of the scorpion’s statement. “You’re right!” cried the turtle. “Hop on!” The scorpion climbed aboard and halfway across the river the scorpion gave the turtle a mighty sting. As they both sank to the bottom, the turtle resignedly said:

“Do you mind if I ask you something? You said there’d be no logic in your stinging me. Why did you do it?”

“It has nothing to do with logic,” the drowning scorpion sadly replied. “It’s just my character.”

Asylum Seekers, Foreign Aid, and Climate Change: A Failure of Strategy and the (not so simple) Way Forward

Australia has elected to change its government. Tony Abbott, once popularly derided as being ‘unelectable’, has become our new Prime Minister, and the fractious Labor Party has been left to lick its wounds while it faces, it would seem, a lengthy (and many would say deserved) stint on the Opposition benches.

At one level, there’s really not much to say about this. Australia has a system in place where its citizens have great freedom to vote as they choose, and the system itself is pretty good (despite some need, it seems, for a few minor adjustments in regards to how members of the Senate are elected). Australians don’t change government often, but when we do we leave no doubt about our intentions. This election, like those in the past where the government has been changed, was a decisive outcome.

Though I, personally, voted otherwise, I’m happy to concede that this is what the clear majority of Australians did vote for. Trying to pretend otherwise is ridiculous. In addition to this, we can reasonably expect at least 6 years under a Liberal-National Coalition government (given Australia’s general reluctance to throw out a first-term government), so it’s something that simply needs to be accepted.

Of course, this is not good news to the ears of those of us who care about asylum seekers, foreign aid, or the environment, for in each of these policy areas an Abbott-led Liberal-National government represents an ominous threat.

In regards to the environment, it is well-known that Tony Abbott himself is no true believer in the science of climate change (famously calling it ‘absolute crap’ at one stage). Though he seems to have softened his rhetoric over time, a significant part of his campaign for the election centred around ‘scrapping the carbon tax’ (and ETS, towards which the former Labor government was moving). Once this market-based mechanism (which he, at one point, seemed to indicate was the most efficient way to deal with emissions) is dismantled, he plans to implement a ‘direct action’ plan which has largely been panned both as less efficient and unable to actually meet the emission reduction targets. At this stage, Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott has indicated that, even if the targets were not met, no more money would be going into the program.

In regards to foreign aid, the Coalition (rather cynically) released details of significant cuts to the ODA budget less than 2 days from the election, and after the ‘media blackout’ was in place (the time when paid political advertisements cease in the lead-up to election day). Though Mr Abbott himself had previously pledged his full support for increasing Australia’s aid budget to 0.5% GNI and for the Millennium Development Goals, and though being critical of the former government at times when it did not meet its pledges on aid (or when it siphoned off aid money to meet the costs of asylum seeker processing in Australia), the Coalition now plans to slash increases to the aid budget (which include actual cuts to programs for this financial year, which have not yet been identified).

In regards to asylum seeker policy, of course, the Coalition has relentlessly campaigned on the slogan of ‘stopping the boats’. With the Labor party engaging in a game of policy leap-frog on this issue—with each new leap towards harsher punishments for vulnerable people—the Coalition has landed at a point of almost unfathomable cruelty. Scott Morrison (who had been the Coalition’s spokesman for Immigration, and who will presumably be the new Minister for Immigration) has indicated his intention to remove funding for legal advice for asylum seekers (which will mean that more and more genuine refugees will be rejected due to the difficulty in following a complex legal process correctly without assistance), to remove the right for asylum seekers to appeal decisions, and to ‘fast track’ the removal of people out of Australia’s system (and, likely, in many cases, straight back to persecution, violence, or exploitation).

On each of these issues (and at least a couple more), a Coalition government is going to be bad news. But I’m not going to use this post to try to argue against the Coalition’s policy in these areas (as terrible and destructive as I think it is and will be). They won the election fair and square; they are not going to change these policies now. Though it breaks my heart to admit it, these policy directions are pretty much unstoppable in the short-term.

I’m also not going to use this post to berate the Australian public for their decision. As much as I do think that it was a bad decision (due to the policy areas I outlined above, plus a few others I won’t go into here), it is a decision that has been made—and one that’s been made decisively—and there’s no going back now (and no point whingeing about it). It’s a decision that does make quite a bit of sense, it has to be said, given the bizarre behaviour of the Labor Party and their shambolic leadership instability. The former government lost the trust and respect of the public, and they paid the price for their puerile behaviour.

What this post is about, then, is where we went wrong. What follows are a few of my reflections about how those of us who care about the issues outlined above lost the fight, and lost it convincingly.

I’ve been discussing this point for a while now with some of my friends, reflecting on what I see as an almost complete failure on behalf of those of us who have been working towards more humane policy on asylum seekers, a more generous approach to Australia doing its ‘fair share’ in regards to foreign aid, and stronger action in combatting climate change. We have lost on each of these fronts. But, more than this, I think we have actually allowed things to get worse.

It’s not just that we are seeing regressive policy in each of these areas; it’s that we have allowed these issues to become grouped with other ‘bleeding hearts’ causes. Progressive attitudes on these issues, as far as I can see, have now been grouped in the minds of the majority of the Australian public as either irrelevant, as the idealism of young or naive people who don’t know how things ‘really’ work, or as some sort of communist conspiracy to erode our ‘freedoms’.

We have failed. We have failed almost completely.

And I think it’s because we just haven’t been able to wrap our heads around the political situation.

Many of us laughed at the idea of Tony Abbott becoming leader of the Opposition in 2009. But he did. Many of us laughed at the idea of Tony Abbott turning the tables on Prime Minster Kevin Rudd (who had thus far convincingly seen off former Prime Minister John Howard, and former Opposition leaders Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull). But he did. Many of us scoffed at the idea of Tony Abbott leading the Coalition to victory after just one term in Opposition. But he very nearly did. And many of us laughed (admittedly nervously) at the idea of Tony Abbott ever being Prime Minister. But he is.

Though it has been common place on the progressive side of Australian politics to mock Mr Abbott’s intellectual abilities (Paul Keating famously called him an ‘intellectual nobody’), he seems to have devised and implemented a cunning strategy that has ‘worked’ in a way that few could have imagined.

It’s a strategy that caught former PM Kevin Rudd off guard. Tony Abbott didn’t play the game like he was meant to, and it cost Mr Rudd his job. It’s a strategy that overwhelmingly frustrated Julia Gillard’s time as Prime Minister. The government that she led could not gain any traction with the Australian public, no matter how much policy they passed in a very difficult parliament, or no matter what that policy was. And it’s a strategy that has seen what many of us regard as incredibly important issues safely quarantined away from actual discussion.

It’s been brilliant! It’s been, as far as I’m concerned, opportunistic, devious and deceptive, but there’s absolutely no denying that it has worked, and worked extremely well. I thus doff my hat to Mr Abbott, who has done what so many thought was impossible. Well played, sir. Well played!

What Mr Abbott seems to have realised right from the very start is that this game of politics is all about perception. ‘Facts’ simply don’t matter as much as perceived reality. With this in mind, Mr Abbott went about setting up a framework of perception that has seen him gain the Prime Ministership.

He brilliantly(-but-deceptively) framed the issue of ‘budget crisis’, for example, playing on the seemingly ingrained belief of Australians that the Labor Party are just not ‘economically responsible’. This is almost completely ignorant of the facts, however, considering Australia’s extraordinary economic position under the previous government which set it up as one of the strongest OECD economies. But facts are not nearly as important as perception.*

He framed the asylum seeker issue as one of battling invading hoards, who were, perhaps, seeking to undermine ‘the Australian way’. Playing on the bizarre(-but-seemingly-inherent) xenophobia of white Australia, he and Mr Morrison were able to set up the perception that asylum seekers were flagrantly disregarding the ‘rules’ of seeking refuge; if they were willing to disregard those rules of ‘law and order’, what others would they disregard? In an extraordinary move, they were even able to co-opt the language of ‘compassion’, arguing that it could not be compassion that invited people to their deaths on the open seas (by not having strong enough punishments in place for those who did arrive by boat).

On foreign aid, he managed to exploit the tension between ‘helping them’ and ‘looking after your own backyard first’, as well as situating giving to foreign aid in opposition to the budget getting back to surplus (even while spruiking a vastly more expensive maternity leave scheme that well and truly favours the richer end of town). Thus, we might be able to do something in the future ‘when conditions allow’, but there are, seemingly, much more important issues to tend to.

On the environment and climate change, he managed to shift the conversation to one about ‘trust’ of political leaders and to a constant focus on ‘cost of living pressures’. The perception created was that all and every cost of living increases were to be blamed on the price on carbon, and that this was ‘unfair’. Discussion about future generations and the extraordinary ‘cost of living pressures’ that will inevitably come due to current inaction on climate change were completely ignored.

He also managed, in all of these areas, to isolate Australia from its international context. Discussions about the economy and public debt were divorced from the GFC and the international situation, setting up the Labor government as ‘reckless spenders’. The discussion on Foreign Aid (or what little discussion there was) was divorced from wider international ramifications. Discussions about asylum seekers were limited to what it meant for Australia, completely ignoring international ‘push’ factors and the fact that these issues are faced far more directly by many, many other nations around the world. And discussions about action on climate change were reduced to what it meant for my back pocket.

It has been incredible to watch! It has been extraordinarily effective!

And, all the while, those of us who care about asylum seekers or foreign aid or action on climate change have been trying to use facts.

We sought meetings with MPs to discuss these issues, and to present them with the information they would need to help make good decisions. We created and shared countless infographics and memes with accurate information about the reality of the situation. We started ‘mythbusting’ sites and other information sites to try to educate both politicians and the general public on these matters. We spent countless hours entering into debates and seeking to bring change through the distribution of ‘accurate information’.

Nearly all of this was done on the assumption that most people, when presented with this accurate information (on any given topic), will have the ability and desire to change previously uninformed positions, make better decisions, and their actions would follow accordingly.

We were wrong.

We didn’t appreciate how much stronger perceptions of reality are than reality itself, and how vitally important emotion is in all of these discussions. We also misjudged how deeply ingrained self-interest is in our society. On any one of these topics, if it can be reduced to an argument where self-interest is pitted against doing something ‘because it’s right’, self-interest will win  pretty much every time. Self-interest, it seems, has become an enormously powerful force in Australian political discussion. To underestimate its power is to lose the argument from the outset.

Tony Abbott (and the Coalition) did not misjudge any of this. In fact, they understood it all perfectly.

So where does this leave us?

Well, I think it leaves us with a decision to make. Are we going to admit that we got our strategy wrong, or are we going to do something about it?

To try to play the game the same way will be to continue to lose ground on these issues. We will continue to face crushing disappointment when we realise that, once again, the things we are so concerned about are effectively ignored. We will continue to wonder how we have ended up so far from the centre of the discussions, playing our hearts out but getting no closer to a match on centre court. Though I do believe that what we have been saying is ‘right’, I must admit that, as a strategy, it has been totally ineffective.

So we need a new strategy, but this is where it gets a bit tricky for two good reasons.

1) Having done the same thing for quite some time now, it’s hard to change tactics without feeling the crushing weight of overwhelming defeat. To admit that we need to change our approach is to embrace the loss that such an admission entails. It’s like someone deciding to realise losses in the stock market, once they see that the ‘wait and see’ approach has not been working and that things are not going to get better. Taking it one step further, it’s like the gambling addict who, after feeding all their money into the slot machine, has to face up to the facts that the ‘big win’ is not going to come and they must go home empty-handed.

It’s depressing. It’s easy to fall into despair at the thought. But, if we are going to move forward on these issues, we need to embrace the mistakes and make sure we don’t repeat them. It’s time, somewhat ironically, to face the facts. Admit it, suck it up, and move on.

2) The other reason as to why this is difficult is that the method is just as important as the message. I am convinced that Tony Abbott and the Coalition, as clever as they’ve been, have relied upon some devious tactics, and even outright deception. As much as I feel the desire to ‘give them a dose of their own medicine’, there are some things that I just can’t do. To use exactly the same tactics as someone like Scott Morrison, even if they are used against him, is, as far as I’m concerned’ to share in his evil. I simply can’t go there. To defeat evil by using evil is impossible.

What this means, then, is that we need to be creative. We need to understand the situation—to understand that perception and emotion are far more important, at least in the initial stages of the discussions, than ‘facts’—and to build strategies that speak to that situation all the time without resorting to deception and untruth. We need to be conscious of the ‘story’ we are telling (with our words and actions), paying excruciating attention to the detail so that we don’t fall into the trap of using trigger words or actions that simply confirm underlying frames of thinking.

It’s going to be tricky! It’s going to take a lot of effort, and it means embracing the complex reality of seeking to change social structures. We need to get it in our heads that reality is far more complex than we might like to admit, and that it may not be a straight line to our goals.

I watched the movie Lincoln recently, and there is a quote that really stuck out to me. I have no idea as to how accurate it is, but the scene with Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones), where they are discussing the ‘compass’, is one that has not left me.

In discussing the way towards the end of slavery in the context of the Civil War, Lincoln gives the following example:

A compass, I learned when I was surveying, it’ll… it’ll point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… What’s the use of knowing True North?

I believe that what we have been saying in regards to asylum seekers, and in regards to foreign aid, and in regards to action on climate change is ‘true north’, but we seem to have fallen into a swamp that we didn’t see coming. We are right; what we are saying is ‘true’. But we’re now completely bogged in a swamp, and I’ve come to realise that most people don’t really pay too much attention to what swamp people have to say.

The road ahead is not going to be straight. We will need to take notice of the (many) obstacles in our way. It will be a zigzag rather than a straight line, and a marathon rather than a sprint. But, if we are clever, we can begin to present our message in a way that is actually heard (through the clanging symbols of public discourse in Australia at this time), all the while not losing our integrity in the process.

It’s going to be hard, but since when did we think it was going to be easy?


* Having won the election, the Coalition seems to have cooled much of this talk. Even their policy costing didn’t seem to treat the issue as quite the ‘budget emergency’ they had been insisting on. In speaking to a friend about these issues, and raising this exact point, I was met with the answer that, of course, things aren’t quite so bad now that the Coalition is in. Despite there being no substantial change in the underlying situation, the perception that the economy is in a ‘safe pair of hands’ has been enough, apparently, to remedy the situation.

The Irony of Self-Interest

The thing I really hate about election campaigns is the way that they shine a light on what we value—not the things we say we value in polite company, mind you, but the things we actually value. Unfortunately, it’s not a pretty picture.

It’s fairly easy, I would suggest, to identify what we truly value in these campaigns, because politicians want to find those things that (we think) are important to us and, once they find them, to milk them for all they’re worth. All we need to do, then, is to look at what our politicians are focusing on most heavily, and we’ll see where our value lies. As a side note, it’s fairly depressing to watch politicians scrambling to find these issues, seeking only what is already popular rather than outlining a vision for a better future and seeking to take the rest of us on the journey to that place (or, as I like to call it, ‘leading’).

In this current campaign surrounding the 2013 Australian federal election, the thing that most stands out, as I see it, is self-interest.

So much of this campaign (and similar campaigns in recent years) is focused more and more on who will leave more money in my pocket (or how the other guy will rip that money out of my pocket), or who will make my life that little bit ‘easier’ (especially in the short-term). Basically, the majority of everything that is announced is about who will best pander to my own narrow self-interest.

Nearly everything fits into this scheme.

Concern about the environment is reduced to the immediate effect on my cash flow. Concern for asylum seekers is reduced to misplaced fear about how this faceless, sinister horde is going to effect me personally (through taking my job, or making my commute time longer, or threatening the safety of me and my family in various unfounded ways).

It’s all about me, me, me!

What we have lost, in all of this, is the fact that total self-focus is actually detrimental to us as human beings. This sort of thinking revolves around the idea that, since no one else will look out for my interests, I need to look out for myself. Everyone else is out to get me, so I need to protect myself and my family from ‘everyone else’.

Ultimately, however, our growth as human beings remains stunted by such thinking. We become emotionally and socially underdeveloped. Ironically, having our self-interest indulged leaves us less than fully formed.

Through all of this, we lose the ability to see beyond ourselves. We forget that we, as humans, find fulfilment through each other, rather than in isolation. When we allow this unchecked individualism to invade our thinking, it actually limits us from our full potential.

In short, we make independence our final goal, and we forget that there is a further step in human potential. Though we are born dependent, and though we do move to a stage of (relative) independence, this is not our home. Our final destination—the point at which we reach full maturity—is moving through dependence and on towards interdependence.

Interdependence is when we choose* to look out for the best interest of others, and when they reciprocate. It’s when we seek mutuality over individual rights.**

It entails risk, but it also entails growth as a human being. It thrives on the humility of other-centred thinking, rather than the arrogance of self-focus. And it allows space for true human flourishing.

As a Christian, this sort of thinking should be absolutely central for me. I can’t understand, then, why so many churches allow the same sort of self-centred thinking to pollute and contort the ‘Good News’. But I’ve spoken of that in more detail here, and will leave that point where it is.

The fact remains, though, that this is not just a Christian thing. True human potential is unlocked only in relationship with others, and thus when we allow ourselves to be boxed into the unnatural*** position of narrow self-focus we fall short of that potential.

In election campaigns, our politicians—through their own narrow self-interest—are going to try to focus on the things that, apparently, truly matter to us. If our only interest is ourselves, then they will oblige. They will frame their message in ways that pander to such interests (like they are doing so well now).

But, if we let them know that we actually care about something bigger than ourselves, they will listen. The choice is ours.

* I need to emphasise here the free nature of this choice.
** Those who know me may find this statement quite interesting, as I am a supporter of human rights. My point here, though, is that individual rights are not the end goal. I will always support the goal of seeing each person attain their fundamental human rights (especially where those rights are impinged by another!), however I see this as a starting point, rather than the end goal.
*** Some may argue that self-interest is actually very ‘natural’ for humans. I am convinced, however, that self-interest is the central feature of what is often referred to as ‘sin’, and is not the ideal natural state for humans to occupy.