Friday, October 12, 2018

Australian confusions over religious and other freedoms

During the postal vote in Australia over same-sex marriage. one of the arguments put forward against a yes vote was that it would lead to further restrictions on freedom of religion. I had a certain sympathy with that view, if not for all the reasons put forward. For example, I thought that the support by Qantas CEO Alan Joyce for a yes vote, a stand which became effective company policy, made the position of any Qantas staff supporting the no position highly problematic. They had every right to do so, but it would not be wise to do so publicly.

Following the vote, the Australian Government established an Expert Panel, the Ruddock Panel, to examine and report on whether Australian law adequately protects the human right to freedom of religion. This decision reflected divisions in the Coalition over the same-sex marriage issue and appeared designed to placate the Christian right within the Coalition.

The terms of reference for the inquiry are set out below.
OBJECTIVEThe Panel shall examine and report on whether Australian law (Commonwealth, State and Territory) adequately protects the human right to freedom of religion.
SCOPEIn undertaking this Review, the Panel should:
  • Consider the intersections between the enjoyment of the freedom of religion and other human rights.
  • Have regard to any previous or ongoing reviews or inquiries that it considers relevant.
  • Consult as widely as it considers necessary.
MEMBERSHIP OF THE PANELThe review will be conducted by an Expert Panel, chaired by the Hon Philip Ruddock, which will consist of:
  • Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM
  • the Hon Dr Annabelle Bennett AO SC
  • Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO
  • Professor Nicholas Aroney
The Panel will be supported by a secretariat led by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
TIMINGFollowing the Prime Minister’s agreement to an extension of its reporting date, the Panel will report its findings to the Prime Minister by 18 May 2018.
The report was submitted to the Government some time ago but has not been released. Recently a series of leaks have generated considerable controversy, along with demands for immediate release. The Government's stated position has been that the matter has not yet been considered nor an official position developed. Once this had been done, the report would be released. along with the Government's response. Given the highly polarised nature of public discussion in this area, this created suspicions that there was some deal on the way that would be announced after the forthcoming by-election.

The 20 recommendations of the  review have now been leaked. They surprised me a little. The fact that the Panel went for a minimalist position, one essentially designed to harmonise and make transparent existing laws, did not surprise me. I would have expected that, given its composition. What did surprise me a little were the varying exemptions from discrimination legislation for religious organisations across state jurisdictions. I did not know, for example, that students could apparently be excluded in some states on the grounds of sexual orientation. I think that this raises real issues. Further, and despite my comments on the minimalist approach, I was a little surprised at the apparent narrowness of the approach. I think that there are issues here that need to be discussed.

It's difficult to see what the Government might do with this report. It will not satisfy the right within the Coalition. The Government lacks the power to do anything effective to meet their concerns. The report's narrow focus has already focused attention on variations across the states and territories. One result may be the narrowing of religious exemptions that already exist. In all, I have the strong impression that the decision to set up the Expert Panel is another example of a decision made to meet an immediate need with long term adverse consequences.


Evan said...

I think you are right about it being an immediate solution and long-term problem.

The difference I think is that the attention on this won't just go away. It will always be a hot-button issue for some.

It would have been a real contribution I think if the religious right could have come up with another way of speaking political language than the human rights language - it is distinctly individualist and so has problems with 'the rights of collectives' - 'cultural rights'. Alasdiar MacIntyre (sp.?) tried with his "Dependent, Rational Animals".

Jim Belshaw said...

Haven't read that book, Evan. I have been reading Dennis Lloyd's idea of law. I wonder if left and right don't have an equal problem with human rights language. The left places emphasis on individual human rights but only those they agree with and then wish to impose those on the collective. The right who often reject the concept of "rights" as such place emphasis on individual freedoms but only those they agree with and then wish to impose on others. There is a lack of clarity, an authoritarian streak, on both sides.

I have found Lloyd interesting because in attempting to clarify the underpinning of law he was forced to address hierarchies of values and beliefs.

Winton Bates said...

You write: The right often rejects the concept of “rights” as such.
It is good to see recognition that natural rights advocates are not of the right. Classical liberals reject the statism and stasim of both the left and right.

Winton Bates said...

I’m becoming tired of social conservatives who try to pretend that they are classical liberals.

Jim Belshaw said...

Not quite connected but linked, Winton. Have you see this piece by Helen Dale?

Natural rights have a long history. It is not absolutely clear to me that this is incompatible with classical liberalism although I stand to be corrected. I don't think any of our social conservatives are classical liberals either!

Winton Bates said...

Jim, thanks for the reference to Helen Dales’s article.

I used to think of rent seeking and interest group politics as being about people with common economic interests lobbying government. Now we have identity politics splintering all the major parties - not just Labor. It looks to me as though liberal democracy is imploding. Instead of asking which party has the best policies for the society as a whole, or for broad economic interest groups, voters now tend to ask which party will pander to their particular claim to victimhood.

Regarding natural rights, it seems to me that the classical liberal tradition was strongly influenced by John Locke, who recognised the natural right of persons to life, liberty and property. Adam Smith’s doctrine of natural liberty seems to be closely linked.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you for your comment on natural rights, Winton. That's what I remembered.

One of the central themes in the political tradition I come from is the tyranny of the majority. What do you do when your group is always disadvantaged, or perceived to be disadvantaged, because it is a minority? Entities such as Australia or NSW are legal and social constructs. What do you do or say when someone rejects those constructs because they disadvantage, who say that just because those constructs exist we will not accept the benefit to the "broader society" because we will always lose? Why should we comply?

Identity politics is a real problem because it undermines cooperation by placing a single good in advance of everything else. To my mind, and this is just a logical statement, there is no logical difference between a Muslim and feminist fundamentalist, between a Green fanatic and a member of the Christian right. They all assert that a single or small group of goods must be paramount. Once you make that assertion, you come back to the weighting to be placed on one or a small group of values that must be asserted regardless of everything else.

Politics is always set in an institutional frame, it is concerned with making things work in that frame. Once you get absolutes then the compromises necessary to make things work ceases to be possible.

Winton Bates said...

I think we are on the same page, Jim.

2 tanners said...

JoHn Major (i.e. the former British PM) has just written a column for the Guardian about Brexit, but making many of these points, particularly that as ideologues splinter the major parties, political compromise becomes difficult/impossible. Also that the shrill voices of the extreme mustn't be allowed to drown out the voices of the moderate centre. Worth a read, at least if the Brexit imbroglio appeals to you as a metaphor for things going on in other countries including our own.

It's not a left/right thing, so much as an extremes/centre thing.

Article can be found here:

Winton Bates said...

Thanks 2 tanners. John Major’s article is well worth reading.

Jim Belshaw said...

I was trying to challenge my own thinking on this one. The only conclusion that I came to is that its up to those who believe in civility, who are opposed to prejudice, to defend it.

Anonymous said...

tanners: "It's not a left/right thing, so much as an extremes/centre thing"

Major: (goes on quite a bit, but worth the quote...)

I understand the motives of those who voted to leave the European Union: it can – as I well know – be very frustrating. Nonetheless, after weighing its frustrations and opportunities, there is no doubt in my own mind that our decision is a colossal misjudgment that will diminish both the UK and the EU. It will damage our national and personal wealth, and may seriously hamper our future security. It may even, over time, break up our United Kingdom. It will most definitely limit the prospects of our young.

How anyone could suggest, never mind believe, that Major's comments were couched in reasonable, conciliatory, terms is beyond me?

"colossal misjudgment" "diminish" "damage" "hamper security" "break up the UK"

Jim: "The only conclusion that I came to is that its up to those who believe in civility, who are opposed to prejudice, to defend it"

Another writer who I've followed for over 10 years (i.e. nearly as long as I've enjoyed Jim's thoughts) has a "blog tag" for 'civility bullshit'.

Please forgive the language, but to get to the point: calls for 'civility' in debate are always and only ever made by those without an adequate rebuttal argument - whatever the subject - and are thus basically bullshit.

This past decade, I'm very much inclined to agree - and John Major is Exhibit A.