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The Uniting Church in Australia (Membership of Trust) Amendment Bill

The Hon. A.L. McLACHLAN ( 16:05 :10 ): I rise to speak to the Uniting Church in Australia (Membership of Trust) Amendment Bill 2015 and to put forward the views of the Liberal Party. Can I indicate at the outset that the opposition will be supporting the passage of the bill in this council. The bill was introduced by Attorney-General on 11 February 2015 following a request from members of the Uniting Church. The Uniting Church in Australia Act 1977 was passed to make the relevant amendments to the state law when the three churches—Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian—sought union.

The act was needed in order to facilitate the coming together of these three great traditions of the Christian faith, and even though I am considered by some in this place relatively young, I can recall the angst to many in the three faiths, but more particularly the Presbyterian Church, at the proposition of this union. The Presbyterian Church for we Scots not only served as a place for us to worship but also to keep our culture alive so far from our motherland, which many of us were forced to leave.

The union of these three expressions of the Christian faith proceeded in accordance with the act, but more particularly in accordance with the basis of the union, which was set out in the first schedule and which I would encourage members to read as it is beautifully drafted as a clear expression of the faith both of the three threads of the Christian faith but also of the principles of the union.

The 1977 act also established a property trust to hold all property of the newly formed Uniting Church, with the trust activities remaining under the control of the synod. At that time, it was considered appropriate that a 70-year age limit was imposed on the members of the trust. In August last year, the Uniting Church wrote to the Attorney-General indicating that their board members and the members of its property trust had agreed to pursue an amendment of the trust.

An amendment was sought for the removal of section 11(4) of the original act, that ‘No person who has attained the age of 70 years shall be eligible for appointment as a member of the trust.’ The letter, and I will quote from the same, is dated 19 August 2014 addressed to the Attorney-General from Peter Battersby, Executive Officer Resources, Uniting Church in Australia Property Trust (SA). The letter stated:

The removal of this age restriction benefits the Church by allowing members who have at tained the age of seventy years to continue to serve on the T rust. Recently two members who have served the Church with distinction have regrettably concluded their tenure on the T rust and would have continued to serve , if not for this clause. Likewise, other valuable candidates who could serve on this Tr ust are ineligible , due to this clause. The implications of this clau se are outdated, discriminatory and no longer reflect the values of the Uniting Church or society’s expectations regarding age and volunteering.

In a subsequent paragraph, Mr Battersby goes on to say:

We would be most grateful if you , as Attorney-General , would sponsor and lead the amendment of this A ct including the preparation, introduction and passage of a Bill t hrough Parliament.

The bill that is currently before us in this place was drafted in accordance with this request and simply seeks to remove the 70 year age restriction. As the bill is a hybrid bill, it was necessary to refer it to a select committee. The select committee was established and comprised members of both sides of this house. Advertising for submissions took place, to which there was only one response, which came from the Uniting Church itself.

The Uniting Church wrote to the select committee in a letter dated 10 April 2015. I will be quoting from particular parts of this letter which was addressed to the select committee and was from three signatories: Deidre Palmer, Moderator, Uniting Church; Nigel Rogers, Secretary of the Synod, Uniting Church; and Peter Battersby, Property Officer, again of the Uniting Church. It states:

Following a review of The Uniting Church in Australia Act 1976-1977…The Uniting Church in Australia Property Trust (S.A.)…agreed to pursue this amendment to the Act. For your convenience, please find attached an extract from the minutes reflecting this decision and a copy of the letter sent to the Attorney General requesting the change to the Act.

The Uniting Church is well aware of the limitations of keeping the Act in its current form. In 2010 the first cohort of baby boomers entered an older age group of 65. In our experience this demographic includes a vibrant, productive and engaged workforce with much to contribute. Within our 300 congregations in South Australia many of our retirees have enjoyed long careers in which they have accumulated diverse skills and experience in professional, business and leadership arenas. Once retired they seek opportunities to contribute to the community in a meaningful way, on a part time or voluntary basis.

It seems clear that the legislation that limits an individual’s ability to contribute to society based on their age is discriminatory and outdated. In the case of the Uniting Church, the legislation in its current form limits our available Volunteers to serve on the Property Trust. Just recently the Property Trust farewelled two experienced and highly valued members who concluded their tenure on the Trust and would have continued to serve, if not for reaching 70  years of age.

The Uniting Church (S.A.) believes removing the age limitations of the Act will be a step towards recognising the changing needs of Australia’s population by creating opportunities for our older people to remain engaged in the community. As well it will better reflect the current thinking of the Uniting Church in respecting people of all ages and valuing volunteers.

The Liberal Party endorses those sentiments. Indeed, the Liberal Party has formed its position based on the report of a select committee that was laid on the table in the House of Assembly on 6 May 2015. The Liberal Party’s views have not only been informed by the report and the submissions of the Uniting Church, but also because the Liberal Party believes in these circumstances it is a matter for the Uniting Church how it constitutes its property committee and how it conducts its trust. It seems appropriate in this day and age to accede to the request and pass the amendment.

However, I would like to comment that there are other age restrictions in the community, and two immediately come to mind: one in the military and one for judicial officers. In the military, the rationale, as I understand it, is to ensure operational capability for defence. For judicial officers it has been a longstanding debate, which I understand continues to rage in legal circles, regarding the capability to work until they are of a certain age. Of course, we are in the modern age and people are healthier and even after they retire they continue to work whether it be as a volunteer or in another context. So we come to these age caps—I suppose I can call it—with a different lens and with a different perspective.

However, it does lead me to have regard to the proceedings of a select committee. These are simply observations. One cannot help thinking—and I stress these are not criticisms of a select committee—that the proceedings of select committees in the other place tend to be simply for compliance rather than necessarily seeking out diverse views in a range of these hybrid bills.

I take note that, in the minutes of the meeting of the select committee on 25 March, the inquiry strategy lists a number of bullet points, but one of them is that ‘no witnesses to be called unless issues raised in the submissions warrant the taking of further evidence’. Only one submission was received, following an Advertiseradvertisement.

One might reflect, with the benefit of hindsight, on whether there should be more active engagement of the Uniting Church community to seek their views, whether for or against, and I would suspect that most would be for. Indeed, it could be said that it was an unhealthy reliance upon simply an extract of the minutes, which I have referred to in the quote from Uniting Church, which is from the Property Committee, which has a number of individuals, variously described as chairperson, resourcing officer or minute taker or even observer. Minute No. 6.6.1 simply says:

That a review be undertaken of the Act and action initiated to amend the Act to bring it up to date noting in particular the need to amend Section 11(4).

The point I am raising is that there is nothing from the select committee’s report that I have read that is a broader assessment, simply taking the letter on faith that there has been a resolution from the Property Committee and not necessarily the general synod. In saying this, I in no way seek to denigrate the views—the very forceful views—of the moderator herself or the secretary or the property officer.

This is a time to pause and reflect, given if you compare it with the report of the select committee in relation to the bill—and I acknowledge that the original bill was very complicated and involved considerable angst in some parts of the three threads of the Uniting Church. It was quite detailed, and there were up to 20 witnesses, including the late Trevor Griffin, in his role as procurator of the Presbyterian Church of South Australia.

As we pass this bill, members of this council can reflect that perhaps we are a better place to conduct these select committees to ensure that there is sufficient consultation with membership. It may well be that everyone in Uniting Church is of one view in relation to passing these trusts, but in my experience in church affairs, it has often been that there will always be counterviews of varying degrees of weight. Perhaps I will leave my comments there. Perhaps it is the lawyer in me that I believe that these things need to be done with a degree of precision, rather than, as someone unfair might say and not myself, in the casual manner in which some select committees are conducted.

I reiterate that the Liberal Party supports the passage of this bill and endorses the sentiments expressed by the Uniting Church in its correspondence with the select committee. But, more broadly, we take the view that the Uniting Church should conduct its affairs as it sees fit, in accordance with its Christian conscience. With those remarks, I commend the bill to the council.

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