Politics and Universal Ethics NSW Launch

Hon Greg Smith, Attorney General, NSW

As far as my faith and politics are concerned, I get called “religious right” and all those sorts of names, mainly to put me down, and to put down anyone who is religious or has a faith. That is a very sad development in our media. I draw a lot of my political philosophy from the work of Sir Thomas More…His most famous words are “I die the King’s faithful servant, but G-d’s first.”…That does not mean that I look to the catechism of the Catholic Church or the Ten Commandments every time I make a decision or think about an issue such as “Work and Development Orders” or matters of that sort.

But I thought that there are some very stimulating insights in this book and one of these is on page 14:

The practical aspect of the attempt on “democratic” grounds to create a religiously neutralized public, is to argue that wherever public funding is concerned, religious institutions or providers must yield to purported “neutral public” standards. This reasoning, as we shall not below, could well impact on religious schools in Victoria [and this can apply not only in Victoria, but anywhere]. The problem with this reasoning is that these funds come from a public which overwhelmingly identifies with religious experience. The “public”, in truth, is no more than a space in which values which are actually held, may enter into discussion and be given their representative weight.

Now, I think the attitude that everything has to be “neutral” is a real tragedy. What have “neutral” values given us? What countries have had religiously neutral values? Soviet Russia was created on a philosophical view towards human equality, but really led to an enormous oppression of people. It is something we all wanted to see the end of. And when the Berlin Wall went down and communist governments in Russia and various other countries collapsed, we all cheered. We all thought that now they will be democratic and they will be free. Well, has it really come to that? … Russian has now far more pornography, prostitution, racketeering than it ever had, so I am told….You would think that the international community could have helped fashion a new Russia that really stood by proper democratic, human values.

The problem is that everyone continues to rest on a “neutral” public attitude. No one wants to be honest and acknowledge that religion has an important part to play. The ethics, the philosophies, of religion tell us how to live and if we get away from all of that, where do we get our values from? From “Facebook”, the “IPad”? Looking at various items in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian Broadcasting Commission – they don’t give proper values in my opinion. They are the ones which will attack any of us who espouse a religion. As Luke Foley, before me, at this launch said, you cannot blithely categorise people without considering the moral commitments and foundations of their outlook. You can’t say that because someone might be conservative on moral issues such as abortion and euthanasia, gay marriage and various other spin offs, that they are therefore a right wing troglodyte who will never listen to reason… In regard to the bandying about of rights, without out going into foundations, the Rabbi has done us a great service, by quoting the former Chief Justice of the High Court Murray Gleeson… the greatest lawyer I have ever met:

To describe something as a “right” may itself require justification. It is a commonplace feature of political and legal debate that advocates of various interests seek to characterise those interests as rights, thereby staking a claim for weight or recognition that may be contestable. By calling an interest a right, you may trump another interest. If there is a contest, then again, it can only be resolved rationally (as distinct from resolution by power or weight of numbers) by reference to some value (p. 15).

He is right. Every right that I claim may impinge on someone else’s claim of a right. Ultimately we operate with a majoritarian principle and the Judeo-Christian ethic, which permeates our laws.

This ethic has been the great quality of the common law system and has manifested itself in Australia and many other countries. In my opinion it is better than any other legal system that has ever existed. It is based on the Ten Commandments and the Eleventh Commandment – Love your neighbour as yourself – the “golden rule”. Those things are the basis of the law. We are not going to decriminalize paedophilia, because a paedophile finds its normal or normative. Paedophiles have a sickness, which is to attack children. And beyond dealing with paedophilia, one of the problems of community is that we haven’t looked after our children in a wider and positive sense. Parliamentary party colleagues like David Clark and Marie Ficarra, with whom I agree, are lampooned in the media, when they stand up for children…and a better society, by standing up for the traditional family. The traditional family of mother and father, husband and wife family is the best way we have ever had – and I believe G-d created – to raise our children, to actually fashion a stable society. So I was happy last year when I sat next a Labor member Joe Tripodi voting against same-sex adoption, and with the Labor member Noreen Hay at a conscience vote. Many of these issues come down to a conscience vote and I don’t think there is any other way at the moment. That is the way things have developed politically. But it is important that we agree on the basic values that unite us and not concentrate on the party political differences that divide us. Yes there is competition. It is healthy to have competition in the Parliament. But it is also healthy that we can talk and meet at functions like this relating to basic values…to remind us that there is something more than just getting ahead, getting the numbers and becoming a leader.

(Published in the Journal of Judaism and Civilization, Vol 9, 2012)