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Tackling Terra Australis

Netty Horton* delivered the Australia Southern Territory’s annual James Barker Oration on Monday, 17 August 2015.

Netty HortonIt is a great privilege for me to be here this evening and to share with you some thoughts on social justice, in honour of a man who laid the foundations of social work and the provision of social programs for what was to become one of the largest providers of welfare services in Australia


Many people in the room will know and understand the enormous impact of James Barker who, along with his wife, Alice, arrived in Melbourne to take over command of The Salvation Army in Australasia in 1882.

In a very short time, James was visiting gaols and prisoners. He realised quickly that without support, somewhere to go and an income, the men he met would quickly return to previous lifestyles and would most likely end up back in prison. Prison Gate Home, established in 1883, was The Salvation Army’s first social institution to be established anywhere in the world. It provided a place for men upon release, where food, the chance of work, some spiritual comfort, and the necessities of life were provided. 

Most of all, I suspect the Prison Gate Home provided a community where men felt accepted; where they felt they belonged. I would suggest that this continues to underpin The Salvation Army’s work. James and Alice oversaw the speedy expansion of work in many areas of social justice, including a hospital for patients suffering from venereal disease, and rescue homes for women.

They successfully advocated for the closure of many brothels and opium dens, and in particular, railed against the employment or forced labour of young girls under 16 years old in brothels.

In preparation for this evening, I have pondered… what would James Barker make of The Salvation Army’s role in Australia today? I feel quite sure he would be proud, as am I, of our position as one of the largest providers of social programs in the country. 

He would be proud, as am I, of the 712 social programs located across 314 sites in the Australia Southern Territory alone.  When combined with our colleagues in the Australia Eastern Territory we have more than 1,000 social programs delivering support, accommodation and hope to many thousands of people each year.

Barker might be amazed to learn that last year, in the Australia Southern Territory, we provided assistance to numerous individuals across homeless, family violence, alcohol and drugs, family support and young people’s support programs. He would no doubt be impressed that last year we expended more than $206 million, of which more than 35% is generated from our own resources, and that these figures do not include the buildings, properties and enormous support from our corps and congregations.

I find myself wondering though, would he not be, at least a little, disappointed in many of the social problems he fought so hard to address, being so much in evidence in our community today? And if that is true, is there action we can take to perhaps alleviate his, and even our own, disappointment in the continuing social issues faced on a daily basis by our programmes, workers and the whole community?

There are many of us who are passionate about social justice, and who have spent years advocating for change in our community.  I have spent the last few weeks reflecting on my own experiences, wondering what is better, different and hopeful after working predominantly in the homeless space for almost 30 years.

Sadly for me, there are not many similarities between James Barker and myself.  However, to my delight, my late father shared his birthday on 17th January. (Yes I am clutching at straws here!) And we did both arrive in Melbourne, directly from England, without a lot of money, and not really knowing what lay before us.

For my own part I arrived in Australia in the late 80’s.  Unlike James and Alice, I had no clear directions from the “old country.”  My mother assumed it was just one of my “little” trips, and has recently lamented that she would have taken me to the airport if she had known I was going to be away for so long.  My knowledge of Australia was confined to the sacking of Whitlam when my father, a vehement anti royalist, had demanded over dinner, probably steak and kidney pudding, that the Queen should abdicate. There was also Bob Hawke's famous quote following Australian victory in the America’s Cup (Could a Prime Minister really talk like that?) There was an apparently wonderful climate, and I had heard of the egalitarian society, free of the constraints of the British class structure, and of course, I was familiar with the reputation of “The Lucky Country.”

* Netty Horton is the territorial social programme director for The Salvation Army’s Australia Southern Territory, an administrative body encompassing the Salvos’ work in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Click here for PDF of part one of the James Barker Oration 2015

See Part Two here