That is not a title that many Labor politicians would expect from me. One of the hazards of being a Christian in public life is that people put labels on you, or pigeon-hole you into a political category somewhere on the left or right of the political spectrum. Often such labels represent wild distortions of what we actually believe or have said.
I have been associated in public life with the conservative side of politics since the latter years of the Howard government. I was privileged to be able to have a lot of influence on family law and family policy during that time – in particular, the creation of the Family Relationship Centres and major reforms to the child support system. I also made at least some contribution to reforms of the law of parenting after separation, although the press greatly exaggerated my influence.
The downside of that influence is that one becomes associated with the government of the day, and, conversely, persona non grata with the incoming government – as I found when Labor came to power in 2007. Odd really; because the reforms I led or supported had passed through parliament with almost unanimous agreement. In the previous decade, I had worked closely with Bob Carr’s NSW Labor government in making legislative reforms to the child protection system. Neither child protection nor family law should be political issues.
Christians are increasingly pigeon-holed as sitting on the right of politics, while those who are hostile to the Christian faith are known (to themselves at least) as “progressives”.
Ironically, early in the first Howard government, I was vetoed by cabinet for a position on one of the government’s advisory bodies, the Family Law Council. No-one at the time could explain to me why; but one theory was that it was because I had worked with the Labor government in NSW. Four years later, I was appointed to the same council and ended up chairing it.
The tendency to tribalism in our society is strong, and the more so in an age of social media when denigration and denunciation have become the currency with which to purchase, at least fleeting, popular acclaim. As a society, we are becoming increasingly divided, and this is reflected in public discourse. One of the consequences of that tribalism is that Christians are increasingly pigeon-holed as sitting on the right of politics, while those who are hostile to the Christian faith are known (to themselves at least) as “progressives”.
As Christians, we need to do everything possible to overcome such polarisation, or the perception that the kingdom of God is somehow associated with one side of politics. Politics is, after all, of secondary concern to Christians. Our first concern must be for those around us to come to a knowledge of the love of God and to learn how it is that they can experience that love personally for themselves.
The limits of politics
We are urged by Scripture to have concern for the poor, the fatherless and the widow (Deuteronomy 10:18; Psalms 82:3), and for others who are vulnerable and in need. However, political involvement is only one way of expressing that concern, and for many of our most pressing societal issues, government has few, if any, answers. When we look to government for solutions, we are often looking in the wrong place.
That has been one of the problems with the recent politicised discussion of sexual assault. Jesus did not teach us that the answer to sin was in some change to government policy; or to make some adjustment to the burden of proof or the rules of evidence in the criminal justice system. When we look for solutions in the wrong places, we miss the opportunity for beneficial change during society’s teachable moments.
God and government in the New Testament
That said, the Bible commands us to pray for governments (1 Timothy 2: 1-3) and to recognise that civil authority is divinely ordained (Romans 13: 1-7; 1 Peter 2: 13-17). It is striking that Paul did not see the government of his day as evil; for he spent much of his adult life unjustly imprisoned, and indeed wrote many of his letters from prison. Eventually, he was murdered by the government. Peter, too, was writing to a persecuted Church, and suffered the same fate as Paul at the hands of government.
Even oppressive governments have their virtues. Mussolini, it is said, made the trains of Italy run on time. Order is always better than anarchy. Reliable trains are an unequivocal good, however appalling might be other aspects of a government’s record.
Thanking God for good government
In Australia, we should be thankful for so much good government over the years; both at state and federal levels, and led by both sides of politics. There is much to thank God for in Labor’s custodianship of government in the last 50 years or so, and the same is true for governments led by the Coalition. Readers can make their own lists of the different virtues of governments for which they can be thankful. An honest evaluation would recognise that there have been times when both Coalition and Labor governments have managed the country’s finances, economy or public health prudently.
As Christians, we need to see the good in the various political parties, as well as being prepared to call them out for their shortcomings. We have some non-negotiables, of which perhaps religious freedom is the most fundamental. This is an issue on which Labor now risks alienating a great many people of faith. Labor governments in Victoria and the ACT have gravely damaged its brand. Even still, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that fidelity to faith requires us to be politically tribal.
Thankfulness and praise are good antidotes to the poisonous tone of so much of our political and social discourse. Negativity is corrosive in a society; but it is also intoxicating and contagious. Thank God for Labor, and for Coalition governments too. Things could be much worse – and they are, in societies without competent government.
Prof. Patrick Parkinson AM is a professor of Law at the University of Queensland.