Mary MacKillop's advice for today's politicians


'Never see a need without doing something about it.' That is the principle which famously guided Australia's first saint Mary MacKillop. The 'seeing', and the resolve to act, are the primary drivers. Then comes the secondary task of working out where the necessary funding and resources will come from. 

The order and the timing are crucial, and it appears that is how the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is evolving, ahead of this month's Federal Budget and the final legislative session of the current Parliament. The public is on board, and the politicians are acting while they can. 

It appears most Australians see the need for disability care and are prepared to accept the 0.5 per cent levy as the best way to commence the scheme as soon as possible. Whatever the politics, there has been decisive bipartisan recognition of the need, and commitment to act.

As a result, the quality of life for Australians living with disability is likely to improve substantially and without further delay.

Conceivably Labor has learned the lesson of what happens if we see a need and don't do something about it. We lose an opportunity to secure something that matters, and often the faith and trust of the team that supports us.

That is what occurred in 2010, after Kevin Rudd had seen the need to act on climate change as 'the greatest moral, economic and environmental challenge of our generation', and then effectively failed to do something about it. He had led the public to a shared vision of the need to reduce carbon emissions but did not act while this was still firmly within the public gaze. 

Politicians these days believe they can only act if and while the public sees the need. If this is the case, it is up to them to recognise the difference between real and spurious needs, and convince the public accordingly.

For example, we can view the 'need' to 'stop the boats' as a false need that obscures a deeper 'real' need to help refugees in situations of desperation. The politicians manipulate perceptions of need by politically expedient fear mongering instead of promoting public virtue that is linked to real need. Decades ago we were able to see and act on real need when boat people were arriving from Vietnam. 

It's regrettable that perceptions of need change over time, and sometimes quite quickly. This is often on the basis of fatigue or fashion, rather than any objective criteria such as new information. Scientists maintain that the real need to do something about climate change is more acute now than it was five years ago, yet it is effectively regarded as unnecessary and therefore off the political agenda.

A political agenda tied to real need is the only way to ensure a better society. Unfortunately it is difficult to find leaders that can see real need and successfully legislate to do something about it.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, disability, Gillard, NDIS, DisabilityCare, politics, climate change, Mary MacKillop



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Existing comments

I so wish politians would demonstrate stronger leadership in the area of refugees and asylum seekers. It seems the main excuse for many Australians is the complete ignorance of the desperation of those fleeing warn torn countries in whos wars we have actively participated. The fact that we keep these refugees in prision camps is plain weird. Why are we still a penal colony? Why do we lock up innocent children? I am so ashamed of our "bogan nation".

Val | 06 May 2013  

"Politicians these days believe they can only act if and while the public sees the need" and "a political agenda tied to real need is the only way to ensure a better society" are two of your observations Michael which bring out the shallowness of a society which does indeed only rely on politicians and politics for advancement. Need should never be dealt with without also looking at the bigger picture at the same time. The NDIS will only be as good as the balance between meeting the needs of the differently abled (and carers, both family and professionals) and in a vision of life with and for them. I'm always amused at those who misquote St Mary Of The Cross, she actually said "Never see an evil without considering what you might do to remedy it" which is far deeper and visionary than just identifying any need to have money, energy and political ra ra thrown at it.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 06 May 2013  

Thank you Fr Mick Mac Andrew for the correction in Mary MacKillop's famous quote. I like it - it's broader, deeper and allows me to take more responsibility as an individual.

Val | 06 May 2013  

Fr Mick Mac Andrew: “What she (Mary MacKillop) actually said was;- "Never see an evil without considering what you might do to remedy it" Applying that advice to another area, We were all brought up on the ideal that the purpose of our life on earth is to know GOD, to love GOD, and to serve GOD. Unfortunately most, if not all, religious communities have downgraded this ideal to- “To know, love, and serve our community’s interpretation (cultural adaptation) of what God is, and what God wants of us.” This is a great evil that diminishes our vision of the Ideal, and causes tension between communities with different interpretations, and instead of promoting cooperation and understanding, leads to enmity, hostility and even wars and genocide. There is very little mention of God on Eureka Street, but much of Catholic traditions and culture. What can be done to foster the ideal of knowing, loving and serving God in those of his children who do not belong to the Catholic community? Maybe only God knows, but at the moment, this post is as much as I can manage.

Robert Liddy | 06 May 2013  

The source for the quote I used from Mary MacKillop was the official Mary MacKillop website - It's also quoted many times on the Sisters of St Joseph website - e.g. That does not mean her original words have not been corrupted, but I would be interested to know Fr Mick's source for what he believes Mary MacKillop really said.

Michael Mullins | 06 May 2013  

The fuller quote for St Mary of The Cross, it was one of the mottos she used and also used it to sign off letters and instructions to Sisters - "Do all the good you can and never see an evil without considering what you might do to remedy it." I'm sure the Sisters of St Joseph would have the date and circumstance in which Mary first used it and also the other occasions.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 06 May 2013  

Joseph Cardijn, Cardinal, founder of the YCW also had a saying " A service for a need". His primary work across the globe was with young workers aged between 14 and 25. Before his death he called for an adult form of his movement. What then are the needs of adult men and women in Australia today. I would suggest broken and dysfunctional families and fatherlessness are the most pressing needs today among our neighbours. What then to do?.

Kevin Vaughan | 06 May 2013  

I have done a little more searching on the web and, it may be that St Mary of The Cross was not the originator of the quote "Do all the good you can and never see an evil without considering what you might do to remedy it." It looks as if it was one of the tenets in the first Rule given to the Sisters by Fr Julian Tennison Woods, who co-foundered the Sisters with Mary Mac Killop. So who said what and which part will be an interesting little quest. Not sure where to go from here now. I too looked up the official website of the Sisters and it gives the date 1871. Maybe if any of the North Sydney Sisters read this, they may just be able to clarify it.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 06 May 2013  

The actual words that Mary MacKillop wrote were: "The Rule expressly says: That the Sisters must do all the good they can, and never see an evil without trying how they may remedy it, and this for the glory of God, the good of souls and the prevention of sin in the world." This is from a document entitled "Necessity for the Institute" which she wrote in August 1873.

Sister Marie Foale RSJ, Josephite historian | 06 May 2013  

Politicians do not stay in power long enough to bear the consequences, good or bad, of their actions. Consequently, little long-term planning is possible and they are reduced to opportunistic actions, such as the NDIS, that everyone agrees with. In such an environment, little wonder nothing gets planned properly, and action depends on prevailing opinion. With today's media, opinion dominates and need rarely gets look-in.

Peter Horan | 06 May 2013  

Fr Mick: you really are rather pedantic and legalistic. What is important is not exactly what is said , but what it is taken to mean by the intended hearers ...and that is rather complex and depends on the detailed context of the saying and the persons involved, the their track-records. That is where valid tradition comes from, and is not unimportant!

Eugene | 06 May 2013  

Thanks to Sr Marie Foale for bringing to light the full text of St Mary of The Cross. We've only ever had an abbreviated quote in the past and some have only ever had the sanitised version obviously. "For the good of souls and the prevention of sin in the world." Always believed and knew St Mary wasn't wishy washy.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 06 May 2013  

Eugene, it is not the pursuit of what St Mary of The Cross actually said and therefore offered as a saintly way of life that offends as much as a patronising recant so not to offend or challenge, leaving the saint not as a witness to Christ but to banal desire.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 06 May 2013  

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