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Steve Kamper: A curious cemeteries tale

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Photo: Giovanni Portelli

The uncertainty created by the NSW government over burying the dead has gone on long enough

For more than 150 years, the Catholic Church has played a role in burials, caring for graves and supporting the bereaved. It has always done so in partnership with the NSW Government and with respect for the needs of other faiths.

A large proportion of our society supports the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust’s (CMCT) view that caring for the dead is a spiritual, not a secular experience. That is why the CMCT has always worked in co-operation and partnership with other faiths – Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism – and has always respected the needs of each community.

That’s why there was justifiable anger at the NSW Government’s plan to merge the five Sydney crown cemetery operators including the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust into a new entity called ‘One Crown’.

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When more than 17,000 people signed a petition opposing the plan, Premier Gladys Berejiklian was forced to act. It was a welcome backdown when the Premier sidelined Minister Melinda Pavey and called in the Deputy Premier John Barilaro to work out a compromise.

However, divisions within the NSW Government continue. The recent leaking of high-level advice from the Premier’s own department to the media shows someone inside the government is trying to undermine Deputy Premier Barilaro’s attempts to resolve the issue.
The leaked documents raise concerns about the government negotiating directly with the CMCT. The documents imply that other parties – presumably for-profit enterprises – can do what the Catholic Church does and that they should be allowed to tender for the work.

These probity concerns do not stand up to scrutiny. The NSW Government’s own guidelines allow it to directly deal with a party that is in a unique position to offer a solution that cannot be offered by competitors.

So what is it that makes the CMCT unique?

First, the CMCT has 150 years of experience managing cemeteries professionally and efficiently. It has an impressive history of providing value for money. In fact the Government’s own report says the CMCT is the best run of all the cemetery trusts.
Second, the CMCT has the support of 34 faith groups in Sydney and no other party has this level of interfaith support.

Third, the CMCT’s funds were raised from bereaved families for ongoing maintenance of cemeteries, not from grants or government budget allocations. It is not a drain on the public’s purse. And fourth, the CMCT has a sustainable vision for the future, including a plan to solve Sydney’s cemetery land shortage by providing sites well into the future.
And finally, the CMCT is a charitable, not-for-profit Government Trust. It is not a private sector investor wanting to own a Crown business and turn a private profit.

NSW Labor supports a solution that involves an ongoing role for the CMCT. In a pluralistic and multicultural society such as ours, governments need to work harmoniously with religious institutions. They need to represent the needs of people of faith as well as people who follow no religion. Respect for the secular as well as the sacred has a place in public administration.

The uncertainty over the future of the CMCT has gone on long enough. Warring NSW Government Ministers need to bury their egos and work out a solution that includes respect for the spiritual needs of the people of NSW and a recognition of the traditional role of the Catholic Church.

The old adage, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ seems to apply here.

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