A Retrospective on 15 Years at Uniya Working for Social Justice
Frank Brennan SJ
Uniya/Jesuit Refugee Service, Occassional Paper no.7, 2004
Frank Brennan considers how the ethos of his social justice engagement
and his Jesuit style have contributed to his fifteen years ministry
with Uniya, the Jesuit Social Justice Centre.
I joined the Jesuits in 1975 when the 32nd General Congregation
of the Society of Jesus was drawing to a close in Rome. At that
Congregation, there was a strong emphasis on the faith that does
justice and the need for Jesuit educational institutions to produce
“men for others”. We were yet to become sufficiently
inclusive to espouse the need to produce persons for others!
I had studied law and politics at university in Queensland during
the early 1970s. Joh Bjelke-Petersen was at the peak of his populist
power. Civil liberties, human rights, and indigenous rights were
all seen to be dangerous southern ideas which had little place in
the law and order of the Queensland tropical paradise.
Though attracted to much of the modern church and Jesuit rhetoric
about social justice, I was convinced that it would count for little
by way of outcomes unless there was some engagement in the political
process and some familiarity with the ways of the law. So I presumed
I was well situated to make a contribution.
As a Jesuit novice, I was presumptuous enough to participate in
the province discussion about the morality of the Jesuits holding
shares in Comalco, a mining company that was exploiting mineral
resources on Aboriginal land without the payment of any significant
royalty to the local Aboriginal owners. I was then privileged to
join a province committee discerning how Jesuits might best return
to the Aboriginal apostolate that had been pioneered by the Austrian
Jesuits in the previous century.
Like all Jesuits in formation, I was sent to do a couple of years’
pastoral work in the middle of my studies. In 1981, my provincial
received a request from the Queensland Catholic bishops that I be
their adviser on Aboriginal Affairs during 1982, the year of the
Brisbane Commonwealth Games when it was known that the international
spotlight would be Queensland’s treatment of its indigenous
citizens who had been denied their land rights and self-determination.
This was a classic Jesuit response: being available at the request
of the bishops to assist with a social question requiring some expertise
in secular disciplines as well as theology.
By 1985, I was adviser to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.
Australian Jesuits could see a need for a national social justice
centre which could give priority to national issues such as Aboriginal
rights, civil liberties and refugee rights. By 1989, the province
also wanted to provide a base for the Jesuit Refugee Service. After
a one-year consultation process, we thought it best to set up a
justice centre in Sydney, preferably on the south side of the Harbour
Bridge, and hopefully with a parish base so there might be some
prospect of combining the sacramental life of a local worshipping
community with the national commitment to social justice. We realised
from the beginning that Jesuits would be a minority of the staff,
though providing some financial and institutional support for such
an initiative. We thought it important to be independent from the
bishops but always being willing to give first priority to any requests
received from the institutional church whether directly form the
bishops or from bodies such as Catholic education offices and the
Australian Catholic Social Justice Council (and its predecessor,
the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace).
On the Feast of the Sacred Heart 1989, we launched Uniya, a Christian
Centre for Social Research and Action sponsored by the Australian
Jesuits. Gough Whitlam once joked that he was sick of explaining
to people that “Uniya” did not stand for United Nations
anything! Rather it was the local Aboriginal name, meaning meeting
place or bend in the river, for the first Jesuit mission station
established at Daly River in the Northern Territory in 1886. I retorted
that Whitlam’s complaint highlighted the beauty of the name.
How else could we have had an eminent fellow traveller like Whitlam
explaining the history of Jesuit involvement with Aborigines in
the Northern Territory in a previous century?
Cardinal Clancy then offered us a base in the parish of St Canice,
Kings Cross/Elizabeth Bay. Soon after our arrival in November 1989,
we celebrated a candlelight vigil in the church to commemorate the
Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter who were assassinated
at the Jesuit university residence in El Salvador. Then Fr Peter
Hans Kolvenbach SJ, the Superior General of the Jesuits came and
opened our new centre challenging us to take concerted political
action for social change consistent with and informed by the church’s
social justice teachings.
Pope John Paul II had recently published his encyclical Sollicitudo
Rei Socialis and then came his Centesimus Annus. So there was plenty
to keep us informed and focussed. We decided that we should be very
selective in setting our key priorities. Reaching out to the poorest
of the poor and most marginalised, we were happy to focus mainly
on Aboriginal and refugee issues in Australia. At times, this was
problematic. One of our board members was fond of asking, “Are
we only the SBS of church social justice?” I have always thought
that the best contribution to be made to the mainstream church on
social justice issues is to be made by coming from the margins.
I developed some simple rules of thumb. I decided I would talk
to anyone and that I would go wherever I was invited. As a national
organisation, we wanted to be a resource for local church groups
who were committed to justice. Taking democracy and the pluralism
of Australian society seriously, I have always taken a three pronged
approach: engaging with the margnalised group, gaining access to
the political decision makers, and trying to educate and give inspiration
to the public whose mindset will largely shape the parameters for
the response by politicians. Such an education and inspiration does
not always come from public argument and discussion. We need to
fire the public imagination so that people have energy and enthusiasm
for constituting a more just society. Taking self-determination
seriously, I was delighted that Uniya was able to act as the secretarial
and administrative base for the emerging National Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC). Uniya was also
able to sponsor the exhibition of Aboriginal religious art in the
High Court of Australia during the World Council of Churches Assembly
in Canberra. During that Assembly, Uniya took responsibility for
liaison between Aboriginal groups and the international media.
Publishing and public speaking have been key activities for me
seeking to contribute to public discussion about issues. During
my time at Uniya I have published books on Aboriginal rights, civil
liberties and refugee rights. Publishing is very important because
no matter how small the meeting you then address, there will always
be someone in the audience who has read your work and been helped
with their own thinking and local commitment to action.
There was no point in bishops issuing statements about reconciliation,
Mabo and Wik unless there was someone able to unpack these statements,
explaining the complexity of the issues to citizens of good will
and church members who had rarely met an Aboriginal person. Also
church statements counted for little with the politicians unless
there was some church person able to critique proposed laws and
policies in light of the principles set out in the church statements.
Seeking a resolution of conflicting claims in the Aboriginal area,
I developed four questions which I then applied in other situations.
The starting point was to consider what do Aboriginal people want?
I learnt early in the piece not to expect agreement even on this
first question. It was important to specify what aspirations you
had heard and why you were giving priority to some Aboriginal viewpoints
over others. For years, I worked as the Adviser to the Australian
Catholic bishops, the adviser to NATSICC, and adviser to the Queensland
Aboriginal Co-ordinating Council constituted by the chairpersons
of all the Aboriginal community councils in Queensland.
Having made some assessment of Aboriginal aspirations, I would
then ask which of those aspirations were morally justified. I knew
this question could be problematic with some Aboriginal leaders
and their supporters. What right did I have as a whitefella to be
saying which aspirations were justified? But the church contribution
on difficult social issues must always be made within the confines
of what is morally justified both in terms of process and outcomes.
Noel Pearson has often highlighted the problems with my approach,
basically claiming that if a disadvantaged group wants a just outcome
from a political process that is stacked against them, they need
to make an inflated initial claim so that they can come out of the
political horse-trading with the just result.
I would then ask which of the morally justified aspirations were
politically achievable. I have had the temerity to suggest occasionally
that Aboriginal leaders were better positioned to answer that question
when dealing with a Keating government than when dealing with a
Howard government. I have always been agnostic in my dealings with
governments. At the state level, I dealt closely with National Party
and Labor Party governments in Queensland. At the national level,
my blooding was with Coalition governments prior to 13 years of
Labor governments and then a return to Coalition governments. I
have tried to develop working rules that apply with all governments.
Engagement with the decision makers is essential.
I would then raise the distinctly Jesuit question. Having determined
which aspirations were morally justified and politically achievable,
which of those aspirations will I work to achieve? After all I cannot
do everything. I must discern what is the greatest good at this
time, determining where best to invest my effort. This communal
discernment is the key task of the Uniya board or council.
The application of these four questions was easy enough with issues
such as reconciliation and Mabo. The application became very problematic
with Wik, which was a High Court decision requiring the Parliament
to strike an appropriate balance between the conflicting rights
of Aborigines and pastoralists. In hindsight I was grateful to one
angry pastoralist and to an even angrier ex-Prime Minister Paul
Keating. The pastoralist told me that I should go back to my presbytery
and say my prayers. I realised that Wik could not be solved by the
stakeholders alone (Aborigines, miners and pastoralists) being called
to the table. They were not in the mood for resolving their differences.
Also Wik could not be solved by prayer alone. There was a need for
political engagement by honest brokers and opinion-makers who were
not stakeholders themselves. Paul Keating labelled me a meddling
priest thereby indicating to the Howard government that I was not
some Labor Party clone. Back in the final days of the Mabo debate
when the original native title legislation was being passed through
the Senate, I entered the parliamentary dining room one night to
be confronted by the Aboriginal “A” team and the Aboriginal
“B” team sitting at separate tables. Geoff Clark joked
with me, “Who are you going to sit with now, Frank”.
I realised back then that there are some times when you are best
just sitting on your own!
In recent times, there has been a renewed public stoush between
Noel Pearson and myself. The principles of truth, non-discrimination
and self-determination require that there be robust dialogue even
with respected leaders of minority groups.
One of Uniya’s strengths has always been that we have put
a strong emphasis on being there, making contact with all key participants
in a public debate, and contributing possible solutions informed
by the principles of Catholic social teaching.
It was only because I was living and working in East Timor as the
Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service that the local church then
asked me to be the adviser to the Church Working Group on the Constitution
of the emerging nation. There is no substitute for being there on
the ground, at the right place and at the right time. On my return
from East Timor, I was asked to go to Woomera where Afghan asylum
seekers were on a hunger strike. I then attended the detention centres
every month for the next two years, while meeting every two months
with the Minister in Canberra, addressing dozens of public meetings
in metropolitan and country areas throughout the country from Albany
to Townsville. Meanwhile I researched my book, Tampering with
Asylum. Over the years I have been fortunate to have an annual
fellowship at the Australian National University giving me the time
to write and the opportunity to mix with academic colleagues able
to critique and inspire my writing.
A strong critic of mandatory detention, the ‘Pacific Solution’
and the temporary protection visa, I knew that change would only
come if the Australian community changed its perspective on boatpeople.
The oppressive policy enjoyed bipartisan support in the Parliament.
Community groups have done great work shifting public perceptions,
convincing the Labor Party to drop its commitment to the government
policy, and showing government the electoral risks of policies which
are unexplained and without a coherent rationale despite their initial
populist appeal. I have kept my contribution focused on the demand
that government offer a coherent rationale for the mandatory detention
of children and the splitting of families. Early in the campaign,
one government deep-throat warned me to spare them the moral outrage.
But there is still a need for rational, respectful moral dialogue.
I have never believed in demonising anyone whether they be an asylum
seeker or Phillip Ruddock. It is easy to criticise government policy.
It is always essential to propose practical alternatives and to
be willing to praise incremental changes made by government. In
the asylum debate some campaigners who are moral purists believe
government should not be praised until the policy is completely
overturned. Compromise and pragmatism are central to the political
process. I do not believe it is good enough for an organisation
such as Uniya simply to espouse moral principle from the lofty heights
without being prepared to engage in the political realities of compromise.
In the end, we do not speak for anyone other than ourselves. So
if we are wrong, government has nothing to lose by saying so. If
government remains silent to our arguments, chances are that we
are in the ballpark of truth and realistic assessment. And that
in itself can be a useful contribution to the key players in any
My last task for Uniya has been the writing of a discussion paper
for the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council on the complex
Timor gas issue. I have met with both governments and the key corporation,
and had lengthy consultations with NGOs and church members in both
countries. Such a process is essential if there is to be any prospect
of setting down moral parameters within which the matter might be
resolved. Concerned citizens and church members in both countries
are best assisted by a clear articulation of such parameters.
Uniya has undergone much change. It commenced with two Jesuits
on staff and with the generic title “Uniya – a centre
for social research and action sponsored by the Australian Jesuits”.
It is now called Uniya, the Jesuit Social Justice Centre, though
there will no longer be any Jesuit on staff. The Centre will remain
true to the Jesuit mission of faith and justice if the staff live
out their Christian vocation to ensure justice for the most marginalised
in our society, by being attentive to the aspirations of the marginalised,
making a moral assessment of those aspirations, determining what
is politically achievable and discerning prayerfully how best to
contribute to a resolution of the political controversy. In 1998,
Uniya sponsored the first Jesuit Lenten Seminar Series entitled
Discerning the Australian Social Conscience, providing
a platform for church members and members of civil society to engage
on the big social questions in the light of gospel values and Catholic
social teaching. I hope and pray that there will always be such
an open, respectful and informed venue in the Australian Jesuit
province serving the church and the nation.
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