TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION
SHADOW MINISTER FOR WOMEN
MEMBER FOR SYDNEY
THE 38TH ARCHBISHOP DANIEL MANNIX LECTURE
WEDNESDAY, 23 MARCH 2022
*** ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS OMITTED ***
Thank you all for inviting me here tonight.
Archbishop Mannix was one of Australia’s greatest ever public speakers.
So this lecture is an honour. But it’s also a challenge.
I hope I can do him justice.
Like the Archbishop, I was raised firmly within the arms of the Catholic Church.
My parents were devout believers, who migrated to Australia from Slovenia after World War Two – in part because they worried they wouldn’t be able to practice their faith in Communist Yugoslavia.
Religious freedom was important to them; so important that they crossed the world to find it.
Like many of you, I’m sure, my youth was marked by the checkpoints and rituals of the church.
I did my first communion and my confirmation at St Joseph’s in Como.
We went to mass on Sundays.
And I went to confession every Saturday. Though I struggled to come up with any sins worse than “I was fighting with my brother” – the cost of which was usually a pretty mild three Hail Marys.
When you’re a kid, none of this feels very noteworthy. It just feels normal.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve reflected more on how these experiences have shaped me as a person.
On how the church’s teachings guided me.
On how they’ve coloured my basic sense of right and wrong.
There is no doubt in my mind that growing up Catholic has influenced my politics, as it has for so many in the Labor Party and the labour movement. And not just in the obvious ways that history has recorded.
I’m not going to talk about B.A. Santamaria tonight, or the Catholic Social Studies Movement he set up with Archbishop Mannix’s support.
But before that and since, the links between the Catholic Church and Labor have been enduring and unbreakable.
I’m talking about something harder to pin down, but no less important in shaping our direction as a nation.
I want to speak tonight about the essential role that values play in political leadership.
Good political leadership requires making your values clear, as much it requires laying out your plans for practical action.
It’s about answering the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’ of what you’re fighting for.
Too often progressive political parties jump straight to how we want to make the world better.
We assume that people understand our reasons for pursuing these changes, and sometimes we miss the opportunity to find common ground and persuade.
In the modern world, our values come from many different places.
There’s no longer a single pulpit or a universal source of truth.
Secular philosophy and religious faith live side by side, largely in peace.
But it’s clear to me that, even in our fractured world, the timeless lessons of Christ continue to inform progressive politics today.
Love thy neighbour.
Turn the other cheek.
The first will be last and the last will be first.
The meek shall inherit the earth.
These are simple statements.
But that shouldn’t hide just how radical they are.
If we take it seriously, Jesus’ message was incredibly demanding.
Have you ever tried to love your neighbours?
… All of your neighbours?
The call to universal love will always be profoundly difficult, whoever we are.
But it’s especially challenging in our polarised world.
A world where disinformation is weaponised; where culture wars are stoked; where cynical actors try to divide us for political gain.
Where empathy and love are equated, by some, with weakness.
It’s harder to love thy neighbour when the internet spreads lies about them – they’re out to take your job, crowd your cities, even threaten your safety.
Or when a talking head tells you that your political opponent is actually your personal enemy.
As politicians, too often we seek to be understood, rather than to understand.
To be seen, rather than to see.
There’s a reason why about a quarter of Australians voted for minor parties and independents at the last election.
In part, it’s because they don’t feel like major parties are listening to them. Or that we share their values. They feel we don’t understand or see them.
It’s hard to identify a single achievement from One Nation or Clive Palmer.
And beyond “Freedom, Freedom, Freedom”, it’s difficult to identify what Prime Minister Craig Kelly would do in office.
But people aren’t voting for him because of “detailed programmatic specificity”, as Kevin Rudd would call it. It’s more “the vibe” described by Dennis Denuto.
The so called “teal” independents are running on climate and integrity.
Until the Liberals and Nationals act on these issues, conservative voters will look to independents who will.
Leaders must address the underlying economic insecurity and other frustrations that drive people into the arms of minor parties and independents – and we need to offer them something more hopeful instead.
The role of leaders in Australia should be to strengthen what binds us together as a nation.
Not to ignore division and difference, but to remind us of the values we share – like our belief in democracy, our faith in the rule of law, and our commitment to essential rights and liberties.
And it’s the role of leaders to show that, where the differences do exist, they can be managed civilly.
This is only possible when we strive, in good faith, to empathise with each other; to see each other as the full, complex human beings we are.
And despite some who try to tell us all otherwise, empathy isn’t soft. It’s not weakness. It’s a superpower.
This is where the lessons of Christianity can teach us so much.
Because the call for universal love was a truly earth-shaking idea.
Think of the world that Jesus was born into.
With the Roman occupation of Jerusalem; the greatest Empire this planet had ever known.
It was a brutal, unforgiving world.
Where dominance was admired.
Where violence ruled. Where power and might governed all.
And into this world came a man from Nazareth, a humble village near the shores of Galilee, who turned this moral universe on its head.
A man who spoke to the common people, in the common tongue.
Who tended to lepers. Who defended prostitutes.
Who told the rich to share their possessions with the poor.
These words must have exploded like a bomb across ancient Judea.
Because in the classical world, the meek were not revered – they were despised.
The peacemakers were not blessed – they were conquered and enslaved.
If the word revolutionary has any meaning, the Sermon on the Mount was revolutionary.
We know it appealed to people on the margins; to the farmers and tradesmen pushed aside by Roman elites.
We know that it scared the powerful.
In fact, the message was so challenging; so feared by the Roman authorities; so threatening to the rulers of the Temple; that Jesus was crucified.
A slow, agonising, humiliating death.
For Romans, nothing was more shameful than the cross.
But like so much else, the early Christians flipped this idea as well.
For Jesus, it wasn’t humiliating to suffer and die like a criminal.
It wasn’t a disgrace to be brought down low.
In death, as in life, Jesus overturned the moral order; just as he overturned the money lending tables he found in the Temple.
Of course, for Christians, there’s more to Jesus’ life than moral teaching.
There’s what happened in the days after his death: the central mystery of the Christian religion.
The resurrection is not something we can prove or disprove.
It can only be arrived at by faith; or rejected by scepticism.
But what we do know is that, for countless people since, the life of Jesus has offered a beacon of practical inspiration.
To do good work. To help our fellow human.
To live out faith, to live our values, through action.
Of course, the Church hasn’t always lived up to these standards.
It hasn’t always embraced its message of universal love; or empathised with those on the margins.
Sometimes it’s betrayed them unforgivably.
But I still find inspiration in the ordinary people of faith, the nuns and brothers and lay people, who live out their love every day.
Who love fiercely, practically, and without judgement.
When my husband was struggling to get clean from his heroin addiction, it was the Salvation Army that took him in and gave him the support he needed.
When the NSW drug summit proposed a medically supervised injecting centre, so drug users could reduce their risk of overdose and access rehab services, it was the nuns at St Vincent’s Hospital in my electorate who were the first to volunteer to set it up.
People in aged care facilities, homelessness services and hospitals; advocates for refugees, prisoners, exploited workers and trafficked women.
These Australians are on the front line of justice: are taking in the sick and the hurt and the lonely.
And they are not just engaged in individual acts of charity, either. They are the advocates fighting for a fairer world.
Not all of them are driven by religious faith - but each of them, to a person, is driven by a powerful set of values.
And they’re living those values in the world.
Now, politics is not always a saintly profession.
But I’ve always been drawn to people who live their values openly; and I’ve tried to learn from them too.
Because it’s clear to me that belief and practical action are not in opposition; they are the why and the how of our lives and of leadership.
I think sometimes, in the Labor Party, we forget that good leadership includes explaining our values and using them to persuade.
We tend to rush towards the how, assuming people already understand our why.
We think they already know what we’re about, or why we’re proposing a set of detailed policies; that they’ll extrapolate our values from our actions.
But the truth is, people make sense of the world through values and through stories, before they ever get their heads around plans or policy detail.
Too often, including in the last federal election campaign, we go straight to the how: how will we fight climate change, how will we increase wages; how will we improve schools and hospitals.
Our instinct should be to always start with why.
Why does it matter to us; why it should matter to voters.
Sometimes those values, that motivation, is life experience.
Like Kevin Rudd sleeping in his car after his Dad’s death.
Or Julia Gillard seeing her clever, hardworking parents miss out on an education.
Or Anthony Albanese looking after his Mum on the disability pension.
But for others, including many in Labor, that motivation is faith – like the long line of social justice Catholics who’ve shaped our party over generations.
This lecture is in honour of Archbishop Daniel Mannix: one of the founders of Newman College – and perhaps Australia’s most significant churchman.
Daniel Mannix lived for 99 eventful years – 46 of them as the Archbishop of Melbourne.
And for most of that time, he was an active voice in public debate.
Active – and, if we’re being honest, controversial.
If anyone lived their faith, their values, in the world, the Archbishop did.
As one of his biographers put it: ‘His long life has no parallel in Australian history. No political leader, no matter how persistent, durable or charismatic, commanded the stage to the end as Mannix did’.
From all reports, he enjoyed the stage, and commanded it well.
Mannix’s Australian story began in 1912, at the age of 48, when he arrived on a boat from Ireland, and was sent on to St Mary’s in north Melbourne.
This was his first experience as a parish priest – and it radicalised him.
North Melbourne was a parish of the displaced: with Irish immigrants in the 19th century, and Italian immigrants in the 20th.
In this tight knit community, Mannix was confronted by poverty and despair.
He tended to families in slum housing; to parents without work; to kids without shoes.
And to his great credit, Daniel Mannix never accepted these injustices as natural.
They made him angry – and they made him act.
Mannix’s faith, his values, were bound up in his fight for a better world.
And it was a practical, everyday fight.
As the Archbishop of Melbourne, Mannix supported the seamen's strike of 1919.
He told the strikers, many of whom were his parishioners:
‘The sooner people realise that the worker must get, not merely a living wage, but a fair share of the wealth he produces the better. The sooner people realise that men and women and children count for more than property, the better it will be for the community’.
If Jesus spoke for the underdog, so did Archbishop Mannix.
He was generations ahead of his time on Indigenous justice, calling for reparations as early as 1938.
He was one of the world’s most prominent supporters of Irish independence.
At the peak of World War One, he campaigned against conscription.
None of this advocacy was easy. None of it was expected of him.
It put a target on his back.
He was considered so dangerous that David Lloyd George banned him from Ireland.
Billy Hughes openly called him a traitor: ‘a man to whom every German in the country looks … if you follow him, you range yourself under the banner of the deadly enemies of Australia’.
The blows never really stopped, from the right and from the left.
But he continued on.
Because, for Daniel Mannix, the spiritual and practical missions were connected.
The why, and the how: they informed each other; and they enriched each other.
Now, Daniel Mannix was one of a kind.
And during the Labor Split, I couldn’t say his role was a good one.
But there’s so much we can learn from his long life.
Because the lessons of religion can still help us solve the problems of today.
They can still be a powerful force for good.
Pope Francis is a testament to this truth.
His papacy has renewed focus on the challenges facing humanity.
The biggest challenges.
Like the future of our environment. Or the shape of our global economy.
Or the duties we owe each other as human beings.
In the fight against climate change, Pope Francis has been a genuine global leader.
In his gentle way, he’s been as clear and urgent as Greta Thunberg.
As he wrote in his second encyclical, On Care for Our Common Home: ‘climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, and political’.
‘It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day’.
And what’s more: the responsibility to fix it is a collective one.
Pope Francis grounds this advocacy in his Christian faith – his values.
For Francis, creation is God’s masterpiece.
It’s a ‘common good, belonging to all and meant for all’.
It’s a book ‘whose letters are the multitude of created things present in the universe’.
We should stand before it with awe – and we should protect it.
Because when environments collapse, it’s a disaster for humanity; but it’s a catastrophe for the poor and the vulnerable.
The Pope’s fight against climate change goes hand in hand with his fight against inequality – and with his fight for a fairer economy.
This is an old tradition in Catholic social teaching.
One that places social justice at the heart of economic decision making; that values the last as much as it values the first.
According to Catholic social teaching, human individuals are sacred, made in the image of God, so we owe them the freedom, the resources and the opportunities they need to be their true self.
Which means we can’t let economic life resemble anarchy; we need to do better than the survival of the fittest.
As the Pope argues in his most recent encyclical:
‘The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith’.
And he’s right: we need more than the market.
We need an active state, with an active civil society, just like we need an active private sector.
Our economies function better when they value productive labour over speculation; when they’re embedded in our communities and our social lives.
It’s about justice, not just charity.
As the blessed Frederic Ozanam put it:
‘Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveler who has been attacked. It is justice’s role to prevent the attack’.
That’s what an economy built on human dignity looks like.
And that’s Pope Francis’s message to the 21st century.
Just like it was Daniel Mannix’s message to the 20th.
Of course, these concepts aren’t unique to Christianity.
They’re a common feature across religions.
Most faiths have a form of the golden rule – to treat others as you would have them treat you.
The Quran calls on people to ‘be steadfast in prayer, to practice regular charity, and to bow down your heads with those who bow down’.
Buddhists and Hindus share the concept of Dāna: the need to cultivate generosity in spirit and practice.
Sikhs have Vand Chhako: the responsibility to share what you have with your community.
And if you’ve seen Australian Sikhs around the country, giving out food to those who need it during disasters, you’ll know how seriously they take this duty.
Faith is deeply personal.
But for most people, it’s about action in the world too.
It’s about living by a code of justice – and being prepared to fight against injustice whenever you find it.
It has to be about more than individual acts of charity, though.
Our values call us to be kind, to be gentle, to love our neighbour.
But they also demand of us that we fight for systemic change that benefits those most in need.
It’s about designing an economic system that has justice at its heart; with a legal system that protects the vulnerable.
As Dom Helder Camara, the Brazilian Archbishop, once observed:
‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist’.
Economic justice has always been Labor’s mission; and it’s no coincidence that Catholic social teaching played an outsized role in our Party’s history.
Economic justice is what we’ll be fighting for in the next eight weeks.
Those basic, essential material issues that underpin a decent life.
Like making sure pay rises with productivity, so inflation doesn’t eat away people’s ability to fill up their car; or to enrol their kids in their local soccer team; or to buy good nutritious food for their family; or to pay their mortgage without a constant hum of anxiety.
Like making sure Medicare or the NDIS are there for people when they need it.
Or like making sure people can live with respect in aged care.
All of these are necessary for human dignity and human flourishing.
That’s what Christ taught his disciples. It’s what Pope Francis teaches us today.
It’s what motivates me. And I know it’s what motivates our leader, Anthony Albanese.
The fight for economic and social justice is what motivates the next Labor government.
These are the values that have informed us over generations.
It’s the role of leaders to be fluent in our values; to translate them into the modern world.
If people know that their leaders understand what matters to them, they’re more likely to put their faith in them.
They’re more likely to trust them with their interests.
This is one of many lessons from the life of Daniel Mannix – a man who attracted fierce loyalty from his flock.
And it teaches us that when it comes to good political leadership, the why and the how are both critically important.
Good policy, and good politics, start with good values.
If we are clear about the why, then the how more naturally follows.
That’s how you build trust. That’s how you bring people with you.
And that’s how you can change the world for the better.