The difference a day or a few foetal grams can make

The problem with Zoe’s Law is that it isn’t derived from any medical or philosophical principle

Whenever I hear of a piece of legislation as a possessive proper noun I wonder as to the tragedy that befell the person named. Occasionally the full title of the bill or the act will give some clue as to what precipitated parliament changing the law, but mostly the rest of the title is legalise.
The title of the NSW Crimes Amendment (Police Pursuits) Act 2010, better known as Skye’s Law, is instructive. Named for 19 month old Skye Sassine who died when armed robbers being chased by police crashed into her family’s sedan, the law, appropriately, creates a specific offence of not stopping during a high-speed pursuit.
The NSW Crimes Amendment (Zoe’s Law) Bill 2013 (No. 2)  is named for another car crash victim – indeed another victim of motorist stupidity. In this instance, the young girl tragically killed was 21 months younger than Skye; Zoe was killed in utero.
Brodie Donegan was 32 weeks pregnant when her car was struck by a drug-affected driver. A few hours later her baby Zoe was stillborn by emergency caesarian section. The driver was charged and later convicted in relation to the injuries he caused Miss Donegan (which, at sentencing, specifically included the death of her unborn baby), but he couldn’t be separately or specifically charged in relation to the death of Zoe. Enter Zoe’s Law.
In November last year it was introduced as a  private member’s bill by former Liberal, now cross-bench MP Chris Spence. It passed the Legislative Assembly 63 to 26, and will come again to the NSW upper house as early as next week. It is adorned by emotion, confusion, and legal uncertainty, but it should not be passed.
The most vocal opponents of the bill are the abortion rights lobby and its fellow progressive travellers in parliament and outside of it. After it passed the second reading stage in the lower house, Sydney MP Alex Greenwich declared, “I am greatly concerned that the Legislative Assembly had voted to put women’s reproductive rights at risk.” In the debate last year MPs from all parties, and on all sides of the argument, were falling over themselves to affirm their support for, what the mover of the bill referred to as, “a woman’s right to choose” (the verb, apparently, no longer requiring an object). Others affirmed their allegiance to their local abortion clinic, women’s health centre, or feminist library.
But Mr Greenwich needn’t have worried. The final version to pass the lower house contains a pretty watertight exemption:
This section does not apply to or in relation to:
(a)anything done in the course of a medical procedure or medical treatment, or 
(b) anything done by, or with the consent of, the pregnant woman concerned.
No risk to reproductive rights there! No risk of prosecution for abortionists. The fact of this clear exemption hasn’t stopped the shrieking abortion lobby from campaigning vigorously and hyperbolically against the bill. Greens MLC Dr Mehreen Faruqi described Zoe’s Law as “the controversial personhood bill” which “sits ominously on the Upper House notice paper.” Scary stuff!
The really frightening thing, however, is that the Greens believe that acts of parliament create personhood (akin, I suppose, to their understanding of human rights being created by the United Nations). Whatever personhood may or may not be affirmed in Zoe’s Law, it specifically does not criminalise abortion – or in fact any act done by a mother, or by a doctor in the course of medical treatment.
In any case, the personhood affirmed in Zoe’s Law is an arbitrary and inconsistent one. It defines as an Unborn Child a baby of at least 20 weeks gestation, or a body mass of at least 400 grams. But ask a woman who is happily 19 weeks pregnant if her unborn child is an Unborn Child and she would quickly point out the absurd and capricious nature of the legal distinction.
The legal definition in Zoe’s Law is not derived from any medical or philosophical principle, and judging by the expectant parents I know, it’s not derived from maternal joy or parental pride either. It’s derived from the political need to create Zoe’s Law. That, and the fact that no whip in Australia would be able to find 63 votes for life beginning at conception.
The arbitrary distinction Zoe’s Law envisages is a pragmatic necessity. But it is contrary to the rule of law, and unjust not only for the unborn child (or the Unborn Child as the case may be) but also for the offender whose culpability may be dramatically altered by a day in either direction, by a few foetal grams, or by a minor obstetric or pathological miscalculation. Or as pro-life Hornsby MP Matt Kean pointed out in his sensible speech in opposition to the bill, it may be the mother whose moment of reckless driving is responsible for her unborn baby’s death, and yet Zoe’s Law would not apply. If the loving father had been driving, Zoe’s Law could see him jailed.
In NSW the existing legislation provides no separate offence for the death of an unborn baby, however sentencing guidelines and case law deal with these issues. The death of such a child is held to be grievous bodily harm to a pregnant woman – a serious offence with a serious sentence of up to 25 years when caused intentionally or 14 years when done recklessly. Where the child is killed and the mother injured, both are to be considered aggravating factors at sentencing. Furthermore, it is well established that a mother’s emotional trauma, and other consequences of an unborn baby’s death, can be taken into account when determining a punishment, as happened with the driver in Zoe’s case.
I would love to see a bill before parliament to restrict the “right to choose” abortion, but as many pro-choice and pro-life MPs have pointed out, Zoe’s Law isn’t it. It is a piece of legislative hypocrisy that purports to comfort grieving parents and bring offenders to justice while allowing MPs to affirm that an Unborn Child “is taken to be a living person,” but only for the purposes of this small section of the Crimes Act, of course!
This article first published in the Spectator Australia magazine on 27 October 2014.

The Rubber Stamp Religion of Peace

Western leaders keep insisting that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam

First, just let me just say that I neither represent, nor speak for, Islam. It’s true, I don’t. I never have. In fact, despite being an office-bearer of the Presbyterian Church I don’t even represent or speak for official presbyterianism! You could use that delightfully obvious turn of phrase: ‘the views expressed in this article are the author’s own.’

We have become quite used to seeing such disclaimers, although the idea that an individual might not authoritatively represent every organisation with which they are affiliated should really come as no surprise. Disclaimers are a perverse result of collectivism and political correctness.

And yet, now that we’ve found ourselves in a war – or not a war…or whatever – with the Islamic State, we should expect to hear them a lot more frequently. Theologian-politicians of every political stripe are falling over themselves to issue a standard caveat. Hear Barack Obama at his recent televised address to the nation: ‘ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents.’

Not Islamic? No, of course not. Why would anyone think it! In response to the President’s statement, the usually sensible Senator Rand Paul accused ISIS of: ‘…not being Islamic or a form of true Islam…. So I think it is important….to point out this is not a true form of Islam.’

Tony Abbott has called ISIS a ‘death cult’ and said that it is not representative of Australian Muslims: ‘There are no stronger members of Team Australia than the overwhelming majority of the Muslim community.’

Team Australia. Drink! And cringe. And here’s Bill Shorten:

‘[ISIS] is a most egregious abuse in the name of Islam….the Islamic State does not represent the Islamic faith….that religion of peace and tolerance.’

Of course, there is a difference between my non-representation of the Presbyterian Church and the alleged non-representation by ISIS of Islam. In my case, I am happy to own it. In the case of ISIS, it is only the Western politicians and commentators that seem to make the distinction. And it is an established practice. After 9/11 everyone from George W. Bush to the Australian Greens made similar denials.

Likewise, after Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale hacked British soldier Lee Rigby to death with a cleaver, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson said:

I just want to make one obvious point that, I’m sure, will have occurred to many people, and that is that it is completely wrong to blame this killing on the religion of Islam.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said:

There is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act.

Not that anyone outside of Islam was ever trying to justify it, but it’s a curious thing to say when video footage has the perpetrators claiming, while still holding the bloodied cleaver:

We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. The only reason we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day. This British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

Of course, this raises all sorts of geo-political and military questions, but to claim that the attack had no connection to Islam made Johnson and Cameron seem outlandish and obtuse.

At least, however, they refrained at the time from positively categorising the religion, unlike our hapless opposition leader. Shorten’s insensitive description of Islam as a ‘religion of peace’ is as laughable as it is unbelievable. In fact, it makes about as much sense as saying that all Muslims are terrorists.

And yet, it’s as if political speechwriters have placed a bulk order on rubber stamps bearing that epithet. With one movement from ink pad to paper, they are now able to easily and effortlessly qualify every intention to crush the dealth cult with an appreciation of the virtues, as Obama has said, of Islamic culture – with its ‘majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation’ – and history – which had ‘demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.’ Religion of peace, you see?

Can’t we agree that most Muslims in Australia, Britain, and America are kind, peaceful people, and that Islamic culture and antiquity are not bereft of significance and achievement – without misrepresenting, not only ISIS fighters, but also the very real history of Islam?

The truth is that, in the last one thousand years, more innocents have been killed in the name of Islam than in the name of Christianity (even with the latter’s crusades, inquisitions, reformations, and Irish republicanism). The truth is that in the name of jihad more infidels have been killed than pagans in all the Biblical holy wars. The truth is that, despite the speechwriters’ rubber stamp of peace, the Koran and other Islamic scriptures provide ample coverage for killing and subjugating infidels.

And it’s a betrayal of these truths – indeed a betrayal of Islam – to pretend otherwise. If a man diligently studies the Koran, prays five times a day, makes pilgrimage to Mecca, and believes that ‘there is no god but Allah, and Muhammed is his prophet,’ surely he is entitled to call himself a Muslim, even – perhaps especially – if he fights for an Islamic caliphate and beheads those who offend his piety?

At the very least such ‘radical Islam’ is in keeping with historical Islam. At most, it is an entirely legitimate interpretation of the clear teachings of the Islamic canon.

In Australia these days, a person can be born with a penis and yet choose to self-identify as a woman – and heaven help anyone who doubts, vilifies, or ignores that particular individual’s chosen ‘identity’!

It seems to me that the rampaging jihadis of the Islamic State have more claim to be Muslim than a man in stockings and a padded bra has to be a woman. But this won’t convince theologian-politicians who think they know better than Muslims about Islam, and who, in the absence of any strategy to deal with the global problem of militant Islam, desperately need to believe in a rubber stamp religion of peace.

This article first published as “…and who is a fair dinkum Muslim?” in Spectator Australia magazine on 27 September 2014.

The One Curriculum Priority

Hint: it’s not about aborigines, Asia, or saving the planet

Kevin Donnelly has an unenviable job as he finalises Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s review of the national Curriculum. The worst part would be knowing where to start. Personally I would start with the existential question and I’d come to the obvious conclusion that the whole package should be dismantled without further ado. Donnelly, however, is more ideologically flexible than I am, or at least more politically astute. He knows that his master will hear none of that, and that the real point of the exercise is a more traditional, conservative curriculum than the present one, which is progressive, pagan, and Marxist in varying amounts.

And so with abolishing the whole curriculum seemingly off the table, the next imperative must surely be dealing with the so-called cross-curriculum priorities (CCPs). These trademarks of the curriculum elicit sarcastic giggles and eye-rolling when mentioned outside the cloistered fantasylands of education faculties and the Orwellian-named Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA).

Even within the unionised common rooms of the nation’s public schools, where the virtues of “all must have prizes” pedagogy and the evils of rote learning are routinely celebrated, the CCPs are seen as evidence that modern educational methods have this time gone too far. As one teachers’ union shop steward confided to me, “if teachers were actually required to take them seriously, the union would have to get involved and out a stop to it; it would increase the workload of our members.” Sadly, however, some of his members do take the CCPs seriously, and they will be treated with increasing seriousness in the future, unless they are stopped under Christopher Pyne.

The next federal election is the point of no return for these ridiculous appendages to our children’s education. And their continuation will mean more than just extra work for teachers. It will further mock the profession’s attempts at…well…professionalism, and it will give school education a push it hardly needs in its current race to the bottom.

“Cross-Curriculum Priorities” denotes the set of arbitrary agendas overarching the entire syllabus. The agendas are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Sustainability. Frankly, their very names should have been harbingers of the curriculum content problems they bring. Where the priorities of the history curriculum are to do with aborigines, Asians, and environmental movements, is it any wonder that the specifics are regarded by many as too Left-leaning? Or that American history, Australian history since 1788, and the traditions of western civilisation, are largely neglected?

Australians realise the vast majority of teachers not only work hard, but work hard to help their pupils. Likewise, even as most teachers graduate from university believing facts to be a nefarious enemy of both creativity and understanding, deep down they all recognise one important and undeniable fact: they would not be where they are without basic standards of literacy. Many teachers, however, are ill-equipped to assist in these areas, and even those that are competent are hampered by the constant distraction of CCPs. A primary teacher said to me recently, “most of my [year six] class is functionally illiterate. It would be impolitic to recommend holding any of them back so my only objective for this year is to try and improve numeracy and especially literacy before they hit high school. Why should I have to waste time on telling them about Aboriginal language systems when they haven’t even the most basic grasp of their own?” Why indeed?

The situation is even worse once students do hit high schools where the teaching is conducted by a plurality of teachers, each of whom will now become a de facto expert in aboriginal anthropology, Asian affairs, and matters environmental. Furthermore, they will be ever looking for ways to impose the requisite orthodoxies on otherwise unconnected subjects, or in any case, to tick the bureaucratic boxes.

The only priority should be to genuinely and honestly learn the subject at hand. Instead, teachers are expected to trivialise the very discipline they spent three years at university studying. The English teacher, therefore, is expected to teach – as a priority – that “that there are many languages and dialects spoken in Australia including Aboriginal English and Yumplatok and that these languages may have different writing systems and oral traditions.” Duly noted! But the curriculum document goes on, “These languages can be used to enhance enquiry and understanding of English literacy.” Perhaps that’s what’s been missing! I’ll mention the miraculous powers of Yumplatok to my friend the year six teacher, and brace myself for glowing reports.

Recently one of the umbrella bodies for Christian schools pontificated that the National Curriculum was due for a content “rebalance” along the lines to be recommended by Donnelly. Good, culturally-relevant Christians that they are, they have genuflected at the altar of cross-curriculum pedagogy and even proposed an fourth CCP. Now admittedly, “Australia’s Judaeo-Christian heritage and western civilization” sounds a lot more worthwhile than the existing priorities, but Christian schools should think carefully about asking for the state’s imprimatur on their particular religio-historical worldview, especially given the relatively short time between Federal elections. I also have my doubts about the enthusiasm with which the maths teachers at the Malek Fahd Islamic School might incorporate the Protestant reformation, the rule of law, or the Reverend Richard Johnson into their calculus.

But if we must have CCPs, allow me to propose a single priority to replace all the others. It’s called “literacy,” which I acknowledge is less sexy-sounding than “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures.” With it, the minds of children and adults – those of a Western tradition, and those of Aboriginal descent – are opened up to whole new galaxies of fantasy and wonder and knowledge. They can have the world’s greatest poets write for them, and they can write back. The language of Shakespeare – and perhaps later, the language of Yumplatok – can become their own. They can realise and embrace or exclude a diversity of opinion on economics, history, religion, and even Sustainability. And they can engage sensibly and profitably with not only Asia, but the whole world, which should be the ultimate priority – and the one ultimate end – of any curriculum.

This article first published as “The one curriculum priority above all” at On Line Opinion on 9 September 2014.

Scripture in Schools: It is “Special” for a Reason

Chris Ashton says it is a straw man argument to suggest religion is being woven into our public school system. Special Religious Education is “special” because of its limited participation.

Tim Dean’s recent article is certainly a spirited defence of secular ethics classes, but as an attack on scripture classes it hardly lands a punch.

“Scripture” is the old name for Special Religious Education (SRE) in NSW, Special Religious Instruction (SRI) in Victoria and Religious Instruction (RI) in Queensland. Dean’s attack misses the mark for a number of reasons.

Firstly, he wheels out the old straw man argument suggesting that scripture is being “woven into our public school system”. I have taught SRE in NSW and RI in Queensland, and in neither case did I meet anyone with such intentions.

In NSW, scripture is called “special” religious education as opposed to “general” religious education. One of its “special” qualities is its limited participation. There is no weaving into the system: students (which is to say, parents) effectively elect the SRE class they want to be involved with when they nominate their religion at enrolment. Then, far from being “woven in”, students are “taken out” to be taught alongside their religious peers. This is the way it has operated for years (I remember at Neutral Bay Public School in the 1980s there was Anglican, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim scripture, and possibly others, as well as “non-scripture”), and it what every SRE advocate I’ve ever met wants.

Secondly, Dean gives too much credit to secular ethics classes such as those offered in NSW, and places too much credence on their supposed neutrality and that of public schooling generally. His claim that “public education is not about indoctrination” is debatable; educationalists routinely claim that public schooling should strive to achieve such altruistic purposes as democratic equality, citizenship, equity and social justice. These left-wing motifs inform not only classroom practice in most schools, but also the national curriculum, the biases of which are clear and presented without apology in subjects such as history, English and economics.

But to Dean, all public education is concerned with is the noble task of “equipping our children with the tools to navigate a complex world… whatever their moral views may be.” As politically and pedagogically correct as that may sound, it is a foolish error to suggest that maths or English could be taught free of bias, let alone history (as colonisation and cold wars are discussed), geography (as students wrestle with Israel and Gaza), or economics (as it privileges Keynes over Friedman) – even assuming a neutral curriculum!

Thirdly, Dean’s article betrays his views on religion. He writes of the problem of students being taught on the one hand that the world was “formed billions of years ago”, and a biblical view of creation on the other. He laments that “faith often wins.” I might suggest that in our increasingly secular society faith often loses as well, but in any case, our author seems troubled by the very existence of supernatural faith, and the claims it makes.

If the NSW Parliament revoked the one hour per week of SRE in public schools it would be a great loss, but no great tragedy. School scripture is really only an extension of the catechetical work done in religious families and the evangelistic work done by churches, synagogues, and mosques. However, it is this broader context of religion that Dean seems ultimately unable to abide.

Finally, his article imagines that the purposes of scripture and the purposes of ethics classes are essentially the same, albeit, perhaps, with a slightly different underlying foundation. In his mind they are competing for the same space. Now I can’t speak for all SRE providers, but this is certainly not the case for Christian scripture. Given the very limited time provided for SRE – and I’m not suggesting that it should be increased – I don’t want to hear of any of it being wasted on religion as “the social glue” or something that “brings people together” or provides a “strong sense of community” or even as some vague source of “solace and comfort,” all qualities attributed to religion by Dean. You see, the other special aspect of SRE is that it is unashamedly dogmatic, and that it makes unambiguous claims. For Christian SRE, it means teaching plainly that true comfort and lasting hope in this life and the next is found only in the truth that we belong body and soul to our faithful saviour Jesus Christ, and that he has paid for all our sins with his precious blood.

Now you’re not going to hear that in public education. Perhaps it’s even “contradictory to what public education is all about”. I’ll concede that one to Tim Dean. But if he is as open-minded as he claims secular ethics classes help children to become, I’m sure he could agree that for one hour per week perhaps school could be the place for scripture lessons.

This article first published in The Drum on 24 July 2014.

Lose the Lord’s Prayer

For the sake of the country, the church, and the politicians who pray it

I have always found the Christian prayers before a sitting of a house of parliament to be a curious event. After all, section 116 of the Australian Constitution precludes the legislature from ‘imposing any religious observance’. Having grown up in a liturgical Christian congregation, and having learnt the Lord’s Prayer as a child, I can’t claim that I was ever jarred by it, as Greens Senator Richard Di Natale claims he was, but I certainly found it odd.

Less odd, however, are the responses to the senator’s proposal to amend standing orders and do away with parliamentary piety (I should specify Christian piety, because the obligatory indigenous piety appears fairly safe). Di Natale himself has come out as a lapsed Catholic which is code for ‘… so you can’t accuse me of being anti-Catholic.’

Government Senate Leader Eric Abetz has objected to the proposed changes on the grounds of tradition. And there’s Senator Penny Wong who, in a move straight out of the Uniting Church playbook, has said nothing about the obvious theological questions, preferring to take the moral high ground on whether the media is the appropriate forum to resolve this. Oh, and from the practising Catholic Prime Minister, nothing. Quieter than he was at Cory’s book launch.

It would be different, of course, if Kevin Rudd was still in the chair to Madam Speaker’s right. The Member for Bonhoeffer and the nation’s 26th Prime Theologian would have seized this opportunity to correct wayward pastors and priests, live on national television where necessary.

But predictable political (and ecclesiological) stereotypes aside, here’s this Christian’s three reasons why the Lord’s Prayer shouldn’t be used to open sittings of the Parliament.

Firstly, it’s bad for the country. Amazingly, around 60 per cent of Australians still identify as Christian, although this is hardly reflected in the pews of a Sunday. But in any case, that leaves 40 per cent of Australians not identifying as Christian, in any sense of the word. If we were ever a Christian nation (a debatable proposition), we’re certainly not now. And so for the legislature to persist with a daily Christian ritual is as preposterous to me as it is offensive to almost every non-Christian Australian.

And offence causes division. And division — especially religious division — causes conflict and violence and hatred. These are things which religion causes, and I’m OK with that. In fact, Christianity explicitly promises division of a most profound kind. But neither the eternal sword of God’s judgment nor the earthly divisions inherent in our religiously pluralistic society are the business of government. Our elected representatives and our common institutions must resist every hint of religious bias, especially on the stated basis of tradition.

Secondly, it’s bad for the church, not that you’d know it given the multitude of letters to editors from clergymen of all stripes and the requisite opprobrium from the Australian Christian Lobby. For the most part it is all well-intentioned, but it’s usually based on the erroneous assumption that this is what influence and a seat at top table looks like.

Our MPs, however, have been reciting Christian prayers for 113 years, church attendance has never been lower, Islam has never been more popular, abortion rates have (almost) never been higher and same-sex marriage has never been more imminent. Oh, and we still steal, lie, gossip, quarrel and celebrate our greed. That influence thing doesn’t seem to have worked; at least it isn’t working now. Instead, Parliament flagrantly mocks God when it invokes his very words for its perfunctory theatrics before mocking him further in so many of its deliberations and proceedings.

Christians, according to Jesus, are meant to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (see Matthew 5). They are, Jesus says, meant to know the difference between what is God’s and what is Caesar’s, and to treat things accordingly (see Matthew 22). The Christian church is commissioned by Jesus to be about making disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded (see Matthew 28). Instead, one Greens senator flags a proposed minor change to standing orders and Jesus’ disciples start predicting the end of Christendom. Only 400 years late.

The reality is that clinging to artefacts of established religion is neither a means to influence nor a strategy for evangelism. Our fidelity to the words of the Lord must not be sacrificed on the altar of influence, because while his words are real, the influence is only imagined. And the sooner we realise that, the sooner we can let go of that which has no warrant in Scripture and be freed for that which Scripture commands.

Thirdly, it’s bad for those who say it, Christians and non-Christians alike.

In almost every survey to determine the most trustworthy professions, politicians are to be found well down the list. Based on my own experience and friendships, I don’t agree, but I’m hardly surprised by the result. The public perception is that they will do anything — lie, cheat, mortgage their mothers, pray a little prayer — for political advantage. And this whole episode draws attention to one area where a good many of them are untruthful, or at least insincere. Daily, it seems, non-Christians MPs willingly and publicly perjure themselves not only before the high court of Parliament, but before the high king of heaven.

If the words of Jesus’ prayer are worth saying, surely his words which preface it are of at least some use (Matthew 6: 5-7):

When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others…And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases.

What about Christians parliamentarians, you might ask? Is publicly reciting the Lord’s Prayer for them not a legitimate expression of their Christian faith? Jesus, again (Matthew 6: 6):

When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Amen to that.

This article first published in the Spectator Australia magazine on 1 February 2014.

Why I’m Homeschooling

And I’m not telling the bureaucrats

My journey from homeschooling sceptic to homeschool cheerleader was in two parts. There is the practical journey, which takes in literacy, numeracy, and science; and there is what I will call the emotional journey.

My practical journey actually pre-existed. As a teenager, I would routinely read the essays submitted to my university lecturer mother by her aspiring-teacher students. Spelling and grammar were consistently appalling, but it was the sentences containing no discernible meaning that I particularly enjoyed. So I was predestined to begin sentences with a chronologically smug ‘In my day we were taught correct…’

But my practical journey proper began when I was at a relative’s house, and I noticed a letter on the kitchen bench. My niece’s primary teacher had written to parents and had taken it upon herself to use four different fonts. The document was an aesthetic war zone, but when spelling and grammar were considered, it was a literary apocalypse.

At that moment in the kitchen I charted a course for the homeschool. Schooling — as I understood it — had always been a collaborative exercise between teachers and parents, with the primacy belonging to the parent. But formal schooling, it seemed to me, was the most obvious forum for the teaching of at least basic literacy and numeracy.

The reality, however, is that our schools just don’t do well at these areas, which are where most parents need the most help. According to the Federal Government, 75,000 kids failed to meet the Naplan minimum reading standard last year, and many thousands more were below average. In the face of such grim figures, it’s surprising to see Australia ranked sixth overall on the OECD table for literacy, numeracy and science, but this is a smoke-and-mirrors trick.

The dumbing down of education has taken over our schools, as it has throughout the western world. In once academic disciplines such as English, knowledge is forsaken for the imperatives of creativity and expression. As the Chair of Language and Communication at Oxford remarked, ‘I actually deplore the use of the words “correct” and “incorrect” in relation to language… I really hate people being given inferiority complexes over the way they talk or write.’ Well yes, but isn’t it the job of education to correct deficiencies, rather than to imagine every existing rule and convention as optional?

Accounts of essentially illiterate university students are legion, and some of them graduate in education. Hence the letter on the kitchen bench. And so, while the priority of literary and numeracy is diminished, other ways of spending class time happily fill the void. Here begins my emotional journey, and it’s emotional for two reasons.

Firstly, the subjects that fill the void are, from the progressive educationalist’s perspective, best taught emotionally. I have a ‘class news’ sheet from one state high school which reports on the Australian ‘refugee crisis’ that students had discussed. Readers of this magazine won’t be surprised, but the news sheet is completely devoid of any sensible discussion on border integrity, international law, human rights, broader immigration policy, or even the underlying factors that necessitate people attempting hazardous sea journeys. Rather, it is replete with pithy quotes about ‘refugees [being] people too,’ Israel being racist, and Palestinians arriving by boat (although to be fair, the context suggests some confusion of Palestine with Yemen). It is also laden with spelling mistakes which were obviously overlooked lest any student be given an inferiority complex.

I should say, however, that all things being equal I love this type of discussion. And in homeschooling I imagine there will be ample opportunity for wide-ranging discussion, and earnest colloquy about current issues in society, politics and culture. The problem, of course, is that all things are not equal. Up to 75,000 children failing to meet minimum Naplan standards puts the equation way out.

And yet, emotional, politically correct orthodoxies are woven into every part of the curriculum as the teachers and schools invest heavily in areas which should be the preserve of parents, leaving parents to deal with literacy and numeracy issues as they supervise homework and pay for private tuition. In the impending national curriculum, omnipresent ‘cross-curriculum priorities’ such as ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures’ touch all areas of study, doubtless with their progressive agendas and dumbed down, emotional philosophies and methodologies of education.

Secondly, it’s an emotional journey because I get emotional about it. Remember we’re in the realm of history, philosophy, the environment, the arts, literature, and economics — rather than lexical meanings, and moods, tenses and cases, or algebra and geometry. These incorporate the foundations of religion, politics, activism, human rights, questions of good and evil, and questions of life and death. And I get emotional as I think about how these things will be taught to my kids, and by whom.

In all states, a child must either attend a registered school, or be registered as homeschooled. The former requires submission to the prescribed curriculum, but so does the latter, together with the attendant key learning areas and cross-curriculum priorities. And lest parents who choose the homeschooling option be lazy or uncommitted, the government employs inspectors — euphemistically titled ‘consultants’ — to pry into homes and pore over workbooks. Of course, their main job is to enforce the curriculum, and while people who volunteer to do that may be unmoved by correct spelling, they will be very particular about correct language!

Having arrived at my homeschooling destination, it would seem a pity then to submit to the state’s curriculum and inspection regime. And besides, my general rule is that government agents produce warrants before entering my home. Perhaps one day they will come equipped with one, and require my kids attend an approved school to be re-educated in accordance with Canberra’s edicts. But until then I’ll teach my kids literacy, numeracy and science using some of the range of curricula available. And, with the help of authors and experts of my choosing, I’ll educate them in what they need to know to understand their society, culture, politics, economy, and heritage. And I won’t be telling the bureaucrats.

This article first published in the Spectator Australia magazine on 21 September 2013.

Church and State

Why we should repeal the Marriage Act


Obviously Australia’s favourite backbencher hasn’t, of late, been getting the attention he deserves. Either that or he has realised that in the history of politics there has never been a better time to stand for party leadership. How else to explain the ubiquitous Kevin Rudd’s controversial U-turn on same-sex marriage, despite his professed Christianity?

In between boasts about what took place ‘under my prime ministership’ and his gratuitous citation of psychology journals, he asserts that ‘the state should be free to perform marriage services for both heterosexual and same-sex couples’. The headline of that controversial op-ed is that marriage is ‘a matter for the state, not church’. But he also tells us that marriage is all about love, commitment, children and families. That is to say, four things best not left to the state.

But in any case, when did the boisterous, flamboyant, rebellious homosexuals of the Castro, Stonewall and the 1978 Mardi Gras become so desirous of the government’s imprimatur? Why is it important for them to now receive a pat on the head from the state in vindication of a relationship that, we are told, is already so widely accepted?

And perhaps the same question could be asked of the Christian church. At various times governments have persecuted — even unto death — homosexuals and Christians, and for the most part it was received as a badge of honour and as vindication in itself.

Now, I’m opposed to same-sex marriage — in fact, I don’t think it’s marriage at all. And yes, it’s mostly my conservative religious belief that fuels that opposition. But I would argue that Christians, and other religious conservatives, are lobbying and campaigning in quite the wrong direction, and should change course before it’s too late.

Instead of arguing for the Marriage Act to remain unchanged, we should be arguing for it to be repealed completely. There’s something utterly disingenuous about Christians appealing to a biblical definition of marriage, only to then call for its enforcement by the secular state. Some things in this world belong to God, and some to Caesar, but when it’s Commonwealth legislation that we rely on for our definition of marriage we have confused and conflated the categories.

Regardless of what parliament legislates, the definition of marriage is settled in my mind. Regardless of what the shrill comedienne on Q&A comes up with, regardless of what I’m told by university professors or Greens senators, my understanding remains that marriage is between one man and one woman. Nothing will alter that. Nothing will preclude me from teaching it to my kids or, I pray, change it in the minds of my church leaders.

But if two men want to get married under the watchful gaze of a smug lady JP in a pant suit, in a ceremony replete with Welcome to Country and a reflective reading of a Leunig cartoon, who am I to stop them? Or, more to the point: why should the government stop them?

Despite Gillard’s curious stance on same-sex marriage, it is highly likely to become law (cue the omnipresent punchline: ‘As long as it doesn’t become compulsory!’) in the not too distant future. So it makes sense for Christians to stop spending their time, effort and millions of dollars on a losing battle, and instead work for the removal of Caesar from that which is God’s.

Even heterosexual marriages are subject to unnecessary state interference regarding notice of the intended marriage, the wording that must be used by the celebrant (who, by the way, must be authorised by the state), the subsequent registration of the marriage and that, of course, now being a separate transaction (and indeed a financial one) to the changing of a wife’s surname.

So now would be an ideal time for Christians to start working to free the biblical and traditional definition of marriage from the grip of the state. If marriage really is a biblical command, a Christian ordinance and an institution given by God, then it is Christian freedom and obedience that require us to act. Let’s thank the state for hitherto administering marriage (perhaps simultaneously rebuking it for the foul mess that resulted), assure it that as congregations, denominations and individuals we are quite capable of defining marriage, and decline further kind offers of governmental regulation.

Of course, Anglicans such as Kevin could regulate marriage among their members by way of the Prayer Book. Roman Catholics have a whole corpus of canon law. Not to be outdone, my own denomination could regulate it by way of the ominously named ‘Code’ of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. And civil celebrants would be free to marry anyone mad enough to permit an eccentric in a silly hat to have control of the microphone on their special day.

Recently the Prime Minister became something of a global YouTube sensation when she frenziedly changed the definition of ‘misogynist’ to mean ‘someone who would rather not talk to Nicola Roxon at a cocktail party’. I’m happy to join Tony Abbott in that category — and now I have a name for it.

But the point is that the redefinition occurred during an impassioned parliamentary speech. Now consider the possibilities of redefinition by actual laws — not just concerning marriage, but the whole gamut of moral and cultural issues — and don’t imagine for a second that they will accord with tradition or actual meaning, let alone with biblical Christianity.

It’s time for Christians to put a stop to this, even at the expense of what is evidently a much-cherished Marriage Act. Perhaps it means lobbying for the act’s repeal; perhaps it means clergy handing in their marriage licences and engaging in some mild civil disobedience. They may be hard and counter-intuitive decisions, but they will be easy compared with those we would be forced to make down the track. People will disagree on whether marriage is a matter for churches, but whatever they decide, and contrary to St Kevin, it should never be a matter for the state.

This article first published in the Spectator Australia magazine on 1 June 2013.

Bible 101: 1 Peter 3:14-16

But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behaviour in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

As I write this, I have just  returned from visiting an elderly  member of my congregation in hospital. She was doing okay, but she’s not getting any younger, nor getting any healthier. In fact, she is preparing not just for death but also for suffering. However, these are preparations she feels confident to make because (as she pointed out to me) Jesus, time and time again, warns his disciples of the persecution and suffering that is likely to accompany their confession of him. The apostles continue that theme—in word and deed!—and Peter, in his first letter, gives it great and careful attention.

The suffering in which Peter is most interested is Jesus’ suffering. The apostle, earlier in his letter, writes that the sufferings of Christ are to do with the salvation of the souls of those who hope in him (1 Pet 1:3911), a purpose he returns to when he declares “by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet 2:24).

Jesus’ sufferings are also an encouragement for Christians as they suffer in the many possible ways life brings. However, one of the ways they are notto suffer is for their own disobedience. Peter has very little sympathy for such criminals. But when Christians suffer because they “do good” and are “mindful of God”, such suffering, he writes, is a “gracious thing in the sight of God” (1 Pet 2:18-21)!

It is so gracious a thing that Peter can hardly even imagine anyone wanting to harm those who are “zealous for what is good” (1 Pet 3:13). And yet he knows Christians will indeed “suffer for righteousness’ sake” and he calls such suffering a blessing (1 Pet 3:14). Peter has already written about how suffering and trials test one’s faith, that it may be proven genuine at the final revelation of Christ, and that Christians therefore should rejoice in suffering, difficult as that may be (1 Pet 1:6-7). But in 1 Peter 3:14-16, Christians are given another reason to rejoice in suffering. The assumption here is that their hope—that is, the “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” to which we have been born again (1 Pet 1:3)—will be evident in their suffering and, for those of us not currently suffering, evident in our lives. And that being the case, Peter envisages opportunities to defend and proclaim and speak the truth about the gospel of the one we are to regard in our hearts as holy, Christ the Lord.

Christians hold different views as to whether or not we are all called to be evangelists. But there can be no disagreement about this: all Christians have the responsibility and the divine commission to know what they believe and why they believe it, so that, when asked, they might give a clear and faithful account of the hope they have in Christ. Our responsibility to witness in this way is regardless of whether or not we are suffering, regardless of whether or not we are ‘in ministry’, regardless of whether or not we have formal theological or biblical training.

Peter does, however, add one caveat. Our defence of the Christian faith is to be done with “gentleness and respect” and out of “a good conscience”. The way we conduct our evangelism, answer questions, and interact with unbelievers… these things are not the gospel. But they must be done gently, respectfully, politely, kindly, truthfully and in a Christ-like manner, so that the gracious gospel of God is not contradicted by the ungraciousness of his people.

As I prayed with my dear friend in hospital today, this was her only prayer: that through her sufferings, and in every aspect of her life, she would have opportunities—and take opportunities—to speak clearly about the hope she has in Christ, doing this in such a way that honours him, even when she is slandered, and that she would consider this a blessing, being neither fearful nor troubled. That is a prayer all Christians should pray, and one that I need to pray before I next speak to a non-Christian.

This article first published in the Briefing magazine on 30 January 2013.

Nanny Knows Best in the Country of Her Birth

I’ve had a few people refer me to an article in Friday’s National Times, wherein one Ben Jellis – whose qualification is that he’s a lawyer and that he lived in the UK two years – opines that England has gone safety mad. I think he means the United Kingdom. But geographical precision aside, is this guy for real? The article even says that it took him six month to work it out!

The United Kingdom is known internationally as being ruled by OH & S despots, and certainly all Britons recognise this. How could anyone there, even a tourist of only a few days, not realise, as their every move is watched and scrutinised via CCTV?

And surely as a visitor to London gazes upon the sea of fluorescent vests on any major intersection they realise they are not in Kansas anymore. The ones that really stand out in the UK these days are those not so brightly attired!

Mind you, Australia is not much better when it comes to high visability! The latest craze sees all bus drivers so dressed. These are the same bus drivers prohibited – by force of a sticker affixed to every driver-side window – from entering the bus by way of said window.

But I digress.

The archetype of Britain’s fixation with health and safety used to be the ominously named Health & Safety Executive. This quango makes Australia’s various Workcover authorities look like like toothless tigers and bastions of libertarian thought and deed. But the new archetype is actually the curious (and tragic) case of Simon Burgess (I have written about it here) which cast a pall of shame across Britain, and rightly so. Burgess drowned in three feet of still water as hundreds of people – among them dozens of police officers, firefighters and paramedics – all refused to assist. The civilians had the excuse that they were not sworn officers, and the sworn officers could not possibly enter such a treacherous body of water on pain of official sanction by – you guessed it – the Health & Safety Executive. “More than my job’s worth…” and all that!

If it took the National Times‘ intrepid correspondent six months of English living to detect some health and safety madness, one wonders how long it took him to link this national obsession with the security arrangements for the Olympic Games. But in any case, he has made an erroneous – even a ridiculous – link.

The Health and Safety Industrial Complex that Jellis decries is one of the more ghastly outcomes of the broader nanny state that exists in Australia, as well as Britain. The nanny state – the term was coined by British MP Iain Macleod in 1965 – is that social and political environment in which personal responsibility is minimized so that the government is able to fulfill its role as a nanny – caring for the every need of those in its charge.

And if only Jellis’ all-seeing eye of CCTV was where the nanny-ing stopped. In one sense I don’t really care if a government agent (or more likely a contracted security guard with a one week course under his belt) watches me on the number 12 bus. The objection to the nanny state is founded on what it precludes, rather than on what it sees.

But security, policing and defence are legitimate functions of the state. Of course, they can be taken too far but a free society needs strong defence and police forces to protect that freedom.

Is positioning anti-aircraft missiles on apartment rooftops going too far? Maybe, but I wouldn’t know.

But the protection of athletes, tourists and citizens in London is exactly what the government should be focusing on in the lead-up to the Olympics this July and August, and within reason, some erring on the side of caution is appropriate and understandable.

In any case, Jellis makes a serious category mistake to conflate defence/police/security and OH & S. The former is what the state must be involved in because, on an individual level, we cannot. The latter is about personal responsibility, personal choice, individual decisions and individual freedom, things which the British sacrificed a long time ago, and which, sadly, it takes about two days to realise.

This article first published in On Line Opinion on 8 May 2012.

A Real States’ House

After the indigenous shenanigans of Australia Day, and after further developments as to who said what, prime ministerial talk of a referendum has been put on hold. This week’s Closing the Gap statement to parliament, however, is perhaps seen as a gentle way of easing the electorate back into that discussion, guided as it now is by the recommendations of the so-called Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Any referendum in the terms of the expert panel’s report is guaranteed to fail, regardless of whether or not it has bipartisan support – substituting one racistrace provision for a meaningless race provision will not be seen by the voting public as a good reason to bugger around with a document that has served Australia well. And that was the consensus before what happened on Australia Day!

Of course the now infamous sections 25 and 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution should be repealed. In fact they should never have been enacted. Just as the proposed sections 51A, 116A and 127A should never be enacted. I suppose I could be wrong on the outcome of such a referendum, but I comfort in the hope that I’m right.

But allow me to suggest a constitutional change that even hope could not help, but one that actually would actually go a long way to “secure the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” ensuring democracy and freedom for them, as well as for run-of-the-mill Aussies like me.

What it will take to do this is a change to the Australian Senate. There is, of course, an equal number of senators for each of the unequally populated states, the point being to represent the states, protecting their rights, and limiting the power of the Commonwealth. In fact, that aspect of the federal system is designed to, according to the Senate’s website, provide “an additional safeguard against misuse of government powers.”

But of course it does nothing of the sort. When 18 of the 31 Labor senators are either government ministers or parliamentary secretaries, the chance of the Senate providing any real sort of oversight or safeguard against the misuse of federal powers is nil. And with the further expansion of federal powers, every Labor and coalition senator is a potential minister, utterly compromising the Senate’s function of limiting the federal executive government to protect the states. And because we do have minister-senators (and I’m not against that practice per se), we need an unelected senate even more than the United States. To be sure there are some Australian senators who believe in small government and state rights, but they are few and far between.

And if you’re unconvinced about the federal takeover of state powers, look no further than the recent debate about poker machines. Until Andrew Wilkie got “wilkied” by Julia Gillard, it had been a deal and a promise made between the government and an independent member of parliament. And just so we’re clear, Wilkie is a federal member of parliament – a member of the parliament that, according to section 51 of the Constitution, has no power to make laws regarding poker machines, or gambling generally, or the registering and licensing of pubs and clubs. I mean, the commonwealth can legislate for the coinage that the pokies gobble up (subsection xii), the registration of the banks that provide the ATMs in question (xiii), and, currently at least, even banning Aborigines (or Poms and Kiwis, for that matter) from using pokies (xxvi). But not the way the machines work, or how much can be dispensed by the adjacent ATM. The current (at least theoretical) state supremacy in this issue can be most clearly seen in Western Australia where pokies are confined to the casino, not as part of a federal agenda, but as a result of rightly-made, constitutionally sound, state legislation.

So here’s the plan. Let’s amend the Constitution such that senators are not elected but rather appointed by their respective state (and territory) parliaments. I admit that this may seem like a bizarre arrangement and, on the face of it, a throwback to a less democratic age. But consider two things:

Firstly, this arrangement is actually how the United States Constitution was originally intended. The “Connecticut Compromise” of 1787 dictated that all states would be equally represented in the upper house, and that senators would be elected by the state legislature, ensuring that they defended the rights of state governments to legislate on state matters. Of course anyone who follows the U.S. midterm elections knows that this arrangement is no longer in operation, the current system being but a recent innovation, coming into force with the 17th Amendment in 1913. The American result: an expansionist federal government. Who’d have thought?

Secondly, although an elected senate results in greater representation – and particularly if you live in Tasmania – it never guarantees greater democracy. But it does guarantee an erosion of state powers, rendering impotent both the Constitution, and the democratic process at that more local level.

My proposal, however, like that of the expert panel, is guaranteed to fail. But in this instance, it is not because it wouldn’t produce real, tangible benefits for states and those who live in them, but because the allure of “greater representation” trumps “real democracy” every time.

This article first published in On Line Opinion on 17 February 2012.