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Acting on Conscience Canberra Launch Speech - Kevin Rudd MP

  • 27 February 2007

Launch of Frank Brennan’s
“Acting on Conscience”
Kevin Rudd MP
Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Trade
and International Security

Federal Member for Griffith

Parliament House


31 October 2006

It is good, right and proper that we are here today in Canberra to launch Frank Brennan’s latest book “Acting on Conscience”.

And it is good, right and proper that we are launching it here in Parliament House.

Because it is here in this place where Frank has earned the wrath of some, and the admiration of many, in the best traditions of the vocation to which he is called.

Some have called him a “meddling priest”.

I have always seen him, less prosaically, as an ethical burr in the nation’s saddle.

When the good ship Australia is sailing comfortably along with all, or at least most, who sail within her, there is Frank:

* prodding the national conscience on the rights of indigenous Australians;
* prodding the national conscience on asylum seekers; and
* prodding the national conscience on East Timor.

But interestingly, rarely contenting himself to pious pronouncements from the sidelines. Instead, active in the policy. And sometimes in the political ruck itself. Which is where he often attracts the ire of the political class.

Which is why Frank may not pass theological muster in the Julie Bishop test for admission to the new National Chaplaincy Corps.

This book is in large part about setting out a framework for religious participation in Australian political life.

As soon as the topic is framed as such, there is an almost audible raising of the hackles.

* Familiar objections to the Church interfering in politics, in this country borne of such debilitating historical experiences as Archbishop Mannix, the “split” and the DLP;
* reinforced by the argument that Australia has now become a secular country; and
* to the extent that it is not, then let us have a perfect separation of church and state.

All this seems straight forward at first blush. But on closer examination they bring to the fore complex questions for which there are no simple answers.

To begin with, our founding fathers got it absolutely right that there should be a separation of church and state in Australia.

What this meant was that there should be no established religion in Australia as the Australian state religion.

This was because they drew from American, rather than British, constitutional precedents.

The American precedent was itself rightly shaped by a view of European political history where for centuries an entire continent was laid waste by the wars of religion.

But separation of church and state as a constitutional doctrine gives us no specific guidance on how Christians, individually or corporately, should engage the secular state.

This is a question of some importance as the census tells us that 70 per cent-plus of Australians, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, still believe in the Christian God.

And Christianity has never been a privatised, pietized, meditative faith.

Christianity offers a range of social teachings from the sanctity of life through to a deep commitment to social justice and the doctrine of a just war.

And these social teachings often run up hard against the political process because they do not simply involve private discretionary decisions.

They may also require, or be impacted by, the collective action of society through the agency of the state.

Many Christians believe they have a responsibility to form an active social conscience. And therefore many need a conceptual framework for doing so. This is where Frank’s book comes in.

Frank also deals with the consequential question of how an informed Christian conscience can go about engaging the secular Australian state.

Christians are as entitled to articulate a political view on public policy in exactly the same way as agnostics, atheists, humanists, capitalists, socialists and any other theological, ideological and philosophical system on the planet or beyond.

Christians have no monopoly on morality.

In fact, their immorality has at certain times in history been unspeakable.

But their views, together with other views must be argued, distilled and debated through a pluralist political system whose common forum is a fully representative parliamentary democracy.

Finally, while Christians are as entitled as anyone else to argue their viewpoint in the political process there is no such thing as a Christian political party;

God is not a wholly-own subsidiary of any political party.

This is where my friend and parliamentary colleague Tony Abbott in his comments reported in today’s Sydney Morning Herald doesn’t seem to fully appreciate the point I have been trying to make in my recent contributions to the national debate on the church and state.

Tony attacks my seditious efforts as an attempt to “recruit from the pew”.

In fact, the whole point of my recent article is that God is neither Liberal, Labor nor even Family First.

My argument also is that there is a strong social justice tradition in the Church which political conservatives frequently conveniently ignore – often assuming that concern for our fellow human beings is a private discretionary matter (a type of 21st century noblesse oblige) but not a concern for the collective agency of society through the state.

Tony also fails to answer my key challenge to the Centre-Right: namely the destructive impact that market fundamentalism has on the family, the community and common goods such as the environment. Industrial relations and climate change bring these questions to centre stage today.

I await with interest a systematic rather than rhetorical response from the latter day disciples of Friedrich Hayek on these great ethical questions of out time.

The Church, when at its best in human history, keeps all of us in politics on our toes.

It should also keep all of us in politics at an appropriate distance, recognising that the business of politics often involves compromise which may offend deep principle.

Frank’s book, in the best tradition of the meddling priest, does not confine his interventions to the political process, but also to the inner workings of the Church itself.

Catholic social teaching offers a rich tradition of social justice and concern for the sanctity of life.

Catholic social institutions (hospitals, schools, universities) have made a significant contribution to the evolution of the Australian conscience in action.

But within the Church, there is also a long-standing debate on the doctrine of the primacy of an informed, individual conscience.

Frank’s position on this debate is clear – that there is a primacy to be attached to a properly informed conscience.

Of course that is a debate for Frank to have with his hierarchy.

But it is a principle worthy of application to any institution, Christian or secular, that seeks to command our total commitment.

With those few words, I have great pleasure in launching Frank Brennan’s new book – “Acting on Conscience” in the hope that it adds light to the current Australian debate on the proper engagement between Christians and the state.

Frank, please come and bless and address us all.



The Launch
Acting on Conscience
University of Queensland Press

Frank Brennan’s Response to Kevin Rudd

Parliament House, Canberra

31 October 2006


Manning Clark 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”. He would have been surprised by the weekend announcement of government approved chaplains for Australian schools. 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. 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, 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.”

Just last week we had Senator Kay Patterson replying to a bishop: “Dear me, I might be excommunicated! Anyway, I do not think I will be, because it is my choice, not the church’s choice, I suppose.” We Australians 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.”

This book 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 will do a Queensland launch later in the week. I am delighted that Kevin Rudd has agreed to do the national launch here in Parliament House. Kevin’s recent Bonhoeffer lecture established his credentials as a politician who takes religion seriously in the political process. One 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. That’s why I am honoured to have my long time friend Kevin launch Acting on Conscience.

Some citizens 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 to me.”

The utilitarianism 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 or profit.

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 office.

Religious leaders 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.

When people 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.

Imams should 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.

This book is dedicated to five of my nieces who asked that it be readable by them. I hope it helps our Generation Y citizens of all faiths and none to decide how responsibly to mix law, religion and politics in the future public debates which will shape our national response to big moral questions. I am sorry to note the need to publish a second edition of Tampering with Asylum but am delighted that the unprincipled and unworkable Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006 failed to pass because a handful of government members said they would act on conscience.

I thank Madonna Duffy, Anna Crago, Rob Cullinan, Taressa Brennan and Belinda Jennings at University of Queensland Press. I am delighted they pursued me after my return from Boston assuring me that the revamped UQP was still interested in my public musings. I thank my brother Jesuits in Boston, Sydney and Canberra and acknowledge the presence of John Eddy, Edward Dooley and Brian McCoy. I especially acknowledge my parents Gerard and Patricia here today. Mum is the ever faithful proof-reader and Dad in his retirement is now able to attend such family celebrations even if they be held in Parliament House close to the building where he once laboured tirelessly for the good of our commonwealth. As they prepare to be great grandparents, neither of them is to have attributed to them the views of their progeny.

Thanks to our MC Jack Waterford who, with deprecating humour, has translated Canberra to many of us over the years. Thanks to you all for coming.

Fr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at the Australian Catholic University, and professor of human rights and social justice at the University of Notre Dame Australia.




Professor John Warhurst

Paperchain, Manuka

1 November 2006

I am honoured to have been asked by Frank Brennan and the publishers to participate in this evening’s event. Frank’s question: “How can we responsibly mix law, religion and politics?” is a highly topical one given the current controversies over stem cell research, Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali and chaplains in schools (to name just a few).

But its relevance goes much deeper than that. It is not a new question but a perennial one. Unfortunately many political memories don’t go back as far as the Labor split, much less to the conscription debates or the education question.

Nevertheless even for those who only started thinking about politics during the Howard era there is a broader context. The first element of this is the attention given to the rise of the so-called Religious Right, represented by the Lyons Forum, Hillsong Church, the Family First Party and perhaps the Australian Christian Lobby. This is only a partial view but it has generated considerable angst among those who believe that religion’s voice has become too loud and too conservative. A flood of books in reaction has followed: with titles like God Under Howard (by Marion Maddox) and Voting for Jesus (by Amanda Lohrey).

The second contextual element is the political party struggle. The political role of religion has been seen to benefit the Coalition parties over the past decade and it probably has despite many criticisms of the government by church leaders. This is the political edge to any church intervention and it explains the running battle since the last election between Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd that has risen to a crescendo over the past couple of days here in Canberra. Whether “responsible” or not interventions by churches will invariably have flow on effects for the political parties. Church leaders take note!

Frank Brennan’s book, “Acting on Conscience” needs to be set in these contexts. There is little or no direct mention of the Religious Right in this book. It concentrates therefore on what I see as still the main game: the interventions by the leaders and followers of the big Christian denominations, mainly the Catholics and the Anglicans (and mostly bishops), in Australian politics. His central theme, in shorthand, is: “religious beliefs are not trumps [as some religious leaders and believers think]; but neither are they irrelevant [as some secular Australians think]”. I wholeheartedly agree. Religious beliefs must be argued, not parroted nor dictated, and they must take their place, win or lose, in the rough and tumble of democratic decision-making.

Brennan discusses issues such as the ethics of the Iraq War, access to IVF facilities, and the desirability of same sex marriages, among others. His arguments defy categorization as generally Left or Right. I welcome this as someone who is sick of the overblown culture wars and the false depiction of individuals as necessarily either Right or Left. In popular parlance Frank Brennan is a moderate social conservative on ‘life’ and sexuality issues and a progressive critic of the Howard government on social justice issues, including the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. He crosses party politics in a refreshing way so that there is something here for both Abbott and Rudd.

“Acting on Conscience” is both a broader and a narrower book than the title might suggest. His discussion and defence of individual conscience in politics should strike a welcome chord in these days of conscience votes (on euthanasia, stem cell research and RU486) and of MP’s crossing the floor (on asylum seekers and refugees and on same sex marriage legislation). He says that “We need to prize the individual conscience. We need to value the dissenter”. While directed to the approach that religious believers and church authorities should take to the law and politics there is surely a message here for the balance between discipline and conscience in our political parties too. It is not only churches that deny conscience to their members; parties too make discipline a virtue.

It is a broader book than the title may suggest because it investigates judges and the courts, it looks intriguingly at politics, religion and the law in the USA, and it analyses other contemporary debates like the regularization of same sex marriage (of particular interest in the ACT).

It is a narrower book because parts of it have a particularly Catholic flavour, the denomination he and I share. The Catholic Church is seen, with some justification, as the church that values conscience least. In this regard Brennan tackles Australia’s highest profile Catholic leader, Cardinal George Pell, on the right balance between church authority and conscience. Catholics in public life, whether MPs or judges, are also seen by the public as being more likely than others to take into account either their own personal values or, under direction, the values of their church. This question has not yet been fully resolved, as Brennan’s chapter on the 2004 US presidential election shows.

As demonstrated once again in this book Frank Brennan has all those attributes that I admire in an author: balance, care, clarity, and forensic research. He is, as I have said before in print, the quintessential reasonable man. He keeps his obvious passion in check until it is needed rather than wearing it ostentatiously on his sleeve.

Frank is of, course, a Jesuit priest. The mission he has been given by his superiors since 1975 has been to become “involved in legal and political issues which have a strong moral edge and which invite attention and comment by citizens with religious convictions, sometimes resulting in formal statements and joint action by church leaders”. He has certainly done that in spades! Even the most demanding superior should be satisfied surely.

He has written many books, including Tampering with Asylum, Legislating Liberty, The Wik Debate, and Sharing the Country, that draw on his activism and scholarship. He is now Professor of Law at the Australian Catholic University and Professor of Human Rights and Social Justice at Notre Dame University, Australia. By my count that makes him the only Australian academic with a base in four states and the ACT. His activism during the Wik debate led Paul Keating to describe him as a “professional Catholic” and a “meddling priest”. That should be a badge of honour. His work in East Timor led to the award of the Humanitarian Overseas Service Award in 2002. How does he do it all!



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