Australia’s Parliament began debate Wednesday on WorkChoices, a government plan for federal workplace reform.

Billed as “a simpler, fairer national workplace relations system for Australia,” the bill is aimed at improving productivity, creating jobs in increasing living standards for families.” Opponents say there is no evidence the plan will create new jobs, and that wages for low-paid workers might actually decline.

Conservative and liberal Christian leaders alike question the wisdom of the government’s reforms. The relations between faith and politics are complex and nuanced, as the key players are well aware.

As one might expect, the churches have raised concerns about justice for the vulnerable and erosion of leisure time.

John Ryan of the Australian Catholic Commission said the proposed system did not appear to address fundamental concerns about “fairness and balance,” and claimed the system provided safeguards to workers only “after the fact.”

Frank Quinlan, director of Catholic Welfare Australia, suggested the notion behind the reforms is that employment is merely a commercial contract. That view, he said, would lead to a “sense of alienation between a worker and his or her labor.”

Anglicare’s Victorian chief executive, Ray Cleary, argued that the new system of negotiating individual contracts for pay and conditions would severely disadvantage low-skilled workers, young people and workers of non-English speaking backgrounds.

“There are some issues which stir the soul,” observed Melbourne Anglican Archbishop Peter Watson, “about which Christian leaders cannot remain silent.” Chief among these, for him, was preservation of weekends and leisure time for the wellbeing of individuals, families, community, and “ultimately, the health of the economy.” Hmmm.

Uniting Church President Dean Drayton criticized the government’s plans to replace the Australian Industrial Relations Commission with a new Fair Pay Commission, saying its mandate would be to keep wages low rather than assess what workers needed to live a decent life.

Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen argued that, under the new regime, families would spend less time together. He feared the reforms risked turning workers into robots and voiced concern over the need for preserving shared time for children, families and relationships: “That’s what life is about, not merely the economy.” Jensen is right, but he could have mounted a more substantial biblical-economic critique.

Then there’s Brian Houston, national president of the Assemblies of God and senior pastor of Sydney’s Hillsong church, officially opened by John Howard in 2002.

Houston made no comment on economic or justice issues, but said he felt “relaxed” about the impact of WorkChoices on worship attendance, pointing out the need to make church services relevant enough for people to make them a priority. If I were unaware of Houston’s strong commitment to the poor, I’d say that sounded almost like tacit approval for WorkChoices.

And what are we to make of the prime minister’s appointment of Ian Harper, a “dry” economist and evangelical Christian, to chair the new Fair Pay Commission?

Harper, currently executive director of the Centre for Business and Public Policy at the Melbourne Business School, grew up nominally Anglican but embraced an evangelical faith in the late 1980s.

He is not coy about his Christian convictions. He cites “strong religious convictions” as a chief reason for accepting the job.

Those convictions appear to shape his worldview and influence his perspective on economic policy. He claimed his acceptance of the new job was consistent with his Christian duty, “concerned with the circumstances of the less well-off and vulnerable rather than the top end of town.”

Interviewed on ABC radio on Oct. 14, Harper said he was particularly interested in hearing from the unemployed and low-paid. Claiming to live by values that addressed the best interests of the poor and the vulnerable, he added, “That’s what Jesus Christ stood for.”

Harper presented the 2003 Acton Lecture titled, “Christian Morality and Market Capitalism: Friends or Foes?” for the Centre for Independent Studies. In it, he acknowledged the difficulty of working as both a Christian and an economist.

Christians, he said, “often find it hard to accept that someone who claims to follow the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount could also follow the teacher of the doctrine of ‘the invisible hand.'”

As for his professional colleagues, he said, “The rationality of economics reigns supreme, sweeping all forms of non-rational enquiry–including superstition and religious dogma–before it.”

His response was “to have an appropriately modest view of the realm of the market within the sphere of our lives.”

“The trouble,” he said, “starts when one begins to treat market capitalism itself as religion.”

Amen to that.

What the mainstream churches and their lobbyists will make of Harper’s appointment is unclear.

Perhaps they will view it as an opportunity to kill two birds (economic rationalist and evangelical Christian) with one stone.

Already Anglican, Catholic and Uniting Church leaders have criticized the appointment–though I suspect Ian Harper is adept at dodging missiles lobbed by meddlesome priests.

Rod Benson is founding director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at MorlingCollege in Sydney, Australia.

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