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The middle finger that won't be forgotten

By Greg Donnelly - posted Monday, 7 November 2016


In vibrant pluralist democracies like our own, political parties large enough to form government do not usually set out to antagonise let alone betray large constituent groups. The reason is self-evident and you do not need a degree in political science to understand why. You do not get off-side those who support you, and those who you rely on to help secure and hold political office.

We are yet to find out from the recent census how religion is faring amongst Australians in 2016. Most expect that the numbers will be down on those recorded in 2011. In the 2011 census, 61% identified as Christian. The figures for the other faith traditions were lower: 2.48% Buddhism, 2.23% Islam, 1.29% Hinduism and 0.46% Judaism. From the point of view of regularly attending services of worship the figures are quite bleak. Less than 10 per cent of Australians are regular attendees. While it is pretty clear that Australians in the second decade of the 21st century are not regularly attending their church, synagogue, mosque, temple or other place of worship in droves, it does seem that religion is an animating force sufficient enough for people to openly and freely declare their affiliation in quite large numbers.

While religiosity does not stand out as a quintessential Australian trait, some of the political elite and the commentariat, a number of whom are not just indifferent but antagonistic towards religion and religious belief, may well be underestimating its importance and value to many people. Particularly for those who self-identify as being on the left of the political spectrum, it is de rigueur to be suspicious and dismissive of religiosity. I could say that is particularly the case with respect to Christianity, but that would open up a whole separate discussion. In any event many of the political, academic, media and cultural elites see religion as a hangover from a less enlightened time; at best, relatively harmless "fairies at the bottom of the garden" superstition; at worst an intolerant, dogmatic set of arbitrary laws designed to morally straightjacket individuals and restrict personal freedom and choice.

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It is this blatant hostility, although it would never be acknowledged let alone publically spoken about as such, which is animating the Australian Labor Party in the Victorian Parliament with its Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exemptions) Bill 2016. The bill, if it is to pass onto the statute books, will have a significant impact on religious schools and bodies by establishing an inherent requirements test for their employment decisions. Debate on the bill in the Legislative Council is yet to conclude. Excluding the Attorney General's Second Reading speech in the Legislative Assembly, the Victorian Government permitted only one-and-a half hours debate on the bill before it was put to a vote and passed in that House. Such a deliberate and calculated act was shameful for a piece of legislation that has such broad ranging consequences. The phrase, political fit-up, comes to mind.

In short the effect of introducing an inherent requirements test will be to significantly write down the ability of religious schools and bodies to be able to rely on a religious defence to discriminate in the area of employment. The existing provisions within the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act have been there for some time and have struck a fair and reasonable balance with what are always competing claims with respect to anti-discrimination legislation. Indeed if you read the speeches given in the Legislative Assembly in favour of the bill, including the Attorney General's, not one actual example of abuse or unjust behaviour with respect to the current exemption provisions was put forward to justify the proposed amendments. Not one. So much for the bigoted churches!

Under the proposed legislative change a defence against adverse employment decisions will only be available where conformity with religious doctrines, beliefs or principles is an inherent requirement of the job in question, and, because of a particular personal attribute, an employee or job applicant does not meet that inherent requirement.

Particularly in the area of education, religions have a significant interest in maintaining the highest level of committed religious adherents as employees, thus enabling co-operation and unity of purpose to flourish in their institutions. What does the Victorian Labor Government think it is doing taking steps to deliberately weaken and undermine current legislative arrangements that have served the citizens of the state well?

It is interesting to observe that this policy priority of knocking-off the anti-discrimination exemptions for religions and their associated organisations has been front and centre for the Greens for many years. Those in leadership positions in the Greens - politically and organisationally - are overtly hostile to religion. They have always been strongly committed to removing religious exemption provisions wherever they are to be found. For the Greens it has never been a case of live and let live. It is a case of, you will submit.

And so it seems to be the case with the Australian Labor Party. Why the Australian Labor Party has developed such a tin ear towards organised religion and its adherents is worthy of serious reflection and discussion. As far as political parties go, the Australian Labor Party for most of its history has been a pretty broad church, no pun intended. It has attracted people of both no faith and every faith and enabled such individuals to progress through its ranks to high elected office. When in government it has sought, in the main, to be respectful of religion and its importance to those whose lives are animated by it. However, it does appear that there is mounting evidence to suggest that change, if it has not already happened, is afoot.

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Organised religion in Australia has nothing like the public voice and influence that it once had. And many would say that this is a good thing. Such a point of view though is jaundiced and gives little or no credit to the contribution that organised religion has made, and continues to make, in Australian society, notwithstanding instances of human failings. The recent action of the Australian Labor Party in Victoria, with no evidence that the existing exemption provisions have been problematic or harmful, is tantamount to giving the churches and their affiliated organisations the middle finger. It is driven by ideology and animus. This is to be expected from the Greens or the Sex Party, but not the Australian Labor Party. It will be interesting to see this disconnection evolve not only in terms of its impact on the political fortunes of the Australian Labor Party but also, when the penny drops and organised religion confronts the reality that the ground has shifted.

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About the Author

Greg Donnelly is a Labor Party member of the New South Wales Legislative Council. He has been in the Legislative Council since February 2005. He is currently the Deputy Opposition Whip in the Legislative Council. He is the Chair of General Purpose Standing Committee No. 2 and Deputy Chair of the Standing Committee on Social Issues. He is also a member of the Privileges Committee, the Committee on Children and Young People, the Select Committee on the Legislative Council Committee System and the Select Committee on Human Trafficking.

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