Opinion

John Hewson
Selling off the dead

The separation of church and state has always been a foundational element of our political system. The constitution of Australia prevents the Commonwealth from establishing any religion or requiring a religious test for any office. This section of the constitution (section 116) does not apply to states, however: they are free to establish their own religions. Although no state has ever introduced a state church, two referendums have failed to extend section 116 to states.

Clearly this has never been a front-of-mind issue. The Australian people are generally supportive of the idea that faith can inform politicians and are accepting of the Christian framework of our parliament, where daily sessions begin with the Lord’s Prayer and the Bible is offered as a basis for swearing acceptance of office.

Still, a couple of policy initiatives have raised the separation of church and state over the years, most notably on school funding and the National School Chaplaincy Program. Recently, the implementation of the Gonski reform of school funding to reflect disadvantage has highlighted the issue.

While for most religious schools the funding was done from the centre, the Catholic Church launched a campaign to ensure that it received favoured treatment by being allowed to determine the allocation of funding within an agreed umbrella amount to their own schools, rather than have the government make the designation as part of its overall strategy to reset the budgeting and reflect disadvantage. It has been reported that the Catholic concept of “disadvantage” wasn’t consistent with the spirit of the Gonski reforms – apparently some of the posh Catholic schools were not that “disadvantaged” in their allocation.

The latest development in New South Wales politics – the ascension of a new premier, Dominic Perrottet – may soon see the increased influence of the Catholic Church in matters of NSW government administration. With Perrottet widely known to wear his extreme conservative Catholicism on his sleeve, it seems likely he may more actively engage the Catholic Church in the conduct of his government.

Rumours are rife in the sector about Perrottet’s activism on the curious issue of cemetery management, most conspicuously trotting Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher to meetings with Gladys Berejiklian, when she was premier, and key ministers, as well as facilitating the appointment of some of the most high-powered lobbyists and PR types to campaign on the issue.

The issue at hand is the NSW government’s intention to create a single ownership structure for cemeteries. Presently, Crown cemeteries are managed through five trusts or land managers including the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (CMCT), which is controlled by the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney. CMCT has mounted a legal counterpush to the Crown concept, wanting to take over the management of the cemeteries run by the other trusts. It is not clear whether they would want ownership of these cemeteries as well, although they have made a takeover bid in the past. Empire-building has always been a feature of the church, and Archbishop Fisher is certainly an empire-builder.

But a Catholic takeover would be a disaster. It would be incredibly offensive and divisive, and shows an appalling misunderstanding of the empathy required in the provision of cemetery services. Already a number of serious faith and ethnic voices have been raised, expressing outrage and indignation.

A decision in favour of the Catholics would risk undermining what has been one of the most significant national successes since World War II, namely the building of a successful and tolerant, multi-religious and multi-ethnic society – NSW has been a leader in this transition. In providing cemetery services, you are dealing with people under the extreme stress of grieving the death of a loved one. For many, this would be one of the most difficult times of their lives, which requires very careful sympathy and understanding of the significant differences in attitudes to death among various faiths and ethnic practices.

It has been a basic tenet of our society that no particular faith or specific ethnic group should be elevated above another and that a firm separation be maintained between the church and state in such matters. Moreover, the issue is divisive beyond the ethnic and faith communities; it is very divisive between government ministers, key bureaucrats and even within the Catholic Church.

To be clear, the administration of cemeteries and crematoriums is an area of social policy that is in need of urgent and genuine reform. It is an area of government where there has been inadequate ministerial engagement and is bedevilled by bureaucratic turf wars between the likes of the Treasury, Crown land, and Planning and Industry. In addition, the regulatory body – Cemeteries and Crematoria NSW (CCNSW) – has consistently failed to deliver the essential leadership and overarching co-ordination of the administrative activities of the various cemetery owners and managers.

The current mix of owners and managers is a mishmash. There are state-owned Crown cemeteries, local government cemeteries, non-profit cemeteries owned by churches and charities, and private for-profit operators. Recently there was a notionally independent (regular, statutory) review of the area, and of the CCNSW Act, which recommended a single body to run all cemeteries. It was not recommended that this be passed to the Catholic Church.

Most citizens of NSW would find it hard to accept, given the inevitability of the growing demand for plots and for space in memorial gardens, that there has been no statewide acquisition strategy for new cemetery lands. None of the so-called “city plans”, nor the local environmental plans, make adequate, if any, provisions for new cemetery space, where existing cemeteries are filling up rapidly. Most of the oldest Crown cemeteries are already full, unable to accept new burials, with the remaining operational cemeteries due to be exhausted within 10 to 12 years.

A takeover of NSW cemeteries has been on the agenda of the Catholic Church for some time. It has been reported that the church made an unsolicited bid back in 2017 (with CMCT to take over the administration) to privatise the remaining Crown cemeteries and pass the management of the cemeteries to the Catholic Cemeteries Board Ltd.

The bid was unable to proceed as it didn’t satisfy the normal requirements for an unsolicited bid to the NSW government, which suggests that any attempt at privatisation would need to go through a transparent tender process. The church has since opposed, by way of legal action, the government’s in-principle decision to create a single ownership structure. While some of the ethnic and faith communities have supported a single entity for cemetery ownership, they have clearly opposed the idea that the Catholic Church be that entity.

What’s really behind the curtain here? Some fear this is just another profitable business opportunity for the Catholic Church, with minimal accountability. Does anyone seriously believe this will improve the effectiveness and contain costs of funeral services in NSW?

This issue of cemetery reform is one I have been deeply involved in for several years. I was chairman of one of the Crown trusts for five years, and am therefore acutely aware of the complexities and sensitivities of the issue. In this regard, I have been a strong supporter of a structure based on single-entity management. But there is no logic, only downside, in handing control of such an entity to a particular faith or ethnic group.

The two main pressing issues for such a board to consider are the acquisition of land for new cemeteries and the funding of the perpetual maintenance responsibilities.

    Of course the former will assist the latter – one of the present constraints in cemetery management is the age of cemeteries, being full and unable to sell new gravesites. Some ethnic and faith groups will want a deal to ensure an adequate supply for their members – this is especially true for Muslims, who’s faith doesn’t allow cremations, and for Jewish people.

There should be little doubt that Dominic Perrottet will lead a notable, reformist government. He demonstrated his reform credentials as treasurer in relation to possible reform of our federation and taxation, proposing to replace stamp duties on real estate transactions with a land tax.

It would be a tragedy, with his reform potential, if he were to define himself by passing the administration of cemeteries to the Catholic Church. Being on top of the hill, he should remember, does not make you closer to God.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 16, 2021 as "Selling off the dead".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.