JERRY ROBERTS -Religious Discrimination

Aug 1, 2019

The Attorney General and Prime Minister are working on religious discrimination legislation that is unnecessary and dangerous. The Attorney is being lobbied by religious extremists who will never be satisfied. This is a classic “race to the bottom” of a type all too familiar in contemporary politics.

It is always risky for governments to get mixed up in religion. Before opening the dangerous can of worms that is religious discrimination legislation the Parliament and all of us should consider carefully the wisdom shown by our founding fathers when they wrote the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Section 116 of our Constitution states: “The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”

Constitutional lawyer Helen Irving traces Section 116 to the First Amendment and to Article V1 in the core of the United States Constitution. and notes that the similarity is not accidental. In a comparison of our Constitution and theirs published in the Winter 2017 edition of Australian Rationalist she quotes Australia’s Chief Justice, John Latham, from 1943: (The Australian Constitution) “thus proclaims not only the principle of toleration of all religions, but also the principle of toleration of absence of religions.”

“Australians in the 19th Century were highly conscious of the history of religious conflict, of sectarianism and religious oppression,” wrote Helen Irving. “The Australian context was a little different from America, where the experience of the persecution of minority religious sects had been directly relevant to the original founding, and where religious freedom, as a consequence, was already protected in several of the state constitutions, even prior to the break from Britain. ( Some constitutions, however, included religious tests for public office.)

“In Australia it was sectarianism — conflict between Protestants and Catholics — that raised concerns and provided the historical background for the framers of Australia’s Constitution. By the time of Australia’s constitution-making in the 1890s, most of the Australian colonies had faced the sectarian issue and, in particular, focused questions of state financial aid to schools. From the 1870s when the colonial parliaments began to pass laws for compulsory education the decision was taken in most colonies to refuse financial aid to religious or parochial schools.

“At the same time, state schools — free and open to all children — were to be secular. ‘This commitment to secularism was not necessarily high-minded or noble, any more than the American framers’ commitment to free religious exercise necessarily was. But unlike in the United Kingdom, where the Church of England was established, it represented a particular notion of the sphere of government that was shared more with America than with England.

“Church and State, the Americans and the Australians believed, belonged to separate spheres — to God and Caesar, to the private and the public. Religion was a matter of private conscience and government was a matter of public office.”

One of the misconceptions motivating interest in proposed religious discrimination legislation is the view that “faith” was a winning factor in the Coalition victory at the May election. The great majority of religious people in Australia — not just Christians — thank their lucky stars that they live in this country where we are free to think, write and talk about religion and politics without government interference. For Eric Hodgens (18 July) the strategy is transparent: “The Restorationists are now crying foul on religious freedom to enable them to continue religious discrimination in their institutions.”

The issue has been inflamed by the controversy over Israel Folau, whose behaviour is disgraceful As an international sporting star he has enjoyed an exciting, highly-paid life of privilege granted to only a select few. He and the right-wing ratbags manipulating him are using his fame to humiliate people who cannot even dream of his privileges, who have been put down all their lives, who do no harm and whose individual courage and collective solidarity in fighting for human rights and basic, decent respect provide an inspiration for anybody interested in political activism.

On the footy side of things, by the way, national coach Michael Cheika explained why Israel Folau won’t be selected and it has nothing to do with Jesus and sex. The game of rugby was invented to teach schoolboys the value of team-work. Those selected for the Wallabies are playing the ultimate team game at the ultimate level against the cream of the cream — the Boks, All Blacks, England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France and Argentina.

Every player in the 15 has to focus on the team — absolutely. “The team is King,” said Michael Cheika when explaining the Folau saga to his old club-mates at Randwick in Sydney. “Anything that distracts the team from achieving its goals you have to deal with one way or another… “It was nothing to do with the content,” said coach Cheika. In other words, he would have had the same problem with his full-back if he had been distracted by a new career as a Shakespearean actor or an opera singer, instead of his preaching vocation. “It was unfortunate how it ended but something had to give in this situation,” said the coach.

Like many Australian spectators I watched the telecast from Ellis Park where the Wallabies have not beaten the Boks since 1963, looking for any signs of morale problems in the aftermath of Israel. I didn’t see any. South Africa won but Australia had a try disallowed because of a forward pass and muffed another certain try with a fumble on the line. The Wallabies will get on fine without their high-flying full-back.

For people like me inclined to be left-of-centre, politics is about civilising capitalism. In practice, that means the application of Keynesian economics in the broad sense employed by Geoff Mann in his 2017 book, “In the Long Run we are all Dead,” which I have just finished reading and recommend to people interested in politics, of whom there are quite a few among readers of Pearls and Irritations.

For the first time in a few decades the Australian Labor Party under Bill Shorten’s leadership was headed in the right (that is, the left) direction but was undone by Chris Bowen’s insistence on delivering a budget surplus bigger and better than Josh Frydenberg’s. In the immediate aftermath of the loss, that old fox Graham Richardson said Labor could have managed either negative gearing or franked credits but not both.

Recently another old fox, Donald Trump, has shown how easy it is to deflect the Democrats from their central Keynesian mission into the chaos of gender and race “identity politics” while the capitalists laugh all the way to the bank. In the 6 June New York Review of Books historian Adam Tooze writes about Cambridge politics professor David Runciman’s book, “How Democracy Ends.” Tooze identifies the existential problem of our times.

“”Democracy is unlikely to end with a bang. But all the more likely is the possibility that it will expire with a whimper. There doesn’t seem to be the level of national solidarity that would be required to address the challenge of mounting inequality by raising income and wealth taxes or undertaking comprehensive welfare reform — the reforms that were the achievement of the mid-twentieth century and were in large part spurred by the huge mobilisation efforts of the two world wars.”

The world is facing monumental problems way beyond the capabilities of any individual or political party to solve. We all need to lift our game. Yet here we are in Australia with our Parliament about to engage in a futile attempt to placate the prejudices of religious bigots. If the various religions wish to survive the 21st Century they need a congregation. That means they need relevance. They will have to survive on their merits, not by leaning on politicians to legislate the population back to the Dark Ages.

Jerry Roberts is a former parliamentary reporter and a member of the ALP.

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