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WHAT CAN BE DONE? August 7, 2013

Posted by wmmbb in Australian Politics.

In the context of the Federal Election, voters will have to confront moral issues. And perhaps all the questions and debates have a moral character.

For example, economics presented in the dispassionate light of statistics may let us ignore the structural inequality and structural violence in the actual operation of the economic system. To make this concept visible consider the judgement of Justice Blackburn in Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd (1971) in which he concluded there existed:

. . . a subtle and elaborate system highly adapted to the country in which the people led their lives which provided a stable order of society and was remarkably free from the vagaries of personal whim or influence. If ever a system that could be called “a government of laws and not of men” it is that shown in the evidence before me.”

(via p 24 Elizabeth Ellis, Principles and Practices of Australian Law.)

Such as system of laws were not recognized by English Common Law precepts, since the indigenous people lacked “propriety interest”. The damage was done, without recompense, even though it might been formally recognized and re-instituted, but not retrospectively, some twenty years later. Attitudes to law and the environment probably differed among settlers, although the finalization of nature as object was, and remains the dominant view. The timber from the felling of red cedars in the Illawarra and other parts of the East Coast was known as “red gold”.

Faced as we are by pressing reality, specifically in this election, we can recognize climate change and the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers as moral issues. Are these issues that can be resolved by aligning preferences to political parties, as implied, for example by the ABC Vote Compass? Do we leave these matters then to the political insiders? Do we allow ourselves to subject to the immoral tactics of wedge politics.

The role of voting in democracy is to decide specific issues. We are asked to resolve multiple issues on the assumption of self interest, but this cannot be done for a moral issue, if correctly defined.  After the votes are counted, the mandate is subject to interpretation by political leaders, sometimes reversing the statements that attracted votes. There is a good illustration from the US of a candidate holding one position in the campaign, and doing something completely different when elected. Apparently President Obama, promised greater transparency and support for whistle blowers. That was then, before the revelations of Mr Manning and Mr Snowden. Now the electors get this:

(via Mr Dot Com in Auckland)

Both major parties in this election are in there treatment of refugees and asylum seekers engaged overtly in the politics of cruelty in their treatment of refugees. The countervailing position is that these policies are necessary so as to act a deterrent to people paying for passage on unseaworthy and life threatening vessels. This argument ignores the fact that the Indonesian fishermen who crew the vessels should know better. It is a suspect moral case at best, as it is counter intuitive to punish refugees by detention, which means in plain language imprisonment without trial or crime.

Some, especially those with direct contact with refugees, for example teachers, may find this an acute moral issue. (I must say from my brief acquaintance with refugees from Eastern Congo and Karen from Myanmar(about 7% of the population) what nice people they were.) Electoral politics and the voting system can create in people, who hold deep moral positions, a sense of powerlessness, or what is worst for our individual well being, a sense of indifference.

The election campaign is really one of the best times to put pressure on our political leaders. The first step is to write to the respective leaders, requesting their response, advising them it you intend to make it public. Then organize a public protest addressing their answers, and advising them they need to address the fundamental moral question. Then move into stage, days before polling, engage in a hunger strike. I am not an expert in this form of political action, but it seems essential to open and keep the channels of communication open.

The case of similar action on climate change is equally imperative in the moral vacuum of electoral calculation, and whatever it takes to win. Mr Murdoch who owns 70% of the newspapers in Australia is of this bent. The National Broadband Network is no doubt to this mass media holding in television. That is the way the system works.

Political culture matters. It goes to common understanding and knowledge of how political action might be conducted. The illustration is from the United States, which has had the terrible history of slavery, even when “all men were created equal” and the aftermath was mostly equally terrible. That history gave rise to the human rights movement and that permanently changed the political culture. Take as an example, some of the sermon of Reverend Jeffrey Spencer:

In the 1950s, there were other moral issues that needed to be addressed beside racism. But racism was the overarching moral issue here in the United States.

Today, there are other moral issues that need to be addressed beside climate change. Wars need to end. People need to be free. People need to be safe and healthy and have access to meaningful employment that pays a living wage. But climate change is the overarching issue. If we don’t address it now, these other issues won’t matter because we will have so radically changed the earth.

Unfortunately, “we’ve made the science of climate one more political football – just another issue we square off over, as if physics was simply one more interest group. As things stand, we are nowhere near taking the decisive action that might give us a chance of avoiding the most devastating kinds of warming; as coral bleaches, deserts grow, and ice sheets melt across the planet, we’re just marking time.”[3]

This is why two and a half years ago, Bill McKibben said it was time “to mount a campaign of mass action, of civil protest, of dignified disobedience. Its goal would not be to shut down the fossil fuel system – that system is much too big and too pervasive to be shut down, since it powers every action we take from the moment we wake up. The campaign’s aim, instead, would be much simpler: to demonstrate the sense of urgency that this issue requires. It would be in the nature of a witness.”[4]

Bearing witness is our business, the church’s business. That’s what Esther was doing when she went to see the king. That’s what Peter and John were doing when they got arrested. That’s what I was going yesterday in Richmond when I was arrested.

I was bearing witness to the sinfulness of Chevron’s failure to maintain their refinery, resulting in the explosion and fire a year ago that sent 15,000 people from surrounding cities to the hospital.[5] And more importantly, I was bearing witness to the sinfulness of Chevron’s business plan, the one they’ve filed with the SEC and that’s in their annual reports, to extract, refine, and sell as much oil as they can, the climate be damned.

Participating in protest was not enough. I needed to risk arrest to speak God’s truth to the power that be.

I know the announced sermon title was “Why I May Be Getting Arrested,” not “Why I Was Arrested.” But as I rode BART to the Richmond yesterday, tightening up today’s sermon, I went over my reasons for getting arrested in the future and realized that the future was now. Climate change is the moral issue of our day and the religious community needs to be putting our bodies on the line to bear witness to this moral issue and to speak truth to power. And preachers need to be in the forefront of this work.

I know this sounds like a radical action. It’s not. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It is deeply conservative. “What’s radical is to double the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and just see what happens – no one, not Marx or Mao, has ever proposed a change as radical as that. Those radicals backed by the fossil fuel industry flirt with destroying the planet’s physical systems, and they do it so a few of us can keep our particular way of life a decade or two longer; that’s not just radical, it’s so deeply irresponsible [and immoral] that there’s really no precedent.”[6]

And that’s why I got arrested yesterday, and will probably be getting arrested again.

Religious people, often for some reason, have acute moral sensibilities. The same forms of political action, by those who are properly prepared, in relation to the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, or for that matter any moral question. There has been a mostly successful design to reduce electoral politics to games and designs of propaganda by the expert public relations exponents, orchestrated through the mass media, in which in this ideal, contra democratic precepts, majorities are reduced to money and decision making reflects influence and privilege. We may dutifully vote,but are we fully enabled, and fully human in doing so?




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