Fighting the good fight – Mark Zirnsak Q&A


What’s your title?

I am the Senior Social Justice Advocate for the Justice and International Mission (JIM) cluster of the Victoria/Tasmania Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia.

That’s quite a mouthful, you’d need a big business card just to squeeze it all in. What does it mean?

(laughs) It means I deal with social justice issues.

What is the JIM cluster?

It follows through on the Mission Principles that the Church has assigned, the key one being “live justly and seek justice for all”. To that end we do the social justice work to make a real difference to people’s lives consistent with the Gospel. However, our role is not to do for congregations things they could do for themselves – ours is a coordination role within the different congregations so everything is collectively focused. We don’t want 300 congregations pushing 300 different issues because their chance to make a real difference is compromised.

The “I” in Jim is for “international” so your work is obviously not confined to Australia.

Correct. We work on international issues where the members are concerned about things overseas, such as poverty and helping developing countries become more self-sufficient, by raising money for schools and health care. We also work with overseas churches, such as the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, where we’ve jointly worked on human rights issues.

Associated with the JIM cluster there is also JustAct. How does JustAct differ from JIM?

JustAct is a public facing brand that promotes the work we do, particularly to younger people.

There’s a lot of social justice issues in Australia alone, much less overseas, how do you pick your battles?

The members largely decide what gets worked on. Each year we conduct a survey of our supporters and they tell us what to focus on. Once the members have told us what issues to focus on we go away and consider what is the theological basis for pursuing this issue. Where does our faith lead us to land on the issue? We then conduct research into what are the practical changes that need to happen to bring about justice.


Who are your supporters?

The people who are most active on social justice issues out in congregations. Currently we have a core of about 1500 people who connect very deeply with us and then there’s a few thousand more who connect with us more lightly.

Once you’ve picked your target how do you go about effecting change?

We try to organise a conversation with the decision-maker who can effect change. If we can persuade them through direct lobbying and advocacy so much the better but when that fails we start mobilising our supporters and invite them to help push the issue along in a variety of ways.

What sort of ways?

We might do a postcard campaign, or letter-writing actions, petitions, we might mobilise congregations across electorates to go and visit their local MP if the issue is of high enough importance.
Sometimes we do unusual things. A couple of times, we’ve had people visit pokie venues and see what was going on – things like how many ATMs are there and what kind of cash facilities they had. Once we knitted squares for a global patchwork quilt to highlight the issue of landmines.

Who do you generally target – company CEOs or government?

It’s mainly government because it usually sets the rules, but sometimes we engage with companies, particularly where the Church has shareholdings in that company.

How to you know whether something has worked or not? How do you know you’re being heard?

Well, if the change you want comes about that’s a good sign, but sometimes that change may have been going to happen anyway. Otherwise, we talk to the people who we have targeted, such as public servants who have had to deal with the amount of letters coming in, and get a sense from them.

Can you tell us something you’re working on at the moment?

We are working to make sure workers who are coming in from the Pacific to pick fruit get decent treatment and that the seasonal worker visa program expands because there’s huge benefits for the people back in the Pacific, where there’s massive unemployment. If the placements work out well they get to make a reasonable amount of money that they get to take home and improve the lives of their families – their children get better education opportunities, etc.

How are you tackling this issue?

There’s three parts; one, we have been working with the Department of Jobs and Small Business on the seasonal worker program to identify where things may not be going quite right and having them addressed. Two, when we are told there is another placement of workers arriving, we work with local congregations to link up with the workers so they have that social connection and, three, at the political level we are lobbying to get the seasonal worker program expanded, as it offers a higher level of safeguards compared to other visas, and also to prevent things that may see people working on farms exploited.

When did you start in this role?

1999.

That’s a long time ago – 20 years! What has been one of your biggest successes?

We were part of the movement that saw a global ban on cluster munitions. They were larger bombs that contained a range of smaller bombs and, when the smaller bombs didn’t explode instantly, they were creating enormous problems in places such as Kosovo and Afghanistan. There were all these bombs left lying around after wars had finished which were killing and maiming innocent people.

And what about in the past 12 months?

We’ve done a lot of work on multinational corporations cheating on their taxes, lobbying the government to introduce a raft of legislation to close a lot of loopholes. As a result, the government estimates that in the past two years they have managed to get approaching $6 billion in revenue which we then argue should be spent on things we need, such as homeless services or addressing family violence or providing more schools.

You keep saying “we”. How big is your team?

There is myself and Denisse Sandoval, who is our Campaign Organiser. Her focus is on engaging congregations and bringing them into our social justice network. And then we have two volunteers who do a lot of work for us and a private investigator who works as a consultant from time to time.

Can you describe what a typical day looks like for you?

I normally get in at about 7.30am and leave about 6.30pm. First thing I do is read the newspapers to see if there is anything we need to be aware of. Then I get to my emails which often alert me to things that need our attention. Next I spend a couple of hours on the phone to congregations talking about a variety of issues. In the afternoon I’m usually writing submissions or doing some research.

That’s an 11-hour day – have you heard of work/life balance?
(laughs) What can I say? I’m passionate about the work. Before I joined the Church I was working in the mining industry but I was putting in 20 hours a week as a volunteer helping social justice organisations. This feels like a calling or a vocation rather than a job.

What does your family think about you spending so much time at work?

I have a wife and three children, aged 23, 18 and 11. The older kids tend to do their own thing but we make an effort to catch up on weekends.

So your weekends are free?

Ahh, no. About once a month I speak at congregations and I also try to write a few submissions. I see my role as trying to make the world a better place and that’s not something you can just clock on and off on.

You must have a very understanding wife.

(laughs) Yes, she likes to do her own thing so I don’t think she minds too much.

There is a lot to do, but if you could play God for a day and change one thing, what would it be?

In my ideal world I would change things so that we become focused on what’s good for people rather than this obsession with economic growth.

Can you see that ever happening?

There are signs of that at times. There are moments across the globe when people get together and do good things. What disturbs me is those who believe the only way we can have a good life is if other people are kept in poverty – I just don’t think that’s true.

OK, last question: How can people reading this help?

We realise people have very busy lives so we like to think we have a smorgasbord of options. If you only have a little bit of time, then sign a postcard or petition. If you have more time, write a letter and if you’re really passionate go to a gathering or lobby your MP about an issue. But in general just contact us. Send an email to jim@victas.uca.org.au or visit the JustAct website (www.justact.org.au) or call me.

Are you sure you want us to publish your phone number? It might never stop ringing after people read this.

(laughs) No, please do. It’s (03) 9340 8807 or 0409 166 915.

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