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Standing Committee on Petitions - 19/11/2014 - Selected petitions from Queensland presented up to October 2014

JOHNSTON, Mr Colin Henry, Managing Director, Barnabas Fund Australia Limited

[11:24]

CHAIR: Unfortunately, the petitioner Mr Kadri, who was scheduled to speak on his petition on the Racial Discrimination Act at 11.30 am, now cannot appear due to an emergency. I welcome the next witness, Mr Johnston. I invite you to discuss your petition on Christians in Syria. I remind you, as I do all witnesses, that, although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, this hearing is a legal proceeding of parliament and therefore has the same standing as the chambers themselves. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard, and will attract parliamentary privilege. You may make an opening statement, or we can go straight to questions.

Mr Johnston : I would like to make an opening statement. The petition that we are talking about was presented only in May this year. Based on the last petition we had a review of, that was a 12- to 18-month lag. We are very pleased that the committee is looking at Syria in such a short time frame, so I am pleased to be able to talk about it.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: It is the efficiency of this government, you see.

CHAIR: If you want to discuss the details of the petition, please go ahead.

Mr Johnston : Yes. We put this petition together two years ago, when the current crisis in Syria really got going. Barnabas Fund has been involved in Syria for many, many years. It has been working with the Christian church there and supplying aid programs to Christians for many years. Three years ago, the current escalation really started speeding up. It is public knowledge that many Christians were being persecuted; children were being killed; mothers being raped. Part of Barnabas's role, not just in Australia but also internationally, is to raise the awareness of persecution that goes on. I mean most of us in Western countries—and, if I talk about Australia, we really have no idea of what persecution is and, unless you have actually travelled overseas to some of these Third World countries, you do not realise how blessed a country we have in Australia.

Barnabas wants to be active in raising the awareness of governments about the plight of minorities, and mainly Christian minorities, who happen to be living in a country where the majority of the government is Islamic and Christians, because they are a minority—in Syria, less than 10 per cent of the population is Christian—they are persecuted. We believe it is our right, as fellow Christians, to raise the awareness of governments and say, 'Please, can governments provide aid'. You can imagine 450,000 Christians have actually left Syria in the last three years. The mechanics of that—it is very easy to say 'the mechanics'—are that you have to pack up and leave, take your children, take minimal personal and material possessions and just flee to get away from the rebels. It is a nightmare, and they need help. They need food; they need clothing—particularly in winter. It gets very cold over there, so they need blankets, heating, medical provisions—those sorts of things. So Barnabas wrote this petition in relation to Syria to raise awareness and certainly to raise the awareness of the department of foreign affairs about aid going into overseas countries and to ask if they could focus their attention on Syria because of the current plight there.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Can you tell us the history behind the petition and what led you to petition support for Syria's Christians. Now obviously you have addressed a little bit of that, but what led you to petition the House rather than other methods of advocacy? Have you also engaged in other forms of advocacy, such as writing to ministers?

Mr Johnston : Yes. First of all, when we have a problem like the crisis in Syria, the first thing that Barnabas does is make sure we get aid into them. That is the No. 1 thing. People need food to live; they need medical supplies. We take it for granted here in Australia, you know, that if you are a diabetic you can just go down and get your insulin and you are right. But over there, if they do not get their insulin they are going to die. If they do not get food they are going to die—water, so those sorts of things. Now because Barnabas has been involved with Syria for many, many years—about 16 years we have been in there—it has a relationship with the church leaders and so it already has a network set up for providing aid, food et cetera. So that is No. 1, getting aid. Secondly, what do we do about raising awareness? Certainly, we have always, where we can, raised awareness via petitions. I think this is about the fourth petition that Barnabas has done over the years. I have been involved with them since 2007.

We also encourage individuals to write to their local members. On our website are draft letters, standard letters, that we encourage supporters to write and send to their local representative. Those are the various things that we have done. In our head office in the UK, where the organisation was set up just 20 years ago, the founding director, Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, has a good relationship with key leaders over there. It is about influencing people and influencing leaders.

CHAIR: Your petition attracted a large number of signatures. Engaging with communities when collecting signatures for a petition can be an important part of the petitions process. Could you please tell us about how the signature-gathering was conducted for your petition? Also, could tell us about your experiences and interactions while gathering those signatures?

Mr Johnston : We have a mailing list—we have only been going in Australia since 2005; next year is our 10th anniversary—that is already up to 30,000 around Australia. When we do a mailing list we will include a focus on the petition and we will attach a petition sheet in the magazine, and then that goes out. That goes out to individuals and also to churches. We have a lot of churches around Australia supporting our organisation. I encourage the churches to put it in a place, promote it from the platform and encourage people to sign. When we send our magazine out to individuals, we encourage them to photocopy it and send it out to their friends—home group members et cetera. Plus, people do have the facility to download a copy from the website, print it off and then distribute it that way.

Part of my role as managing director is to deputise and go to churches and home groups that are currently not supporting Barnabas and raise awareness about what Barnabas does. Whenever I speak and promote a petition, I say, 'We're going to present this petition to parliament in 2015. I'll have it at the back of the room. Please, this is something that you can do as an individual. Often we in Australia think someone else will do it. Here is the perfect opportunity; it is sitting out there.' I just spoke at a Baptist church over at Clontarf two Sundays ago. I had a fantastic response. I got seven pages full of signatures. It is all about raising the awareness. Barnabas has a good network. We have a good network within churches. Churches will really promote it; they will encourage it with their members. That is how we raise the awareness; we get the petition signed.

CHAIR: Now that a government response to your petition has been received, would you like to take the opportunity to reflect on your experience of the petitions process and share any suggestions as to how it might be improved?

Mr Johnston : I must say, the petitions process, as I have found it when I have gone through it, works pretty well. I have already established a network of members of parliament who are Christians and will gladly speak for Barnabas. Luke Simpkins, who spoke for this one in Syria, has done several for us. When we are gathering a petition, I will ring around. I will ring Luke initially and say, 'Luke, we're doing a petition on Syria. Would you like to speak to parliament about it when it closes?' He has been very helpful. At Clontarf Beach Baptist, I met the local member for Petrie, Mr Howarth. He said he saw our petition there. He said, 'You know I can't sign it.' I said, 'That's fine.' He said, 'If you want me to speak to parliament about this, I'll gladly do it.' I think I will consider Luke next time just to give my database a wider realm. He offered; I did not ask him.

The process works well. As I said, this time we got a formal committee response only six months after it was presented. That is a lot quicker than previous episodes. Yes, we get a formal response from the minister after it has been processed, so the process is good.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Mrs PRENTICE: This is probably not the role of the petitions committee but I was interested in how many people you had on the ground in Syria, and whether any of those are Australians.

Mr Johnston : Barnabas Fund does not employ people. We have an international projects team based in our UK head office. They establish the network with the Christian churches. In Syria right now we have a network of about four organisations, all run by Christian entities, that manage the distribution of the funds.

Mrs PRENTICE: Is their role, as well, in relation to your petition, to help them seek resettlement?

Mr Johnston : Yes. We want a long-term solution—not just a short-term solution to give them food and all that. Somehow we have to provide these people with some permanent accommodation.

Mrs PRENTICE: A long-term solution would be peace, though.

Mr Johnston : Absolutely. I will refer you to what is happening with the current crisis in Iraq now. I know this is not part of the Syria petition. I was in the UK only three weeks ago. The international director said that they had got onto surplus army tents at a US facilities in Baghdad, all packed up and not used. So Barnabas has paid for these tents from the US government—about $750,000—and we are currently transporting those tents to northern Iraq.

We approached Cameron of the UK to see if the UK government would fund the transport of the containers from Baghdad to Iraq. Unfortunately he declined. He said they have many other priorities. The cost of transport is close to $1 million. However, these tents will provide permanent accommodation for 1,000 refugees. They are large tents. They are air-conditioned. They are heated. They have kitchen facilities. They are run by generators. This will give the refugees some permanent accommodation.

A lot of our supporters ring up and say, 'We want to continue to give—we know the need—but is there any chance of providing some long-term hope for these refugees?'

Mr HOGAN: Mr Johnston, as you know, we do not comment on the content of the petition, but as with other petitioners today I would like to thank you for using this process. Members of the Standing Committee on Petitions view it as a very important and valuable part of our process of government and getting feedback from the community. So thank you for the fact that your organisation does that.

I would also like to make a personal comment on your organisation. I am very aware of what your organisation does, and I wish to thank you and acknowledge you for all the work you do across where you operate.

Mr Johnston : I thank you for those comments. I am just blown away. As I said it was only 2005 when the organisation started. We are still in that little office down at Loganholme. The first year's income was about $300,000 and last year we did $6 million, which is incredible. I put it down to the support. Australians are very generous people.

I think the beauty of Barnabas—you may be aware of our organisation—is that we give a bi-monthly magazine, which is free but which gives updates on all the work that we are doing. So people can see where their money has been used. And I think that gives supporters confidence that their money is being used to change lives and set people free from horrendous conditions.

Can I ask: how many people here have actually been to the Syria or the Middle East? I can see many of you have. I was in Damascus and Syria just before this current situation broke. It is a lovely nation. Christians have been able to do their things, and then this terrible tragedy has happened. You could walk in the streets of Damascus, with all their beautiful stalls and everything. Now it is just decimated. It is shocking to think that that can happen. We in Australia are a blessed country. When I am going around and speaking to churches, I just say: 'Thank God for what you have in Australia. You go home. You get a full meal. You turn your tap on; you have water'. I said, 'Go home and thank God that you live in Australia.' That is my message.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: Keep up the message of value for money as well. It is one that we as politicians tend to leverage off. Can I join in associating myself with the comments of the chair in highlighting the fact that the committee provides opportunity for petitioners to evaluate the process, rather than the content or the thing. You mentioned in your opening comments the expedient way in which it was dealt with. I just want you to understand that that would be more than likely a matter of cyclical engagement as to when it was put into the system, because I do not want to impede future committees or have people thinking, 'I put one in last year, and it got there in five months; the next year it is 12.' It is more cyclical—

Mr Johnston : A cyclical thing, yes.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: than good management. I just want you to highlight that. My question goes to the effect. I want you to comment on what effect you believe it has on people who you asked to join your petition when empowering them to be part of a movement through the Petitions Committee. What effect, either positive or negative, do you think that it has on those people that you are asking to get involved?

Mr Johnston : I think, in 99 per cent of cases, they felt positive about it. They feel that they are actually doing something. In Australia, we have a very lazy methodology: 'It'll be right, mate,' or, 'Someone else can do it.' We have a lot of people who attend churches. They like to attend churches. They go there and worship the Lord and all that, but we encourage them: 'Here is something that you can actually do to perhaps alter your destiny.' That is why the success rate on signing up the petitions is so good, because they feel as though they are actually doing something to assist their fellow brothers and sisters who are going through tremendous persecution. A lot of them cannot give—a lot of them are pensioners; they are on restricted income—but here is a way: 'Sign up and you can contribute.' It is very, very positive. I think they feel motivated about it.

Mr BUCHHOLZ: The thing with the petitions process is that it is a political instrument as such where you can have an issue, however wide-ranging it may be, presented in the House and, as you alluded to earlier, have members of the House speak to or against any given topic. Thank you for the energy with which you have enthused in the cause that you pursue. I ask God to bless you, and I thank the committee.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, and thank you, Mr Johnston, for your attendance here today. If the committee has further questions for you, the secretariat will contact you.