Father Frank Brennan SJ AO on Faith, Law, Social Justice, and Australia

Originally published at https://www.nickfabbri.com/bloom/frankbrennan

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Father Frank Brennan is a Jesuit priest and the current Rector of Newman College within the University of Melbourne. He is a man of many talents and interests, having worked variously as a Jesuit priest within the Catholic Church, a human rights lawyer, a professor of law at Australian Catholic University, and CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia. He is a National Living Treasure, and widely known to the Australian public through his long career of leadership and advocacy on a range of human rights and social justice issues relating to asylum seekers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged both in Australia and abroad.

In this interview, Nick and Frank discuss:

  • Frank’s early life and education in Queensland, and the influences of his mother and father on his life
  • Frank’s ordination within the Catholic Church and the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits)
  • The impact of Jesuit Pope Francis on the Catholic Church, particularly with regard to environmental issues
  • The future of the Catholic Church globally
  • Frank’s early work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in Redfern, Sydney, and the influence of Father Ted Kennedy on Frank’s formation
  • The development of Australian land law, with reference to the Australian High Court’s Mabo and Wik Peoples decisions
  • Practical policy steps towards Reconciliation, the Australian Constitution, and First Nations Peoples
  • Frank’s work with refugees and asylum seekers, and his experiences in East Timor and with the 2001 Tampa case
  • Migration policy changes for a more humane and ethical Australia
  • Frank’s understanding of Jesus Christ, and how this has informed his work with the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our communities
  • The daily work of a priest, and death and dying in the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Frank’s views on education in the 21st century, and his hopes and vision for Newman College

Follow Fr Frank Brennan on Facebook and Twitter

Father Frank Brennan SJ AO
18 February 2021
Melbourne, Australia

00:00 Nick: Welcome to Bloom, a conversations podcast about anything and everything, featuring guests who have led interesting, meaningful and flourishing lives. I’m lucky to be joined today by Father Frank Brennan, a Jesuit priest and the current rector with of Newman College within the University of Melbourne.

00:16 Frank is a man of many talents and interests, working variously as a Jesuit priest within the Catholic church, a human rights lawyer, a professor of law at Australian Catholic University, and CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia. He is a National Living Treasure and widely known to the Australian public for his long career of leadership and advocacy on a range of human rights and social justice issues relating to asylum seekers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and the poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged, both in Australia and abroad.

00:48 In this interview we speak about issues relating to each of these broad areas of Frank’s life, with the special focus on the pivotal and defining influences of his career. Thank you so much for joining me this evening, Frank. It’s a great honour to be speaking with you.

01:01 Frank: Great to be with you, Nick.

01:02 Nick: So, to kick things off you grew up in Toowoomba, Queensland, the son of Gerard Brennan, former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, and Patricia O’Hara, a doctor. Could you talk to our listeners a bit about your early life and memories of Queensland and what influences your mother, father and family had on you?

01:18 Frank: Sure. Well, I was actually brought up in Brisbane, but I went to boarding school in Toowoomba and I came from what in those days you’d regard as a typically Catholic family. I was the eldest of seven children. My father, as you said, a lawyer and my mother, a doctor. As was once later said, they founded a medico-legal society because a lot of the family went either into law or into medicine.

01:45 I lived just a pretty quiet life as a school boy. I went to boarding school in Toowoomba because it was a school to which my father had gone and it was a school where there were priests, rather than brothers, who were there as the teachers, and in those days, it was just after the Second Vatican Council in the Roman Catholic Church and my parents thought it would be a good thing for the boys to be taught by priests and therefore, we boarded in Toowoomba.

02:14 And Toowoomba, it was a great place to go to school. It was high up on the Great Dividing Range. The winters were bitterly cold. In the first three years, there was very little heating in the school. The school prospectus used to boast that the crisp mountain air was very conducive to study.

02:34 Later years, I joked that one of the good things about going to my school, Downlands in Toowoomba, was that if your father didn’t drive a tractor, you were regarded as being a slightly second-class sort of citizen. So, there was no way that you could develop pretensions about yourself if your father happened to be a leading barrister in Brisbane or anything of that sort. So, it was a pretty idyllic sort of existence.

02:59 I think when I later moved south to Sydney and Melbourne, I became aware that there are often a lot of pressures on kids when they are at school and those pressures were delightfully absent in Toowoomba. So, I think it was a fairly idyllic sort of existence.

03:16 Nick: What did you learn most from the personal examples of your mother and father growing up?

03:20 Frank: From them, I think just that — I mean, their dedication to each other and to their children, that family was first and foremost. They were very religious people so that adherence to the church was seen to be important, that public service was absolutely essential, and that any notion of seeking social advancement or anything of that sort was just completely irrelevant to them.

03:52 I remember when I became a first-year law student at Queensland University. Most of the students in those days I would say had some connection in the law. I would say that 50% of the students had fathers in those days who were either solicitors, barristers or judges, and I was bowled over because they all knew and boasted about what their parents did. All I knew was that my father would come home and after dinner he would sit in the lounge room with a pile of papers and next morning, we would all be commissioned to look at The Courier Mail to look at the law list to see which court he was appearing in, but we really had no idea of what he did.

04:34 My mother, I once got into trouble many years later from a woman who is now a leading silk here at the Melbourne bar. I was interviewed by one of those magazines and they were asking me about my mother and father, and I said that my mother of course was more intelligent than my father and this woman lawyer said, “You can’t say that, your father is a High Court judge!” I said, “Well, he may well be, but my mother is definitely much more intelligent than my father.”

05:05 My mother, having had a promising career start as a doctor, she basically gave it up for many, many years and brought up seven children and did it very selflessly, but she had an unerring instinct about right and wrong and she had an unerring instinct about the social pretensions of others.

05:27 Nick: Incredible, and what drew you to ordination within the Catholic Church and why the Society of Jesus or the Jesuits in particular, given that wide-ranging education that you enjoyed?

05:38 Frank: Well, I started university in 1971 at the University of Queensland and I enrolled in law and arts, particularly politics, and your younger listeners could be forgiven for not knowing some of the history because it’s now 50 years ago, but two things to remember about 1971. 1971 was the year of the first ever Aboriginal land rights case in the courts in Australia, Milirrpum and Nabalco. In fact, they recently celebrated the funeral mass for Bill Priestley who at the end of his life — he’d been a judge on the New South Wales Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal — but he had been the counsel for the mining company in Milirrpum and Nabalco and it was great later in life with him talking about that case which he’d long thought about.

06:28 So, there was that. In 1971, I remember a year ahead of me there was a law student who was studying property law that year and he asked if he could do his annual property essay on Aboriginal land rights and the professor of property law told him he couldn’t because there was no such thing. So, that was 50 years ago.

06:50 The other thing was that in those days we had a colourful premier in Queensland, a fellow, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and 1971, your rugby aficionados would remember was the last time an all-white Springbok rugby tour came to Australia from South Africa and there were bitter debates about law and politics and whether or not politics and sport should be mixed.

07:17 So, that was fertile ground for a first year law and politics student and so in faith terms, I was thinking about becoming a priest and in the Jesuit order at that time, there was a strong emphasis on the relationship between faith and justice, namely that if you profess faith in Jesus Christ as Son of God, as the one who came as good news for all, then you had to see all people as being brothers and sisters in Christ to whom justice should be accorded. So, questions of social justice were very animating for me and seemed to be tightly aligned to my religious faith and in the Jesuits, I found that sort of synchronicity.

08:06 Nick: The phrase ‘a man for others’ is commonly used in relation to the Jesuits. What does it actually mean in practice?

08:12 Frank: What it means in practice is a respect for the human dignity of all and that we are all called to a life of service and we are called to have an eye out for the other, particularly the poor and the vulnerable, and to have a commitment to the common good. That is, the sum of those circumstances which are necessary in order that the human flourishing of all in the community might be attained, but particularly those who are poorest and most marginal.

08:41 Nick: So, the Jesuits were founded in the 16th century to serve the Pope and famously Pope Francis, the current Pope, is the first Jesuit to hold that office. How has this impacted the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, and how has it impacted the Catholic Church on a range of theological and social issues?

08:58 Frank: Yes, well this is a big Jesuit year for us. The 20th of May 2021 will mark the 500th anniversary of the actual point of conversion of Ignatius Loyola. He was a fiery Basque. He was a soldier. He was a courtier. He got injured in battle. While laid up after battle, he was there for months reading books and he discerned that he would find himself animated on reading the life of the saints and the life of Jesus and this then led to the establishment of the Jesuit order.

09:34 So, now 500 years on, yes, in Francis we find someone who as Pope has brought something of that bold Jesuit vision front and centre into the life of the church and I think that’s good news. His successor may well be an equal and opposite reaction to him but as I say to myself, I think Francis has probably given us all enough to run on for the rest of our lives and that’s a good thing.

10:02 Nick: There seem to have been major changes in terms of the Pope’s willingness to step into a range of major environmental, political and economic issues which I think a lot of people, especially the young, have found very refreshing.

10:15 Frank: Yes. Well, particularly on environmental issues, that encyclical wrote Laudato Si. I mean, even for people who are not religious, they found in his writing of Laudato Si a clarion call which was refreshing because it held together three strands really which for the more secular agnostic is often difficult, but he held together the need to care for the environment, the need to care for the poor and marginalised and the need to care for one’s interior life and basically his argument is it’s only if you have a deep interior life of prayer that you actually have the capacity for the long haul for that engagement with care of the environment and care for the poorest and most marginal, and in all of that his inspiration has been Francis of Assisi and that’s why he was the first Pope in history to be bold enough to take on that name of a saint who was so radical and so simple in the message which he always proclaimed.

11:25 Nick: Indeed, and in contrast to that optimism, Pope Benedict XVI declared that Catholic Christendom in the west is in a state of collapse compared with its enormous growth in developing countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America. So, do you agree with Pope Benedict’s assessment and if so, what is to be done?

11:42 Frank: I’m always very respectful of anything Benedict says because he — I mean, in comparison to Francis and even to John Paul who was his master for so long — I mean, Benedict is a truly well-education theologian, and he is one of those classically intellectual Europeans. I do think he has a slightly too European view of the world and so part of his pessimism about the church is that I think he’s seen in what he would regard as the decline of Europe, also the decline of the church.

12:18 But I think all you need to do is to look at the situation in countries like Australia to see that, yes, in the west, particularly amongst young people, there has been a decline in adherence to institutions, a lack of trust in institutions. People don’t see the same need for tradition, authority, community, ritual and so I would put it in that sort of context, where I encounter a lot of young people for whom human rights is all important, individual self-determination, individual spirituality, but when it comes to questions about being part of an institution, being committed to that institution, finding the compromises that are necessary through that institution, then I think that often falls away with young people.

13:15 I think it’s part of a more general sociological phenomenon. I mean, just look at for example the declining adherence to major political parties or look at the royal commissions we’ve had in this country into institutions, including the banks as well the churches, so that all of that I think is at play.

13:34 Nick: So, your career has been defined by leadership and advocacy roles across a range of human rights and social justice issues. In my mind, this personifies the injunction of Micah 6:8, to “act justly, to love mercy and compassion and to walk humbly with your God”. Could you tell us a bit about your early career working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in Redfern, Sydney, with the activist priest, Father Ted Kennedy?

13:58 Frank: Yes. As a Jesuit, the first thing you do for the first couple of years is enter the novitiate, where one of the key experiences is the 30-day retreat, a silent retreat, Ignatius’ spiritual exercises, but then you’re sent on a number of what are rather quaintly called ‘experiments’ and they’re usually for two or three months.

14:19 In my first year of novitiate, I knew there was a possibility of being sent to Redfern and to be honest, I was rather terrified at the prospect and was delighted that I wasn’t sent, but on my second year I was sent there and Ted Kennedy who was an extraordinarily charismatic man and who had lived the life on the street in the sense that he had opened up his presbytery at Redfern, and so Aboriginal people off the street including those that were drunk or drug affected would turn up not only on the presbytery steps, they would turn up sleeping in the presbytery.

14:57 So, that was an experience of being cheek by jowl with Indigenous Australians when in those days, Redfern was not as gentrified as it is now and there were a lot of people living in very adverse circumstances. So, it was a privilege to see something of his vision of priesthood and the proclamation of the gospel in that sense.

15:22 That was 1976. I expressed then to my superiors an interest in being involved in Aboriginal work and after I had finished studying my Masters of Law here at Melbourne University and doing my philosophy studies, I was then up for two or three-years’ work before being sent off to theology, and so I expressed an interest in being involved in Aboriginal issues.

15:49 Well, while I had a year here at the Melbourne Bar I was briefed to appear as junior counsel in an Aboriginal murder case of a young Aboriginal man by the name of Alwyn Peter who came from the Weipa Aboriginal Reserve up in Cape York. He had killed his Aboriginal woman companion, Deidre Gilbert, and we found that the homicide rate was the highest recorded amongst any ghetto group in the western world.

16:18 I’ll never forget the senior barrister who led me in the case telling the court, “I should tell you, your Honour, to be a member of such a community one does not have to be bad or mad. One has only to be Aboriginal.”

16:31 That had a searing experience for me and so the next year was 1982, the year of the Brisbane Commonwealth Games, when the international spotlight was on Queensland and its adverse treatment of Aborigines and the absence of any land rights legislation, and so the Catholic bishops asked my superiors whether I could be available as their advisor during that year.

16:57 So, during that year I spent all year travelling around the most remote Aboriginal communities in Queensland and that’s where I really developed the passion and the insights in so far as I have any about this sort of advocacy work,

17:12 Nick: Former Prime Minister Paul Keating famously referred to you as ‘the meddling priest’ during the Wik native title negotiations in the late 1990s. Can you talk a bit about how you acquired that moniker with reference to the Wik negotiations and also the High Court’s landmark Mabo decision which altered the foundations of Australian land law?

17:29 Frank: Yes. Well, as I said at the outset, in 1971 there was a decision of the Northern Territory supreme court that basically said Aborigines had no rights to land. By 1992, the question came up for resolution before the full bench of the High Court, all seven judges of the highest court in Australia, and they ruled by six-to-one that the Northern Territory supreme court judge was in error and that in fact what we call the common law was able to recognise Aboriginal rights to land which pre-existed the assertion of British sovereignty and that those rights survived until they were extinguished by action of the Crown, usually by granting a free-hold or lease-hold interest to somebody else.

18:19 Under Australian federation system, what we have is the 1975 Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act which basically says state governments could not discriminate against anyone on the basis of their race. The effect of that when it came to native title was that everyone acknowledged that between 1788 and 1975, a hell of a lot of native title had been extinguished by the states. It had been done without compensation and without consultation.

18:53 But where there were areas of land where the state authorities had not acted, there could have been native titles still existing and if there were, after 1975 it would have to be treated in the same way as you would treat anyone else’s interest in land. So, just as you can’t be cheated by government of your free-hold title without compensation, without consultation, without a due public purpose, so too for the Aboriginal people.

19:25 Well, this created a lot of uncertainty within particularly the mining industry, and this required the Keating government in 1993 to legislate what was called a Native Title Act and I was privileged to have some involvement in some of those discussions and negotiations that went on.

19:48 So, at the end of 1993 Paul Keating was very complimentary towards me and in fact he thanked me for what I’d done and Gareth Evans who led the debate for the Keating government in the Senate actually publicly thanked me in the Senate for the work that I had done.

20:07 Well, after that Keating got voted out and the Howard government was elected, and the Howard government of course was a coalition government of Liberals and Nationals. Now, a lot of the farmers were very worried about the effects of native title, particularly as in 1996 the High Court then gave another decision — which you’ve already referred to, namely the Wik decision — and that decision said that native title could exist not only on vacant Crown land, but it could also exist on what we call pastoral leases and that the title of the pastoralist could co-exist with that of the native title holders.

20:53 Well, as you can imagine back then in the 1990s, going to a pastoralist and saying, “Not only are you not at liberty to exclude Aboriginal people from your cattle property, you may actually have to allow them on because they have legal rights, just as surely as you do.” So, that then required a whole new package of legislation and it got very bogged down in the Australian Senate. By this time, Keating was out of the Parliament and we had a fairly poisonous cocktail because the Seenate at that stage, the balance of power was held by one solitary vote of a senator from Tasmania, Brian Harradine, who was a good practising Catholic. So, as you can imagine there were various conspiracy theories around that Harradine and I were in cahoots determining the outcome of this legislation. Well, that was far too much for Mr. Keating and he came out and alleged that I was a meddling priest, in part because I had perhaps a little brashly pointed out on national television that Paul I thought was outside the loop because no longer was he Prime Minister and no longer was he in parliament, so I thought it was best dealt with by those in the parliament to find what was an appropriate resolution.

22:23 Nick: Yeah, that classic Keating rapier-like wit, as they say.

22:26 Frank: Indeed, and I returned from overseas one morning to receive a phone call at St Canice’s church at Kings Cross and all I’ll say is I had to hold the telephone receiver at some distance from my ear, probably for about half an hour.

22:42 Nick: I’ve heard that’s not an uncommon experience, but in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples you’ve written and spoken extensively on the need to amend aspects of the Constitution and of the importance of the ‘Uluru Statement From the Heart’ and an indigenous voice within Australian Parliament. What do you think are the most critical and practical policy steps towards Reconciliation with First Nations Australians?

23:04 Frank: The first step always has to be to listen to Aboriginal people. So, for example on constitutional change, I had published a book in 2015 outlining what I thought might be achievable and what might cohere as an integral part of our constitution as it presently is. Well, those ideas I had to throw on the scrapheap once the Uluru Statement came out.

23:31 So, the starting point always has to be what Aboriginal people themselves articulate as what it is that they desire, but that’s not the sum total of what you have to do and this sometimes gets me into trouble, but I have long said that there’s a series of separate questions. First is what is it that Aboriginal people themselves want and it’s only a fool who would expect unanimity on that, and so you’ve got to be truly discerning about the Aboriginal processes in reaching an outcome as to what is articulated as the Aboriginal desire, but at the moment I’d say that there is a very strong consensus among most of the key Indigenous leaders that the Uluru statement is a satisfactory starting point for what it is that they are seeking.

24:25 So, the second question becomes well, alright, this is the aspiration of Aboriginal Australians, which of those aspirations are morally justified? And I think that requires a two-way conversation and I don’t think it’s patronising even for me as a white fella cleric to say that there is a need for that moral or ethical discussion to go on.

24:53 Then having determined which of the Aboriginal aspirations are morally justified, the question becomes which of those are politically achievable? Now, what’s politically achievable under a conservative government is usually different from what’s achievable under a Labor government and guess what? Often the Indigenous leadership has better access to the Labor leadership than to the leadership of conservative governments and so therefore when a conservative government is in power, there may be better utility in having well-meaning white fellas at the table as well in order to facilitate that outcome.

25:34 I think there’s then a fourth question which arises for each of us as citizens which is, well, of those politically achievable, ethically justified Aboriginal aspirations, to which of those am I going to actually commit myself? You know, give a bit of sweat and time and resources, and that’s a decision for each individual personally to make.

25:58 Now, in terms of our constitution there are provisions in our constitution, section 25 and section 51:26, which use the term ‘race’. Now, I’m an Australian who thinks that the term ‘race’ is an outdated term to appear in the Australian constitution. Section 25 is actually a useless section. It’s never been used. It should simply be abolished. Section 51:26, I think should be revised in order to ensure that it’s formulated that the Commonwealth can make laws for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and only after appropriate dialogue or consultation with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are to be affected by such laws.

26:45 So, it’s in that space that I think the work needs to be done, but at the moment you won’t hear much from me publicly on this sort of thing because I think the Aboriginal ideas have to germinate much more and I think they need to do much more in getting a coherent position which can be acceptable to both major political parties because make no mistake, the Australian Constitution is very democratic in this sense: it can only be amended by a super majority of the Australian people. That is, you need a majority of voters overall and you need a majority of voters in four of the six states. Hardly ever achieved and if it is achieved, it’s achieved when you have all major political parties at the table.

27:41 Nick: So, turning to the relationship between the Catholic Church in Australia and its relationship with indigenous Australians. I’ve long loved reading A New Zealand Prayer Book published by the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia. It’s filled with songs of praise, hymns and prayers in the Maori language, as well as hyperlocal references to New Zealand’s mountains, clouds and rivers. To me, this makes faith more real and tangible and accessible instead of trying to sort of understand obscure references to the Holy Lands which are obviously thousands and thousands of miles away which I’ve never experienced. An example of this is from one of the Eucharistic liturgies called Benedicte Aotearoa which I’ll read in full.

28:21 O give thanks to our God who is good:
whose love endures forever.
You sun and moon, you stars of the southern sky:
give to our God your thanks and praise.
Sunrise and sunset, night and day:
give to our God your thanks and praise.
All mountains and valleys, grassland and scree,
glacier, avalanche, mist and snow:
give to our God your thanks and praise.
You kauri and pine, rata and kowhai, mosses and ferns:
give to our God your thanks and praise.
Dolphins and kahawai, sealion and crab,
coral, anemone, pipi and shrimp:
give to our God your thanks and praise.
Rabbits and cattle, moths and dogs
kiwi and sparrow and tui and hawk:
give to our God your thanks and praise.
You Maori and Pakeha, women and men,
all who inhabit the long white cloud:
give to our God your thanks and praise.
All you saints and martyrs of the South Pacific:
give to our God your thanks and praise.

29:18 Could you reflect on the above prayer and speak a bit about how we can achieve this sense of an inclusive and authentically Australian Catholic faith with our indigenous brothers and sisters, which respects and accommodates their indigenous spiritualities and traditions?

29:32 Frank: Yes. Well, I remember well when Pope Paul John II came to Alice Springs in 1986 and met with the Aboriginal people. He said the Church in Australia will not be the Church that Jesus wants her to be until you the Aboriginal people have made your contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received by others, and I’ve always said that’s the Copernican revolution to which the Australian Church is called because people in the pews tend to be even more self-righteous than those out in the street, and when it comes to Aboriginal people often people have the approach, “What do they want from us this time?” Whereas what John Paul II said, it was for the Aboriginal people to make their contribution to the life of the Church and to that contribution to be joyfully received by others, those of us who are not Indigenous.

30:25 I mean, just think the beginning of this year, senior Australian of the year, Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr is a very dear friend of mine. We’ve known each other for 40 years. Now, there’s Miriam, Aboriginal women from Nauiyi Nambiyu and the Daly River. That was a mission originally of the Jesuits, set up in 1886.

30:48 Now, when you listen to Miriam-Rise Ungunmerr, when she speaks, she speaks about ‘dadirri’, that deep spirit of inner listening. You visit the church of Francis Xavier there at Nauiyi Nambiyu, the stations of the cross are painted by her. They’re completely indigenous and very eloquent. The pulpit painting of the church there is painted by her. It’s a very rich theological motif. In fact, my mother did a tapestry of it for the ordination vest in which I was ordained in 1995.

31:29 With Aboriginal Australians, I’m privileged every year in July for Aboriginal Sunday, to celebrate the mass at their small reconciliation church at La Perouse in Sydney where they come together and they celebrate a truly authentic indigenous liturgy and if only the benefits of that could be shared with the community more generally, as is eloquently done for the New Zealanders in the prayer that you’ve just read.

31:57 Nick: Another Labor leader and Prime Minister [Kevin Rudd] also described you as an ‘ethical burr in the saddle of the nation’. To this end, you’ve been a prominent advocate for the dignity and wellbeing of asylum seekers and refugees in Australia, often clashing with governments of the day on their immigration policies and criticising the treatment of asylum seekers. Can you take us back to your time directing the Jesuit Refugee Service in East Timor and the Tampa Affair in 2001 and talk about how these events shaped your values and work in this space?

32:26 Frank: Sure. I’ve actually just had a few delightful days with Kevin and Therese in Queensland and he’s of course been in COVID lockdown out here in Queensland, rather than at his office in New York, and it’s been great to catch up with him and reflect on a lot of the complex issues which presently confront our society and our world.

32:50 I remember in July 2013, I was in very sharp disagreement with him about refugee policy. It was in the lead up to a federal election and both he and Tony Abbott leading their political parties were engaged in what I thought was a race to the bottom, to assure the Australian public that they could be tougher than the other in the treatment of asylum seekers, and given that I knew both gentlemen fairly well, it was a very challenging time for me. Although as Kevin said to me on that occasion, “Well, Frank, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, and I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do,” and in politics that is so true.

33:31 But if we think back to 2001, yes, I was directing the Jesuit Refugee Service in East Timor. I remember the night on the streets of Dili where it was announced that the refugees on that boat, 433 of them, headed for Australia. They’d been taken on board the MV Tampa, a huge container ship and the question was where would they go because Prime Minister Howard was refusing permission for them to land on the Australian mainland. This is often forgotten by people.

34:09 But what then happened as one step along the way was Downer was our foreign minister and he put a request to Jose Ramos-Horta, one of the key Timorese leaders, whether Timor would take those 433.

34:28 There was I, an Australian director of a refugee service, in a country which had been all but wiped out by the conflagration after the referendum that had been held there, where at least a third of the population had been internally displaced or had gone across the border and where all of the infrastructure of Dili had been subjected to a complete firewall, and the thought that, yes, we Australians would say, “Oh well, couldn’t you just take an extra 433?” and the extraordinary thing was the Timorese were saying, “Well, after all Australia has done for us, maybe we should do them a favour,” and I remember it was Sergio de Mello who tragically was later killed in Iraq but who was the head of the UN mission who said there was no way that was going to be permitted, and I can say that there were many of us Australians working for NGOs in Dili at that time who joined the chorus in saying, “No way, not in our name.”

35:44 So, ever since then we Australians — I mean, it was Keating of course who once said that one of the great benefits of being Australians was when continents were being given out, there weren’t too many of them and we got a whole one to ourselves. Now, on one level that makes the design of a refugee and migration policy all the easier, but what is essential for Australia is to be able to design a secure border protection policy and a well-ordered migration policy, but which does not cause serious damage to the lives of people who are found in the interface.

36:31 I remember early after the Tampa, I went to Parliament House in Canberra after I returned from East Timor and I went into the office of the very blunt speaking Bill Heffernan who was a Liberal senator, came from Junee, country New South Wales, and I walked in and Bill said to me, “Now, I know you’ll be very upset what we’re doing about the refugees.” I said, “Bill, that’s right.” He said, “Let me tell you, the hardest decision I ever had to make when in local government was when the bushfires were coming through and we had to decide whose property was going to constitute the fire break.” He said, “Frank, we’re setting up a fire break now and those caught in the fire break will be hurt, but there’s no other way to deal with it.”

37:22 Now, it’s that complexity that we’re dealing with and it plugs into one of the truisms I’ve always had about this sort of advocacy, particularly as a church person. I’ve always said you’ve got to be eyeballing both the decision maker and those adversely affected by the decision and if you’re eyeballing both, at least it stops you from becoming sanctimonious.

37:48 You see that compromises are needed but I do think over the years, both political parties have been at fault in two particulars. One is I don’t think we’ve been sufficiently transparent with what we’ve done in sending boats back or turning boats around. I think we’ve got to be fair dinkum with the Australian public as to what we do there. Secondly, I think we have used detention as a deterrent when it’s unnecessary and keeping people locked up on places like Nauru and Manus Island for many years…

38:28 Nick: Young children as well…

38:29 Frank: It just doesn’t work and it’s wrong.

38:30 Nick: So, what are some of the critical policy changes that you’d like to see in this space which would be consistent with your vision of a more humane and ethical Australia?

38:39 Frank: I think there would be three things. First, there would be a transparent process for dealing with people on water when they are in boats headed for Australia. I would support, even though many refugee advocates would not, some form of on-water prompt assessment of people who might be screened out as being not from countries which are presently producing refugees. That would be step one.

39:15 Step two would be that I would favour a system of detention while matters of identity and security are determined, but I think once those matters are determined then I think people should be allowed to remain in the community while their claims are assessed, but the corollary of that is when people are found not to be refugees. I think you are justified in taking them back into detention so as to provide what you might called the incentive for voluntary return to the countries from which they’ve come.

39:56 The final thing would be that I do not see any justification for the offshore processing of people in places like Nauru and Manus Island. I think that the cost of that has been to prostitute those nation states in ways which are contrary to the values which we want to espouse in terms of our foreign policy.

40:21 Nick: So, what have been some of the most moving or seminal moments throughout your working career with refugees and asylum seekers in terms of personal contact? Have you visited Nauru or Manus Island or the Woomera Detention Centre?

40:35 Frank: Well, no, I’ve never been to Manus or Nauru. I was to go to Nauru at the height of things, but my visa was revoked, and I remember meeting with Minister Ruddock at the time who told me that he could assure me that neither he nor his department had blackballed me, but he couldn’t speaker for Alexander which was Alexander Downer as the Foreign Minister.

41:01 I used to visit Woomera and Baxter Detention Centres quite regularly. In fact, every month during 2002 and 2003, and there I often encountered very moving experiences. I remember Easter 2002, there was a riot at Woomera. I was conducting in fact the Good Friday service in the Woomera Detention Centre. Mind you, I think there were a lot of Muslims in attendance, and I was warned halfway through the service that something was going to erupt. There was then a riot and we were not allowed back in until Easter Tuesday. I remember going back on Easter Tuesday, a young lawyer calling me into an interview room where I met a five year old boy who had bruises to his legs which were consistent with the mother’s account that he’d been hit with a baton and sprayed with tear gas in a sterile zone during the riot, and I remember in a very upset way writing to Philip Ruddock and later meeting with him saying that, “I know you think the buck stops somewhere else, but when it comes to a five year old child being hit with a baton and tear gas in a sterile zone at Woomera, the buck has to stop with you, Minister, and these things cannot be done in our name.”

42:27 Constantly during those years, I met families who were fleeing the most dreadful distress and finding themselves in circumstances where they were being retraumatised and I thought that was dreadful that it was done in our name.

42:43 Nick: Thank you for sharing all of that. Pope Benedict XVI published three volumes of a series called ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ which he described as his personal search for the face of the Lord. How do you understand Christ and how has your personal witness of Christ informed your work with the most vulnerable members of our Australian and global communities?

43:02 Frank: Well, for me Christ is the one who is the very embodiment of the spirit of God who accords dignity to each and every human person and at every step along the way from womb to tomb, and he does it in a way which is healing which is liberating and which is able to transcend the evil which surrounds him in the world, so that for me, yes, Jesus is a model of behaviour but he is also the exemplar of God’s action in the world, and therefore in Him I find my hope and for me increasingly, it’s hope which is the cardinal virtue which I think is most important. In the midst of despair, where do we find that hope?

44:06 I had an experience once. I was working in a large refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border. I remember coming back from lunch one day and saying to a young Khmer man, “How are you?” and tried to cheer him up, said it was a nice, sunny day and smiling and all that sort of thing. I thought that’s what a young Australian can do, bring a bit of hope to these people, and he looked at me and he said, “It is all very well for you, but I am a Khmer, a Cambodian,” and that said it all, and I realised that night. I went home and I thought I can’t bring him hope. He’s got to find hope within his situation.

44:50 But what I did conclude was this: that he and the Khmer people needed outsiders who could be there so that when they found that hope, there would be someone to whom it could be expressed and I’ve long since thought that hope which is unexpressed is hope which dies and for me spiritually, Jesus is the one who accompanies us along the way, particularly those who are poorest and most marginalised, who is able to evoke that hope which can be found in the midst of suffering and even of death.

45:33 So, for me the Christian life is one which bespeaks the complete unity of all that is best in humanity being expressed in one who is God-like, who came amongst us so that we might have a path to salvation.

45:57 Nick: We’ve spoken on other occasions about your day-to-day work as a priest, such as performing the last rites at Royal Melbourne Hospital during the recent COVID lockdowns. Could you reflect more broadly on the daily work of a priest with an emphasis of those personal encounters with the vulnerable and disadvantaged, and what it’s like to be present in momentous life rituals and occasions such as birth, marriage and death?

46:19 Frank: For me increasingly it’s one of the great privileges of being a priest, that you’re there at the critical moments of people’s lives and you’re there as the one who represents the community and you’re there as one who is being a representative of Christ in evoking the Christian sentiment there in the community.

46:42 So, for me like during the COVID crisis here in Melbourne — I mean, I only went in a couple of afternoons a week but, I mean, there were a lot of annointings to be done as people were dying in the hospitals at that time — and people were not allowed to have visitors and being there in the full PPE with nurses who were there just to hold the hand of the one who was dying.

47:07 I remember for example one evening going in and the nurse was there holding an iPad so that the dying man could speak to his wife out in rural Victoria and the wife was telling him, “Darling, you’ve always been a fighter, but you can let go now. Now is the time to go and you can be at peace.” Now, that is just such a privilege to be in that sort of situation and in the sacramental moments, to be able to celebrate that.

47:45 The other part of it is that even for those who aren’t engaged in what you might call ‘the sacramental ministry’ but those moments where you are privileged to accompany people as they confront the evil or the mortality or the suffering or the sickness, that this it becomes routine in your life and it is the stuff of human life.

48:13 I think particularly nowadays — well, pre-COVID — it was very easy for young people in Australia not to have strong notions about mortality or suffering, particularly if they came from good middle-class families and getting an education because there was always the prospect that, “Life for me is going to be better than it was for my parents and than it was for my grandparents.” Well, I think what COVID has now reminded us of once again is our mortality and the contingency of our existence and to be able to accompany people in that, not in a patronising way but to see the fullness of human experience being lived out in that, is for me priestly work.

48:59 Nick: Yeah, certainly, and one of the things that strikes me most about your reflections this evening is how real and proximate your experiences have been to the full spectrum of humanity and being human, at both its best and its worst.

49:13 Frank: I think I’ve been blessed in that regard but I’d say also that particularly it’s a blessing in disguise of the last few years where the church doesn’t enjoy the social standing it used to, and therefore as a priest you don’t enjoy the social standing that you used to and therefore it’s all the more necessary to be very real and it’s all the more necessary to have those personal relationships because the stereotypes out there are just so adverse at the moment.

49:44 Nick: How have these kinds of experiences compared with your executive leadership work as CEO of Catholic Social Services Agency where you worked in the social justice space for a macro or systematic level? Do you have a balance between executive work and being at the coal face and do you prefer one or the other?

50:00 Frank: When I was contemplating taking on the job of CEO as Catholic Social Services, I spoke to a mate of mine, Fred Camera, who had done the equivalent job in the United States and he said to me, “Frank, do it. It’s a great job, a great job.” He said, “It’s a combination of being an itinerant preacher and an enabler of people, many of whom feel alienated from the church but who think the church at its best is doing good work and you are able to give them some hope and some realisable goal that they can do good work.”

50:47 So, that very much stood by me as I spent a lot of time getting around the country, looking at the work of the formation, particularly of the middle order leaders in all of those Catholic welfare relief agencies.

51:05 The other thing I remember though and it was the time when I thought maybe it’s time to leave Canberra, I had my first discussion with Christian Porter who had just become a Federal cabinet minister. He was the minister for social security, and I said to him, “Christian, are you any relation to old Charlie Porter?”

51:25 Nick: The athlete…

51:26 Frank: He said, “Yes, he was my grandfather,” and I said, “Yes, I thought there was some relationship.” I said, “I debated your grandfather in the Pilbeam Theatre in Rockhampton on Aboriginal land rights in 1982 when he’d just recently finished as Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s minister for Aboriginal Affairs.” After the meeting, I thought to myself when it gets to the stage that the newest cabinet minister is the grandson of someone you used to deal with, it’s probably time to leave town.

51:59 So, then coming here to Newman when talking about my Provincial about whether I’d come here, I said, “Well, I’ll be turning 66. I think I could do this maybe until I’m 75,” and it’s an opportunity where two things which I’ve always done. I want to render comprehensible the Catholic faith to intelligent Catholics out there through my preaching and writing, etc.

52:29 Second, I want to continue to bring the strength of Catholic social teaching to bare in the public square, particularly in the relation to the rights of the poorest and most marginalised, but third, I wouldn’t mind giving it a go being available to participate in the lives of young people who are at that vital stage in life contemplating what it is that they might do.

52:55 Now, it’s the third which is new to me because the one year I’ve been here has been in COVID. I’m not quite sure how good I am at that yet, but I think it is a very graced opportunity, particularly when I think back to when I was a first-year university student and those years — 71, 72 — they were so formative for me in my world view as to what I wanted to do. So, I think the opportunity to be able to walk that journey. If there’s a bit of administrative work to be done along the way, well so be it.

53:30 Nick: Yeah, and finally Frank, what’s your vision for Newman College over the next decade to provide that nourishing spiritual, intellectual and social environment for young people at those critical years of their lives, given we’ve seen so much disruption to education in the 21st century as well as through COVID?

53:47 Frank: I would hope that any student coming to Newman would see that here is an opportunity for my full human flourishing, my gifts to be really treasured and for me to be taken seriously with the diversity of views that I hold and that what is the strength of the Catholic tradition might be made comprehensible to me, whether I be a believer, an agnostic, an atheist, whatever my religion might be.

54:19 I was just reading Clive James recently, his Cultural Amnesia, and he was reflecting on the Lithuanian poet, Milosz, who once wrote, “The scriptures are the common good of believers, agnostics and atheists,” and I think it’s a rather good line. Not only is the common ground, but the common good, that it’s in the scriptures, it’s for me in the Catholic tradition. What is it? It’s been centuries of human reflection on what is the ultimate good in the human situation in which we find ourselves.

55:00 So, I would hope for the students here that they see that it’s not something which is constricting, but it’s an environment where they can see no matter what the spirit of the age out there, there is something to be said for traditions, for institutions, for trust, for notions of community, ideas of ritual and also notions of prayer and sacramentality, that these are notions which I think can strongly complement what is the spirit of the age, about individualism, human rights, self-authentication, spirituality, things of that sort.

55:43 Nick: Really wonderful stuff. Well, Father Frank Brennan, thank you so much for your time this evening. It’s been a real honour and a privilege to speak with you.

55:48 Frank: Thank you. Great to be with you, Nick, and wish you well for the future.

55:51 Nick: Thank you.

Writer and podcaster in Melbourne, Australia www.nickfabbri.com

Writer and podcaster in Melbourne, Australia www.nickfabbri.com