Friday, June 22, 2012

Conservatives should welcome the Australian High Court's decision

The Australian Government thinks that it's good if schools have chaplains. So it’s been contracting with various organisations, funding them to provide chaplains.  

(In Australia, Government schools are the legal responsibility of the State Governments. As they also think that school chaplains are a good idea, this doesn’t create a problem.)  

But Mr Ron Williams wanted his children to have a secular education. He asked the High Court to stop the Australian Government from funding the chaplains at his children’s school.  And, on Wednesday last, the Court did so. 

The High Court is Australia’s top court – our equivalent to the US Supreme Court.) 

Despite immediate appearances to the contrary, I argue that conservatives should welcome this decision. 

The Court looked at two issues.

First, it didn’t accept Mr Williams’ argument that, by funding chaplains, the Government had breached section 116 of the Constitution (dealing with the separation of Church and State).  In fact, the Court’s discussion on this point was brief and dismissive.  
So there’s no intrinsic problem with this program, and the Australian Government has announced that it will seek to continue the funding. It looks as though Mr Williams’ elation is likely to be short-lived.

The Court also decided that that the Australian Government can’t fund programs just because it wants to.  This is a seismic shift from the way that lawyers have previously been reading the Australian Constitution.

In effect, the Court said that the federal Government (the Executive Branch of Government) can only do so if the Australian Parliament (the Legislature) has given its authority by passing a law to authorise the proposal. 

(Actually, it seems the Court might permit the Government to directly approve some kinds of payments in cases involving the internal administration or the status of the Commonwealth as the national government.  The latter concept is rather vague and is likely to lead to more court cases!) 

The result of the decision is that the Government will need to pay more attention to the Parliament.  This means the decision involves a restriction on the power of the Executive. 

At present, the Greens have a significant representation in the Australian Senate.  By enhancing the role of Parliament, the High Court’s decision will also enhance the Greens’ power. 

In the short term, this is not a good outcome for conservatives.  But they should welcome the broader effect of the Court’s decision, because it restricts the power of the Executive Government. 

There’s also an issue about the State Governments.  The Australian Government sometimes asks the Australian Parliament to pass legislation, giving grants to the State Governments for various purposes.  This avoids difficulties in the federal parliament funding the projects outside its constitutional power. (See section 96 of the Constitution.)  

Following the High Court’s decision, the Australian Government will probably increase its use of this process.  If so, this will give more power to the State Governments (which might object or have questions about projects). 

In short, the decision should disappoint people who want a secular Australia and who want a central government with fewer restrictions on its capacity to spend public money. And it should be welcomed by conservatives.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Abraham and the two kings

Genesis 14 contains a short passage about war between various small kingdoms in the Holy Land, some three to four thousand years ago. It's a passage of great importance.

The background is that, after having been subjugated by the King of Elam for twelve years, five small kingdoms declared their independence, including the city state of Sodom.

The King of Elam prepared his revenge. Two years later, he and his three allies defeated the rebellious five kings. As Genesis 14:9 says, a war of four kings against five.

In the course of the war, the King of Elam captured Abraham’s nephew, Lot, who lived in Sodom. Perhaps he was going to sell Lot as a slave, perhaps he was going to hold him hostage.

But Abraham conferred with three other tribal chiefs and they went in pursuit. They had a small force but were triumphant (a familiar theme both in Scripture and in modern Israel!) He freed Lot and recaptured the people and booty taken by the Elamites.

Then Abraham is approached by the mysterious Melchizedek, King of Salem. The King offers a sacrifice of bread and wine to God, and blesses Abraham. Recognising the King as a priest of God and a precursor of the Messiah, Abraham gives him an offering, a tenth of his possessions.

Melchizedek was king of the city called Salem, now called Jerusalem. Reflecting on the Hebrew meanings of these words, Hebrews 7:2 tells us that says, the name 'Melchizedek' means 'king of righteousness'; then also, 'king of Salem' means 'king of peace.” And, as a ruler of peace, Melchizedek did not participate in the conflict between the nine kings.

For those interested in numerical patterns, he can be regarded as the tenth king, as the king who received a tenth of Abraham's possessions, and as a person reminding us of the ten commandments of God.

After his encounter with Melchizedek, Abraham is approached by another king. The king of Sodom asks Abraham to return the people taken from Sodom and suggests that Abraham keep the spoils taken from the city.

But Abraham refuses. He will not accept anything for himself (though he will accept spoils for his allies). In fact, he had taken a solemn vow that he would accept absolutely nothing.

Did Abraham realise the iniquity of Sodom? Is this why he refused to accept the king’s offer? Perhaps the passage is meant to contrast how we should venerate the King of Righteousness and have no part in the King of Unrighteousness?

If Abraham realised Sodom's iniquity, we can see an extra edge in his later bargaining with God on the city's behalf (Genesis 18). Perhaps he realizes the sinful nature of the city but still seeks God’s mercy for it. And, realising its iniquity, he seeks to expand God’s mercy proportionately.

(Until he comes to the requirement that there be ten just men. Numerically, this may remind us of the commandments and to stipulate the minimum compliance that a society needs to survive.)

Another point. We’d have expected that the king and people of Sodom people would be deeply grateful to Abraham, particularly those who had been taken as captives. So reflect on the viciousness of the people of Sodom when they later attack Lot, although they knew that he was the closest kinsman of their benefactor, Abraham (Genesis 19:9).

(By the way, I've referred to Abraham, but at this stage he was still called Abram. Later God gave him a new name to his part in Salvation History: see Genesis 17:5.)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Peter Singer receives top Australian honour

Today, June 11, Australia has been celebrating the birthday of our monarch, Queen Elizabeth. It's a tradition dating from the first British settlement in Australia, back in 1788. Quaintly, we don't actually celebrate Her Majesty's actually birthday, which is 21 April, but instead celebrate an "official birthday" in June.

To mark the occasion, the Queen's representative in Australia (the Governor-General) announces various honours that have been awarded to leading citizens. Honours typically go to retired policians, judges, generals, and worthy scholars who have received the Nobel Prize or have otherwise distinguished themselves.

Except that this year, the highest honour, Companion of the Order of Australia has gone to Peter Singer, an professor who has instead distinguished himself by his attacks on traditional human values. While promoting animal rights, he sees nothing wrong with killing human babies after birth.

As an Australian Government's website says, "Honours help define, encourage and reinforce national aspirations, ideals and standards by identifying role models".

So presumably Peter Singer is now to be regarded as embodying Australian ideals and standards. The Australian community has moved yet further from the idea that there's anything specical or "sacred" about human life.

And, yes, one step closer to the extermination of anyone who doesn't fit the national aspirations. Look out if you're disabled, too old, or can't pass as a bronzed Aussie sportsperson!

To put it another way, the mainstream has again shown its contempt for traditional ideas and human values.

As an aside, people will criticise the Australian Government about this, so let's look at the actual process. The political head, the Prime Minister, effectively appoints members of the "Council for the Order of Australia". (Actually, the Prime Minister asks the Governor-General to appoint them, and this request is always accepted.)

The Council is an independent body and prepares the nominations for awards direct to the Governor-General. So the Australian Government is not responsible for the award to Peter Singer. Merely for creating the body that made the decision.