Mission accomplished: Labor's back with a Rudder that works
We can be confident that the ALP's troubles have melted into thin air with the appointment of "the dream team", and especially the fact that Kevin Rudd is its leader. From Rudd's theology follows a vision of social responsibility in action - an vision that will eventually also spell an inevitable end to mandatory detention.
Image: The front cover of the October 2006 Monthly, where Kevin Rudd's article Faith in Politics appeared.
Here's a page with the reports from Week One, including the often referred to article from the October Monthly. There's reason to celebrate, because under Rudd Labor may just romp home at the next Federal election.
If we apply a Christian socialist critique to contemporary Australian politics, the precise nature of the widening values divide in John Howard's Australia becomes starkly apparent. Mr Howard is a clever politician who often succeeds in masking the essential self-interest of his political project with a veneer of "duty to the nation". Mr Howard's politics are in the main about concealing the substantive truth of his policy program because - as with his new industrial laws - when fully exposed to the light of public debate, their essential truth is revealed: a redistribution of power from the weak to the strong.
There is an alternative vision for Australia's future: one which seeks to take Chifley's vision of a "light on the hill" into an uncertain century. This is an enlarging vision that sees Australia taking the lead on global climate change, rather than continuing to play the role of saboteur. This is an Australia that takes the lead on the Millennium Development Goals both in word and deed, and leads by example in dealing with the chronic poverty in our own region.
9 March 2009: Kevin Rudd's The Monthly Essay: The Global Financial Crisis - Kevin Rudd established himself in 2006 as a philosopher and thinker on social issues with an article about John Howard's views on the economy with the essay "Howard's Brutopia". For a second time, also in the respected magazine The Monthly, Rudd wrote about Politics and Religion, and about his respect for Dietrich Bonhoeffer's theology - just a month later. This is his third contribution, of February 2009.
4 October 2007: Kevin Rudd: Howard's Brutopia; the battle of ideas in Australian politics - "the culture war is essentially a cover for the real battle of ideas in Australian politics today: the battle between free-market fundamentalism and the social-democratic belief that individual reward can be balanced with social responsibility. Howard's culture war is in large part an electoral strategy drawn straight from the Republican Party's campaign manual."
Back in the game
Shaun Carney is associate editor; Michael Gordon is national editor.
Call it Kevin Rudd's private project. For more than a year, on the long international flights he took as Labor's foreign affairs spokesman and his frequent travels between the eastern seaboard capitals, Rudd has worked on an alternative political strategy. As Kim Beazley huffed and puffed, reacting to each step taken by the Howard Government, a despairing Rudd kept asking himself: what would I do?
At the start, it was more of an intellectual exercise than anything else. But as the first half of 2006 progressed, and the ground beneath Beazley's feet started to fall away, Rudd realised there was an increasing possibility that he could get a chance to implement his strategy.
Now that a solid majority of the Labor caucus has endorsed him as Beazley's replacement, Rudd is taking his private project public and a signal moment in Australian politics has been reached. What Rudd and his deputy Julia Gillard want to bring about is the equivalent of a rebirth of the Labor Party - not just some tweaks and soundbites combined with targeted policies in the style of Beazley, but a comprehensive repositioning of the ALP at the centre of the political debate.
Much has been said and written in the past week about Rudd and Gillard's past differences. But one of the key things that brought them together was their shared exasperation - occasionally it was close to anger - at the Government's success in outsmarting Beazley Labor on the so-called values questions.
Education, patriotism, religious faith, Australian values, personal discipline, parenting - on every issue, Beazley and his deputy Jenny Macklin were left flat-footed and reactive by Howard and his ministers as the Coalition developed new ways to embed itself in the public consciousness. Rudd and Gillard knew instinctively - and they have refined their views through a range of discussions since June - that it would never be enough for an Opposition to merely defend itself or declare that it had different ideas on these subjects.
Instead, Labor had to open up a series of new fronts, embarking on its own values offensive independent of whatever the Government was saying. In his first speech to Parliament as leader, on Tuesday, Rudd said it was "time to rehabilitate the word compassion into our national vocabulary", described the free market as "a wonderful, creative and innovative thing" that needed to be civilised, and nominated fairness and the fair go as Labor's legacy to the nation.
"When it comes to fairness, a fair go, some people think that this just mysteriously grew out of the soil one day in Australia. Do you know that it did not? Our movement etched it into the Australian soul through the 19th century and the 20th century," he said. Expect to hear a lot more of that, along with concepts such as social inclusion and family values between now and the next election.
Rudd and Gillard are clearly basing some of their strategy on the experience of the British Labour Party under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, as well as social democratic parties in Western Europe, especially in Germany, which have followed a model that relies on support and ideas from beyond their party membership. Community groups and small business people are important parts of the support bases of these parties and were crucial to their regeneration in recent years.
Rudd's goal is to deal Labor firmly into the political mainstream, to rid the party of its appearance of machine control. But there's also an element in his thinking aimed at wrong-footing the Prime Minister. John Howard had not expected Beazley to fall before Christmas. Then again, he had not expected Mark Latham to beat Beazley three years ago either. The contrast in how the Government responded to Latham in 2003 and Rudd this week was stark, and nowhere more apparent than in the reaction of hard-man Tony Abbott, who said within days of Latham's elevation that he was no alternative prime minister, "because in the end it is character that counts".
Declaring Latham had left a "trail of human wreckage" that demonstrated a brutal streak, Abbott cited Latham's scorned political mentor, abandoned first wife and, of course, "the bashed taxi driver".
When Abbott responded to Rudd in Parliament on Thursday, he predicted Labor's new leader had the job ahead of him, but began: "I have always regarded the member for Griffith (Rudd) as an intelligent, articulate and decent man and I have not been disabused of those notions over the past few days."
Elsewhere, the response to the elevation of Rudd and Gillard has been overwhelmingly positive. "They've got a huge mountain to climb and I don't think anybody is falling into the trap of saying more than it's a promising start, but they're making every post a winner," says Rod Cameron, the former Labor pollster, an astute observer of national politics for more than three decades.
Like Abbott, Cameron was convinced Labor made a huge mistake in choosing Latham over Beazley in 2003, but he has no doubt Labor MPs made the right call on Rudd. "The most important thing I think he brings to the table is a social conscience, fairness and, dare I say it, values," Cameron says. "It's pretty traditional Labor stuff, but we haven't seen it for a generation - not in the way Rudd is communicating it."
Tim Costello, the chief executive of World Vision in Australia, goes further. "I have genuine hope that here is someone who will offer moral leadership - someone who seems to live consequentially with their faith and their values."
Costello's assessment is based on what he has seen of Rudd up close when, as Labor's foreign affairs spokesman, he approached World Vision earlier this year and said he wanted to observe first-hand what was happening in Sudan's Darfur region.
"Nobody wants to go to Darfur. It's a hellhole that is very dangerous and harsh, but he was really passionate about understanding the humanitarian crisis and the human rights abuses." When the Rudd-Gillard bandwagon passes through Victoria next week, both will call on the World Vision leader. "All the noises we're hearing from him are very positive on our policy issues."
AS JOHN Howard observed when he shuffled his ministry in January, politics is "remorselessly governed by the laws of arithmetic". Toppling Beazley required those MPs who saw Rudd as the answer to combine forces with those who supported Gillard. Beating Howard is a much bigger challenge, but similarly involves seeking the support of two different constituencies and hoping the result is a majority on polling day. The two groups are the inner-city, small-l liberal intelligentsia, the so-called elites, and the aspirational voters in the outer suburbs and regional areas, a constituency that includes the so-called Howard battlers.
Beazley lost the first group in the 2001 election with his small-target strategy and initial me-too response when the Howard Government turned back the Tampa, and Latham was never serious about wooing them back.
Despite Beazley's best endeavours since returning to the leadership after the Latham experiment, when he railed against Howard's "extreme" IR changes and the need to address the skills crisis, he failed to rally the second group behind him. They had stopped listening.
Winning back those who are passionate about social justice, human rights, reconciliation and the survival of the planet is the less daunting of the two challenges for Rudd and Gillard, as Tim Costello's response suggests. Rudd's October essay in The Monthly magazine about faith in politics, where he nominated Dietrich Bonhoeffer as the man he admires most from the 20th century, tells us why he will appeal to this group.
Bonhoeffer, a German peace activist, was hanged by the SS in the final months of World War II. As Rudd sees it, Bonhoeffer's moral courage provides a guide for Christian action when it comes to the fault lines of modern political debate, from the threat posed by militant Islamism to the challenge of tackling global poverty.
His analysis suggests one of the early commitments of a Rudd government would be to move more decisively toward meeting the Make Poverty History appeal for wealthy countries to invest 0.7 per cent of national income in overseas aid by 2015.
Securing the second, and more sizeable, constituency looms as much more challenging, with the Rudd-Gillard team having to demonstrate they have both the credibility and experience to continue Australia's record unbroken run of economic prosperity. Here, Rudd's message is not a dramatic shift from Beazley, with its focus on addressing the skills shortage, keeping interest rates low and tearing up Howard's IR laws, but it is more likely to arouse disengaged voters.
Indeed, it is here that the double act has its greatest potential, with Gillard assuming the IR portfolio, but placing much more emphasis on the impact of policy on family life, and Rudd raising expectations that he can encourage manufacturing without resorting to old strategies of protection or picking winners.
In his appeal to both constituencies, the Rudd mantra is all about reclaiming the centre ground and he gave a preview of his approach - including the claim that Howard's political project had gone "a bridge too far" - in a speech to the Centre for Independent Studies a fortnight before the challenge to Beazley.
"I believe the centre of gravity of Australian politics has always had a deep scepticism about fundamentalist ideologies of either the right or the left," he said, pointing to Howard's workplace laws as an example of "market fundamentalism", its failure to identify climate change "as a classic case of market failure", and the implications of "blindly following the neo-conservative, foreign policy folly that has been the invasion and occupation of Iraq".
All three, he argued, were considered "a bridge too far" by the Australian mainstream. "Which is why the season is ripe in Australian politics to restore the balance and reclaim the centre ground."
The push to install Rudd did not come together through osmosis, nor did it emerge fully formed at the end of last week. On Wednesday, Labor's immigration spokesman Tony Burke reportedly rejected the notion that a leadership change had been planned for months. Burke was not in a position to know; he jumped on board the Rudd cart only at the start of last week. In fact, members of Burke's own NSW Right faction had issued a warning to Beazley back in March, the subject of a story in Sydney's Sun Herald, that the then Labor leader was on three months' notice to lift his game. In return, he was given "clear air" to do better.
While Rudd had no direct role in destabilising Beazley, he worked tirelessly to strengthen his claim as Labor's next leader.
Aside from writing two extended essays for the high-brow Monthly, he established a weekly presence on populist TV, as a regular guest, paired with Liberal minister Joe Hockey, on Channel Seven's Sunrise. Rudd even walked the Kokoda track with the program's male host, David Koch. As PR, it was gold for the bookish, Harry Potter-esque shadow foreign affairs spokesman.
At the same time, Rudd was reaching out beyond his factional confreres on the ALP's Right. One left-winger he got to know was fellow frontbencher Kim Carr, who in recent years has become close to Gillard. Carr, who had held Rudd in disdain under the leadership of Simon Crean and Latham, found himself liking Rudd, admiring his intellect and his politics.
"It struck me that if you looked at what he had to say, then you could see that he embodied the best traditions of modern social democracy, which are to link economic prosperity and social justice," Carr says. "Talking to him about what made him a Labor person, his experiences when he was very young (Rudd lost his father as a child and lived in poverty for a while), you can't help but be affected by it.
"He is genuinely committed to an egalitarian society, to more ethical behaviour, to government giving people who want to work hard a hand to have an equal opportunity. That's what sold me on him."
Although Rudd was assiduously positioning himself as Beazley's replacement, he and Gillard continued to believe all the way up to the middle of last week that there was a chance that Beazley would realise he should step aside without a caucus showdown. But they were prepared for a ballot should it be needed and were confident that there was a strong mood for change. From the start of November they had felt comfortable about the numbers.
A series of influential people in the ALP and the unions privately urged Beazley to consider making way for Rudd that month. All were rebuffed. Beazley and his advisers judged that Rudd would not have the courage to make a lunge and attempted to extinguish the putsch by leaking word of a challenge to the press three weeks ago.
It was a misjudgement; the publicity acted as a lightning rod for disillusionment within the party. From this time on, Rudd, anxious not to be seen to be undermining Beazley, kept out of the public eye. His press secretary barely returned a phone call. Rudd observed this week that his press conference on Friday of last week, in which he announced his candidacy, was his first for two weeks and three days - possibly a record period of staying away from microphones during his political career.
Just how the Rudd-Howard contest will play is not immediately clear, with the two contenders shadow-boxing in their early exchanges in Parliament. With Gillard, Rudd promised a new style of leadership without clearly defining what it was.
The aim, one suspects, is for the electorate to conclude over the coming months that this style is all about youth, enthusiasm, energy and inclusion while, as Gillard repeatedly asserted this week, the Howard Government's best days are behind it.
The Government's restraint in dealing with Rudd will no doubt prove temporary and may yet turn personal, with Rudd's intelligence and bookish appearance cast as an indication that he is remote from average Australians - a tactic used unsuccessfully against Bob Carr in NSW.
Former Hawke and Keating government minister Gary Punch was among those in the public gallery to witness Rudd's first performance in the Parliament as leader and was impressed with what he saw, remarking later that the new leader's instincts about what the electorate wanted were "spot on".
Punch later offered Rudd the same advice he says he gave an unconvinced Keating when Howard was in the wilderness in the mid-1980s - that Howard was a very dangerous opponent who was capable of shifting debate to the ground on which he was most comfortable. "Don't be diverted from your course," said Punch, who later predicted that if Rudd, his shadow cabinet and his caucus held their nerve and fought on their terms, the public would rally.
Gillard agrees, saying this was the principal lesson for Labor from Steve Bracks' toppling of Jeff Kennett in 1999. Back then, Gillard had served as chief of staff to John Brumby, who was replaced by Bracks as leader only to become the Treasurer in Labor's most successful government in Victorian history. While Bracks was criticised at the time for not responding to Kennett's many attempts to throw him off course, Gillard says: "Steve was very firm that you play your own game, even if it leaves you open to the criticism of looking a bit bland." It did, but Bracks emerged triumphant.
There are other lessons for Rudd from the Bracks experience, too, like being able to exploit the economic disparity between those who are doing very well out of a buoyant economy and those who are missing out.
Then there is the importance of projecting the impression that the alternative government is cohesive - that key figures actually like each other.
Punch had not been back to Canberra since Keating's defeat in 1996. What struck him most was just how poisonous some of the relationships had become after more than five years of leadership turmoil. "What impressed me was that Kevin was genuinely consulting (with his MPs). He understands the need to pull some of the poisonous relationships back together." For her part, Gillard is confident the new leadership team can build goodwill by performing well and being inclusive. "Leadership contests are always hurtful, but I think the caucus is healing and is very keen to put the past in the past and get on with it," she told The Age. Others, including a number who supported Beazley, agree, arguing there is an acceptance that Rudd and Gillard did not subject Beazley to the kind of destabilisation that persisted throughout Crean's time as leader.
In the end, the scale of Labor's challenge comes back to arithmetic. Labor needs a swing of 3.3 per cent and 12 more seats to hold more lower house seats than the Coalition - and nearly 5 per cent to win an outright majority. In Victoria, the most marginal Government seats are Deakin and McMillan, with a 5 per cent buffer. All this against one of the toughest political fighters in Australia's history, who has the twin benefits of incumbency and economic prosperity. It is a big ask on any estimation, but the consensus among shrewd thinkers on either side of Parliament is that there is now a serious contest to be had. As Rudd put it to the press gallery when he hosted drinks on Wednesday evening: "We're back in the game."
Rudd has got to live up to his words
John Roskam is executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs.
Labor MPs got more than they bargained for when they chose Kevin Rudd as their leader. He poses a far greater potential risk for the ALP than Mark Latham did. The benefit for the party is that Rudd gives his party its best chance in a decade of beating John Howard.
His public pronouncements reveal that Rudd might possess a quality that Kim Beazley didn't display nearly often enough, and it is a quality that even John Howard's opponents concede to the prime minister. The new Labor leader might have the courage of his convictions.
In response to media questions over the past few days, Rudd has spoken about his esteem for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor put to death by the Nazis in 1945. In an essay in The Monthly in October, Rudd called Bonhoeffer "the man I admire most in the history of the 20th century". Bonhoeffer was repelled by the evils of fascism and fought overtly and then covertly against the Nazi regime. He was executed when his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler was discovered.
There are no shades of grey about Bonhoeffer's actions. Even though he was a pacifist, and had devoted his life to trying to achieve peace, ultimately he understood that there was no alternative than to plan for the murder of Hitler.
It would have been easy for Rudd never to have discussed Bonhoeffer or to have chosen a less problematic hero. The traditional legends of Curtin and Chifley are safe, and are the ones usually invoked by aspiring ALP leaders. That he opted not to go down this route is telling.
Rudd would be the first person to realise that he is heading a Labor Party, some of whose members are profoundly uneasy about the notion that anyone can achieve the sort of moral clarity reached by Bonhoeffer. As a Christian, Rudd would also know that there would be few members of any Christian denomination in Australia who would unambiguously condone assassination.
But moral clarity is exactly what will be required in the coming decades as Australia and other liberal democracies fight a war against radical Islam. It is a war that could last a generation. John Howard, Tony Blair and George Bush have all endorsed freedom and democracy over every other alternative, and it is precisely their clarity that has so unnerved their critics. All three leaders know that on some questions there is simply no scope for negotiation. Fortunately, it appears this is also the position of the new Labor leader.
Rudd is brave enough to confront those who believe that the challenge to liberal democracy can be solved through discussion. As he wrote two months ago "of discomfort to certain elements of the far left would be the truthful conclusion that there is a fundamental problem within militant Islamism, which values violent jihad in its own right and is not amenable to engagement, dialogue or persuasion".
The one fault with this statement is that Rudd believes that only "certain elements" of the "far left" are discomforted by the fact that militant Islamism can't be negotiated with. What he describes is an attitude that exists in his own party and cuts across the political spectrum. It is a view that questions not how to fight militant Islamism, but whether to fight it at all.
According to Rudd, "of discomfort to the right is the conclusion that the politics of economic underdevelopment in much of the Islamic world breeds resentment, denies opportunity and therefore provides fertile recruitment fields for jihadists". Actually, for those on the right such an analysis is not at all troubling. Much of the Islamic world is ruled by totalitarian dictators or governed as a one-party state so it is no surprise that economic underdevelopment is the result. The phenomena that Rudd describes are much bigger problems for the left than the right.
Rudd spoke about domestic matters after his elevation. All are important, but they are minor and easy compared with foreign policy challenges.
If, after a Labor win at the next federal election, Labor withdraws Australian troops from Iraq it would be a mistake. But our elected politicians are going to be required to make decisions even more significant than about the future Iraq. They will have to choose whether to negotiate with, or confront those who threaten the way of life we enjoy.
The risk for Labor is that one day as prime minister, Rudd may be required to match his deeds with his words.
Off to a slippery start
WHAT a week! On Monday, the Dream Team stormed the Labor citadel and took power with an emphatic victory.
At their first news conference a few hours later, we got to meet the Rudd family, who looked so immaculate, cheerful and proud to be there they could have been mistaken for The Pollyanna Glad Club.
The nation was also introduced to Julia Gillard's other half, Tim, a rugged chap who came dressed in a gray vinyl jacket, dark pants, fawn leather shoes, his shirt hanging out and the general demeanour of a man who had just managed to crawl out of Chasers Nightclub in time to make the early flight to Canberra.
Not the conventional political consort, but a real person at least and, judging from the look of admiration in his eyes, one with a heart as well.
After all the flak Gillard has copped for being unmarried and childless, it was good to see some evidence that she has a life outside politics.
But with the sadness evident at the tragic circumstances surrounding Kim Beazley, the Dream Team's rise to power was not the cathartic release of tension that accompanied Mark Latham's leadership victory three years ago - more like quiet relief that the contest was over.
In the days that followed, the most optimistic sign that good things may come to Rudd was news that the mysterious Joe de Bruyn, head of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, was upset. One of those self-styled feudal lords who have been pushing federal Labor leaders around for far too long, de Bruyn was agitated because Rudd had totally ignored his demands to retain an obscure South Australian senator named Annette Hurley on his front bench.
Hurley, who entered Parliament after the last election and owes her Senate seat to de Bruyn, had no place on the front bench in the first place and is about as bland and uninspiring as most of the other people de Bruyn has installed in Parliament.
What sort of a Labor man is de Bruyn anyway? Even after last week's leadership ballot was over, de Bruyn, a Beazley supporter, was doing his best to undermine the new team.
His first act was to warn Rudd not to change a word of Labor's industrial relations policy.
Then, asked how he felt about Gillard, de Bruyn offered this unhelpful remark: "I don't know how much experience she has had and obviously she'll be on a steep learning curve."
Never having poked his nose outside the SDA office in Queen Street in the past 30 years, what would de Bruyn know?
If Rudd is to have any hope of overcoming the charge often thrown by the Government that the Labor Party is run by the unions, he will have to stand up to union leaders who think they own sections of the federal caucus, and in that respect he's made a good start.
A more worrying sign for Rudd is the length of time it has taken him to assign the shadow ministers their new portfolios.
True, Rudd was no doubt exhausted by the end of last week and a few days' delay doesn't really matter that much, but the fact that he couldn't make the announcement as promised suggests he was already having trouble managing the egos within his party.
As for the claim that Rudd has achieved "renewal" on the front bench, that doesn't stand up to much scrutiny either.
Two of the new faces are actually old faces - Bob McMullan and Craig Emerson - and there are still too many of the same old faces sitting at the front.
Take Laurie Ferguson. He may be a very nice and intelligent man - which he is - with an encyclopedic knowledge of Labor history, but it's fair to say he doesn't exactly set Labor's parliamentary attack alight.
Nor has he scored many - any? - hits on the Government in his portfolio area of consumer affairs and health regulation in the past two years.
Is Queenslander Arch Bevis, after 16 years in Parliament, getting a bit long in the tooth? Could people such as Joe Ludwig or Mark Bishop be dropped without doing too much damage to the Labor brand?
New MPs such as South Australia's Kate Ellis or the former recording industry executive Julie Owens might lack experience, but they don't lack energy and at least they are something new.
Beazley's lasting legacy was supposed to be an open ballot for the shadow ministry that did away with all the factional chiefs deciding things behind closed doors.
Beazley announced this new order of proceedings the day he declared the leadership position open and it was immediately praised by several faction leaders.
The Left's Anthony Albanese was one in particular who hailed the move as "democracy at last!"
"Kim Beazley is the man who will go down in history as the man who reformed the Labor Party," he gushed on a tour of the parliamentary press gallery soon after Beazley's announcement.
So it came as something of a surprise when, soon after Rudd had won the leadership, Albanese happily sat down in the same old fashion with the 50 or so other people in the caucus who call themselves powerbrokers to work out who would sit on the front bench.
The new "democracy" lasted about 72 hours and in the end was nothing but meaningless rhetoric. At the caucus meeting to "elect" the new front bench on Thursday there were 28 nominations for 28 positions.
Can Rudd win the next election? Anything can happen between now and then, but with 16 seats to win - some of them with margins as high as 5 per cent - you would have to say it's highly unlikely.
More realistic is the two-step strategy, with Rudd clawing back enough seats next year to put himself in a good position to win in 2010.
Views differ widely on how good a prime minister Gough Whitlam was, but no one disputes the fact that he was a brilliant opposition leader.
His first achievement was to take on the party organisation, a battle from which he emerged as the indisputably dominant figure in the ALP.
Whitlam then lost the 1969 election but, having won so many seats, the party could finally smell victory and united behind him over the next three years.
This enabled Whitlam to lay down the policies and ideas that finally got Labor over the line in 1972.
This may well be the path ahead for Rudd.
The Monthly article: Faith in Politics
By Kevin Rudd
Above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey are arrayed ten great statues of the martyrs of the Church. Not Peter, Stephen, James or the familiar names of the saints sacrificed during the great Roman persecution before Constantine's conversion. No: these are martyrs of the twentieth century, when the age of faith was, in the minds of many in the West, already tottering towards its collapse.
One of those honoured above the Great West Door is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, pastor and peace activist. Bonhoeffer is, without doubt, the man I admire most in the history of the twentieth century. He was a man of faith. He was a man of reason. He was a man of letters who was as well read in history and literature as he was in the intensely academic Lutheran theology of the German university tradition. He was never a nationalist, always an internationalist. And above all, he was a man of action who wrote prophetically in 1937 that "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." For Bonhoeffer, whatever the personal cost, there was no moral alternative other than to fight the Nazi state with whatever weapons were at his disposal.
Three weeks before the end of World War II, Bonhoeffer was hanged by the SS because of his complicity in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. This year marks the centenary of his birth. This essay seeks both to honour Bonhoeffer and to examine what his life, example and writings might have to say to us, 60 years after his death, on the proper relationship between Christianity and politics in the modern world.
In both George Bush's America and John Howard's Australia, we see today the political orchestration of various forms of organised Christianity in support of the conservative incumbency. In the US, the book God's Politics, by Reverend Jim Wallis, has dragged this phenomenon out of the shadows (where it is so effectively manipulated by the pollsters and spin-doctors) and into the searching light of proper public debate. US Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians are now engaged in a national discussion on the role of the religious Right. The same debate must now occur here in Australia. As Wallis notes in his introduction:
"God is not partisan: God is not a Republican or a Democrat. When either party tries to politicize God, or co-opt religious communities for their political agendas, they make a terrible mistake. The best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable nor loyally partisan. Both parties, and the nation, must let the prophetic voice of religion be heard. Faith must be free to challenge both right and left from a consistent moral ground."
* * * * * *
Had Dietrich Bonhoeffer been at Oxford, he would have been one of the gods. He was at 21 a doctoral graduate and at 23 the youngest person ever appointed to a lectureship in systematic theology at the University of Berlin, in 1929. His contemporaries saw his career as made in heaven. Along Unter den Linden, just beyond the faculty walls, however, the living hell of the Nazi storm-troopers was being born.
At the core of Bonhoeffer's theological and therefore political life was a repudiation of the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. As James Woelfel has noted:
"According to this doctrine, the proper concern of the gospel is the inner person, the sphere where the Kingdom of God reigns; the Kingdom of the State, on the other hand, lies in the outer sphere, the realm of law, and is not subject to the gospel's message. German Christians used this argument to justify devotion to race and fatherland as 'orders of creation' to be obeyed until the final consummation."
These debates may seem arcane in twenty-first-century secular Australia, but in the Germany of the 1930s they were central to the decision of the majority of German Lutheran ministers to submit to the Reichskirche (resplendent with swastikas on their ecclesiastical stoles) and to retreat into a politically non-threatening quietism as the political repression of Hitler's post-1933 chancellorship unfolded. Equally, it was Bonhoeffer's theological dissent from the perversion of this Two Kingdoms doctrine that led him, at the tender age of 29, to establish in 1935 the German Confessing Church, with its underground seminary.
Bonhoeffer's seminal work, his Ethics, was not collated and published until after his execution. Its final essay is entitled 'What is Meant By Telling the Truth', and it represents a call to the German Church to assume a prophetic role in speaking out in defence of the defenceless in the face of a hostile state. For Bonhoeffer, "Obedience to God's will may be a religious experience but it is not an ethical one until it issues in actions that can be socially valued." He railed at a Church for whom Christianity was "a metaphysical abstraction to be spoken of only at the edges of life", and in which clergy blackmailed their people with hellish consequences for those whose sins the clergy were adept at sniffing out, all the while ignoring the real evil beyond their cathedrals and churches. "The Church stands," he argued, "not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village."
In his Letters from Prison, he wrote, reflecting in part on the deportation of the Jews, that "We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the reviled - in short, from the perspective of those who suffer." Bonhoeffer's political theology is therefore one of a dissenting church that speaks truth to the state, and does so by giving voice to the voiceless. Its domain is the village, not the interior life of the chapel. Its core principle is to stand in defence of the defenceless or, in Bonhoeffer's terms, of those who are "below".
Bonhoeffer lived what he preached. The day after Hitler became chancellor in January 1933, Bonhoeffer made on Berlin Radio a direct attack on the so-called "Führer Principle", before the broadcast was cut off. In April 1933, two weeks after Hitler's enactment of the Aryan Civil Service legislation banning people of Jewish ancestry from public employment, Bonhoeffer published The Church and the Jewish Question, in which he urged the church to "jam the spoke of the state ... to protect the state from itself".
He then established his Confessing Church which, before being finally suppressed by the SS in 1941, produced much of the leadership of the German Resistance. Internationally, Bonhoeffer spent from 1933 to 1939 seeking to unite the International Christian Movement into a global pacifist movement that would oppose the aggression of his own state. After the failure of these efforts, in 1940 he joined the German Abwehr (military intelligence) as a double agent, and until his arrest in late 1943 he collaborated with the armed forces' conspiracy against Hitler - and, at the same time, organised the secret evacuation of a number of German Jews to Switzerland.
Bonhoeffer's was a muscular Christianity. He became the Thomas More of European Protestantism because he understood the cost of discipleship, and lived it. Both Bonhoeffer and More were truly men for all seasons.
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Where does Bonhoeffer's teaching fit within the history of Christian thought on church-state relations? This history begins with the great exchange, recorded in the New Testament, in which Jesus of Nazareth instructed people "to render under Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's". The Nazarene, of course, had the good sense not to define precisely what each could lay claim to: which things uniquely belong to Caesar, and which to God. Therein lies the dilemma that has confounded Christians of all persuasions who have engaged with the political process in the intervening 20 centuries.
During the first three centuries of its history, Christianity did not just preach a Gospel for the oppressed; Christians themselves were being oppressed. Christianity began as the profession of an oppressed minority, having emerged from within Judaism, Judaism in turn having had its own troubled experience within the Roman Empire. The New Testament therefore sees the world from the perspective of that persecution, as do the later parts of the Old Testament, particularly the literature of the Babylonian captivity.
All this began to change with the Constantinian settlement at the beginning of the fourth century. Once Christianity became part of the orthodoxy of the later Roman Empire, the greatest challenge of theology and politics was how to translate this "theology of the oppressed" into a doctrine for an age in which the church was secure and legally protected through the offices of the state itself. For its first three centuries, Christianity had represented an active counterculture, but what was to be Christianity's message in a new age in which the church had become culturally dominant? This became the continuing challenge of Christianity in the Christian West for the subsequent 1500 years.
Over the last 200 years, however, we have seen an entirely different debate arise, as Christianity has sought to come to terms with a rising and increasingly rampant secularism. The impact of independent scientific enquiry, the increasing impact of secular humanism itself, combined with the pervasive influence of modernism and postmodernism, have had the cumulative effect of undermining the influence of the mainstream Catholic and Protestant churches across the West.
Where this will lead, as Christianity enters its third millennium, remains to be seen. But there are signs of Christianity seeing itself, and being seen by others, as a counterculture operating within what some have called a post-Christian world. In some respects, therefore, Christianity, at least within the West, may be returning to the minority position it occupied in the earliest centuries of its existence. But whether or not we conclude that Christianity holds a minority or a majority position within Western societies, that still leaves unanswered the question of how any informed individual Christian (or Christians combined in the form of an organised church) should relate to the state.
I argue that a core, continuing principle shaping this engagement should be that Christianity, consistent with Bonhoeffer's critique in the '30s, must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed. As noted above, this tradition is very much alive in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament. It is also very much alive in the recorded accounts of Jesus of Nazareth: his engagement with women, gentiles, tax collectors, prostitutes and the poor - all of whom, in the political and social environment of first-century Palestine, were fully paid-up members of the "marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed". Furthermore, parallel to this identification with those "below" was Jesus' revulsion at what he described as the hypocrisy of the religious and political elites of his time, that is, those who were "above".
Do these principles of themselves provide a universal moral precept from which all elements of social and economic policy can be derived? Of course not. But they do provide an illuminating principle - even a "light on the hill", to borrow Chifley's phrase, which he in turn had consciously borrowed from Christ's Sermon on the Mount - that can help to shape our view of what constitutes appropriate policy for the community, the nation and the world.
What does this principle have to say about economic self-interest? What does it have to say about Max Weber's Protestant work ethic? Or about the legitimate theological basis for the accumulation of private wealth? On these questions we are left with the troubling parable about a camel passing through the eye of a needle. But we are also left with a parable about the proper tending of the vineyard, the diligence of those who work the vineyard, and the abundance of the harvest. In this context, Catholic social teaching has long argued for a proper balance between the rights of capital and labour, in a relationship based on mutual respect as well as legal protection.
Apart from the great questions of wealth, poverty and social justice, a second area of long-standing contention in church-state relations has been the doctrine of the just war. What is the Christian view of violence by the state? What specifically is the Christian view of the state itself employing violence against other states? These debates are ultimately anchored in the Christian concern for the sanctity of all human life. Human life can only be taken in self-defence, and only then under highly conditional circumstances - circumstances which include the exhaustion of all other peaceful means to resolve a dispute; and if war is to be embarked upon, then the principles of proportionality must apply. On this point, for example, it is worth noting that Pope John Paul II did not support the Iraq war as a just war.
These principles of proportionality apply also to the state's role in providing, protecting or (in the current debate) circumscribing the freedoms of its citizenry. Christian teaching is sceptical about a state's demand for more and more power. We should be sceptical of that demand today, just as we should challenge the right of the state lawfully to execute its own citizens. The Christian belief in the sanctity of life should cause us to conclude that capital punishment is unacceptable in all circumstances and in all jurisdictions.
The function of the church in all these areas of social, economic and security policy is to speak directly to the state: to give power to the powerless, voice to those who have none, and to point to the great silences in our national discourse where otherwise there are no natural advocates.
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If these are the contours of classical Christian engagement with the state, the modern forms of political engagement are in the main much cruder. Below I list five of them, of which only the fifth bears any real resemblance to Bonhoeffer's position.
1. Vote for me because I'm a Christian. This is the model that is most repugnant. It is the model which says that, simply on the basis of my external profession of the Christian faith, those of similar persuasion should vote for me. This is about as intelligent as saying that because I am a Sydney Swans supporter, all other Swans supporters should vote for me, because we ostensibly adhere to the same belief system. This model is alive and well in the US. Thankfully, it is much less alive and much less well in Australia, although there are some dangerous signs that for certain Christian constituencies here, it represents an increasingly appealing message. It is a model for which there is no underpinning scriptural, doctrinal or theological authority.
2. Vote for me because I'm Christian, and because I have a defined set of views on a narrowly defined set of questions concerning sexual morality. Regrettably, this model has an increasing number of supporters within the broader Christian community. Such supporters tend to read down, rather than read up, the ethical teachings of the New Testament, producing a narrow tick-the-box approach to passing a so-called Christian morals test. These tests tend to emphasise questions of sexuality and sexual behaviour. I see very little evidence that this pre-occupation with sexual morality is consistent with the spirit and content of the Gospels. For example, there is no evidence of Jesus of Nazareth expressly preaching against homosexuality. In contrast, there is considerable evidence of the Nazarene preaching against poverty and the indifference of the rich.
3. Vote for me because I am a Christian, vote for me because I have a defined set of views on questions of private sexual morality, and vote for me also because I chant the political mantra of "family values". That is, take models number one and two and add to them the tag of "family values". Regrettably, that term has become one of the most used and abused terms in the Australian political lexicon. The concept of "family values" it involves is invariably a narrow one, and invariably leaves to one side the ability of working families to survive financially.
4. Apply models one, two and three above, and then add the following offensive play. Unleash a political fusillade against anyone who dares suggest that Christianity might have something concrete to say about the broader political, economic and social questions, and justify this fusillade with that hardy perennial, "Religion should be kept out of politics." This is a view which says that should anyone seek to articulate from a Christian perspective a view on the Iraq war, on poverty in the world, on asylum seekers, on indigenous Australians, or on workplace relations, then judgement may be rained down upon them from the heavens above, as in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah. Bonhoeffer's critique of the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms was, of course, a response to this.
5. In the fifth approach, the Gospel is both a spiritual Gospel and a social Gospel, and if it is a social Gospel then it is in part a political Gospel, because politics is the means by which society chooses to exercise its collective power. In other words, the Gospel is as much concerned with the decisions I make about my own life as it is with the way I act in society. It is therefore also concerned with how in turn I should act, and react, in relation to the state's power. This view derives from the simple principle that the Gospel which tells humankind that they must be born again is the same Gospel which says that at the time of the Great Judgement, Christians will be asked not how pious they have been but instead whether they helped to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the lonely. In this respect, the Gospel is an exhortation to social action. Does this mean that the fundamental ethical principles provide us with an automatic mathematical formula for determining every item of social, economic, environmental, national-security and international-relations policy before government? Of course not. What it means is that these matters should be debated by Christians within an informed Christian ethical framework. It also means that we should repudiate the proposition that such policy debates are somehow simply "the practical matters of the state" which should be left to "practical" politicians rather than to "impractical" pastors, preachers and theologians. This approach is very much in Bonhoeffer's tradition.
A Christian perspective on contemporary policy debates may not prevail. It must nonetheless be argued. And once heard, it must be weighed, together with other arguments from different philosophical traditions, in a fully contestable secular polity. A Christian perspective, informed by a social gospel or Christian socialist tradition, should not be rejected contemptuously by secular politicians as if these views are an unwelcome intrusion into the political sphere. If the churches are barred from participating in the great debates about the values that ultimately underpin our society, our economy and our polity, then we have reached a very strange place indeed.
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Some have argued that Bonhoeffer provides a guide for Christian action "in extremis", but not for the workaday problems of "normal" political life. Stanley Hauerwas, Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University, argues, though, that this fails to comprehend Bonhoeffer's broader teaching on the importance of truth in politics. In fact, it accepts the "assumption that truth and politics, particularly in democratic regimes in which compromise is the primary end of the political process, do not mix".
Here lies the searing intensity of Bonhoeffer's gaze, cast across the decades into our own less dramatic age: the need for the church to speak truthfully, prophetically and incisively in defiance of the superficiality of formal debate in contemporary Western politics. In other words, beyond the sound-and-light show of day-to-day political "debate", what are the real underlying fault lines in the polity? Most critically, within those fault lines, who are the "voiceless" ones unable to clamour for attention in an already crowded political space - and who is speaking for them?
In Australia today, much is being written about "Australian values". Much less, however, has been written about another debate, that between neo-liberals and progressives, concerning whether the balance of our national values lies with the individual or with the community. On the neo-liberal side of the debate, values of liberty, security and prosperity are taken to be paramount. On the progressive side, these values are largely shared, but to them another three are added: equity, community and sustainability.
What is the dividing line between the two? When stripped bare, neo-liberal values are an aggregation of individual interests: in Thatcher's truism, "there is no such thing as society". However, progressive politics argues that the mandate of the state goes beyond the exclusive celebration of self. Furthermore, we hold that a properly functioning society embraces the interests of both self and other - not just the first, to the absolute exclusion of the second. That is why the progressive values of equity, community and sustainability concern others as much as they do ourselves.
Social-democratic values are a check on rampant individualism, in part because rampant individualism, unconstrained by any responsibility for interests beyond the individual, is inherently destructive. That is why liberal capitalism, left unfettered, is capable of destroying any social institution that inhibits the maximisation of individual self-interest. That includes the family itself. A practical manifestation of this destructive impulse can be found in the radical 2006 reforms to the Australian labour market, under which the last remaining protections for preserving family time are sacrificed at the altar of market utility. In this area, at least, conservatives and old-fashioned social liberals share a common commitment to social institutions against uncompromising market fundamentalism.
This progressive social-democratic impulse is also reflected in an entire tradition in modern Western politics, now over 150 years old, called Christian socialism. Keir Hardie, the founder of the British Labour Party, was a Christian socialist, as was Andrew Fisher, the first majority Labor prime minister of Australia. For his part, Bonhoeffer was a committed social democrat, although he did not use the term "Christian socialist" to describe his own politics. Nonetheless, his writings on "otherness" and "the oppressed" fit well within this perspective. It is a view of politics which seeks to enlarge society, rather than contract it into a colony of self-contained white picket fences. It also attaches a primacy to the most critical social institution of all: the family.
If we apply a Christian socialist critique to contemporary Australian politics, the precise nature of the widening values divide in John Howard's Australia becomes starkly apparent. Mr Howard is a clever politician who often succeeds in masking the essential self-interest of his political project with a veneer of "duty to the nation". Mr Howard's politics are in the main about concealing the substantive truth of his policy program because - as with his new industrial laws - when fully exposed to the light of public debate, their essential truth is revealed: a redistribution of power from the weak to the strong. That is why some of the churches (consistent with Bonhoeffer's injunction to the church to boldly tell the truth to the state) have set about the task of exposing the truth of what the industrial-relations changes mean for working families. This is part of the continued prophetic mission of the church, however politically uncomfortable that may be for the state or its critics at any particular time. The purpose of the church is not to be socially agreeable; it is to speak robustly to the state on behalf of those who cannot speak effectively for themselves.
The church's increasing engagement on the environment - and specifically on global climate change - falls into a similar category. By definition, the planet cannot speak for itself. Nor can the working peoples of the developing world effectively speak for themselves, although they are likely to be the first victims of the environmental degradation brought about by climate change. Nor can those who come after us, although they are likely to be the greatest victims of this inter-generational injustice. It is the fundamental ethical challenge of our age to protect the planet - in the language of the Bible, to be proper stewards of creation. The scientific evidence is now clear, and the time for global, national and local action has well and truly come. In fact, in some cases it may have already passed. So is it ethical to engage in the deliberate sabotage of global co-operative efforts, under the Kyoto Protocol, to roll back global climate change? Or is it ethical instead to become an active, constructive part of the global solution? It is ethically indefensible for the current government to have spent the last decade not only refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, but also actively working with the government of the US to marginalise it.
A further challenge is global poverty. Bonhoeffer's principle again applies: who speaks boldly to the state for those who cannot speak for themselves? Today, 1.4 billion people live below the poverty line defined by the World Bank of US$1 per day. Who speaks for them? For them, there is a great and continuing silence. In the absence of total catastrophe, they cannot capture the television sets of our collective imagination. They are, in part, victims of the great immorality of our age: if it's not on the six o'clock news, it's not happening. The UN's Millennium Development Goals represent a partial response to this. The failure to give effect to those goals represents continued ethical failure - including from Australia, where lip-service, not moral leadership, is the order of the day.
Another great challenge of our age is asylum seekers. The biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst is clear. The parable of the Good Samaritan is but one of many which deal with the matter of how we should respond to a vulnerable stranger in our midst. That is why the government's proposal to excise the Australian mainland from the entire Australian migration zone and to rely almost exclusively on the so-called Pacific Solution should be the cause of great ethical concern to all the Christian churches. We should never forget that the reason we have a UN convention on the protection of refugees is in large part because of the horror of the Holocaust, when the West (including Australia) turned its back on the Jewish people of Germany and the other occupied countries of Europe who sought asylum during the '30s.
How would Bonhoeffer respond to militant Islamism and the broader challenge of international terrorism today? Unlike climate change and global poverty, where there is a gaping silence in the national debate, when the topic turns to terrorism the political cacophony is deafening. But much of this noise is made up of the soundbites that are part of the colour, movement and superficiality of contemporary Australian politics. Islamic terrorism is a complex phenomenon that demands an integrated, complex response. An appreciation of complexity is not a recipe for inertia. It should instead be a recipe for effective rather than rhetorical action.
Bonhoeffer's voice, speaking to us through the ages, would ask this simple, truth-based question: what is causing this phenomenon? He would also caution against inflammatory rhetoric that seeks to gain political advantage, rather than to respond substantively and find a way forward. Of discomfort to certain elements of the far Left would be the truthful conclusion that there is a fundamental problem within militant Islamism, which values violent jihad in its own right and is not amenable to engagement, dialogue or persuasion. Of discomfort to the Right is the conclusion that the politics of economic underdevelopment in much of the Islamic world breeds resentment, denies opportunity and therefore provides fertile recruitment fields for jihadists. The World Bank gives us the unsettling statistic that an extra 80-100 million jobs will need to be created in the decade ahead if the current level of unemployment for young males in the Muslim world is not to deteriorate further.
Within settler countries like Australia, the challenge of integration is doubly complex. John Howard is correct when he says that a knowledge of the English language is an important component of social inclusion. But he is an unreconstructed hypocrite when he says that and increases the immigration intake (including from the Muslim world), while at the same time reducing the budget that funds the teaching of English to migrants. Australian sporting clubs, social organisations, churches, chambers of commerce and trade unions could be formally involved in the re-settlement process. Policies such as these would form part of an integrated, complex response to the challenge of inclusion. Such policies would produce good fruit in proper season. But they do not provide the radioactive soundbites that some in the political class deem necessary.
Radioactive language is an aspect of Mr Howard's overriding project to retain his incumbency at all costs, distracting the body politic from the reality of his faltering program for government. The substance of that program now makes for a less robust political message as he moves into his second decade in office: rising interest rates, declining housing affordability, slowing productivity growth, an Americanised industrial-relations system, a regressive consumption tax, the skyrocketing costs of university education and the steady undermining of universal health insurance. Add to these the escalating failure of the Iraq war and the deteriorating security in our immediate region, complicated by our distraction in Iraq - all compounded by a failure to tell the public the truth on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Iraqi prisoner abuse and the $300-million wheat-for-weapons scandal.
The role of the church is not to agree that deceptions of this magnitude are normal. If Christians conclude that such deceptions are the stock-in-trade of the Kingdom of the State in Luther's Two Kingdoms doctrine (and hence of no relevance to the Kingdom of the Gospel), then we will end up with a polity entirely estranged from truth. When the prime minister states that migrants should have a better grasp of the English language, while at the same time removing major funding from the program that enables them to learn English, this represents a significant prostitution of the truth. Therefore, if the church is concerned about the truth - not the politics - of social inclusion, then in Bonhoeffer's tradition of fearlessly speaking the truth to the state, it should say so.
There is a danger that John Howard's form of political statecraft will become entrenched as the national political norm. The prime minister's now routine manipulation of the truth poses significant problems for the long-term integrity of our national institutions, including the great departments of state. As time goes by, all are in danger of becoming complicit in protecting the political interests of the government rather than advancing the national interest of the country. There must be a new premium attached to truth in public life. That is why change must occur.
There is an alternative vision for Australia's future: one which seeks to take Chifley's vision of a "light on the hill" into an uncertain century. This is an enlarging vision that sees Australia taking the lead on global climate change, rather than continuing to play the role of saboteur. This is an Australia that takes the lead on the Millennium Development Goals both in word and deed, and leads by example in dealing with the chronic poverty in our own region. This is an Australia that becomes a leader, not a follower, in the redesign of the rules of the international order that we helped craft in 1945, to render future genocides both intolerable under international law and impossible through international resolve. This is an Australia which takes the values of decency, fairness and compassion that are still etched deep in our national soul, despite a decade of oxygen deprivation, and breathes them afresh into the great debates now faced by our country and the international community. The time has well and truly come for a vision for Australia not limited by the narrowest of definitions of our national self-interest. Instead, we need to be guided by a new principle that encompasses not only what Australia can do for itself, but also what Australia can do for the world.
This essay began with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who went to the gallows at Flossenbürg concentration camp on 9 April 1945, just two weeks before the camp was liberated. Hitler had personally ordered the execution of all those who had been charged with conspiracy against him. Bonhoeffer was hanged, together with his brother and two of his brothers-in-law. He died a Christian pastor, committed social democrat and passionate internationalist. I believe that today, Bonhoeffer would be traumatised by the privatised, pietised and politically compliant Christianity on offer from the televangelists of the twenty-first century. Bonhoeffer's vision of Christianity and politics was for a just world delivered by social action, driven by personal faith. Bonhoeffer's tradition therefore acts still as an eloquent corrective to those who would seek today to traduce Christianity by turning it into the political handmaiden of the conservative political establishment. Bonhoeffer's Christianity was, and remains, a more demanding challenge than that.