Archbishop's Presidential Charge to Synod

by the Most Reverend Peter R Watson, Archbishop of Melbourne

Wednesday 1 September 2004

Anglican Diocese of Melbourne


We are a privileged people ...

[We live] in a society of abundance in most things, with a freedom of speech, assembly and religion. Despite imbalances and inequalities and some worrying trends in Australian society, the quality of life offered by most other societies pale by comparison. But we must be vigilant to protect our freedoms. They have taken generations to secure. They must not be lost by the so-called war against terror.

The nation

If the church is truly to fulfil its mission, it must also speak prophetically to and understand the life and culture of the nation. Here is my reading on how the nation of Australia stands at this time.

Democracy

During an election period, we thank God that Australia is a liberal democracy where we can speak freely, worship freely, hold different opinions, and from time to time cast our vote for the politicians of our choice. Having elected them, we can then, while they are in office, seek to hold them accountable for their policies, their behaviour and their outcomes.

When we see the world's troubles in Iraq, Africa, the Middle East, South East Asia, we know that we have much to be grateful for in Australia. We have suffered terrorism in Bali, but so far this has not come onto our shores. We live under a stable political system and many of us enjoy a high level of material wealth, even though it is far from equally shared. There will always be disparities. But we can work for a society where the needy and the vulnerable are protected.

Australia needs visionary political leadership that works for all citizens. A leadership that seeks to stimulate the undoubted benefits of the market economy but to do that within a regime that is able to restrain its harmful excesses without suffocating its capacity to innovate and create wealth and work.

How does this nation express its membership of the international community? We have until recently been known as a friendly country which welcomed refugees and migrants. But this trait has been seriously questioned worldwide ever since the children overboard controversy and the Tampa affair. The fact is that most of those on the Tampa and other boats were in the end determined to be genuine refugees. Excising islands and placing boat people in New Guinea and Nauru and so removing them from access to the Australian legal system was too clever and inhuman. Have we no sense of shame as a nation?

East Timor

It can be said we acted well with our nearest neighbour East Timor, in sending peacekeepers and assisting them in national reconstruction. And we commend the Federal Government for recognising thousands of Timorese who have been here for years by granting them permanent residence. We trust that negotiations over oil and gas from the Timor Sea will give East Timor the capital resource it needs to be truly independent of foreign aid.

Iraq

On our involvement in the invasion of Iraq, I have on a number of occasions expressed the view, and hold to it still: that it was not right for Australia to join in the war against Iraq.

Indeed, I believe in just a short time Australia will look back, as we did on our involvement in the Vietnam war, and say, it was a mistake. And we know it is time to be alarmed when 43 former military chiefs, diplomats and public servants decide to write an open letter calling for 'truth in government' in the wake of the misleading of the Australian people over the chief reason given for the pre-emptive strike on Iraq.

World poverty

I quote from a report by Steve Bradbury, Director of T.E.A.R., where he states in part, 'whether we like it or not, we are in Federal Election mode. It's the promise season for politicians, a time when they make all sorts of promises to us. But a few years ago the Australian Government made an extraordinary promise to the global poor. They did it very publicly, and they did it on our behalf, and yet few of us know about it. They promised that we would do our bit, our fair share, to halve world poverty by 2015.

Federal Election. An election time is a good period to talk about truth in politics. Unfortunately most Australians have stopped believing what politicians say. Truth seems to be the first casualty in elections. Tony Fitzgerald QC was right to warn about the danger to democracy this represents. If a healthy democracy is to be maintained then politicians must tell the truth, and governments must be made accountable by open discussion and debate, in which a properly informed public can engage without cynicism or 'a sense of futility.'

It will also be a very sad day for this country if those who advocate for a 'fair, tolerant and compassionate society,' are to be derided as '"unAustralian" or a "bleeding-heart" elite,' to quote Mr Fitzgerald.

A habit is also developing of politicians making promises to spend public funds as if it were their own money and for electoral advantage, rather than acknowledging government expenditure as an act of stewardship on behalf of all Australians for the common good. We hope the day never arrives in Australia where church agencies and non-government charities are deprived of government funds because they have questioned government policy. An enlightened view of government is that it should govern for the common good, not for partisan or sectional interests and certainly not for the benefit of one or other of the major political parties.

What are people worried about? The issues of health, education, public safety, affordability of home ownership, public housing, mental illness especially depression and suicide. On health, people worry whether we are inadvertently developing a health system like the American - with two levels, one for those who can afford private health insurance, and a lower level of care with long waiting lists for the rest. This would be a very unfortunate breakdown of the Australian commitment to equality.

On education, young people and their parents worry that the cost of tertiary education is getting beyond their reach. The HECS debt will be such that thousands of young people will be asking, will they ever own a house of their own.

The spiralling house prices have also led to a sense of despair among many who are now resigned to never owning their own property. Tax advantages through negative gearing of investment property need urgent review. We all have a vested interest in an educated, healthy, well housed Australia.

The other side of the housing crisis is the reduced amount of public housing, which is a great concern to the welfare sector and to the churches. A lucky country like ours should not have an estimated 60 000 to 100 000 homeless on the streets every night.

Environment. Undoubtedly, one reason for despair among the young is the perceived indifference by those holding influence and power to saving the planet. Our mindsets and economies seem dismally and unimaginatively locked into burning fossil fuels, with all the pollutants and greenhouse gases they produce. Governments must actively promote and encourage the development of alternative and clean energy sources if the human race is to have a future.

There has also been much debate about the logging of our old-growth forests. Many of these ancient and magnificent trees are wood-chipped for very small economic return to the community at large. Often there is a depressing failure of imagination and political will to preserve what is beautiful and worth preserving for its own sake, and at the same time to develop alternative sources of employment.

I urge all Anglicans in Victoria to carry out an environment audit in their homes and churches - and to help you in that endeavour the diocesan environment committee has produced a set of guidelines which are available on the website. I'm pleased to see the committee also has a regular column in TMA, called the 'Eden Challenge,' with practical suggestions for households to take up.

Indigenous Aboriginal Community. Another area of unfinished business in the nation is the state of our indigenous population. This was their lucky country before 1788. They have a moral right to a share in the good things most of us take for granted.

Conclusion

I remind you again of the petition we frequently repeat in the Lord's Prayer 'your kingdom come, your will be done'. We live in eager anticipation of that kingdom being established among us not just as a heavenly reality. We also acknowledge that as believers in Christ we are agents here on earth of that kingdom by our willingness to respond to the petition 'your will be done'. God is fulfilling His will in and through imperfect earthen vessels such as us.

By our love for and commitment to Christ we seek to make this world a better place for all to enjoy and respect. As we anticipate the future, and the kingdom that is to come, we also work to build a more Christ-like church and a more caring world.

We want the Australian public to see our Christianity as offering a joyous view of life filled with goodness and justice; forgiveness and grace. The Gospel of Christ is a dynamic living gospel, and its imperatives take us into encouraging one another and positive to the better ways of being human. Jesus turns the Commandments from not doing into doing - loving your neighbour, going the second mile, turning the other cheek. These characteristics must be hallmarks of a truly authentic Australian Christianity.


This is an edited version of Archbishop Peter Watson's address.

Download the full text of the address as a PDF file.

Reproduced with kind permission of Anglican Media Melbourne.