Acting on Conscience Sydney Launch Speech - Daniel Gilbert

George Orwell wrote that “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.

If George Orwell is correct then conscience is so obviously important and acting on conscience so obviously more important.

In the introduction to his new book, Frank reminds us of why conscience remains as important as it has ever been.

I quote him as follows:

“We need appropriate checks and balances on state power and on the rhetoric of our mass media and elected politicians.

We need a tradition of civic discourse respectful of the views of all people, including those with passionately held religious views.

We need a commitment to mutual tolerance accommodating the utterances and actions of others who think differently from the majority.

We need to have a special care for the most vulnerable in our diverse society without unduly curbing the liberty and opportunities for those less vulnerable and those with few or no religious sensibilities.

We need to prize the individual conscience.

We need to value the dissenter.” (p. 3)

In today’s world we do not have to search far to see the subtle and not-so-subtle undermining of conscience.

So far as Catholics are concerned, Cardinal Pell has made the following statement: “This misleading doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be publicly rejected”.

Politicians of all political persuasions are often too ready to brand as un-Australian comment that is critical of their policies.

Political commentators regularly demean and dismiss voices of conscience as mere political correctness.

In the ongoing culture and history wars voices of conscience are too often rejected with thinly disguised contempt by the opposing side. The respect which might encourage other participants in public debate is notably absent.

Open and honest debate seems somehow unattainable – perhaps it was ever thus.

Many of today’s political pronouncements are informed at best by utilitarianism and, at worst, by political populism.

As a result, outcomes are often markedly different from what they might have been had the debate and the resultant decision-making process been more influenced by the informed conscience.

For example, the children overboard and refugee detention issues.

The children overboard affair was an egregious example of political opportunism.

The detention of refugees was justified on utilitarian grounds by both our major political parties.

Much of Frank’s book is devoted to the place of religion in law and politics.

But those without religious inclination - or even those hostile to religion – should not be put off.

In many ways it is written as much for the non-religious person as for the religious person.

Many Australians take it as read that our secular society is somehow healthier when religion is private and religious persons stick to religion.

Contributions from religious leaders are seen as an unwelcome and threatening trespass into the domain of secular society.

Frank makes a very thoughtful case for rejecting this view.

Put simply, he argues that religious people are just as entitled to participate in political debate as the next person.

And they can do so informed by their own religious traditions and convictions.

That said, he thinks there are sound and sensible constraints.

Taking up one of those references, he says, and I quote:

“Political, legal and moral advice is needed to inform the citizenry about law reform and public administration. These are not primarily moral questions, but they require prudence and political savvy best practised by those who are imbued with the local culture and who are experienced in law and politics of that society. For this very reason, religious leaders, and especially those from other countries, are less likely to be competent no matter what their place in the hierarchy of the religious community. The more expert they are in moral and political philosophy, the more they should be attuned to the limits of their competence and the prudence of silence in the wake of the local faithful trying not just to live the individual moral life but also to contribute to public life, true to their public trust and responsive to the cultural, political and legal ethos of their society.”

So, having reminded us of the importance of conscience, and having made the case for religious persons to speak out, this religious man - without hesitation but with “prudence and political savvy” – examines the role conscience - or its absence - has played in many of the issues that have troubled and divided Australians in recent times.

These include abortion and how it has been unsatisfactorily dealt with in the US, particularly in the hands of the US Supreme Court.

He examines the unconscionable conduct of the Australian nation in her detention of refugees.

He looks at stem cell research involving embryos, same sex marriages, our need for a Bill of Rights, embryo transfer, euthanasia and the recent industrial relations changes.

As you would expect, he also writes about the Iraq war and makes the obvious point:

“We Australians did not go to war because there was an imminent threat to our security. We went to war because the Americans asked us to.”

On all these subjects, Frank looks at the roles of Government, various Church leaders and the courts. The book is not all criticism, and praise is given where it is deserved.

Frank calls upon our elected representatives to honour the trust we place in them and not to mislead us as they did over the reasons for our involvement in the Iraq war.

He warns us of the dangers of religious groups seeking to advance their views via the medium of the courts.

He criticises religious persons when they try to interfere with the basic rights and liberties of citizens who do not share their religious views.

This is especially so when those views “… run counter to the contemporary social values of equality, tolerance, compassion and dignity for all people at all stages of the life cycle” (p. 216).

Frank laments the absence of a Bill of Rights.

He argues that a Bill of Rights would assist our judges in reaching more just decisions.

He worries about the sometimes narrow approach of the current High Court and its “… laxity in the use of its limited armoury” in relation to the long-term detention of refugees.

Without a Bill of Rights, Frank claims that – I quote him here:

“Politicians seeking the right balance between individual liberty and community security will receive little guidance from the courts. ” (p. 148)

Finally, Frank’s excellent book is a reminder of the nobility of integrity in public life, the need to transcend self-interest and one’s own sometimes narrow perspectives.

Thank you, Frank, for asking me to launch your book in Sydney today.

I am honoured to do so.



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