NOEL TURNBULL. Australian right wing religious fury over The Economist

The Australian right wing seem to be embarking on another cultural crusade – this time against what is probably the best weekly news magazine (which the editors insist on calling a newspaper) in the world, The Economist.

The Economist’s crime: reporting Australia and Australian politics in an objective manner. First out of the blocks was The Australian’s Paul Kelly with a ponderous piece on how The Economist didn’t understand Australia and how it was dreadfully unfair to the statesman and visionary, Scott Morrison. That’s not quite what he said but you get the gist.

Then The Economist offended again by writing a short piece on proposed religious freedom legislation which had the audacity to suggest there were some problems with the project as evidenced by the fact that no one (religious, non-religious, business and others) seemed to be happy about the proposals.

One of the indefatigable Centre for Independent Studies cultural warriors, Peter Kurti, promptly wrote to the newspaper which published the letter – presumably as a way of amusing it’s Australian readers as well as achieving some balance.

Kurti objected to the newspaper describing the proposed religious discrimination bill as “virtue-signalling by the political right.” He went on to claim that the bill was intended to secure a fundamental freedom in a country where 60% of people retain a religious affiliation.

“The bill would have been unnecessary had it not been for the intolerant actions of the secular left, determined to silence and shame religious believers who dare to voice their belief in public”, he wrote. A more accurate version in terms of Australian and Western history would be to transpose the reference to the secular and the religious in the sentence.

The CIS has, since the letter was published has published a report, Respect and Division How Australians View Religion, which seems from a quick read to suffer from the same problems as the Kurti letter just at greater length. Nevertheless, the Murdoch media is giving the report heavy coverage.

This Kurti-CIS world view is not just another example of the Right taking on the dystopian rhetoric once beloved of the Left. It is also as most Australians, particularly those who work at the Australian Bureau of Statistics, know is a misleading interpretation of Australian religious affiliations; proposed ‘religious freedom’ legislation; and, what religious leaders are calling for in such legislation.

The most recent 2016 Census did say that 52% of Australians indicated that they were Christians and another 8% belonged to other religions. Kurti, in using the 60% figure, overlooks the hatreds and condemnations of some of the components of the 60% to each other’s views. He also forgets to mention that this compares to 88% of Australians who nominated they were Christians in the 1966 Census.

The largest Christian group in 2016 was Catholic (22.6% and down from 25.3% in 2011) compared with 30% (up from 22.3% in 2011) of Australians who said they had no religion.

The 60% figure also misrepresents religious practice as regular attendance at church among Australians fell to 16% in 2016 compared with 23% in 1993. Since 2016 families concerned to ensure their children enjoy freedom from predatory priests have probably driven those numbers down even further.

Moreover, many of the religious groups pushing for religious discrimination legislation want the freedom to discriminate against others so that they can refuse to employ or provide services to people who don’t share their beliefs.

For more than a century there have been battles in Australia about how religious groups, and their supporters in Parliament, dictated what and when Australians could drink alcohol; who they could marry; what they could read; what they could do on Sundays; and whether they could access birth control and abortion. While exercising that power the groups have enjoyed freedom from much taxation at Federal State and local levels and received billions of dollars in subsidies for their schools and operations. They are also currently busily selling off church properties they were gifted at no cost by governments to fund their growing bills for child abuse and other sins.

The ‘intolerant actions of the secular left’ Kurti refers to are simply a desire by many Australians to be finally free from intolerance and restrictions on freedom from groups who are no longer representative of modern Australia.

Religion in Australia – despite the fervency of some evangelicals – is in long term decline in Australia and on current trends those espousing no religion may well be in the majority by the next Census.

The 60% of those with religious affiliations are not exactly homogenous either. For instance, Prime Minister Morrison’s fellow Pentecostal religious believers represent 1.1% of Australians, which is admittedly about twice the number of Jedi followers, Wiccans and similar groups combined but about 30 times smaller than those Australians proclaiming no religion.

The Economist is unsurprisingly anathema to Australia’s right wingers. It is broadly dry in economics and socially liberal and has been since its first editor, Walter Bagehot, determined its editorial policy. It does leaven its commitment to free markets with a willingness to consider evidence about when markets don’t work. It apologises for its mistakes – for instance supporting the Iraq War. It reports intelligently on science and advocates action on climate change.

All the sort of things Australian cultural warriors and neo-liberals think dangerous and subversive. But then that’s also why it is must reading for leaders and opinion leaders around the world. Indeed, if you need information to complement your thinking on an investment, management, political judgement or artistic topic – read The Economist before you read any News Corp publication or the Centre for Independent Studies output.

Noel Turnbull is retired and blogs athttp://noelturnbull.com/blog/

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Noel Turnbull is a blogger who has had a 40-year-plus career in public relations, politics, journalism and academia.

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