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.

Asylum Seekers and the Redefinition of ‘Compassion’

I’m going to talk about the practicalities of debating/challenging/protesting against official asylum seeker policy in a future post, however I wanted to use this post to challenge the redefinition of the notion of ‘compassion’ that’s going on before our eyes in regards to these issues.

It seems to me that the concept of ‘compassion’ for those who are seeking asylum has been hijacked by people who understand its potency and who wish to harness the emotion that is attached to it, all the while re-inscribing the word with new meaning leaving it, ultimately, void of any real meaning.

For years now, those of us who have found this bizarre obsession with ‘boat people’ distressing—and who object to the dehumanising policy that has grown out of this irrational, fearful fixation—have suggested that we need to inject a little bit more compassion into the mix. The point is reasonably straight forward: vulnerable people, fleeing often horrendous situations, need to be embraced with gentle, caring, open arms rather than clobbered with an iron fist (you know, that whole ‘treat other people like you’d like to be treated’ thing?). Whether or not this is a useful strategy for speaking into this issue (or whether it, rather, speaks to a frame of thinking that automatically associates such notions with naive ‘bleeding heart’ syndrome) is for a future post. The point here is that is has been a fairly common call.

This has been challenged, however, by those who would suggest that ‘allowing’ people to get on the boats in the first place is to encourage dangerous behaviour, and is therefore implicit support for asylum seekers dying at sea when boats sink. “How is this compassionate?”, it is asked. And many people are left without an answer. Surely it’s not compassion that encourages people to risk their lives on a dangerous voyage! Surely it would be ‘compassionate’, rather, to make sure that these dangerous journeys across the oceans on leaky boats are not embarked upon in the first place!

Of course, from this point, we have a direct line to support for idiotic mantras like ‘Stop the boats’.

I must admit, it’s been brilliant insofar as i’s been a very effective strategy for disarming the force of the argument. It’s worked well!; this I cannot deny.

However, it’s total nonsense.

It works out of the premise that the desire to treat asylum seekers with dignity and respect and at least some level of care—to treat them as human, in other words—is tacit approval for the method in which they arrive. Support for ‘boat people’ is deemed support for ‘boats’.

It’s a pretty stupid argument, when you think about it.

No one I know actually supports people having to get on leaky boats to make a perilous journey across the ocean. No one! The thought of being so desperate that the decision to do so looks like a good option is quite frankly horrifying to think about. I, and the people I know who are most vocal about support for vulnerable people who are seeking asylum, would not ever suggest that this is a great idea. It’s dangerous. It’s a recipe for disaster. It’s deeply saddening that people would feel like they are left with no other choice.

What we’ve consistently suggested (apparently not very effectively…) is that it is precisely because people feel that they have no other choice that they take this option in the first place. The ‘queue’ that so many people insist these people are jumping just doesn’t exist. There is no appropriate framework in place in these areas to be able to manage the situation, and so the option of ‘going through the correct channels’ is quite simply not on offer much of the time.

What many of us are calling for, then, is not a free-for-all on boats, but rather for funding to be directed to establish an appropriate framework throughout the region which is able to better deal with the situation. Let’s at least help in setting up adequate regional processing centres before we complain about people bypassing ones that don’t currently exist.

It would be a heck of a lot less expensive than the billions that we currently spend on ‘deterrence’ measures, and it has the added benefit of allowing us to meet our international obligations as well as not being evil. Everyone wins!

But where this co-opting of the language of compassion in support of deterrence policies is really exposed in all its ugliness is when you look at what is offered as the ‘solutions’.

‘Compassion’, it is argued, is making sure people don’t get on the boats to start with. And that’s where it apparently also finishes. Truly caring about these men, women, and children is not, it seems, about doing anything in regards to making sure they have other options; it’s simply about making sure they don’t get on a boat that’s headed anywhere near us.

This sort of approach does nothing by way of really grappling with the causes of the situation, but is rather aimed solely at treating the presenting symptoms. The ‘problem’ doesn’t exist, apparently, if we don’t see it. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say.

Let’s call this what it is: blatant hypocrisy.

This co-opting of the language of compassion is merely a disgusting cover for making sure that we don’t have to deal with it, even though we know others still will. We don’t want to have to abide by our international obligations, but we’re happy for others to have to (who don’t have a colossal moat surrounding their countries).

Asylum seekers will still take desperate measures, because they’re in desperate situations. They’ll still die in the process. But, apparently, this is fine as long as we don’t have to see it.

The whole argument is breathtakingly abhorrent! It’s truly despicable!

But it’s even more despicable that it’s wrapped in the co-opted language of ‘compassion’.

Don’t be fooled: the current ‘solutions’ to the asylum seeker ‘problem’ have absolutely nothing to do with compassion.

How to Vote at the Federal Election(???)

We Aussies are now in the midst of a federal election campaign. The date has been set, the arrangements are being made, and pretty much all hell is breaking loose as our politicians seek to overwhelm us  with trite slogans, empty promises, and the nauseating machinations of party politics.

vote

I’ve been wanting to write about what’s been going on in Australian politics for a while now but, to be perfectly honest, it’s all been doing my head in a little bit.

The extraordinary last three-and-a-bit years of Australian politics has been (extraordinarily!) capped off by the events of Ruddivivus (that is, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd becoming, well, plain old ‘Prime Minister Rudd’ once again), and what was looking like a landslide victory for the Coalition has become a proper contest once more. Somehow, the incumbent Prime Minister has been able to position himself as the underdog challenger(!), while the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, has had to reframe his own position (due to the fact that Kevin Rudd basically took many of Mr Abbott’s key policy positions swiftly out from underneath him) as the guy who can do what the Prime Minister says he is going to do, only better (all without giving those pesky details about how he is going to pay for it).

It’s all a bit bizarre!

It’s also very disheartening.

This has not been good news in a number of policy areas, perhaps most significantly in the area of asylum seeker policy. The last dozen-or-so years has been really nasty when it comes to asylum seeker policy, and both major parties are now seemingly vying for the most soul-destroying ‘solutions’ their twisted minds can conceive. It’s truly horrible.

I know many people who are totally disillusioned by it all, and who are having a very hard time trying to work out if they will vote, let alone how to vote.

While I am not going to try to tell people who to vote for here (and don’t recommend listening to anyone who does tell you who to vote for), I do want to offer a couple of thoughts that might be helpful to keep in mind as we move forward in this election campaign and edge towards voting day.

1) As a Christian, I must remember that none—not one!—of the parties or candidates on offer represents the fulness of my belief system and the hope to which I hold.

It’s so easy for us Christians to divide ourselves along the familiar lines of ‘right’ and ‘left’, ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive/liberal, and forget that the Christian message of hope stands quite distinct from any particular party platform. As someone who more naturally identifies with the [libertarian-]left of politics, it’s quite easy for me, in the face of what looks like a win for the ‘right’ of politics either way(…), to become wrapped up in the ridiculous notion all the problems in the world would fade away if only a true left–of-centre party was elected. For my friends who more naturally identify with ‘economic-rationalist’ approaches to fiscal policy (and the parties that embody such ideas), it’s easy for them to be convinced that, if only we had a Government that could essentially get out of the way and ‘free’ companies from all that pesky regulation (and responsibility), ‘the economy’ would be transformed and wealth (and therefore happiness) would trickle down to all and create a rising tide of prosperity and rainbows and unicorns and…

Ok, that’s a cheap shot, but you get the idea!

And, of course, it’s all nonsense.

No party is going to magically fix everything that’s wrong with our beautiful-yet-corrupted nation (let alone the world). No merely political movement is going to heal human hearts and end the greed and fear and hate that divides us. No politician is able to ‘save us’ from…ourselves.

As such, when (or, indeed, if) I vote, I need to remember that I am taking part in something that allows me to have my voice heard in the way I think the country could best be run, which is great and all, but it’s not everything. Most of all, no matter what happens on election day, I need to remember that I, as a Christian, am called to embody the hope to which I hold, demonstrating an alternative way of being human through transformative love and grace. To read more on this idea, see my friend Matt’s excellent post here.

And this leads me to my second point (which needs to keep this first point in mind as a kind of context for what I will say next).

2) Taking part in the political process is, nevertheless, an important responsibility.

The first part of this point, as I see it, is that we Australians are privileged to live in a nation where we get to vote, and indeed where our elected representatives are required to meet with their constituents. I have been very fortunate to be able to meet with the federal member for the electorate I live in numerous times over the past five years and, though he and I certainly don’t see eye to eye on certain (well, perhaps ‘most’) issues, he nevertheless takes the time to meet with me and groups that I’m a part of and does actually listen (to some degree) to what we have to say. Compared with so many places around the world, we in Australia are privileged to live in a country where we have such direct access to the political system. As much as the system can still be very frustrating sometimes (and, as I noted in the first point, certainly isn’t the answer to all life’s problems), it is still a relatively good one. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s not bad by world standards.

As such, I’m of the opinion that we, as Australians, should not take it all for granted. We should at least have some idea of how it all works, as well as some idea of which party stands for what. So many people I speak to simply don’t understand how our political system works, and vote for a given party for reasons that have little to do with the party’s actual policy platform. We should know where parties stand on the big issues that effect us as a nation (and, of course, the rest of the world…), and we should take the time to work out which parties best reflect (in the limited way they can) the things that we each consider to be important. We should seek to understand the parties as a whole (not just the individuals who represent them), and we should also look into how each party distributes preferences in elections.

‘Vote Compass’ is a tool recently developed to help people figure out where they most naturally ‘fit’ in the Australian political landscape, and can be found on the ABC website. It’s not a perfect tool, to be sure, and it’s not designed to tell you who you should vote for, but it does use your own answers to important questions to help you figure out just how closely you stand to each of the major parties. I would recommend at least giving it a go.

The second part of this point, as I see it, is the question of whether or not to vote in the first place. There has been a lot of discussion lately from people I interact with on social media suggesting that they are considering not voting at all, or are going to sabotage their own vote by either casting a ‘donkey’ vote on election day or, more likely, leaving the ballot paper completely empty. Of course, in Australia, those who do refuse to vote face the prospect of a fine, because voting is compulsory for all Australians over 18 (and I know my North American friends find this amazing!).

In the light of recent policy decisions, I have actually considered refraining from voting at all, and accepting the fine that necessarily follows, as an act of civil disobedience. The trends in asylum seeker policy, for example, have so disgusted me that I have felt, at times, that I am not able to take part in the system that is used to legitimate the ‘mandate’ those elected feel to pursue such dehumanising policy.

I am a fan of nonviolent action, and I am a fan of (well thought-out) civil disobedience, to make a clear point. Though a couple of people not voting is not likely to have much of an impact, I don’t underestimate the point that could be made if enough people were to refuse to enter polling places and instead came together in peaceful demonstrations against such policy, or even, perhaps, holding open events of welcome for all who make up this wonderfully diverse bunch we call ‘Australians’.

From my comments here, I can see at least a couple of responses.

Someone might suggest to me that I have here completely contradicted myself in the space of one blog post. Earlier in the post I described how we shouldn’t take for granted the ability to be part of the political process in our country, and thus suggesting the possibility that I might refrain from voting altogether would be ridiculous. To this, I would suggest that, though I am reasonable ‘happy’ with the political system I find myself in (at least comparatively), I am under no illusions that it is perfect. There are times when the system itself needs to be challenged, because there are times when taking part in the system as it is amounts to complicity in what I consider to be ‘evil’. With both major parties (that is, the only parties who will actually form Government after the election) pursuing horrific, dehumanising policies in regards to asylum seekers, I have entertained the possibility that it would be better, on this occasion, to break the law, in order to highlight what I consider to be unjust, inhumane policy. If I were to take this course of action, I would be happy to accept responsibility for my action and face the consequences. For me, it may actually be worthwhile, on this occasion, to stand outside the system in order to highlight the brokenness of the system as it is. It would, however, need to be done in the right way, and this brings me to the second point.

Someone (else?) might suggest that my apparent idealism here is totally outweighed by my pragmatism. Will I only take part in the dissident action of deliberately refraining from voting if enough people do it with me, rather than just doing it because it’s the right thing to do? In some senses, the answer is, quite simply, yes. I despise ‘stupid’ protest, which is why I think the idea of casting a ‘donkey’ vote is ridiculous. Going through all the effort of looking like you are voting, only to waste that vote on technical details, is, I think, pretty dumb. It doesn’t actually do much. Likewise, leaving the ballot paper empty is, to my mind, a way of seeking to make a protest without having to face up to the consequences. I am of the opinion that I always need to be able to take responsibility for my actions, so the thought of this kind of anonymous protest, for me, seems like a bit of a cop-out.

In addition to this, if only a handful of people were to refuse altogether to enter polling places and, rather, stood outside with placards (or whatever) protesting asylum seeker policy, I can’t see how the message would cut through. Instead, I think the more likely outcome would simply be that those who care about asylum seekers would be the only ones to refrain from voting (leaving their important voice relatively unheard), and the major parties would still consider their victory to be a ‘mandate’ for such cruel policy. For me, it would be far better, in this instance, to use my vote to place a minor party first on the ballot paper, and then allocate my preferences according to the major party that is least worst over a range of policy issues. At least this option could see the minor parties’ vote increase (which the major parties take more seriously than they let on), at the same time as recognising the fact that parties represent more than just this one issue (no matter how important I consider it to be). At this point in time, this is my default option, unless someone can show me how we would be able to rally enough people together who had chosen to refrain from voting as a form of protest.* I’m guessing we’d need to have somewhere over 100,000 people take part in such action for it to be taken seriously. If you have any ideas, please let me know : )

Anyway, these are just a couple of my thoughts as we head into the election. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on the matter.

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* I need to make it clear here that I am not (at least at this stage) encouraging anyone to either completely refrain from voting in the federal election, or to lodge an ‘informal’ vote (of whatever kind). It has been said that to do so is an offence, though I cannot (at this point) find information relating to such action in the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

Gun Reform or the Horrifying Norm?

The recent mass shooting of young school children (and some of their teachers) in Newtown, Connecticut, has shocked the world. It is truly horrific. It’s hard to even think about without feeling physically ill or having tears begin to well up.

Somewhat predictably, it has also resulted in the same media frenzy – verging on the obsessive – that usually follows such events, as well as the tired emotive rhetoric that stymies actual discussion and which usually results in the maintaining of the status quo (once the news cycle has moved on to the next tragedy, or some Royal somewhere does pretty much anything).

Much has already been written on these events, and there will be much more to come. Knowing this, I would just like to offer a couple of thoughts that, I hope, might be helpful.

1) Firstly, the noble-sounding calls for making sure that this moment is not ‘politicised’ are code for making sure that the policy status quo remains and ensures that this will happen again.

Now, I’m sure that there are some very well-meaning people who are making these calls (just as there are many who know exactly what they are doing). I’m sure that there is a sense for many (especially with the media obsession with these events) that there just needs to be space for the families to grieve in peace. I understand this. I’m also not a fan of cheap political point-scoring.

But one thing I know for sure is that, if the moment is not seized, if policy change is not set in motion while the horror of it all is still being acutely felt, then policy change will not come and this sort of thing will happen again (and again and again). I think recent history has shown, beyond all doubt, that this would certainly be the case.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating for knee-jerk reactions that are based purely on emotion. That rarely (if ever) results in good policy outcomes. What I am arguing for, however, is for all the policy discussion and debate that has happened in the wake of each of these catastrophic events (and there has been a lot!) to be brought to bear on concrete policy being put forward while tide of human good will can carry it. We know what needs to happen. We know the sort of policy that needs to be put forward. Much thought has already gone into this, but ordinary circumstances do not provide the impetus to disrupt business as usual. If this opportunity is lost now, then (and I really do hate to say it) policy reform in this are might be left on hold until the next ‘unthinkable’ tragedy. The time for action is now – right now – because the power of the status quo is, in normal circumstances, simply unchallengeable.

And this brings me to the second point.

2) Actual change on the issue of gun violence in the U.S. will be extraordinarily difficult to achieve.

The history of the U.S. is written in blood.

Birthed in the Revolutionary War, the nation came of age in the Civil War and reached full maturity with the events at the end of WWII. The history of the U.S. is a history of violence and, I would make the claim, violence is part of the nation’s very DNA. This can be seen, I would suggest, in everything from the decimation of the Native American populations, to black lynchings (usually at the hands of crowds of very ‘respectable’ white folk), to gang warfare and drive-by shootings, to modern U.S. foreign policy and the drone murders of thousands of innocents.

(As a kind of excursus here, is it not obscene that the deaths of dozens – or hundreds, or even thousands – of innocent children in drone bombings doesn’t attract the same media attention as the murder of innocent American kids? I am not for one minute trying to play down the absolute horror of this recent tragedy in Connecticut, but rather trying to get my head around the obscenity of the indiscriminate killing of ‘other’ children whose lives don’t seem to be worth as much…)

In this context, the 2nd Amendment (linked as it is to the very birth of the nation) has, I think, become what some might refer to as ‘structural sin’*. This concept is so deeply engrained in the corporate psyche of the nation that it is almost inextricably linked with national identity. And this structural sin has given birth to, dare I say it, a kind of ‘demonic’ entity that seeks to preserve the structural sin from any watering down or, indeed, from being ‘exorcised’ from the Constitution. Yes, I am talking about the NRA (and others like it). These entities hold an inordinate amount of power, and the whole has become something much more than the sum of its parts. They seem to feed on tragedy and grow more aggressive each time their power is tested.

Now, please let me be very, very clear here: my use of such language does not for one moment mean I am saying that this tragedy is some kind of punishment or judgment from God. I am not saying that. I will never say that. I don’t believe that.

What I am saying is that the natural consequences of ‘structural sin’ are things like oppression or exploitation or destruction or death. The specifics can vary, but the effects are always very similar. The powerful cling to self-serving power and the innocent and the vulnerable are trampled under foot.**

And the only way to break the cycle is an act of corporate ownership of the problem – like a new A.A. member admitting that they have a problem and ‘owning’ it – and an act of corporate repentance (which entails an active turning away from the cycle of sin).

Now, I’m not necessarily saying that the 2nd Amendment needs to be ‘thrown out’ (I’m not sure that this would ever be possible, even though it has all the applicability to the modern U.S. as dietary regulations in the Hebrew Scriptures do for Christians***). What I am saying is that there is a possibility to at least put a fence around this structural sin and to limit its power.

And that possibility is available right now.

Though changing attitudes in the U.S. on these issues is an extraordinary task, though it will mean in part challenging the very identity of the nation, I believe there is an opportunity at this moment. Even through all the similar tragedies of the past there has not been enough utter brokenness to see something change. Even with all the good will of those in the U.S. who have passionately and tirelessly campaigned for these changes there has not been enough recognition or acceptance of the extent of the problem to see that change enacted.

But this time it’s different.

This time, it was kids.

I don’t know why, but something seems to happen to us all when innocent kids are involved in these tragedies (well, perhaps ‘kids of people like us’ might better sum it up, but I don’t want to be too cynical here). Somethings breaks inside. Somehow we are able to understand the horror at a deeper level. Somehow it allows a moment of clarity in an otherwise out-of-focus world. I think this article from The Onion sums it up well (language warning!).

Though the task is very difficult – indeed impossible under normal circumstances – I have hope that something good can come from this horror. This doesn’t change anything for the dozens of grieving families and a community brought to its knees (and all the other families and communities devastated by previous tragedies), but it might just mean that other families and communities are spared a similar fate.

America, the time is now. May God be with you at this time.

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* Sometimes referred to as ‘institutional sin’ or ‘corporate sin’.
** Please let me make it clear here that I don’t for one moment believe that all Americans are ‘evil’. That is not what I am saying at all, even though I’m sure some will accuse me of saying this very thing.
*** I make this comparison because I think it’s particularly well suited. Both situations involve the careful exegesis of ‘sacred’ historical texts in situations far removed from their original context.

Humanising Politics

Bouncing out of my last post on creative nonviolence, I’ve been thinking some more about the importance of treating one’s “enemy” as fully human.

This may sound a little bit silly because, unless we’re into wrestling grizzly bears (which I don’t recommend, by the way), of course we realise that we are usually locked in battles (especially of the political variety) with other human beings.

However, though we may know this at one level, it seems to me that so many situations escalate into violence of some kind simply because of a basic failure to fully appreciate the humanity of the other, and therefore a failure to acknowledge the dignity and respect that should necessarily be foundational to any interaction.

This happens at the personal level, with people inflicting all sorts of physical and emotional abuse on one another, as well as on much grander scales. In all instances, as far as I can tell, the common denominator is the inability (for whatever reason) to see the other as truly human. I may be quite cynical sometimes, but I just don’t believe that a human being can subject another human being to profound physical or emotional pain if they are truly to acknowledge the full humanity of the other. This is why, for example, family or friends of kidnap victims appeal to the kidnapper/s in ways that personalise and humanise the victim, with the hope that the perpetrator will see the full humanity of the victim and relent. This is why some troops go into battle with angry heavy metal or hip-hop music blaring loudly through the speakers in their tanks, in the hope, perhaps, that it will feel more like a video game and less like blowing real people to bits. The latter is very hard to live with, and we see this over and over again with returned soldiers facing incredible struggles to live with what they were asked to do. As a side note, have you ever wondered why the military seem to use so many euphemisms?

And, of course, to take it to extremes, the only way that a holocaust or a Hiroshima or a 911 could happen is if, somehow, the recognition of the full humanity of the victims is ignored or warped out of all shape.

But I want to take this a step further here.

I have noticed of late that political discourse, at least in Australia and, I would strongly suggest, the U.S. (though I must note here that I live in Australia and therefore only see the situation in the U.S. externally), is well on its way down this ugly path. This has become even more pronounced with the seemingly never-ending election campaign-style politicking that currently dominates the Australian political scene and, of course, with the U.S. presidential election.

Now, I’m all for robust political conversation, and I’m not for a moment suggesting that all political debate should be ‘tame’, but I do want to suggest here that I think there is a worrying trend in the way political opponents are referring to each other (both in regards to elected leaders and the followers of those elected leaders), and I don’t think it’s headed anywhere good. What I see is so many policy debates becoming shallow and personal (which is the classic first mistake of debate), and so many personal attacks becoming increasingly dehumanising. The end result of this is a marked increase in surprisingly (public) violent rhetoric, and I don’t think physical violence is far behind in some circumstances.

I don’t actually know what the answer to this situation is.

What I do know, though, is that now more than ever we need voices in the public space demonstrating different approaches and new possibilities.

Enter the delightful Annabel Crabb.

I bet you didn’t see that coming(!), and I bet Annabel never thought of herself as a practitioner of creative nonviolence. But what a breath of fresh air it is having a t.v. show from such a well-respected political journalist which illustrates so beautifully the humanity of our politicians. I’m not sure what Annabel’s intentions were regarding the creation of the ABC’s Kitchen Cabinet, but what the show does, at least for me, is to allow a glimpse of these elected representatives as 3-Dimensional human beings, rather than the 2-D caricatures that we so often see in through media representations and election campaigns. I for one have found it truly enlightening as I’ve had my own preconceptions about certain politicians challenged, and in at least a couple of cases significantly corrected, when confronted with a presentation of the politician that delves much deeper than what we are usually shown (and certainly deeper than just the official policies they espouse).

I can’t explain how important this is.

As a Christian, one of the core elements of my faith is that all humanity reflects the image of God – even my “enemies”! This is such an incredibly vital part of the Christian message but, unfortunately, us Christians have not always been the best at treating all people as beautiful, valued beings with an inherent dignity. So I need to remember, then, when I engage in political debate (and I think Christians, like all other Australian or U.S. citizens should take part in political discussions), that even those who I disagree with most profoundly are to be treated with dignity and respect.

Now, I’m pretty sure that Kitchen Cabinet isn’t the answer to all the problems with political discourse in Australia(!) but, nonetheless, I thank God for Annabel Crabb : )