The report tabled by Social Justice Forum — a group comprising members of Synod and Uniting — outlined its campaigns and work undertaken over the past 18 months. Claerwen Little, Children’s Advocate for Uniting and Chair of Social Justice Forum, thanked Forum members for their work across the Synod. Over time, the Forum has considered a wide range of issues that affect the daily life of the Church — from affordable housing and people seeking asylum, to coal seam gas and the issue of drug reform.
Social Justice Advocacy Coordinator Jon O’Brien, presented on the ‘Give Hope’ Campaign, which focuses on removing children from detention. The Forum also encourages churches to support the 9,000 people seeking asylum who are already living in the NSW and ACT community (many face great hardship). This year, $5,000 was raised for settlement services for asylum seekers. The Forum again will appeal to Congregations to donate vouchers for food and goods, as well as helping with outings for asylum seekers.
In 2015, nearly 70 Congregations and more than 400 people took part in 65 ‘Table Talks’ on the affordable housing crisis.
The Forum also encourages and supports other parts of the Church to address issues that concern them.
Marion McConnell and Bill Bush are members of the Canberra Region Presbytery Social Justice Group. They met with the Forum last December, to discuss a proposal for drug policy change. Marion and Bill are also members of Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform, a group formed more than 20 years ago in response to heroin-related deaths in the ACT. Marion and Bill have a wide knowledge of the relevant issues and they argue that the current approach to illicit drugs is not working. Drug addiction should be treated as a health and social issue, not a law enforcement one.
A paper was prepared for Synod members, promoting a mature and informed discussion of illicit drug use, and how we and the wider community respond to it.
Dr. Marianne Jauncey of the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre took questions about the issue of decriminalisation of drug use and the Church’s responsibility for advocacy in this area.
Proposals bought to the floor of Synod
On Day Four, after rigorous debate, the Social Justice Forum proposals bought to Synod were passed. These proposals included supporting the Give Hope campaigns for asylum seekers, and sanctuary; affordable housing advocacy; and advocacy of illicit drug decriminalisation.
Debate on the floor about decriminalisation focussed on personal stories and concern about how advocacy would be undertaken in a public forum, as well as what communications among Congregations and Presbyteries would look like.
“We know a lot about working with individuals who are addicted,” said Peter Worland, Executive Director of Uniting. “We are not going soft on drugs; we are caring for the individuals involved and dealing with the issues. We have strong community communications set up to deal with the possible publicity around this issue.”
Rev. Gordon Ramsay, chair of the Uniting Board, noted: “There’s a number of ways in the past that we have undertaken policy position … The reality is that as a council of the Church, we are going to have to keep working both within the Church with Congregations and in advocacy with governments around what this means in the detail. There is more work to do; it won’t be resolved quickly.”
Katelyn Stevenson from Parramatta Nepean Presbytery supported the Forum’s proposal. “This issue affects the young people literally all around us. It is a very real issue; it affects people in my own youth group. This proposal is incredibly important from a health perspective, but it is also incredibly important from an open, belonging, gracious and loving perspective. For us to be able to show that we care so deeply for them about their health, for their rehabilitation, for the opportunities that will come to them in the future, I see this as incredibly important.”
Although the motion on illicit drugs was not unanimous, it was passed by vote and work will begin on the policy.