June 2022

Independents change the game through listening, dialogue and consultation

Following last month’s Federal election, are there lessons for the “official Church” in the rise of the independents who listened to the concerns of their communities, asks Patty Fawkner SGS.

If you persist in your efforts to influence the official church, to become part of its decision making, you will only break your heart and lose hope. What you must do is go around to the back and create a garden. Some day they will look out and see its beauty and marvel at its life.

What happens in one institution often mirrors what is happening in others – in Church and State, for example. The above words from Irish lay theologian, Anne Thurston came to mind in the wake of last month’s Federal election with the rise of the independents.

The independents, mainly female, said that they felt that the Federal Government just wasn’t listening to the country’s concerns about issues such as climate, integrity and women. The independents decided to “go around the back” and do something different.

Some of the teal independents received a significant financial boost from Simon Holmes à Court, convenor of Climate 200, but it was the way the independents ‘did’ politics which set them apart from the two major parties. They may well have done their own polling, but their focus was on community consultation, listening to the voices of their constituents, listening to what mattered to them, and reflecting their constituents’ concerns in their policies. No parachuting in, no bulldozing, no dog whistling and no ‘captain’s picks’. 

Suddenly, the traditional way of doing politics felt somewhat anachronistic.

The independents said that they wished to be part of the decision-making process in a way that promoted discussion rather than division. Their goal was to model more respect and honesty in public discourse rather than the obfuscation, ‘spin’ and a brutal adversarial approach which has characterised Australian politics for too long. 

All independents were able to mobilise their local communities, including young adults, and give them agency. The numbers of volunteers who wished to be engaged was impressive, on the night of the election one journalist commented on the power of democracy when the status quo is challenged.

The rise of the female independents is truly instructive. Talent is already on display by warm, competent women who are keen to contribute their gifts for the good of their communities; women who will enrich the parliamentary process. They put their hands up because they knew how necessary it was for more women to be seen, to represent and be represented, for more women to have a seat at the table. 

Time will tell whether this is a watershed moment in Australian politics or a one-off wonder. Either way, it does feel as though there is a “beautiful garden” of freshness, inclusion and diversity growing.

The Labor Party in government is also doing its own bit of new plantings. The first signs are encouraging, suggesting that it may not necessarily be business as usual. The sky has not fallen in now that the Nadesalingam family has returned ‘home’ to Biloela. Border security is significantly important for any nation, but surely it can co-exist with compassion and humanity rather than intransigence and the dehumunising action of objectifying people as political weapons.

The existential threat of climate change for our Pacific neighbours has been acknowledged and the inclusion of 10 women in Cabinet will certainly encourage other women to engage in the political process.

The Coalition has 10 women in its shadow cabinet and two of its four senior leadership positions are held by women.

It occurs to me that there are lessons here for the “official church”.

We are often reminded that the Church is not a democracy; but neither should it be an oligarchy, a power structure in which power and influence rests with a small number of people, particularly if they are all male. 

The role of women in the Church, or rather the limited role of women, is the Church’s most archaic feature. On her recent speaking tour in Australia, Benedictine nun Joan Chittister, always good for an insightful turn of phrase, spoke of the “debilitating sexism” of a Church which won’t even “allow women in the pronouns”.

The Catholic Church has an estimated workforce of 220,000 people, the greater majority of whom are women. In the main, they are in lower paid roles in education, health and social welfare. It is pleasing to see that more Catholic women are being appointed to senior executive roles. 

But seats at various tables remain out of bounds for women and lay people in general.

One of the reasons, as identified by Pope Francis, is “because in their particular Churches room has not been made for them to speak and to act, due to an excessive clericalism which keeps them away from decision-making.” (Evangelii Gaudium #102)

Many Catholic women I know ardently desire to preside at the table of the Eucharist. Others do not because they want no part of a male clerical system which Pope Francis has called out as marked by a spirit of superiority and dominance. However, they do support a movement for greater female Catholic liturgical leadership, particularly by being able to preach at the table of the Word.

Pope Francis is sowing seeds of synodality, dialogue and inclusion as a new organisational model for the Catholic Church, the embryo of which lies in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. One trusts that this will lead to a significant restructuring of Catholic governance and give all members of the Church an agency which currently lies beyond them.

The Australian Catholic Plenary Council process is in harmony with Francis’ synodal agenda. A staggering 222,000 people engaged in the first dialogue and listening phase and contributed more than 17,400 submissions. Catholics want to have a say and wish to continue to do so.

More needs to be done. As we approach the second assembly of the Plenary Council, which will take place in Sydney next month, I live in hope that synodality will take hold and bring about an enlarged role for the laity, particularly women in every aspect of ecclesial life, particularly in decision-making.

Pope John XXIII, the visionary and architect of the Second Vatican Council, is in harmony with Anne Thurston when he declared that the role of the Church was not “to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.”

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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