Cardinal George Pell and the Australian Christian Lobby led by Jim Wallace have once again joined forces in the public square - this time to advocate that Christians not vote in the forthcoming election for the “anti-Christian” Greens who the Cardinal describes as “sweet camouflaged poison”.
Jim Wallace launched the initial salvo in The Australian describing the Greens as “a party whose philosophical father, Peter Singer, clearly places the rights of animals above the rights of children, but at the same time endorses sex with animals, which presumably are robbed of any right of consent”.
On Sunday His Eminence took up the call in his regular Sunday Telegraph column stating: “In 1996 the Green leader Bob Brown coauthored a short book The Greens with the notorious philosopher Peter Singer (now at Princeton University in USA), who rejects the unique status of humans and supports infanticide, as well as abortion and euthanasia.”
The Cardinal has urged his listeners and readers “to examine the policies of the Greens on their website and judge for themselves how thoroughly anti-Christian they are”.
Clearly the Greens will not be gaining the votes or preferences of Pell and Wallace. But was it principled and prudent for them to make this public declaration? Could not a conscientious Christian still vote for the Greens? And are their policies more anti-Christian than those of the major parties?
Let's be clear: the Greens are not in the contest for government and they are very unlikely to have much, if any, say in the House of Representatives. Their political purchase after the election will be in the Senate where they will most probably have the balance of power.
Some Christians, myself included, think that it is never a good thing for the government of the day to control the Senate. You just have to look at what happened to the Howard government in its last term when it controlled the Senate. Hubris set in; the usual rational debate about the limits on WorkChoices was abandoned because the government was assured passage of its overbroad, ideological legislation. When the government does not control the Senate, it needs to garner support for legislation by putting coherent arguments in order to attract a handful of Senators on the cross benches.
In days past, those cross benches were occupied by the Democratic Labor Party, which boasted Catholic credentials, and then the Democrats, who were just as secular as the Greens.
A thoughtful Christian is entitled to consider the workings of the Senate when deciding where to allocate preferences in their voting. A thoughtful Christian could give their first or second party preference to a minor party like the Greens confident that this minor party would hold to account whichever party is in power on contested legislative proposals.
Some Christians, myself included, think that the Greens are not classifiable as straight out anti-Christian. While some of their members may be (much like Mark Latham was in the Labor Party), others like Lin Hatfield Dodds have given distinguished public service in their churches for decades.
On some policy issues, I daresay the Greens have a more Christian message than the major parties.
Consider their stand on overseas aid, refugees, stewardship of creation and the environment, public housing, human rights protection, and income management. On all these issues, the Greens are far more in synch with the periodic utterances of most Church leaders than either of the major political parties. The Greens have been the only party to hold back the tide against the race to the bottom in the asylum seeker debate since Kevin Rudd was replaced as Prime Minister.
Admittedly the Greens can afford to be more idealistic on some of these issues because they will never occupy the treasury benches. This idealism appeals to some voters, especially the young. Even some of us hardened older voters see a place for some idealism expressed by minor political parties.
Like Cardinal Pell and Jim Wallace, I part company with the Greens on issues like abortion, stem cell research, same sex marriage and funding for church schools. But on none of these issues will the Greens carry the day given that policy changes in these areas will occur only if they are supported by a majority from both major political parties.
Cardinal Pell says: “The Greens are opposed to religious schools and would destroy the rights of those schools to hire staff and control enrolments. Funding for non-government schools would be returned to the levels of 2003-04.” It is a complete furphy to suggest that the election of Greens in the Senate would threaten the funding of church schools. The funding formula for schools will be altered by law only if the government of the day wins support from the Opposition, given that the Opposition and government will be much closer on such a formula than will be the Greens with either major political party.
The Greens position on funding of Church schools will be an irrelevance. Even if the Greens were to try to use reduced funding of Church schools as a bargaining chip for some other policy concession, they would be most unlikely to succeed, provided the church school lobby maintains its good standing with both major political parties.
If all the Greens' policies were truly classifiable as “anti-Christian”, I would have no problem with church leaders urging people to vote for another party. But given that some of their policies, and on issues which will be legislated in the next three years, are arguably more Christian than those of the major parties, I think it best that Church leaders maintain a discreet reticence about urging a vote for or against any particular political party.
This is especially the case given that Green preferences are more likely to favour the major party headed by an atheist rather than the one headed by a professed Christian. It would be very regrettable if an attack by Pell and the Christian Lobby on the Greens could be construed as an indirect shot across the bows of the atheist Prime Minister.
Though the Christian Lobby thought its influence significant when the major parties were both headed by professed Christians, there is a need for special sensitivity, judging politicians and parties by their fruits in this pluralistic democratic Australia where quite a number of its thinking voters as well as some of its leading politicians happen to be atheist.
I thought the language of our Cardinal on this occasion unbecoming and unhelpful in the cause of church credibility in the public square. If the Australian Christian Lobby wants to mount such rhetorical election campaigns, all our bishops should maintain a dignified distance and reticence.