After the slaughter of the Liberal vote at the Wentworth by-election Scott Morrison addressed the gathered party faithful as follows:
We believe in a fair go for those who have a go. We believe that the best form of welfare is a job. We believe that it's every Australian's duty to make a contribution and not take a contribution and we believe this; you don't raise people up by bringing others down.
As a piece of liberal doctrine this begs examination. Its genius is the way it uses half-truths to make a moral decision about the poor. We can go through each proposition and agree. Certainly, the entrepreneurial spirit should be encouraged. Certainly, work is better than welfare because work provides a sense of being part of the community and links the person to that community. We understand that the old adage, levied on those who become rich, that "they will never have to work again", is a sentence to futility and isolation. And yes, it is every Australian's duty to make a contribution to society if they are able. And no, you don't raise people up by bringing others down. I think we can all agree on this.
However, even when the affirmation of the importance of a safety net is made, as it sometimes is, one still feels uneasy. We feel uneasy because there exists, between the lines, a bias towards the able and against those who are not able. There are a vast number of Australians whose unchosen life circumstances make "having a go" impossible. These are the people who are labelled as leaners as opposed to lifters, in Joe Hockey's terms. The language may have changed with Scott Morrison but the sentiment is the same: you are entirely responsible for your situation in life and if circumstances have conspired against you, be those of birth, education, abuse, geography, teenage foolishness or violence then we do not want to know about it. You are judged and found wanting and you should lift your game. The message is clear; you are a valuable member of the community only according to your contribution. Society is divided between those who pay tax and those who do not.
This is a message of despair for those who have fallen on hard times and can no longer contribute. Their misfortune is increased by being labelled a bludger. If you have become homeless through no fault of your own then getting a job is impossible. If you lose employment after fifty it is very hard to restart. A triumphalist understanding of human life does not take this into account because we are deemed to be the complete masters of our destiny. This is the kind of understanding of the human situation that is pedalled by charismatic mega-churches like the one Scott Morrison attends.
Liberal ideology is all about choice and the strength of will. This can be traced back to the European Enlightenment that established the individual as his or her own creation. For the clear thinking individual, it is a matter of choice whether they make a contribution to society. Both Hockey and Morrison infer that those who bludge on society must simply change their minds; "Be a lifter not a leaner."
It is no wonder that successive liberal governments have made welfare more and more difficult to access and that Morrison can contemplate an increase in the pension but not for New Start. The hidden agenda is driven by the spectre of welfare dependence. But try living on New Start when you do not own your own home. Most such people would give their right arm to be employed rather than live with a safety net that is really a poverty trap.
An analysis of political ideology requires a language and a narrative that operates with a particular anthropology, an understanding of the nature and destiny of the human.
But where are we to find concepts and language with which to discuss the central concerns of humanity when we have largely turned out backs on the very tradition that has got us this far? Yes, Christendom is no more and that is probably a good thing, the connection between the Church and government has come crashing down all over the world. However, the decline of the Church has left a narrative vacuum that cannot be satisfactorily filled with the modern narratives of endless material progress and self-sufficiency which ignores the nature of the human.
Christianity proclaims that the kingdom (that earthly reality of justice and peace) is for the poor in spirit, those who mourn the status quo, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart and the peacemakers, to paraphrase the Beatitudes. This is the great inversion that is at the centre of Christianity. So, rather than the successful, the entrepreneurs, the rich and prosperous inheriting the kingdom of God, it is those very ones who come under the judgement of liberal ideology that do.
If we want to see true humanity we do not go off to Herod's palace we go to Golgotha to see the man in dereliction. Similarly, we go to Golgotha to see the only vision of God that has been given to us. There is a dreadful irony here, that if we would be like God then we must become like the man on the cross, the only true man and the only true God, the man for others.
Let us elaborate on this theme. The events that were most productive of deeper thought in the Judeo/Christian tradition were the events that told of the absence, even the abandonment of God. For Israel, the major determining event in its history was the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 587BC and the deportation of the ruling classes to exile in Babylon. It seemed at the time that God had reneged on his promise to establish the Davidic dynasty for ever. For the Church, the event that produced a flowering of theology was the manner and death of Jesus. The cry of dereliction from the cross and the fleeing of the disciples says it all.
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