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WorkChoices: talk about separation of church and state!

By Rod Benson - posted Friday, 28 October 2005

What are Australian church leaders saying about WorkChoices, the draft federal workplace reforms? Three initial observations. First, church leaders across the theological spectrum are saying quite a lot, and the national media are reporting it - in some cases, I suspect, with glee.

Second, it is all negative: unless I’m reading all the wrong papers, not one church or parachurch agency spokesperson has spoken publicly in favour of the reforms. Talk about separation of church and state!

Third, the comments do not support the notion of a division of the church into “Christian Right” and “Christian Left” factions - a notion that journalists, politicians and academics love to advance. Conservative and liberal Christian leaders alike question the wisdom of the government’s reforms. The relations between faith and politics are complex and nuanced, as the key players are well aware.


Now to the specifics: as one might expect, the churches have raised concerns about justice for people who are vulnerable and erosion of leisure time under the new structures. Here are some examples.

Australian Catholic Commission for Employment Relations executive officer John Ryan said the proposed system did not appear to address fundamental concerns about “fairness and balance”, and claimed the system provided safeguards to workers only “after the fact”. Ryan expressed concern that “the changes appear to leave us without any future means of maintaining a fair safety net of award conditions for those who cannot bargain effectively”.

Frank Quinlan, director of Catholic Welfare Australia, suggested the basis of the government’s reforms was the notion that employment was merely a commercial contract - a view that would lead to a “sense of alienation between a worker and his or her labour”. Is that pontifical authority or political economy I hear?

Anglicare’s Victorian chief executive Ray Cleary argued that, in contrast to the present collective bargaining system, the new system of negotiating individual contracts for pay and conditions would severely disadvantage low-skilled workers, young people and workers of non-English speaking backgrounds.

Melbourne Anglican Archbishop Peter Watson weighed in, saying, “There are some issues which stir the soul … about which Christian leaders cannot remain silent”. Chief among these, for him, was the preservation of weekends and leisure time for the wellbeing of individuals, families, community and “ultimately, the health of the economy”. Hmmm.

Uniting Church President Dean Drayton criticised the government’s plans to replace the Australian Industrial Relations Commission with a new Fair Pay Commission, saying its mandate would be to keep wages low rather than assess what workers needed to live a decent life. He viewed this as “incompatible with Christianity”, since “Christians are called to challenge systems and structures that breed hate, greed, oppression, poverty, injustice and fear”. Indeed we are.


Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen observed that, under the new regime, families would spend less time together. He feared the reforms risked turning workers into robots, and voiced concern over the need for preserving shared time for children, families and relationships: “That’s what life is about, not merely the economy.” Jensen is right, but he could have mounted a more substantial biblical-economic critique.

Ironically, Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown - no friend of the churches - applauded Jensen for having “hit the nail on the head”. Australian Democrats leader Lyn Allison agreed with the stance taken by the churches. The Labor Party opposes anything the Howard Government proposes - except, of course, anti-terrorism legislation.

Then there’s Brian Houston, national president of the Assemblies of God and senior pastor of Sydney’s Hillsong church, officially opened by John Howard in 2002. Houston made no comment on economic or justice issues, but said he felt “relaxed” about the impact of WorkChoices on worship attendance, pointing out the need to make church services relevant enough for people to make them a priority. If I were unaware of Houston’s strong commitment to poor people, I’d say that sounded almost like tacit approval for WorkChoices.

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First published in Soundings on October 25, 2005

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About the Author

Rev Rod Benson serves as ethicist and public theologian with the Tinsley Institute, and Public Affairs Director for the NSW Council of Churches.

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