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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 political dispute.

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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