Major challenges facing Australia post-poll

Parliament House/Eureka Street

During the election campaign neither of the major parties seriously addressed the major challenges facing Australia: Climate change, inequality, and the forced movement of peoples, writes Andrew Hamilton SJ.

That makes it inevitable that following this election, sovereignty, mandates, and other weighty words will continue to dominate public conversation.

They usually function as political knives to cut through the messiness of our democratic order. But they also carry a cultural, and specifically theological, weight that may illuminate our present condition.

In theological usage, election is an evocative, top-down word, referring to God's choice of people for salvation, not to people's choice of a God. It also referred to God's choice of particular people for positions — priests, bishops, and kings. That is still symbolised in the British coronation ceremony.

The reference to God was politically important because it emphasised that people in authority were under a higher authority.

Theologians debated whether God's election of people was to be understood primarily as an exercise of will or as an expression of mind. Although apparently recondite, the question was important because, if election is an exercise of intellect, it presupposes that it is made for reasons we could in principle understand, even if we cannot know them. If it is simply an exercise of will no reasons can be found.

This had implications for the authority that rulers exercised. If their choice was an exercise of God's will, they had to obey God's commands. But these did not reflect an intelligible human order. They simply demanded obedience.

It followed that the ruler's laws over his people were similarly exercises of will, mandates to be obeyed because the emperor had made them. They could not be measured against a universal moral order. As God's representative, the ruler's sovereignty was unlimited.

If the choice of rulers was an expression of God's plan for the world, they were accountable to an intelligible world order that they had to serve. Their own law making and governance was an exercise of reason, and could be measured against a moral order. As God's steward the ruler's sovereignty was limited.

In modern representative democracies the place of God is taken by the people, who are sovereign. There is no overarching moral order. Through elections the people choose the government. This is an expression of will. But the candidates' proposal of policies and later parliamentary debate upon them suggest an intelligible order of what is right for the nation

The theological debate about election suggests that in a sharply divided democracy in which no party is trusted to push through its legislation unimpeded, it is not possible to produce concerted action by appealing to an agreed moral order accepted by all.

What remains is the messy business of thinking, persuading and negotiating, attentive to what a good society would look like as well as to the ways in which the economy can be structured to serve it.

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Theology of elections (Eureka Street)

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