Pope's G20 hospital pass to Abbott


The news that Pope Francis has written a letter to Tony Abbott makes one pause. In the terms now used to describe the exchanges between leaders, was the letter a shirtfront, a head-butt, a big hug, or a yellow card?

The letter, of course, was none of these things. It was written to Abbott as chair of the G20 Summit and was directed through him to the national representatives taking part. It is usual for Popes to write such letters: a recent example was one to the Secretary of the UN about the situation in Northern Iraq. They set out the views of the Vatican on significant issues.

This letter begins by summarising uncontroversially the G20 Agenda. Any distinctive papal emphases may lie in the adjectives. The meeting aims not only at providing employment, but ‘dignified and stable employment for all’.  It demands a ‘fair and adequate’ system of taxation. The focus is not on narrowly economic goals but on the good of human beings.

The letter then emphasises that ‘many lives are at stake behind these political and technical discussions’. People suffer from malnutrition, from rising unemployment, especially among the young, from increasing social exclusion leading to crime and terrorism, and from continued assaults on the natural environment.

The Pope hopes that the meeting will lead to consensus, and that its results will be be measured, not only by global indices but also by ‘real improvement in the living conditions of poorer families and the reduction of all forms of unacceptable inequality’.

This focus on the human implications of the G20 deliberations leads Pope Francis to urge a broader definition of the responsibilities of the nations involved. These are set in framework of the UN Development Agenda ‘which ought to include the vital issues of decent work for all and climate change’.

The letter also sets the Summit in the context of military conflicts, and of calls for the G20 to help forge an agreement, under the United Nations, to halt aggression in the Middle East. It should also work to eliminate the causes of terrorism which include ‘poverty, underdevelopment and exclusion’, and to meet the needs of victims of the conflicts, especially of refugees.

This leads the Pope to consider the need of the international community, and so of the G20 nations, ‘to protect individuals and peoples from extreme attacks on human rights and a total disregard for humanitarian law’.  In one of the most striking features of the letter, this response to terrorism is coupled with the need to protect people from other forms of aggression, most notably ‘abuses in the financial system such as those transactions that led to the 2008 crisis, and more generally, to speculation lacking political or juridical constraints and the mentality that maximization of profits is the final criterion of all economic activity’. To equate terrorism and greed in the markets is a strong call.

Many of the topics raised in the letter are subjects of controversy in Australia.  They include refugees, inequality, climate change, regulation of the financial sector and the need to focus on the needs of the poor. But Pope Francis does not prescribe policies to deal with them. So there is no implied rebuke for Mr Abbott or other members of the G20. But they are challenged to set their discussion within a broader framework that puts people first.  And their citizens are invited to judge their leaders and their policies by the extent to which they do put people first. 

The participants in the G20 will be unlikely to see the Pope’s letter as a shirtfront. They will probably treat it rather as a hospital pass – one best left for the brave to grasp. That is suggested by the narrow focus of the meeting on things that can be achieved and by the omission of large issues like climate change. The trouble with swerving away from hospital passes, though, is that the watchers may see you as cowardly. Particularly if they see people like Obama and Xi Jinping putting their bodies in and galloping down the field to score.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. 

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, G20, Pope Francis, refugees, asylum seekers, Tony Abbott, shirtfront



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Existing comments

It's important that religious leaders impart to political leaders a measured response to international deliberations. Perhaps George Herbert's Perirrhanterium (Verse 74) may be helpful in this situation: Jest not at preacher's language, or expression:/How know'st thou, but thy sins made him miscarry?/Then turn thy faults and his into confession:/God sent him, whatso'er he be: O tarry,/And love him for his Master: his condition,/Though it be ill, makes him no ill Physician.
Pam | 13 November 2014

Lovely piece, thank you. I am hopeful that not only Obama and Xi will accept the climate change policy challenge at G20. I foresee, and hope, that almost every leader with the possible exception of Abbott and Harper (Canada) will want to reference it. Not to do so in a meeting that talks about global economic growth and equity would be simply absurd. So climate change will have to get into the communique. But in what words? Not, I think, words that will please Mr Abbott. Courtesy to the host nation only goes so far, not to the extent of censoring what was said by world leaders I am so happy with the Pope's letter and Andrew's analysis of it.
Tony Kevin | 13 November 2014

"To equate terrorism and greed in the markets is a strong call." Maybe, Andrew, but if bankers and corporations can commit crimes against humanity not too strong a call. After all terrorism is the war of poor combatants.
Michael D. Breen | 13 November 2014

Yes, Andrew, I agree with Michael Breen. Equating some of the actions of those running the markets with terrorism is not such a strong call. It just looks different because those manipulating the market for their own ends look respectable in their suits, posh offices and smart cars.
Brian Finlayson | 14 November 2014

Friday the 14th turned out to be a lucky day: a commenter quoted one of my favourite poets and reminded me of the wonders of the word 'Perirrhanterium'. What a miracle of compression those lines are, Pam! Thank you, and thank you Andrew.
David B | 14 November 2014

Given his profound comprehension of unacceptable inequality. Hopefully, Pope Francis will by courtesy be invited by Ahmet Davutoglu, to attend the 2015 G-20 Turkey summit.
Bernstein | 14 November 2014

One can but wonder: will Anthony Abbott PM put his spiritual leader's concerns above the whisperings of Thatcher's ghost? Or is the Catholic "option for the poor" something he daily checks in at the security desk in Parliament House?
Fred Green | 14 November 2014

Here we go again - trying to explicate Realpolitik with a sporting analogy. I believe that Tony Abbott misspoke when he used the expression "shirt front". Why should we expect him to understand a form of VFL tackle/assault made famous by Jack "Captain Blood" Dyer in the 1940s? Or again if one is going to claim to be captain/manager of Team Australia, one has to declare what sort of game we are playing and against which other teams. This brings me to the "hospital pass" - Pope Francis's (open) letter to the PM. Such letters, as Andrew rightly observes, are not unusual. Where I think it is probably different from other representations that the PM is receiving is that it makes it perfectly clear that economic policies regarding growth and employment cannot be considered in isolation from the environment in which economic activity takes place and must take into account the collateral damage to those who, for whatever reason, cannot participate meaningfully in the production of goods and services. The Pope's letter is not so much a "hospital pass" but a well-directed "stab pass" (now no longer practised in AFL, more's the pity!) It is spot on target.
Uncle Pat | 14 November 2014

Thank you, Andrew - clear, concise and compassionate as usual. Thanks to to Michael Breen for his pithy 'terrorism is the war of poor combatants". We all need to keep that in mind.
Joan Seymour | 14 November 2014

Lower carbon emissions in the U.S. and China will be achieved by fracking (U.S.) and hydroelectric and nuclear power (China). Mysteriously, lefties are enamoured of this deal, yet ferociously oppose such technologies for Australia. Why the double standard?
HH | 14 November 2014

What Abbott really meant is what Roy and HG call in Rugby League code, the 'face massage.'
David Timbs | 14 November 2014

It is hard to talk about a middle ground for something that is a fundamental right. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KuhmBwILpMc
Cadee | 14 November 2014

I don’t know why ‘lefties’ have not decried fracking or nuclear technologies, HH. If what you say is so (i.e. no-one has so decried), then I think it is regrettable. I think fracking is reckless to our fragile substrata and - as you, no doubt would appreciate - ends do not always justify means.

As to nuclear technology, however, I am less perturbed - I think nuclear technology suffers from the stigma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Cold War - where “nuclear” equals “atomic bombs” and not sterilised medical products. The problem of nuclear waste disposal has to be faced but I don’t think it is insurmountable. What is more worrying is the problem of hawkish governments that love to spend obscene amounts on military weaponry and speak ‘shirt-front’ language (‘Bellicosh’ I think they call it).

That said, the significance of the deal, however imperfect, between China and the US President is that it shows that our current government is out of step with major power consensus and I am not the first person to wonder whether the Abbott government’s rhetoric and (reverse) action on climate change does not in fact expose him and his associates of not only cronyism of the worst kind (a kind of corruption) but also criminal national negligence in deliberately acting against the national interest.

If I were you, I’d worry less about what “lefties” do or do not qualify about particular deals that seek, ostensibly, to mitigate environmental risks, and start asking yourself how long you can go on trotting out your usual “anti-Red” and “anti-Green” bombast. You’ve deprived yourself of a significant portion of the colour spectrum for a long time and things must be sad and grey for you.

smk | 15 November 2014

Thanks GMK. I'll stop opposing around here the Reds and so-called "Greens" (who love wind turbines which decimate bird and bat populations) when they cease with ad hominem arguments and address any of my evidence-based objections with solid counter evidence. You say you don't know why the lefties haven't decried fracking and nuclear technologies. As I hinted above, there's a perfectly plausible explanation: China and Obama are lefty mates. The only reason these two regimes can start to project CO2 emission reductions is because they are embracing fracking, hydro and nuclear which will reduce CO2 emissions! In other words, the reds and greens are utter hypocrites here - just as they are on bird killing wind turbines. I invite you to consider this scenario: Tony Abbott tomorrow morning announces that he will aim for zero carbon emissions by 2050 by building more dams in Gippsland, Tasmania, etc., fast tracking fracking in S.A., NSW, and QLD, and building nuclear power plants in Darwin, Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne. This would get Australia somewhere near what's going on, or projected to go in on China and the U.S. Since you're into the spectrum, I invite you speculate on the colour of Christine Milne's face at the prospect, as opposed to her manifest joy at the Obama/China deal. Red? Green? Black? P.S. Much more urgent question: how did you achieve breaks between the paragraphs of your post !?
HH | 16 November 2014

Gosh, HH! Where to begin?! Firstly, I don’t accept your implication that your objections are right or sound because they are “evidence-based”. I accept that you think your divers objections are evidence-based: indeed we all think this of our own. The issue is though, what weight ought to be placed on the interpretations of a scientific rump? It seems uncontested - even by the anthropogenic climate change deniers amongst scientific professionals or commentators - that the majority of climatologists and associated science professionals are warning governments that anthropogenic climate intervention is critical. Forget about “your scenario”: it’s meaningless because by its actions the Abbott government has already indicated that it doesn’t (really) believe in the necessity for emissions reductions (at least, not at the expense of the coal miners). Secondly, I take with a huge grain of salt your “concern” for bird and bat populations. If you wish to try to persuade me that it’s genuine, for their sake, by all means do so. However, I have not yet encountered any data I’d be prepared to credit that birds or bats are being “decimated” by wind turbines. This is what I think, from my assessment of the opposition to wind turbines: that those sexy wind turbines across the horizon represent - for traditionalists such as yourself - an implicit criticism of the God who made the world so perfect it was impervious to the worst assaults of Man and would last until the Eschaton. At least - if my surmise is accurate - the symbolism - and the ideological attitude to it - is a matter of the spirit and theology, and not a matter of power and wealth preservation, which I suspect animates the Abbott government and the coal lobby in turn. Finally, I don’t need to imagine anyone’s face colour. I’ve already told you what I think of “fracking” and many people agree that if Australia only has a decent 6% of arable land, that is a huge concern. It is a mistake often made by conservatives that the Greens articulate - or represent -in every respect the ‘green’ constituency. However in this as in other instances I call to mind two adaptations of a famous saying: (1) “the enemy of my friend is my enemy”; and (2) the friend of my enemy is my enemy”. In other words, dear HH, so long as you attack Obama (aligning yourself with the Republicans and neo-cons) and promote, to the extent of your purposes, Tony Abbott, you are my enemy. Notionally speaking, of course. I actually do not wish harm of any kind to befall you. I sincerely wish you well. (I don’t even expect you to change your mind!)
smk | 17 November 2014

Congratulations on this wonderful article. it sends a challenge to all of us not just to international politicians. I do hope that Tony Abbot will take notice of the fact that there is a huge concern in the Australian society regarding the treatment of Refugees. I was overseas for three months this year and I was always very embarrased when talking about the treatment of Refugees by Australia. I was very proud of the fact that the Pope was so upfront about issues and that maybe many Catholics in Australia may take notice of this. Thank you.
Breda O'Reilly | 17 November 2014

SMK. 1. Far from signalling a stubborn insistence that one is correct, to ask for good counter-evidence manifests an openness to reversing or modifying one’s position. I’ve done so many times over my life when the counter-evidence was persuasive. 2. Global land surface temperatures have not increased for at least 16 years despite escalating levels of atmospheric CO2. How can scientists be so sure of impending catastrophe in decades ahead when their models demonstrably failed to predict the current cessation of warming (and which they denied was even happening up until the last year or so – famously Dr Matthew England on Q&A.) and they are divided more than 50 ways as to why it is occurring, or where the “missing heat” might be hiding? I take notice of evidence not a show of hands. 3. You seem to miss the point of discussing counterfactual scenarios. Perhaps having punished myself studying law I’m more persuaded as to their heuristic value. 4. Try googling about wind turbines and bird/bat deaths. And if you have the stomach for it, youtubing. It’s a huge issue with bird societies worldwide, who are instinctively “green”, but know what turbines do. Incidentally I’m a bird lover (and ants, spiders and bees – rescued one of the latter only yesterday in a high wind situation). 5. Much as I think he stands head and shoulders over two recent PMs in character, I’m neither pro-Abbott, nor neo-con nor Republican. I’m personally inclined to be much more minimal state than all the above. If the Lib Dems were pro-life, I’d be voting for them. FWIW.
HH | 18 November 2014

Andrew emphasizes the word 'exclusion'. This is the word which haunts so many Australians, when referencing 'illegal asylum seekers'. President Obama is heroically facing the need for justice for the 'eleven million' (make that nineteen million) excluded 'illegals' in the U.S. 'Reductio ad absurdum' is vast understatement when used to describe the U.S. situation. When will our government's approach in dealing with our asylum seekers, reach its own level of absurdity. I reckon it already has!
claude rigney | 22 November 2014


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