Backfire: plebiscite shows appetite for action

by Crispin Hull 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.

{ 14 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.

Stan 11.18.17 at 5:35 pm

The blase attitude to the seperation of powers in this country is a shocker.

The sooner all Australians are covered by a bill of rights the better.

Jeremy 11.19.17 at 12:05 am


I agree with your opposition to the religious freedom moves by reactionaries in Parliament but the rest of what you wrote is just an ill founded rant that the likes of an Andrew Bolt or Bernardi could’ve penned. I’m one of those evangelical christians you dislike but before you pidgeon hole me I used to think John Howard was the most unchristian PM Australia ever had, that is until Tony Abbott came along and I felt I should answer what you had published in the SMH.

What we have had in Australia is various individuals and groups expressing their opinions and conclusions on a particular topic and just because you don’t like the views of one of these groups you feel it is OK to call for them to be silenced across the Australian community. You do this from a moralistic, self righteous stance but to justify this stance you have to misrepresent the views and activities of these people which is either from ignorance or straight out dishonesty. Let’s just go through them.

You tie Christians to the reactionaries in Parliment but there are a wide range of christians in this country with a wide range of conclusions on SSM (e.g. Penny Wong, Frank Brennan, et al) so it is a falsehood to tie them all to those reactionaries.

Your comment about ordained ministers doesn’t investigate whether ministers of the established denominations undergo similar training to civil celebrants as part of their ordination studies. You have no reason to assert ministers are not technically competent in the laws and requirements for civil marriage.

Complaining about ‘prosletysing’ and tax free status is misleading because many groups in Autralia are allowed to prosletyse e.g. the vital work of environmental groups. Trying to tie government grants for social services to prosletysing is false because you know there are strict rules under which such funding can be used by the charitable group providing the services. As to commeercial enterprises again you know that where there are commercial activites run by christian organisations they are governed by the same rules that all charitable and volunteer organisations whose activities have a commercial component but its convenient for your argument to not mention this. But, I want to ask you about prosletysing, at the moment reactionaries in Parliament are spending time and money to stop the vital public advocacy of environmental groups i.e. to kill their prosletyising, don’t try and deny it this vital work is prosletysing just the same as religious groups. This means you are marching in step with those reactionaries no matter how much you deny it and you have no justification for saying christian groups must limit their services based on belief or outlook and you don’t know or won’t say how christian groups run their recruitment policies for the provision of social and charitable services, is this because it would blow you argument out of the water?

And then we move onto Chaplaincy where you omit that it was the reactionaries who stopped certain people from being chaplains, not the christians, and then you compound this by stating the falsehood that chaplains teach, they don’t and never have and then claim they are putting out unscientific stuff, just what is this unscientific stuff and where are they putting it out?

You go on to talk about justifying freedom of religion by trying to equate it to such things as civil limits on freedom of assembly e.g. freedom to block traffic but thisd is false equivalence nor are your assumptions about what various groups say is important true e.g. having four wives, etc, in fact your comment just doesn’t make much sense. What you are doing is the intellectual equivalent of throwing mud at the wall and its a dishonest way to make an argument.

You are right that SSM is part of the continuum of making sure human rights are set out and respected, even if views on SSM differ, but in the examples you give e.g. slavery, discrimination, etc you don’t acknowledge that christian groups and individuals were at the forefront of these struggles, giving up their whole lives and careers to make these advances happen and in the case of Martin Luther King even their lives. Why don’t yuo acknowledge these things?

In the SSM childish public fisticuffs we have just seen, the voice of Gay Activists critiquing SSM as a concept was notably absent from Australia’s MSM except, ironically, on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics website. Writing on the ABC R&E website one such Gay Activist brought up the very pertinent and moral points that SSM won’t cure poverty, won’t fix the refugee problem, indigenous recognition, won’t provide more hospitals or address the lack of equity and selfishness displayed by Australians on the consequences of Climate Change, a far, far greater problem that will kill people. This writer then went onto raise the question of why were Australian corporations so supportive of the campaign for SSM when these same corporations actively worked to suppress conditions for workers, ignored climate change, spent huge sums influencing politicians and campaigned to lower the corporate tax rate while actively avoiding tax yet SSM campaigners were very happy to overlook such things.

I would like to know how is a desire for freedom from religion to be acted out in Australia: does it mean ending up with a mob to chasing the likes of Penny Wong from Parliament just because she is a christain, putting thousands of vulnerable people on the streets by in the triumpha tearing down of social services provided by christian groups, having commissars on duty in synagogues, Mosques and churches ready to vet what Rabbis, Inmans and Ministers Say? That might sound extreme but the tone of your article calls for me to ask just how how freedom from religion cannot be nothing but oppression that goes against the foundations of our secular democracy.

In conclusion, the SSM debate hasn’t addressed the bigotry and prejuidice ingrained in Australian society instead it just seeks new, socially acceptable targets and from the tone and misrepresentations in your article I have to ask the question: are you in danger of being unthinkingly caught up in this?

Catherine Davies 11.19.17 at 1:00 am

Spot on Crispin. Only when civil ceremonies are recognised as the only legal means to marriage (as in most European countries) will we have achieved true equality. People could then choose to have them blessed by a religious celebrant should they so desire.

In a world where religion has become less meaningful to the vast majority, I find it galling that religious bodies still wield disproportionate power, that they have a larger slice of the economic cake, and that they run businesses disguised as charities that can tender for public money to run programmes supposedly for all Australians.

I find it worse than galling that those same charities may become exempt from discrimination against SSM.

The easy way forward is to only licence civil celebrants willing to marry everyone and for the strictest laws against discrimination to apply.

Kevin Rattigan 11.19.17 at 8:55 am

Not QUITE sure a 61% yes vote constitutes the dawn of a new age, however the participation rate is encouraging. Not QUITE sure either that prohibition of same sex marriage was the same as slavery, but I take your point: social change is always forward. Perhaps some politicians will now be more courageous and override their electoral advisers’ terror of “backlash” by vocal minorities.

Stephen S 11.19.17 at 4:32 pm

It’s pretty simple. The organised churches already have a raft of undemocratic, not to mention lucrative, concessions and privileges. These should only ever be wound back, not expanded as Canavan suggests.

Every time these warriors run the laughable idea of a ‘persecuted’ minority, they should be reminded that ‘pampered’ is the word they’re looking for.

Nancy Olsson 11.19.17 at 7:24 pm

I absolutely concur that it is time to separate civil union from religion. Something like 3/4 of all marriages are now not performed in church, and religion should not be a factor at all in determining who has the right to the protections of a legally binding union. As an earlier commenter said, in many other countries the civil marriage is essential and the church one an optional extra, which fewer and fewer of us in Australia are now choosing.
I also agree with Crispin that it is time for a serious conversation ( if we are capable of one) about how much taxpayer support and concessions from anti-discrimination legislation religious institutions should have in a society where religion is increasingly irrelevant to the general population.

Greg Rogers 11.20.17 at 2:05 am

Nice work Crispin! The elephant in the room is Tony Abbott’s thinly disguised obstruction of a natural outcome because of his staunch evangelical christian views. Had he not lamely offered a plebiscite as a way of delaying this inevitable outcome (whilst secretly hoping it may fail through a highly charged and emotive campaign), then this being thrust upon Malcolm Turnbull as a condition of the PM role, we would have:
* Saved so much time and energy
* Clearly saved $100M (at least the ABS came in under budget)
* Could have accomplished so many other more important things within the realm of parliament; and individuals – the economic opportunity cost.

The point missed is the opportunity cost. A beautiful economics concept – what could we have done instead (collectively) if it had just been voted in. The true economic cost of this farcical effort for our economy would have been well over $250M. Sigh, don’t people get it. What a stupid waste of intellectual capital.

And you are right, I have had enough of the free ride all religious groups get when it comes to a “higher moral ground”. They can’t be challenged else this breaches their “religious freedoms”. Bah. In 200 years time people will look back at the beliefs of the 25% and liken them to worship of Ra the sun god of ancient Egypt and ridicule the small-minded folk and the “freedoms” we benevolently provide. And when the kiddie fiddlers in the churches are exposed, guess who pays for the compensation? Well the churches are not paying it all, it is the taxpayer who provides compensation. How grossly unfair is that. Let’s tax the churches, and we will then see if they have enough to operate their propaganda-based indoctrination.

Denis 11.20.17 at 12:25 pm

Jeremy. Whole heartedly agree , and your comments save me a lot time discrediting the mis information, myths and lies presented here . What I wonder on top of all this , is why christanity is singled out from all the religions that are opposed to ssm . For 6 thousand years plus even atheism conducted marriage as between a man and a woman , so what has changed , more importantly, what has changed for the better?

Sarah Edelman 11.20.17 at 11:39 pm

Crispin, fabulous article. It says it all. You write beautifully!

Derek 11.22.17 at 10:17 am

Wonderful article Crispin. Thank you.

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