Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Life inside the Doughnut

I  suspect the experience of my own denomination in this corner of the world is not unique or isolated. A demographic map of its members through the last century or so would look like an expanding doughnut, matching the population shift from the inner city to the outer suburbs. The flagship churches of the denomination have gradually moved further from the city centre, with the growing churches at the outer urban fringes. The mission strategy and leadership structure has largely replicated the same approach which drove the inner city churches in the 18th century: focus on young families and children’s ministries, and let the population growth do the rest.

During this long period, declining churches in the inner city were shut down, and their properties sold off. Surviving churches struggled through the decline, with little in the way of resources and opportunities from traditional ministry approaches to refashion themselves for a new era. As generational change lead to people moving away from the inner city, these churches were maintained by a faithful remnant who only knew one way to be church.

No-one envisaged the residential return to the inner city that has unfolded over the past two decades. Town planners were largely unprepared, and churches with them. While the cities have undergone a massive renewal of infrastructure, many churches inside the doughnut find themselves with churches and ministry centres designed for ministry in the 18th century, and with ministry strategies best suited for communities filled with young families beginning their journey in new neighbourhoods.

Some important things considerations inside the doughnut:
·         Renewal of church infrastructure in the inner city is an expensive exercise, often complicated by heritage constraints. Inner city churches are often faced with a conundrum: in order to reach people in their community, they need to renew their infrastructure. However, due to the size of the church community they lack the financial resources to undertake this renewal. (As a side note, it is interesting to observe that most growing and vibrant churches have renewed their infrastructure in the previous decade. Cause/effect?)
·         Families in the inner city are a different demographic than those in the new dormitory suburbs. They are generally older, and have a stronger commitment to environmental and political concerns than their outer-urban cohort. It is likely they are more affluent and more highly educated also.
·         Risk and reward for inner-city ministry is often such that denominations are less likely to invest. New models of ministry need to be found, which makes choices between investing in the inner city (with its unproven track record for growth strategies) and in growth areas on the urban fringe a no-brainer for denominational resources.
·         Ministry training is largely focussed towards church-as-it-is, or at least a continuation of the trends which have been evident for decades.

In reality, an approach which appears to make the hole in the doughnut larger is not only dangerous, but one might suggest ultimately counter-productive. There ARE signs of re-emergence in inner suburbs and inner city around the world. But not only are the models of this re-emergence diverse, they are mostly very different from the models driving outer-suburban church plants. I suspect that the large majority of these re-emergent models are based in refurbished infrastructure.

An old adage offers wisdom: As you go through life, make this your goal: Keep your eye on the doughnut and not on the hole. For the sake of the future, we have to look to the hole, lest the doughnut be lost altogether.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Democracy at work?

The cynicism of Winston Churchill in relation to democracy is legend: “The best argument against democracy is five minutes with the average voter,” being one comment reflecting his dissatisfaction with the process. Churchillian cynicism now appears more widespread in Australia in the wake of the results emerging from Saturday’s Senate elections. In a bizarre twist it seems that at least one candidate could find themselves sitting on the Senate cross-benches on the back of having won so few first preference votes that their deposit is might well have been at risk. The major parties are up in arms at the preference deals which are about to deliver a handful of seats – and the balance of power – to a group of people whose policy focus, if one has been developed at all, is narrower than the ballot paper which bore their name. Should we be concerned?

The instinctive reaction by the major parties to review the voting system ignores the fact that this is a system which has historically served to keep minor party representation to a minimum. If there is a lesson to be learned from the outcome, it is that the micro parties have learned how to use the system to their advantage, and the big kids aren’t enjoying having the sand kicked in their face. With the possible exception of New South Wales, where one in 12 voters clearly aren’t savvy enough to tell the difference between the Liberal Democrats and the Liberal National Party Coalition (maybe Churchill was right!), the large vote for micro parties is a clear statement against the parties which have long populated the parliamentary benches. Stitching up tight preference deals across this group has resulted in an aggregation of protest vote to bring an outcome no one predicted. While we might wring our hands at the election of people we know little about (and care little about), the outcome does represent a desire on the part of the electorate to turn its collective back on the Coalition and the ALP.

The new Senate brings with it an element of uncertainty not seen in the national parliament since, well, the last election. The difference this time is that the uncertainty has moved across the building from the green chamber to the Senate. Theoretically at least, it has made the job of legislating more complicated, evidenced by the media scrutiny of the position of these potential senators on such matters as paid parental leave and the carbon and mining taxes, amongst others. More telling, perhaps, is the unwillingness to ask whether these candidates will have the capacity to fulfil the community expectations of a Senator (roo-poo fights notwithstanding).

But there appears to be a consistency of message from the people to the parties in the parliament, one which expresses a deep discontent with their behaviour and policies. While the Coalition settles in to the seats of power, comforted by the expression of confidence in them to form government, a look to the red chairs of the Senate ought to provide as much food for thought them as does the warming of the opposition benches to the ALP.

Looking from the outside then, we could well ask whether we have we confected a problem which doesn’t exist? Is a system which results in the election people from outside the major parties to the Senate a point of concern, or something to celebrate? Are independents, even politically na├»ve views, not welcome on the floor of the Senate, let alone the corridors of power? An early scan of the policy statements of these potential Senators exposes views and ideas which I would oppose on many points, but isn’t that what the health of democracy is founded upon – the clash of ideas? Even if a Senator is elected on the back of 0.2% of the primary vote, to does reflect that our system of election is designed for exhaustive selection at the whim of the people. We do well to remember that it is not long ago that one of the major parties subverted the will of the people by replacing Senators who left the parliament with representatives from the opposition parties, which provided the platform for the dismissal of the elected government. To hear them now complaining that the system works against them (or, more expediently, against democracy) is ironic.

The Australian people have elected a Senate – perhaps unwittingly, even though intentionally – which reflects their unwillingness to trust the responsibilities of the Senate to the government of the day. Whilst there may be a case to examine the system of election, they would do well to examine the reasons why the electorate deliberately turned their backs on the major parties in the first place. Democracy has fired a warning shot across their collective bow.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Beyond our Vision

You are the God of eternal patience, ever waiting, ever planning, ever working towards a purpose of which we have just a glimpse.
Our vision is often more limited: by our own concerns, by our own fears, by our own imaginations.
Yet in these things there are seeds: the work of your spirit opening our mind and stirring our actions towards something greater than even we see.
Grant us, in this time of worship, a measure of grace to continue to wait in hope, to wait in expectation, and to wait with an openness to the fullness of Your purpose.

God of all ages, you have repeatedly planted the dream in unlikely people.
We remember the vulnerable and barren Abraham, whom you chose to father a multitude long before (and after) it seemed possible.
You called Moses to lead a transformation, even while he was part of a power which was at the heart of that problem.
Amos was a shepherd and tree-keeper in another part of the world when you sent him to your people with a unique message.
And Hosea – a man with deep family relationship issues – becomes a bearer of hope in the midst trouble.

Your eyes, O God, have ever been lifted to a future beyond our vision, yet one of which you give us glimpses.
Though we barely understand, and though we do not trust our capacity to see it through, we pray that you would continue to lead us through.
For you have not only shared the vision with us, You have poured out Your Spirit upon us, empowering us to do, and to be…
In our worship, we declare Your glory
In our prayer, we seek Your wisdom
In community, we begin to understand the wonder of Your grace.
In our surrender, we declare our trust in You.
Lord, we praise You!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Out of our Depth?

As pastors we will personally struggle with this, "I constantly feel that I am out of my depth," my pastor friend said. "Me too," I said. We both stared quietly into the distance for a moment. Then a few questions occurred to us. Why do we lament the fact that we do not know everything? Why do we speak of being out of our depth with sadness and heavy sighing, as if we are failing something we were supposed to attain? "It is as if we are supposed to repent for having limits with our knowledge," I said. "Who has taught us this?" he wondered. "Where does this expectation to know it all come from?" he asked. We paused and then laughed with shared embarrassment. We concluded that if we were to say to God, Father, I constantly feel out of my depth," God would gently ask, "And why is that a problem?"
from Zack Eswine, Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being, (Illinois: Crossway), 2013, p 36

Monday, June 03, 2013

Out of the Shadows

We celebrate the God of light, who is the source of all warmth, direction and hope
We have been embraced in Your love, restored in Your grace, and welcomed into the fellowship of Your people.
You are the One in whom there is no shadow of turning;
Who walks with us through moments of uncertainty, aiding our steps, and reassuring us of Your promise.

But we ourselves are people of shadows:
Knowing our own light and darkness, comfortable with aspects of our identity, but uncertain of our shadows.
We would rather celebrate our strengths, and rejoice in our accomplishments.
Yet we hold these treasures in jars of clay: imperfect, yet shaped perfectly to let the grace of God shine through

Through the death of Jesus, You brought life to us all.
Through the tragedy of rejection, You birthed a new community.
As we carry the death of Christ in us, so let His life be revealed in us.
Teach us not to be afraid of the shadows, but to search for you there.
In the darkness and uncertainty, let Your life be born, let your hope grow, and let our character be formed further into the image of Jesus.

God of light, warmth and hope, your presence stands in stark contrast to the darkness and coldness of despair;
Attune our senses towards the traces of Your presence, that the shadows we fear might be shown to highlight the beauty of Your presence.
As we walk through the valley of the shadow, teach us not to fear
Help us to embrace the journey as one on the way to green pastures which are richer than we can imagine, for they have been especially prepared for us in the name of Jesus.
Amen.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

I am not a racist, but…

Little did we expect the storm that would erupt during the AFL’s Indigenous Round last weekend. Thoughtless remarks yelled by a 13-year-old at one of the games most celebrated and decorated Indigenous players, Sydney’s Adam Goodes, sparked opprobrium from all quarters. Some have expressed reservations because the term “ape” has been bandied around in sport for years, not being limited as a term of abuse for Indigenous players. However, the deeper history of the term is deeply insulting, a history which is clearly relevant when applied to Indigenous players and people of African heritage.

The response of Collingwood President Eddie McGuire on the night was nothing short of exemplary. He made his way immediately to the Sydney rooms, seeking clarification about what had been said, and offering unreserved apologies to Goodes. Counselling and support for the perpetrator was offered, seeking education rather than punishment. Goodes magnanimously but correctly highlighted that a 13-year-old is a product of her environment, reflecting attitudes she has picked up from around her. In this sense she is a symbol of attitudes which run deep in our community. Just how deep took a few days to unfold.

Yesterday’s comments by Eddie McGuire on air were both a shock and an embarrassment. Not only to Eddie, but to us all. His linking of King Kong to Adam Goodes, while a clumsy attempt at something, and probably an association made stronger in his mind by the events of the weekend, was inexcusable. All Eddie’s good work in response to Friday night was undone with a careless remark on air. Eddie highlighted how deeply racism runs through our community. There is no way of avoiding the conclusion that deep within us all there is a racist streak. It calls to mind Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s observation “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

It is evident in responses of callers on talkback. “I’m not a racist, but…”

None of us like to think we are racist, least of all me. And yet… surely when I make a point of ensuring that an Indigenous person is not left standing alone at a gathering, I am responding because of their race? When I see someone whose culture is obviously different, I make a point of smiling and saying hello. At the heart of my response is the race of the person. While I am seeking to offer welcome and hospitality, am I still not treating them differently because of their race?And I am not immune from the occasional moment when I think of a funny comment or observation which is racist at its heart.

It is easy to point the finger at another and highlight their failings. It is so much more difficult to recognise and affirm that those failings are not far from the surface in our own life and attitudes. It is at the heart of the saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Such thoughts cross all our minds from time to time.

We have come a long way in addressing racism in our community, and in our own lives. But the job is still a long way from being complete. It would be easy to make scapegoats out of this episode rather than own a problem which is still deep in our community, and in us all.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Too much of a good thing?

One could be forgiven for thinking Australia was in bad shape. Reading the opinion pages of almost any daily paper will fill one with a sense that our economy is amongst the worst in the world, with an overburdening debt that is dangerous and irresponsible. The economic reality is that there have been only two quarters of GDP decline since 2007 (in 2009 and 2011), and our economy has grown 13% since the beginning of 2007. Few other economies can match that performance. Government debt is about 13% of GDP, compared to other major economies – including the US and the UK – with debt around 90% of GDP (and higher). We haven’t had a recession in over 20 years, yet the prevailing sentiment is that we have been through hard times. Perhaps we have had it too good.

Without wanting to walk into the trap of a previous treasurer who spoke of “the recession we had to have,” there is a psychological aspect of this which is worth contemplating. We have benefited as a nation from a long period of growth and prosperity, in recent years largely on the back of huge mineral exports. There will be a generation of workers who have never known a recession during their lifetime (despite the fact that in 2007 unemployment rose from 4% to 5.7%). There is an implicit presumption that things will always get better. A recession tends to remind us that there are times when we need to temper our expectations: we pull in our collective belts and realise that though there are some things that me might want, we could really do without them.

Recessions tend to bring correctives, and provide the atmosphere in which they can be justified. Instead we expect that our government will continue to extend entitlements to us which we arguably neither can afford as a nation, nor need. Can we afford to subsidise taxpayers through negative gearing to the extent of $13 billion? Or private health insurance at nearly $6 billion? Living with an attitude that things will only continue to get better compromises any attempt to justify removing such subsidies (which are enjoyed mostly by the more wealthy members of society).

A complacency born of continued good economic times has allowed governments to appear to be generous with handouts rather than tackle important infrastructure requirements which compromise our ability to maintain a healthy economy into the future. And when adjustments are suggested to improve overall outcomes, the inevitable outcry is focussed on those who will lose money as a result (witness the school funding debate), reflecting the assumption that we can always afford more.

And yet we also complain about the budget being in deficit… one of the side-effects of this continued generosity flowing to us.

While one would never wish a recession upon a nation, it does serve as a welcome corrective to our national psyche, helping us to realise that we can’t continue to have it all. One thing is for certain, we don’t seem to have political leaders with the gumption to step forward and challenge that assumption.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Trinity Sunday: A Prayer

You are the One whose breath brings life through all creation.

We praise you, our God, because you appear to us in many forms:
We encounter you through many voices, diverse faces, and varied imagery;
We hear your whisper, step back from your booming voice, and wonder at the varied accents which convey your voice to us.

We know You as the One who creates:
Who brings good into the chaos, giving shape into our seemingly random and diverse life
We trust you in the sovereignty of Your perspective:
Watching over all creation, shaping a purpose which encompasses all of time, all cultures, and all circumstances

You have walked this earth among us, experiencing the joys and bruises which life can bring.
You have listened with compassion; joined in the celebrations of life in all its seasons:
Your feet were dirty from the soil on which we stand; your fingers stained by the food and wine we eat,
In the ordinariness of life, you walked with us, and showed us a beauty we have only begun to understand.

We know You as the One whose breath we have sensed:
Stirring winds which create chaos amongst our ordered and controlled lives, clearing away cobwebs and opening us to new opportunities.
We have been warmed by the outpouring of your life and grace:
Whispering words of hope, offering quiet prayers on our behalf, and providing words and wisdom in the unexpected moments.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit:
Three, yet one…
Opening us up to your work and your character
Giving us insight and understanding,
Yet preventing us from limiting You by our definitions.

Keep us open to Your presence,
Attuned to your wisdom,
Enlivened by your passions, and
Aware that even what we already know is but a shadow of your fullness.

You have revealed Yourself to us in many ways
Yet there is so much more of you to know.

Lead us into a deeper knowledge of You.
Amen.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Change

It struck me this week as I participated in a commissioning service for pastoral and spiritual carers in a hospital setting that hospitals are places of change. Patients who are admitted to a hospital are in a time of transition, one which may well call into question assumptions they had held about themselves, their identity and their humanity (or, more particularly, their vulnerability). Sitting in the background of the medical care being offered are deeper questions of purpose and identity. That we tend to think of hospitals as places of restoration (that is, being restored to health) masks the deeper challenges being faced. Hospitals are places of change.

But are they alone in this? What other institutions are places of change masked under a different banner?

My mind moved to schools: while education is their prime focus, surely this is about change more than anything else… guided change, expected change, growth and learning. That everyone in the system is on the same journey of change helps mask this reality, but education is fundamentally about change. Physical and emotional change is a part of what happens during schooling – is it ancillary to education, or part of it?

In fact education in all its forms is about change. We are doing more than learning information, skills and perspectives whether we are in kindergarten or a post-graduate course. Engagement with the topic of study brings with it a range of other shifts in our attitude. Studying economics or law, for example, raises questions of justice and equity and our contribution to it.

And then there’s church. Church as a place of change? I am reminded of an old joke: How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb? And the answer is: Baptists? Change??? Sometimes it appears that churches are the most resistant to change. There is a fundamentally conservative element which often comes to the fore whenever cultural and social change is proposed. Of course churches should be agents and catalysts of change. The Christian faith is driven by hope of a renewed creation, by the hope of redemption of all creation. Christians are called to a new future that is breaking into the present. But our engagement with a fixed canon of scripture and an often unchanging liturgy of worship, the impression can be created that church is about conservation and preservation rather than recreation and growth.

On reflection I find it hard to recognise and institution or organisation that isn’t about change. Even as we resist change, it happens to us, often hardening us to the opportunities which are presented daily for growth, for life, and for renewal.

Change is the one constant in life, or as one wag put it: change is inevitable (except from a vending machine). As those who lead and participate in communities, we need to affirm ourselves as communities of change, or at least changing communities. As we do so, we invite ourselves to be co-creators in the formation which is taking place. As we resist, we leave ourselves open to being formed by forces which we are unable to recognise, let alone control.

We are all changing. The question is, are we growing, or decaying?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Holey Hope

Yesterday I reflected on the oft-expressed character of hope in the evangelical tradition which leaves a huge hole in the middle. Is it really there?

My understanding of the opening gambit in Matthew’s gospel to be something of a call to judgment. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near,” is the first call of both John the Baptist and Jesus as they shape their work and ministry. It’s that word repent that does the trick. For the most part it conjures up ideas of turning back, or turning away. Returning to some notion of an idealised past. How many sermons have I heard with that call to repentance, coupled with the probing question, “Where will you spend eternity?” I can hear the preacher now, pumping up the sense of urgency about making a decision: “If you were to leave this building tonight and be hit by a car crossing the road, where would you spend eternity?” I’m not sure whether it made people think more carefully before crossing the road that night…

The word “repent” is a Greek word which means “to change the mind” or “to think afresh.” Of course this can be a rethink about the way our lives have been lived, or where we might spend the post-twilight years. But it is more than that. John and Jesus step into an atmosphere of despair. Israel was enduring a long occupation by a foreign power. There had been no prophets in the land for centuries. Attempts at liberation had only cost lives. The land was filled with a deep resignation about their lot, with some radical fringes fanning the flames of rebellion.  The notion that the kingdom of heaven was near was about as likely as Melbourne winning the premiership this year (or the Chicago Cubs taking out the pennant!) In this context, one could rephrase this first call of Jesus and John into “Think again! The kingdom of heaven is near!” Now. In the present moment.

The hope of the gospel breaks into the present moment. It is life-changing in the here and now, and into the immediate future. How often do we hear Jesus saying to someone, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and sin no more”? A loose translation could be: don’t let the past dictate the present and future! Think afresh about your life and all that God is doing!

Christian theology in this regard has been too much shaped by Augustine and by Paul’s thoughts in Romans 7. Both exhibit a strong negativity towards human identity and character. Paul sums up after articulating his struggles to do what is right: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) He seemingly underlines our incapacity to do what is right, even through our best intentions. What then are we to make of the opening to the very next chapter, just one sentence away: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2)? Think afresh about life! Repent!

Surely the central message of Jesus is that the kingdom of God is near – it’s here in the present moment. Not to be gained by returning to an idealised path, or waiting until this earthly life is over before we can share in it! Hope is alive in the present! In the here and now. Not to be gained by reaching back to an idealised past, but emerging right now! This is one truth which both Jesus and John the Baptist wanted to be sure we embraced.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Problem with Evangelical Hope

The response of the Australian Christian Lobby to Kevin Rudd’s change of heart in relation to same-sex marriage exposes one of the problems with the way evangelicals understand and express hope. The formulation leaves a large and important gap which, paradoxically, robs us of any meaningful hope in the present.
The ACL – not alone, mind you – shapes its hope in clinging to an idealised past (or present), in which many of the changes happening in society need to be undone. In the first instance then, hope is framed as a return to a mythical Garden of Eden, subtly framed as a time when the church ruled the earth, imposing its morality upon all. The implicit depiction is of an immediate future which is characterised as a further descent into… well, it is left unsaid, but the implication is further into an ungodly mess. Which provides the platform for the second aspect of hope: heaven.
In this formulation, the Christian hope is ultimately about getting to heaven when we die. Heaven is thus a consolation prize for enduring the inevitable descent which characterises modern society.
Of course, it is not just same-sex marriage which comes into the firing line to mark this continued descent. Any number of conservative hobby-horses become symbols of a culture which has turned its back on God: abortion, people living together, drug use, pornography, greenies, people opposed to gun ownership (OK, not in Australia!). The items missing from such a list are the ones which reveal an interesting agenda: greed, gossip, unethical corporate activity, environmental vandalism… Each suggesting that the only answer to a hope which is framed around turning back to an idealised past or hanging on to a consolatory future is to get what you can in the present moment.
Of course this is something of a caricature, but the principle essentially holds. The notion that the kingdom of God is breaking out amongst us isn’t part of the package. The idea that there is good news in the present moment which renews hope for eternal life in the here and now doesn’t enter the equation.
The central line of Jesus’ prayer still reads “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” The Christian hope is constructive and creative, and embraces the promise of Jeremiah “For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future,” (Jer 29:11) which is built on the call to “build houses… plant gardens… and seek the peace and prosperity of the city.” (Jer 29:5)
The Christian hope coalesces with much of the hopes of all human beings, and points to a source which enables its fulfilment, and a deeper call which transcends a limited hope in the present moment.
Whatever one may conclude about the call for same-sex marriage, those who wrestle with it share a common hope for a better world and a better community. Surely that’s something Christians can embrace and engage with.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Thatcher(ism)

The death of Margaret Thatcher this week has been the catalyst for a wide range of emotional responses, from the unseemly rejoicing, through the thoughtful critic all the way to the hagiographers. There is no doubt that Thatcher left a lasting imprint upon Britain, and arguably upon the world, with her devout commitment to laissez-faire economics and strong (some say unbending) leadership for Britain out of some dark days.
From an Australian perspective, her contribution can be evaluated from a distance, both real and figurative. The emergence of Thatcher came two years after Australia had already embarked upon a swing to the right politically. Under Malcolm Fraser’s leadership, the commitment to right-wing ideology was the strongest it had been in Australia until that time. But we need to remember the context in which it took place.
The 1970s brought the first of the world oil shocks, pushing up prices, and causing a rethink about the direction of the economic reliance upon oil. The first real period of post-war stagflation caught almost all incumbent governments on the hop, as economic policies had to adapt to a hitherto unexperienced phenomenon. Keynesian economics, which, along with the development of global economic agreements, had largely served the west well for four decades, was ill-equipped to respond. Rising unemployment required economic (budgetary) stimulus, which drove inflation higher, and budgets deeper into deficit (a budget surplus was almost unknown at this time!) The austere policies of the Fraser government and the divisive capital vs labour approach was ultimately rejected by the Australian people in favour of the more cooperative approach offered by Bob Hawke’s Labour Party. While Thatcher continued to lead Britain down this pathway, Australia was already moving past it, albeit adopting a similar approach to deregulation which Thatcher and Reagan championed. This unrequited trust in the free market arguably ploughed the field which enabled the failure of the Bank of England in the first instance, and the GFC of 2007 in the second.
Thatcher’s contribution came alongside the rise of monetarism as an approach to economics. The shift in Britain’s fortunes can only be partly attributed to its wisdom and insights. The demonization of Keynesian economics was ultimately costly – even to this day in Britain and the US, where interest rates became the only accepted response to the GFC. Still mired in recession with high unemployment, monetarist economics has an empty kit bag.
It was also in the late 1970s and early 1980s – and something for which we have Thatcher to thank, at least in part - that the seismic shift towards economic growth as the sole arbiter of government success gained significant traction. Economics was not just the prime determinant of a government’s success, it was the sole determinant, even further bastardised in more recent days as the ability to deliver a budget surplus. Impacts on social, personal and environmental wellbeing, along with any notion of global justice and equity was sacrificed on the altar of capitalism. Without apology. It was that unwavering commitment to a path she believed in that made her the strong leader many celebrate, and which nurtured a world many others mourn.
Margaret Thatcher’s death is something I note, and nothing more. As a women of advanced years, death is not a tragedy. She lived with the benefit of resources that only a few enjoy. Her legacy to the world is not something I cherish. She was a product of her time, with her “success” being misattributed to factors which have been replicated for decades, and for which we all continue to pay the price.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 ten years on

It remains one of those events that we can all recall where we were and what we were doing the moment we learned of it. Ten years on from those tumultuous events known popularly as 9/11, it is hard to identify any winners: Osama bin Laden is dead, and the vulnerabilities of the United States have been exposed in surprising ways. But the ramifications have been much more widely felt than in some artificial divide between so-called Islamic extremism and the democratic West. We do well to revisit that dramatic day and analyse afresh the symbolism of the event – something which has so far been difficult to do because the political sensitivities attached. Whether the distance is enough to fully appreciate the events is still a matter of conjecture, but the symbolism is so powerful, and the ramifications felt across the symbols so profound that we dare not take the opportunity for some fresh reflection.

For good reasons, the focus of 9/11 has been firmly upon the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers which dominated the New York skyline, and which tumbled so dramatically before our eyes. It is too easily forgotten that there were two other targets on that day: the Pentagon and the White House, the former suffering severe damage, but in a limited part of the building, while the attack on the White House was averted by the actions of some brave passengers aboard Flight 93. Together, these three buildings stood as symbols – pillars – of American world domination at the turn of the millennium – the political (White House), economic (World Trade Centre) and military (Pentagon) – underpinned America’s status as the sole superpower of the time. The attack on these three buildings was intended to send a strong message, distorted by the total destruction of the towers and the terrible loss of life. An important symbolism is to be found in the method of these attacks: using commercial aircraft – a symbol of American freedom and mobility, turned against its three pillars with catastrophic effect, and all taking place on the date which represents the number which Americans dial in case of emergency - 911. The method employed suggested that the greatest threats to the American way of life lay within - that decay lies within - rather than externally.

Reflecting upon the changes affecting those symbols of American supremacy provide some pause for thought. America’s original response was swift, and somewhat perplexing, drawing on its military supremacy with telling effect. The USA plunged into two wars, taking along other nations with it – wars from which it is finding great difficulty defining victory and thereby extracting itself; wars which were widely regarded at the time as having been pursued on dubious grounds. The long-term effect has been to stretch American military capacities to the margins, limiting their ability to respond in other areas of need. And yet perhaps the greatest effect has been felt economically. The effect of the trillion-dollar plus cost of waging these two conflicts has been to stress American financial resources to the limit, leaving the nation with limited capacity to respond not only in the immediacy of the global economic crisis of 2009, but in seeking to rebuild itself in its wake. In ten years America has moved from a healthy position of a sustainable budget in surplus to a point where both its total debt and per-capita debt ranks amongst the world’s highest, with little potential for finding agreement as to how to rectify the problem. One legacy of flexing of its military might in response to 9/11 has been a significant, though not fatal, erosion of its economic might.

If the military and economic capacities of the USA have been wounded, more profound has been the impact on politics. One consequence of 9/11 is that we have inherited the black-and-white view of the world which the West generally rejects in Islamic extremism, and by which the terrorists justified their actions: the death of “infidels” being morally justified in their binary view of the world. The rising and almost unshakeable suspicion of refugees and asylum seekers has only grown in the last ten years and become an almost unquestioned tenet in political thinking. We have effectively learned to demonise the “other.” A second, perhaps more far-reaching consequence has been the elevation of fear as the primary informant in debate on matters of public policy. No longer does informed debate appear in the public arena as we face global challenges of asylum seekers, or climate change for example. We find ourselves informed by slogans and accusation – reflecting the black-and-white view of all policy matters.

As much as one might find the emergence of the Tea Party in the US and its approach to public policy to be disturbing, one can empathise with their lack of confidence in existing political processes, which feeds their suspicions and fears. No longer do we find reasoned debate and consideration of the best interests of a nation paraded in its public forums, but fear, innuendo and blind partisan politics determining outcomes, to the point where the world’s most significant economy is brought to the brink of defaulting on its debts without consideration of the gravity and complexity of the situation or its consequences. The increased prevalence of minority governments in Australia and around the world reflects a deep disillusionment with the partisan approach to politics which has become more prevalent in a post-9/11 world.

There is no doubt that the 9/11 attacks have left enduring scars on the political, economic and military foundations not only of the USA, but on many Western nations. Unwittingly we have opted to fight the battle on the terms dictated by the terrorists, rather than calling to a higher ideal, and a higher principle. It makes for great headlines and sells more newspapers, but at what cost in the longer term? The challenges presented to us by the events of September 11 have not been overcome ten years on. It is hard to see where the catalyst to change the present tide will emerge from.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Why I support putting a price on carbon

Four years ago, both major political parties in Australia presented themselves to the electorate indicating that they would institute a carbon pricing scheme. Since that time there has been much more heat than light in relation to the issue. There are good reasons and benefits to introducing such a policy which is lost in the argy-bargy of political debate at the moment. These are the reasons I support a price on carbon.

Because it is the smart thing to do
Politicians wax eloquent about the years of coal supplies which are buried beneath the surface of Australian soil, but few lament the untapped sources of clean energy which are wasted every day. Solar, wind, thermal and tidal sources of power are much more plentiful and offer a sustainable way of powering our lifestyles than the use of brown-coal-fired electricity generation. Whether you believe the climate scientists or not, it is much smarter to develop renewable and sustainable forms of power generation, and to encourage a shift in our economy towards more sustainable forms of living.

Because it is the just thing to do
That Australian action to reduce carbon emissions will only result in a miniscule reduction in overall carbon emissions in the world is an oft-cited mantra for doing nothing, while China’s rapid increase in carbon emissions is regarded as an indication of greater blame. It is forgotten that Australia remains per capita the worst emitter of carbon pollution in the world, and tenth on the list of overall polluters. While our own efforts at reduction have minimal impact on overall production, it is patently unfair to shift the responsibility to other nations whose equivalent rate of emission is much lower than ours. The flip side of defending our overall production levels is a tacit approval for other nations to raise their per capita emissions to levels equivalent to Australia. Such an approach is diabolical. We cannot expect the burden of this to fall on those who are not responsible for its production, and who are often less capable of meeting the subsequent costs.

Because we all pay anyway
There is already a cost attached to the levels of carbon emissions in our world whether it be in the decline in the air quality across our cities and into the country, in the impact on the fertility of our soil and its capacity to grow crops, or in the more catastrophic impacts of extreme weather events which appear with increasing regularity. It is barely a generation past when it was considered appropriate for companies to discharge their water by-products into rivers and waterways – a practice we rightly abhor in this day, but which seemed natural at the time. To continue to release carbon into the atmosphere changes the chemical structure of the environment, for which we are already paying the cost. To charge it at the source rather than the fruit seems more equitable. An ounce of prevention…

Because we need a catalyst for change
Many corporations (and consumers) only begin to change their behaviour when the impact is felt in the hip pocket or on the bottom line. The cost of carbon pollution is presently being paid by a more vulnerable and less responsible group of people than those whose actions directly affect it. Making such decision-makers account for the impact of their actions, or at least their contribution to the impact, is a sure way to begin the behavioural change which is necessary. At the moment the system works like a lottery, where those who pay just happen to be in the path of a major weather event. A price on carbon brings this cost back home to its genesis, and provides not only a catalyst for change, but an incentive for innovation.

People either don't seem to understand that the point of the system is to encourage behavioural change, or don’t want to acknowledge that a change is needed. The opportunity is before us now to take action which, even if it makes a miniscule contribution to overall carbon emissions in the world, can make a significant difference to the way in which our lives in Australia interact with the land on which we so much depend. It’s time to swallow some medicine which will only serve to make us all the better for it.