Rerum Novarum 2017: Seeking a true new start for all job seekers and workers

Thursday 9 November 2017

Media and Communications Office
On Wednesday 8 November, Jesuit priest Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO gave a major speech (view the article here) on the 110 year anniversary of the Harvester decision, which was a landmark Australian labour law decision of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. He called on Australia’s political leaders to decide whether to continue down a path of growing inequality and exclusion or to ensure that a life of frugal dignity is within the grasp of all citizens. The respondent was Brigid Henley, the co-ordinator of Adult Justice Special Projects with Jesuit Social Services.
 Audience members socialising before the oration.
Fr Frank Brennan has been a long-time advocate for human rights and social justice in Australia. He currently holds the position of Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Social Services Australia and is an adjunct professor at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture. He constantly amplifies the voice of conscience, especially the voice of those who are marginalised.
Brigid Henley has over twenty years’ experience working in the areas of social and criminal justice. She has held a number of senior roles in both state and local government as well as the community sector. Brigid has worked extensively with communities and individuals experiencing disadvantage and is a strong social change advocate.
 Brigid Henley responding to Fr Frank Brennan's talk.
Early last century Justice Higgins referred to ‘the pole star of justice’ as his guide in establishing a just wage system (the Harvester decision). He held that employers should pay employees a ‘fair and reasonable wage’ that was sufficient for ‘a human being living in civilised society’, which included food, water, a certain level of comfort, and clothing.

Justice Higgins' decision propelled Australia into the arena as a world leader in labour law. Fr Brennan said that ‘much has changed since then; we need to develop a ‘bottom up’ approach to sharing our nation’s resources, first ensuring that we have an adequate safety net for those who cannot participate in the workforce.’ 
He went on to say that ‘continuing with the same economic and social policy settings will exacerbate the already growing divide between the rich and the poor and eventually damage the economy to such an extent that it has a detrimental effect on everyone.’ 

Brigid Henley emphasised in her response that we are becoming a ‘punitive society’, and that the ‘criminalisation of poverty’ has dire effects on communities.
She said that ‘six percent of postcodes in Victoria account for fifty percent of the prison population. After their prison sentence, over sixty percent will be unemployed one year after their release, and many more will struggle to find work.’
She reiterated Fr Frank Brennan’s point that Australia is struggling behind others in its labour laws, and social justice approach.

The audience was strongly engaged through the talks, and many stayed afterwards to continue the discussion.
 Adrian Agpasa, project officer at the Office for Justice and Peace, Mark Clarke, executive officer at the Office for Justice and Peace, Brigid Henley, Fr Joe Caddy, Episcopal Vicar for Social Services, and Fr Frank Brennan.
The annual event was organised jointly by the Office for Justice and Peace, Australian Catholic University, the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, and Australian Catholic Council of Employment Relations.
Last year’s orator was Fr Sean McDonagh, who spoke in his talk ‘A new day dawns’ about the importance of Laudato Si', a first of its kind, a document which, for the first time in papal history, quotes from Bishop's conferences as well as traditionally used sources. Read the article here.
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