IS Australia in a time of fear? If so, what are we afraid of and what does this mean for our future?
These were the questions posed to four eminent panellists at the Australian Catholic University’s fifth annual stakeholder dinner in Brisbane on March 21.
The panellists were Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, ACU vice-chancellor and president Professor Greg Craven, Catholic Social Services Australia chief executive officer Jesuit Father Frank Brennan, and director of ACU’s Centre for Health and Social Research Professor Sandra Jones.
PM Glynn Institute director Dr Michael Casey chaired the discussion.
Archbishop Coleridge started the conversation by observing that even from the early days of European settlement, Australia had projected a sense of pessimism on “far shores”.
“Australia has always been, in a strange way a place that has known fear,” he said.
“But there is more of it around now, and what strikes me is the way fear gives birth to anger.
“I feel there is real evidence to say that democracy is breaking down in ways we haven’t known.
“Trump is certainly a symptom of that … there are many other examples of the erosion of democracy.
“Power is becoming easier to get, harder to exercise and easy to lose.
“You’ve just got to look at the procession of Prime Ministers in this country to see that.”
Archbishop Coleridge said Australia faced a spiritual crisis.
He quoted the English theologian John Milbank describing how no human society had survived by negation, the lone individual and agreement to differ – traits that Archbishop Coleridge said existed in Australia today.
Professor Jones, who joined the panel discussion at short notice, said she google-searched “what Australians fear” and instead of snakes, sharks and spiders, she found nine of the 10 top hits were articles about Muslims.
“Why is that?” she asked.
She said the Australian media often portrayed Muslims as terrorists.
“We fear the wrong things,” Prof Jones said.
“Australians are actually forty-one times more likely to die slipping in the shower than they are dying from a terrorist attack.
“I think Australians report they are afraid of Muslims for the same reason they’re afraid of anyone who’s not like me.”
So we had this sense that there was us, and then there were other people, Prof Jones said.
“And then we are afraid of people who might take away the things that we have,” she said.
“So we are afraid of drug users, poor people … afraid of migrants or refugees who might take our jobs.”
Fr Brennan said Australia was becoming more and more unequal, but rather than a country in fear, he described the Australia of today as tepid, lost, flabby and “perhaps we are more anxious than fearful”.
“The anxieties of parents – it doesn’t matter how well off or career-oriented you are – you are all worried or anxious about your kids … your grandchildren,” he said.
Fr Brennan said Australians were isolated from much of the “fear” of the rest of the world, because “we are 24 million people living in a quarry on an island continent at the end of the earth – and that has its advantages”.
“I think for us as Australians it’s not so much the fear of how we are being genuine stewards of that continent, it’s about the anxiety and about wondering whether or not we’ve got a sufficient sense of direction as to make something of the place,” he said.
Prof Craven said Australia was part of a frightened world.
He described our physical fear – how we all watched the terror events of September 11 unfolded, and now, how war and tragedy unfolded in real time on our screens.
Prof Craven also described a social fear.
“The great Australian dream and the corresponding fear is around the guarantee that your children’s lives will be better than yours,” he said.
“We believed for a long time that no matter how much we disliked a particular government there was actually a genuine guarantee that every government would be dedicated to that proposition across the board to all of us.
“And I have a tremendous fear that we have completely lost that confidence.”
Panellists described how social media helped promulgate fears and division through fake news, and hate speech.
Prof Craven observed that Pope Francis was one of the few world leaders who had risen above the din and was connecting with people on a global scale.
Archbishop Coleridge said the key to successful communication, and a tactic used by the Pope, was to identify “shared value”.
“And that’s where I think accompaniment becomes possible,” he said.
“If you and I are not on the same page … there is no way we can walk together.”
Archbishop Coleridge said at some point, in any disagreement, “there is a shared value – and to try and identify it, to discover it and to act upon the discovery is a start”.