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Address to the seventh assembly of the Would Council of Churches

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Distinguished guests Ladies and gentlemen

It is a pleasure to welcome you all - delegates, observers and visitors - to Australia's national capital for the Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches.

This is the first time a Council Assembly has met in Australia - the first time, indeed, in our dynamic region of South-east Asia and the Western Pacific.

Let me say that Australia' s welcome to an international gathering such as yours is no mere form of words or empty gesture. -It is instead a welcome that springs from the very nature of Australia's identity.

We are a nation of immigrants. From more than 130 countries around the world, successive waves of new settlers have, for more than two centuries, invested their strength and skills and hopes in building new lives in this land. And these

settlers are of course relative newcomers compared to the first Australians, the Aboriginal and Islander people who inhabited and nurtured this land for tens of thousands of years before the arrival of the first Europeans.

Out of that diversity we have built a strong unity of commitment to our nation. But it is a unity that encourages the flourishing of the diversity of the languages, the cultural traditions, the ethnic backgrounds and the religions that comprise our rich and diverse inheritance as

an immigrant nation.

We are, by demographic fact and by deliberate policy, a multicultural society. And we are, by constitutional statute and by inherent disposition, a society of religious tolerance and freedom.



So for all the diversity of this Assembly, for all your range of ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, you can find, no matter where you have come from, someone from the same country who is living here in Australia as an Australian - and no matter what your faith, you can worship,

in Australia, with adherents of that faith.

My friends,

The first Assembly of the World Council of Churches was held in Amsterdam in 1948 - in the immediate aftermath of the destruction and horror of the Second World War.

Since then, at five successive Assemblies - in Evanston, New Delhi, Uppsala, Nairobi and Vancouver - the World Council of Churches has continued to confront the great and grave issues of the post-war decades.

It has been your challenge to formulate and to voice your views on issues of global importance. And though what you have said may have been uncomfortable at times for many people - including for many Governments - it has also, where you have spoken with relevance and wisdom, been of great value to your constituent church members and to people of

goodwill everywhere.

Now, in Canberra, the World Council of Churches meets in Assembly for the seventh time.

You have come with open hearts and inquiring minds in support of your theme for this Assembly, "Come Holy Spirit - Renew the Whole Creation".

As your program clearly shows, this theme is full of significance for Australia and the world.

In particular, you rightly place emphasis on a message of care and concern for the Australian Aboriginal people.

The World Council of Churches has a long record of active involvement on behalf of Aboriginal and Islander people, the latest manifestation of which was the statement issued earlier this week by the teams which visited Wilcannia and Mornington Island.

Bodies such as the World Council of Churches are of course welcome to make their own assessments of any aspect of Australian society. That is a measure of our maturity and openness as a nation. And indeed the Australian Government

helped fund the team visits.

I certainly do not accept conditions at Wilcannia or Mornington Island or elsewhere as adequate. The problems, as you know, are deep-seated and complex. There is a long and tragic history of demoralisation and despair - not

infrequently exacerbated by Government and community responses that were misguided, or plain wrong.

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But you would be doing yourselves and all Australians a great disservice if you failed to recognise the significant steps forward that have been taken in Australia since, for example, the first World Council delegation to Australia in


In the days ahead, as you come to debate these issues further, I hope your deliberations will be soundly based, comprehensive in scope, and addressed to the hard issues -

not simply raising questions, as the team visits did, but assessing the answers that are being provided by Government today and, where those answers are relevant and effective, acknowledging this.

There are four particular aspects of which you should be aware.

First, the Australian Government will provide almost one billion dollars on specific programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders this financial year - in addition to funds provided to the general community through, for example Medicare and the Family Allowance Scheme, to which Aboriginal people have full entitlement.

On a per capita basis, this is a larger sum than is spent by any other country on special programs for indigenous people.

Second, an administrative revolution is now starting to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders meaningful control over the policies that affect them and the services that

they receive.

This is self determination - not a theoretical concept or fanciful slogan.

The vehicle for this is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, ATSIC, established in March last year. ATSIC's chairperson, Miss Lois O'Donohue, has already addressed this Assembly.

Third, there has been continued progress in the granting of land rights to Aboriginal communities, so that the traditional ties of the people to their land - ties

disrupted and in too many cases, tragically broken - can once more be made whole.

Fourth, the Australian Government and the Australian community is embarking on what may be the most difficult, but the most enduring, task of all. We have started to tackle the issue that lies at the historical root of white-

black relations in this country.

Australia's settlement by European colonists was achieved only at the expense of the Aboriginal people.

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In the words of the first Parliamentary Resolution moved and passed in our new Parliamentary chambers on 23 August 1988, "Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders suffered dispossession and dispersal upon acquisition of their traditional lands by the British Crown".

That is an historical fact that must be acknowledged but cannot be reversed.

What we can do in the 1990s is not try to rewrite our past, but to guarantee our future, by reaching a mutual understanding and recognition of each other's place in Australian society. We must seek a path to reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

Accordingly, and in line with the 1988 Parliamentary Resolution I have just quoted, the Government is setting about advancing such a process of reconciliation.

During the next sittings of Federal Parliament, the Government proposes to introduce legislation for the establishment of a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation which will play a central role in the reconciliation


This Council will consist of 25 prominent Australians, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, who will represent a wide range of interests within Australian society. As they have so often in the past, Australian Churches will play a

significant role through this Council in achieving a just and lasting reconciliation with Aboriginal people.

One major function of the Council will be to educate nonĀ­ Aboriginal Australians about Aboriginal cultures, dispossession, continuing disadvantage and the need to address that disadvantage.

The legislation establishing the Council will declare the Commonwealth's intention to seek from all levels of government a commitment to the pursuit of broad equity for Aboriginal Australians in their access to land, health,

education, housing, infrastructure and economic development.

The Council will also advise the Federal Government on whether the process of reconciliation would be helped by formulating a specific document such as an instrument of reconciliation. My Government's position is that such a

document would be a valuable outcome of this decade-long process of reconciliation.

But as I have said before, the process of reconciliation may well be as important as the outcome, and our initial focus will be on the process rather than on a document.


I want to add that the strenuous efforts we have made so far to secure a bipartisan approach to those issues which directly affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will continue. We want the unanimous backing of the Federal

Parliament for this process of reconciliation.

Churches in Australia can play - as they have often played in the past - a valuable role in keeping political parties honest on these issues and I warmly welcome the strong endorsement already given to the Government's proposals. As

I said at the outset, I trust this Assembly will carefully assess and strongly support this vital and fundamental process of reconciliation.

My friends

It is a particular pleasure to address this Assembly, because it comes at a time when the world needs more than ever the wisdom and guidance that the World Council of Churches can provide.

For all the significance of previous Assemblies, I venture to say that none has been held at a more historic moment in the unfolding of world events than this Assembly in Canberra.

And never has there been a time at which you as members of the Assembly are so richly vindicated for your principled activity as you are now vindicated by events in Southern


The World Council of Churches has taken a leading role in the international campaign against apartheid. With its moral authority, the World Council has laid bare the ethical bankruptcy of South Africa's racist ideology. The World

Council has also given much-needed practical support for the struggle inside South Africa, where churches have been prominent in bringing to light and opposing human rights abuses, and where churchmen and women have borne part of the

suffering that apartheid has inflicted.

Some of those victims of apartheid are with us today, including the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, Rev Frank Chikane, and I pay tribute to their sacrifice.

The efforts of the World Council have played a prominent role in the broad international movement seeking to end the oppression and misery that apartheid has caused.

Australia too has played an active role. We were leading advocates among Western countries for the abolition of apartheid. And we were not afraid to lead again - including through the Commonwealth - when the time came to put practical pressure on the South African Government to

implement change.


Now we are starting to see proof that our commitment is bearing fruit, and that the price paid was not in vain. We together have brought South Africa to its senses. We are now at the beginning of the second year of genuine reform undertaken by President de Klerk's Government. The first year saw the ban on the ANC lifted, the beginning of the

return of exiles, the first attacks on the legislative foundations of apartheid and the release of the first political prisoners.

That first year of reform saw Nelson Mandela released, and we in Australia were able to salute him in person for his leading part in the struggle against apartheid. All Australians shared in the joy given by the presence among us of a modern day hero - a reminder of the real changes occurring in his country.

Today we have further reason to believe that these changes are genuine, significant and lasting. President de Klerk's statement to the South African Parliament last week locked in many of the reforms which his Government had been promising. His speech declares the end of the legislation which underpins apartheid, and a start to the processes that will lead to a new constitution and a new order in South Africa.

These developments are decisive. They bring us to a time when the international community's measures against the apartheid system need to be looked at again. And later this month we will be proposing to our colleagues in the

Commonwealth that the process of removing pressure on the South African Government be begun soon.

But apartheid is not yet dead. We look for, and expect to see, further change - the most important element of which is of course free and open elections in which all South Africans can participate with confidence and trust. In order to encourage this change, we envisage sanctions on

South Africa being lifted in phases - matching the actual achievement of promised and prospective reform.

President de Klerk has told us something of how he proposes to dismantle apartheid. But we know little of the new South Africa that will be built in its place. The centrepiece must be a new non-racial constitution, enshrining freedom and democratic rights for all South Africans. Writing such a constitution is the most vital and urgent task facing all groups within South Africa, and we urge them to set about that task immediately.

My friends

These exciting developments in South Africa illustrate how dramatically, in the seven years since your last meeting, the shape of the world has changed - offering new challenges, opportunities and threats. Like the revolutions of 1848 or the resolution of 1945, this period will be remembered in history as a turning point.


I refer to the easing of superpower tension; the replacement of the nuclear arms race, with its attendant spectre of global holocaust, with a newly constructive approach to disarmament; the resolution of regional conflict; the programs of glasnost and perestroika within the Soviet Union

- sadly, now apparently under threat; the overthrow of the tyrannies of eastern Europe and the emergence there of democracy; and not least in this momentous chronicle, the

re-emergence of the United Nations as a revitalised force for collective security and individual sovereignty.

Many of these developments represent the achievement of goals and the entrenchment of values which the World Council of Churches has supported for many years. You deserve credit for your role in bringing these developments about. But I know that at your first Assembly in what we can call

the post-Cold War era, you will want to turn your attention to the new opportunities and challenges that this new era brings.

Until 2 August last year, we were entitled to draw comfort from the trend of world events.

But Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on that day posed the gravest challenge to that generally positive outlook. Saddam Hussein's invasion was blatant, brutal and remorseless. His crime is more than an outrage against international law and national sovereignty. Its ramifications go well beyond his greedy ambition to dominate international oil markets.

Saddam Hussein's great crime is attempted theft; he tried to steal from the world community our hopes for a more peaceful and harmonious existence in the wake of the Cold War.

And the great tragedy of it all is that his war is so needless - so avoidable. For the destruction could have been prevented - and still now, can be stopped - by Iraq' s unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait.

Like all people of principle, Australians yearn for peace and feel the deepest anguish at the cost of this conflict, its human suffering and waste.

But let me say to this Assembly: there are times when you can't just talk about peace or wish for it; you must do the hard work necessary to protect it and to guarantee it. Australia is proud of its support for the allied effort in the Gulf. We act in support of the high hopes that the

international community was working towards before 2 August. We are acting to put them back on the agenda ahead of aggression and war.


The United Nations is the lynch pin of these hopes. For so long hamstrung by superpower rivalry, the United Nations now has the opportunity to operate as its founders intended. Like the World Council of Churches, the United Nations was

formed in the period of hope after the Second World War. Church and state leaders alike looked to international law and international organisations to ensure that war would never recur.

We now need to return to these hopes - to the construction of strong international bonds of cooperation, in forums where differences can be resolved and security preserved, based on mutual respect and international law.

And we are entitled, too, to this greatest of hopes, this most fundamental of goals.

When the fighting is over, when the United Nations Resolutions have been fulfilled, when aggression has been shown to be unacceptable, we may then genuinely look to a better time - a time when the resources now so unreservedly devoted to war may, in an era of collective security, be redirected to the pursuit of the enduring tasks of peace: economic development, social justice and human liberation.

In particular, we must set about the task of eliminating the underlying causes of conflict in the Middle East.

This region, so crucial to the security and prosperity of the world, is also the home of three of the great faiths of the world: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

As governments and leaders set about the task of finding a political solution to the Middle East, it is my hope that they will be strengthened and helped by religious leaders of these great faiths as they too seek to build new bridges of understanding and tolerance.

Were the World Council of Churches to respond to this challenge then I believe it would contribute greatly to the just peace which is our mutual goal in the present crisis, and which is the legitimate hope of all humanity as we move

in this decade to the third millennium of the Christian era.

My friends,

In all that I have said, we cannot expect progress to be easy or straightforward, nor should we believe there will be no setbacks. But we must be fortified for the work ahead by the knowledge that these are shared challenges - for Governments, to be sure, for communities and for

individuals. It need hardly be said that in such an era, pursuing such tasks, the Churches of the world will have a tremendously important contribution to make. I look to your continued participation in this, the common cause of us all.

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