Religious Voices are Off the Table

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In the fall-out from the SSM debate there’s been plenty of discussion by Christians and others about the wider ramifications of Parliament’s approval for redefining the Marriage Act.

Are Christians the new persecuted minority? Do we only have ourselves to blame? Do we have things to repent of? (almost certainly) or are we the hapless victims of an LGBTIQXYZ juggernaut, hell-bent on smashing us off the road? I’ll let others debate the various issues there.

But I do want to note that whatever position you take on those wider issues, we ought not to be naïve about that fact that there certainly is a shift going on, and it’s happening right at the centres of power. It’s a movement that wants to silence religious voices in public life. Think that’s overstated? Let me make my case from a the debate itself.

Here’s the Liberal MP Andrew Hastie (opposed to changing the Marriage Act) speaking to one of a number of amendments he attempted to introduce (sourced from Hansard):

My last point: I have a series of letters which I seek to table. One is from the archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies. One is from 38 faith leaders writing to the Prime Minister and the opposition leader. One is from the Presbyterian Church of Australia expressing concern about their schools in the electorates of Wentworth, Reid, New England, Reid, Calare, Cowper, Page, Hunter, Wannon, Kooyong, Chisholm, Aston, La Trobe and Groom. I have a statement from the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia, a letter from Christian Schools Australia, a letter from the Australian Association of Christian Schools and a letter from the Free Reformed School Association in WA, which has schools in Burt, Brand, Canning and Forrest. All of them are concerned about the ability of those schools to teach in accordance with their religious convictions insofar as marriage is concerned. I seek leave to table those letters.

So in an amendment about the rights of those who hold conscientious objections to the change in the Marriage Act on account of their religious convictions he seeks to table letters from religious leaders. It’s hardly a controversial thing to do. He doesn’t even read them out, he just seeks to have the tabled as part of the debate. It’s just part of how these debates progress; make sure the evidence is part of the record.

Surely not controversial? Well here’s what happens next:

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Goodenough ): Is leave granted?

Mr Giles: No.

Mr Burke: No.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Leave is not granted.

Just get your head around that for a moment. The amendment being debated is about religious freedoms. The letters to be tabled are from respected recognised leaders – they are hardly the Westboro Baptist Churches of Australia – and yet 2 supporters of SSM object to them.

They object to their tabling. Not even their being read out. Just their tabling.

There’s a little confusion (let’s be generous) in the House and so some discussion on what’s happened…

Mr Pyne: I was going to say that leave is granted, because, as the Manager of Opposition Business pointed out before, in a conscience vote, he doesn’t speak for the entire opposition and I don’t speak for the entire government. Therefore, every member of the House is king—or queen, if you like—in questions whether leave should be granted. In the absence of anybody else granting leave, I was going to say that leave is granted because the letters—unless they’re offensive letters, and I don’t think the archbishop of Sydney would write an offensive letter—they should be able to be tabled.

Mr Burke: I want to make clear—I wasn’t going to speak—I’d made the statement earlier that I wasn’t able to make a decision on behalf of the whole of the opposition in terms of leave on these issues. I certainly didn’t object, but I understand someone did.

Except Hansard is clear that he did object.

Mr HASTIE: Deputy Speaker, I assume that you’re passively allowing leave, and therefore I table them.

Honourable members interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Leave is not granted.

That’s right; even more members of parliament intervene to prevent the letters being tabled.

Now I understand that the letters may have been tabled successfully a little later in the debate (although I’ve not yet managed to identify exactly where). But that doesn’t diminish what we need to understand happened here.

There was a debate around the right of those with religious convictions to express their view on this topic. Opponents objected to those convictions being given voice in the debate. And they did so with no apparent sense of the irony.

Our national parliament, my friends. Our elected representatives.

update Scott Morrison tabled the letters a little later…

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  1. Bruce Wearnethe

    David, Thanks for this. “Religious voices” may now be off the table but the sorry state of our Parliamentary democracy on THIS matter was decisively prepared for some time ago (2001-2003) by Parliamentarians with Christian profession on the Liberal-National side – who were in fact recent prominent “NO” advocates – who then accommodated within the party-room a PM’s reneging on his election promise to his electors in Bennelong having previously declared to them that he would not support scientific research on human embryos. This was a change from his electoral platform to his electors in the recently concluded election. Does winning an election give a Parliamentarian liberty to change his election platform? Apparently that was then and still is the Liberal Party’s view (ho hum back to 1974 we go). But in the matter of embryonic stem-cell research (consider how IVF now functions in relation to marriage debates) that was when the device of putting legislation to “conscience votes” was further entrenched in our Federal Parliament. And so now policy for matters to do with marriage, family, procreation and household and care and nurture of next generations is conveniently privatised with the major political parties conveniently removing themselves even further from scrutiny with respect to such political beliefs from those who vote at elections … but even with such allegedly “open debate” – allegedly without and across “party lines” – those same Parliamentarians who had received the information about the export of human embryos for the purpose of scientific research overseas could not bring themselves to pass on the information to fellow conscience voting parliamentarians. They did not share that information with other “No” voters in the Parliament and it certainly gives me the impression that the protection of their coalition leader was more important than the issue under debate which brought forth such “Christian content” in their parliamentary speeches. Would not such a public disclosure in the Parliament have been an exocet to Prime Ministership? Brian Harradine, the fellow Tasmanian Senator of the Special Minister of State who had asked me for the details of this information was not made aware of this matter until I told on the bight of the vote. Those who had that crucial information sat on it. And Christian Parliamentarians were not the only ones to avoid mention of this in their public comments on that legislation! Sorry for the length of this. I merely suggest that Parliamentary democracy is in trouble in this country. The recent legislation is a symptom of a crisis that has been long coming.

  2. J Dawes

    I just read through a large chunk of the Hansard. I’m actually pretty happy with how the Liberal pollies were debating the amendments. There was a lot of support and respect voiced for religious people and organisations. The problem was that Labor wasn’t engaging at all – they were giving at most one dismissive speech for each amendment and then compulsory-voting it down.

    I don’t really know why there were objections to Hastie tabling letters. But the wider picture that day was that of the majority of Liberals conscience-voting in favour of amendments for religious freedom, and all Labor pollies voting against. I didn’t get the feeling that religious voices were off the table.

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