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Two bulls in the election ring


Our time of testing comes every three years when we, the-people, are supposed to be interested in what the two biggest bulls in the political ring ‘stand for’. Elections are always short-term marketing campaigns, because we are encouraged to turn off in the between times, to select one of exceedingly limited choices that have floated to the surface through the churning internal wrangling and organisational conventions of the respective major parties. 

A century later, Ambrose Bierce’s definition of the elector  as ‘one who enjoys the sacred privilege of voting for the man of another man’s choice’ is still apposite. Nobody – not even she herself – expects Christine Milne to lead a Green government. The two men – Abbott and Rudd – are running strong-man, presidential-style campaigns offering populist solutions and punitive programs for perceived problematic societal groups, including- refugees, single parents, women who have the audacity to claim a workplace right to financial support when they take maternity leave, all those unemployed young men,  and ‘feckless’ Aborigines for whose finances and family life the intervention is in demand.

What strikes me is the similarity between the political and parent-child relationship. A young child depends entirely on a nurturing parent, usually the mother, for the necessities of life. Their whole life. To that child, their mother is their whole world.

But the child is not a mother’s entire world. A child has to be ‘managed’ when they are demanding, frustrated and furiously grief-stricken because of this, when the mother cannot and will not fulfil all their wants and desires. 

An infant cries first for attention: the toddler, finding more and more world to interact with and experiencing frustration, has to control their instinctive desire for immediate gratification of their needs, both loves and hates the parent who teaches them, through frustration, to learn patience, read the propensities and vulnerabilities of the powerful other. 

The loving parent suffers, at first, in denying the infant’s demands for satisfaction, until that parent learns to enjoy the process. The child, in learning that he can’t have everything he desires when he desires it, or necessarily at all, learns that love and pain are just different sides of the same coin. In other words, the parent-child transaction becomes a sado-machochistic one, with the parent learning to justify and take some enjoyment from the exercise of the power they have over their child, while the child learns that the catharsis of their tantrums may yet lead to a kind of fulfilment if not pleasure in being reconciled with the frustrator.

This dynamic, I have begun to see, is one that our two would-be patriarchs are perhaps unconsciously enjoying in their public activities in these short, furious weeks. Abbott has successfully – until the second candidates’ debate at least – damped down his glee in the taunting and negativity which he aimed so cruelly at the first woman prime minister of this country, when she withdrew from the internal stoush she couldn’t win, and both he and Rudd offered to the country the most boring, stagey and value-free ‘debate’ we have witnessed since the days of Billy McMahon. 

But the blokes got aggro and personal at the second – to no great accolades for either – and we had a touch of the old Tony when he asked whether ‘this bloke ever shuts up’. Hardly a great debating model.

Both of these men are explicitly Christian, though neither is behaving much like one. The ‘soft side’ of their natures is carefully posed in public appearances where they kiss babies, puppies or are flanked by their attractive, intelligent, personable wives and lovely daughters. Both Rudd and Abbott want to be ‘Dads’.

Well, my Dad wasn’t the sort of man who sacrifices kindness for some ‘greater good’. And he is my model.

I object to vulnerable people being maltreated ‘for the good of all’.  In Ursula K. Le Guinn’s novella The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, the happiness and joy and prosperity and spiritual maturity of a utopian society is shown to depend exclusively on the thoroughgoing cruel treatment and eternal suffering of a wretched and lonely scapegoat child in the bowels of the City.

In le Guinn’s story, every maturing child is shown this child, and taught that its suffering is the reason for the success of the civilisation above.  All are shocked and sorrowful, but know that they can destroy that society with any kindness or protest. Most accept, with a leavening of wisdom, that great prices are paid for the happiness of many and the many good things that consensus and harmony brings, and their joy has a shadow. But there are those who, after they see and hear and smell that child, fall silent and become thoughtful, and some time later, slip away from the golden city, and nobody knows where they go or what they may do.

This is an election in which the kind of a society we want has not been spoken of.  It is time for electors to decline the pleasure of punitive policies, or engage in the sado-masochistic rhetoric of economics, markets, threats and ‘sovereignty’. Bierce was no democrat. He thought that the vote was the instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.’ It would be folly to ‘man up’ to the policies of fear and resentment. We should be sending a message about what a society built on care for our neighbour might look like.

Here endeth the lesson.

Moira Rayner headshot

Moira Rayner is a barrister and writer.

Fighting bulls image by Shutterstock.


Topic tags: Moira Rayner, Abbott, Rudd, election, politics, debate, Labor, Coalition



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Existing comments

I have a dream - a Green PM. I'm wondering why there is no discussion of Christine Milne's religion (or lack of it). The two strong-men are dominating. And because they both identify as Christian we are expecting their Christian values to dominate -but they are not. This is because Australia is largely a secular society and, as Jack Thompson remarked on SBS' The Observer Effect, we vote not for the man but the suit he is wearing.

Pam | 22 August 2013  

Your bitterness over the fate of Julia Gillard shines through Moira. Her fall, like Rudd's coming one I fear, was ultimately due not to being a woman but to the all too prevalent hubris in politicians. Politicians are, I think, not so much male or female, but a sort of asexual species of their own, whose greatest motivator is power. Perhaps politics, by and large, hinders the development of rounded, feeling men and women, like your father? Interesting Christine Milne is, I believe, a lapsed Catholic. She doesn't make much of it but I think some of her concern for the environment and refugees could possibly be traced back to that. Rudd's public display of "faith" takes me back to smug 19th Century Christianity in the UK and here. I think it's all show. Tony Abbott, for all his many faults, is a bit more private about faith. Interesting, the Ursula Le Guin story you mention could be interpreted as a hint to move away from the narrow confines of our normal politics to something deeper. It was an individual move. Jung thought any genuine move to individuation had to be such. Perhaps we don't need to be political sheep?

Edward F | 23 August 2013  

Election (August) The approval given to an individual you have never met, whose actual opinions you only guess at, based on their allegiance to a set of ideas not all of which you agree with, or they don’t agree with altogether, and which could change when they assume power. The personal consideration of public issues presented as arguments only loosely based on the common good but essential as matters of marketing; consideration of these issues not as they pertain to anyone else, but primarily to one’s own (never let it be said, selfishness) self-interest. The demonstration of how the leader of a party, his conceits and failings, his values and skills, are immaterial before the overriding contest of two parties vying for the shifting attention of the largest number of possible voters; or her conceits and failings, her values and skills. The proof that headlines hide the truth, polls are pernicious deceits, columnists have their own agendas, bloggers are witnesses to their own shortcomings, opinion-makers are heated as climate change, and most people have made up their minds before the date is even set. The lesson in how logic does not determine an outcome, facts don’t get in the way of fictions, equations add up to what people want to see, theories suffer from attention deficit syndrome, numbers in boxes never total one’s true expectations. The language that key egos preach as humble service; that is a slogan concealing an ugly truth; that could go either way; that was everything shouted from the rooftops and is now next to nothing told in secret. The Saturday when the whole country goes cheerfully to its fate, waits in line as the ancestors waited in line, expects more of the same prosperity and disillusion; and, whatever the result that night, the Saturday when the power to tax is given over again to politicians.

Philip Harvey | 23 August 2013  

Shouldn't we be judging our politicians on their actions and to a lesser extent their attitudes (the ones that lead to actions) rather than any religious affiliation of philosophy they may hold? Don't you think an atheist with sound ethical values (based on the fundamental value and dignity of the human person) is more desirable that a flag waving Catholic who supports unjust policies? Just this week the students of Riverview contacted their school's Old Boy politicians to demand answers on their unjust policies towards asylum seekers.

AURELIUS | 23 August 2013  

"what a society built on care for our neighbour might look like." We HAVE a picture of such a society. It is depicted in the first Christian Community, in Acts2:44. "The faithful all lived together they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves, according to what everyone needed.” They could do this because they believed the world was about to end, and they would be judged according to the love they showed to all others, especially the poor and needy. All this generated such great compassion and love for others that it won millions of followers and lasted for hundreds of years, and caused pagans to exclaim, in admiration, “See how these Christians love one another.” Our challenge is to develop that same love and compassion without the stimulus of thinking the world is about to end. But if we could just try it, we would find that it made the world a much better place, and that everyone would benefit. Even if could visualise it as an ideal it would help to free us from the self-centeredness that leads to the inequality, bitterness and strife that bedevil the world at present.

Robert Liddy | 23 August 2013  

Yes Moira - as always you hit the spot. Leaders should lead us to form a better just Australia - not a knee jerk to gain votes .

Diana White | 23 August 2013  

So much for the Jesuit education being reputed best in the world. Or is it also the case : " not one stone here will be left upon another" ( the fall of all cosy institutions ) ? And what does ''remember where you came from", mean? - When I read this sentence, I immediately thought - "we are all from God and returning to God". But no ... and why should Tony Abbott being from Riverview make any difference? Further, if Fr Frank Brennan and other Jesuits lobbing for gays to have the right to be legally married in Australia, as they are lobbing to welcome refugees, wish their argument to be coherent, than Jesuits must also welcome the unbaptised children of gay couples and the unbaptised children of refugees into their Jesuit schools.

peter bohm | 23 August 2013  

Perhaps, Robert Liddy, the early Christians who believed they were were not long for this world and destined for unimaginable paradise, were , like most instinctive human beings, acting not through love for one another but through self-interest, the motivator par excellence that characterises the politician.

john frawley | 23 August 2013  

Kevin's hubris is shining through and Tony is just a pretty face. And to think Labor betrayed Gillard for this. Gillard for PM.

Lynda | 23 August 2013  

...the parent-child transaction becomes a sado-machochistic one, with the parent learning to justify and take some enjoyment from the exercise of the power = nonsense.

Game Theory | 23 August 2013  

How do we, as electors, decline the pleasure of punitive policies?

It is fed to us by the "bulls" (what an excellent choice in view of the waste they produce) as well as by the media!

Where exactly will we find real policies ?

How can we, as electors or rank and file political party members, feed into this process when our views are ignored and these bulls base there actions on the opinions of a deliberately misinformed and misled public.

Pam, I am sorry but a Green PM would be no different to a Red or Blue PM!

nick | 23 August 2013  

what do you get from two bulls in the election ring? More bulls..t! All dung and hot air and claim bragging rights to be the 28th(?) PM of Australia? Neither one of them has displayed their virtue, value or vision for the country they claim they will serve! If only these two leaders can be changed to give the people a better choice. How sad and painful it will be for most Australians over the next three years after Sept. 7.

Jan | 23 August 2013  

John Frawley 23 August 2013 "Perhaps, Robert Liddy, the early Christians who believed they were were not long for this world and destined for unimaginable paradise, were , like most instinctive human beings, acting not through love for one another but through self-interest, the motivator par excellence that characterises the politician." *********** I agree that the motivation of the early Christians at first was a mixture of self-interest and concern for others, but by exercising that concern, genuine love was fostered and became so inspirational that it transformed the way of looking at life at that time, and won millions of followers who, for hundreds of years, fed the hungry and nursed the sick, even during plagues. Everyone benefited from this exercise of benevolence, as we would find if we embraced that same universal concern. Such love needs to be cultivated for its fruits to prosper. We can see the strife and problems that arise when selfishness alone is the predominant motivation.

Robert Liddy | 25 August 2013  

PETER BOHM seems the have a warped sense of the sacrament of baptism and inclusiveness in the eyes of God. I don't know if you are assuming they the children of gay couples are unbaptisable, but Catholic teaching recognises the baptism from any faith - and it doesn't need to be performed by a priest. Baptism is a right, not a privilege - even if someone is wavering in their belief.

AURELIUS | 26 August 2013  

Are Jesuits offering a free education to those truly living at the margins of society, let's say, the homeless in New York City? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7qHKtvWycU If they really cared about social justice they would, rather than welcoming intellectually superior baptised catholic children, whose parents are wealthy enough to spend $ 35.000, if not more, on annual fees."It is imperative that we show our support if we want to push for a more moral, and a more just Australia. Remember how Jesus said our lives would be judged: 'I was a stranger and you welcomed me" Tony Abbott's old school hits out at asylum seeker stance as 'betraying moral values. SMH...Except, how can they wish to push for a more just society if their own Jesuit schools are so selective in regards to' the strangers' they 'welcome'? Perhaps Jesuit schools, should first practice what they preach by implementing :''Let the children come to me". Shalom.

peter bohm | 26 August 2013  

to PETER BOHM - It was the students who were calling for the Jesuit school alumni to create just policies, not their parents or school management. Unlike some alumni who should no better, the lure of power and personal gain often overpowers the desire to show Christian compassion. Hopefully the students might actually put into practice what they've learnt about social justice through Jesuit education. I'm sure there are many less high profile alumni who do that but we just don't get a chance to vote for them.

AURELIUS | 26 August 2013  

As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined. Shalom.

peter bohm | 26 August 2013  

Such a biologically deterministic attitude would be at odds with the freedom afforded to us through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, Peter Bohm

AURELIUS | 28 August 2013  

Joe Hockey: 'I feel guilty every single day'- and so you should, now, more than ever. Mamamia September 2012 . A MILLION families could miss out on seeing Labor's school kids bonus appear in their accounts twice every year in January and June. The cash bonus worth $820 a year for every high school child and $410 for every primary school child was unveiled in last year's budget.

Annoying Orange | 28 August 2013  

A bird's eyes view of Joe Hockey's cuts http://lowres-picturecabinet.com.s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/173/main/40/596632.jpg

Annoying Orange | 28 August 2013  

Older, bigger children defend their privileges, while younger kids try to subvert the status quo... As the twig is bent, so grows the tree. You are not going to tell me a Jesuit education is the equivalent to the Cross - those children - the least in society are living, are you? The Jesuits know very well what Jesus meant by "Let the children come to me"...The antithesis being the sin of partiality. "For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” ...Now, isn't this precisely what Joe Hockey, who by the way attended St Aloysius a Jesuit College, is supporting?

peter bohm | 28 August 2013  

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