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Launch and Dedication Of The Uniting Care Queensland Centre for Social Justice

Parliamentary Annexe
Brisbane
17 April 2002
12.30pm

Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO

It is a great privilege to return to my hometown to give the occasional address at the launch of the UnitingCare Queensland Centre for Social Justice which is to be a Centre of Advocacy, Research and Education in Social Policy and Social Ethics. It is appropriate that we launch such a venture here in the Parliamentary Annexe. Some might wonder what a Jesuit is doing speaking at such a launch. But here in Queensland there has always been a fine ecumenical spirit when it comes to advocacy for justice. I recall my ordination as a Catholic priest here in St Stephen's Cathedral in 1985. The presiding prelate was my ecclesiastical mentor Archbishop Frank Rush, then President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. On the sanctuary with the other Queensland Catholic bishops were Archbishop John Grindrod, then Primate of the Anglican Church and Reverend Douglas Brandon, Moderator of the Uniting Church in Queensland. Such an ecumenical gathering in prayer was appropriate and natural because we had all worked together during a heady four year period adding our voices to those of indigenous people agitating for their rights to be acknowledged and granted by this Parliament.

Relations between church and state have often been robust here in Queensland. I well recall the reaction by the god-fearing Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen when the Uniting Church synod passed a resolution at the height of the street march ban back in October 1977 requesting "Queensland heads of churches to mediate between the State government and student and civil liberties groups to achieve better ways of expressing their differences." Sir Joh replied, "If churches want to consort with atheists and communists dedicated to the elimination of religion, that is their problem." The church leaders responded:

We believe that it is the role of the church, where it is possible without compromise of principle, to reconcile and not to divide. It is our hope that public debate be conducted with the sobriety and maturity that befit citizens of a freedom-loving democracy. That is all the more necessary when impending parliamentary elections tend to inflame passions.

In making such an appeal we speak as men who are detached from party politics but who bow to no one in our love of Queensland and Australia and in our ardent desire for a society in which justice, peace and freedom will prevail.

In the months that followed, Concerned Christians were still arrested for singing hymns in Queens Park. The Premier attacked the Anglican Church for being "closely associated in causes being promoted by the Communist Party, atheists and humanists". Of the Uniting Church, he said that " dwindling congregations showed that the church was losing what moral influence it had left." They were heady days and we all knew that we had a fight on our hands. The issues were the Vietnam War, Aboriginal rights, apartheid in South Africa, uranium mining and the right of peaceful protest. In hindsight we can see that the protesters and the church leaders ultimately did make a difference to public attitudes and to government policy.

These are not issues of ancient history. Our present Prime Minister has much in common with Sir Joh. Each has won a string of elections; each has enhanced his popular appeal by abusing the rights and dignity of a minority - for one it was demonstrators and for the other, asylum seekers; while one politicised the police, the other has politicised the defence forces; and each has been in government long enough to undermine the professionalism of the public service. Each is a Christian true to his lights, in so far as any of us can be. And each has joined issue with the churches when we have taken a stand for justice.

Let's recall Warren Entsch, the robust pastoralist from north Queensland, who chaired the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Native Title, who led the charge against the churches in Wik. After Mr Entsch called for a boycott of churches, the Prime Minister stepped up to the dispatch box not with a hose to douse the Entsch bush fire but with a fan: "May I say of my colleague the member for Leichhardt that I understand his sense of frustration - and the sense of frustration of many people in rural Australia - about the way in which this debate is being conducted. I do not support a call for a boycott of church attendance, but I can understand the sense of frustration he feels." For his efforts, the frustrated Mr Entsch was promoted. Meawhile the Prime Minister had published his written code for "church figures" who wish to avail themselves of the right of free speech: "The right to speak freely on a broad range of issues carries with it the obligation to speak in an informed, objective and constructive fashion." If only Mr Howard and his ministers applied this code to themselves before they spoke about children overboard during the election.

From both sides of politics, church advocacy groups have received a clear message. If they are not immediate stakeholders with a self-interest in an issue, they are seen as impostors playing a political role antipathetic to the interests of the major political parties and their major supporters. Advocating Aboriginal and refugee rights I find that I tend to run into trouble equally with both sides of politics. Given the seemingly increasing lack of policy differentiation between the major political parties, that is hardly surprising. My most intense blooding came with Paul Keating's Wik declaration, "Talk about meddling priests! When Aborigines see Brennan, Harradine and other professional Catholics coming they should tell them to clear out." He claimed that Senator Brian Harradine and I had "saved Howard from paying the price of his folly, and made the Aborigines pay instead."

Once John Howard had committed troops to East Timor, Paul Keating, when accepting life membership of the ALP, suggested that Howard was exploiting Catholic church sympathies in order to get at the ALP. As Labor attempted to clear the decks of all issues but for the GST in the latter part of 1999, Keating once again bought into the fray, this time attacking the Australian Council for Social Service (ACOSS) for their stand on the GST claiming, "ACOSS provided Howard with the political cover he needed. It led the welfare constituency into the largest and most regressive tax in Australian history." Then came his credal statement, "The only social organisation in this country that faithfully represents the low paid, families and the aged is the ACTU." I am heartened that the Centre for Social Justice with its links to QCOSS guided by its charter for a Fair Queensland, and with experienced luminaries such as John Woodley and Noel Preston will ensure that the low paid, families and the aged will have an informed voice of solidarity no matter which party is in government.

The Howard government's tactics in the Wik debate have been replicated now in the debate about asylum seekers. When John Howard's government wanted to crack down on boat people including even those who were bona fide refugees, Minister Phillip Ruddock said the churches should stick to what they do best and leave the politics of border control and refugee rights to the elected government. Imagine the arrogance of government suggesting such a division of functions in a country which, no matter what their confessional differences, boasts such church advocates of migration as John Dunmore Lang, Caroline Chisholm and John Bede Polding.

Many of us Christians who engage in the political processes of the State see ourselves called to emulate Jesus in His teachings and actions. We discern the action of the Spirit in our hearts and in the world, including the signs of the times. We are sustained in the belief that there is a Kingdom to come and that there are signs of this kingdom breaking in here and now whenever persons freely act for justice. Acting to create a more just world, we discern our invitation to participate in the mission of the believing community. We need to engage in the political process, rather than being simply prophetic observers of that process.

I have no objection to government and the Parliament stating a preference that refugees come for resettlement in Australia having been chosen by Australian officials while the applicants have resided elsewhere in countries of first asylum. Given that we are a net migration country, it is sensible to structure a migration program in which government officials choose refugees in other countries of first asylum who would make good migrants to Australia. But our limited generosity through an offshore humanitarian program should not excuse us from pulling our weight and acting decently towards that small number or persons who turn up on our shores, this being their preferred country of first asylum. Of course, we are also a preferred migration country. But that is no reason not to extend the basic protections and privileges to persons who truly have come to this country as a country of first asylum or of preferred asylum while ever so briefly transiting other countries where they may feel less secure.

The Minister is right when he says, "Australia due to its geographic location, has not historically been a country of first asylum." The present policy is posited on making Australia an unattractive option for first asylum. Already enjoying the advantage of geographic isolation, we now want to add mean-spirited provisions to distinguish us from other countries which are still prepared to honour their obligations more wholeheartedly. This will either encourage other countries to emulate us or it will leave us as a shag on the OECD rock, bearing in mind that we already have the 15th (not the 1st or 2nd) ranking of per capita asylum seekers in OECD countries. Neither policy objective is appealing for humanitarian Australians such as myself.

The 7,500 asylum seekers on temporary protection visas are confronted with added disincentives to integration into the Australian community and we are now going to have to reprocess each of their cases after three years. I commend the Queensland Government and the Brisbane City Council for the additional support you have offered these TPV holders (including those fine soccer ambassadors, the Tiger XI)

Conducting the Good Friday church service in the Woomera Detention Centre during the recent protest, I witnessed the injustice of our present policies towards asylum seekers at first hand. Later I saw children who had been hit by tear gas. I met a seven year old boy with bruises to the left knee and right ankle from a baton blow. There is still a large percentage of Iraqis and Afghans in Woomera who have been waiting 6-8 months and even longer for a primary decision. Unashamed "do-gooders" like me espouse a return to the basic values of a system which detains people only if it assists in the determination process or protects public health or national security or is a prelude to deportation in the immediate future. I defy any elected politician to go to Woomera and look in the eye the Palestinians who have had their cases rejected and who want to be sent home or anywhere on God's earth so they can help their children on the Gaza Strip. Our government tells them there is nothing that can be done in the foreseeable future. They just have to wait in detention. The anger in their eyes is palpable. Detention without trial, without judicial review, and without end, when your kids are sweating it out on the Gaza strip cannot be too much fun.

Let me give a few statistics which show just how shonky our determination process is for those being held in detention, the overwhelming majority of whom are proved to be refugees (even conceding that the Afghan approval rate has gone down from 95% to 77% and the Iraqi rate from 90% to 79%). Since 1993 (to 30 June 2001), the RRT set aside 11.4% of all primary decisions appealed. But it set aside 69% of all Afghan decisions appealed and 81.9% of all Iraqi decisions appealed. So far this financial year, the RRT has set aside 87% of all Iraqi decisions appealed (109 of 126 cases) and 69% of all Afghan cases appealed (176 of 257 cases). Meanwhile it has set aside only 7% of decisions appealed by members of other ethnic groups. If you were an Afghan or Iraqi fronting up for a primary decision, how would you feel? During the last financial year, the RRT set aside 11% of all primary decisions which were appealed but in the same time it set aside 37% of all primary decisions appealed by persons in detention while they waited on average another two months in detention, following the many months they spent awaiting a primary decision.

No one doubts the need to protect our borders but we have to accept that with the end of the Cold War and in the light of September 11 developments, it is inevitable that some boat people will continue to turn up on our shores seeking asylum. There is a need for:

  • Detention which is neither punitive nor designed as a deterrent in the absence of a court order or periodic court review. Iraqis and Palestinians who have exhausted all remedies and who cannot be sent home are now enduring unconstitutional detention in Australia. That must stop.
  • Detention should be permitted only as long as there is a need for the protection of public health and security and to expedite processing or deportation or removal. Placement in the desert away from services and away from the primary decision-makers and the RRT is not designed to assist prompt and fair determination. Imagine being an Iranian Sabean Mendean claiming persecution by Muslims and having your review conducted with a Muslim translator while you sit in front of a TV screen and camera at the Woomera Hospital being cross examined by someone in Melbourne. The result is that you are terrified to attend the Woomera Hospital again, even for urgent medical treatment.
  • Proven refugees (whether or not they came with a visa) should be given every encouragement to be integrated into the Australian community and to be reunited with their families without the wife and children having to risk the journey on the next boat.
  • Primary decisions makers should be better trained and equipped to decide cases from Iraq and Afghanistan achieving non-appealable outcomes similar to the other regular caseloads. Priority should be given to determination of cases of those in detention.

In twenty years time when there are very disaffected Afghan and Iraqi Australians demanding an apology and some understanding of their social plight, it will ring very hollow when our politicians unctuously declare, "Why weren't we told?"

Given that we have the advantage of geographic isolation, why don't we try to be just a little more decent rather than less decent than other countries with the same living standards when it comes to our treatment of those who arrive (whether with or without a visa) invoking our protection obligations? Or if that is judged too naïve, how about we aim to be just as decent as those who receive ten times more asylum seekers than we do? Or if that is too much to ask (given the fear driven mandate of the recent election), how about we limit our indecency to our treatment of adults, ensuring that never again are kids put in the line of batons and tear gas in the name of border protection?

I trust this Centre for Social Justice will keep such questions on the public agenda despite the unpopularity of the cause. When the going gets tough and the way ahead is not clear, we can take to heart the observation of Morris West:

The pronouncements of religious leaders will carry more weight, will be seen as more relevant if they are delivered in the visible context of a truly pastoral function, which is the mediation of the mystery of creation; the paradox of the silent Godhead and suffering humanity.

At all times in the public domain, whether in dialogue with government about social policy or in giving a public account of church policy, we must speak with the voice of public reason. Therein lies the tension. Without trust between those whose consciences differ, we will not scale the heights of the silence of the Godhead nor plumb the depths of the suffering of humanity; we will have failed to incarnate the mystery of God here among us. This mystery is to be embraced in the inner sanctuary of conscience where God's voice echoes within, to be enfleshed in the relationships we share as the people of God, and to be proclaimed in our calls for justice in the public domain. I trust this Centre for Social Justice will be a blessed opportunity for many Queenslanders to contribute to a more just world.