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Faith-Based Peak Bodies Signal Commitment to Social Justice

6 December 2017 at 4:41 pm
Luke Michael
Faith-based peak bodies have spoken of the challenges representing the diversity of their constituents and their commitment to advocating on social issues, during a conference bringing together Victoria’s broad religious community.

Luke Michael | 6 December 2017 at 4:41 pm


Faith-Based Peak Bodies Signal Commitment to Social Justice
6 December 2017 at 4:41 pm

Faith-based peak bodies have spoken of the challenges representing the diversity of their constituents and their commitment to advocating on social issues, during a conference bringing together Victoria’s broad religious community.

The Faith-Based Governance and Dispute Resolution Conference, held at The Sir Zelman Cowen Centre at Victoria University, aimed to address best practice governance and examine the challenges brought about by increased regulatory scrutiny and intensified community expectations.

On Wednesday, representatives from three major faith-based peak bodies spoke during a session about “how to keep a broad and diverse membership base on side, influence change, manage funding, and other challenges” facing these peak bodies.

Included as panellists were executive director of the Islamic Council of Victoria, Nail Aykan, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, David Marlow, and executive officer of the Victorian Council of Churches, Rev Ian Smith.

Social entrepreneur and human rights lawyer Zione Walker-Nthenda chaired the session, and told Pro Bono News that examining how these peak bodies represented the diversity of their constituencies was prominently discussed.

“The Jewish Council of Victoria (JCV) for example has members from the very far right to the very far left, very orthodox to not very religious. So how do they develop policies and stick to one voice with the government and the media when your constituency may have very different views?” Walker-Nthenda said.

“The Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) is very diverse also, in age, ethnicity, national origin and how their constituents practise Islam. It is the same with the Victorian Council of Churches (VCC). That was the key unifying challenge all of them raised.”

But despite the challenges, these peak-bodies said they were not afraid to advocate on contentious issues, although Walker-Nthenda said it was easier for ICV and JCV to speak out as they did not need to take a religious standpoint.

“I thought that given this, it would be impossible, but every peak body said they actually do end up formulating views and that it’s important to get a seat at the table,” she said.

“They have slightly different ways of formulating views, but they all agree that they’ve got to take leadership. They rarely got consensus on contentious issues but as long as the process remains transparent… and most constituents agree, then that’s good enough, as opposed to trying to please everyone.”

While the conference looked to get faith-based communities to consider the implications and their response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the Royal Commission into Family Violence in Victoria, Walker-Nthenda said this issue was not really discussed during the session.

“Rather, the issues that they talked about as having were more around compliance. Lots of member organisations, especially smaller ones, need to build compliance with child safety regulations, working with children checks etc. Looking at the influence of the church, Rev Ian Smith said they’re seeing that younger people in particular don’t identify as denominational,” she said.

“They also recognise that on account of [issues around] a secular society, a lot of young people are disengaging with faith full stop, not just the church. But he said that’s an ongoing issue for them to broaden their membership.

“But for young people grappling with these issues around the institutional responses to child sex abuse and so on, they have an open door policy where people can come and ask the hard questions and debate the hard issues. They found this is actually a way not necessarily to convert these people, but to get them through the door to debate these issues and get a sense of what the church is really about.”

Walker-Nthenda said despite the rise of a more secular society in Australia, religious groups still had the ability to affect significant change, although their direct influence on society varied.  

“I think it differs depending on the differing demographics. Certainly from the church’s perspective, as far as them representing people’s views, you might say mainstream populations think ‘you don’t speak on my behalf’… and some people see the church as almost being on the fringes [and] totally disregard them,” she said.

“But the Muslim community are actually finding their membership base growing. They’re finding their constituents are strongly aligned by faith and do believe the peak body has a right to speak on their behalf and want them to speak on their behalf.

“With the Jewish Council, one of the things that was spoken about is that they have a strong sense of collective ownership of the organisation. So any time they have a meeting it’s open door and people are highly engaged. However, they also have an aging demographic and an increasingly shrinking young demographic. So even though it’s a highly engaged demographic [its] membership base keeps shrinking.”

She also said that faith-based organisations still had the “brand” and commitment to social justice to champion human rights now and into the future.

“Where they do have a role is in the culture and tradition that’s aligned with social justice. So while there is a diversity of views, I think there’s a general understanding that even in a secular based society, faith-based organisations traditionally draw their authority or mandate from social justice principles,” Walker-Nthenda said.

“One of the things we also talked about was the tussle with free speech and freedom of religion. We talked a bit about the 18C coalition that was actually led by these faith-based bodies… and the non-faith based organisations involved seemed comfortable with faith-based organisations taking control.

“The reason for this is that all the various community organisations… at least all recognised that these faith-based organisations stood for social justice. So it’s still a ‘brand’ that’s associated with all these faith-based organisations that they can still leverage off with contemporary society.”                           

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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