Religions for Peace Australia resolved at the recent Annual General Meeting on Sunday 6th June 2021, to write to the Prime Minister. One of our RfPA network roles is to assist with multi/intra-faith matters and social cohesion across the nation. In this regard, we raise three matters with the Prime Minister: Bringing Australians Home, the COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout and Financial Support during Future Lockdowns.
Re.: INTERFAITH LEADERS: THREE MATTERS of CONCERN
Greetings from Religions for Peace Australia (www.religionsforpeaceaustralia.org.au), Australia’s (and the world’s) leading interfaith organization with affiliated branches in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart, Canberra and members in Perth and Darwin. Our major objectives are interfaith understanding, multicultural and interreligious harmony and social cohesion. We are a member nation state together with 20 other nation states of the Asian Conference of Religions for Peace, also known as Religions for Peace Asia with the secretariat in Tokyo and also with the international secretariat (95 member states) in New York, working closely with the U.N. and its various agencies.
Firstly, we would like to thank you for all the work you and your government, together with the National Cabinet and the States and Territories, have been doing in the past eighteen months for our country during the perilous time of the COVID pandemic.
We are writing to you again as on Sunday 6th June 2021, we had our Religions for Peace Australia (RfPA) online Annual General Meeting and the Annual Discussions in which representatives or affiliates from all (but one) Australian states and territories were present. It is relevant to note that this is our eighth RfPA meeting since COVID started. In addition, our Chairperson has been having regular online meetings with RfP Asia, RfP International and its partner UNICEF, and also he has participated in the weekly webinars of the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics which has been bringing together experts from across the world to discuss various COVID aspects, mainly relating to medical and allied health issues, but also religion and interfaith issues.
As multifaith leaders, we heartily commend your government for your swift action early last year in closing our international borders, in setting up the National Cabinet, in initiating Job Keeper, in initially raising the New Start payment level, although at the time we expressed our concern about the situation of international students and Temporary Working Visa people who were not being cared for. We conclude by noting that Australia is currently in a better financial and employment position than most other OECD countries.
Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, RfPA has met more often than normal as we are mindful, that as far as we know, no other group of multifaith leaders is regularly meeting across our nation. This is why we need a national interfaith council.
One of our RfPA network roles is to assist with multi/intra-faith matters and social cohesion across the nation. Therefore, in the past and more so during this COVID-19 time, we have informed State and Federal Governments and agencies of our observations and concerns.
Hence, the reason for this letter today as we, as interfaith leaders, wish to express our concern about three matters which were raised in our Annual Discussions on 7th. June.
- Bringing Australians Home
- COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout
- Financial Support during Future Lockdowns
1. Bringing Australians Home
While we welcome any efforts your Government and the State Governments have taken to bring Australians home, our committee is deeply concerned at the Federal Government’s inability to bring Australians home quickly enough, in particular, the approximately thirty thousand Australians in India.
Given that the Federal Government has the primary constitutional responsibility for quarantine, we welcome the new joint initiative to set up purpose-built quarantine facilities in Victoria and elsewhere besides the Howard Springs facility.
However, as multifaith leaders we struggle to understand the Federal Government’s resistance towards fulfilling their constitutionally mandated quarantine responsibilities from the beginning of the pandemic and so we respectfully ask two questions:
- Why were dedicated Federal Government quarantine facilities not set up mid 2020 in several states?
- Why have we not had Qantas or other contracted aircraft carriers performing mass evacuations from India and elsewhere to bring returning Australians to these purposely built federal quarantine facilities and not to hotels in major cities where COVID has escaped now over twenty times?
As a nation it is our moral duty to care for our most vulnerable at this time of need, including the many Australians who are still overseas and wish to come home.
2. COVID Vaccine Rollout
We are pleased that the vaccine roll out has begun, and we appreciate the supply issues. However, as faith leaders we are deeply concerned at the slowness of the roll out and the issue of vaccine hesitancy appears to need more attention.
We draw your attention to our RfPA statement on vaccine hesitancy. It [the vaccine roll out] is for the Common Good of all our fellow citizens. The Common Good says that we cannot all be safe until each one of us is safe. The Common Good is reached when we work together to improve the safety, well-being and good health of every person in our society.
A number of faith leaders in our network stated they have not been involved in consultations by either Federal or State Governments on how to reduce vaccine hesitancy. For example, male and female faith leaders with their theological and moral frameworks may be able to assist in alleviating the vaccine hesitancy that may be present within some faith communities.
We ask that, for the sake of (1) Australians’ general health, (2) family reunions with overseas family members and (3) for our future economic advancement, that your government redouble efforts with the vaccine rollout. We offer our assistance as faith leaders in reviewing strategies for addressing vaccine hesitancy within faith communities, for the common good.
3. Financial Support During Future Lockdowns
Our RfPA members are deeply concerned about the lack of Federal Government financial support for individuals, for example during the fourth Victorian lockdown and in lockdowns in other States. We know businesses were grateful for some support from State Governments yet anecdotally we hear that financial aid has been slow to reach businesses. We note your media comment that, if Federal financial aid were to be given to those who lost their jobs due to the lockdowns, this would encourage State Governments to initiate further COVID lockdowns. We respectfully suggest this statement does not account for various factors:
- Firstly, medical advice suggests there will be more lockdowns in various states, territories or hotspot areas in the future, as COVID-19 knows no borders, especially with its mutants and today we have no purpose built quarantine facilities nor sufficient fully vaccinated citizens.
- Secondly, given that the JobKeeper Allowance, rent and mortgage amnesties have ceased, and it takes time to receive Centrelink and Disaster payments, many families and individuals turn to insufficient welfare services to avoid becoming hungry and homeless, or suffer alone.
- Thirdly, overseas students, casual hospitality and fitness workers, beauty service personnel and others, for instance, have disproportionately suffered financially during the fourth lockdown in Victoria and other current lockdowns taking place to protect the common good.
We therefore urge for both moral and social cohesion purposes that both Federal and State Governments urgently need to develop clear contingency plans of how to provide immediate financial support to people within a few days of a lockdown and subsequent restrictions. It is evident that further lockdowns and resulting restrictions will occur, therefore support payments need to be provided for all who cannot work due to COVID restrictions.
In addition, RfPA is very mindful that the medical, social and economic consequences of COVID-19 are only just beginning. Please feel free to contact us if we can be of any further assistance.
Finally, as faith leaders we wish to mention that you, your families and your staff are regularly in our prayers during this very demanding time.
On behalf of the executive of Religions for Peace Australia, warm regards,
Emeritus Professor Des Cahill OAM,
Chair, Religions for Peace Australia
Deputy Moderator, Asian Conference of Religions for Peace