Now the left is coming after our church hospitals
27 May 2023
It has been the practice of authoritarians down the ages to appropriate the property and assets of individuals and institutions they have sought to silence and subjugate. The examples are manifold. From Henry VIII’s England through Napoleon’s France to Stalin’s Soviet Union and Xi’s China, the pattern has been repeated. A favourite target has been religious institutions. Churches, monasteries, temples, mosques and synagogues have been acquired and destroyed by the state time and again. The practice is not unexpected in autocracies, but is particularly shocking when deployed in democratic states. Hence the outrage at the announcement by the government of the Australian Capital Territory that it proposes to acquire and close down Calvary Hospital only to build a new hospital next door.
The story of Calvary should be celebrated, not ridiculed and rejected by the ACT government. On 4 November, 1885, six religious Sisters of the Little Company of Mary arrived in Sydney on the SS Liguria. The Company had been founded just eight years earlier by Mary Potter, a 29-year-old woman who converted an old stocking factory in Nottingham into a convent and began working with the poor.
Five years later she gained approval for her religious order and established a hospital to serve the poor. Just three years later, the enterprising band of six women made the long sea voyage to Australia where they started nursing, opened a school for the blind, established a night refuge and soup kitchen for women and children in Woolloomooloo and taught children, including under a tree, in Redfern.
Three years later, the foundation stone for their first hospital – later to become Lewisham Hospital – was laid. Opening in 1889, it operated for a century. By 1890, the number of sisters had grown to nearly fifty, as more and more young women joined their cause. Hospitals were established in many parts of Australia as the sisters sought to meet the challenges of providing health and aged care to tens of thousands of people.
In 1979, the Commonwealth government invited the congregation to establish a hospital in Canberra. That hospital has now served the people of Canberra for over four decades.
With the number of sisters dwindling by the end of the 20th century – a phenomenon not restricted to religious orders – the congregation sought to ensure the continuation of their charitable works. They established a new body, Calvary Ministries, which took over stewardship of the health care ministry and continued the work under the charism of the order’s founder, Mary Potter.
This story is similar to that of many other religious orders which founded hospitals, homes for the aged, schools and other educational institutions. Similar work has been undertaken by other Christian denominations and other faith groups. Without this work, generations of Australians would have been poorer, less healthy and less well-educated. The youngest founding sister of the six who first came to Australia recorded a diary of the journey to Australia, closing with the words, ‘…a work whose foundation were laid in dire poverty and planted deep in the Cross. Does this not teach us what a mighty tree grows from the Mustard Seed, watered and nurtured by the early traditions of our young Congregation. And as another era has begun, may each year unfold golden sheets, surpassing far anything that has gone before….’
But now a hubristic and arrogant ACT government is planning to axe the mighty tree that is Calvary hospital. No discussion has occurred, no reason given, just the unbridled will of the Barr government. This is authoritarianism laid bare.
The issue is not about care. If it was, the ACT’s main hospital, the Canberra Hospital would be in the gun, having been the subject of a scathing independent review in 2019 about its culture. Nor can it be financial management. The Calvary is being competently conducted. Indeed, Calvary Ministries has recently finished building a new 342-bed hospital in Adelaide for $350 million. The ACT claims it will cost almost three-times that amount, $1 billion, to build a new 500-bed hospital to replace the Calvary!
No, the real reason appears to be the ideological obsession of the far-left administration in the ACT to brook no plurality of opinion on life issues like abortion and euthanasia.
A 2022 ACT inquiry into the provision of abortion services accused Calvary of restricting ‘medical services’ ‘due to an overriding religious ethos’. Given the same report notes that abortions are day procedures undertaken by other providers in the ACT, and not done (except in emergency situations) at either Calvary or the Canberra Hospital, the prejudice and sectarianism of the government is glaring. Providing ‘a full suite of fertility services’ was also the reason given for an attempted takeover in 2010.
The 120-year lease to Calvary still has 76 years to run. The government’s initial refusal to articulate a case for its proposed actions reveals how flimsy it is. It can more easily acquire the land than in the states because all property in the ACT is leased from the government and not owned as freehold title. It had sought last year to reduce the lease to 25 years, and then abruptly ended discussions. The belated claim that this is about providing a single network of healthcare ignores the fact that in many other places multiple providers cooperate to that end.
The belief that this proposal is about abortion – and euthanasia, which the ACT plans to introduce – is well-founded. Is the next institution to be acquired Clare Holland House, the praised palliative care service also operated by Calvary?
This is not a Catholic issue, nor even a Christian one. If the ACT government can acquire a well-functioning, viable hospital that is providing first-rate healthcare to the populace, what else can it acquire? Independent schools? Clubs with pokies? Greyhound and horse racing tracks? The premises of organisations that oppose its political views? This is a dangerous precedent which should be resisted by everyone who values the freedoms and toleration that our polity is built upon.
When ongoing respectful discussions about how we can live together and appropriate compromises are trumped by government dictates, authoritarianism has truly arrived.