The Christian Vision of Government (VII)

The fundamental issue that divides mankind is ethics (Gary North).

Conservative (or Coalition) governments in Australia’s Federal government have exhibited some important characteristics. In the sixty years since 1952, the Coalition has been in government three times, for a total of 38 years: 1952-1972 (they came to power in 1949), 1975-1983 and 1996-2007.

William McMahon (the last Coalition Prime Minister in the initial long term) had been elected first to Parliament in 1949, and had served in a succession of ministries before becoming Prime Minister in 1971. Malcolm Fraser became Prime Minister in 1975, to lose government in 1983, and John Howard went right through from 1996-2007. These Prime Ministers’ average ages when they lost office, was 61.

Why did these supposedly conservative governments lose office? A number of issues can be legitimately put forward here, including personal and economic ones. But I want to draw attention specifically, to one.

These three Prime Ministers identified with conservative politics. They would (to different degrees) have loosely identified with freedom for the individual, fiscal restraint, small government and low tax rates. That’s good.

But I suspect that by the end, they had each gone as far as they could. They no longer possessed the passion for conservative national reform; perhaps McMahon and Fraser never had it anyway. For all three, their only solution at the end (in my opinion) was hanging onto power, which didn’t work for them or their party, and rarely works anyway.

What then must true conservatives possess? A foundational ideology, that has little to do with gaining or retaining power; it has to be independent of power itself. This ideology becomes a foundational motivator, which presses a genuine conservative to reject political compromises that betray his beliefs.

This explains the relative success of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. They each understood and embraced an ideology of conservatism, and they were both able to articulate it to their nation. This successful articulation brought vision, hope and confidence in the community, in the concept of smaller government, less bureaucracy and greater freedom for the individual.

Consider this recent statement from the Christian economist, Gary North:

The Biblical concept of oppression is the misuse of civil law to deprive others of what should be lawfully theirs…Nowhere in the Bible do we see a call for the civil government to impose a system of wealth distribution from rich people in general to poor people in general. That would be a form of oppression: the use of the ballot box by the majority to extract wealth from the minority. This is exactly what the Bible prohibits. People are not to oppress the poor by means of illegitimate legislation. No group is to misuse the civil law in order to extract wealth from another group.[1]

This shows why a Christian vision of government is critical for the conservative. It gives him an ethical basis for reform, beginning with himself, the family, society and the institution of government itself. The former British Prime Minister William Gladstone, understood this. Writing near the end of the nineteenth century, he said that

We live at a time when there is a disposition to think that the Government ought to do this and that and that the Government ought to do everything. There are things which the Government ought to do, I have no doubt. In former periods the Government have neglected much, and possibly even now they neglect something; but there is a danger on the other side. If the Government takes into its hands that which the man ought to do for himself it will inflict upon him greater mischiefs than all the benefits he will have received or all the advantages that would accrue from them.   

I find it a point of interest that Australian political conservatives today hearken back to the Howard years with a great fondness, implying his era is one they would like to return to. Why? Was it his relative political success they are fond of, or his ideology? And if it’s both, don’t they possess a genuine ideology in their own heart, to carry onto the next government?

But there’s more. Does having a distinct ideological base justify conservatives dumping their policies on an unsuspecting electorate, when in power? No.

Everyone should learn from Queensland’s experience of 2009-2012. What was that?

In 2009 the Bligh Labor government was re-elected, with a reduced majority. Only weeks afterwards, we were told that the government would now have sell off billions of dollars worth of State government assets, largely because of budgetary difficulties it was wrestling with. Even unions publicly protested against the government, and the electorate thought, “Why wasn’t this revealed to us, BEFORE the election?”

So, come March 2012, the electorate got its chance to pass judgment, and it did. The Labor Party is reduced from 54 seats in Parliament, to 7. The electoral lesson for all governments?

Don’t dump major surprises on an electorate after an election, that had clearly been pre-planned.

Thus conservatives not only need to master a genuinely conservative (and in my view, a Christian) ideology: they need to be able to communicate it and persuade the community of its legitimacy and viability, BEFORE the people are called upon to vote. “The consent of the governed” is a wholesome and legitimate aspect of good government, for any group of people.

No doubt, there are phases in all of this; it’s little by little. A full-blown Christian society and government may be generations in the making. But every long journey begins with a few small steps.

Are you ready to begin?

[1] Gary North, “Confidence and Dominion,” 2012, p.16.