Australia has already been described as a ‘soft theocracy’, by Dr Max Wallace, where church and government coincide through grants, tax exemptions and privileges. The question is, despite the public being less religious, will a more overtly Christian PM subvert the nation’s preference for secular values?
Australia has continued to move steadily towards progressive policy – most notably to finally legalise same-sex marriage last year. But that came at a cost. To ensure the law was passed – and to placate the religious right of his party — the then PM, Malcolm Turnbull, set up a review of ‘religious freedom’ which was headed by former Attorney General Philip Ruddock.
Few in the secular community believed any of the 20 recommendations – handed by Ruddock to Turnbull in May – would gain passage through parliament. Religions already enjoy a swathe of religious privileges.
But elevation to the position of PM – by devout Pentecostal, Scott Morrison – has substantially changed the prospect of new laws to provide exclusive religious benefits – to a dwindling Christian constituency.
Morrison made his Christian worldview quite clear in his maiden speech to parliament and in December last year, as Treasurer, he trumpeted that he was on a crusade to protect religion; “particularly the one I and many other Christians subscribe to.”
In a television interview with Sky News on Monday night, Scott Morrison said he was displeased with the level of free speech given to Christians and freedom of religion generally; “So there’s nothing wrong with a bit of preventative regulation and legislation to ensure your religious freedom in this country.”
Such comments do not auger well for a secular Australia. The rise of religious conservatism in federal parliament, together with external pressure from groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby, were evident during the acrimonious religious campaign against same-sex marriage.
Indeed, manifestations from fundamentalists have been evident since the Prime Ministership of John Howard. That history was well established by professor of politics, Marion Maddox, in her 2005 book; “God under Howard; the Rise of the Religious Right in Australia.”
And recent comments by former Liberal MP, Mal Washer, put into stark perspective the degree to which evangelical Christianity has become enmeshed within federal politics.
Washer, who laments the political denial of science, is unabashed in his concern. He took Tony Abbott to task on religious lobbying to ban the abortion drug RU486, and also on stem cell research. He said, “I fought this type of religious ideology right through.”
He goes on to say the Liberal Party is increasingly influenced by the religious right and becoming more distant on crucial issues, “on climate science, on women’s rights, on freedom of choice on abortion, on new ideas about sexuality … Basically they are out of date and out of step with community views.”
That is born out by the 2016 census where 30 per cent of the nation said they had “no religion” – the largest cohort among all groups that recorded their religious affiliation. And the level of secular commitment was further established in a national IPSOS poll that showed 78 per cent of Australians thought it important “to separate personal religious beliefs from the business of government.”
So a primary concern for the secular community is that the religious right will mobilise under the stewardship of the new PM. Scott Morrison is one of many parliamentarians known to be Pentecostal — a brand of Christianity that believes the Old Testament (as well as the New) is the “inerrant Word of God”. That includes the anti-scientific view that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, that Noah and other Genesis stories, are all true.
Philip Ruddock’s religious freedom review received more than 16,000 submissions – the overwhelming majority coming from pro-forma submissions organised by Christian churches and various religious lobbies. That is evident from those published on the Review website.
The religious zeal of Christian parliamentarians is now fired by Scott Morrison. “If you don’t have freedom of your faith, of your belief – and in whatever religion that is – then you don’t have freedom in this country at all.”
This is blatantly false and misleading because Australians do have religious freedom:
- Australia is a signatory to the International Covenant of Civic and Political Rights which states “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
- There are no laws in Australia that limit the right to religious freedom. This was stated in a 2015 Law Council of Australia submission to the Human Rights Commission.
- Moreover, many state and federal laws, including equal opportunity and anti-discrimination laws, explicitly protect freedom of religion through various exemptions.
A “secular Australia” is the best guarantee for a wholly inclusive and pluralistic society where one person’s freedom doesn’t come at the cost of another’s. This current push for “religious liberty” will have serious, negative implications for Australia’s free, secular and egalitarian future.