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Downer: Reflections On The Church, World Affairs & Human Dignity

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has reflected on the role of churches in foreign relations.

Alexander DownerHis remarks came in a speech to the Tabor Adelaide Alumni Association Annual Dinner in Adelaide.

Downer pondered the connection between the Foreign Policy White Paper and “national values”.

He considers the role of Christian missions and the part they play in development programs “on the ground”. Downer said: “The Government recognises that religious organisations are not only an integral part of a healthy civil society, but can also assist in the practical delivery of programs, including at the international level. The Government’s lead agency in development cooperation – AusAID – which is part of my portfolio, has supported the relief and development work of religious organisations since its inception.”

“You Are All One”: Some Reflections on the Church, World Affairs and Upholding Human Dignity.


I’m delighted to be here and to have this opportunity to speak to you.

Tabor College is a fine educational institution. Since its inception in 1979, it has established itself as a multi-denominational centre for Christian education, grounded in a charismatic perspective. Its government-accredited courses are well regarded, and offered to members of all Christian churches and any nationality.

As you know, the College has expanded its operations from its original campus here in Adelaide to include new campuses in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. Of course, South Australia was known to writers of our religious history, like Douglas Pike, as the “Paradise of Dissent” (indeed, this was the title of a book Professor Pike wrote). With such a tradition of religious activism and diversity, it is no surprise to find a creative Christian initiative like Tabor College developing within our State!

I admire the commitments to Christian principles, academic excellence and sound scholarship that the College represents, and also its preparedness to reach out to embrace the broad fellowship of Church traditions and Christian people, and its sensitivity to the wider world. These factors give a strong foundation to the College’s efforts in developing and teaching courses on Intercultural Studies that reflect the complex challenges of cross-cultural work and recognise the spiritual and ethical challenges that this presents to Christians.

There is, of course, no surer sign of a healthy educational institution than an active and committed alumni association. Your Association is to be congratulated for the support it gives to the College.

I have been asked to speak to this gathering from my personal perspective as Australia’s Foreign Minister and a Liberal Party politician on the general theme of the Christian Church and its place in world affairs. Now I can’t really claim the kind of theological expertise, nor do I have the time available on this occasion, that would enable me to do justice to such a grand theme in any comprehensive way. So, I thought that I might focus on the idea of upholding human dignity in world affairs and how the Church has influenced our national values in ways that have shaped, and continue to shape, Australia’s foreign policy.

I propose to consider this idea in four main ways: firstly, by examining how the question of national values was approached in the Government’s White Paper on Australia’s Foreign and Trade Policy; secondly, by looking at how the history of Christian missionary activity out of Australia has left a legacy of people-to-people links with many nations; thirdly, by considering how Christian organisations are involved in the delivery of Australia’s aid program; and fourthly, by reflecting on the growth of the international human rights movement. I will take a somewhat historical and philosophical approach with some practical examples thrown in for good measure.

The White Paper and National Values

When we came to power in 1996, one of the first things our Government did in my portfolio was to produce the first ever White Paper on Australia’s Foreign and Trade Policy, entitled “In the National Interest”.

In the White Paper, we noted that a government’s first duty is “to provide for the security and well-being of its citizens”. But we also recognised that, in a democracy, governments must “act to give expression to the aspirations and values of their national communities in foreign policy as much as in other areas of government”. We acknowledged that the values that Australia brings to its foreign policy are those of liberal democracy, and that these have been “shaped by national experience, given vigour through cultural diversity, but reflect a predominantly European intellectual and cultural heritage”. And we observed that central to the values to which the Government gives expression is “an unqualified commitment to racial equality and to eliminating racial discrimination”.

A key element of our intellectual and cultural heritage, of course, is the Christian religion, which has the adherence, in its various denominational forms, of millions of Australians. And it comes as no surprise that some of the most eloquent testimony heard in this country in favour of racial equality and the elimination of racial discrimination has emanated from the various Christian denominations.

I’m certainly not suggesting that Christians are the only people who have witnessed in this way. Other religious traditions also powerfully affirm the equality of all the races, as do people looking at the world in ethical terms from a more secular perspective. But my point is that the Christian churches have been one of the important factors in establishing this key value in Australia, and also in the wider world. It is no coincidence, for example, that a number of the most important leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle inside South Africa were people of various races in the Christian churches of that country.

It is interesting that what is morally right so often makes practical good sense. And this is true of Australia’s rejection of racial discrimination, because, as we stated in the White Paper, it is “fundamental to our acceptance by, and our engagement with, the region where our vital security and economic interests lie” – that is, the Asia Pacific. The Government expressed its view firmly: “Racial discrimination is not only morally repugnant, it repudiates Australia’s best interests”.

I should say at this point that, along with our commitment to racial equality, goes a commitment to religious tolerance. Australia is not only a country of considerable racial and cultural diversity, but of many religious faiths as well. We have citizens who are atheists and agnostics. In this centenary year of Federation, it is noteworthy that Section 116 of the Constitution was created to forbid the Commonwealth from making “any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion”. And it follows that no religious test is required “as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth”.

In short, a tolerant and diverse Australia provides a strong foundation for the future of our nation in the world at large.

The influence of Christian missions

I want to provide some historical background relating to the influence of Christian missions at this point.

After the First Fleet arrived at Sydney Cove in 1788, there was, in effect, for some years, an Anglican establishment in the infant colony. This, of course, could not be maintained for very long, as even the settlers on the First Fleet were a diverse group, and other denominations and faiths were gradually established. One particularly interesting aspect of this process is the role that Christian missionaries of various denominations have had in establishing important contact between Australia and many countries in its immediate region.

A group of Evangelical missionaries from the London Missionary Society fledto New South Wales from conflict in Tahiti as early as 1798. From that time on, Sydney became a centre for the Christian evangelisation of the South Pacific. And many of the most enduring personal links between Australia and the island nations of the South Pacific can now be traced back to the Christian missions, both Protestant and Catholic, which were initially established, administered or recruited missionaries out of Australia. The South Seas Evangelical Mission, beginning as a mission to Pacific Island labourers in Queensland during the nineteenth century, and then moving out to the Solomon Islands later, is an example that comes to mind.

Of course, over time, missionaries from Australia have worked in a much wider field. It is interesting to note that Sir Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister and the chief founder of my own political party, had an aunt who was a Presbyterian missionary in Korea for many years.

People-to-people links, of the kind established through Christian missionary activity, continue to give real substance to our bilateral relationships with a number of countries, throughout our region and also as far afield as Africa and Latin America. The importance of these links in Australia’s engagement with the world should not be underestimated. I need only refer to the inspiring work of the Anglican order of Melanesian Brothers in the local peace monitoring structure operating in the Solomon Islands to prove my point.

Development cooperation

One significant legacy of past Christian missionary activity is that Churches are often well placed as organisations “on the ground”. This has been of some significance for Australia in the delivery of our aid program.

The Government recognises that religious organisations are not only an integral part of a healthy civil society, but can also assist in the practical delivery of programs, including at the international level. The Government’s lead agency in development cooperation – AusAID – which is part of my portfolio, has supported the relief and development work of religious organisations since its inception.

Many different Christian traditions are represented amongst the organisations that are on AusAID’s list of accredited NGOs. Accredited NGOs and AusAID agree, of course, that AusAID funds are not to be used for programs that are designed to convert people from one religious faith or denomination to another, or from one political party to another. Similarly, AusAID funds should not be used to build up church, ecclesiastical or political structures, except in circumstances where those structures are specifically designed to provide relief or development assistance.

A couple of recent examples which AusAID has helped to fund (on the basis of a 1:1 matching grant) will give you some idea of the contribution that Christian organisations have made in this area.

The Anglican Board of Mission (ABM) is involved in a Water Supply Development Project in Central Luzon in the Philippines, with the aim of creating systems that will provide drinking water, cut down the burden of carrying water and improve community waste disposal. Implementation is the hands of the local Episcopal Church of the Philippines, but the ABM is involved in identification, design, evaluation and monitoring of the project.

Every Home for Christ is involved in a Community Development Project for rickshaw and van pullers in Bangladesh. It is, essentially, a scheme enabling rickshaw and van pullers to buy their vans or rickshaws on hire purchase. It is hoped that, in the long term, this scheme will lead to debt eradication, increased income for this vulnerable sector, and the development of small businesses.

These are both good examples where Christian organisations, with assistance from the Australian Government, are able to make a real difference at the grassroots level to the quality of life of fellow human beings. I don’t need to tell you that this is important work in terms of upholding human dignity.
Human dignity, human equality and human rights

One of the great historical milestones in upholding human dignity was the movement for the abolition, first of the slave trade, and then of slavery itself. This effectively secured the practical application of the principle of human equality in world affairs. Evangelical Christians, like William Wilberforce and other members of the so-called Clapham Sect in Britain, took leading roles in the anti-slavery movement in the early nineteenth century. It is noteworthy that their efforts coincided with a great upsurge in Evangelical missionary activity – I have already referred to its Australian dimension.

The work of the anti-slavery movement, culminating in the 1926 Slavery Convention, can be seen as one of the seminal influences in the creation of the modern human rights movement that established human rights as an important feature of the international order.

This movement developed during and after the Second World War, largely in response to horrors like the Holocaust that occurred during this time and which can be said to have challenged the collective conscience of the world. One of its great achievements was the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948. Work to eliminate racial discrimination and religious intolerance has, of course, been among the great aims of this movement.

I’d like to use this opportunity to mention that, later this year, the World Conference Against Racism will be held in Durban (from 31 August to 7 September). The Government sees this United Nations initiative as an important international meeting and an opportunity for the international community to discuss practical, forward looking measures to combat racism. We intend to play a positive and constructive role in the preparatory processes and the Conference itself.

We intend for the delegation to Durban to be a broad and inclusive one, and, as part of this, we are looking at ways of including NGO representatives. Consultations with NGOs, including the representatives of Christian organisations from a number of denominations, are underway, and there will be a number of consultative opportunities in the next few months, which will be valuable as the Government prepares for the Conference. This is a good, practical example of how Christian organisations, along with other NGOs, can quite legitimately have an influence on the conduct of Australia’s international relations.

And that is probably a good point at which to conclude.

What I have sought to do in my address is to offer you some illustrations of how the Church has influenced Australian foreign policy, and world affairs in general, in ways that help to uphold human dignity.

There is much more I might have talked about in the field of Australian foreign policy that is relevant to the theme of upholding human dignity. Last financial year, for example, our Government spent more than $72 million on civil society and human rights activities in our overseas aid budget, and there is plenty to talk about in terms of upholding human dignity there. I might also have spoken of the representations we have made to foreign Governments in cases where issues of possible racial or religious intolerance are of concern. That is important work too.

I must not close without acknowledging the crucially important role of the various Christian churches in the education system of our nation. The Government recognises this, as it does more generally the role of the Christian churches of Australia. There is no doubt that their work – your work – in education, in mission to the sick and suffering in our community, in witnessing to their message of hope and reconciliation, and in deepening spirituality in our nation, adds a great deal to the quality of life in Australia.

In his letter to the Galatians (at Verse 28 of Chapter 3), Paul wrote: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. As you know, this text has provided a strong Biblical underpinning to the Christian commitment to the equality of all human beings in the sight of God. This inclusive stance has enabled Christians to project a powerful commitment to human equality, which an important reason why they have a very meaningful role in world affairs, including in the ways I’ve outlined. Ultimately, in terms of the Christian perspective, I would suggest to you that this can be seen as upholding the dignity of human beings made in “the image of God”.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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