Politics and Universal Ethics Tasmanian launch

Michael Ferguson (Liberal), Shadow minister for education and skills, Parliament of Tasmania

I’d like to welcome this book Politics and Universal Ethics as a new contribution to an important subject on some of the important issues which ought to, but unfortunately do not, yet bind us together as human beings, and that is, universal ethics, and blending that now with an application in politics…

I have read and enjoyed the book and it has challenged me in a number of areas just as I hope it will challenge other politicians as well. The Rabbi will probably say himself how this book has sprung out of some of the pain that he and the State of Victoria endured during 2008 during what can only be described as a fairly aggressive agenda of social engineering at that time. And in one of the chapters, the Rabbi reproduces the submissions that the Rabbi made – very thoughtful, considered and very respectful inputs into what were very contentious and polarising debates and polarised debates in that there was often not the respect shown for differences of opinion particularly where one did not find oneself in the dominant paradigm. And those were the attacks on marriage, change in family structures, reductions on the protection on human life, and that is what euthanasia is – no bones about that, abortion and changing laws on how children will be brought into the world and what kind of family life they can expect. And to me, I would say the book serves three functions. First of all, it teaches on the basis of biblical values, or what the Rabbi calls “universal ethics”, which underpin the Judeo-Christian world view and way of life, which is what we understand as citizens of the western world in the democratic Westminster tradition that we have. But it also goes on to demonstrate how in a large part those same values also underpin the lesser related religions of Hinduism, which was very educational for me – I didn’t know til I read the book about the way that way of thinking had translated into Hinduism and as well as that Islam]. Secondly it explores the current secular atheistic, materialist movement, which seeks to replace the biblical values and how such a movement does seek to crush the human spirit, to crush humanity’s connection with the Divine, and in fact seeks not just to sit alongside but to silence religion and spiritual people and marginalize them. And I can speak from personal experience on that point. Finally, the book issues a challenge to people in the public square and in particular politicians who have a faith-based or at least a grounding in what we might call universal ethics. The challenge is to us to stand up and assert universal ethics in all the debates which affect the public. And we should be doing that anyway because here we are in the debating chamber, if you like the home of democracy or a centre point for democracy in our state…The home of democracy of course is everybody’s own home, because every person has a voice in this State. But ultimately this – the Parliament – is the place where the citizen is represented and all too often in this intimate chamber, the House of Assembly, where just 25 people have that honour of representing half a million people, so often it is an insular conversation and of course by reason of our party-political divide, it is antagonistic in nature, it is confrontational. And unfortunately all too often we see debates are not centering around things that we do largely agree on and let’s debate the nuance or detail. Instead we often have extreme debates and I will give you an example. Just this morning, I was accused as having been a school teacher, who did something awful as a teacher, as a professional. Something which was so important that it should be brought up today from 10 or 15 years ago. Apparently, so the accusation goes, I was seen reading a bible. Now there are two things I want to say about that story in which I was accused of reading a bible in a public school. First of all, it is not true. Secondly, what if it was true, how great a transgression would it have been? And, if I may, a third thing I want to say about that accusation is: why was it even said? It was said because it was a continued attempt to marginalize and embarrass people on the basis of their faith conviction, which has its roots in universal ethics, which is now just a continuation of an attempt to steamroller ahead with a political ideology. BuI make the point that the marginalization of what is for most people mainstream values has been very unfortunate for our country and our state. I have my role to redress that and I seek to do that. I do know that the time is against us but I want to touch on a point that the Rev Professor touched on in relation to Australia’s constitution and it is very important that I make this point today and we should all be advocates for this. So often people are silenced or an attempt is made to silence on the basis of what is termed the separation of church and state. So it is a misunderstood principle and as the Rabbi uses his volume to debunk the misappropriation of that principle. And the principle is actually in the Constitution in section 116 that religion ought not to be controlled by the state. That is all it states, that, in the Rabbi’s words “the simple import of the separation of Religion and State is that religion shall not be prescribed (or curtailed) by the State” (p. 13) and that means therefore that there is nothing more to say other than that the public space and public debates including our Parliaments must protect the import and contribution of people with religious based values as much as anyone else and they are not be belittled or ignored on the basis that they have a view which actually has a tradition associated with it. Let’s bear in mind as well for people who are not religious or do not profess a religious faith, but who have a set of values, but if they were challenged over the origin of those values, they might be flummoxed.

Can I now jump to the end of the book which for me, as a politician was my favourite – you have to wait for the end for dessert. I do endorse the book and encourage you to read it, but for me chapter 5 is really where the rubber hits the road. The Rabbi makes the case that contemporary politics and legislation have largely not been interested in the damage they have been doing to our social fabric, the way it has damaged relationships between people, the way it has damaged the way people see themselves as human beings having a soul and a spirit, not just a body. “Rather society has worked only with the symptoms or behaviours of the socially dysfunctional trends which have been created by, or exacerbated by, a failure of political institutions”. The Rabbi says,

Politics must now be concerned with the human centre, which involves reflecting upon, and the affirming the highest values which civilization has produced. It must return to basic relationships and institutions, such as the ideal of marriage and family. It must encourage the effort, commitment and self-giving which make relationships work and endure. It must value human life including pre-nascent human life. It needs to recognize that economic relationships are human relationships and cannot be governed by deception and greed. It must acknowledge the value of social stability, which means the abhorrence of violence and the cultures which promote it.

The life of the human spirit, which ongoing secularization has made a matter of embarrassment, must be affirmed again. (p.103)

So while the Rabbi talks about the shared foundation of so many of the world religions, which if I remember correctly from the book amounted to something like 70% of the world’s population which finds a faith-base coming back to this universal ethic, the book is itself is nothing to be scared of, if you like, because it does not challenge a faith adherent to adopt the view that all religions are the same and that they all go into the same melting pot. It doesn’t ask the reader to make a value based judgment of other religions. Rather what it does is that it challenges the reader to find a role, in my case within politics, but I’ll say more broadly for all of us, wherever we live, and make our living and our influence, to disenfranchise attempts to embarrass others on the basis of their personal or public faith. And so for me I found it very motivating. I’m not sure if I will live up to the standards set by the Rabbi, but Teacher I say to you, thank you very much for your contribution to what now is a foray into a public debating place. I hope the book is taken seriously and that it can in future times be looked back upon as a volume which challenged some of the assumptions which are being made within politics today and which will cause men and women of conviction to be honestly able to re-examine their consciences, re-examine their party platform and to strive for a better world for human beings based on this notion of the universal ethic, which as I say should bind us together. It is my pleasure to help Michael Tate launch the book.


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