Tony Abbott, the Pope, the Greens and maternity leave

I originally posted the piece below 12 months ago. It remains relevant today.  It looks like Tony Abbott will be wedged by a big business friendly Senate that values profit above family and community.

An ex-Pope, the Greens and Tony Abbott: Conservative fault lines in love, business, and family life

In March 2010, Tony Abbott made a big media splash, and astonished his own party when he proposed a very generous paid parental leave scheme, funded by a levy on big business. His 3 billion dollar a year plan is intended to deliver up to $75,000 for mothers staying home for the first six months of their baby’s life. The Greens welcomed the moved and offered to support something like it through the Parliament. The media and left of center commentators analysed this policy as cynical political maneuvering and/or regressively patriarchal. Abbott’s side of politics took him more seriously, offering the same criticisms that his ideas would have received if they had come from the Greens; lunatic social engineering.

But conservatives understand better than most that Abbott is serious. In 1998 he described Cardinal George Pell as the “greatest living Australian”, and as “one of the greatest churchmen that Australia has seen”. And there is no doubt Cardinal Pell would support a levy on big business to subsidise stay at home mothers. (Just don’t call it a tax!)


So why would the Greens (or indeed progressive Catholics) find themselves on the same side of the social policy fence as conservative Catholics? The answer is simply this; both sides find themselves alarmed at the logical outcome of unfettered neoliberal market economics; the monetizing of all social relationships and the deconstruction of citizens into individual atomized consumers. These emerging trends erode not only the “traditional” nuclear family, but also all caring, friendly, compassionate relationships.


As Tony Abbott becomes a small target and wends his way to electoral victory in September, the Labor Party would do well to carefully read Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) the first social encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, published in 2009. It describes the middle ground that Labor yearns to capture, and paradoxically provides the clues as to why this is so elusive.

The elements of the document that deal with the ethics of capitalism are worth quoting at length.

“Profit is useful if it serves as a means towards an end that provides a sense both of how to produce it and how to make good use of it. Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty. ..


The world’s wealth is growing in absolute terms, but inequalities are on the increase. In rich countries, new sectors of society are succumbing to poverty and new forms of poverty are emerging. In poorer areas some groups enjoy a sort of “superdevelopment” of a wasteful and consumerist kind which forms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation…


In our own day, the State finds itself having to address the limitations to its sovereignty imposed by the new context of international trade and finance, which is characterized by increasing mobility both of financial capital and means of production, material and immaterial. This new context has altered the political power of States…

Today, as we take to heart the lessons of the current economic crisis, which sees the State’s public authorities directly involved in correcting errors and malfunctions, it seems more realistic to re-evaluate their role and their powers, which need to be prudently reviewed and remodelled so as to enable them, perhaps through new forms of engagement, to address the challenges of today’s world. Once the role of public authorities has been more clearly defined, one could foresee an increase in the new forms of political participation, nationally and internationally, that have come about through the activity of organizations operating in civil society; in this way it is to be hoped that the citizens’ interest and participation in the res publica will become more deeply rooted.


From the social point of view, systems of protection and welfare, already present in many countries in Paul VI’s day, are finding it hard and could find it even harder in the future to pursue their goals of true social justice in today’s profoundly changed environment. The global market has stimulated first and foremost, on the part of rich countries, a search for areas in which to outsource production at low cost with a view to reducing the prices of many goods, increasing purchasing power and thus accelerating the rate of development in terms of greater availability of consumer goods for the domestic market. Consequently, the market has prompted new forms of competition between States as they seek to attract foreign businesses to set up production centres, by means of a variety of instruments, including favourable fiscal regimes and deregulation of the labour market. These processes have led to a downsizing of social security systems as the price to be paid for seeking greater competitive advantage in the global market, with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers, for fundamental human rights and for the solidarity associated with the traditional forms of the social State. Systems of social security can lose the capacity to carry out their task, both in emerging countries and in those that were among the earliest to develop, as well as in poor countries. Here budgetary policies, with cuts in social spending often made under pressure from international financial institutions, can leave citizens powerless in the face of old and new risks; such powerlessness is increased by the lack of effective protection on the part of workers’ associations. Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level…


The mobility of labour, associated with a climate of deregulation, is an important phenomenon with certain positive aspects, because it can stimulate wealth production and cultural exchange. Nevertheless, uncertainty over working conditions caused by mobility and deregulation, when it becomes endemic, tends to create new forms of psychological instability, giving rise to difficulty in forging coherent life-plans, including that of marriage. This leads to situations of human decline, to say nothing of the waste of social resources. In comparison with the casualties of industrial society in the past, unemployment today provokes new forms of economic marginalization, and the current crisis can only make this situation worse. Being out of work or dependent on public or private assistance for a prolonged period undermines the freedom and creativity of the person and his family and social relationships, causing great psychological and spiritual suffering. I would like to remind everyone, especially governments engaged in boosting the world’s economic and social assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity…


The Church has always held that economic action is not to be regarded as something opposed to society. In and of itself, the market is not, and must not become, the place where the strong subdue the weak. Society does not have to protect itself from the market, as if the development of the latter were ipso facto to entail the death of authentically human relations. Admittedly, the market can be a negative force, not because it is so by nature, but because a certain ideology can make it so. It must be remembered that the market does not exist in the pure state. It is shaped by the cultural configurations which define it and give it direction. Economy and finance, as instruments, can be used badly when those at the helm are motivated by purely selfish ends. Instruments that are good in themselves can thereby be transformed into harmful ones. But it is man’s darkened reason that produces these consequences, not the instrument per se. Therefore it is not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility.


The Church’s social doctrine holds that authentically human social relationships of friendship, solidarity and reciprocity can also be conducted within economic activity, and not only outside it or “after” it. The economic sphere is neither ethically neutral, nor inherently inhuman and opposed to society. It is part and parcel of human activity and precisely because it is human, it must be structured and governed in an ethical manner.


Without doubt, one of the greatest risks for businesses is that they are almost exclusively answerable to their investors, thereby limiting their social value. Owing to their growth in scale and the need for more and more capital, it is becoming increasingly rare for business enterprises to be in the hands of a stable director who feels responsible in the long term, not just the short term, for the life and the results of his company, and it is becoming increasingly rare for businesses to depend on a single territory. Moreover, the so-called outsourcing of production can weaken the company’s sense of responsibility towards the stakeholders — namely the workers, the suppliers, the consumers, the natural environment and broader society…”


Tony Abbott’s colleagues are privately furious with him because they see Catholic ideas of social justice as a perverse manifestation of the nanny state. If love, attachment or family ties gets in the way of making a buck, conservative political parties, no matter what they say, will almost invariably opt to support the unfettered right to make a profit. That is why they will do nothing about the epidemic of heavy drinking, obesity, and the proliferation of 24/7 gambling. That is why they will continue to erode penalty rates when they come to power, as well as outsourcing public services, and keeping dole payments below the poverty line.


The state, in various manifestations across the globe, has bailed out the casino capitalists, but the corporate shareholders of all the major multinationals have now come back for more. There is no forgiveness or charity in those hearts. Ask anyone with a bank account in Cyprus.

Locally the Liberals have won a famous ideological victory. For Labor to adopt a conservative Catholic social program would be seen as crazed radicalism and “class warfare”. We have become comfortable with blaming each other, rather than helping each other.


If I were not an atheist, I would say,“God help us”.

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