"If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this when doing arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on." - CS Lewis, Mere Christianity

News broadcasts and newspaper articles depict Australia's current political problem as one of overcoming the reactionary rump in the Liberal Party who are continually standing in the way of progress. There are many reports that blithely assume that since “progress” means the advance of “equality", same-sex marriage now requires 'marriage equality' legislation. What could be clearer than that? Surely "love is love" and to affirm that must be progress in anyone’s book, wouldn't you say? It's a matter of extending rights, and now Australia’s marriage law is on the cusp of allowing us to embrace this post-homophobic phase of world history!

But here is the Liberal Party rump saying, “No!”, basking in the ascribed status of effective leadership of the “No” campaign for the government-initiated ABS postal survey. They, and their hangers-on, are regularly given top billing in news reports around the world. Their “No!”, depicted as entrenched opposition to the "world-wide progressive trend”, nicely frames the discussion for the journalism generated by the survey.

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POSTAL VOTE? Bruce C Wearne is critical of the yes/no nature of the same-sex marriage postal vote which he says has meant parties have revealed little about their wider legislative agendas. PICTURE:  Mathyas Kurmann/Unsplash

 

"Neither the Liberal Party, their Coalition partners, nor their Labor opponents, lay out a comprehensive legislative agenda to guide voters. Don’t voters have to have some idea what their 'Yes!' would mean, let alone what is going to happen if 'No!' gets up?"

But the inability of superficial journalism to adequately criticise the neo-liberal ideology is not news. This is evident from the incessant endorsement given to same-sex marriage from The Age, the ABC, the BBC, the London Times and the Washington Post. One would think that it is all about being brave enough to say “love is love” and take the next step as an advanced modern, democratic people. And so the reporting construes the “No” of the Liberal Party rump or the Australian Christian Lobby, or the Coalition for Marriage, as surely enough to convince anyone of the need to vote “Yes” in the survey.

But such political reporting of political reality is not conveniently construing “No!” because it is based on its own commitment to “Yes!” What we confront is journalism that is habitually misreading the political crisis. Yes, the journalism is very often committed to the same neo-liberal ideology and that ideology is indeed bent on transforming all of life, including marriage and family life. But though the political crisis we face is about marriage, it is not solely about marriage. The crisis is being avoided as journalism follows its persistent habit of ascribing inordinate influence to those resisting the changes it wants to promote.

The possibility that this survey is another symptom of deep problems within our parliamentary system is carefully downplayed, even by better news agencies, and more insightful political blogs.

But consider: why is the parliamentary rump of Liberals in advocating “No!”, not offering a comprehensive political argument about an ongoing legislative agenda? John Howard would like to think his concerns about the consequences of 'marriage equality' legislation for "religious freedom" required his interjection into public debate. But Mr Howard’s ”No", along with that of other Liberal Party colleagues, can’t spell out anything in comprehensive terms because their “No!” has more to do with trying to reverse the impact of their own party’s opportunistic and less-than-principled manoeuvring over decades, whether in Government or in Opposition.

Neither the former PM, nor the Liberal “No!” rump, are presenting a clear, coherent and comprehensive legislative agenda. There is no forward-looking political vision from that side in relation to this survey about marriage law. And that is because the political issues - the “legislative mathematics” - have been reduced to yes/no “arithmetic”. And there is no difference here with the “Yes!” side. Where is the desire, the political backbone, to open up on further legislative initiatives that will be taken once 'marriage equality' gets its parliamentary numbers? It isn’t there. It is yet to be politically disclosed.

Why then shouldn’t paranoia prevail? That unsolicited question from a young fellow last week as he told me he used to vote Labor and will never vote Liberal, but that this survey leaves him profoundly worried.

Neither the Liberal Party, their Coalition partners, nor their Labor opponents, lay out a comprehensive legislative agenda to guide voters. Don’t voters have to have some idea what their “Yes!” would mean, let alone what is going to happen if “No!” gets up? The Liberal-National Coalition, together with Labor, by their entrenched neglect, have been in the forefront of creating this unresolved contention for so long, that it seems normal. The leave voters - and maybe also themselves - in the dark as to their legislative intentions. How will this survey have an impact on how voters should vote at the next election? We don’t know. We aren’t told. Furtive, secretive, double-speak, is the current political style de jour. Such a bi-partisan political silence of Mal and Bill arrogantly tells us that we have to put up with this basic lack of electoral courage. Those who expect political transparency are being pincered out. Instead “We must get this behind us” is the prevailing political view.

It is now the appeal to numbers that is not only normal but normative for political life. Thus bi-partisan avoidance of genuine politics is concocted to avoid the loss of votes to their side, by an open statement of policies that might even lose them the election! No way. It’s numbers that count. Getting the numbers is the “normative” political task. Political “mathematics” is reduced to survey “arithmetic”.

Parliament is co-opted to inflict this survey on the Australian people as MHRs and Senators duck for cover, neglecting any explanation of what their party believes politically about marriage, family and the diverse household structures that exist across this "lucky country". This is a monumental betrayal of public trust.

The Liberal rump's "No" is not much more than a confused reaction against a consequence of its own “side’s” failure. It’s a device first flagged by Mr Dutton and the incoherence in his contribution can be gauged by the fact that he has said he will vote “No”. But party unity is “the thing” on both sides. And in the process, Liberal, Labor and National parties lose their raison d'etre.

"Parliament is co-opted to inflict this survey on the Australian people as MHRs and Senators duck for cover, neglecting any explanation of what their party believes politically about marriage, family and the diverse household structures that exist across this "lucky country". This is a monumental betrayal of public trust."

And so this survey is a poor attempt at public compensation for the loss of political raison d'etre by our major political parties. That is also what this survey is about and why it is so problematic, if not dangerous. Let’s face it: the byline on the envelope that came in the mail - “Open today. Have your say!” - could have come straight out of Brave New World or 1984.

The Liberal Party has long given up on this vital task because to have such a comprehensive political view would split it. That has been the view of the former director of the Menzies Research Centre, Sydney, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, since 2002. And there, I dare to suggest, from that political view, is the root cause of the political crisis we now face.

Take note: both "sides" walk away from their bi-partisan amendment to the Marriage Act of 2004 without explaining to their electors why they are walking away! The survey speaks politically in this historical context. These parties are telling us that they don't have to explain politically why because these vital issues for our economy are now being firmly closeted in the consciences of Parliamentarians (except if you’re Labor watch out because whatever you believe now you will be disciplined by same-sex marriage commitment after 2019 - has Bill Shorten drawn attention to that recently?)

And what is the future of a Christian political option now that dissent becomes subject to this bi-partisan parliamentary-based "pincer movement”? Bill Shorten and Andrew Wilkie join Malcolm Turnbull and his "rump" in convenient political forgetfulness that a political party's internal machinations need to be kept strictly separate from Parliament's deliberations. Parliament is being used (as in 1974/5) to confirm a party faction’s narcissistic self-indulgent view that they are the messianic cornerstone of our entire system of public governance.

We face a considerable political crisis. But, as elsewhere in this troubled world, Christian political responsibility in Australia is still integral to our call from Our Lord to love our neighbours as fellow bearers of the Divine image. As followers of Jesus Christ we pray for ears re-tuned to what the Good Shepherd says as we serve also with political love, wisdom and compassion reaching out openly, indiscriminately and generously to all our neighbours. Jesus promised to be with us no matter what. His Spirit directs us to the right path.