Sunday February 21, 2016
Cricket-mad Sister Brigid Arthur goes into bat for refugee rights
Feisty Sister Brigid Arthur, 81, is at the forefront of Christian social action. Sister Brigid Arthur at the Brigidine Order in Albert Park, Melbourne.(Penny Stephens)
Being a cricket fan, Sister Brigid Arthur was killing time by listening to Test match commentary on her car radio while she waited for friends to return to their North Melbourne home.
It was March 2001, a few months before the watershed Tampa crisis and children-overboard scandal altered the course of the 2001 federal election campaign and Australia's political conscience on refugees.
Arthur had just become involved in asylum-seeker advocacy and was planning to start visiting detainees at Maribyrnong detention centre in Melbourne's west. Sister Brigid Arthur is not letting up on her activism despite being 81 years old. (Penny Stephens)
But what happened next that night put a dent in her plans.
Suddenly, the clunk of willow on ball was interrupted by an unknown man tapping on her passenger-seat window, gesturing to find out the time.
In hindsight, of course, Arthur says she should never have opened the door. Political activist Sister Brigid Arthur is a key player in the Churches Refugee Taskforce, which is co-ordinating the sanctuary campaign for 267 asylum seekers set to return to Nauru. (Penny Stephens)
Next thing she knew, the 66-year-old nun was yanked out of the car and thrown viciously onto the road behind her car. In that moment, her biggest fear was that the man would start the car, reverse and run her over. She knew that if that happened, she would be dead.
Thankfully, before her attacker started the engine, a resident heard her screams and ran out of his house, scaring the man away. Arthur was packed off to the Royal Melbourne Hospital for surgery on a broken hip.
Arthur is sitting in her cramped, airless office in the Brigidine Order's lovely Albert Park headquarters as she remembers the brutal attack.
It's a glorious sunny day in bayside Melbourne but Arthur is oblivious – her desk is literally buried in work.
In retelling the story, Arthur is not focused on the trauma. Rather, she takes great delight in the next, synchronous part of the story.
"I couldn't go and start visiting the asylum seekers because I was laid up, so I started writing letters. A few weeks later, when I was recovering, I decided to stop in at Maribyrnong on my way to Echuca and meet one of the men I'd been writing to. I was on my crutches and out comes this bloke on crutches."
It turned out he had fallen over at the detention centre and broken his hip. He was carrying exactly the same injury as Arthur.
"It was very funny," she says now, in her even but slightly gravelly voice.
Arthur is tenacious and passionate. Since that visit, she has made many hundreds more to detention centres and doggedly fought for the rights of asylum seekers across Australia. At 81, with wrinkles criss-crossing her face and a spark in her eye, she shows no sign of letting up.
Arthur had a long career as a teacher and principal within the Catholic education system before moving into a consulting role, which left more time for campaigning.
She co-founded the Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project in 2001, is a board member of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and vice-chairwoman of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce. She is also involved in Love Makes a Way, a religious organisation that organises peaceful sit-ins at the offices of prominent politicians to protest asylum-seeker policies.
That's how she got herself arrested in 2014. Not once but twice.
"I took part in two demonstrations – one at [Opposition Leader] Bill Shorten's office and one at Kelly O'Dwyer's [the Liberal member for Higgins in Melbourne]," Arthur says.
"The police came in and said: 'Do you want be escorted out or do you want to be carried?' I decided being escorted would be enough.'"
Religious organisations hit the headlines this month when church leaders kick-started the controversial "sanctuary" campaign in response to a High Court appeal.
The appeal ruled that the federal government could legally return 267 asylum seekers, who had been receiving medical treatment in Australia, to Nauru. This prompted dozens of church leaders, spearheaded by Anglican Dean of Brisbane, Dr Peter Catt
, to declare they would turn their places of worship into sanctuaries to stop the asylum seekers being returned. Catt is chairman of the Churches Refugee Taskforce.
Arthur describes the taskforce as an umbrella organisation, which didn't plan the campaign, but supports the individual churches in their push. Nevertheless, she has been called on by the media to explain and defend the religious response to what she brands as the federal government's "calculated cruelty".
Pamela Curr, a refugee advocate with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, says she has never seen Arthur lose her temper. But Curr quickly dispels any notion of a saintly demeanour. "[Arthur] doesn't roll over. I have seen her in plenty of meetings with immigration officials where she fights like a tiger."
Curr has been glad of Arthur's company on many a long road trip to Canberra, and not just for her determination.
"One time I was going with Brigid and a couple of other nuns," Curr says.
"They stayed in this rundown motel because they didn't want to spend money. So we pulled up at this place and there was nothing around. Brigid opened up the boot and out wafted the smells of this delicious chicken curry with rice she had prepared before we left. She loves to cook."
So how did this cricket-loving, curry-cooking girl from the country end up as an octogenarian human rights advocate, protester and leader?
Unsurprisingly, she is the eldest of eight children, raised in Victoria's Wimmera region, so she knows how to take charge. But she is refreshingly honest about her entry into the order – it wasn't piety that grabbed her and there was certainly no epiphany.
"I was more enthused by the Christian social action group I had been involved with at school, which had the motto: 'See, Judge and Act'. That had a huge impact on me ... and I'd already thought I wanted to teach. So I [entered] but I still thought, 'I probably won't stay but I'll have a go'."
So we could call you the reluctant nun?
"I'm not sure about reluctant," she says after a pause. "I was ambivalent."
Her regard for the Catholic Church has changed significantly in the six decades she has served it.
"I no longer think of the church as having all the answers ... And I believe that clericalism [maintaining the church hierarchy] has done us a great disservice," she says.
Arthur has no intention of stopping her advocacy work any time soon. But she does acknowledge that the worldwide Brigidine Order is coming to the end of its shelf life.
"We've been around for 200 years (founded in Ireland) ... we've satisfied a particular niche and this is the end of an era. Our youngest person is 50 and we're not trying to attract anybody. It's time to pull up stumps."
Ah, the cricket analogy. What about the push for generational change in her beloved game?
"I did get into watching some Big Bash [cricket] over summer and I didn't mind it. I was quite surprised actually," she says.