Treehuggers no more

An Australian election this coming weekend has put the spotlight on radical themes in the Greens Party.
Michael Cook | Mar 22 2011 | comment  

Australia is an unlikely place for innovative political movements. But twice in the last century, it scored world political firsts. In 1904 it became the first country in the world to elect a democratic socialist party to government, the Australian Labor Party. And then, in 1972, the world’s first Greens party was founded in the state of Tasmania.

Since epic battles over wilderness conservation in the 1970s, the Greens have grown rapidly. After elections last year they ended up as partners with the Labor Party in minority governments both in Tasmania and in Federal Parliament in Canberra.

Their influence has also meant that their policies are being scrutinised more carefully by political opponents and voters. Most of the attention has been devoted to examining whether their anti-consumerist, pro-environment attitudes are compatible with a healthy economy. But there are even more serious concerns than this. Last year a former Liberal cabinet minister, Kevin Andrews, published a lengthy analysis of Green policies and concluded that “What is at stake in the Greens’ ‘revolution’ is the heart and soul of Western civilisation.”

This may sound absurdly alarmist, but last week most of the Catholic bishops in the state of New South Wales released an open letter denouncing some prominent Green policies in the lead-up to a state election on March 26. This may be another world first: the first time that a Catholic hierarchy has expressed "grave concern" about a Greens party. This kind of assertiveness hasn’t been seen since the days of the Cold War when Communists and fellow-travellers were denounced from pulpits. Catholic Bishops may have a reputation for taking sides, but in fact they are very reluctant to attempt to influence elections.

Admittedly, the letter was signed only by ten bishops from the state of New South Wales – a couple of their colleagues abstained – and not by the national grouping, the Australian Bishops Conference. But it still has to be seen as an extraordinary move. It bore the fingerprints and the signature of the doughty Cardinal George Pell, a culture warrior who loves a scrap. He has been ringing alarm bells about the Greens for some time. Last year one of his newspaper columns struck the same note as Andrews: “For those who value our present way of life, the Greens are sweet camouflaged poison.”

His criticisms are not aimed at environmentalists. All the Christian denominations support care for Australia's fragile environment. But with their electoral success, the Greens have had to expand the range of their policies in order to be taken seriously. The focus on environmental causes has been diluted by social radicals who have been swarming to the Party. “One wing of the Greens are like water melons, green outside and red inside,” Pell wrote sardonically. And in fact, the three issues at the top of the Greens shopping list in Federal Parliament are a carbon tax, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. The leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Bob Brown, underscored this in the jubilation of election night last year.  

Furthermore, insofar as the Greens have a house philosopher, it is the notorious utilitarian Peter Singer. Now a professor at Princeton University in the US, Singer is best known as an animal rights theorist. But he also contends that there is nothing wrong with infanticide of disabled infants, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, incest, bestiality and other outmoded taboos. In 1996 he ran unsuccessfully for the Federal Senate as a Greens candidate and with Bob Brown wrote a manifesto for the party called "The Greens".

Few voters are aware of this background. Most of them regard the Greens as a warm and fuzzy anti-establishment option with the best policies on climate change. However, Catholic bishops still have some social clout, and perhaps their analysis will encourage voters to examine the Green agenda more thoughtfully.

“Not everything the Greens are promoting is bad public policy,” they insist, especially protecting the environment. (They do not even mention Greens opposition to population growth and economic development, which make headlines in the business pages.) But some policies are very troubling for anyone who supports human dignity. Among the areas which the Bishops highlight are the following:

Drug use. The Greens want to legalise recreational drug use while keeping large-scale drug-dealing illegal. Nonsense, say the bishops: “the use of non-therapeutic drugs damages health, life and communities and is an offence against human dignity”.

Same-sex marriage. The Greens are ardent supporters. The open letter says that this is a direct threat to the Church: “Changing the law on marriage would expose churches and schools to coercive pressures from the state to cease teaching their beliefs about marriage and family.”

Abortion. The NSW Greens want to decriminalise abortion, as the neighbouring state of Victoria did in 2008. That law also removed the right of conscientious objection for doctors and nurses.

Euthanasia. The Greens unequivocally support euthanasia as “a fundamental human right”.  

Religious freedom. The Greens want to abolish protections for religious freedom (misleadingly called “exemptions”) from the New South Wales Anti- Discrimination Act. These allow private schools to prefer teachers whose views and lifestyles are in harmony with the mission of the school and the values of parents. This change, say the bishops, threatens “the right to live out our faith in the community”.

Their conclusion is a sombre one:

"The Greens’ position on a number of fundamental points of human and social policy areas conflicts directly with the beliefs and values of virtually all religious people, and the beliefs of many other people as well. The conflicts are not superficial or inconsequential. They go to fundamental issues such as respect for all human life from conception to natural death. They attack religious freedom and freedom of conscience. Greens who are elected will bring a whole set of policies. You cannot pick and choose. They are not only concerned for the environment."

It is still unclear whether the Greens’ recent successes in Australia are just a flash in the pan or a flare bursting over the future. But they are clearly not just comical treehuggers. They are led by confident, hard-nosed politicians with an agenda. It’s good to see that their agenda is finally being critiqued.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

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