Blackleg Churches?

What follows is a precis of the Presidential address given at the 2001 conference of the Australian Association for the Study of Religions, Melbourne, July 2001. A more detailed version can be found in Australian Religion Studies Review 14(2) 2001 pp 5-16. ‘Blackleg Churches’ forms part of a longer study by Marion Maddox, For God and Country: Religious Dynamics in Australian Federal Politics (299pp., Canberra: Department of the Parliamentary Library 2001), available from The Parliament Shop, Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600, telephone (02) 6277 5050; fax (02) 6277 5068. Retail price A$20.00

Church, Government and Welfare Under Howard

The Howard Government is committed to moving more ‘coal face’ social welfare services out of the public sector and into the hands of community organisations (1). In particular, religious organisations have been encouraged to take up much of the void left by shrinking government.

One striking instance of this shift in Australia was replacing the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) with a Jobs Network of competing government and private agencies. In late 1999, Employment Services Minister Tony Abbott announced that almost a quarter of job placement contract funds had been won by church employment services.

One of the grounds for awarding tenders was price (2). Churches and other charitable organisations have a long history of providing much-needed services on tight budgets. Driven by pressing social needs, they lean heavily on volunteer labour, while paid workers have often accepted below-market rates. A sense of vocation is the unofficial trade-off for reduced pay and conditions. For these historical and economic reasons, church agencies have arguably developed a work culture structured around a philosophy of selfless service. Indeed, according to Employment Services Minister Tony Abbott, one key to the religious tenderers’ success was their ‘ethos of love and compassion and the brotherhood of man’ (3).

But that ethos, transferred to the employment market, raises problems of its own. The problems are thrown into relief when the church acts as an agent for government.

We can see both the tendering advantage and the industrial pitfalls more clearly by considering one example. Tim Costello’s Tips From A Travelling Soul-Searcher describes the highly successful WorkVentures project, which:
Has created a lot of employment for disadvantaged people, achieving a multi-million-dollar turn-over and becoming a successful tenderer for the recent JobNetwork contracts with the government. (4)

Costello attributes the success of WorkVentures to its employees’ integration between working and private life. One calls her work ‘a career without a salary’. The founder dreams of the project evolving into ‘a “living-working” village’, where ‘work is so meaningful and integrated with life that the distinction between the two disappears’ (5). Costello cites a study of WorkVentures by Melbourne theologian Gordon Preece, who, in Costello’s words, ‘sees the WorkVentures success as due in large part to its workers’ approach’, including being ‘willing to blur the lines between paid and unpaid work’ (6). That view is apparently shared by the government. Christian agencies, according to Alan Cadman, Liberal Member for Mitchell, were successful tenderers because they were the ones ‘prepared to go the extra miles and spend the extra time’ (7) to see results.

To the government, that willingness makes for better service. The implication is that high quality service involves high staff input-‘extra miles’ gone and ‘extra time’ spent. But the issue in tendering is not quality alone, but a relationship between quality and cost. One way to offer high quality for a low cost is to make some of that staff input unpaid. In the Jobs Network tendering system, WorkVentures and similar organisations are pitted against commercial job placement services, which are required to operate at a profit and whose employees are unlikely to choose ‘a career without a salary’. Translated out of New Testament phraseology, it is hard to see what ‘extra miles’ means other than that the successful Christian agencies are the ones whose employees did more work than they are paid for.

Although Costello applauds WorkVentures, another section of his book indicates that he is as aware as anyone of the ambiguities involved. Costello warns against believing ‘the GDP story’, shorthand for a view of life centred around economic gain and an ideology of ‘hard work leading to reward and material wealth for the individual’ (8). This ‘GDP story’ damages both individuals and communities, as the pressure to ‘do it faster, smarter and more efficiently’ leads to the ‘ratcheting up of tension and stress’ (9). Individuals see no choice but to try to out-compete one another. This leads, Costello reminds us, to spiralling working hours (10), a vanishing sense of security(11) and decimated families where no member has time to attend to the others. If we apply Costello’s critique of the effects of believing the ‘GDP story’ to the job network issue, we might see similar patterns, even though motivated by an entirely different ‘story’. If blending paid and unpaid work becomes a job requirement (either explicitly or as a result of the transformation of an entire sector of the economy through the competitive advantage of agencies staffed by people who have taken such a choice), then we would surely see workers experiencing similar personal and family pressures.

One traditional bastion against such pressures has been trade unions. Church agencies’ mix of volunteer workers and paid workers organised around a volunteer ethos has meant that church employees are among the least likely in the Australian workforce to be unionised. One effect of the Jobs Network system has been to reduce substantially the rate of unionisation among job placement workers. Anecdotal reports suggest that up to eighty per cent of CES employees were union members, making CES the Community and Public Sector Union’s ‘flagship portfolio’ (12). Its replacement by the Jobs Network has led to many positions being transferred to church-based agencies, in which unionisation is estimated at a fraction of that rate (13). Indeed, according to the Employment Services Minister, one of the Jobs Network’s achievements was its departure from ‘the … union-dominated, bureaucratic monolith of the CES’ (14).

Putting the Minister’s account another way, church agencies appear to have become a wedge to reduce union power in a once comprehensively unionised sector. That result may not have been anticipated by the church agencies themselves.

Marion Maddox
Religious Studies,
Victoria University, Wellington


1 See eg John Howard, ‘Fair Australia: Address to the Australian Council of Social Service’ (Headland Speech 3), Sydney, 13 October 1995.

2 Hon. Tony Abbott, Media Release ‘Job Network 2 Boosts Regional Australia’ 3 December 1999 and appended Key Points Fact Sheet

3 ABC TV 7:30 Report, 7 January 2000. On 30 January 2001, Tony Abbott’s portfolio was changed from Employment Services to Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business.

4 Tim Costello, Tips From A Travelling Soul Searcher Allen and Unwin, St Leonards (NSW), 1999, p. 77.

5 ibid.

6 ibid. See also Gordon Preece, Changing Work Values: A Christian Response Acorn Press, Brunswick (Vic.), 1995.

7 Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 1999-2000: Second Reading, House of Representatives Hansard, 16 February 2000, p.13561.

8 op. cit., p. 20.

9 ibid., p. 131.

10 ibid., p. 65.

11 ibid., p. 176.

12 Jenness Gardener, Community and Public Sector Union, telephone interview, Friday 19 May 2000.

13 Personal Communication, Jim Pietrowski, Australian Services Union.

14 ABC TV 7:30 Report, 7 January 2000.

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