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Australian politics

A plea for moral leadership

By Bruce Duncan, C.Ss.R. *

Many people have been shocked and dismayed by the sudden shift in policies by Australia’s Rudd government, particularly in relation to asylum seekers and its abandonment of the Emissions Trading Scheme.

In the election campaign that brought it into office Labor distinguished itself from the priorities of the Howard government. They did this particularly in regard to climate change and asylum seekers.  Three years later it is not hard to see why Prime Minister Rudd has ditched some of Labor’s key campaign issues from that time.

Recent opinion polls were indicating that the Coalition parties had narrowed the gap with Labor, and now had a real chance of winning the next election, which probably will be held before November. Facing stormy waters the Labor ship has jettisoned anything that could threaten its survival before the struggle ahead and this includes its previous policies on climate change and asylum seekers.

It has been disconcerting to see the campaign by climate-change deniers receiving such strong support from powerful sectional and media interests.

It is true that public alarm about the effects of climate change has waned, but the threat to human existence has not gone away. If anything, the danger looms larger, particularly because of the erosion of efforts to take urgent remedial action.

It has been disconcerting to see the campaign by climate-change deniers receiving such strong support from powerful sectional and media interests. I suspect future generations will judge them very harshly for so cavalierly dismissing the solid consensus in the scientific community that the threat is very real and increasingly ominous.

Prime Minister Rudd has seriously damaged his credibility and authority by so quickly surrendering the high moral ground. His own earlier rhetoric about climate change being the “great moral issue of our generation” will now come back to haunt him.

No doubt Mr Rudd did not make these decisions lightly. However, the spectre of Opposition Leader Kim Beasley losing the 2001 federal election to Prime Minister Howard, with the Tampa affair playing such a significant part in the loss, must have loomed large in Labor minds.

Many people have been hoping for inspired moral leadership from the Labor government, not panic. True, some were concerned that the ETS legislation gave too much away to big polluters, and could have been designed much better. It is now clear that the government did not argue its case about climate change strongly enough, though if re-elected it may introduce a better system to reduce carbon emissions and promote alternative energy sources.

Many supporters of the Coalition parties must also be distressed at their myopic vision and factionalism, and inability seriously to address climate change issues.

One would have hoped that the demonising of people fleeing to our country to seek protection from persecution belonged to a dark past

In addition, few can be unaware of the savage treatment of asylum seekers under the Howard government (1996-2007), clearly for naked political advantage. So we need to be deeply concerned by attempts to revive public alarm about asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat. One would have hoped that the demonising of people fleeing to our country to seek protection from persecution belonged to a dark past.

Such a threat again to beat up asylum seekers as an election issue demands strong moral leadership, and a determination among all of us not to tolerate such cynical and populist opportunism. A special responsibility lies on all committed to human rights and human wellbeing to make their voices heard.

Undoubtedly many Labor supporters will seriously consider voting for the Greens as a protest. And activist groups like Getup are already stirring their members to mobilise public opinion on climate change.

This commitment to human wellbeing is crucial for the honour of our nation.

Religious groups also must engage with these issues in the public forum, and vigorously defend people in such great need and distress. This commitment to human wellbeing for everyone without exception, but especially for victims of violence, is crucial for the honour of our nation, and is an absolutely core value for Christians as well as people from other religious traditions.

Australians who are also feeling let down by this lack of leadership on key social issues and want to make the point in this coming election campaign are welcome to avail themselves of information from Social Policy Connections. Members of SPC are encouraged to join one of their incipient working groups on environmental issues, poverty or asylum seekers/refugees. If you email the SPC office, they can put you in touch with the respective convenors.

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• Fr Bruce Duncan CSsR is one of the founders of the advocacy group, Social Policy Connections, and Director of the new Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy, based at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne.

•Images courtesy of flickr  http://www.flickr.com/photos/ronniehall/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 http://www.flickr.com/photos/5h4rk/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0