Is there a place for one’s religious views in Australian politics, law and public administration?
Annual Presidential Address
Institute of Public Administration Australia – Queensland
Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO
16 October 2007
It was very
prescient of your president James Varghese to invite me to address you
on the night before the rolls are closed for the 2007 federal election.
You could almost be forgiven for thinking that he arranged things so
that I would be given an opportunity to respond to my co-religionist
Tony Abbott who earlier this week moved into top election gear, reading
the Riot Act to the churches. Speaking with his old mate
Paddy McGuiness at the Institute of Public Affairs, Abbott observed
that “a political argument is not transformed into a moral argument
simply because it’s delivered with an enormous dollop of sanctimony.
I do think that if churchmen spent more time encouraging virtue in people
and less time demanding virtue from governments we would have ultimately
a better society”.1
it is not an “either – or” proposition. We can walk
and chew gum at the same time. We can always be encouraging virtue
in the citizens while also, from time to time, demanding virtue from
governments. The combination of virtuous citizens and virtuous
government could make for an even more virtuous society.
published a book entitled Acting on Conscience , I am delighted
to have the opportunity to address the question: “Is there a place
for one’s religious views in Australian politics, law and public administration?”
One of the great moral philosophers of our time is Alisdair Macintyre
who published his very influential book After Virtue in 1981.
at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within
which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained
through the new dark ages which are already upon us…This time however
the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already
been governing us for quite some time.
I hasten to
add that he is not Australian and he wrote these words long before Paul
Keating or John Howard was Prime Minister. In quoting him I am
not making a party political point but rather a point about our cultural
recently published a volume of essays on Ethics and Politics.
In his essay, “Social Structures and their threats to moral agency”,
he considers the case of J, a person like all of us nowadays.
He lived an increasingly compartmentalized life. He was a father,
a husband, a member of a sports club, a worker in the railways etc.
Over the years, he worked hard and was promoted in the railways.
“The key moral concepts that education had inculcated in to J were
concepts of duty and responsibility”.
“A philosopher who comes across the likes of J will understand his
attitudes as cultural parodies, in part of Plato (conceiving of justice
as requiring that ‘each do her or his own work and not meddle with
many things’) and in part of Kant (doing one’s duty and not for
the sake of any further end), authors who had influenced J’s schoolteachers.”3
Early in his
career J was curious about what “his” trains were carrying – wheat
or pig iron, tourists or commuters. He was told by superiors not
to take any notice of such things. He was not to be distracted.
He should not be a busybody. He should stick to his last, and
just to do his job. Over the years he was promoted and became
professionally disinterested and uninterested in what or who his trains
were carrying and why. Ultimately his trains were carrying munitions
and Jews to extermination camps. When confronted with this dreadful
reality after the war, he pleaded: “I did not know. It was not
for someone in my position to know. I did my duty. I did
not fail in my responsibilities. You cannot charge me with moral
As moral agents,
we are responsible for our intentional acts, for incidental aspects
of those actions of which we should be aware, and for at least some
of the reasonably predictable effects of those actions.
In our different
roles, we acknowledge the authority of evaluative and normative standards
embodied in our particular social and cultural order. But as moral
agents, espousing the virtues of integrity and constancy across roles
and in each of our roles, we also acknowledge standards independent
of those embodied in our social and cultural order – standards we
can use to critique our social and cultural order.
an “indispensable moral maxim” for us in the modern world: “Ask
about your social and cultural order what it needs you and others not
to know”.4 We must presume J was sincere. Macintyre
is adamant that even if J did not know, he and others like him “remained
guilty and .. their guilt was not merely individual guilt, but, the
guilt of a whole social and cultural order”.
We might debate
the extent of J’s guilt, but we cannot seriously question his
responsibility – individual and collective. Looking back, J
and his associates should be heard asking, “How did we let that happen?
How did we contribute to that situation? How could we have avoided
that situation, or at least helped to put a stop to it?”
In our increasingly
globalised world, we need to be educated into acknowledging the interdependence
of our situation with the situation of others who do not enjoy our peace,
security and abundance. We need to take a stand in solidarity,
overcoming the social isolation imposed by our privileged place of peace,
security and abundance. We need to take human rights seriously.
A person’s religious views can help them overcome the compartmentalisation
of life and the stereotyping of political argument, even in the fray
of an election.
are fortunate to live in one of the world’s freest, most secure, and
well endowed countries. We prize the rule of law and we enjoy
the benefits of a robust democracy. On the cusp of a tightly fought
election, community groups, including churches and other religious groups,
are able to organise and call for a reckoning from their candidates.
Security and national economic growth are always the big ticket items
for the electorate choosing between the major political parties.
Some voters see little to separate the major parties on those items
and thus look to other issues or reasons to determine their vote.
Some other voters prefer to give a higher priority to other questions
which do not enjoy the same populist support as security and the economy.
There are some
citizens whose religious views motivate them to look beyond their own
self interest, class interest and even short term national interest
in demanding that their elected representatives be attentive to the
rights and claims of all, including the poor, disadvantaged, marginalised
and those who are “other”. Some of the hot button issues that
command their attention are bills of rights, the death penalty, the
Pacific solution and the temporary protection visa, the criteria for
choosing refugees, collective bargaining, the treatment of suspected
terrorists, the curtailment of civil liberties to counter terrorist
threats, and the federal intervention in the Northern Territory including
the legislative interference with land rights, welfare rights, and CDEP
(the Community Development Employments Projects). On some of these issues,
it is nuance rather than light separating the major parties. On
others, real differences may be emerging.
Without a national
bill of rights, we Australians have often had to rely upon the Senate
to keep in check any excesses of Executive power in legislation proposed
by the government of the day. Minor parties have added texture
to our democratic processes. In the present parliament,
the government has controlled the Senate with the result that our main
check on Executive power has been idle. There has been little
point in putting arguments to Senate committees when the legislative
result is a foregone conclusion. Over the past three years, I
have not bothered to appear before a Senate committee. There has
been no point. Without deliberative debate in the Senate, citizens
are left more in doubt whether government has struck the appropriate
balance between individual liberty and the national interest.
Ironically, this may have harmed government as much as its opponents.
We are left more dependent on individual politicians taking a stand
in the party room.
Even when the
government does not control the Senate, there are times when the major
parties agree on policies which over time are seen to work violence
to basic human rights. In 2002, while community groups, including
the churches, agitated against the long term migration detention instituted
by Labor and continued by the Coalition, it was commonplace for the
Minister for Immigration to affirm: “Detention is not arbitrary.
It is humane and is not designed to be punitive.” Unvisaed asylum
seekers including children were being held in hell holes like Woomera.
Health professionals were reporting that “prolonged detention of asylum
seekers appears to cause serious psychological harm.” It took
another three years for the Migration Amendment (Detention Arrangements)
Bill to be passed. The government backbencher Bruce Baird
echoed much of the community outrage at mandatory detention of children
when he told Parliament: “I am sure that all members from both sides
of this chamber would absolutely endorse this as fundamental. Let us
never again see children in detention in this country. They should not
be behind barbed wire or razor wire. It is an indictment that we have
let it happen. Both sides of the House have been involved in that but
we are changing this process through the bill. I really stress the importance
of these changes.”5
There are times
when we Australians get the balance between national interest and individual
liberty wrong, especially when the individual is a member of a powerless
minority. Religious voices have a place when we attempt to correct that
once described Australia as “a society unique in the history of mankind,
a society of men holding no firm beliefs on the existence of God or
survival after death”. In the public forum, our leaders do not
often speak religious thoughts or admit to religious impulses. Thus
my own surprise when I attended the mass celebrated by Bishop Carlos
Belo in the Dili Cathedral in 2001 giving thanks for Australia’s contribution
to the liberation of East Timor. I describe the event in the Epilogue
of Acting on Conscience. At the end of the mass, Major
General Peter Cosgrove spoke. This big Australian army officer in military
dress was accompanied by a translator who was a petite Timorese religious
sister in her pure white habit replete with veil. He recalled his first
visit to the cathedral three months earlier when he was so moved by
the singing that he realised two things: first, the people of East Timor
had not abandoned their God despite everything that had happened; second,
God had not abandoned the people of East Timor. As he spoke, I was certain
that despite the presence of the usual media scrum, not one word of
this speech would be reported back in Australia. It was unimaginable
that an Australian solider would give such a speech in Australia. If
he were a US general, we would expect it. Here in Australia, the public
silence about things religious does not mean that religion does not
animate and inspire many of us. It just has a less acknowledged place
in the public forum. It marks its presence by the reverence of the silence.
That is why we Australians need to be attentive to the responsible mix
of law, religion and politics. Each has its place and each must be kept
in place for good of us all, and for the good of our Commonwealth.
Those who have
recently held the highest political office in the land have had occasion
to tell religious people, and not just Sheikh Taj el-Din Al Hilaly,
to butt out. At the height of the 1998 Wik debate, Paul Keating said,
“Talk about Meddling priests! When Aborigines see Brennan, Harradine
and other professional Catholics coming they should tell them to clear
out.” John Howard when questioned about his Workchoices legislation
prior to the addition of the fairness test, in light of the interventions
by the likes of Cardinal Pell, Archbishop Jensen, Archbishop Aspinall
and Bishop Manning, said: “If we are to have a sensible debate on
the merits of this legislation, my advice to every person on this side
of the House is: let’s leave out of the debate indications by the
clergy to either side of the argument.”6 Perhaps
if they had listened to some of the clergy back then they may have introduced
the fairness test much earlier and avoided some of the political problems
with the sale of Workchoices.
start referring to a group of citizens as the mob or a crowd, you know
you are in desperate tabloid territory. This week Tony Abbott
Catholic Social Justice crowd are really saying is that according to
their criteria of morality, no individual could be worse off in order
to make any other individual better off. If for argument’s sake
it might under certain circumstances be considered just to say to someone
with two overcoats we’re going to take one of your overcoats away
so that someone with no overcoat can have one, why couldn’t you, at
least hypothetically, say justly to someone earning a high wage that
we will somewhat reduce your wage so that another person can be employed?
the Bishop of Parramatta which includes all the western suburbs of Sydney
where ozzie battlers abound has been a long time critic of industrial
laws which deny workers the right to collective bargaining.
He thinks Abbott sounds like “someone who is panicking”.8
the substance of Abbott’s concerns, who are those who have had to
forego a fair wage so that others might simply work? Abbott says,
“The challenge for Christian critics of the Government’s industrial
relations policy is to explain how 10.9 per cent unemployment under
the former government is more fair and more just than 4.2 per cent under
is not more fair and more just than 4.2% unemployment. But those
who are employed in a low unemployment market should still be paid a
fair wage and should be employed on fair conditions. The debate
is about determining what is fair for the low paid, insecure workers.
We need to find the appropriate point on the spectrum between job insecutiry
and low pay that suits the employer who might not be otherise minded
to employ so many people and job security and higher pay which may serve
as a disincentive for the employer to employ that many people.
The test should still be one of fairness. It is not answered by
simply omparing unemployment rates without also considering the conditions
of employment. The political issue for resolution at the polls
is: has this government gone too far in placing an undue burden on those
in the job market who are low paid and insecure? Citizens with
religious views are as entitled as anyone else to express a view, and
they are entitled to invoke their religious tradition and teaching to
support their perspective. One letter writer to The Australian
this morning observed, “Unskilled workers are the ones who will end
up giving away their coats while the wardrobes of the more powerful
continue to expand.”10 There is one matter that no
major political party wants to talk about: the need for a return
to greater parity between all levels of the wages scale. We are
enjoying boom times but the distribution of the benefits is more inequitable
than ever. Kim Beazley in his farewell speech from parliament
quoted the US figures and presumably the trend is the same here:11
the average CEO earned 30 times that of the
average operative. In 1997 it had risen to 116 times that earned
by the average operative, and last year it was 300 times that earned
by the average operative.
There is a
place for unelected citizens with religious views to express their concerns
about wage justice in season and out of season.
are used to politicians, public intellectuals and media figures who
have little time for religion in their own lives or in the public forum.
Mark Latham put such views on public display when he published his diaries
detailing his “first law of the church”: “the greater the degree
of fanaticism in so-called faith, the greater the degree of escapism
either from addiction (alcohol, drugs, gambling or sex) or from personal
tragedy…..Organised religion: just another form of conservative command
and control in our society.”
Acting on Conscience is a plea for a rightly circumscribed
place at the table for religion in public deliberation about law and
policy. I hope I have set out rules for engagement which apply equally
to me, Sheikh Hillaly and Archbishop Aspinall, the Anglican Primate
who did the Queensland launch of the book here at St John’s Cathedral.
When Kevin Rudd did the national launch at Parliament House in Canberra
he observed, “Some have called (Frank) a “meddling priest”.
I have always seen him, less prosaically, as an ethical burr in the
nation’s saddle.” Rudd’s Bonhoeffer lecture established
his credentials as a politician who takes religion seriously in the
political process. The Australian newspaper asserted that Kevin
went “a step too far when he effectively invite(d) the churches to
sign on to the Labor cause.” He did no such thing. He rightly said,
“For too long in this country, there’s been an assumption that if
you have private faith your natural destination is one of the conservative
parties.” He invited individual Christians to respond to the political
challenges of the day in light of their faith. He also endorsed the
role of church leaders who have spoken out on issues such as the new
IR laws. Why shouldn’t they? Church leaders do have a contribution
to make to political debate when they confine themselves to statements
of principle consistent with their religious teachings and when they
scrutinise laws and policies in light of those principles.
have religious beliefs which sustain, inform and drive their social
commitments and comprehensive view of the ultimate significance of human
existence. Those views are entitled to a place at the table of deliberative
democracy, just as are the views of the secular humanist. The secular
humanist cannot say, “You believe life is a transcendent mystery.
I don’t. Therefore we should for the purposes of good civic life simply
assume that there is no transcendent mystery to life, and anything you
think, feel or desire should be translated into a message comprehensible
of pragmatic Australia has always required an ethical corrective which
has often been informed by religious sentiment, whether the issue of
the day be the dispossession of Aborigines, refugee children in detention,
our commitment to the Iraq War for unjustified, wrong reasons, or the
wanton corruption of AWB and HIH - the corporate culmination of the
“whatever it takes” mindset. Religious citizens have a role in calling
a halt to the pragmatism and insisting that some things are wrong in
themselves regardless of the practical consequences for others in the
short term. I am not suggesting that it is only religious citizens who
call for such a halt, nor that it is only non-religious citizens or
state officials who commit the abuses in the name of national interest
The state needs
to respect the inherent dignity of every person and this requires due
acknowledgement of the person who acts with a formed and informed conscience
about what is right for him and for others. The state is entitled to
constrain a person who acts in a manner contrary to the fundamental
human rights of other citizens or contrary to the public interest, given
that the public interest includes optimal freedom for all persons. The
person who occupies an office of trust in any of the three arms of government
is required to discharge that trust consistent with the terms of the
are free to proclaim the formal teaching of their faith communities,
not only to their members but to all members of society. As citizens,
they are entitled to agitate for laws or policies consistent with their
formal teaching. It is not only folly but it is wrong for religious
leaders to represent to the world that all members of their faith communities
think and act in a way fully consistent with the formal church teaching,
or that most of their members think law and policy should reflect their
formal church teaching.
like me agitate for native title or refugees, politicians tend to treat
us as if we are trendy lefties, spared the need to be elected. But when
I, hoping to apply a consistent ethic for the protection of the vulnerable,
raise ethical quandaries about legislation on things like embryonic
stem cell research, I am labelled a conservative Catholic. Last
year I was in the office of Senator Connie Fierravanti Wells.
Connie was on the speaker phone to the lovable Queensland Senator Ron
Boswell and said she was meeting with me. Ron said, “I hope
he’s not here about native title or refugees.” I was able
to still his fears and reply, “No Ron, just stem cells.” On
that we were comrades in arms.
have the same liberty as the rest of us to ventilate their views. But
they should also be guided by the same rules of political morality which
is more than the expedient assessment of what works in the marketplace
of ideas. Public figures who represent a religious tradition have a
social obligation to respect the sensibilities of the community, while
cogently stating policy options consistent with their religious tradition.
There is nothing prophetic or religious in claims that demean the weak
or the vulnerable. Without media oxygen, such claims can rightly wither.
the Church's voice in the public square, we need to distinguish questions
of principle, prudence and pastoral solicitude. On an issue such
as embryonic stem cell research, a church leader is surely entitled
to take a stand on principle, informed by his religious tradition, opposing
legislation aimed at permitting scientists to create human life for
destructive experimentation. We move from questions of principle
to issues of pastoral solicitude when a church leader chooses publicly
to give hints of sanctions against co-religionist legislators as Cardinal
Pell and Archbishop Hickey did in June this year. Some pastors,
myself included, think such suggestions should take the form of private
advice rather than public hints; and public hints should always be preceded
by private dialogue. There is also the pastoral consideration
to be paid to those legislators and scientists who, in good faith, do
not share our theological and philosophical presuppositions. There
are good pastoral reasons for not classing them as “anti-lifers”
and for avoiding analogies between a church and a political party, suggesting,
as Cardinal Pell did, that “just as members of a political party who
cross the floor on critical issues don't expect to be rewarded and might
be penalised, so it is in the church”
is the prudential side of every such public dispute. Media attention
is more assured if one simplifies the protagonist's position as Cardinal
Pell did when speaking of “today's fashionable notion of the primacy
of conscience, which is, of course secular relativism with a religious
face.” 13 But is it prudent to so simplify the protagonist's
position as to caricature it? Is it prudent to hint in the public
square at internal church sanctions when that could distract from, and
even drown out, the coherent church statements of principle addressing
a legislative or policy proposal? Church leaders and religious
spokesmen need to learn lessons of political prudence when it reaches
the stage that a government minister sees fit to inform the Parliament,
“As a Catholic I am saddened by the published stance of Cardinal Pell
and I make it clear that my decision to vote against the bill should
in no way be interpreted as an endorsement of the Cardinal's statements
earlier this week.”14 In the public square, church
authorities are armed only with public argument informed by and consistent
with their religious tradition. Cardinal Pell is surely right
when he says, “What we have to do is to try to establish rational
principles that will be recognised as such by people of little religion,
no religion or plenty of religion.”15 Persuasion
by argument, not coercion by authority, should be our religious hallmark
in the public square. Greater ecumenical co-operation usually
ensures that our message in the public square is more marked by persuasion
always be room for diverse viewpoints on pastoral solicitude and prudent
political action, even when there is unanimity within a religious tradition
on questions of moral principle. To adapt slightly the words of
Cardinal Pell in his interview on national radio after the New South
Wales parliament’s stem cells debate: Our role as pastors and teachers
in the public domain “is to state what is the Catholic position and
to explain the rational basis for that position so that people of no
religion, or a lot of religion, or a little religion can at least understand
what (we are) saying and potentially agree with (us).”16
Greater dialogue within and amongst churches and faith communities could
only enhance the prospects of our message being heard and taken up beyond
the confines of our own pews.
We might continue
to debate the parameters for the expression of religious views in Australian
politics, law and public administration. But let’s abandon once
and for all the notion that society would be the better if religious
views had no role or place at the table of public deliberation on contested
policy questions. A plurality of religious and secular views allows
you more readily as members of the polity to “Ask about your social
and cultural order what it needs you and others not to know”.
Click here to download the Word version, which contains footnotes.