Churches & Public Policy Conference

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This is a summary of a fuller report by Bill Frilay. Please click HERE to read the full report.

Gavin Dufty
Gavin Dufty

More than 65 people attended the SPC conference on The Churches and Public Policy in Abbotsford on 19 July 2011 to hear Mr Robert Fitzgerald’s address on the role of the churches in public policy. Robert was speaking as a private citizen, and not as a member of the Productivity Commission.

Robert pointed to reasons for optimism. Firstly, faith-based organisations are by nature optimistic, drawing as they do from the gospel message. Secondly, Australia has achieved much in respect of social policy, and church organisations have been at the centre of this.  Thirdly, we have the wit and the wisdom to continue to strive for a better world.  How to do this is the challenge.

He outlined how central church networks had been to the development of social policy in Australia. He highlighted three common themes: poverty; injustice and inequality; and faith-based influence.

Robert identified six key domains of wellbeing.  The first domain is that of a sense of self, and a sense of confidence that the person is valued.  The second involves consumption, the ability to acquire food and sufficient material goods.  The third is engagement in meaningful activity. For the indigenous community this can mean engagement in cultural and sporting activities.  The fourth domain is connectedness to others.  The fifth is the ability to exert influence, e.g. in workplace arrangements and having a say in decisions.  Finally there is safety from personal harm.

Robert Fitzgerald’s optimism is based on what he sees as a new opportunity for faith-based organisations.  He sees the concept of wellbeing as a critical tool to influence public policy, because enhancing wellbeing is not contrary to economic development.  He noted that the notion of wellbeing can be found in many Productivity Commission reports.

Robert said that in public policy the role of the churches is critical.  Major reforms await us in human services, health and education. He concluded that the churches can lead in addressing challenges. He insisted that it was important to re-establish trust and reciprocity as a basis of policy, and much more of the caring roles will have to be provided by the community itself. We don’t have endless supplies of labour, and so we need neighbours to support each other.  We need to reassert the notion of Common Good, which is at the heart of the gospel message.

Denis Fitzgerald, Director of Catholic Social Services Victoria, responded to Robert that though faith-based groups had at times made mistakes, they also had great achievements in promoting services and human rights and rebutting atavistic capitalism. Today, he said, the central tenets to affirm are welcoming the stranger, comforting the afflicted.  The churches have the experience to engage in the dialogue of public policy, especially as today they work much more together. He urged church organisations to cooperate closely and make their voices heard.

Marilyn Webster from Good Shepherd chaired a panel consisting of Major Brad Halse (Salvation Army), Dr Mark Zirnsak (Uniting Church), Kasy Chambers (Executive Director Anglicare) and Tony Nicholson (Executive Director, Brotherhood of St Laurence) discussing key priorities in the next five years and what needed to be done to meet new challenges.

Afternoon workshops looked at

  • Human Trafficking, with Dr Mark Zirsak, Sr Carol Hogan SSS and Sr Carol McDonald;
  • Cost of Living Pressures, with Mr Gavin Dufty (left), General Manager, Social Policy & Research, St Vincent de Paul; &
  • Church Agencies and Public Policy Networking, with Mr Denis Fitzgerald.

Giving the closing summation, Dr John Falzon,CEO of St Vincent de Paul Society National Council, said that much public policy was being developed at some remove from the problems themselves. He argued that we need to listen attentively to people; and he opposed politicised moralising, such as: “What people are lacking is the aspiration to climb over the wall.”  The approach should be: “How do we tear down those walls to give people a real chance.”

Please click HERE to listen to our audio podcast of this event;Robert Fitzgerald’s address on the role of the churches in public policy.

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