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Religious freedom feint has Liberals in knots



'Never get high on your own supply,' the Notorious B.I.G. once warned. It's an injunction just as relevant to culture warriors as crack dealers. If you're a professional fulminator against Political Correctness Gone Mad, you need regular instances of persecution against straight white men to denounce, so that your supporters can maintain the ragegasms they crave. But the moment you start believing your own rhetoric, you're in real trouble.

Senator James Paterson speaks at the closing of the debate of the marriage equality bill in the Senate at Parliament House in Canberra on 29 November 2017. (Photo by Michael Masters/Getty Images)Take the Liberal Party's gyrations over the so-called religious freedom law advocated by some within its own ranks. This time last year, Dan Tehan proposed a 'religious discrimination act', purportedly to prevent 'creeping encroachment from the state on religious belief'. He was quickly backed by Senator James Paterson, an alumni of the Institute for Public Affairs and thus an inveterate culture warrior. A report in the Australian nicely captures the haplessness of Paterson's intervention:

'Asked who was currently being discriminated against, Senator Paterson said: "This is a risk that we want to guard against in the future. We don't want people to be mistreated on the basis of their religious views." Pressed on whether the problem exists currently, Paterson said: "I think that's a bit of a negative focus to take on it. People of faith feel like they are being hounded out of the public square ... like their views are not as welcome in being contributed to public debate as others."'

Yes, that's right. Paterson wanted a new law, not to prevent any actually existing discrimination but to guard his ideological allies from any jibes that might prevent them 'feeling welcome' to participate in public debates.

But wait. Isn't that the same James Paterson who has dedicated years of his young life to campaigning against 18C of the Human Rights Act, specifically on the basis that special snowflakes needed to toughen up and embrace the rough and tumble of the agora? 'Freedom of speech is one of the most fundamental things about living in a liberal democracy,' he explained back in 2016, 'and if there are things that we can't talk about, that we can't write about, that we can't debate because it may offend or insult someone, for example, then I think we've lost something really important.'

It's wrong to make people feel unwelcome, but it's okay to offend and insult them. How do you square that particular circle? The short answer is that you can't, as the government is now discovering. The idea of legislation protecting 'religious freedom' emerged during the plebiscite on same-sex marriage and has since been turbocharged by the controversy over Israel Folau.

Josh Bornstein, a lawyer with Maurice Blackburn, has made (in my view) a compelling argument that the Folau sacking should be understood through the lens of industrial relations. Folau might be a millionaire but his case has implications for the increasing number of ordinary people employed on short-term contracts. As Bornstein says, bosses increasingly use such arrangements to 'control more and more of employees' lives well beyond the workplace', with workers signing clauses committing themselves to company policies and nebulous codes of conduct.


"Even by the bizarre standards of Australian politics, it's a weird development, explicable only on the basis that so many of the louder voices on the right have come to believe their own self-pitying rhetoric."


Had other players and rugby fans mobilised to protest against Folau's homophobia, the demonstration of solidarity would have revealed him to be an isolated crank. Instead, the sacking transformed Folau into a culture war hero, allowed the Australian Christian Lobby to position itself as far more representative than it actually is, and established a dangerous precedent liable to be used against others.

In that sense, legislators seeking to actually address the implications of the case might have considered strengthening workplace protections. But, of course, that was never on the agenda. Instead, the episode brought the religious freedom pot back to the boil. Thus, in May, Attorney General Christian Porter described a draft Religious Discrimination Act he was considering.

'We would define an attribute just as we've done with attributes around sexual orientation, or age, or race, or other matters such as disability,' he said. 'We would define an attribute which is "religious adherence and expression", and then put into that Act a range of circumstances where it would become unlawful for people to discriminate against a person based on that attribute.'

To appreciate the difficulties with such a plan, we need only consider the lede to a story written by Lenore Taylor in February 2011: 'The opposition immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, urged the shadow cabinet to capitalise on the electorate's growing concerns about "Muslim immigration", "Muslims in Australia" and the "inability" of Muslim migrants to integrate.'

After a fascist gunman killed more than 50 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch earlier this year, Morrison claimed that he'd been misrepresented eight years ago — though Taylor (now editor of the Guardian, where I am a columnist) insisted multiple sources had confirmed the story with her and with other reporters. Be that as it may, there's something truly odd about the Morrison government considering legislation that would make the arguments once attributed to Morrison illegal. For what else could 'capitalising' on 'Muslim immigration' mean other than discrimination on the basis of religion?

That's now the problem facing the Coalition. The so-called conservative base wants religious protection for Christians. But the conservative base also has a long history of vilifying Muslims, who, presumably, could also claim protection from any new law. For instance, Cory Bernardi — a man with considerable support in Liberal Party branches — once introduced a bill banning burqas at airports and citizenship ceremonies.  And who could forget that Pauline Hanson, another culture war hero, appearing in the Senate wearing a black burqa in an attempt to agitate for a ban? Round about the same time, Nationals MP George Christensen came within four votes of winning his party to such a prohibition.

At the time, Tony Abbott — the hero of the rightwing base — lent tentative support to Christensen. 'I think it is worth considering whether there are some places that are dedicated to Australian values,' he said, 'such as our courts, our parliaments, our schools — maybe we do need to think about whether this garment is appropriate to be worn in places that are dedicated to upholding Australian values.'

One struggles to imagine a law that might enable, on the basis of religious freedom, a footballer's right to send homophobic tweets, while enabling courts, parliaments and schools to ban garments associated with faith.

In a different context, a proposal to reaffirm, through legislation, the right of Muslim women to wear burqas would drive the conservative fringe into hysteria. Yet rightwing elements in the coalition are campaigning for laws with precisely that effect. Even by the bizarre standards of Australian politics, it's a weird development, explicable only on the basis that so many of the louder voices on the right have come to believe their own self-pitying rhetoric that the persecution they supposedly face trumps that experienced by anyone else.

Bear in mind that, back in January 2017, the Grand Mufti of Australia, Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, proposed legislative protection for religious believers. You can understand why. In Australia, as elsewhere, 'Islam' has been racialised by bigots, as the Christchurch massacre so terrifyingly demonstrated. In the most recent election, no fewer than ten parties ran on programs that were, in whole or part, Islamophobic. Hence the Grand Mufti's suggestion: he wanted 18C extended to apply to discrimination against religion.

That was, of course, opposed by none other than James Paterson. 'We have already seen how (18C) in its current, narrow way has restricted people's freedom of speech,' he said. 'This would further hamper it and would be a backwards step.'

Culture war: it's a hell of a drug.



Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.

Main image: Senator James Paterson speaks at the closing of the debate of the marriage equality bill in the Senate at Parliament House in Canberra on 29 November 2017. (Photo by Michael Masters/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow, Israel Folau, religious freedom



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Existing comments

I'm currently reading Paul Ham's "New Jerusalem" set in the year 1534 (and thereabouts). So, kerfuffles over religious belief, and the expression thereof, are not new. It should be acknowledged that Australia is a conservative country. The recent election victory of Scott Morrison proves that. Words can definitely wound and many people, especially those prominent in the agora, don't seem to think about the ramifications of voicing their opinions. No one has expressed the power of words better than Horace: "And once sent out a word takes wing beyond recall". Freedom of expression is of vital importance and so is thinking about it before we say it.

Pam | 17 July 2019  

So, world-wide concerns about free speech and Christian persecution are really delusions, easily explained because “voices on the right have come to believe their own self-pitying rhetoric”. That is untrue. Last week, Facebook banned a quote from a homily by Saint Augustine based on the Gospel message of noticing the splinter in your brother’s eye while neglecting the beam in your own. Facebook has previously been implicated in censoring conservative and Christian opinion. The passage which breached Facebook’s “Community Standards on hate speech”, was: “Let us never assume that if we live good lives we will be without sin; our lives should be praised only when we continue to beg for pardon. But men are hopeless creatures, and the less they concentrate on their own sins, the more interested they become in the sins of others. They seek to criticize, not to correct. Unable to excuse themselves, they are ready to accuse others.” Hate speech? “Label them Fascist or Nazi or anti-Semitic…the association will, after enough repetition, become ‘fact’ in the public mind” was a 1943 Communist Party Directive. Actually, Saint Augustine’s homily succinctly appraises the deliberate smear tactics employed by the extreme Left, from Lenin to Marcuse to today.

Ross Howard | 17 July 2019  

So we’ll said . What they fail to realise is that in achieving their objectives they give voice to those they would choose to silence, unless their plan is to legislate to give voice to themselves exclusively which may well be their plan.

Peter Casey | 18 July 2019  

Why continue to describe the cultural fundamentalists as a conservative "base"? It is a noisy atavistic rump and no more - much like the flat-earther "base" seemingly garnering accolades from the new conservative caudilhos in Brasilia.

Frederick Green | 18 July 2019  

Even Thomist philosophers make a distinction between the opinions of St Thomas Aquinas (Junior) and St Thomas Aquinas (Senior), so I think we should cut Scomo and Patto some slack when we quote previous opinions voiced when they were younger (even if it was only a couple of years ago or when the LNP was in Opposition). How we should hold them to account (and I'm now including Christian Porter & Dan Tehan) when they waffle in generalities or fail to reflect on the consequences of their propositions. I agree with Ross Howard's pen picture of violations of religious freedom throughout the world but their spread to Australia won't be prevented by what the LNP is suggesting. Mr Sparrow has exposed their inconsistency.

Uncle Pat | 18 July 2019  

Thanks Jeff for a very insightful analysis on the current religious freedom debate. When I was a boy in the 1950s, I well remember fundamentalist Christians getting into a lather about Christians being persecuted in Australia even then. It was not the case then and, apart from the suspicion of Muslims, it is not the case now. Since that time, Australia has become a more secular and a more diverse society. Therefore, instead of pushing for limited freedom of religion legislation, why not work for a more inclusive law about the human rights of all citizens regardless of their philosophy of life? This could also be reinforced by having an Australia declaration of human rights that protects the rights of all citizens. However, we know that it is the very conservative politicians and the people who support them who are pushing for a freedom of religion law who are adamantly opposed to having a declaration of human rights and measures to protect others against discrimination. One might well ask if this is a whole red herring to divert the electorate's attention away from the fact that this newly elected government has again introduced policies that further enrich those who are well off and gives very little to those in need. This is in direct contrast to his recent call for more love in Australia at his Hillsong Church. I believe the PM would be more credible if he did more to lessen the growing inequality in wealth and to advance the human rights for all at home and abroad.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 18 July 2019  

Andy, conservative sections of the Catholic Church, and in particular those associated with the DLP and NCC, have always been implacably opposed to generalist or universal declarations of human rights, other than those serving a sectarian and exclusive cause. When I was appointed Education Officer, Teaching for Human Rights (QLD), the project was housed within Catholic Education because the fundamentalist Calvinist prejudices of the then Premier Bjelke-Petersen were opposed to its extension to all schools. As soon as this transfer was arranged, NCC/DLP forces in the state focussed in on shutting down the program. El caudillos indeed, all of them, they took their anti-human rights dictates from Franco himself, through the domino-theory fantasies of his Australian admirer, B A Santamaria. These elements have found niches within the Church and especially within various ACBC agencies and commissions that, while ostensibly set up to voice the concerns of Australian Catholics on issues that range across coal-mining, protecting the Reef and speaking out against policies that demonise refugees, are tied up in such ideological knots that it appears better sometimes that they had never spoken at all; e.g. where is there an official Catholic voice protesting against the wages theft from hospitality workers?

Michael Furtado | 20 July 2019  

The ACL, some politicians, and a number of ordinary folk were quick to leap to the support of Israel Folau. Should I expect them to be just as quick to leap to the support of his cousin Josiah who has been fired for making what are arguably similarly offensive statements? Or will the proposed religious discrimination laws actually discriminate between the two cases? See < https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/aug/02/israel-folau-cousin-dismissed-catholic-school-religious-beliefs >.

Ginger Meggs | 02 August 2019  

Religious people often say, 'There can be no conflict between Religion and Science or Truth, since they all come from God. This is naivety. What comes from God is Reality. Both Religion and Science are human interpretations of this Realty. What is in the Bible is the interpretations of ancient minds who did not have available many of profound insights that have since come to enlighten us. Current religious beliefs are our interpretations of those interpretations, and are mostly what we bonded to from birth, and such bonding can become bondage. blinding us to other beliefs. What people believe cannot be controlled, but if their expression of it is divisive and inflammatory, and leads to unjust discrimination and violence as seems to be happening in America and other places, then it must be curtailed. Peter Abelard in :Sic et Non', listed hundreds of propositions that the Bible could both 'prove' and 'disprove' what was said.

Robert Liddy | 08 August 2019  

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