CATHOLIC SOCIAL JUSTICE AND PARLIAMENTARY POLITICS.
I am experiencing something of a song cycle and circular journey myself here today.
My first full time job after I graduated with a BA from Sydney University 1963 was teaching here at St Patricks Girls School. The previously small Intermediate school had been reorganized to take girls from a wider region and prepare them for the Leaving Certificate. Mother Superior, from the Monte Mercies, desperately needed more teachers. I had been blocked from the opportunity to qualify for a Diploma of Education because I planned to marry and thus had lost my scholarship. The Professor of English at Sydney University would not accept me into the honours year for the same reason. Mother Christina, the Superior at St Pat's, had no such problems. She looked at my strong academic record, sensed my enthusiasm, and reminded me that she had earlier on employed a young BA called Germaine Greer with success. She hired me. it was another big success. It came to an end after my first year of teaching only because a few months after my marriage, despite practising the rhythm method, I found myself pregnant! This was not a problem for Mother Christina, only for me. But as soon as he heard I was no longer teaching, Father Roger Pryke, the Chaplain at Sydney University, persuaded me to take on a new role, distributor of the Living Parish hymn books, which I did from home, baby at my side. I sent packages of books to just about every Catholic school in Australia. The hymns in that bestseller were written by the renowned Richard Connolly, whose cousin Helen Connolly, aka Sister Cecily, had been my one outstanding teacher at Brigidine Maroubra. And so the cycles continue.
I suppose there never has been a time in Australian political history when politicians were regarded by the voting public and the media as universally worthy of respect and trust.
Yet the basic assumption of a representative democracy with free and fair elections is that those elected will act honestly and apply themselves with competence and dedication to their tasks as representatives.
I would suggest that in Australia, in most cases, this is what happens. In my experience and long observation most elected representatives are honest, dedicated, energetic and to the best of their ability carry out their duties. My view here however is not widely shared by the voting public.
"Lack of trust" seems to be the problem most frequently reported when pollsters survey electors about politicians.
Is this fair? Do these derogatory perceptions reflect the reality?
Just recently we have been deluged with media accounts of several episodes of MPs apparently behaving badly, misusing publicly provided funds and resources and otherwise destroying the community's trust in them. To mention just a few:
Former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce appears to have done all of those things, that is, to have betrayed the trust of his voters and colleagues, to have misused his own parliamentary resources and those of his colleagues, and to have conducted himself over a long period without dignity or integrity. Those perceptions are of his responsibilities to the electorate, and do not even start to go to his treatment of his family. He has by way of penalty suffered a demotion to the backbench but now enjoys enhanced access to all media through the commercial publication of a memoir where he reportedly describes his actions in a way that might justify the allegations against him.
And, apparently he has decided to add even more colourful detail. A different case: Senator David Leyonhjelm has verbally abused a female senator in the senate chamber, implying unacceptable sexual behaviour on her part. He has energetically repeated that abuse on commercial and public media. To date, he has been subjected to no penalty.
A third current case: the MP for Lindsay, Emma Husar has been subjected to the publication in all national and local media, including social media, of detailed allegations against her, going to misuse of parliamentary resources, mistreatment of staff, and sexual misbehaviour.
Although the last of these appears to have been rejected by an internal inquiry, the other matters appear to stand. This MP has announced that she will not run for her seat again. She has paid a very high penalty.
These three cases, and I will not add to them though you will be aware that there are many others, do not create a picture of our parliament that could attract widespread support and trust from the community.
I cannot ignore these events. I find them all deeply disturbing. But I do believe as I have already asserted that most members of parliament act in a way that should attract respect.
I have been asked today to speak from my personal experiences.
I entered parliament, like many others do, with very little relevant experience, but I hope, a strong sense of responsibility.
In fact, as I recall, that sense of responsibility was almost overwhelming.
There was no doubt in my mind when I became one of the first two senators for the ACT in December 1975, joining the newly defeated Labor opposition led by Gough Whitlam, that I was there to serve the electors of the ACT and the people of Australia, that I was to do what I could to uphold and advance the platform of the Australian Labor Party under which I had campaigned for election, and that I should deal with everyone I came across, staff, colleagues, constituents and other members of the public in good faith and respectfully.
Although I had a huge amount to learn about all aspects of my new role, and often felt that I had been thrown in the deep end of a very deep and murky pool indeed, I think I did have a strong ethical basis from which to work out how to exercise my new responsibilities.
Like everyone else, I had formed my own ethical foundation during my early years. In my case, that moral core was developed during my school education by Catholic nuns, the Brigidine Sisters at Maroubra, where prescriptions to provide social justice wherever we could were administered to us daily. In fact, several times a day.
A few examples will be familiar to most of you. Despite our students coming from poor or lower income families, we had to donate to the starving children in Africa. Ed Campion was reminded by this observation of the collection for '"Black Babies" at his primary school. It was a fond memory for Ed. Such enforced charity didn't do Ed any harm either.
"Black babies" is not a description we would use these days, but the fact that our obligations, as children in Maroubra in the 1940s and 50s, extended to Africa, and to children from another race, members of which race I doubt had ever been seen in Maroubra at that time, made a point. That point was part of my moral formation.
Those of us who were quick at our lessons, rather than being praised were immediately tasked to assist children who were slower or had a disability. Yes children, some with severe disabilities found a place in our schools, without fuss. We were also required to assist the sisters with unpleasant tasks, like cleaning up the playground and stashing the rubbish in the Incinerator. So, no airs and graces were tolerated, and no girl should consider herself any better than any others. This culture turned out to be good training for the Australian Labor Party, and for parliament.
This experience, of continual instruction of the need to look after those who had less than us, to offer kindness to those who were suffering, to put our own wishes last and responsibility to others first, comprised the essential fodder of catholic schools in the 1950s and 60s.
Most of that education, which covered about one fifth of Australian school students at that time, was delivered by the Irish teaching orders. They have had a bad time recently, and deservedly, with the shocking exposures from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to child sex abuse.
Heinous crimes against children, and the additional crimes of covering up that abuse are now being addressed. Some punishment is being implemented and some justice for victims has arrived. But, as I had occasion to discuss recently with members of Sydney's Aisling society, that wickedness was not all there was.
From this perspective in my own long life, I look back at the moral formation in those catholic schools and experience some gratitude that I left that chapter of my life with an understanding of social justice and the responsibility of all of us to advance it.
I am grateful that I never experienced what many in our society seem to have acquired, the aspiration of pursuing individual advancement at the expense of all else, or of judging others, and ourselves by the material wealth we had achieved.
The sense of social responsibility, of our duty as members of a society to our whole society meant that when I started to become politically active and I joined the Australian Labor Party, (1970) I found a synchronicity between my Irish Catholic moral formation and the social democratic philosophy of Labor. I do recognise that other political philosophies also contain some commitment to the disadvantaged but from my perspective not to anything like to the same extent that I believe is basic to Labor philosophy.
If I can give a current example: school education funding. When I was the Commonwealth minister for education I understood absolutely that our government's role was to build on what the Whitlam government had so heroically put in place. Public funding of non-government schools was justified, but funds must be allocated according to need. The policy purpose was to ensure that all children, whatever schools they attended, should have enough resources to provide them with real opportunity. This needs-based approach stood for many years, contentious years, in marked contrast to the approach of Coalition administrations which asserted individual choice, parental choice, as the basis for allocation of funds. I still believe that the needs basis is the only socially responsible one. I note that the current Coalition commonwealth minister Senator Birmingham has signalled a move toward a more needs-based policy but is experiencing stormy weather as he tries to secure his version of needs funding in legislation.
Similarly, I was at one with the Whitlam policy of no tuition fees for students able to qualify for a university place.
My ultimate failure here did not come from our political opponents, but internally. The Labor Cabinet collectively decided that requiring a student contribution for fees did not undermine the Labor principle of fairness. I had a different view, but I ultimately lost that battle. I note however that the impact of ever growing student fees is now undermining the ability of students from poorer backgrounds to benefit from tertiary education
The Hawke-Keating era, in which I was lucky enough to play a part, is most known, and these days admired, for its reforms to the national economy, to the management of wages and the workplace and to the regulation of banking and finance.
Some of our actions in pursuit of these reform objectives were highly controversial, perhaps especially among Labor's own supporters.
By removing tariffs, Labor policy undoubtedly set the scene for the loss of most of our traditional manufacturing businesses, and with them, many blue-collar jobs for men and women disappeared. This approach raised big issues of social responsibility for us. I can assure you that at the time we all agonised over the negative effects of the changes. How did my own values assist me in these considerations? How was I able to come to the view that long term, the benefits to the Australian workforce as a whole were great enough to justify the immediate dislocation? I was able to reconcile such dilemmas by our actions as a government to support those displaced from traditional jobs by a raft of publicly funded retraining programs.
To compensate for the lack of the wage growth traditionally expected of Labor governments, we started the compulsory superannuation scheme, so that all workers would have savings to support their retirement.
Again, to balance the loss of wages growth we set up the Accord with the union movement. This ground-breaking agreement provided me and other social policy ministers with the ability to increase education funding, welfare payments, child care, and of course to put in place the universal health insurance system, Medicare. There were trade-offs. In such negotiations however it would be easy to lose your way, morally as well as personally. Your own constituents don't all like the longer-term view. You need a strong moral basis to sustain you through periods of great community hostility and media misrepresentation.
Did this restructuring of the economy and the workforce for longer term benefit to the whole of society despite short-term costs to many, sit well with my commitment to social justice? Would it stand the test of the social justice prescriptions of my Catholic schooling? I believe it would. As the years have rolled on since that great restructuring, the societal and national economic benefits have emerged more clearly, and these days are rarely disputed.
But I return to how individual MPs deal with such periods of policy turbulence and conflict.
The responsibility I felt, and I believe all my colleagues felt was to work even harder to inform the electorate about the big changes. We travelled the length and breadth of the country to meet with those negatively affected, and with those who feared the changes. We had to make ourselves available for discussion, criticism, and a fair amount of hostility. Personal abuse often accompanied policy criticism and sometimes a bit of antisocial behaviour, if not violence. This was not an easy row to hoe. It is not these days either, for current members and senators, from both sides.
For example, I totally disagree with the propositions put by the Minister for Finance Senator Cormann that tax cuts to big business would ultimately strengthen the economy and improve wages. Even so, I have to respect his diligence and consistency in advocating what is clearly an unpopular and vote losing policy.
I hope you will observe, that Senator Cormann and others on the Coalition side, and most of the members on Labor's side, do this work of informing, explaining, supporting, and do it with honest use of the staff and allowances provided to assist them. The highlighting in the media of one minister's apparent indulgent use of travel allowances to attend a glittering social occasion should not wipe out the seven day a week trudging around our continent, tired, overburdened with diverse tasks, away from home, but committed to duty, that is the real experience of most of our elected members.
I am sure most members struggle from time to time with their responsibilities to the staff who work for them. I know I did. It is difficult to ensure all staff at all times staff have a deep understanding of what is happening, of how parliament operates, what the constituents expect, and the capacity to deliver what is required under extremely high stress conditions. Members make mistakes. I certainly did. Staff members make mistakes and sometimes pay a high price for them.
We have the inestimable advantage in Australia of living in a democracy and with the rule of law. We do experience disappointment, disillusion, and even anger when our system is abused. But if all members can bring to their work and sting moral compass, those disappointments should occur less. I believe I was able to survive the many shoals and storms of parliamentary life, more or less intact, because I had a strong moral compass, and was part of a team who in general shared those values.
I wouldn't like to conclude these remarks however by leaving you with the impression that everything in parliamentary life is OK. It is not.
The matter of our government's policy on off shore detention of refugees is in my own view indefensible. It does not meet any social justice test you might like to apply. I recognise that both major parties have their justifications for discouraging dangerous and undocumented sea journeys by desperate refugees. This is an important and humane objective, but the methods now in place for years to achieve it are not. The effects of the current off shore policies cannot be tolerated in a democracy committed to fairness.
I know there are currently individuals in the parliament, including in the Labor caucus who share this judgment. I hope that they will find a way to change policy so that justice is delivered.
Susan Ryan (*)
(*) Susan Ryan AO was a minister in the Hawke Government and is now Age Discrimination Commissioner. This is the text of a talk delivered to the Australian Catholic Historical Society on 19 Aug 2018.
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|Title Annotation:||Susan Ryan|
|Publication:||Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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