RAMESH THAKUR. Folau saga: when employers and sponsors become the thought police

Like Paul Collins, I am destined for Israel Folau’s version of hell on multiple counts of sin. Indeed I will be even deeper in it since I have repeatedly, over several decades, refused to embrace the love and salvation offered by Jesus Christ despite countless missionaries and proselytisers pleading with me to do so and renounce my Hindu heathenism. Given the contrasting pictures painted of heaven and hell, I look forward to sharing hell’s pleasures with Paul while the devout enjoy the tedium of life in heaven.

Unlike Paul Collins, however, I haven’t had enough of the controversy. On the contrary, I don’t think the progressive left has paid enough careful attention to the big picture issues. To that end, let me make three points.

Australia is not a budding republic of hurt feelings

As a non-Christian, non-religious, practising atheist who doesn’t believe in hell, I am quite happy to ignore the biblical warnings of the fate that awaits me in the afterlife. For the same reason and again unlike Paul, I have absolutely no interest on how accurately or distortingly Folau interprets his Bible. But I have never strayed from courtesy in firmly rejecting the entreaties of the proselytisers, nor from respect for those who do adhere to faith-based beliefs and morals, whatever their religion. This is not to say I don’t find some religious beliefs repugnant and cultural practices abhorrent, with female genital mutilation being near the top. I would not deny to anyone the right to advocate for their beliefs, while claiming the right to argue against them. My moral boundary comes at the point of incitement to act in harmful ways. In Folau’s case this means he can speak and post his views on the morality of various acts, but cannot demand that those he considers immoral should be stopped from playing rugby. And vice versa.

The simplest option therefore would have been to ignore his post and comments. Which begs the question: who was reading his post? Most likely, two groups: his followers, and those monitoring his posts in search for comments to take offence at.

The latter worry me a lot more than the former. If we succumb to the professional offence takers, we will turn Australia into a budding republic of hurt feelings. This is reminiscent of Samuel Johnson’s famous riposte when he published his dictionary in 1755. A lady expressed her approbation of the dictionary and satisfaction that he had omitted improper words. ‘“No, Madam,” replied he, “I hope I have not daubed my fingers. I find, however that you have been looking for them”’.

Very few of us would ever have read Folau’s post if it had been simply ignored. If someone drew Rugby Australia’s attention to it, they could have issued a simple disclaimer: Folau’s private posts express his personal views that do not reflect RA’s values. End of story.

Corporate power over workers after hours

If RA itself was monitoring his posts and came down heavy in response, the main storyline immediately changes for the worse. This is no longer a sports story nor even a religious freedoms story, but a fundamental human rights issue that concerns and should worry us all. Because we disagree profoundly with the content of Folau’s post, we have been in denial on the insidious threat. Instead of Saudi Arabia’s morality police for enforcing state and society decreed morally correct behaviour, we will have taken the first steps to empowering bosses to enforce their moral code on employees beyond the workplace. Does an employer have the right to monitor our speech outside of work and to punish us for breaching company-decreed values – not conduct, but beliefs and speech – by depriving us of our livelihood? Even more outrageously, do sponsors have the power to dictate to recipients of their largesse the permissible boundaries of speech by the recipients’ employees? (Sponsorship of athletes directly is a different matter entirely, and not relevant to my main argument here.)

Or, to link it to another controversy, assume that the Australian National University had approved the Ramsay Centre gift for a course on Western Civilisations, that I was a guest lecturer in one of those units, and that I posted something critical of Western policy – such as US threats to obliterate Iran – on my personal website. Would the Ramsay Centre have the power to demand the ANU sack me, else they would withdraw their funding?

Phrased this way, the dispute morphs into one that is enormously consequential for all Australians. Gillian Triggs, the former Human Rights chief, has rejected the right of employers to sack someone for expressing deeply held beliefs. How many Qantas employees stay silent in the face of corporate activism that conflicts with their private values? Shouldn’t homosexuals working for strongly Christian CEOs have job protection for advocating and practising their value systems away from the workplace? The fact that this enhances corporate power over workers, might be the explanation for the silence of our Pentecostal Christian prime minister on the affair so far. What is Labor policy on this as the party for (it long ago ceased being of and by) workers: do they support the growing power of corporate CEOs to impose their moral frameworks on their own employees and on the employees of organisations they sponsor?

The fundamental pathology is worsened by the hypocrisy trifecta that is so brazen as to be sickening. Qantas gets to tell RA, either overtly or with a wink and a nod, to police players’ words outside the workplace, but it is okay for its CEO to shape behaviour in the workplace, for example by encouraging check-in and cabin staff to wear rainbow lapels and rings. It is verbotten for Folau, speaking not as a rugby player but as a Christian and in a church rather than a stadium setting, to remind readers of biblical injunctions against homosexuality. But Joyce has no embarrassment in getting into bed with Emirates which is owned by a government with harshly cruel homophobic policies. And RA has no qualms in accepting serious sponsorship money from an airline whose business partner is Emirates. How exactly does this align with RA’s non-negotiable values on inclusivity and tolerance?

Risk of backlash against perceptions of bullying

The gender orientation activists risk a backlash that could roll back some recently won rights and advances. History does not move along the arc of a linear trajectory but is a pendulum with back and forth swings. In voting decisively for same-sex marriage, Australians gave convincing proof of their determination to protect fellow-citizens from homophobic bullying. I’ve been perfectly comfortable with gay couples and welcomed them into my home and been to theirs for shared meals for three decades. In this article in one of India’s major newspapers, in 2014 I expressed disappointment at a Supreme Court judgment that reaffirmed a colonial era law criminalising homosexual acts between consenting adults. Conversely, when a subsequent Supreme Court judgment ruled the law unconstitutional, in 2018 I wrote this joint appreciation of the new judgment with Michael Kirby.

As a student of political behaviour, I do worry that if radicals take over a social movement and engage in aggressive and bullying behaviour, the resulting pushback can imperil hard won rights. This would not be the first nor the last time in history that the sensible centre is brushed aside. In India, for example, a major contributory factor behind the rise of Hindu hardline activism is widespread perceptions that the Congress Party had corrupted secularism into endless appeasement of the Muslim ‘vote bank’.

Dignity and rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins with the ‘recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’ as ‘the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’. Thus ‘dignity’ is placed ahead even of rights. All human beings, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, are equally deserving of basic dignity. But so too are followers of all religions, plus agnostics and atheists. And some of us are trying to defend and protect core human rights against parallel encroachments from the growth of the national security-cum-surveillance state through proliferating anti-terror laws, on the one hand, and of star chamber like anti-discrimination tribunals with expanding jurisdictions, on the other. Both expand the power of the state (and now corporates) at the cost of citizens’ freedoms.

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Ramesh Thakur is a professor emeritus at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University.

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