Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Rudd to churches on schools, chaplains, homelessness, health and more

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd addressed thousands of Christians around Australia through the Make it Count webcast on Monday, night. In his 23 minute speech, he covered school funding, economic stimulus, homelessness and welfare strategies, employment, climate change and Millenium Goals. Read the full text of his speech:
Make it Count Monday, June 21, 2010 about 7.20pm EST.

Jim Wallace: We are very privileged to have both the Prime Minister and Opposition leader willing to speak to us tonight about those issues that we hold as Christians to be dear. The ones that we believe go to the very heart of the character of the nation and therefore will go to its heart after the election. We have been very humbled by the response of the church both by those present with us here in Old Parliament House tonight and also those viewing our webcast tonight in place right around the country. (Mr Wallace welcomes a broad range of clergy and explains the evening.)

Prime Minister, we are very honoured to have you address us tonight… Ladies and Gentleman, without further ado, can I ask you to welcome to the podium, the Prime Minister of Australia, the right honourable, sorry the honourable, Mr Kevin Rudd (applause).

Mr Rudd: Thank your very much Jim. I gather that means I’m honourable but not right (laughter). Cardinal, archbishops, bishops, ministers, pastors, elders, and any other particular… metropolitans, field marshals of the Salvation Army, others whose particular theological designation I may have omitted, but members, let us call it, of the broad Christian church, thank you for this invitation to be with you this evening. Also, to my parliamentary colleagues who are here this evening - Shane Newman, Brett Raguse, David Bradbury Senator Ursula Stevens and others. And all Australians who I understand, who happen to be, as I understand, watching this broadcast in various churches across Australia; some 400 or 500 churches so I’m told. Those who are watching in my home town Nambour, hi. I’m told, from my notes here, that it is the Anglican Church in Nambour, the Churches of Christ in Nambour and the Baptist Church in Nambour. Makes me wonder why you just didn’t all get together and save on the fee (laughter).

I notice however my own home parish in Brisbane, St John the Baptist Anglican Church in Brisbane is not on this feed. I put that down to a problem with broadband (laughter). But we intend to fix that as well.

But seriously to all members of the Australian Christian family from wherever you are watching this broadcast this evening, I’m grateful for the opportunity to be able to talk to you direct.

Let me just say a few things and then I understand we are going to have an open set of questions about things near and dear to your heart. Firstly about the role of the churches in Australia in shaping the country we have become. I have said throughout my public life that I am proud of the role played by the Christian churches in shaping this country, Australia. Right back to its earlier days and the arrival of the first Christian chaplain, in the colony and the first fleet, Richard Johnson, through to the arrival of the first Catholic priest not long after. And to the arrival of various other Christian traditions in this country, the way in which so many of the social institutions in this country have been shaped by the Christian church. The earliest efforts in bringing about universal education rested on the back of the efforts of the Christian churches. The beginnings of our public hospitals began, on the back of the efforts of the Christian churches. The beginnings of basic public institutions such as orphanages, and such as care for the poor began off the back of the Christian churches. And the deep values which underpin the Judeo-Christian ethic which has been alive in this country for the last two centuries has been shaped so much by the traditions which you represent in this room. It is often only in the absence of those traditions that you begin to feel what it would have been like if Australia had been shaped differently. That is not to say that those from the Christian tradition have always got it right – you and we haven’t. Mistakes have been made by each of the traditions represented in this room. But that should not cause us to conclude that the glass has been, ah, overwhelmingly, ah full [did he mean empty?] rather than empty [full?]. So many people in this country have benefitted from the great tradition of Christian charity and church intervention in society and in people’s lives when they have been so singularly distressed. This would be quite a different, and indeed, poorer country, if it not were for that contribution. So that is me.

It does not mean therefore in Australia that we are hostile to other religious traditions. We are not. We have a country that resolved in the 1890s that we would not have an established religion. And that reflected the great wisdom of our founding fathers that there should be none. And that in fact we should be open to all. I read some years ago the great debates in the United States at the time following the revolutionary war as to whether they should have an established religion there. And as soon as the Episcopalians worked out that the Presbyterians were trying to beat them to the punch, they decided they wouldn’t have an established religion either. I think there was great wisdom in those deliberations of the 1890s. And as a consequence of the absence of an established religion, we therefore do welcome, with open arms, people of other religious traditions, be they Muslims, people of the Jewish religion, or people of Buddhist faith or other faiths and that is the right and proper thing in a country that respects freedom of religious expression.

And of course in our great Australian family there are those of no faith. It does not mean therefore that people of no faith have nothing to contribute to debates about morals, to debates about ethics, to debates about values – they do. The great thing about our country Australia is that it tolerates people of faith, of many faiths and those of no faith. And that is the proper workings of countries such as ours, rooted in the principles of democracy and respect for the law.

In terms of our engagement with matters, I think, of real relevance to the churches represented here and those listening to and watching the broadcast, I think one of our first priorities, I think, has been to engage with the churches in what you are doing in the schools, in the education system of Australia. We’ve been out there investing in probably the biggest school modernisation program this country has ever seen, in fact it is. And we have been completely blind to the question of whether a school is a state school or a non-state school, a government school or a non-government school, a Catholic school or a Christian school, an independent Christian school, an Anglican school, a whatever school.

Key thing is as I travel around the country, I’ve found so many schools that are run by churches that have frankly been struggling to make sure they have the most up to date facilities. Basic things like libraries, basic things like learning centres, basic things like science centres, state of the art language centres, and I would like to simply emphasis one core point - that as we have done this as part of national economic stimulus strategy, we’ve done so to make sure that all Australians, wherever they go to school, wherever they choose to send their children to school, have been benefitted from this program.

I was in Melbourne not long ago, opening in a Catholic parish school called St Luke the Evangelist - hi to anyone who happens to be watching from St Luke the Evangelist this evening. But what gave me particular delight in opening their new learning centre, as the parish priest, a delightful Irish Australian said, ‘We’ve been a little down of heel of late, we haven’t had a new building for 40 years.’ And that gives my heart genuine joy… when I see those changes occurring on the ground.

Also in the state school system of Australia you know the government has supported the continuation of the school chaplaincy program. It has been a matter of some controversy in various parts of the country. The reason we’ve decided to support its continuation is because we actually think it’s the right thing to do. In my experience of chaplaincies on the ground, they perform a very, very good role. Some schools may choose, and through their parent communities, not to have one. That’s their choice – if they choose to use that funding to support a school counselor of no particular religious tradition, that’s their choice. But I’m pretty pleased by the extent to which this has been taken up right across the country. We’ll go through our own evaluation to see whether it has worked every where well. I’m told by every school community that I go to that it is working fantastically well. But we need to measure that because it involves the expenditure of government funds. But I’m pretty confident this program is going to continue. Because I see, from so many of our school principals, and some of our most hardened and difficult high schools in our country, and some of the primary schools that are dealing with real challenges, in various parts of Australia, how much they value the role of a school chaplain who has formed something of the social glue, the spiritual glue, of a school community. So I hope through those specific actions – what we’ve done on chaplains, what we’ve done more broadly on school building programs, and our broader continued investment in the non-government education system - that you be clear that our bonafides are real.

Another great contribution of the churches has been of course what you do in the area of health, hospitals and broader support for those with disabilities. We’ve taken this challenge to heart as a government. I said prior to the last election that I feared that our health and hospital system may not survive unless we fundamentally reformed it. I know some will see this as a political debate. For me it’s a debate about human decency. That anyone who is sick, irrespective of where they come from, should be able to have access to first class health care. So our reforms to bring a new national health and hospitals network, is part and parcel of that. For the first time the Australian government will be the dominant funder of the hospital system of Australia. First time. In the past, state governments have provided one third of the running costs. We now will be the 60 per cent funder of the capital costs, the running costs, the teaching costs, the research costs, the training costs, of hospitals. We are also going to become the exclusive funder of the primary health care system. That is the health system outside of hospitals. And for the first time the exclusive funder of the aged care network of Australia. These are big reforms, and I’m concerned that in the absence of having done these reforms, that the system simply would have reached tipping point, as state governments are increasingly incapable, frankly, of funding the future needs of the public hospital system.

Which brings me to another challenge which I believe we share in common. That is, how do we deal with the problem of homelessness and affordable housing? For us as a government this is pretty basic. We’ve set ourselves a target of halving homelessness. The census statistics says that as of a couple of years ago, that we had some 100,000 Australians out there, homeless. Some 10,000 Australians each night sleeping rough. That strikes me as off. It shouldn’t be the case, we’re a wealthy country, we should be able to do better than that. You know as representatives of the Christian churches that there are some folk who sometimes are very hard to help. I understand that too. But you know when I go round to the homeless centres of Australia, and I’ve been to a lot in the last two and half years I’ve been in this position, and I ask them if they have enough room in the inn, they usually don’t. They are turning people away. Often for one person accepted, nine are turned away. That should not be the case, we need to change that. One thing we are changing is that we are now investing in 20,000 new units of social housing right across Australia as part of the government’s economic stimulus strategy. We are also fixing up tens of thousands of others that have fallen into disrepair and are no longer properly habitable. We are also working with the non-government sector on projects like Common Ground. Common Ground in our large cities is now in the process of building a number of free-standing, hotel-like accommodations, at the lowest level, for people who literally need somewhere to stay the night. It’s modeled on what’s happened in New York and other cities in the United States. My wife, Therese, who is heavily involved in this, will be opening the first of those facilities, I think, in the next month or two, in Melbourne, I think. And that is happening around the rest of the country as well. Also investing in homelessness programs because as you know, homelessness itself is usually the final manifestation of a whole bunch of other problems, whether it’s mental illness, whether it’s family breakdown, or whether it’s problems of criminality, and all of these things tend to be connected. And so there is also a great investment of government through the outreach of church and charitable and community organisations to do something about the causes of homelessness. How do you actually prevent people from falling into homelessness? Through better debt management literally before the house is returned to the bank. How do you actually help people to train, and be trained to enter the workforce in order to become more resilient and self-reliant? This is a very big investment by the Australian government and something about which I feel passionately. Because no Australian should have to sleep rough at night. We shouldn’t be a country like that, we should be able to do better. And so partnering with you in the church and charitable sector is pretty important to us on that front as well.

We are also, shall I say, hard-line on the question of welfare as well. We don’t believe that simply extending a welfare cheque is the end of the government’s responsibility. The welfare reforms that we are about to introduce into the Northern Territory are profound. These impose a whole new series of conditionalities, not just for indigenous Australians, but now for non-indigenous Australians as well. On a non-discrimatory basis in the northern territory, and prospectively, depending on how that goes, for the country at large. That people who are on welfare long term, actually have to meet a whole series of new conditions, with the objective of bringing them off welfare. This welfare reform is tough, it’s hard, it’s also compassionate, it’s trying to get the balance right. But we believe that inter-generational welfare dependency is just wrong. It’s actually bad for people, and therefore, I would draw your attention to carefully what we have just outlined in the parliament in the last week or so, about our program for welfare reform starting with the entire community in the territory, but moving progressively to the rest of the country, depending on the success of those particular reforms.

In the work place, you probably know which tradition we come from on that score. We actually believe fairness, and the great Australian fair go, is based on and anchored in, a fair go for all in the workplace. That you should have the opportunity to bargain for the conditions that you’ve got at work.

We had real concerns with the previous set of laws called Work Choices. We didn’t think that was right and fair. We became very concerned when people’s rights at work were being traded away down to nothing. And that the most defenseless people, those in the lowest paid occupations, were not getting a fair go – losing their penalty rates, losing their shift allowances, losing their overtime. So for us that is pretty basic as well. That’s why we said prior to last election we would get rid of Work Choices and that’s why we have done that. And it’s a pretty basic difference between us.

And speaking of work, the availability of job themselves is for us a pretty fundamental belief. People think that this global financial crisis that the world has gone through the last eighteen months or so, has somehow passed Australia by almost by accident or by miracle. It didn’t, we actually chose to step into the economy and make a difference. I’ve already spoken about this school building program. That’s $15billion worth of investment. Partly to provide jobs for tradies, small businesses, right across the country when the building sector was actually collapsing. Partly also that your schools would have a lasting and positive legacy from this investment. But our fundamental driving factor was not to see mass unemployment. Right round the world today – if you are a pastor somewhere in the American midwest or to the south, you’d be staring at double digit unemployment and above. Right across Europe and the UK you are seeing manifestations of unemployment between eight and eighteen or nineteen percent. Here we chose to make a difference and through the measures that we took to stimulate the economy, amidst huge controversy, we actually kept the economy out of recession, but most importantly, we kept hundreds and thousands of Australians in work. The thought of creating a generation of people thrown out of work, with a decade to come back and to recover, and perhaps never recover, was something we didn’t want to see. The dignity of having a job is for us a fundamental human dignity. And that is why we acted in the way that we did. And the result is pretty plain. Australia has 5.25 per cent unemployment; it’s the second lowest unemployment rate of all the major advanced economies. If we had generated in Australia the unemployment rate we have now seen in the United States, which is just under 10, half a million more Australians would be out of work. Our total workforce is about 10 or 11 million, that’s a lot of people. Imagine what would be happening in each of your parishes and each of your church communities, if such a large slice of people, frankly, weren’t able to work and properly cater for their families and their basic needs. So, protecting jobs, particularly through these extraordinary, abnormal global economic events, has been a fundamental value of this government at work.

Also our action on climate change. There has been much debate about this. Our view is very simple. Climate change is real, it’s happening, and we cannot simply put our heads into the sand and pretend that it’s not. In terms of action on climate change, we’ve put forward three or four concrete measures. One, an emissions trading scheme, as a good way of bringing down, as the cheapest, most effective way of bringing down, green house gas emissions. We put our proposed legislation to the parliament three times, and three times it was voted down by our political opponents. And of course it therefore requires a new parliament to deal with this. The other way you act on climate change is to actively invest in renewable energy – solar, wind, geothermal, and we’re doing that. The biggest renewable energy investment program the country’s ever seen. And thirdly, energy efficiency, so we actually consume less. And we are proper custodians of a sustainable planet. And beyond that to work globally, because what we do here nationally represents 1.5% of global emissions, so with the Chinese, the Indians, the Americans and others, to make sure that the planet is pulling together. Copenhagen was a hard conference, but it was a necessary conference. Because if we take, I believe, carefully, the requirement of this generation to be proper stewards of God’s creation, it means we should act responsibly, in the care of this planet and this creation as well. So, we’ll continue to work on those agendas as well.

As I know I’ve been given the bell, and I’m thinking it is about time to wind up, I’ll just finish on one point. These are some of the actions we’ve taken at home, in this wider community called Australia. Wesley, the father of Methodism, said when asked where his parish was, and what was his parish, said quite correctly that the world was his parish. And so too it is in terms of our wider responsibilities. We are proudly, in this country and under this government, increasing our level of overseas development cooperation to 0.5% of gross national income. What’s that mean in practical terms? We’ve increased what we give to the rest of the world from $3.2billion when the government was elected to now about $4.4-4.5 billion dollars. This has been a big change. We are now engaged in aid programs in Africa, and in the past there were very few. We’ve now used the Millennium Development Goals, and through the Micah Challenge and others supporting that to make a difference to extreme poverty around the world and in our own region. In partnership with the rest of the world I think we can make a difference. Therefore what we do at home should also be reflected in what we seek to do abroad. There are many other things that I’m sure you wish to ask about, whether it’s about asylum seekers or whether it’s about questions of broader morality, or other concerns which you as churches would have. And I’m pleased to seek to answer each of those questions. I thank you very much. (Applause.)

Speech length 22min.47sec

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