Hon Secretary Marion Harper in the Melbourne Unitarian church in East Melbourne. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Australia’s next best hope may just be sitting in a simple church in the leafy streets of East Melbourne.
They are the 110 women and men of Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church and there is a very good chance they are on your side. I certainly feel like they are on my side.
In the next few days, they will be bringing you the Report on the People’s Commission of Audit. It’s a way of fending off the appalling neoliberalism which appears to slither its way into nearly every single decision or policy-unravel this Federal Government is making. And that, of course, can be traced back to the appointment of a bloke from the Business Council of Australia to be head of the Federal Government’s Commission of Audit.
Here’s how the Unitarians did it.
A few months ago, the honorary secretary of the church, Marion Harper, now 80, was lying in bed, tossing and turning. Like many of us, she was fretting about the state of the nation and particularly concerned about the Federal Government’s decision to have its Commission of Audit.
“The starting point for the terms of reference of the Audit were all wrong – they were inviting us to treat the public sector as if it is illegitimate and unnecessary,” said Mrs Harper.
“They should have been more neutral about the role of government instead of taking the ‘private is good’ and ‘public is bad’ approach,” she said.
Instead of that more impartial approach, Harper and others in her church felt that the government’s Audit grew from the wish list for Australia published by the right wing pressure group the Institute of Public Affairs, which appeared last year in the run-up to the Federal election.
It’s a long list – means test Medicare, axe the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, get rid of family benefits, repeal plain packaging, repeal the Fair Work Act, privatise Medibank, privatise Australia Post, privatise CSIRO, Repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act
There is a long list of other horrors the IPAers want to visit on the Australian community – but let’s start with those
Now, unitarians are humanists. They believe God exists but they also recognise that we all have to seek our own paths.
The congregation thought the best possible response to the Federal Government’s Commission of Audit would be to conduct one on its own, one which they considered would put people before profit.
The church would commission its own Audit on behalf of the people of Australia: the People’s Commission of Audit. They would fund it. They would pay for it.
And, perhaps, eventually even ask the Federal Government to respond.
But the congregation recognised that for it to be taken seriously, any such undertaking would need to be well-researched by an organisation with the appropriate skills. A member of their congregation, Rob Watts, a professor of social policy at RMIT, suggested an independent public policy research organisation The Australia Institute.
He took this as a chance to widen public debate.
“We need this opportunity to think about the role of government and involve greater numbers of ordinary people in the discussion.”
TAI was not entirely enthusiastic.
“We are not guns for hire,” said deputy director, Serena Rogers.
But it soon became clear that the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church and the influential researchers had a goal in common – a civil, inclusive Australia.
The only hurdle they could see?
Finding the $15000 required to fund the report. Mrs Harper said that as soon as the decision was taken by the church and a call to donate issued in the church publication, the Beacon, the money just started pouring in, from $20 to thousands of dollars, from all over Australia.
The report will be released this month and I can imagine that most Australians will welcome their own report.
And that will happen just before the Federal Government releases its own audit, slashing, burning, filled with user-pays-if-the-user-can-afford-to-pay.
Bugger the rest of us.