War ‘difficult to justify’
Conversation: Patrick McClure, head of Mission Australia, 'My faith and passion come together' here
By Damir Govorcin
Patrick McClure, chief executive officer of Mission Australia (pictured), says he has no regrets about leaving the priesthood to dedicate his life to assisting the disadvantaged in the community.
Born into a strong Catholic family (he was the only boy in a family of seven), he spent 10 years in the Franciscan order before going on to carve out a successful career in social welfare.
Now 53, Patrick says St Francis of Assisi still remains "one of my guiding lights".
Patrick, educated at Waverley College, excelled in debating and oratory and was also a talented sportsman, playing in the school's First XV in rugby and First XI in cricket.
He joined the Franciscans after leaving school at the age of 18.
"My family had known the Franciscans for many years and I was attracted to St Francis because of his simplicity, preaching of the Gospel and his working with the most disadvantaged," says Patrick.
"I was also attracted to the idea of throwing off the material trappings of life, and seeking to follow Jesus.
"Reading the scriptures and understanding the scriptures gave me a personal relationship with God. It was a change-of-life experience."
Patrick says his first seven years with the Franciscans were tough. They were "my seven years in the desert".
"The Franciscans live an ascetic lifestyle, and have a disciplined regimen which consisted of prayers, Eucharist, study and sport. It was a demanding lifestyle.
"Those years deepened my faith enormously, and my faith is a key part of who I am and what motivates me in my personal relationship with God."
Patrick was ordained a priest, then spent three years working in youth ministry in Western Australia.
But, after 10 years with the Franciscans, he felt his talents could be better utilised elsewhere; so he left the priesthood.
"I felt called to work with disadvantaged people,and thought I could use my talents better in the world, rather than in the confines of the Franciscan spirit," says Patrick.
After leaving the priesthood, he was forced to reconstruct his life. He was unemployed for a short time, before spending a year as a theatre orderly at the St John of God Hospital in Perth.
He completed a four-year Bachelor of Social Work at Curtin University, before going on to work with homeless young people for two years with Anglicare.
It was around that time he met his future wife, Annette, his partner for the past 17 years. They have two children, Luke 16 and Kate 14.
Patrick worked within the Department of Social Security over the next 10 years, and established his own organisation, Second Harvest, which provided low cost food for people on limited income.
"Second Harvest grew from picking up surplus food to having a turnover of $1 million," he says.
He transferred to Sydney, where he was appointed executive officer of the St Vincent de Paul Society's NSW State Council.
"The most touching experience for me was working with drought affected families in NSW," says Patrick. "I came to admire the resilience, faith and goodness of many of these families in the face of terrible adversity through problems such as drought, deprivation, children not being able to go to school, sickness and suicide. It gave me an understanding of and sympathy towards people living in rural and remote areas.
"Going out with the Night Patrol vans also allowed me to experience first hand people who had to sleep rough.
"The work of Vinnies and Mission Australia is very inspiring. It's a great sign of the Gospel at work."
After four years with Vinnies, Patrick was appointed as chief executive officer of Mission Australia, which works with homeless people and is a major provider of employment and training. Mission Australia includes Sydney City Mission, Perth City Mission, Brisbane City Mission, Mission SA and Mission Employment.
Patrick describes his work with Mission Australia as the "peak experience of my professional life".
"God has blessed me in a special way with all the talents I have," says Patrick. "My faith and my passion for working with the unemployed and disadvantaged have come together in this job, and I feel like I have been able to make a difference.
"When I came to Mission Australia, the budget was relatively small at only $40 million; now it's $160 million. We have moved from 100 services for disadvantaged people to 300."
Patrick oversaw the report on Australia's welfare system, Participation Support for a More Equitable Society (also known as the McClure Report) that laid the basis forthe Government's Australians Working Together package announced in the 2001-2002 budget.
"It was basically a redesign of the whole social support system," he says.
"It looked at issues such as an individualised service delivery, how we could use Centrelink more effectively, financial incentives that we could offer to people accessing work, simpler income support system.
"It explored the obligation of individuals as well as government and business, and how we could rebuild communities in rural areas.
"It was an exciting vision for Australia and it received support from all the major parties.
"The Government committed $1.4 billion over four years to its implementation. They have implemented part of it, but now it's stalled because of the distraction of terrorism."
Patrick says more work needs to be done on reducing unemployment, skilling up young Australians and stopping the revolving door of homelessness and poverty.
"We have seen not only here but overseas an increase in the divide between rich and poor," says Patrick.
"Unemployment in Australia is six per cent, and I think we can get it better than that. My welfare reform was to provide opportunities and incentives for people to get into the workforce.
"The challenge is how do we skill up young Australians? How do we provide incentives for people on income support so they are not in the poverty trap and so there's motivation for them to get into the labour market?
"We have 100,000 homeless people who sleep out every night in Australia and the community sector does a magnificent job in providing services for them.
"The average age of a homeless man is 32; so how do we provide skills for that individual to not stay homeless?
"We need to stop the revolving door of homelessness and poverty and move them into supported accommodation, assist them with rehabilitation if they have problems with alcohol and drugs, and get them back into the mainstream. If there's the will of the government, the will of business community and the wider community to care for those most vulnerable, we can do anything."
Patrick says he was "quite overwhelmed" to be made an Officer of the Order of Australia in the Australia Day honours for his contribution to social welfare.
"You work for 20 years in this sector and you are committed to empowering people and also contributing to social policy," says Patrick.
"It's a humbling feeling and it's a great recognition for the work many people do working with the most disadvantaged."