An offer they can’t refuse

As 2009 draws to a close, commentators across the world will be writing articles about “Milestones of the past decade”. There will be some consensus between such lists. I’d be surprised if many such lists were published without Barak Obama featuring. In Australia, naturally, the defeat of John Howard’s coalition and the election of Kevin Rudd’s Labor will also rank highly.

One development which might not be so commonly heralded, but no less significant to those within some circles, will be the recent and unprecedented offer by the Roman Catholic Church for disaffected Anglican priests and congregations to rejoin their communion. This offer, allowing the Anglicans to maintain their current practices and most of their beliefs, has been perhaps the most significant and historic event of 2009. It has yet to be seen how many congregations will take the Pope up on his offer, but at the very least this change paves the way for an influx of new blood and new attitudes (not to mention a new cadre of priests showing the rising generations that ordination and marriage can coexist) to the Catholic church, which has been famously intransigent since the rise of Benedict.

At issue was not the basis of Christian faith – Catholic and Protestant churches share much in common when it comes to doctrine, even if their approach and emphasis differs in the specifics. However, specific issues of practice – particularly the ordination of homosexual bishops, although there are other similar points of contention – made it difficult for some Anglican priests and congregants to accept the decisions made by the church as a whole.

It’s debateable whether this development will have immediate or overt effect on the Anglican communion. At a worst-case scenario where dozens of priests and congregations “cross the floor” and desert their ancestral denomination, the most likely outcome for the Anglican church is a continued push to reform and modernisation, having cast off a lot of the more recidivist elements which until now were leavening the mix. For decades, the Anglican hierarchy has been negotiating with and taking into account the attitudes of all its stakeholder groups, and this has arguably held the church back from developments and decisions it might otherwise have been inclined to take. With the reins loosened, we may see the Anglican church develop in a direction that would otherwise have been moderated.

For those Anglican churches that step in the direction of Rome, change, at least at first, is likely to be slight. Many of these churches are regarded as being “Catholic-lite” at the outset. The differences between the two traditions are largely in the area of liturgy and these have now been mitigated by the Pope’s agreement that the absconding Anglican churches can maintain their existing practices. (There are some strings to the Pope’s offer that I suspect are holding some priests and congregations back from making the move. Another constraint is that, like a franchisee deciding to go its own way, making the move may involve for many churches leaving behind its bank balance and its church property – not an insubstantial sacrifice to be called to make.)

On the other hand, if the exodus is slight – and I’ve not seen report of huge swathes making for the exit door – then the two churches might continue along much as before. The offer from the Pope might be seen as a nice back-door, but not something to be run at except as a last resort. The initial weight of commentary at the time the offer was made seems to doubt this outcome, but it remains to be seen for certain.

Apart from the bridge from Anglican to Roman Catholic, one other development that might make any top ten list of changes in the noughties, although it’s one that didn’t come with a start date or a press release, is the change in scientific and public attitudes towards anthropic global warming. Despite the persistent messages of lobby groups, fossil fuel megacorporations and other climate change skeptics, the world has become largely united in both the understanding that ongoing climate change is being caused and perpetuated by human activity, and an acceptance of responsibility to do something about it.

Despite the change in world, political, scientific and public opinion on this topic, however, there are still some groups who are desperately clinging to any bit of bad science that might disprove or explain away human-caused climate change. Amongst these groups is a large portion of the Australian Coalition political party. Anybody who’s paid half an ear to political reporting in Australia over the past month cannot help but be in awe at the current meltdown of the main opposition party in this country, a group that only two short years ago was the governing party and considered by some to be undefeatable. Now, to the naked eye they appear as a fractured rabble, rife with infighting and unable to pull together anything resembling a cogent policy position. Their leader, Malcolm Turnbull, seen by some as a potential match for the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and an upcoming saviour of the Liberal party, is now regarded by most as being on borrowed time.

When he was elected to the leadership of the Liberal party and thus the coalition, Turnbull was an ace in the hole. With business experience, gravitas and a high degree of intelligence, he had the necessary attributes to garner respect from the rank and file of the party. With moderate views on policy, he had the ability to be circumspect about Liberal doctrine and not frighten off the electorate. And as the Environment Minister in Howard’s government, he had the qualifications, experience, and most importantly the commitment, to defuse the growing threat to the Coalition’s position that was Australia’s response to climate change.

How the mighty have fallen!

In many ways it’s a real shame that Turnbull has been so undone by his own party. Any government needs a strong and disciplined Opposition. Whatever you might feel about the beliefs and positions of the parties, the Australian people are not served by any party that can go to any extremes without being called to account. Whether the extremes are the excesses of capitalism and an impassable income gap, or of large government and untrammelled public debt, excesses can only be moderated by having an opposing group to draw attention and generate political threat. Whilst the Liberal party is in such a shambles as it currently appears, the checks and balances are off the current government, and this can never be a good thing.

The way out for the Coalition is not so clear. They are a party divided. Whilst both Labor and Liberal have become more centrist over the past decade – in many cases Labor policy is largely indistinguishable from Liberal – there are some specific points of disagreement, and it is here that Turnbull and maybe a minority of Liberal politicians diverge from the main of their party. In these areas, they are perhaps closer to Labor’s beliefs and policies than to their own party.

It just remains to be seen whether Turnbull is marking time before his eventual, inevitable demise as leader of the Liberal party – perhaps as soon as this Monday; or whether he and other AGW believers in the party will have to button their lip and accept the feeling of their party even as it goes against their better judgement. In a way, Turnbull and his supporters are like the Anglican priests who can’t stomach what their denomination has accepted as policy, but are just looking for a way out.

Does anybody else see the precedent here?

Kevin Rudd should make Malcolm Turnbull an offer he can’t refuse. Offer him a front bench position in the Labor party, with an undertaking to keep him close to the decision-making power of Labor, and potentially a shot down the line at the leadership.

Sounds foolish, perhaps? But think about it. Turnbull’s attitudes on many issues differ from Labor policy – but then, so do a lot of Labor politicians’. Turnbull has the personal disciple to be able to toe the line publicly, but be a moderating voice of reason behind closed doors. He has a lot of respect from some of the voting public, which he would bring with him in the form of goodwill. In the immediate term, it would be a vicious – perhaps deadly – coup for Labor against the Liberal party, and open up a vacuum at the top of the coalition that would be filled by a more conservative Liberal. In the long run, it might actually help the Liberal party to pick a stance and stay there.

And as for Turnbull himself, what does he have to lose from such an offer? His leadership is dead in the water. The best he can hope for is a graceful retirement from politics. Instead, he could continue as preeminent figure in Australian politics, and aim to become the first man in history to be leader of both the Liberal and Labor parties in Australia.

Now wouldn’t that be historic?

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