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Media Release — Religious transparency at elections: 8.9.15

Liberal by-election candidate for the federal seat of Canning on 19.9.15, Andrew Hastie, has declared “off limits” any discussion of his alleged family links to a belief in creationism.  It raises, once again, the issue of religious transparency in both state and federal politics:

“Canning by-election candidate, Andrew Hastie, was quizzed on his family links to fundamentalist Christianity — and a joint LNP meeting recently rejected a conscience vote on same-sex marriage by a staggering two-thirds majority.

“For a country that’s meant to be secular a recurring theme is ‘religion in politics’ — whether it’s prayers in parliament or social policy that’s blocked by MPs on religious grounds,” said Brian Morris, author of a new book ‘Sacred to Secular’.

“One clear example is that 42% of Tony Abbott’s cabinet is Catholic — double that of the Australian population — and it’s long overdue that voters knew at election time where candidates stood on religion and the social agenda.

“The religious beliefs of politicians are wholly out of step with an increasingly secular public, and this will only intensify with changes to the August 2016 Census — just announced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

“For the ‘Religious Affiliation’ question the ABS has moved the No Religion box from being last option to first option, and we fully expect that No Religion figure to rise to around 50% — up from understated 22.3% at the 2011 Census.  Equally, the Catholic figure is likely to fall from the present 25.3% to substantially lower than 20%.”

Morris said the over-representation of staunchly Christian MPs has a dramatic effect on a raft of social policy — from marriage equality to abortion and from voluntary euthanasia to teaching ethics in schools, rather than Biblical studies.

“The issue is not about the constitutional right of everyone to believe what they wish — it’s about politicians being completely open and honest with the electorate about their own religious beliefs; or having none at all.

“It merely requires all politicians — state and federal — to include in their official parliamentary biographies details about their religious denomination and beliefs, and special activities within their Church.  And the declaration would apply equally to those who had no faith at all; agnostics to atheists.  While voluntary, it might well be a public expectation.

“In the same way that politicians must declare their pecuniary interest, for reasons of probity, it’s time it also became necessary for MPs to publicly state their religious activities (or none), and place them on the public record.

“A requirement of public transparency does NOT impinge on their right to any faith — or lack of it — but it will indicate to voters a particular religious mindset that may shape their judgement on a raft of contemporary social issues.

“It’s time that all politicians became open, honest, and accountable on religious beliefs that undermine the very notion of Australia being a secular nation — a concept that our constitution demands.

“We need to take religion out of politics, as the Scandinavians have done.  They’re highly successful nations that are 80% secular.  They’ve gently moved religion away from the divisive ‘public and political’ sphere, back to the original concept of faith being a purely ‘private and personal’ affair — a theme outlined in the new book, Sacred to Secular.

“The media, too, can play a vital role by abandoning the 1950s social taboo — that it’s wrong to question religious authority.  It’s a mindset that inhibits the media and public from openly questioning religion in politics; from discussing its known historical flaws; and from questioning its narrow worldview in relation to contemporary socio-political policy.

“It’s time that candidates at election time were specifically asked how their religious beliefs impact on social policy decisions.  It’s the sort of information that many voters will find useful in deciding who to vote for,” Morris said.

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