Dear Mr. Morrison

Our recent federal election returned Scott Morrison, leader of the LNP, to the post of Prime minister of Australia. It was a surprise for many of us due to the turmoil that the coalition leadership has experienced over the last few years, but particularly for young Australians for whom Climate Change is a major concern.

Some commentaries suggest that one reason for the convincing win has been the support of religious groups who feel that religious liberty has a better chance of being safeguarded under an LNP government than under Labour, who have aligned themselves with the radical Greens who spout an anti-Catholic rhetoric and blatantly stand against the Christian value of the sanctity of life, in their pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia stance.

For better or for worse, we have a conservative government back in office and have to reflect on how best to fight for those values that their economic approach threaten. To that end, the CRA (Catholic Religious Australia) have written a letter to Mr. Morrison expressing our concerns and hopes for his next term in office. It sets out the agenda we will be fighting for. It is reproduced below for your information:

19 May 2019, To the Hon. Scott Morrison M.P., Prime Minister, Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600.

Dear Mr. Morrison,

Congratulations on being elected to the leadership of all Australians. We wish you and your team well as you form Government. I write to you as President of Catholic Religious Australia (CRA).

CRA represents over 150 religious congregations across Australia with approximately 5,500 Catholic religious women and men throughout the nation, as well as many thousands of people working in organisations run by religious institutes. Our members and their lay colleagues serve in education, health care and social services. We work with First Australians, refugees and asylum seekers, people struggling to survive on the margins of society and many others in need of assistance. The members of CRA and their colleagues, many of whom engage daily with the vulnerable and the marginalised throughout the nation, look forward to working with your Government.

As you set the agenda for the future of Australia and this term of office, we ask that your Government gives priority attention to several areas that might restore Australia’s reputation andpractices as a compassionate and creative nation.

Firstly, as a matter of priority we ask that, having secured the borders and stopped boats coming to Australia, you revisit the Government’s position in relation to the treatment of asylum seekers.Australia needs to take its fair share of asylum seekers and to restore its reputation as a humane and compassionate country. We ask that steps be taken to: immediately restore SRSS which has left many asylum seekers living in the community in dire circumstances and reliant on NGOs and faith- based organisations to meet basic needs of shelter, food and clothing; enact a public one-off moratorium for asylum seekers in the community, giving citizenship to those awaiting the processing of their claims; bring asylum seekers in off-shore detention who have been judged to have a medical condition to Australia and re-start negotiations with third countries for those remaining; and take the initiative to restart negotiations with other countries towards an agreedregional solution that honours Australia’s obligations.

Secondly, we ask the Government to take the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ seriously and, within the coming twelve months, advance consultation and decisions related to Constitutional Change and Treaty to empower Indigenous people to take their rightful place in their own country. We ask the Government to view Indigenous people and their leaders as active partners in this process and in developing legislation, policies and programs to address their disadvantage.

Thirdly, it was often repeated during the election campaign that Australia faces a climate crisis with disastrous effects on our nation, and effects that fall disproportionately on neighbouring low- income and small island states. This is an emergency on which the new Government must act. We ask that your government upholds the Paris Agreement by reducing subsidies to the fossil fuel industries and reducing tax breaks for polluters; invests in renewable energy and commits to no new coal or coal seam gas projects in Australia; and takes strong remediation action to restore the health and administration of the Murray Darling Basin waterways. We have only one earth, it is our common home as Pope Francis reminds us. The Government and we, as citizens, must do all in our power to protect it.

Lastly, with over 116,000 people experiencing homelessness, an insufficient supply of affordable housing and almost one million households now living in rental and mortgage stress, we ask your government to commit to a realistic budget allocation to create new, affordable social housing in its first term. Women who experience domestic violence are a particularly vulnerable population who experience these stresses disproportionately and so we ask for investment in emergency housing.

Prime Minister, in the wake of discourse and advertising that has been unedifying and, in some instances untrue, we ask that you take leadership in working with the Opposition in a constructive way that places the good of all Australians as a priority over gaining political advantage.

CRA believes in the inherent dignity of each human person and is an advocate for justice and compassion towards those whose life chances are limited. Our members have extensive experience in providing many services for those in need and look forward to working with you and your Government in addressing these. Thank you, Prime Minister, for taking on this service of the country. We wish you and your Government well.

Yours sincerely,

Sr Monica Cavanagh rsj President

 

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The Problem of Corruption in Our Church

For this month’s JPIC blog article, I offer you a homily  delivered at St. Dominic’s parish, Camberwell, Melbourne, on Sunday the 3rd of March this year by Fr. Peter Murnane OP. It pertains to the sex abuse scandal in our Church, particularly how we respond to all this following the conviction of Cardinal George Pell. It is not easy reading, but so important to ensure we act with integrity. Peter’s homily is as follows:

I apologise that this homily is a little longer than usual. I think you will agree with me that the conviction of Cardinal George Pell for sexual offences, has brought us to a unique point in the history of the Church and of Australia, and raises huge questions for every Catholic Christian.

We have come together to worship the risen Christ in our midst. Perhaps Jesus has something to tell us, through this gospel that we read and love, about how we can each cope with this difficult situation. He says here that the quality of each person is known by their fruit. He is backed up by the Book of Sirach, from which we took our first Reading. “An orchard is judged on the quality of its fruit.”

What applies to persons and orchards must be said of institutions, such as our Catholic church. This weekend Archbishop Coleridge of Brisbane sent his people a letter in which he reassures them about the good work that our church has done and is doing every day… fruits that show what we are as a church.

Archbishop Coleridge writes that everywhere we turn we see stories about the Church’s failures with child sexual abuse. We have to accept that. The Church will never walk away from its responsibilities in this area. We will continue to do all we can to help and heal those who have been abused and their families. ‘We have much to atone for. But today I want to say a word about the Church that’s almost never mentioned in mainstream media. It’s the Church that is you’. The church that works with refugees to find accommodation and fight for their permanent stay; on the frontline with domestic violence victims; with Australians who have a disability; with people on the poverty line; with the homeless; those living with dementia; to protect our environment and to provide pastoral support to prisoners. It has educated millions of Australian children over generations and has provided first-class medical treatment in our hospitals. This is not an exhaustive list, the archbishop stated, of what you do from day to day in the Catholic Church.

All that is very true. But doesn’t Jesus warn us, quite strongly, that his hearers – that’s us! – are quite skilled at noticing the splinter in the eye of another person, while they do not notice the plank in our own. This morning, let’s dare to look for the plank.

Archbishop Coleridge was right to say that the Church will never walk away from its responsibilities in this area of uncovering sexual abuse. But we are doing this only after a five year Royal Commission on the subject has forced us to. This is what the Royal Commission uncovered. I am quoting directly from its Reportand I apologise that this can be hard to listen to.

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In the 36 years from 1980-2015, Catholic Church authorities in Australia received complaints of sexual abuse from 4,444 persons. Of those who abused them:

  • 32 % were religious brothers; 5 % were sisters 
  • 30 % were priests 
  • 29 % were lay people.

Through 60 years (1950 – 2010) 7 % of all Catholic priests in the survey were alleged to be perpetrators.

Many senior Catholic Church officials knew about allegations of child sexual abuse but failed to take effective action. We have learned a lot more about sexual abuse since the 1980s, but it is clear that many Catholic Church leaders knew a lot long before then, but did not act effectively.

Over many decades Catholic Church authorities catastrophically failed to help children. Their failures caused much suffering to them, their families and communities. Much of it could have been avoided had Catholic Church authorities acted in the interests of children rather than in their own interests.

Survivors were often disbelieved, ignored or punished, and in some cases further abused. This happened mainly because Catholics wanted to avoid public scandal, to maintain the Church’s reputation, and be ‘loyal’ to priests and religious.

Most complaints were not reported to police. If they had been, it could have prevented further sexual abuse of children. Sometimes police also refused to act, for the reasons given. Some alleged perpetrators were allowed to continue in ministry in the same position for long periods. Others were moved to new positions, where they continued to abuse children. Sometimes lies were told about why the abuser had gone. Sometimes no warning was given to the new place about the risk they posed. Some of the above can be excused because we lacked knowledge. For example leaders can hardly be blamed for hoping that psychological therapy or counselling could ‘cure’ alleged perpetrators; or that abusers could be controlled by imposing restrictions on their ministry. Nevertheless, there is much that is worthy of serious blame.

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Nearly four and half thousand abused children. Over many decades. And now we have an archbishop, a cardinal, himself convicted of abusing. A cardinal in jail. He is suffering. He is our brother. He urgently needs our prayers. Is he guilty? Or was his conviction unjust, another terrible wrong? The Catholic community is divided on this. Some journalists and even some lawyers – including Jesuit Frank Brennan – claim he must be innocent. But do we have a plank in our eye? Do we still think that the church can do no wrong? I hope what I am about to say will help you to move nearer to the truth.

Cardinal Pell has done much good in his life, and I respect him for that. I attended eight days of his trial, and I can confidently accept the jury’s verdict of guilty. The journalists – and lawyers – who claim his innocence say that he was condemned by only one witness, who claims that Pell raped him when he was 13 years old. There were actually two choir boys, on scholarships that paid their school fees at St Kevins. They loved going to choir… but suddenly stopped loving it, and wanted to quit. They did not tell their parents why. Most victims don’t tell, at least for many years afterwards. If it took them a year to leave the choir, it was because they could not reveal the reason. If they left, their poor families could not afford full school fees: they depended on those choir scholarships. But they did leave, and by about 16 years of age both boys were taking heroin. One eventually died of an overdose.

If the survivor’s story is true, can we consider for a moment what he must have suffered. If his story was not true, why would he come forward 22 years later, with such an unlikely story, to take on the might and wealth of the Catholic church and the highest-paid lawyers in the land? Might he have been trying to save his own sanity by coming out with the truth at last, to get justice? Recall how many victims we have re-abused by not listening.

And the QC, Robert Richter, grilled him thoroughly, challenging his story. The court was closed for the two and a half days of his evidence, so no one except the jury knows how genuine the young man appears, nor all the details of his case. Not me, not the journalists; not Fr Frank Brennan. If we Catholics assume that the appeal must and will declare that the jury was wrong, can we be sure that we are not making another enormous mistake? If the appeal wipes out his whole story, how great will the young man’s suffering be?

If you doubt his story, I suggest that you read the book by Louise Milligan, who listened to him at length. It is on sale again now. Read at least the last chapter. I have met Louise Milligan, and she impresses me as a truthful woman, not at all sensationalist. She assures me that the young man is also genuine and truthful. If Richter QC brought out small inconsistencies in his story, do we expect a traumatised 13 year old to have perfect recall after 22 years?

Pell’s supporters claim that the crime could not have been committed in the cathedral sacristy after high Mass because there were too many people around. Many witnesses were called: the choir master, his assistant, the organist, sacristan and master of ceremonies. But they all had to speak in probabilities: ‘people were coming and going; there were people with work to do; the archbishop always followed this routine’. But they could not rule out exceptions. No one could swear to seeing the archbishop all the time. After every Mass, in the cathedral as in any church, people eventually drift away. There are moments of quiet. The sacristy is empty. No one noticed two choir boys missing from their places, but that doesn’t mean that they never went missing to trespass naughtily in the room where, it is claimed, Pell found them pinching the altar wine.

Please forgive me this distasteful detail; it is a necessary part of the argument of those who think Pell is innocent. I was astonished, in the trial, that Richter spent so much time trying to prove that a bishop dressed in a full length cassock with an alb over it could not possibly expose himself for the purpose of rape. It is a stupid argument. In my 53 years as a priest, if I wish to answer a call of nature when vested for Mass, it is a simple matter to lift the hem of the multiple garments or vestments I might be wearing. End of story. It is astonishing too that Fr Brennan is still spreading this foolish argument.

Then – the QC claimed – priests who abuse boys must first groom them over a time, winning their trust. Pell did not do this. But that is only one kind of abuser. There is another kind, like Jimmy Saville of the BBC, and Rolf Harris. They were powerful and wealthy men, who mixed with royalty and Prime Ministers. No one would dare challenge them. They would abuse suddenly and recklessly; hit and run, even when other people were present. Jimmy Saville would abuse children in their hospital bed. He abused an 11-y.o. girl in the sacristy during Mass. When such revered public figures were eventually accused, many could not believe they could be guilty.

Cardinal Pell is accused of a violent act of sheer power. He has at times admitted that he has a strong temper. The young boys were powerless. The actions might have been very risky, but he would have felt confident he could not be caught: even if his totally powerless accusers dared to accuse him, no one would believe them.

Pell’s defenders claim that the action was completely out of character. Was it? Sadly, the archbishop does not have a clean record. On at least three other occasions he has had to face accusations by individuals or groups. A judge once decided that his accuser was telling the truth, but that so many decades had passed, there was not sufficient evidence to bring the matter to court. The same happened recently with the men who said that as a young priest he had often abused them in the swimming pool at Ballarat. The case was about to go to trial, but last week was dropped because once again, after four decades, the evidence was legally inadequate.

And how has he treated those complaining of sexual abuse. Chrissy and Anthony Foster’s two daughters were raped when very young by their Oakleigh parish priest, Fr Kevin O’Donnell. If you read their very fine book you will be saddened to see that Archbishop Pell treated them abominably. So too was John Ellis, the Sydney survivor of abuse, whom Pell almost destroyed by legal trials.

I watched Cardinal Pell give evidence to the Royal Commission by video link from Rome. Like the Commissioners themselves, I could not believe him when he claimed not to know about several cases of abuse that he must have known about. Those who think Pell is innocent – and he himself – boast of his Melbourne Response to abuse. But that plan was in fact designed to limit compensation and tended to gag those who accepted its limited payouts. It was not a wonderful, original initiative, but was launched in haste before the other Australian bishops could finish their combined plan.

Bishops and cardinals can do wrong. Three eminent cardinals of Philadelphia, in succession, lied to grand juries about the huge amount of abuse in that diocese. Just last week Cardinal McCarrick of Washington was reduced to the lay state – stripped of his priesthood – for sexual abuse.

Cardinals are called ‘princes of the church’. One of the psalms that we use in the Prayer of the Church says: God pours contempt on princes… They diminish, are reduced to nothing… But God raises the needy – the suffering – from distress. Was it a bad mistake, way back in our history, ever to have allowed such rankings to be part of our church? Likewise with other fancy titles, bishops’ palaces and elaborate vestments? Jesus did not tell us to use titles and privileges: he positively forbade them. In today’s gospel he tells us: the disciple is not greater than the master…who died penniless, murdered for loving and defending others.

Our church as it is today is sick. Was it the structure of our church – the way power is not shared; the clericalism that puts the clergy before others – which let all this happen, or made it easier? Some of our church’s fruit is rotten. We need urgently to pray for its recovery, which will only come about by deep reform. Jesus has not left us; the risen Christ in our hearts, in our Eucharist. Many agree that it is the form, the shape of the church that went astray, centuries ago.

How to change it is a huge question, and possible solutions will be discussed at the coming Plenary Council. Our parish urges you to take part. There are forms at the back of the church for you to have your say. Many parish members have already put in their suggestions. We urgently need to hear your ideas for reform. Please do not miss your opportunity. 

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Good News for the Environment

The election of President Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s new leader was a great concern for those of us who are worried about the environment and the immanent threat of Climate change. He promised to exploit the Amazon, harvesting the rain forest’s riches, threatening both the destruction of what has been called the ‘lungs of the Earth’ and the indigenous communities that call it home. Loss of forest cover jumped almost 50% during the election campaign, in anticipation of looser environmental regulations.

But on the other side of the world there has come a good news story as a counter to this threat. NASA satellites have revealed that the world is actually a greener place than it was 20 years ago, and this has come from a counterintuitive source in China and India.

The two emerging countries with the world’s biggest populations are leading the improvement in greening the world. The effect stems mainly from ambitious tree planting programs in China and intensive agriculture in both countries. In 2017 alone, India broke its own world record for the most trees planted after volunteers gathered to plant 66 million saplings in just 12 hours.

This new insight was made possible by a nearly 20-year-long data record from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), a NASA instrument orbiting the Earth on 2 satellites.

Taken all together, the greening of the planet over the last two decades represents an increase in leaf area on plants and trees equivalent to the area covered by all the Amazon rainforests. There are now more than two million square miles of extra green leaf area per year, compared to early 2000s – which amounts to a 5% increase.

This does not erase the fact that Bolsonaro’s plans threaten to wipe out habitat for thousands of species of animals and plants unique to the Amazon, nor does it justify the displacement of indigenous peoples native to this part of the world. But it does take some pressure off the threat that deforestation adds to climate change in terms of the build up of Carbon Dioxide, a key greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere.

Given that China and India are generally considered to be places of high land degradation due to overpopulation, though, it is a surprising find to learn that they account for one-third of the greening of the planet in the last 20 years.

Rama Nemani, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Centre, said, “When the greening of the Earth was first observed, we thought it was die to a warmer, wetter climate and fertilization from the added carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to more leaf growth in northern forests, for instance. Now, with the MODIS data that lets us understand the phenomenon at really small scale, we see that humans are also contributing.”

China’s contribution to the global greening trend comes in large part from programs to conserve and expand forests. These were developed in an effort to reduce the effects of soil erosion, air pollution and climate change. The greening seen in India comes from intensive cultivation of food crops.

How the greening trend may change in the future depends on numerous factors, both on a global scale and the local human level. Fore example, increased food production in India is facilitated by groundwater irrigation. If the groundwater is depleted, this trend may change.

The hope this trend does present us with is that once people realize there is a problem, they tend to fix it. We human beings are incredibly resilient. We can make a difference.

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The Insect Apocalypse

Where have all the grasshoppers gone? Over that last 2 years I became aware that I hadn’t seen a grasshopper in years. I remember as a child that whenever I crossed a piece of lawn, be it our lawn at home, a park or the bush, that myriads of little grasshoppers would be jumping out of the way of my oncoming feet. I wondered, of course, if this was an effect of climate change and so I asked a friend of mine, who is a biology teacher, what he thought. He suggested that it could just be that the bird population has increased and they keep the insect numbers down. He also suggested that it could be the lack of rain, as insects need a certain amount of moisture to propagate. These suggestions calmed my fears until early this year when articles started to appear in the paper about a decline in the world wide insect population. Not just in the Bee population, which I was aware of, but in the rest of the insect world as well.

A damning scientific report, “Worldwide Decline of the Entomofauna,” that appeared in Biological Conservation, Volume 232, April 2019, pages 8-27, warns that an ecological disaster faces our world as insect populations are dying out at an alarming rate. Scientists predict that more than 40% of insect species will be wiped out within the next few decades as insect biomass declines in almost all regions of the world at a steady rate of about 2.5% per year. The rate of predicted extinction of namely bees, ants and beetles is said to be eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. On the other hand, houseflies and cockroaches are expected to thrive in the man-made environment, having evolved a resistance to pesticides and other pollutants.

The report blames a combination of pesticide use, intensive agriculture and climate change for this unprecedented die off. The biggest driver in the decline of insects is the loss of habitat and conversion of land to intensive farming, urban development, and deforestation. The root cause of the problem has been the intensification of agriculture over the last 6 years, and the relentless and widespread use of pesticides that coincide with that.

The bumblebee has been officially added to the ever-growing list of endangered species. Once abundant in the grasslands and prairies of the East and Midwestern USA, the bee has now been restricted to protections in the continental US as its population keeps declining at an alarming rate. The loss of bees will have a devastating effect on the human population, as they are key to the process of pollination. But it’s not just about bees, or even about pollination and feeding ourselves – the declines also include dung beetles that recycle waste and insects like dragonflies that start life in rivers and ponds.

So what can we do? Well, there are ways we can all, on an individual level, help to save the often-invisible creatures that support our entire civilisation. The first thing we need to do is stop using so many chemicals. Of course there are bugs we don’t want, but the problem is that other useful insects get caught in the sprays, pesticides and fertilizers we use. There are many tips out there about ecological gardening that is healthier for us and better for the environment.

The second thing we can do is to plant flowers. Even if you live in the middle of the city, having flowers in pots on the veranda is an easy and beautiful way to support both pollinators and insect predators such as wasps.

Thirdly, if you have a big garden, leaving a bit of mess around like leaves lying around or some bushy trees provides shelter for the insects. This also extends to having nature strips and allowing them to grow a little longer before mowing them and let the trees grow a little wilder before they’re trimmed.

Fourthly, don’t demonise insects. They may look like aliens and not as cute as koalas, but on their shoulders our world actually rests.

Fifthly, paying a little more for sustainably produced food and clothing will go a long way to helping minimise chemical overuse.

It is becoming increasingly obvious our planet’s ecology is breaking and there is a need for an intense and global effort to halt and reverse these dreadful trends. Allowing the slow eradication of insect life to continue is not a rational option.

 

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Patron of Victims of Modern Day Slavery

On the 8thof February we celebrate the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita. She is the patron saint of those trafficked into modern slavery, because she herself was a victim of slavery.

Bakhita was born in 1869 to a locally important family in Olgossa, a village in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. At the age of seven she was kidnapped by Arab slave traders. Over the course of the next eight hears she was sold and resold five times in the markets of El Obeid and Khartoum. The trauma of her abduction caused her to forget her own name. The name we know her by is a compound of the name given to her by the slavers.

Bakhita suffered much brutality during her captivity. On one occasion, one of her owner’s sons beat her so severely that she spent a month unable to move from a straw bed. Her fourth owner used a knife to scar patterns into her skin. She had more than 60 patterns on her breasts, belly and arms.

Her final owner was an Italian diplomat called Callisto Legnani. He and his friend, Augusto Michieli, brought her to Italy where she became nanny to the Michieli’s daughter, Mimmina.

In 1888 Bakhita and Mimmina were left in the custody of the Canossian Sisters in Venice, while the Michielis moved to the Red Sea on business. During this time she was influenced by what she saw of the life and spirituality of the Canossians and in 1890 she was baptised at her own instigation, and took the Christian name Giuseppina Margarita.

When the Michielis returned to collect her and their daughter, Bakhita did not want to leave. Signora Michieli tried to force the issue, but the Canossian superior of the school that Bakhita and Signorina Mimmina had attended in Venice complained to the authorities. An Italian court ruled that since Sudan had outlawed slavery before Bakhita’s birth, then Bakhita had never been a slave in the first place.

Bakhita now found herself in control of her own destiny for the first time in her life. She chose to remain with the Canossian nuns. In 1896 she joined the sisters permanently, and, in 1902, she was assigned to a house in Schio in the northern Italian province of Vicenza, where she spent the rest of her life.

During her 45 years in Schio, Bakhita was usually employed as portress (door keeper) of her house, and so was in frequent contact with the local community. Her gentleness, calming voice, and ever-present smile became well known and Vicenzans still refer to her as ‘la nostra madre moretta’ (“our little brown mother”).

Her special charisma and reputation for sanctity were noticed by her order, and she was instructed to publish her memoirs and to give talks about her experiences, and these made her famous throughout Italy.

She died on February 8, 1947. Her body was on display for 3 days and thousands came to pay their respects.

I personally find the life of Josephine Bakhita to be very moving and hope filled. No wonder she was chosen to be the patron of those trafficked into modern day slavery. It is incredible to consider that there are more people living in slavery today than when it was actually legal.

This 8thof February, I have organised a Mass at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Brisbane at 7:30 p.m. to celebrate and give thanks for the life of St. Josephine Bakhita. The Archbishop of Brisbane has agreed to be the main celebrant at that mass, and the Sudanese community choir will provide the music. It will be an opportunity to pray for those suffering slavery today, and to raise awareness of the scourge that is human trafficking and modern day slavery. It will also be an opportunity to show support for the Sudanese community who have suffered some bad press in recent times thanks to some gang activity in Melbourne. Bakhita also happens to be the patron saint of Sudan. Please join your prayers to ours on the 8thof February, on the occasion of her feast.

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Self-Interest Versus the Common Good

This year, a global survey across 28 countries called the Edelman Trust Barometer, showed that trust in each of Australia’s four key institutions – government, business in general, the media and not-for-profit organizations – has fallen. Since 2017, trust in government has fallen from 37% to 35%; business from 48% to 45%, media from 32% to 31% and NGOs from 52% to 48%. These were not great figures to begin with, but the slide, which is all in one direction, should give us cause for alarm.

The most recent causes for this include the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse; the Royal Commission into the Financial Services (that has brought to public attention examples of the unconscionable behaviour of Australia’s banking and financial service sector); and the outrageous behaviour of our political leaders securing their hold on power and position.

As our trust in institutions declines, so too does our commitment to them. Our relationship with the political system and its parties, our economic institutions and even our Churches has become detached. The salacious reporting of the countless examples of wrongdoing has, for many Australians, extinguished the fire of outrage that would demand change. Instead, these scandals of self-interest have increased antipathy towards the very institutions that we have created to support and be part of our society.

The excessive pursuit of self-interest, whether it be for the accumulation of wealth or preservation of power or reputation, can lead to actions that set aside our moral code of fairness and justice. The excessive pursuit of self-interest is in many ways key to the current state of affairs that dogs our political, economic, social and charitable institutions. It is a condition that goes beyond our institutions and has embedded itself in the community at large. In short, as a society, we are becoming more focused on self-interest over the common good.

Self-interest is, in reality, our instinct for self-preservation. The more fearful we become the more focused on self-interest we get. Gaudium et Spes, one of the key documents of the Second Vatican Council, expressed the common good as the sum of those conditions of social life that allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment.

So the common good holds in tension the fulfilment of an individual’s interest and the interest of the whole.

In 1992, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s document, “The Common Wealth for the Common Good,” said: “Commonly, the greedy grip of consumerism and what we see as our own needs blind us to a wider view of what it takes to make and equitable society where the needs of all are addressed.”

There is a tension within us as a human species – an evolutionary tension – between what is good for the individual and what is good for the group. Charles Darwin noticed this paradox in evolution – that if evolution is the struggle to survive, if life is a competition for scarce resources, if the strong win and the weak die, then everywhere ruthlessness should prevail. But it does not. All societies value altruism. People esteem those who make sacrifices for the sake of others. This, in Darwinian terms, does not seem to make sense at all, and Darwin was honest enough to admit it.

The bravest, most sacrificial people, he wrote, ‘would on average perish in larger number that other men.’ If evolution is driven by the selfish instinct of self preservation, a noble man ‘would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature.’ It seems scarcely possible, he wrote, that virtue ‘could be increased through natural selection, that is, by survival of the fittest.’

Even though it contradicted his general thesis, Darwin acknowledged that while natural selection operates at the level of the individual – it is individual men and women who pass on their genes to the next generation – civilizations work at the level of the group. As Darwin put it:

“A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.” (‘The Decent of Man,’ by Charles Darwin, p.166)

So yes, we have evolved a strong instinct for self-preservation. If it were not strong, we would have died out as a species a long time ago. But for our species to survive, evolution has found the need for an alternative tool, and that is an altruistic concern for the common good. This happens when our minds create an identification with the concerns for the group as a whole so strong that it defeats the constant temptation to be solely concerned about my own self-interest. Any group in which all the members can trust one another is at a massive advantage to others.

This, as evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has argued, is what religion does more powerfully than any other system. It is God who teaches us to love our neighbours as ourselves, to welcome the stranger, care for the poor, the widow and the orphan, heed the unheeded, feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, and temper justice with compassion.

This is the central drama of civilisation. Biological evolution favours individuals, but cultural evolution favours groups. There is a war within each of us as to which will prevail: self-interest or concern for others. Selfishness benefits individuals but is disastrous to groups, and it is only as members of a group that individuals can survive at all.

When the media constantly bombards us with the moral failure and betrayal of trust of our key institutes, we lose confidence that working for the good of the whole will in fact benefit us individually. When that happens individuals turn back to putting greater trust in self-interest. As a society we grow more selfish and as stated above, in the end this is disastrous to the group.

When, on the other hand we see an altruistic commitment to others with selfless sharing of love and good will, especially towards those hurt beyond anything we could imagine, like the national apology by the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, to the indigenous people for the stolen generation, or the recent apology by the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader to the thousands of survivors of institutional child sex abuse, the opposite takes place. Trust and concern for the good of the whole group increases and we let go of our focus on self-interest.

So there is hope. Clearly institutions and their leaders can be powerful forces for good. The common good is fundamental to the functioning of our society. Being attentive to the common good, we need to renew our commitment to sound institutions and to judgements based on more than individual self-interest.

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The Media Fuelling Racism

I did not believe, until recently, that there was significant racism in Australia. I am a migrant myself, born in the Philippines of Spanish blood, and immigrated with my family when I was 11 years old, in 1972. At that time, when I went to school, my classmates were predominantly white Anglo-Saxons or Anglo-Celts, with a handful of Italians who were labeled ‘wogs.’ They didn’t quite know what to do with me. The fact that I’m white skinned made them think I was an Australian. The moment I opened my mouth to speak and they heard my accent, however, the look of horror on their faces said it all. But I took this to be the typical bullying and banter that goes on in school. I didn’t really believe, in this day and age, that Australians were racist.

Even seeing Pauline Hanson appear on the news for the first time, with all her vitriol, it struck me as an aberration that would be laughed off by most Australians. It has been sobering to see the rise of the One Nation party and hear the rhetoric in politics and the media. I’m saddened to say that my eyes have been opened to the truth.

I would still hope that most Australians are not tainted with the brush of racism, but there is certainly a problem when we don’t see politicians or the media doing anything significant to address the deep undercurrent of racism which exists in this country — a country, incidentally, which was founded on the erasure of a people — and the role the media plays to fuel the racist status quo. What I believe we are seeing today is Australia unpacking its structural racism.

For those of you who didn’t catch it, earlier this year Sky News chose to conduct an interview with a noted fascist and vocal figure in the Far Right movement in Australia, Blair Cottrell. Not only has Cottrell described himself as a ‘fascist’ in a now infamous video of him and a few of his brethren abusing a street performer following their ill-fated ‘flag march’ back in June, but he’s also called for pictures of Hitler to be hung in classrooms across the country. He has been continually front and centre at Far Right rallies and has a noted criminal record including stalking and arson.

This was who Sky News felt would make a good interviewee on the Adam Giles Show. He was engaged by news director Greg Byrnes and then interviewed by Giles himself. The interview was a warm and collaborative one where Giles quizzed Cottrell on whether he felt he spoke for ‘ordinary Australians’ then engaged in a nice bout of race-baiting over the alleged ‘African gangs’ crisis in Melbourne.

The fact that Giles — both the former Chief Minister of the Northern Territory and an Aboriginal man — felt compelled to collaborate with a fascist figure on air raises serious questions about just how far right an Aboriginal person, looking to climb to the upper echelons of the Liberal Party, must aim to be.

When the controversy hit, former minister Craig Emerson had to tender his resignation and sponsorship dollars were lost before Sky News got the picture, but when they did, they did moved on it. Byrnes issued a statement of wrongdoing on behalf of the station, Giles’ show was suspended and Cottrell has been banned from appearing on Sky News again.

But Cottrell is just a figurehead, performing a role not unlike the one Pauline Hanson has played within the political field over two decades. People in this country can just point at them and say ‘they’re the real racists’, then when these figures are dealt repercussions for their views, many end up thinking that that’s the job done.

Yet over the years Pauline Hanson’s racism and xenophobia, not only got absorbed by the federal Liberal Party and turned into policy, but the media normalised all of it. Her original battle cry of ‘Swamped by Asians’ merely shifted to targeting Muslims then Africans. What’s worse is that the Labor Party then adopted similar ‘stop the boats’ election campaigns in a bid to win back the votes of the disaffected. They had an opportunity to educate and embrace and instead, they retreated into White Australia Policy security.

If this goes on, what guarantees have we got that the views of Cottrell also won’t be normalised by politics and the media? Sky News may sanction him now, but the ABC has previously welcomed him with open arms. This is after years of the media — including the conservative Sky News — painting the views of Cottrell and his brethren as somewhat neutral yet different – as the concerns of ‘ordinary mums and dads‘ – as just one side of the coin with anti-racist activists as being the other, therefore framing anti-racism as an extremist ideology and not what should be a given in a civilised society.

For far too long, the media has been complicit in maintaining the very conditions which allow the likes of Cottrell and Hanson to become ‘figures’. They will fuel history wars, demonise the migrant communities, target Aboriginal activists, objectify and ridicule women while ensuring at the end of the day, the Murdochs and Packers of the world still have hefty pay cheques.

What is required is a massive cultural shift within all of the mainstream media — from the demonisation of vulnerable groups of people, to education and proper news reporting. And right now, there is no evidence this shift is ever going to occur.

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