Governor’s Prayer Breakfast 2000 – Keynote Address

Friday 20 October 2000

by His Excellency Lieutenant General John Sanderson, AC
Governor of Western Australia

Let me begin by welcoming you to this now well-established annual event – the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast. I hope that you all share with me the sense that this is a time for both thanksgiving and reflection, in which a significant proportion of the leadership of our community, together, can share their expression of the hopes and needs of our people, our businesses and our various areas of responsibility. The vision statement of the event says that the objective is “to bring together community leaders in fellowship and unity to acknowledge God’s values and call on His name – that God may hear us and heal our land”.

My familiarity with prayer breakfasts as distinct from prayer, comes from my time as a student at the United States Army War College in the mid 1980s during the late years of the Cold War, where working breakfasts with prayers, as well as purely prayer breakfasts were a regular extra-curricular part of the course. America, of course, has always been a nation with a strong fundamental commitment to Christian values, and, at the time, the Armed Forces were going through a process of rebuilding their moral foundation after the debilitating experience of the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, I recall feeling some discomfort with the fact that part of those prayers were given over to asking God for guidance on ways to destroy the Soviet Union.

Those were the days of what President Reagan described as the “Evil Empire”, now long gone. The World is now faced with a whole new set of geo-strategic problems that have emerged since the end of the Cold War in 1989, and these are compounded with the greatest rate of technological and social change we have ever known. It is in this great global flux that we find ourselves seeking new ways to deal with an incredible array of both threats and opportunities that impact on all communities, including that of Western Australia.

Globalization is not simply a word coined by researchers and writers to describe the growing impact of multi-national companies on our lives. It is recognition of the fact that everything that happens in the World and in the Universe for that matter, impacts on us all in some way, and at an increasing rate, from climate change and environmental degradation, to population growth and global communications that transcend national boundaries and cultures. In a sense, this brings us closer to God. The linear scientific rationality and state sovereignty concepts that have been the basis of European global endeavour for the last 400 years no longer meet all our needs. During the 20th Century human creativity brought us the capacity to destroy ourselves. In this century it is already confronting us with great new moral dilemmas. Whether we like it or not, we are going to have to find new ways of dealing with each other if we are to use responsibly the new knowledge that is being revealed to us at an exponentially increasing rate as we move into the future.

One can only be awestruck at the nature of the Cosmos that is being unveiled by the new sciences. There is a pattern and a beauty to it that goes well beyond the clockwork versions we have been used to in our recent search for truth and meaning.

If you do not find these revelations awe inspiring, then I suggest you look again, perhaps from a different direction, and deeper into both the changing nature of science and its impact on the way we relate to our surroundings.

In very recent times we have found ourselves being confronted, with increasing frequency, and more and more in real time, by atrocities being committed by one people against another in varying parts of the world. The omnipresent TV camera brings this to our family rooms, together with the views of commentators who are themselves a part of the drama and tragedy that is played out before us. It seems there is no escape from this, other than to turn off your TV and radio. More and more the presentation of these stories takes on the lurid nature of TV dramas in order to capture and retain audiences, rather than simply to inform. Our responses are varied, from that of becoming inured and accepting of it as something we cannot influence anyway, to that of being angry and involved to such an extent that our governments, often against their better judgment, feel they must respond. Last year’s East Timor crisis is an example of the latter, while the much more devastating crises in Central Africa are becoming regarded as something that should be avoided, if not wholly ignored.

One consequence of this has been the rapid growth in the number and nature of interventions of either a humanitarian, or military nature that have been initiated by the international community to keep faith with the growth in the nature of international laws as they pertain to the rights of the individual, as distinct from the rights of sovereign states. This is a profound change, and it has all sorts of implications for international harmony.

Last year in September the Secretary General of the United Nations, HE Kofi Annan, broached this subject when he put out a statement suggesting that the sovereign rights of the individual were equal to the sovereign rights of nation states. The Secretary General went on to say, “that when we read the Charter today, we are more than ever conscious that its aim is to protect individual human beings, not to protect those who abuse them”. Needless to say, his accompanying suggestion that this justified the intervention of regional forces in those states where the rights of their citizens were subject to enduring gross abuse, was the proverbial stick in the ants’, or hornet’s nest. Many nations, but primarily those with less than democratic regimes, strongly rejected this suggestion. Clearly, the World is not yet ready for this form of globalization.

And yet, it seems that this set of global dynamics is upon us, and we are confronted now, whether we like it or not, with the big question of “who decides who is right and who is wrong?”. At present, and in theory, it is the Security Council of the United Nations. Is this organisation sufficiently representative to perform this function, and are its motives and values such that the rest of the world can arrive at a consensus on its jurisdiction?

These are the great and profound issues of international debate of the day. They came to the fore in the immediate post Cold War environment of the early 1990s, and arise every time we are confronted with the need to address the dramatic human tragedy of ethnic cleansing and communal violence based on religious differences, tribal boundaries and economic deprivation. Often we throw young peacekeepers from all over the world together into the cauldron of ill-conceived operations that salve our conscience, but only offer a bandaid for a solution.

This brings the peacekeepers into great danger where they are often pilloried for their inability to solve problems that the international community is not prepared to solve itself.

Two images that are burned into my memory are those of the young Belgian paratrooper using his bayonet to cut up his blue UN beret when his nation withdrew from UN peacekeeping after having lost soldiers as Rwanda started to fall into complete anarchy. The second is the generational disaster of the bloody stain left on the Netherlands Army as a result of the Bosnia disaster when they stood by while thousands of Moslem men were slaughtered at Srebrenicia. The truth is that many nations that represent the international community in this process are not well prepared for the responsibility that is heaped upon them.

In 1994, I met our Guest Speaker, the reverend Father Michael Tate in The Hague where he, as Australia’s Ambassador, hosted a luncheon speaking engagement for me that included many members of the Dutch Armed Forces. I remember at the time making much of the fact that the ambiguous legality of operations such as the one I had recently commanded in Cambodia meant that you had to rely to a great extent on the moral authority of your mission, which required in turn that your troops behaved in a way that gained and sustained the support of the people in the mission area. In the case of Cambodia, this had been very demanding, because it was a complex mission, and many of the nations had neither the experience nor the ethos to operate in such an environment. Of the 34 nations represented in my command, more than half would have come into either one of these categories. Germany and Japan for instance chose Cambodia to make their first operational foray outside their national boundaries since the Second World War.

One of the ex Iron Curtain countries could only be described as an operational disaster. Their presence in the Cambodian countryside was initially a moral disaster. With no acceptance of responsibility at the junior leaders level, they were continually involved in incidents of road rage, theft, black marketeering, rape and cultural confrontation of every distinction. I was constantly having miscreants sent home, and warning their people that they were courting disaster. In the end the Khmer Rouge solved part of this problem for me by killing a large number of their soldiers in what I could only describe as a massacre.

From the moment of that brutal lesson on they began to address their problems, until eventually their performance could be described as never brilliant, but satisfactory. The punchline of this story came towards the end of the mission when a young captain from this country asked to see me. He opened by first of all paying an enormous compliment to our Australian soldiers by saying that they were what he thought that peacekeepers should be. He then said something that I considered to be profound.

He said, “you know General our people should not go on any more UN operations”.

When I asked him why, he replied, “ Because they have no God. They think they are gods themselves. They have no love for each other, and therefore they have no discipline”.

I have to confess to you that he stopped me in my tracks. Of course the issue of respect, or love, and true discipline are inextricably tied together, as are the issues of moral authority and legality. And no amount of technology or market forces will remove this reality. It is the very foundation of justice and our human society.

Our Lord Jesus Christ gave us this message as the fundamental essence of our relationship with God. It lies at the core of the spirit of voluntary service that is increasingly exemplified, I am glad to say, by our young, and not so young, people, here in Western Australia. Elsewhere throughout our complex world, Australian government and non-government people also give us much to be proud of in their compassionate commitment to international service.

And this brings me back to the purpose of our coming together at this prayer breakfast. The other half of the message was to love and worship God, with the true belief in his manifest love being the foundation of our need to pray for guidance and forgiveness, and for the blessings that are in abundance in this State of ours. Christians are not the only believers who know this to be so. It is the universal expression of awe at the nature of our existence as creative beings in a dynamic Universe.

On that note let me conclude my opening remarks, and welcome you again to the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast in the Year 2000.