Harnessing the power of choice

Jeremy Halcrow
December 1st, 2010

The past week has seen a lively debate on this site over Sydney Anglicans ability to translate their talk into practical action and public policy results.

As a communicator, one issue I’ve noticed is that the Christian community in general is not very skilled at distilling fairly complexly constructed arguments into bite-sized morsels. To put it bluntly: Sydney Anglicans are very uncomfortable with sloganeering.

We can do better at explaining how our beliefs relate to the central myths of culture.

For example, the proponents of the ethics classes co-opted the most powerful cultural myth in our society to their cause: an individual’s absolute right to choice.

As we have moved from modernism to being a consumer society, a number of sociologists have charted a dramatic shift in core civic belief: people now hold a conviction that the world must be organized to give them – or at least give them the illusion – that they can have what ever they want.

Choice is the fulcrum through which modern consumer society spins. But more so, freedom of choice is the core value of our society. And it draws on the long march of ‘liberty’ from the Reformation through the Enlightenment to the great ideological battles against Fascism and Communism

The power of the myth of ‘right to choice’ can be seen in the way nearly all journalists, including the Sydney Morning Herald editorial (scroll down), repeated this mantra in the SRE debate.

First, both the Liberal and National parties are supposedly ideological champions of personal freedom – which is what this debate is really about…The ethics classes debate is not about the right to religious education, but the right to free choice…

But there are other political myths that continue to resonate in our society.

Conservatives can get traction around slogans that appeal to nationalism.

However the only political idea that can really match the power of ‘liberty’ is ‘equality’, which is usually translated into political slogans around the idea of ‘fairness’.

Most political debates line up as a battle between ‘choice’ and the ‘fair go’, which mirrors the mainstream political divide between Liberal and Labor.

Choice v Fairness

The 2005-7 debate over industrial relations is a classic example.

The Howard Government presented its policy under the slogan “WorkChoices” while the unions countered with their “Your Rights At Work” which attempted to tap into the myth of the ‘fair go’.

How did the unions avoid their campaign being derailed with the (somewhat justifiable) claim that they were largely seeking to protect their own vested interest?

Andrew West’s analysis of the evolution of the unions anti-WorkChoices campaign is very instructive.

Market research for the Unions told them that one third of the electorate were “free market conservatives” and were “a lost cause and strongly supported Work Choices”.

With such a powerful and rich business lobby against them, how did the Unions succeed? They cleverly identified the middle-ground and crafted a message around ‘fairness’ that would resonate with them.

The result? As West puts it the “nationalistic battlers” turned “savagely” on the Howard Government over WorkChoices.

While it is little surprise that 91 per cent of “Labor battlers” opposed Work Choices, almost as many swinging battlers – 82 per cent – opposed the government’s industrial relations legislation, and 58 per cent of Liberal battlers also deserted the government over the issue… One in seven Liberal battlers, according to the research, also thought the government had failed them in selling out Australian jobs and industries.

The Lessons –

1. Speak to the middle-ground. Don’t be distracted – or thrown off course – by the arguments of the hard-core secular atheists who hate religion.

2.  Ideally, try to frame your arguments around ideas of ‘fairness’ or ‘choice’.

I have always acknowledged that there needs to be some kind of proper lessons provided for secular objectors to denominational instruction in public schools. So in regards to SRE v ethics debate, it is interesting that no one has argued that Labor’s current policy actually places limits on choice. There are many providers of Special Religious Education (SRE) but only one proposed provider of Special Ethics Instruction (SEI).

1. Will the Government allow other organisations to tender to provide SEI?

2. Is there a place for ethicists from a politically conservative persuasion to draft a rival ethics course. (picking up Miranda Devine’s point that the proposed course has a particular relativistic notion of ethics)

3. Why should the St James Ethics Centre be allowed to monopolize the term ‘ethics’.  (In fact the Knight report accepted the legitimacy of this argument saying the course should be called Secular Ethics).

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