Sunday, June 21, 2009

Christopher Pearson, Peter Costello, Whigs and moral theology of a peculiar kind

(Above: rejoice Whigs for you have new champions in Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Costello).

Ain't life immutably strange, mysterious and grand as we learn the true depths of depravity of the Rudd government.

No, silly, not the car scandal, which at this point is still at the "true email" versus "fake email" level of obfuscation and Queensland parish pump roosterism, mainly of interest to the paranoid likes of Piers Akerman.

Yes, it's the breaking news via a leak to the Canberra Times that the Government is keen to see Mr Costello at the helm of the government's Future Fund, which was set up in 2006 under the Howard government. (Labor offers Costello job).

The strength and relevance of the leak is at the moment a bit like a Queensland car dealer's relationship to upselling you Trucoat protection for your vehikkle, for the talk of a board position is hardly the same as simultaneous talk of guardianship or running the Fund.

But if true - and especially if true that Costello will settle for the comfortable, clubby world of sundry board appointments (he's on the World Bank's anti-corruption body) - there's a fine level of ironies at play.

First amongst them is the notion that Costello ever had the ticker to go out into the private sector and earn a crust, as he piously insisted Australians should do for the good of the country. Now it seems you're better off working for a quango mango where the icecream is an integral part of the bureaucratic fruit salad. And the second is that this eternal political bureaucrat, captured by Treasury, should ever have been perceived by the loons as a future PM.

And of course thirdly is the ever biblical notion of the lamb lying down with the wolves in the wilds of Canberra, and serving under a Labor government in the business of generating future mangoes for future generations of whigs and socialists to share.

Which in turn  makes decidedly poignant Christopher Pearson's deep introspections and searching of the Costello entrails in Tory hero a hard man to read.

In what could be a future trend amongst commentariat columnists, Pearson spends much of his time examining Costello's track record, and discovering - gasp - a Whig rather than a Tory (gather round children to learn that a Whig is the sort of chappie who in Victorian England came to favor Catholic emancipation, the abolition of slavery, and egad, the expansion of the franchise - and then polluted America with this  modernist claptrap). 

Apart from the use of arcane, anachronistic political jargon, the dividing line for Pearson is naturally the issue of abortion, with Pearson running a standard conservative Catholic tape over Costello:

When Costello entered the debate on freeing up access to RU-486, an abortion-inducing drug, his rationale for supporting the bill was embarrassing. He didn't argue from first principles but from his experience. His wife had been unconscious with a life-threatening cerebral abscess while pregnant and her doctors feared the pregnancy could compromise the effectiveness of medicine they were using to treat it. Happily, as it turned out, both mother and child survived, but he came to the conclusion that a termination ought to be an available option. On that basis he later argued that he ought not to deny others access to abortion.

Without wanting to trivialise what must have been an agonising situation, the moral he drew from it must stand as one of the great non-sequiturs of public policy debate in the Howard era. Classical moral theology has for centuries recognised a husband's right to choose to save his spouse's life at the expense of the child's, if the medical advice is that he has to make an either-or choice. But no moral theology worthy of the name could conceivably extrapolate from an extreme case and conclude that anyone who wanted it should have easy access to an abortifacient as of right.

Of course as soon as someone says they don't want to trivialize an issue, that's always a warning they will proceed to trivialize an issue, and so it is with Pearson - but then we've never heard from Pearson about his (presumed) support for the Brazilian Catholic church's excommunication of doctors for aborting a nine year old of twins after three years of alleged rape by her step father. Not that we'd wish to trivialize the issue with an extreme example.

Pearson has the cheek to accuse Costello of lowering the tone of the debate and setting a bad example, which doesn't it seem sufficiently redeem his position on national fertility:

Economic matters aside, there is one other markedly conservative policy position on which Costello has made most of the running. It's the need to lift the national fertility rate above replacement level: the oft quoted "one for dad, one for mum and a third for the country". As with Robert Menzies' precedent providing child endowment, he saw the baby bonus as a maternity benefit that should reflect the inevitable expenses incurred and therefore not be means-tested.

It's fashionable in some journalistic circles to take a rather sniffy tone in deploring anything that smacks of "middle-class welfare". But the point of this policy was to ensure that increased levels of fertility were not by and large confined to women on the lowest two deciles of income, as would otherwise have been expected. It seems a small price to pay and by all accounts has had the desired effect.

Oh yes, ain't it grand to be back in the world of large families as a kind of breeding ground for Catholic troops, a policy much favored in Ireland and Italy, but strangely something which Pearson enthusiastically endorses without enthusiastically practising - though perhaps not so strange when you consider that Catholic clergy are theoretically supposed to have no understanding of the actual practice of human sexuality (the word theoretically looms large here).

But if you can't get sniffy about middle class welfare (like most neo cons do) then you can certainly get sniffy about Costello even if he ended up voting against liberalizing embryo stem cell research:

It goes without saying that moral grandstanding at the expense of one's colleagues is an unattractive trait and usually counter-productive. But in terms of traditional Christian ethics the issue was simple and the arguments for supporting the bill were not just vulgar but downright bog-standard consequentialism.

And of course there's Costello's republican streak, which doesn't upset Pearson so much because he hasn't had much to say in recent years, and it might have been just product differentiation with John Howard rather than a passionate conviction.

Lordy, talk about damning with faint praise. Costello does partly redeem himself with his religious conservatism, and leaving behind the 'radical faith' of his Baptist youth for Anglicanism, though Pearson neglects to note that hell awaits all non-believers in the one true church, yea even those novus ordo Catholics still lingering on the fringes.

And of course Costello gets the biggest tick for being a supporter of Christian missions to the blacks and the paternalistic intervention in the NT:

I stress the paternalistic character of the intervention because it's unusual these days to see governments taking a hard "we know what's best for you" line on how welfare beneficiaries should spend their money. Some civil libertarians would die in a ditch over the principle that people on social security were entitled to spend their money just as they pleased, let alone concede that the state had any business taking a moralistic position and discouraging expenditure on grog, drugs or pornography.

Er actually Christopher it's not just civil libertarians that take a stand against the state acting paternalistic and big brother, but never mind, we know you know that the blacks need a mission from god to save their souls.

All in all, it's a bizarre catalogue of positions taken by Costello, refracted and assessed through the eyes of a jaundiced columnist with a fundamentalist Catholic theological bent, which says a lot more about Pearson than it does about Costello. If anything, it almost makes me sympathetic to Costello's plight and the flexibility of some of his thinking, up against the inflexibility of Pearson, which produces warps and tensions of an unseemly kind.

The bottom line seems for Pearson to be that the Liberal Party has in fact lost an exceedingly cautious Whig to gain a Whig:

However else you care to read it, Peter Costello's decision to leave politics is a great triumph for the fourth estate. Malcolm Turnbull, the preferred candidate of everyone in the left-liberal commentariat from Phillip Adams to Michelle Grattan, is now ensconced as the least conservative leader to head the conservative side of Australian politics.

Ah the wretched fourth estate. Are those hacks and hackettes dumb, or what? For now it seems, just as we were thinking we'd lost a cautious Whig in favor of the whiggish Turnbull, it seems we've saved the cautious Whig from the private sector, and set the cautious Whig to mis-managing the Future Fund in the way he mismanaged the economy during its boom years. Which will make for a fine partnership if the Whig Turnbull gets to wear the PM's crown.

What else to do then, than become a Whig? Which at least will prevent the world turning into Pearson Tory. 

Applications for membership of the Australian Colonial Chapter of Whiggists for Whiggery now being received care of this site.

(Below: just as Preston Brooks of South Carolina did a number on abolitionist Republican Charles Sumner, so Christopher Pearson attempts a more metaphysical and theological number on Peter Costello).

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