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The hostile hospital takeover

In Australia, a recent event took place which has caused quite the stir amongst believers and concerned members of the public. It concerns a Catholic-run hospital in Canberra (Australia’s capital) called Calvary Hospital which has been operating for 44 years. Yet, from 3 July 2023, it must transfer ownership to the government-run Canberra Health Services. What is the story behind this hostile takeover and why is it causing alarm amongst Christians in Australia?

The criticism from the public centres around the handling of the matter, with the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government, in an unprecedented move, resorting to the introduction of new legislation to compulsorily acquire the hospital’s assets and effectively transition Calvary Hospital staff to Canberra Health Services. This move does not just affect hospital operations. This has far-reaching consequences for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience in Australia. You see, unlike most similar liberal democracies, Australia does not have a Bill of Rights. Instead, protections for human rights may be found in the Constitution and in legislation passed by the Federal Parliament or each of the State or Territory Parliaments. In the Constitution, there are five explicit individual rights: the right to vote; protection against acquisition of property on unjust terms; the right to a trial by jury; freedom of religion and prohibition of discrimination on the basis of State of residency. Because of these constitutionally protected rights, the ACT Government has been very careful in how it has approached the situation.

The government has had its eye on Calvary Hospital for more than a decade. In 2010, the government had proposed buying the hospital for $77 million but the deal fell through because the government was told the Vatican would take years to consider and approve the sale. Although the buyout fell through, the operation of the hospital has since operated in accordance with its prior agreement with the ACT government. But as part of its ongoing provision of healthcare services to the ACT community, the Calvary Hospital board and ACT Government began negotiating the hospital’s future in May last year. However, they were unable to reach an agreement. At the time negotiations broke down, the agreement Calvary Hospital had with the government still had 76 years to run. Therefore, there was no real concern at the breakdown of negotiations due to the assurance of the underlying agreement effectively securing Calvary Hospital’s future.

So, what went wrong? Well, to establish that, you need to dig a little deeper to understand what was said in the lead up to the decision, because the evidence is very telling. Walter Abheyeratna, the ACT president of the Australian Medical Association said it was important to deliver public healthcare services without being bound by ideology. And what ideology would that be? The belief that it is wrong to murder babies in the womb. You see, for the ACT government, the provision of abortion is non-negotiable. However, Calvary Hospital has, in the past, relied on institutional conscientious objection to refrain from participating in abortion based “healthcare” on the conviction that it is Biblically and morally wrong to intentionally end a human life, particularly that of a life in a mother’s womb.

Giving further weight to the belief that the takeover is ideological is the fact that in April 2023, the Standing Committee on Health and Wellbeing produced a report which devoted considerable attention to Calvary Hospital’s lack of abortion provisions, which resulted in negative media attention. The basis of the report seems to have been the fear that fallout from the recent Roe v Wade decision in the US would lead other nations to remove abortion as a federally protected method of “reproductive healthcare”. This is affirmed in black and white in the introduction to the report which, in Parts 1.6 and 1.7 respectively, indicate as follows:-

1.6 The outrageous Roe v Wade decision from the USA has prompted Australian women to reflect on the various states of legality applicable across all jurisdictions in Australia and importantly to start a loud conversation about the actual access to services.

1.7 The reversal of Roe v Wade epitomises the need for ongoing protection of reproductive rights. The inquiry and this report stand as a concerted initiative as part of this overarching and necessary vigilance.

So, given the timeline of events, it becomes clear to the average person that there was first an effort to undermine Calvary Hospital because it would not permit abortions, followed by deliberately directing negative media and public attention to the hospital, followed by the surprise decision to forcibly acquire the hospital. What the government has failed to acknowledge in this situation is that freedom of conscience has been a longstanding foundational principle of democracy in Australia. That freedom of conscience is designed to protect institutions and individuals from being compelled to act against their beliefs, particularly in relation to sincerely held moral or religious beliefs. However, perhaps the government’s actions should not come as a surprise given that Australian Federal, State and Territory governments throughout the COVID era tried every psychological trick in the book to get the entire population to inject an unknown and unwanted substance into their body.

When it comes to the issue of abortion, there are many doctors, nurses and midwives who do not want to participate in a healthcare setting that promotes and undertakes abortions. Therefore, it has long been the case that faith-based medical facilities provided safe harbour for those who conscientiously object to abortion. This is why the forced acquisition of Calvary Hospital sets such a dangerous precedent. The government is effectively arguing that either an institution must hold the same ideological beliefs as the government or they will risk being shut down. As Rob Norman, ACT Director of the Australian Christian Lobby said, “This authoritarian decision is reminiscent of a ‘Soviet style’ takeover of non-Government assets. Clearly, the ACT Government has no tolerance for religious convictions that oppose the will of the State. The real problem here is the draconian laws that force medical providers and hospitals to facilitate the intentional taking of human life against their Biblically held values.”

This decision represents a worrying trend in Australia. It effectively reveals the fact that our government is now so arrogant that it insists that its ideological and political view should dominate every institution and religious belief. If a government can simply write legislation forcibly acquiring any non-government organisation, where does that leave the rest of us? This newfound government attitude of taking what it wants, when it wants, from whoever it wants is a most unwelcome development.

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