AUSTRALIA FACES a winter of discontent on a number of fronts.

Industrial strife on the waterfront, the Prospect of a race influenced general election, the increasing impact of a burgeoning gambling culture, continued unemployment and division and dissent within the churches all combine to add to the greying horizon of Australian society.

The Prime Minister, his deputy and a bevy of senior ministers have been involved in another slanging match with some religious leaders after the churches attacked the Federal Government’s apparent plans to call an election after the Senate’s rejection of the Native Title Amendment Bill.

At Easter five church leaders, including the Archbishop of Perth, Dr Peter Carnley, published an open letter highly critical of the government’s approach to race relations. Added to this has been criticisms by the Primate of Australia, Dr Rayner, and other prelates of the Federal Government’s strong support for the tough industrial relations stance of certain operators on the Australian waterfront.

A number of politicians have countered with the accusation that their religious leaders – and certainly some of the policy arms of their churches – are seriously out of step with their congregations on issues such as Native Title.

“Lucky Country”

Australians have a reputation for enjoying a wager but now comes news that last year they lost $5 billion on poker machines alone! For most state governments money from poker machines is the fastest growing source of revenue. Last year the Victorian Government collected more than $ 1. 1 billion in gaming taxes, an increase of $94 million on the previous year. Slightly more than half of the money, $589 million, came from pokies.

There is growing community disquiet over the negative social impact of the gaming culture. Churches and social welfare groups point to the very real disadvantage that many Australian families now experience due to the impact of gambling.

A recent survey by Victoria’s Casino and Gaming Authority found the increase in money spent on gambling between 1990 and 1996 was stronger than spending on retail goods and services. A spokesman for the Victorian Council on Problem Gambling, Rob Wootton, said the impact of gaming is being felt across the social spectrum affecting people from “professional workers to process workers”.

Despite the public concerns over the impact of a growing gaming culture, Victoria’s Premier, Jeff Kennett, describes gambling as “good value” because many customers were senior citizens who would otherwise stay at home and feel isolated.

Adding his endorsement to a “bread and circus” regime of Casino promotions and Big Events such as Motor Racing Grand Prix Races, the Premier labels opponents of gambling as “usually having a political or philosophical objection”.

The Anglican bishops of the province of Victoria issued a Pastoral Letter in 1906 critical of the Australian gaming culture and today’s church leaders are again in the forefront of critics of this variant of the “Lucky Country”.

Unholy Rift

Despite the attempts of the hierarchy of the Anglican Church of Australia to gloss over the disaster in the Torres Strait the divisions and defections continue apace. St Mark’s Day saw the consecration of

Canon Gayai Hankin and Father David Passi as bishops of the new Church of the Torres Strait by the Traditional Anglican Communion.

The bitterness is only likely to be exacerbated by wrangling over the ownership of churches throughout the Torres Strait. The Anglican Church of Australia claims unfettered ownership of the church buildings, but forgets that most stand on Crown land, on short-term leases that need to be renewed soon. Bishop David Passi was one of the litigants in the famous Mabo Case that was determined before the High Court of Australia with its landmark decision that upheld native title.

The disunity and factionalism of the Anglican Church of Australia is disturbing despite the attempts to portray the recent General Synod as evidence of a new era of consultative and consensus governance. Papered over as a kind of blessing, the old Anglican claim of comprehensiveness is trotted out, with the slogan: “Unity in diversity”.

The General Synod is presented as having given the go-ahead to a wide-ranging plan to “shape the face” of the national Church. Heralded as a move to make the church more outward-looking and engaged with the Australian community advertisements have been placed inviting Anglicans to nominate for appointment to a bevy of short term ‘task groups’.

It will be interesting to see just how inclusive the new task groups are allowed to be and the extent to which articulate representatives of traditionalists within Anglicanism are welcomed aboard.

Few of us are holding our breath!

Martin Hislop is Anglican Chaplain to the University of Ballarat in the province of Victoria.