Opinion

Australian democracy in decline?

Bishop George Browning asks whether we are observing the beginning of the end of Australian democracy.

By George Browning

March 15 2018Bishop George Browning asks whether we are observing the beginning of the end of Australian democracy.

The Australian government is proposing to classify most major charities as "political campaigners", allowing it to audit their advocacy work and sources of income. Political expenditure is defined as the public expression of views on an issue that is, or is likely to be, before an election, regardless of whether a writ has been called for an election. It is well established that parties most able to influence government policy are not charities but paid up self-interest groups like the gambling industry and the mining industry. The influence of wealth in setting public policy is well documented and beyond dispute, and in this context, to penalise charities and public agencies who have no interest in profit, but a great interest in justice, fairness and equity, is an attack on democracy itself. 
 
Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, the outspoken Brazilian bishop who in the 1970s courageously took the side of the poor during Brazil’s oppressive military dictatorship, famously said: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist." Camara’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize was unsurprisingly blocked by Brazilian authorities, but the process of canonisation of him was reopened in 2015.

Australian governments of both poles are very happy for the Church to undertake welfare responsibilities on its behalf (to feed and clothe the poor), indeed to fulfill governmental mandatory obligation, but governments are increasingly reluctant to countenance public conversation about the deeper issues of justice and equity from the churches or indeed from the growing number of social media networks like Getup.
 
It is ironic that the Church shows signs of increased acquiescence, it is allowing a view to prevail that welfare is the Church’s core business, whereas advocacy is not. Nothing could be further from the truth. Any reading of scripture, any examination of the life of Christ, any scroll through a list of those whom the Church has honoured over the centuries will show that "asking why the poor are poor" is absolutely core business. To use an obvious example: William Wilberforce would today be a prime target of the Turnbull government. His movement for the abolition of slavery was not simply about human rights and dignity, although nothing could be more important than that; it was also a root and branch challenge to the prevailing economic theory of the time that slavery was an essential backdrop to the maintenance of "economic growth".

If the Church is not addressing issues of justice and equity, harmony and fairness, it is not fulfilling its Christ-given mandate and is in danger of simply being a pious supporter of whatever happens to be the political whim and colour of the day.
 
The difficulty has become more acute in recent times because the conservative side of politics has branded issues of equity as "socialism" and issues of justice as "left wing" politics. How on earth, or why on earth, has Australian politics followed American politics down this bizarre path: in the process making Christianity un-Christlike; and demonising issues that should sit hand in glove with being "conservative", such as conservation, as a left wing or communist plot?
 
There are many issues that one could reasonably assume to be expressions of Christian discipleship in the 21st century; likewise, issues that should be entirely compatible with "conservative values".
 
Let me name three of the most obvious:

  • The overwhelming weight of scientific opinion is that human industrialisation is causing climate change with devastating consequences for the decades ahead. Not only do we know this, but we also know that mitigating human behaviour is within our reach without loss of wellbeing in the present. That we do not act has everything to do with the power of wealthy self-interest lobby groups who directly and indirectly invest millions in a campaign  to deny truth and pervert the course of politics. In this suicidally stupid impasse there is only one place for Christians to stand, with conservation, with future generations, with diversity, with God. That the government would seek to silence voices that advocate for sustainability is beyond alarming.
  • Asylum seekers. How we ended up with asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus and whose fault it was is now totally irrelevant. That 25 million Australians can go about their daily lives knowing that these men, women and children, who have intended no harm, face perpetual incarceration in our name should be unthinkable. This is such a blot on our identity and the values we purport to hold that we should be on the streets in outrage.
  • Tax reform. From negative gearing to generous capital gains provisions, the Australian taxation system favours those who have wealth compared with those on wages. For the proposed revision of the tax system to be almost solely about the reduction of corporate tax is an insult to those on wages. The Christian voice must be for a fairer root and branch reform which may or may not include corporate tax.

Democracy is sustained through the free articulation of opinion without fear or favour. It is empowered when the ballot box has more influence on national policy than favour gained through political donation. It is empowered when the poor and marginalised are empowered. It is empowered when ethical considerations bear as much weight as profit in decision making. Democracy wanes when policy is dictated by the wealthy, self-interested, and advantaged. A party that calls itself "liberal" or "conservative" has completely lost its way if the policies it espouses are the very antithesis of "conservatism" or "liberality’. Such appears to be the state into which Australian public life has now fallen, but worse, democracy will experience an almost fatal blow if policy currently before the parliament should pass which gifts unfettered and unchallenged voice to the wealthy and powerful and demonises those who speak for justice and equity.

Dr George Browning is the former Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn. This is a slightly edited version of an article he wrote for his blog on 11 March 2018. See http://www.georgebrowning.com.au/