The question of restructuring was easily the largest item on the agenda of the 2016 New Zealand Provincial Chapter.
Would the New Zealand province move to unite with the province of Australia and the district of the Philippines to form a new province, with the provisional title of “South Pacific Asia”?
A formal motion to this effect included two subsidiary motions with rules for choosing a provincial and for constituting a first provincial chapter. These came from a combined working group of the relevant provinces and district.
The working group also provided Chapter members with a paper “Restructuring for Mission of the Provinces of Australia and New Zealand and the District of Asia”, along with other documents, including a legal opinion on the implications of merging or coordinating charitable trust boards in Australia and New Zealand.
A close vote?
It was thought that the New Zealand chapter would face a close vote.
A restructured province is too unwieldy, would range over a vast geographic area, cover four different legal jurisdictions, be too demanding on administrators and will not produce new energy for mission. There are also too many financial and legal risks.
In 2008 New Zealand had voted with a comfortable majority in favour of a merger with Australia, in contrast to the Australian chapter, which had voted “yes, but not yet”.
There were therefore preliminary indications that the New Zealand province might well favour the proposal.
The chapter addressed the matter on its second day, Tuesday 5th July, intending to discuss the issue, and to vote on the following day. The session began with questions and answers, with an initial focus on the provisions of the “Restructuring” document.
Leading the discussion, Tim Duckworth emphasised that it was a kind of road map that offered advice on how to get to a certain place (he suggested we call it “Venice”), without taking a stance on the question of whether we should go there.
Questions followed about the detail of the procedures and then about the proposal in general. The Chapter broke into small groups, after which it moved to an open forum where members responded to the proposal publicly for the first time.
The serious reservations
What followed took everyone by surprise.
Different views were expressed:
- a general wish to cooperate with initiatives of the international Society of Mary;
- the need of the New Zealand province to be generous with personnel and resources;
- the many current and historical links between the units of the proposed merger;
- the geographical spread of the proposed new province;
- the different “cultures” of the existing provinces;
- the question whether a rearrangement of governance would change anything much;
- the implications of different political jurisdictions, so that freedom of movement, or right to work, are not always guaranteed;
- the different legal realities in Australia and New Zealand, including questions of possible liability;
- questions of whether the proposal offered the best regional structure for the future;
- the question of whether the new entity would really be regarded as a province.
Discussion concluded after about an hour, and the Chapter registered a moment of collective surprise, as it sank in that almost all speakers had expressed serious reservations, so that a vote would clearly go against the proposal.
After lunch there was discussion on whether the Chapter should proceed directly to a vote, or whether the vote should be left until the following day. It was decided to proceed.
The mood was calm and sober.
After a short break for prayer, with a reading from the Constitutions and singing of the “O Maria”, the Chapter voted 17-1 against the proposal.
Was there a single reason to explain such a surprising result?
The stand out reason
A flight between Wellington and Sydney is roughly equivalent to a flight from London to Moscow….There was a feeling that the proposal would direct too much energy into things that did not give energy.
It was that the merger would require an immense commitment of energy, especially from the abler members of the two provinces over the next few years. This commitment would be focused on governance and administration.
The geography of the new province loomed large in this discussion, with some noting that a flight between Wellington and Sydney is roughly equivalent to a flight from London to Moscow, with a flight from Wellington to Manila at least three times as long.
There was a feeling that the proposal would direct too much energy into things that did not give energy.
The Chapter did not want to lock itself into a future whose lines were largely determined by structural questions, with administrators grappling with conundrums of governance and administration, rather than with questions of mission.
Along with all this, Chapter members strongly asserted the commitment of the New Zealand province to its continuing support of the other Marist units in the region.
- John Owens SM is a lecturer in philosophy at Good Shepherd College.
- Article first appeared in New Zealand province newsletter. Used with permission.