Frontier War and asylum seekers. John Menadue

Sep 19, 2013

Launch of the 2013-14 Catholic Social Justice Statement by John Menadue 11 September 2013

This statement follows the proud tradition of the Catholic Church in Australia since 1940 of calling Catholics and all Australians to act for social justice. The 65  statements  issued over the years cover a great range of social justice issues – poverty, violence, peace, environment, indigenous people, ageing and inequality. Many years ago GK Chesterton referred with admiration to the practice of Australian Catholics in their Justice Sundays and annual statements.

This year is no exception with the call to fight global poverty. The famous parable of Lazarus and the rich man calls all Christians to a commitment to work for the poor and the marginalised. As the statement says, whilst progress against world poverty has been made, major problems still remain.

  • By 2015 almost a billion people will be living on an income of less than $1.25 per day.
  • Over a quarter of a million women in our time die in child birth.
  • Eight million children die every year from malnutrition and preventable disease.

As the statement so eloquently puts it, with 20% of the world’s poor living in our region ‘Australia is the rich man and Lazarus is at our gate”. Unfortunately our politicians keep slashing our ODA budget.

It is an honour for me to launch this statement. Let me congratulate the authors and designers who have drafted this excellent and timely statement. We are in your debt.

The Catholic Church remains for me the greatest influence for good in the world.

That influence is part of what Cardinal John Henry Newman described as the great beauty of the Catholic Church and not just in the lives of its saints or in its art.

No single institution in the world is doing more than the Catholic Church about poverty, social and economic self-enhancement of deprived people, especially through education and particularly for women, in societies where they have little place. It is also shown in the care of refugees, people with AIDS, lepers and outcasts of many kinds, and carrying out what is a fully developed understanding of total human development.

But unfortunately that wonderful story is often  lost and as we are ashamed of the revelations out of the Melbourne parliamentary enquiry and the Newcastle royal commission about grievously failed leadership of our church on sexual abuse. The way the Church sees itself is not the same as that perceived by many in the public square.

But despite that, I think we are getting a spring back in our steps and the reason is Pope Francis as he speaks of the poor, refugees, prisoners, the oppression of women, the marginalised and people of different faiths.

There is a lot we can do to build on the church’s remarkable record in works of justice, mercy and charity. I suggest that we can do two things now – clear up our amnesia about our past treatment of indigenous people and lead the way on refugees.

The Frontier War

We have still not properly acknowledged the great damage we have done to our indigenous people. Along with the Australian War Memorial, we still blot out the Frontier War that settlers and the settler parliaments conducted right across our country from 1790 to early last century to dispossess indigenous people. There are no monuments to this long war but even the AWM concedes that 2500 settlers and police died in the war alongside 20,000 aborigines who were “believed to have been killed chiefly by mounted police.”  Informed and engaged scholars like Henry Reynolds in The Forgotten War now believe that the number of indigenous men, women and children killed was probably over 30,000. This was an epic war. Its purpose was the occupation and sovereignty over one of the great land masses of the world. It was to wrest control from a people who had lived here for 40,000 years. This was a war which was much more central to our future than any other war in which we fought. In proportion to our population in the 19th Century which was about 2 to 2.5 million people, this Frontier War was the most destructive of human life in our history. The A W M applauds indigenous people when they fought for the empire, but refuses to suitably acknowledge the 30,000 indigenous people that were killed resisting the empire that was taking their land. The AWM remembers the Sudan War of 1885 in which no Australians were killed in combat but ignores the Frontier War. We easily call to mind “Lest we forget” but it is really “best we forget” the 30,000 Australians who were killed in our Frontier War.

The “whispering in our hearts” will continue until we are honest about our history, both its glory and its shame. Political slogans about a “black armband view of our history” are designed to avoid the truth and encourage us to forget.


A major world problem we all face is what Pope Francis called the ‘globalisation of indifference’ to refugees. There are 45 million refugees and displaced people in the world. And the number is increasing daily. Just think of Syria. So often refugees and boat people are seen as an Australian problem when it is a major global problem.

The Torah which is a key part of our Jewish/Christian tradition, places great store on welcoming the stranger. The Torah repeats its exhortation more than 36 times ‘remember the stranger for you were strangers in Egypt’. This caring for the stranger is repeated more than any of the other biblical laws, including observance of the Sabbath and dietary requirements. As Leviticus 19 puts it ‘When an alien resides with you in your land, do not molest him. You should treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the native-born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself, for you too were aliens in the land of Egypt.’ The gospel of Luke asks ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and tells us the story of the Good Samaritan. Matthew’s Gospel tells us what may be an apocryphal story about the holy family’s flight from the ‘slaughter of the innocents’ to safety in Egypt. Perhaps flight by donkey is OK but not by boat!

Australia has a proud record of accepting 750,000 refugees since WWII. They have been marvellous settlers. But today in our political debate we have plumbed to a depth most of us would have thought impossible. This poisoning of our generous and humanitarian instincts has not happened overnight. It started with Tampa in 2001 and “children overboard”. We have been on a slippery slide ever since. There has been a failure of moral leadership, and not just by politicians.

We must change the present conversation. We cannot indulge our parochial stupor when we face a world where people are being killed and persecuted.  This critical issue of how public opinion can become more generous and thoughtful will take time and a lot of effort. But it must be done. The Catholic Church and others must play a vital role. Our political leaders keep appealing to our darker angels. But we all have better angels that Abraham Lincoln referred to which will respond to strong and generous leadership.

Pablo Casals puts that appeal in different words.

‘Each person has inside a basic decency and goodness.

If he listens to it and acts on it, he is giving a great deal of what it is the world needs most.

It is not complicated, but it takes courage.

It takes courage for a person to listen to his own goodness and act on it.

In the present toxic environment, governments are determined to curb boat arrivals. But I suggest there are still many things that we could do with strong leadership, courage and with good management.

  • Negotiate orderly departure arrangements with refugee source countries like Sri Lanka, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to provide alternate pathways.
  • Negotiate upstream processing in cooperation with UNHCR with Malaysia and Indonesia.
  • Increase our refugee intake to over 30,000 p.a. which would still be short of the Indochina intake of the early 1980s when adjusted for our population increase.
  • Abolish mandatory detention which is cruel, expensive and does not deter.
  • Permit asylum seekers on bridging visas to work in the community.

Our supposed land of the fair go and the second chance is punishing some of the most vulnerable people on this earth. With good leadership across the community, including the churches, we must change the conversation. Pope Francis is showing us that leadership.

Lebanon with a population of just over 4 million people is providing protection for one million Syrians. Pakistan, one of the poorest countries in the world has 2 million refugees within its borders. Their generosity shames us.

Importantly we need to do and show that the Church is not preoccupied with sex and gender and concerned to protect its own name at the expense of those that we have harmed.

Also we need to remind ourselves that despite our concern about current social and political trends, we do have a record of improvement in many areas. In my youth sectarianism and racism was rife. We have broken the back of those two vices although not completely free of them.

This social justice statement can be part of a process to change the narrative and our own behaviour, and highlight again what John Henry Newman called the beauty of the Catholic Church in the fields as justice, mercy and charity.

The Catholic Church, although wounded, remains for me the greatest influence for good in the world. I see and learn of it every day.  We must never take that record for granted. It is always work in progress.

It is my honour to launch this statement




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