News Item

Canberra’s Calvary

The closure of a Catholic hospital has become a matter of life, death and conscience.

Has Canberra become a hostile environment for those of religious faith?

Many observers of the compulsory acquisition of Calvary Hospital by the ACT Government are unconvinced by official claims that it is to achieve an efficiently run Territory-wide public hospital system. Instead, they are persuaded that it is more about extinguishing Calvary because of its Catholic ethos on highly emotive issues involving abortion and euthanasia. This then engages serious questions of life, death, and conscience, not – as the ACT Government would have it – simply land and healthcare metrics.

The acquisition has been variously described by politicians and commentators as ‘lacking in transparency’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘shameful’, ‘egregious’, ‘a disturbing precedent for any government to set’, and a ‘Soviet-style takeover’. Reactions included being ‘utterly astounded’ and ‘totally stunned and shocked’.

The ACT Supreme Court’s reasons for upholding the validity of the enabling legislation focused on whether the acquisition was on ‘just terms’. It found that ‘there is no doubt the payment of money may be an appropriate form of compensation’. This would exclude other, non-pecuniary, factors.

Yet there are at least two broader considerations. The first is the proper place of human rights in this context, which does not seem to have had an airing in these legal proceedings. The second is whether an acquisition can ever be said to be on ‘just terms’ if it is motivated by anti-religious sentiment, whether to exact a price from those who uphold a religious ethos contrary to the prevailing ideology, or to win political capital by taking a shot at people of that faith, or even as a symbolic act representing that for which the ACT government stands. No matter how much the ACT Government would like to say otherwise, its actions have the appearance of being agitated by a commitment to expanding abortion and euthanasia services. The religious values of Calvary contradict the virtue of this, as it is partly operated by a not-for-profit venture of Little Company of Mary Healthcare.

At heart, what is at issue is the conventional reach and limits of human rights. Entities are well understood as being the vehicles for individuals to exercise certain rights, particularly those concerned with religious practice. Even if entities as such do not have human rights, nothing in principle prevents individuals from claiming a human rights violation for the consequences they suffer from actions inflicted against entities. This should matter to the ACT government as the ACT is the first Australian jurisdiction to introduce a human rights charter with rights mirroring those in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Freedom of conscience can apply even in such circumstances. Under the ICCPR, conscience is best recognised in the implications for individuals forced to be involved in killing, particularly in the context of compulsory military service. Calvary has for some time been one of the few places where health workers are not required to participate in taking life because of the injunctions embedded in its ethos. For those individuals for whom it is intolerable to participate in any way in the taking of life, they are now faced with the choice of accepting new employment with the ACT Government with an ethos antithetical to that of Calvary or losing their job. If the ACT proceeds with its proposals to provide assisted dying services to children as young as 14, there may be many more healthcare workers joining their ranks.

The question that must be asked is has life-promoting healthcare become ideologically unacceptable There is growing speculation as to why the ACT Government set itself on compulsorily acquiring Calvary, and now also Clare Holland House, Canberra’s only inpatient end-of-life hospice which will also transition to ACT government control.

Calvary had attracted the ACT Government’s attention in 2007 over its limited offering of procedures like IVF, but by 2009 Calvary became fixed in the ACT Government’s crosshairs once a high-profile political controversy flared over the Calvary’s broader reproductive medicine policies.

Calvary’s doctrinal position limiting the availability of abortion services caused the ACT Human Rights Commission in 2019 to weigh in following allegations that those on low incomes located in northern suburbs had an excessive burden when travelling to access healthcare and other facilities.

A 2022 ACT Inquiry into Abortion and Reproductive Choice was strongly influenced by claims that Calvary was unable to treat one individual who needed urgent medical care for an incomplete miscarriage. Calvary has always strenuously contested this. Nevertheless, the Committee report called on the ACT Government to address what it perceived as ‘an ethically fraught dependence on the Sisters of the Little Company of Mary for provision of health services’. The Inquiry recommendations were released in May 2023, closely followed by the ACT Government’s announcement that it would take over Calvary.

There is more than a mere suggestion that the takeover might be ideologically motivated. One recent headline took up the theme stating, ‘Calvary takeover smells to high heaven of ideology’. Michaelia Cash commented that the Court’s decision revealed the ACT Government’s ‘appalling use of public power for ideological reasons’ and condemned it as bullying. Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop, Anthony Fisher, characterised it as an abuse of religious freedom to force an ‘anti-life agenda’ through abortions and assisted suicide.

If any such ideological basis for the acquisition is established, as alleged in such comments, it could mean that the enabling legislation is invalid, if ill-motivated compulsion in principle precludes meeting ‘just terms’.

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