As long as the federal government is awarding Australia Day honours on the basis of individual sporting prowess then Australian legend Margaret Court deserves our highest award. And her public expressions of Christian beliefs should not be a disqualifying factor—no matter what Australia’s most anti-religious premier has to say about it.
Perhaps Court should have been given an honour for her courage in speaking in defiance of a hostile media and political class who seek to erase her name from history. Every year we go through the spectacle of journalists and politicians lobbying to have her name removed from a Melbourne stadium for the crime of voicing religious views in a free country.
The spiteful rantings of Victorian Premier Dan Andrews are as extreme as you would expect to hear from a political leader. The premier said he was ‘sick of talking about that person every summer’ and asserted her views do not ‘accord with the vast majority of people across our nation’ and whose views are ‘disgraceful, hurtful and cost lives.’ One could go on but the comments offer a reasonably clear window into the mind of the Victorian premier and his views of religion.
Talk is one thing, but the policy history of Andrews’ Labor government confirms it is the most hostile state or federal government to people of faith in Australian history. Just consider the disproportionate restrictions placed on religious activities under Covid-19 lockdowns. Worshipping as a part of a religious community and participating in religious rituals in the process of spiritual renewal is fundamental to the devoutly faithful’s way of life. While the government’s early response to the virus was certainly excessive, its caution in the face of the unknown was understandable. But it was never subsequently demonstrated that Covid-19 was so dangerous that socially distanced religious services couldn’t go ahead at a time when Victorians of faith needed them most.
The disproportionate treatment of places of worship persisted as Victoria began to move out from lockdown in September. The state government’s five-step ‘roadmap’ finally proposed to eventually allow retail to open and restaurants, bars, cafes and pubs to open for indoor dining for up to 20 people and outdoor dining for 50 people.
In contrast places of worship were prohibited from holding indoor services and restricted to outdoor worship by no more than ten people. The disparate treatment could not be supported by logic or evidence: the factors that made dining socially or shopping safe were no different for people attending a church to worship. Only a belief that the latter exercise was less important or valuable could explain why they would be treated differently.
The treatment of worship during lockdowns is ahistorical for Australians. Undoubtedly Australia had its experiences with sectarian attitudes in early governments, but we can claim a relatively liberal history regarding religious toleration. While early colonial governments sought at various times to establish official state churches, the Irish-born NSW Governor Sir Richard Bourke wrote to the Imperial government in 1833 arguing for spreading financial assistance between the Catholic, Anglican, and Presbyterian churches on the basis that favouring one denomination would be practically impossible to do ‘in a new country to which persons of all religious persuasions are invited to resort’.
The attitude of religious toleration informed the Federation debates where provision was made for freedom of religion in the Australian Constitution. Even when sectarian attitudes persisted in the community, religious toleration remained a feature of Australian politics. When the old sectarianism between Christian denominations faded around the 1970s a new kind of sectarianism emerged, only this time with the force of law. The rise of anti-discrimination and hate speech laws enforced by secular bureaucrats has worked to whittle away at the speech and practices of religious Australians.
For the most part, churches and official religious organisations retained limited exemptions and defences to such sanctions. But the past decade has represented a significant threat to the liberties of Australians of faith. Policies targeting Victorians of faith have been a feature of the Labor government since its election in 2014.
This month state parliament passed the government’s Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill 2020. The new laws create criminal penalties and give new powers to the state human rights commission to outlaw ‘carrying out a religious practice, including but not limited to, a prayer-based practice’ which challenges a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Back in 2015 the government passed laws prohibiting any person from protesting—which includes prayer and silent vigils—within 150 metres of abortion providers. Andrews was also responsible as health minister in 2008 for the state’s extreme abortion laws, which compel doctors who conscientiously object to refer a person demanding an abortion to a doctor who will provide one.
In 2016 the Andrews government announced it would overhaul anti-discrimination laws and target the existing exemptions that allow faith-based schools to set policies for teachers to believe or express the doctrine of the school. Such proposals needlessly put faith-based institutions on the back foot to explain why they should be allowed to protect their religious character.
Then there’s the government-sanctioned witch-hunt of Cardinal George Pell over allegations of child abuse. In 2020 the High Court unanimously overturned a Victorian court’s 2018 conviction of Pell for the jury’s failure to properly assess all the evidence and entertain a reasonable doubt that the offending had taken place. The flawed and politicised pursuit of Pell was justified because the institution he represents, and its traditional belief in conservative social values, offends the radical secularism of the political class.
Finally, the government passed mandatory reporting laws in 2019 to compel clergy to violate the seal of confession if they receive information about child abuse in the confessional booth. For Catholics in particular, the assault on one of the seven sacraments was no less than a direct assault on the Church itself.
Victorians have spent much of 2020 spiritually battered under rules which have treated their religious practices as a superfluous and unaffordable luxury. Religious leaders who have so-far dutifully complied with the restrictions might hear the premier’s comments in the light that they are intended—this government is not a friend to those of faith and presents an unprecedented threat to the future of religious freedom in Australia.
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Morgan Begg is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs
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