Thursday, December 14, 2006

God now big in Australian politics

Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are Christians in a generally irreligious country

After a decade of John Howard, who has been attacked for bringing religion into politics, the Labor Party has elected in Kevin Rudd a leader who declares this to be his duty. These are not good days for secularists who aspire to remove the bogy of religion and religious superstition from politics. They are fighting a losing cause. Despite the decline of the hierarchical churches, Australia has two political leaders who are declared Christians and believe in the influence of religious ethics in politics.

Contrary to claims, Australia is not following the US path, where the decentralised, populist, market-based evangelical impulse embedded in America's soil and psyche has led to the rise of the Christian Right, much exploited by George W. Bush. It is an irony, however, that after 10 years of Howard's appeal to conservative, traditional and Christian values amid howls of outrage from his secularist opponents, that Labor has elected as his opponent a declared Christian conservative with a religiously inspired social philosophy based on the gospel.

This would surprise only those who miss the big global trends or who are seriously out of touch. God's comeback is one of the dominant world stories of the past decade. Rarely reported in Australia, it is usually presented as an Islamic manifestation or a pathetic sign of US dysfunction. The Pew Forum's Timothy Samuel Shah and Harvard University's Monica Duffy Toft conclude: "The belief that outbreaks of politicised religion are temporary detours on the road to secularisation was plausible in 1976, 1986 and even 1996. Today the argument is untenable. As a framework for explaining and predicting the course of global politics, secularism is increasingly unsound."

This constitutes one of the radical messages of the age. During the past 40 years the main religions - Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam and Hinduism - have grown faster than the world's population. From covering 50 per cent of total population at the start of the 20th century they will cover close to 70 per cent by 2025. The trend is apparent in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

It is driven not only by demography. As Samuel Huntington says: "A global phenomenon demands a global explanation. The most obvious cause of the global religious resurgence is precisely what was supposed to cause the death of religion: the process of social, economic and cultural modernisation that swept across the world in the second half of the 20th century." It is apparent from Russia to India, from Nigeria to the US.

Australia is only on the periphery of such trends and has its own story. The decline of the Australian churches is documented with Anglican bishop Tom Frame recently saying: "Christians no longer enjoy political, social or moral ascendancy. Many clergy feel besieged or ignored. Whereas previously the church's position meant a great deal in national affairs and Christian thinkers were accorded a prime place in the public square, Christians can no longer presume they will even be heard, let alone heeded, in an increasingly indifferent and hostile society."

Yet there are contrary trends apparent in politics. There is a growing revolt against the secularisation of public life. Howard's prime ministership captures this trend in its explicit quest to restore values and ethics and mobilise the Christian vote. Howard recognises the public's mood for a reassertion of standards. Although this does not necessarily involve religion, the revival of tradition, unsurprisingly, usually does contain religious elements.

Rudd's arrival, however, highlights another trend: that political leaders seek to define themselves by religion and Christian action. Rudd presents himself as a leader to restore the ethical balance in Australia. He embraces a dynamic and assertive view of the Christian role in politics that goes beyond anything Howard propounds. As far as I am aware, it goes beyond any Christian vision advanced by any other federal political leader of a main party for many decades. Bob Menzies, during the Christian age of the 1950s, did not talk like Rudd.

In his recent article in The Monthly magazine, Rudd declared his personal hero to be German theologian, pastor and peace activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who defied Adolf Hitler and was executed. Rudd quotes Bonhoeffer in 1937 prophetically saying that "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die". Rudd upholds Bonhoeffer's rejection of the two kingdoms doctrine: that the concern of the gospel is the inner person, as opposed to the realm of state affairs. Bonhoeffer railed at a church for which Christianity was "a metaphysical abstraction, to be spoken of only at the edges of life". For Bonhoeffer, the church must stand "in the middle of the village".

So Labor has a leader who champions Bonhoeffer's muscular Christianity and finds him in the tradition of Thomas More, who defied the king and paid with his life. Why did Rudd write this article? Not because he had spare time on a rainy day. It was part of Rudd's campaign to establish his philosophical credentials for the Labor leadership. For Rudd, what counts is how the individual Christian should relate to the state. His answer is unequivocal. They should relate by Bonhoeffer's principle of action, and that means taking the "side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed". Rudd says the church's role "in all these areas of social, economic and security policy is to speak directly to the state". He wants the church to fill the moral and political vacuums. There is no compromise. In case you missed the point, Rudd gets specific: "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."

It would be hard to imagine a more comprehensive rejection of aggressive secularists seeking to keep religion and church out of politics. For Rudd, religion has an important and constructive role to play. The state, in turn, has an obligation to listen, if not to endorse. Rudd lectures politicians on how to deal with the church. He puts secularists on notice: Christian views should be heard and respected. They should not be "rejected contemptuously by secular politicians as if these views are an unwelcome intrusion into the political sphere". That would diminish our civic life.

Rudd knows that Howard operates on the reality that religion is involved in politics. His response is not to deny this but to embrace it. In political terms, Rudd's target is Howard. In religious terms, Rudd's targets are those Christian leaders and Christians who allow their faith to be turned into the handmaiden of the conservative political establishment. By arguing for a Christianity based in social action, Rudd hopes to rebuild links between the Labor Party and the churches.

Frankly, it is long overdue, given the mass Christian defection to the Coalition. For Rudd, this seems to be a political strategy and an expression of his Christianity. The symbolism of Howard and Rudd as rivals is hard to avoid. The message is that while the church and its membership is in decline, the role of religious values in politics is undergoing a revival. This is driven by deep currents unlikely to dissipate any time soon.


Logging 'would have lessened fire threat'

Australia is in the midst of its annual wildfire season and it is looking like one of the bad ones

Tasmania's bushfire crisis would not be so severe if the state's forests had been logged rather than protected, Federal Forestry Minister Eric Abetz said today. Senator Abetz said today the severity of the bushfires, which have destroyed 14 homes in Tasmania's east, called into question the value of making forests off-limits to logging and grazing. He blamed a build-up of fuel in wilderness areas for the severity of the fires. "Many Australians are starting to feel cheated that they were sold a line that you could simply lock up our forests and keep them forever," Senator Abetz said on ABC radio. "And then fire comes through and destroys the koala habitat, the alpine plant species and, in Tasmania ... those areas that people have argued to be locked up are now just there in ashes."

Firefighters have prepared a control line on the edge of the Wielangta State Forest, which is the subject of a court battle by Greens leader Bob Brown who wants to prevent the area from being logged.

Senator Brown rejected Senator Abetz's arguments. "The majority of the forest that we've been talking about in the Federal Court wasn't burnt in the fire," he said on ABC radio. The areas that had been burnt would recover quickly and remain an important habitat for key species, Senator Brown said.


Not enough nurses in NSW hospitals

Note how the Left-leaning newspaper quoted below tries with its opening words to let a Leftist State government off the hook

Caught in the midst of a worldwide nursing shortage, the Government has been forced to close hospital beds and defer elective surgery because there are too few staff to care for patients, a NSW Auditor-General's report says. [Getting nurses to nurse instead of doing paperwork all the time will not be considered of course] At the same time, an ageing population and a surge in chronic health conditions such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease is placing enormous strain on hospitals, it says.

Although the number of nurses had increased by 5500 in the past four years and resignation rates had fallen from 16 per cent to 14 per cent, there was still a chronic shortage, said Peter Achterstraat in his performance audit of NSW Health. [Because they are all busy doing paperwork]

The report acknowledges NSW Health has used a number of successful strategies to increase nurse numbers, and overall has "done well to attract and retain nurses". "The department improved nurses' wages to make them the highest paid in Australia, recruited over 1000 nurses from overseas and attracted nearly 1500 ex-nurses back to the public health sector," it says. "These are all positive initiatives, but it is too early to judge whether they will ensure that the nursing workforce in public hospitals will be adequate in the future." While more nurses have been employed, 45 per cent of them work part-time, forcing the department to rely on overtime and agency nurses to fill the gaps, the report says.

The general secretary of the NSW Nurses' Association, Brett Holmes, said the Government was seeking to recruit 1200 nurses to fill vacancies. "Thirty per cent of our nursing workforce are over 50, so there needs to be a long-term plan for their replacement and a large proportion . need to be registered nurses," he said. "We can further improve recruitment. There are clearly still more nurses who have maintained their enrolment but who aren't working. The Government has been successful in getting more than 1500 of those back already."

The Minister for Health, John Hatzistergos, laid the blame at the feet of the Federal Government, saying more than 2000 extra university places were needed to keep pace with demand. "We are going to be substantially short on nursing numbers, and we will have to go overseas to recruit," Mr Hatzistergos said. He dismissed claims by the Opposition health spokeswoman, Jillian Skinner, that the Government had inflated the increase in nurse numbers by double counting agency staff. Only permanent full- and part-time staff had been included in the figures, he said.

Problems in recruiting and retaining nurses would remain difficult to resolve unless both federal and state governments reviewed the role of all health-care workers, including nurses, doctors and allied health workers, said the executive director of the College of Nursing, Professor Judy Lumby. She said other health sectors had been affected, indicating a need to move away from old structures and divides. "We have to rethink the way in which we care for people, with more focus on primary care and preventative health," Professor Lumby said. The Auditor-General recommended NSW Health improve its monitoring of the nursing shortage, reduce reliance on overtime and agency nurses and develop better plans to manage its nursing workforce.


Australia's academic women less likely to breed

Given the characteristic academic love of authoritarian government, perhaps it's a good thing. The less that mentality is reproduced the better

Some of Australia's best and brightest women are the most reluctant to breed, with female academics far more likely to be single and childless than their male peers. The reason, it seems, is that women are less able to combine the demands of academia with parenthood.

Research shows that 70 per cent of the female academics and other staff in one NSW study have children, compared with 83per cent of the men. Eighty per cent of male academics have spouses, compared with just 63.5per cent of female academics. Also, 90 per cent of the spouses of female academics worked full-time, compared with just 57 per cent of the spouses of male academics, whose wives tended to work part-time, or not at all.

Professor Hilary Winchester, pro-vice chancellor at the University of South Australia, said: "For women to be successful, they were less able to maintain a partnered relationship than men. The comments you get from women are, 'I just couldn't fit it all in."' Professor Winchester gave evidence to the House of Representatives standing committee into the work-family balance, chaired by Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop, which tabled its report last week.

Liberal MPs are leading the charge for better childcare arrangements, with Mrs Bishop describing the current system as a "mishmash" and backbencher Jackie Kelly saying childcare is a "shambles". Mrs Bishop's report recommended full tax deductibility for childcare fees, including nanny wages. Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Melbourne University Belinda Probert has researched women at the professorial level, "and what it showed up was that academic women are particularly likely to be not partnered". "That is a very high rate of marriage breakdown," she said. "Women have primary responsibility for children. Men tend to have wives that work part-time. Women have partners who have full-time (work), and are quite likely not to have partners. "We found women had given up because they had teenagers who were home alone, smoking dope, or children who needed help with homework. They say, 'I'll give up doing research', and that (research) is the key to promotion."

ANU demographer Peter McDonald said educated women "always have had fewer children". "They have a lower marriage rate," he said. "There's a tendency for men to marry down, of course, to marry someone not quite as intelligent as them, but it's also that educated women may focus more on a career for longer."

Elizabeth Watkin, a leading academic trying to "have it all", is a senior lecturer in microbiology at Curtin University and a mother of 12-year-old twin girls, Mahsa and Kimia. "It's extremely difficult," she admitted. "My husband pulls his weight, which is important, but I do feel I've been held back," she said. "I haven't been published as much as I might have been. But I want to spend time with my children."

The evidence regarding academia is troubling because Australian universities have some of the most generous maternity leave entitlements in the world -- up to 36 weeks, paid. Carolyn Alport of the National Tertiary Education Union said the entitlement, won during collective bargaining in 2003, was important. She said: "A big demographic blip is about to hit universities, with senior people getting towards retirement, and we want to be ready to meet the needs of the younger generation." Dr Watkin said tax deductibility and on-site childcare would be helpful. She agrees that women at the level of senior lecturer and above "either just aren't there, or often don't have children, and perhaps that's because they are older, and there wasn't that choice, previously. You did one, or the other".


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