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Best Of 2010: Why a conscientious Christian could vote for the Greens



First published in Eureka Street 10 August 2010

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.

A vote for the Greens is a vote against Catholic education - Stephen Elder replies to Frank Brennan

Frank Brennan

Fr Frank Brennan SJ is Professor of Law at the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University, and Adjunct Professor at the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, George Pell, Jim Wallace, Australian Christian Lobby, Greens, balance of power



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Existing comments

Father Brennan's view of current Australian politics is at once precious and utilitarian. Precious if he thinks that the Green Party has little, if any, say in the House of Representatives. The Government survives by a cat's whisker of a majority utterly dependent on four cross-bench members, including a Green. Party leader, Bob Brown, is accorded the privilege of a weekly meeting with the Prime Minister. The influence of the Greens on the Labour Party will expand considerably when they assume the balance of power in the Senate later this year. Maybe the Greens will never achieve Government in this country - but, who knows? - and maybe some of their policies are acceptable but that is beside the point. The point is that the particular circumstances of Australian federal politics since the last election has delivered to the Greens, although a small minority, a political clout out of all proportion to their numbers. Already we see Labour resolve weakening in the matter of same-sex "marriages". Greens might never "carry the day" in the sense of implementing their entire platform but they can certainly wreak havoc in the attempt. For a Catholic priest, Frank Brennan has an oddly utilitarian approach to the political process if he thinks that a kind of trade-off between policies divorced from ethical considerations is in order. One cannot trade off abortion against the environment, euthanasia against public housing or infanticide against income management. These pairs of issues are morally incommensurable. The Green project is fatally flawed by its philosophical grounding in Singerian anti-humanism. Cardinal Pell and Mr Wallace are quite right to warn against the perils of any kind of political toying with such a philosophy and to urge all right-thinking Christians to always put the Greens last - until something worse comes along. The Christian churches of Weimar Germany have been much criticised for maintaining a "dignified distance" and a "discreet reticence" which assisted the rise of the National Socialist German Workers Party which, after all, had some quite good policies in such areas as employment, infrastructure development and the restoration of national confidence. Fortunately, Cardinal Pell is likely to be heard, and listened to, rather more than Father Brennan.

Sylvester | 04 January 2011  

Thank you for speaking out with common good sense rather than fundamentalism. This is not the 1950s of unquestioning respect for authority by the majority. The Greens garner support from my 20+ daughters because the Greens message and policies are about caring for human beings without doctrinal discriminations.(particularly re women's reproductive rights), and the commitment to Science on caring for Mother Earth. To pit Abbott against Brown on who is more 'Christian'like, the secular is the saner!

Julie | 04 January 2011  

If there ever has been an “evil party” in Australia, it would have to be the nihilistic Greens Party. Its aims are purely the destruction of anything that seems to be “bourgeois”, which includes any religion. Brown is very clever in hiding the true aims of his party behind a smokescreen of “environmental initiatives”. He has been successful in converting naïve and simple-minded people to his party and has even been able to move the tentacles of his powers into the current Government. I fail to understand why anybody with any respect to any religion or to any moral standards would in any form even speak of tolerance towards Bob Brown and his ideology.

Beat Odermatt | 04 January 2011  

With all due respect Fr Brennan, the Green parties, both in the Commonwealth and in the various State parliaments show itself to be anti-human, time after time. It is for killing unborn and killing elderly but yet supports irrational protection of animals and plants. Sorry, but to my way of reading the printed words, the ideals of living a Christian life are in conflict to many of the basic policies of Greens.

Mike | 04 January 2011  

Your 20+ daughter seems to have an unquestioning respect for the authority of the Green Party. Maybe she ought to ask herself how caring for human beings can be reconciled with killing human babies in their mother's wombs, killing early human life to collect stem cells, killing disabled infants (or, indeed, any infants who, according to Peter Singer, have not had personhood conferred on them by their parents) and killing the burdensome frail elderly. Your daughter also needs to realise that religion is not the only source of doctrinal fundamentalism. The aggressive, militant, secularist doctrines of the Green Party are themselves a kind of fundamentalism.

Sylvester | 04 January 2011  

AS far as arguments go, Sylvester's is pretty cogent. But once again, like all believers in a Roman Catholic god, he/she fails to provide a solution. Simply saying that the supporters of the Greens emerge from the depth of (Catholic) hell isn't good enough. What's the alternative? Is His Eminence (Cardinal Pell et al) more comfortable with one of his flocks, the infamous Tony 'stop the boats' Abbott? Where's the humanity in that odious person's political agenda? So, Sylvester, quo vadis? Sermonising alone does not an equitable society make. By the way, I'm not a Green supporter and I'm certainly not a Tony 'stop the boats' Abbott supporter either. I wish Fr. Brennan SJ a long life and may he continue to be "precious and utilitarian" in his political view.

Alex Njoo | 04 January 2011  

On many issues I don't find Cardinal Pell very Christian. I could mention the bullying of his priests, forbidding them to speak at certain conferences; his refusal to let certain groups of committed Catholics to meet on Catholic Church property; his calling of priests and religious for a discussion and then handing them a letter "summarising" the discussion without having even listened to the other side. The Cardinal is not in a good position to say who is more or less christian.

Rob Brian | 04 January 2011  

"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", writes Fr Brennan. You are a caution Frank! The Greens"..not in the contest for government..", I have heard Bob Brown say exactly the opposite to that on the telly. As if he wouldn't - he's a politician. Dear Frank, I think you should stop second-guessing Bob Brown and ask him if his honourable intention is never to be Prime Minister. I can't help remembering how those 31 Catholic Centre Party members of the Reichstag put Hitler's minority Nazi Party into power with Adolf as Chancellor in 1933 which ended democracy in Germany and created a LEGAL dictatorship. Those Catholic members knew in great detail, the savagery and brutality for which the Nazis stood - yet they handed them power. Why? Because they admired Hitler's promises of social reform and ignored those of organised murder and displacement, they simply didn't REALLY believe that "such wickedness could be". Am I glad that the Christian leaders of our society like Jim Wallace and Cardinal Pell are our REAL leaders.

Claude Rigney | 04 January 2011  

Once again Sylvester shows a very selective approach to the value of life. John Howard and the rest of his coalition government knowingly and deliberately took part in an un-provoked invasion of Iraq in which Australian soldiers were sent to kill Iraqi soldiers and inevitably also Iraqi civilians. Moral? Ethical? I think not. Yet we have never heard Sylvester arguing that no Christian should vote for the coalition.

Ginger Meggs | 04 January 2011  

In Australia, there is only one party with policies to address the clear and present danger that is our civilisation's insistence in continuing to rely on fossil fuels. Given this very simple fact, it is both suicidally obscene and akin to mandatory abortion to even countenance voting for any party other than the Greens. It really is as simple as that.

David Arthur | 04 January 2011  

It's interesting that this article was the "best of 2010". It must say something about the impact of the Greens on the consciousness of people across the board. Of course, some will excoriate the Greens and their supporters; others will see their positives. We really can get carried away with hyperbole, can't we? The fact is, both Bob Brown and Tony Abbott and any of the others, are flesh-and-blood with ideas and agendae: they aren't "monsters" (even if we don't like what one or other of them believe or do). And, I would like to urge people not to fall for the "associative" trap Claude sets up in his hackneyed comparison of Bob Brown with Adolph Hitler's Nazis. It is, at least in my view, an ignorant or disingenuous slur to so compare them just as it would be to bracket Hitler with John Howard, or Cardinal Pell with Tomas Torquemada.

Stephen Kellett | 04 January 2011  

Than you Claude Rigney for reminding us of that heinous episode perpetrated by those 31 Catholic Centre Party members of the Reichstag. That says it all, notwithstanding Cardinal Pell, Jim Wallace and (even) Sylvester. What's that saying about cleaning our house etc.?

Alex Njoo | 05 January 2011  

"Let's be clear: the Greens are ... very unlikely to have much, if any, say in the House of Representatives." Oh, really? On the agenda (inter alia): Gay Marriage. Why? The Greens. How can you get it so wrong, Fr F? And how can your nemesis the Cardinal get it so right?

HH | 05 January 2011  

Ginger Meggs - I hold no brief for the Coalition. The traditional political tendency of my own family is altogether in the other direction but Labor had betrayed its origins and founding ideals. Nor do I have a selective approach to the value of life. The deaths of combattants or the unintended deaths of civilians in war, however tragic, may not be placed on the same level as abortion, infanticide and euthanasia which are in an ethically different category in that they constitute direct, intended assaults on innocent life. Alex Njoo's comment lacks historical perspective. When the Centre Party voted, along with other parties in the Reichstag, to confer emergency powers on the Chancellor (Hitler) in March 1933 Germany was in chaos. The special powers were temporary, to last four for years, at which point the full (Weimar) Constitution would come back into force. We must be wary of projecting back onto Germany at the beginning of the Nazi regime our post-world war II knowledge of how things worked out. Hitler was certainly seen as dangerous but politicians and generals believed he could be managed - they were wrong. The worst features of the Nazi regime were all in the future - the creation of the totalitarian state, the persecution of the opposition and minorities, the occupation of other countries and the devastation of world war II. It is easy - but unfair - to judge the Centre Party and other individuals and groups in Germany at the end of the Weimar era with the benefit of hindsight.

Sylvester | 06 January 2011  

If the conscientious Christian can't vote for the Greens, who can s/he conscientiously vote for?

Gordon Rowland | 07 January 2011  

Sylvester, we have a lot in common. I hold no brief for the coalition either; I also think that Labor has betrayed its origins and founding ideals. I also think that Claude’s reference to Centre Party’s vote in 1933 is irrelevant. In fact, the logical end-point of Claude’s argument is that one should never vote for Catholics and that is a conclusion that I reject wholeheartedly. Where we differ is on the question of the ethics of taking life. You deny that you have a selective approach to the value of life but you lump abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia (as if they were all the same) into one ethical category in that they ‘constitute direct, intended assaults on innocent life’. At the same time, you exclude the killing that is the consequence of waging war presumably on the basis that the assault is not direct, and/or intended, and/or on innocent life. When our government goes to war, it intends to kill people. When it bombs or shells cities, it intends to kill civilians as well as combatants. That is precisely what saturation bombing in Europe was about, that's what Hiroshima and Nagasaki were about.

Ginger Meggs | 07 January 2011  

The Greens are militant anti-religious... That's enough isn't it?

Michael | 07 January 2011  

Ginger Meggs - I see what you mean but I have some difficulty with your claim that when the Australian government sends soldiers overseas it does so with the simple intention of "killing people". If I undertsand them aright, the government - in both its Howard and Gillard instantiations - says that it has troops in Afghanistan, for example, to keep the Taliban out of power, deny terrorists a base to work from and establish conditions for democracy and the progress of the Afghan people. I am aware that others would say that Australia has troops there for a darker purpose as a willing ally of America's drive for geopolitical domination and control of economic resources. Whatever about that, I don't think it is accurate to say that the Australian governments basic objective is "to kill people", although, of course it goes without saying that combattants get killed in war and often civilians are caught up in the violence. At the risk of going around in circles, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia are different. I don't mean to lump them together but what those kinds of death have in common is that they are brought about by a clear, considered, deliberate decision to take direct action to end a particular innocent human life. A doctor decides here and now with malice aforethought it kill this particular, non-aggressivei individual human being by means of an injection, curette, vacuum machine, scapel, forceps, whatever. I agree with you that waging war directly on civilian population centres, as in carpet bombing, reprisals, nuclear weaponry, etc., is immoral - why?: because the victims are non-combattant and the primary intention is to kill the innocent. That is very different ethically from the deaths of soldiers or the accidental deaths of civilians in war and therefore requires a different ethical judgement.

Sylvester | 08 January 2011  

I cannot understand how any christian at all could vote for the Greens as their policies stand now.Their so called caring concerns for the enviroment and human beings are only a smoke screen for their more extreme policies such as abortion,gay marriage,euthanasia,etc. Stating that they would not have much politioal clout in parliament has nothing to do with the argument.On principal,people should not consider voting for them at any time.

J ohn Tobin | 09 January 2011  

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