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My election campaign hibernation


Frank Brennan stands before columns of terracotta warriors housed in a giant hangar-like museum

I am one of those Australians who tends to go into hibernation during election campaigns. So where better to be last week than in China. No democracy here, no electoral lather to worry about.

On arrival, the pollution knocks you over and building cranes span every urban horizon — the opportunity to view some of the results of Australia's iron exports and to breathe the byproducts of Australia's massive coal exports. A lingering cough is a constant reminder of the damage our global commitment to economic development is doing to the planet.

Visits to the terracotta warriors (pictured) and to the Xian Museum housing over 4000 ancient calligraphy stones provide the opportunity to see the Chinese relishing their history and distinctiveness. The 6000 terracotta warriors were entombed in Emperor Qin's mausoleum in 210BC. Mr Yang, one of the farmers who discovered the warriors when digging a well in 1974, is on hand to sign my copy of The Qin Dynasty Terracotta Army of Dreams. He never knew how to write before President Bill Clinton asked for his signature on the 1998 presidential family visit.

One of the calligraphy stones dating from the Tang Dynasty in 781AD tells the story of the arrival of Christian Nestorians in China in 635AD. This helps explain the remark of the late Bishop Aloysius Jin SJ from Shanghai — that he did not want there to be the need for a fourth beginning to Christianity in China, following upon the Nestorians, then the Jesuits, then the evangelisation following the Opium Wars and Unequal Treaties in the 1830s.

These historical backdrops help the foreigner to understand something of China's isolation and sense of identity.

It's seven years since I last visited China. The urban growth has been phenomenal. While Australian politicians in election mode talk yet again about the idea of one very fast train and amorphous ideas for future growth, I catch the regular train service from Shijiazhuang to Beijing traveling at over 300kmh, across land every inch of which is dedicated to agriculture, industry or urban development. Without democracy, you can get a lot done.

Over an outdoor meal with church members and local party officials (each part of both!) in a small village outside Xian, a local asks after Lù Kèwén (Kevin Rudd). He had heard that Mr Murdoch was being very tough on him! This unsurprisingly is the only mention of Australian politics the whole week. But they were surprised to learn that yet again Australia was likely to lose its only Mandarin speaking PM. They have no idea of the alternatives.

Given their history, their numbers and their phenomenal growth of recent years, it is little wonder the Chinese see themselves and their place in the world as special. Chinese Catholics often feel besieged and misunderstood by both Rome and Beijing. 'We are not second class citizens; we are last class citizens,' one priest said to me.

Pope Benedict's 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics in which he joined issue with the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association is sometimes seen as too Eurocentric. Benedict said any Chinese attempt to implement 'the principles of independence and autonomy, self-management and democratic administration of the Church is incompatible with Catholic doctrine, which ... professes the Church to be one, holy, Catholic and apostolic'.

Given the problems besieging the Church in the west and attempts in Australia to set up a more lay controlled Truth Justice and Healing Council, I am left wondering why Rome cannot be more trusting of locals wanting to adapt to their own social and political realities. In China I have met Catholics, including priests and a bishop, who are passionate about the distinctive Chinese lay contribution to the life and identity of the Church. One bishop tells me the churches are full of the old and the young but what's missing is the middle generation.

In a strange way, Chinese citizens feel much like Australians during an election campaign such as the one we have been enduring. We wonder if any real dialogue is possible; where the real choices based on fundamental national values are; and whether it is simply a matter for the power elites to craft messages and choices bearing no relationship to the community values base.

For me, this has been most apparent with the Australian asylum policy during this 2013 campaign. At the outset, Labor decided to neutralise the issue as far as possible by meeting the Coalition at what seemed like the base of the precipice. The Coalition went one step further down. Both sides want to stop the boats for the sake of votes in western Sydney. They're prepared to use punitive rhetoric beyond the limits of utility, just to get themselves across the line. The Greens are left appearing to be the only party prepared to put ethical considerations first.

If there is a need and a political imperative to stop the boats, there ought be the possibility of agitating how this might most ethically be done. It might be possible to put an ethical case for stopping the boats, given the increase in arrivals, the increase in deaths at sea and the development of the people smuggling business model.

But even in the robust Australian democracy, such public discussion is on hold until an election is out of the way. Those critical of all the major parties either remain silent or state ideals that have no prospect of implementation. Most purists on the issue, who see no case for stopping the boats, do not endorse the Greens because of policy differences over other issues. And thus a critical political question is rendered irrelevant to the electoral processes and robust discussion about what works and what's ethical has to be put on hold.

Even with democracy, there are some things we are not very good at talking about. In democratic Australia, many thinking citizens feel as disempowered on this issue as they would if they were Chinese citizens having to comply with the whim of the party.

But for our Indigenous heritage (which also has been marginal during this election campaign), Australians boast nothing like the terracotta warriors or the museum of calligraphy to mark out our distinctive history and place in the world. During this election campaign, we have accepted the assurance of our key political leaders that we are special because we, unlike the Americans and Europeans, have the geographic advantage of being able to exclude unwelcome asylum seekers. Whether or how we should are deemed unfit questions for democratic resolution.

We have also accepted that this is no time for dreams of bold development. The most we can do is talk about one fast train, while in China all you need do is buy a ticket and catch one.

I return home for the last week of the election campaign resigned to Australian democracy's present incapacity to provide the people with real policy options about contested ethical issues. Alas it has not been possible even to have the conversation about who we are as a people and how we might contribute to a better world. It's been just about us, our material needs and our isolationist fears about them, whoever they happen to be.

Thank God we are a democracy, but I could do without another election campaign for quite some time to come. In the end, this campaign has been just one protracted group selfie. We should all be ashamed of ourselves. At least, that to me is how it looks from China.

Frank Brennan headshotFr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at Australian Catholic University, and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, election 2013, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, Shijiazhuang, terracotta warriors, Tang Dynasty



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Existing comments

It is not legal to stop people from seeking asylum, evidence has now been exposed that the deaths are all our fault, are in fact mass murders and there are no people smugglers let alone business models. Both major parties are beyond depraved as they traffic and trade human beings like commodities to appease the worst racists in Sydney who are mostly new migrants themselves. We have rightly been labelled cruel, inhuman, degrading and lawless. Meanwhile every 15 seconds another Syrian becomes a refugee every day 20,000 kids still die of starvation while we are now even contracting Saudi Arabia to build illegal prisons for us on Manus Island.

Marilyn | 03 September 2013  

I suspect that if Frank's 'bestie' Kevin Rudd was doing a bit better he would be enjoying the campaign, just fine, thank you very much!

Miriam | 03 September 2013  

How fantastic to see the Terracotta Army at Xian. This is how Dan Cruickshank ("Around the World in 80 Treasures") describes it: They are compelling. They are clearly mass-produced but not repetitious. Each figure is different, very personal, with the heads almost certainly being portraits of individual soldiers. It is quite amazing. You can see regional and ethnic differences in styles of hair and facial features and each seems to possess an individual personality." Wow!

Pam | 04 September 2013  

Couldn't agree more Frank. I didn't need to go out of the country to feel ashamed, i"m ashamed enough here.It's so dispiriting, but Greens it is for me this time.

rosemary bedford | 04 September 2013  

Thanks, Frank. Your last paragraph summed it up nicely! We are just too interested in ourselves and maintaining our "lifestyle", whatever the implications for others. I cannot believe that political debate has sunk so low that one of our aspiring politicians blamed the "lifestyle" problem of traffic congestion in Western Sydney on Asylum Seekers!!!

Tony | 04 September 2013  

If what marylin writes is true and i do not doubt it the Australia should be thoroughly ashamed especially those so called devout catholics. of the. liberal party bending down to the lowest conmon denominator.shame on them

irena | 04 September 2013  

Frank, I don't think your hibernation should be allowed to continue. The Big Bear must come out some time and look for dinner. Recently I was asked to support the ALP by handing out How to Votes on Polling booths on Saturday. Being a long time member and former candidate and it having been my practice in the past I was like you conflicted. But after examining my conscience I decided I could not. Today I was asked by the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy network [DASSAN] to hand out information sheets at polling booths to inform voters as they approach the ballot box about the inadequacy and immorality of the policies of both major political parties. I will do that. Then I thought about my own vote. I am considering for the first time in 40 years an informal vote and have started to form some words to be written on the ballot paper like – While you put asylum seekers last I will put you all last - and writing the same number beside each candidate’s name. Is that illegal by the way professor?

Mike Bowden | 04 September 2013  

Crikey, Fr Frank. You don't know what you've missed! It has been a cracker! The campaign has been tremendously entertaining vaudeville. We have had tradgedy, comedy, caricatures of every human failing, undisguised portrayals of everything from deceit to indulgent self-interest and have seen unwitting self destruction amongst politicians unlike anything before. Next week is likely to be boring!!

john frawley | 04 September 2013  

Murdock is using his media control to block NBN to each household which would deprive Fox of its monopoly; both the ALP and Coalition encourage our xenophobia and both appeal to our material welfare. Rudd has continued to profess values of a 'fair go for all', compassion etcetera but in his endeavour to win the election has felt compelled to give them lip service. Like many caring Australians, I feel ashamed that our leaders continue to block conversations about the important ethical issues Frank raises.

Maureen | 04 September 2013  

I too feel ashamed about what has taken place in this election campaign. I am Australian but cannot support any political party on their stance of most social and moral issues!

Maria O'Donnell | 04 September 2013  

Unlike China, Australia is very young as a nation and still very immature. Each of our political leaders' lack vision and qualities of leadership, their behaviour indicates a great lack of personal integrity as they attack each other's policies and personal attributes. Maybe it's fear of our own geographic isolation which means that we must protect our Aussie nation from boat people. Who can we vote for on Saturday? It's a choice between Captain Chaos or Tony Abbot whose party line places economic status and strength above all else.

Trish Martin | 04 September 2013  

Thank you, Frank for this article. You're spot on - " one protracted group selfie". Look beyond your shores, Australia!

Mont Albert mum | 04 September 2013  

I, like many others, like the green refugee policy much more than the populist and inhumane policcies of the major parties - unfortunately their other policies make them impossible to support - especially for people living and working in rural Australia. As one of my daughters wrote in a recent email: "God help us I think we all love the sound of the Greens and what they believe in, but it's just not practical. I also think they do unfortunately put the future of the frog ahead of that of my family!" I think she's right - just look at Tasmania! So on Saturday I'm handing out HTV'S for the Nationals, God help me!

Cathy Cleary | 04 September 2013  

Miriam I couldn't detect anything of a partisan political nature in Fr Frank's contribution. Any aspiring politician should have a vision that matches an achievable reality, otherwise they shouldn't expect anyone to vote for them. If "the vision thing" can be achieved in Norway why not here? I don't know about fast trains but certainly the second Sydney Airport has been a political football since the 1980's. The vested interests wouldn't have it any other way!

Paul Crittenden | 04 September 2013  

I think not, Miriam.

Frank Brennan SJ | 04 September 2013  

I can relate to Mike Bowden's comment. With a sense of abject despair I have already voted informally for the first time ever. I wrote on the ballot paper, 'Neither party deserves my vote while their refugee policies are so deplorable' However, there is a choice in the Senate and after the Greens I continued through the remaining 90 plus candidates. I hope this never needs happens again.

Rosemary Faris | 04 September 2013  

I love national party members like Cathy who pretend they might vote for the Greens except for the deplorable agricultural program of wanting to preserve prime farm lands and keep them out of the hands of big miners. That just shows that Cathy is a supporter of the big miners and no more a farmer than I am. And Irena, every word I said is true.

Marilyn | 04 September 2013  

Thanks Frank. I too am considering voting informally for the lower house for the first time with a comment expressing my absolute disgust with the major parties and their cronies, and my shame as an Australian at our treatment of asylum seekers. The Greens are the only party worth voting for.

Jane O'Callaghan | 04 September 2013  

Along with those who have already commented, I add my "Well done, Frank" to this article. One of the most embarrassing aspect of electioneering in Australia - especially during the present election - is the narrow fixation on domestic issues with scant acknowledgement that Australia invests very little effort in earning the significance it claims in the region and the wider world.

Ian Fraser | 04 September 2013  

In reply to Marilyn - I have been a farmer since 1970 and have taken pride in leaving land in greater heart than we found it - but you need fair returns and reasonable regulations to be able to do this. The national party, with all iits faults is the only one that seems to go half way to reflecting our point of view.

Cathy Cleary | 05 September 2013  

I think this is an overly gloomy assessment. When in a parliamentary election campaign have we (or anyone else) ever had a “conversation about who we are as a people”? The last time that sort of thing happened was during the Monarchy/Republic referendum. Understandably so: in contrast to elections, there was only a single issue to consider. It’s putting far too much onus on parliamentary elections and the campaigns leading up to them, to rise to that level of discourse. For one thing, substantive bread and butter issues are perforce mixed in with more ethically weighted matters. For another, there is a widespread divergence among people on solutions to the ethical issues. People who are genuinely concerned about the boat people issue line up with the Greens or, say, with a John Howard-style solution. I for one think the Coalition’s solution does constitute a real and ethical moral policy option on this contested issue, and for Fr Frank to imply it’s not is merely to impose his version of morality on the discussion. Finally, there are disputes even as to what is a moral issue of any significance. E.g. Kevin Rudd once said that climate change is the greatest moral challenge of our time. I think that’s fundamentally incorrect: I think life issues such as abortion and euthanasia are and have been all along more important moral issues by several orders of magnitude. In sum, there’s no reason to think that, if Australians vote overwhelmingly for the Coalition on Saturday, that they haven’t given due weight to the ethical dimensions of proffered policies, but have voted for self-interest above all else.

HH | 05 September 2013  

The tombs of Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius, Karl Marx, and every other religious founder and philosophical genius still hold and will hold the remains of their occupants until they go back to the dust. But not that of the Lord Jesus Christ. His tomb is empty."Blessed are all they that put their trust in him" http://goodnewstucson.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/empty_tomb2web.jpg

Name | 05 September 2013  

Oh yes, Frank! I feel the shame. And now the Coalition has announced that it will cut foreign aid. We seem to be curling up and hugging all we have to ourselves...

Vivienne | 06 September 2013  

"....it might be possible to put an ethical case for stopping the boats, given the increase in arrivals, the increase in deaths at sea etc...".. Frank has got it! I don't think all of Eureka's readers, will thank Frank for this observation, given that Eureka told us recently that the majority of its readers votes Green. Progressive means Green in our current social structure. Greens have solutions at their finger tips, without the means of bringing those solutions about. Once again I quote Plato: "Only the dead know the end of war" and the internecine war that has raged these last five years within the Gillard/Rudd ALP, has ended in political death, for the combatants. Consequently Labor voters will be careful what they wish for, come the next election.

Claude Rigney | 08 September 2013  

Interesting piece on China, What a tragedy that the 2 Catholic bodies in China can't reconcile, but then the state driven Orthodox and Anglican Churches are still alienated From Rome. As to the moral choices, we agree with Bob Carr. People may flee their country for perfectly legitimate causes, ie political, religious, ethnic persecution and begin as genuine refugees. Then they make a choice as to which country they make for and this defines those who head for Australia as economic refugees. This group have lost their credibility to be called true refugees. They are economic refugees and by definition have no claim for asylum here. JNJ & JT

John Thompson &Jilpia Jones | 10 September 2013  

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