This year’s convention explored the theme ‘What kind of Australia do we want to be?’
The convention opened with an acknowledgement of country by Rev Ken Sumner, Victorian state director for the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.
This was followed by a panel discussion exploring different visions for Australia. The panel consisted of Uniting Church in Australia President Mr Stuart McMillan, Lentara UnitingCare CEO Ann-Maree Colborne and Mr Andrew Leigh MP, federal member for Fraser (via video link).
Mr McMillan said his vision for Australia is one based around relationship and generosity.
“Scarcity can become abundance through a spirit of generosity,” he said.
Mr McMillan spoke of his close affinity with the First Peoples in north eastern Arnhem Land, having spent more than 30 years living in the Northern Territory. He believes there needs to be a shift from doing things for First Peoples to doing things in partnership with First Peoples.
“It is vitally important that I don’t speak on behalf of others,” Mr McMillan said.
“We are First and Second Peoples with a destiny that we share together and we need to discover that vision together.
“It needs to be normal for the life of the Uniting Church to involve First Peoples in all those things that we do.”
Last week, Mr McMillan joined other faith and community leaders in a meeting with then Prime Minister Tony Abbott to discuss the government’s offer to resettle 12,000 refugees. Prior to the meeting, Mr McMillan consulted with Rev Dennis Corowa, national chairperson of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, to hear about Congress’ perspective on the issue.
“First People in the life of the Church hold both a biblical view and a traditional cultural perspective, which is one of welcoming the stranger, as long as the stranger comes in peace and as friends,” Mr McMillan said.
Participants took part in a series of elective workshops throughout the day.
Mr McMillan and Mr Sumner hosted a workshop on forming partnerships with First Peoples; Godfrey Moase from the National Union of Workers spoke about how Australia can respond to big polluters; Denisse Sandoval led a discussion on global citizenship and Dr Mark Zirnsak talked about caring for vulnerable communities.
David Manne, renowned human rights lawyer and executive director of Melbourne’s Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, hosted a workshop on Australia’s response to asylum seekers. He discussed Australia’s policy of deterrence and how the asylum seeker debate should not stop at ‘stopping drownings at sea’.
“The real question is: how do we improve protection and minimise harm for millions of people in our region?” Mr Manne said.
“Harming an innocent person without regard to their wellbeing is morally wrong.”
In addition to the 1,579 asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru detention centre, an estimated 31,000 asylum seekers live in the community waiting for their claims to be processed. Many of these asylum seekers face an uncertain future.
“Due to the policies and actions of successive governments, these people have been left in legal limbo,” Mr Manne said.
“We have interminable political jousting over who can be harsher over asylum seekers and refugees.
“Something we really need in this country is real dialogue.”