Backfire: plebiscite shows appetite for action

by on November 17, 2017

JUST as the postal plebiscite has blown up in the faces of the conservatives who promoted it, let us hope that any subsequent rearguard sabotage attempt under the guise of freedom of religion does the same thing.

For more than two decades (since Howard was elected Prime Minister) politicians have been utterly risk averse, fearfully imagining that some silent, conservative, Christian majority lurks out there ready to punish them at the slightest hint of social progress on human rights or fairness to the marginalised – LGBTIQ, unemployed, refugees, homeless.

Wednesday’s result should put paid to that.

But if we are going to turn over some rocks in a debate on religious freedom we might see a greater need for freedom FROM religion, not freedom OF religion.

For a start, religions get a free kick under the Marriage Act. If you are a minister of religion of a recognised denomination you are automatically entitled to be registered as a marriage celebrant.

Civil celebrants, on the other hand, have to meet other requirements, such as knowledge of marriage law, an ability to advise couples of relationship services, and be of good character and standing.

With respect to marriage, surely, we should have the same rules for everyone. Wasn’t that demonstrated on Wednesday?

Perhaps we should start a campaign to take religion out of marriage laws altogether. At law, everyone should marry before a competent civil official. If religious people feel that that would not be a real marriage they can go off afterwards and do a religious ceremony.

Further, why does the parliamentary session at which these questions are debated begin with a Christian prayer? If parliamentarians mirror the community, about a quarter would be atheists and most of the rest would not be observant Christians.

There’s more. Why should religions get tax-free status for money raised and spent for proselytising their religion and for raising money through commercial enterprises even if there are grounds for tax breaks on charitable work?

And on the charitable, medical and educational side, why should religious institutions escape ordinary anti-discrimination employment laws, especially when they get very large amounts of public money for this and are significant employers?

And why have we wasted $300 million over the past half decade on the schools chaplaincy program under which educationally untrained religious operatives spout uneducational, unscientific twaddle to school children when we are crying out for money and training to teach science, maths, English and history?

The concessions given to religions in Australia are already too wide without giving them any more.

So if conservatives start seeking new rules allowing commercial enterprises to discriminate against same-sex couples in the provision of goods and services, they should be on notice that existing concessions for religion should come under scrutiny, and unless they can be justified, they should be removed.

Freedom of religion is like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from search and seizure, equality before the law, and property rights. It is not absolute and has to be balanced against other rights and interests.

Freedom of assembly does not permit you to block peak-hour traffic. Freedom of speech does not permit you to yell fire in a theatre or trash reputations. Freedom of religion does not permit you to have four wives; refuse education to your female children; smoke marijuana; assault your spouse; or beat your child. Nor should it let you discriminate in employment.

Same-sex marriage is part of an historic continuum of increasing respect for human rights and equality: an end to slavery; increasing voting rights; respect for women’s property and voting rights; anti-discrimination laws. There should be no going back, but history is replete with examples of regression to authoritarianism and discrimination. We must guard against that here.

Of course, there never should have been a plebiscite, because equality before the law is an inalienable right, not something that can be granted or taken away upon ephemeral democratic will.

A lesson from the plebiscite is that these inalienable rights should be enshrined in the Constitution so they can no longer be the plaything of the political process.

A further lesson from such a huge turnout and decisive win by Yes, despite Australia’s susceptibility to scare campaigns, is that Australians are interested in social progress. A majority of Australia’s successful referendums and plebiscites have been on socially progressive causes: two against conscription in 1917; social security in 1946; Indigenous progress in 1967; territory voting in 1977; and same-sex marriage in 2017.

Wednesday’s result of 61.6 per cent Yes to same-sex marriage shows that perhaps Australians are no longer easily scared by far-fetched claims of the sky falling in. That is perhaps because in the 18 years since the last unsuccessful referendum a greater portion of the population has tertiary education. There was a strong correlation between higher education and Yes voting.

Perhaps our politicians can be a bit more adventurous, especially with much-needed constitutional updating.

The flight from the major parties is not a retreat into social conservatism, despite Trump, Brexit and Hanson. Rather it is an expression of dissatisfaction and frustration with the major parties which have not seemed to have got very much done recently.

That dissatisfaction and frustration can only transmogrify into outright anger if the politicians, having put us through this expensive unnecessary process, muck about with the result.
This article was first published in The Canberra Times and other Fairfax media on 18 November 2017.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Rod Harvey 11.18.17 at 2:53 pm

Great column, good to see the Faifax Press publishing it.

For far too long the Churches have had it their way – way out of kilter with their actual followers.

Here’s hoping we are seeing the start of a diminution of their power over politics. Case in point – the Brethren. How do they get away with it.

Cheers and congratulations

Rod Harvey

jak 11.18.17 at 3:06 pm

hi crispin. liked your article and concur we could use freedom religion.

as for this being a slapdown for the conservative mindset? i suspect not. i think they knew all along they were going down but they are happily pleased at the no vote they will claim credit for. they will argue that 40% no is too big to ignore. it was always about hurting Turnbull and a delaying agenda. they think’ve won..

keep up the good writings.. cheers

Darren Ashton 11.18.17 at 4:59 pm

Well written and thanks for pointing it out! It’s worrying that the ACL continually bang on about the erosion of “Freedom Of Speech” and Religious Freedoms” when they enjoy many more than most!

Camille 11.18.17 at 5:03 pm

Could not agree more. The worst part of this SSM debate has been the political-absolutist banging on about religion, and it’s untouchable status in our culture. The truth that most of us don’t believe in any of the imaginary male saviours in the sky, and the seriousness with which this infantile fantasy of the mortally petrified has been allowed to continue with unquestioned certainty is sickening to many if not most of us. Let the fight begin for from religion and freedom from its dominance of our socio, economic, legal and moral future.

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