Labor pitches for the faith vote

In a conservative group’s webinar, at a faith leaders’ summit and at an Anglican Cathedral, Labor pitches for your vote. 

Senator Kristina Keneally started this week in an unusual venue – a Family Voice webinar. Labor’s deputy leader in the Senate told the conservative Christian group, “What guides Anthony [Albanese} is an understanding that we must work together if we are to move forward as one”, a central plank in Labor’s pitch for faith voters. “I strongly believe that people of faith have a place in the public square,” she added.

“Labor is asking Australians to choose a new direction for our country,” Keneally told the Family Voice audience. “And we are seeking renewal, not a revolution. Not a rejection of everything that has come before. but rather building a better future on those enduring values that have made Australia such a great country.”

Summarising Labor’s plans for an economy powered by renewable energy, and policies such as cheaper childcare, cherishing institutions like the ABC and SBS and guided by the Uluru Statement from the Heart, she added, “Indeed we seek a country where we ‘bring good news to the poor and let the oppressed go free,’ where we strengthen families as the book of Proverbs says ‘starting children off in the way that they should go and even when they are old they will not turn from it.’ And we recognise that ‘creation proclaims the glory of God’ and that we are commanded to care for it.”

“Will Labor support the Religious Discrimination Bill?” Family Voice’s Greg Bondar asked bluntly. (Eternity includes the Senator’s answer in full as this is a key issue for many readers.)

“We don’t have a final version of the bill; it is going to a Senate inquiry and a parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights,” Keneally said. “And what we have said is that we will await the conclusion of those two inquiries before we come down on a final position.

“But what we will do … is make clear the principles that will guide Labor’s consideration of the bill. So I might speak to those. And in doing so, say with the greatest of respect that the Prime Minister having promised a bill in 2018, then promised a bill in 2019, and now here we are in 2021 and with another iteration of the bill … Now I am not faulting the government for continuing to consult. I think it is important that they do. I have been part of those consultations. I have consulted with faith communities on this bill.

“I understand in previous iterations of this bill that faith communities and others in the community had objections to the legislation, and indeed sometimes they had the same objections to the legislation.

“But as these bills are now before the parliament and they go into these two committee inquiries, let me speak to those three principles that Labor will use to guide our consideration of the bill.

“One – and just as you have just read out from our platform – and as the International Covenant on Civil and political rights makes clear religious organisations and people of faith have the right to act in accordance with the doctrines, beliefs or teachings of their traditions of the air faith and subject only to the limitations that are necessary to protect public safety, morals, health or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. So that international covenant we hold is important and will be one of the key principles that guide our consideration of the bill.

“We also support the extension of the federal anti-discrimination framework to ensure that Australians are not discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or activities, just as the law currently does with discrimination on the basis of age, disability, race, sex, gender identity, sex characteristics and orientation.

“And again, consistent with the international covenant extension of the federal anti-discrimination framework in this way should not remove the protections that already exist in the law to protect Australians from other forms of discrimination.

What I know from my life and experiences is that – and my understanding of Catholic schools – is that it is an ecosystem. It is a community of faith and values.

“So those are the three principles that we have laid down and publicly made clear will guide our consideration of the bill.

“If I can say, Greg, again with the greatest of respect, because this is a difficult issue, and I don’t want it to become an object of division in the community, I don’t want it to become a political football.

“What I do fear is that our opponents might seek to make this a political argument in an election context. And I don’t think that serves religious communities, I don’t think it serves the broader community, and I certainly don’t think it serves the ends of good public policymaking.

“There is a bi-partisan position to be reached here. If I could say there’s a fourth principle that guides us, this is best done on a bi-partisan basis for the whole of the community, and indeed I hope that the Government and Minister Cash next week [in a webinar that has now been postponed] outlines that they would like it to be a bipartisan process.”

Bondar poised a pointed hypothetical: “I want to get a job in a Muslim school. I am a Christian. But the Muslim school says I can’t be employed because I don’t uphold their ethos and doctrine. Do they have a right to refuse me work in their school?”

“I would say they do,” the Senator replied. “In the sense that a religious school has the right to make clear what its mission and values are. And currently has that right to make decisions based on hiring people who can uphold those values. Now I don’t know enough about what Muslim schools may or may not seek in all the different types of positions they hire for. But let me move to an example I can speak more clearly to. I was a schoolteacher in a Catholic school. My mother was a school teacher in a Catholic school, and indeed my children and my husband attended Catholic schools. I have had it put to me by some people that only religion teachers in religious schools need to be of the religious faith. Well, why does a math teacher need to share the religious values of the school? Why does, for instance, the woman who works in the front office, the man who works in the cafeteria, the gardener, why do those people need to share the religious faith?
What I know from my life and experiences is that – and my understanding of Catholic schools – is that it is an ecosystem. It is a community of faith and values.

“Whether it is the sports coach that leads prayers before you go out on to the basketball court, whether it is the homeroom teacher – the classroom teacher  – that has to take children to the liturgy, the teacher that has to stay behind to take children for the sacramental preparation, all of those aspects, even the values you live out or profess while you are interacting, all of those things are inherent in the job.

“One of the issues that I would say the parliamentary inquiries need to examine with the Religious Discrimination Bill is this sense of what is inherent to the mission and values of an institution of a religious institution and how religious institutions are able to preference people in employment who hold and engage in a particular religious belief or activity.

“Provided that that preference is in good faith and in accordance with a publicly available policy.

“Now I can’t tell you under this legislation how that plays itself out in the detail of the question you have asked me. And so those are the types of questions that need to be examined by the parliamentary inquiries.”

Keneally stated that she was disappointed that her party had removed the conscience vote from the same-sex marriage issue as it sent a message that the Labor party was unwelcoming to people of faith.

Keneally answered Bondar’s question deftly, but Labor, like the coalition, has yet to “square the circle” on defining how to give schools preference in hiring and extending protections the LGBTIQ persons.

Climate Change Summit

Labor’s leader Anthony Albanese was joined by Senator Keneally, Senator Deb O’Neill (who has been given special responsibility by Albanese for liaising with religious communities), Tony Burke, opposition manager in the house of reps, Chris Bowen, the Climate Change Shadow Minister and a local, the member for Werriwa Anne Stanley to a “Faith Leaders Climate Summit”.

The event drew a number of key religious leaders, including Sharon Hollis, President of the Uniting Church, Robert Donaldson, Territorial Commander of the Salvation Army and Rabbi Benjamin Elton, Chief Minister and Senior Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.

Professor Rae Dufty-Jones of the Western Sydney University, which hosted the event, pointed out that the Federal electorates surrounding the Liverpool campus had rates of 70 or 80 per cent of people with religious faith. “Western Sydney is Religious, but its diversity is also important,” she said.

“The well of the [Catholic} church’s social teaching is deep, and it has made me who I am,” Anthony Albanese told the gathering. “These social justice values are the reason the Labor Party is concerned with the climate emergency.” He cited the plight of Pacific Island peoples and a looming crisis for Bangladesh. Albanese cited creation care as a common factor between many faiths, From Christianity and Islam to Buddhism.

He described Labor’s climate change policy as “sensible”, having 82 per cent of electricity coming from renewables by 2030, with an emission reduction of 43 per cent by 2030.  “It’s an example of using government as a unifying force for good, and at its heart is the elements contained within the teachings of so many faiths – that the environment cannot be separated from those who live in it, and that we have a responsibility to it,” using the Government as a unifying force for the common good.”

“We are called to look after the precious earth for our sake and for the sake of future generations,” he said.

That theme was taken up by Dr Elton, who gave an address –actually a sermon – citing Leviticus 19:16 “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour”, saying that “If your neighbour is going to die due to climate change, you have a responsibility to act.” Citing Jewish exegesis of Genesis 1, he said that dominion over the earth has to be exercised responsibly, “Dominion is meant to be nurturing not exploitative.”

“It is not representative of Torah values to impose servitude; the world needs to be built on kindness.”

Judging by this summit, climate change is one plank of the Labor platform attractive to many people of faith.

At the Cathedral

David Ould and Senator Deb O’Neill

“Labor cannot afford to be seen to oppose the religious Discrimination Bill,” historian and author Roy Williams told a “Cathedral Conversation” at St John’s Anglican Cathedral in Parramatta. This comment came following a short history of a diminished religious influence within a party that was founded originally by “men and women who were overwhelmingly Christian.”

Willimas described how two great splits changed the party. “Billy Hughes the great Labor rat split the Labor party in WWI over conscription and took the protestants with him. From the ’20s until the second great Labor split, the party was dominated by Catholics… In the 1950s, the split took out the conservative Catholics who left over the issues of the cold war.”

Williams added that Kevin Rudd got a crucial 4 or 5 per cent of the vote from working-class Christians, which he labelled the “Bonhoeffer effect” – after an essay that gave Rudd cred among some Christians.

It is the desire to get those extra votes that explains the effort Labor is putting into attracting more Christian support.

Senator Deb O’Neil described a dysfunctional election campaign in 2019 that saw responses to religious groups badly handled, giving examples of Bishop Michael Stead from the Sydney Anglicans and Mark Spencer of Christian Schools Australia needing catch up work to answer questions (Stead) or a failure to give a proper reply (Spencer). But she insisted “there is a dedication to re-engage with communities of faith.”

She described as a “false  binary” the idea that “Labor is progressive and not with you and the liberals are [socially] conservative and with you.” Hugh McDermott, the state member for Prospect – the most religious electorate with 80 per cent of its people espousing a faith –pointed out that decriminalising abortion and euthanasia (in NSW) were passed with a coalition government in place – and same-sex marriage federally.

“Don’t blame Labor for Euthanasia,” he said. The problem in the major parties is who has the largest voice, and Christians do not have it.”

(For euthanasia to be passed in the holdout state, NSW, required the government to give a private members bill much more time than usual. McDermott argued the government could have made it much harder for this bill to pass the lower house.)

McDermott described the “insanity across the border” when asked about the new Victorian Law that removes the right of schools to hire staff from a faith group. “We get tagged with the insanity from Victoria,” he said and making the point that the Labor split did not occur in NSW with Catholics staying in the ALP and fighting the progressives. “Good politics is a clash of ideas; you have to have the numbers.”

Senator O’ Neil – pressed on abortion by St John’s Cathedral Minister David Ould, who chaired the meeting –said, “we have to govern for all Australians, not just people of faith – we have to allow people to make their choice. Do we make our judgement the rule for others, and learn to live with the tensions between all these perspectives.” McDermott described the abortion debate as one in which he “discovered the good guys on either side.” That was a debate that revealed people in faith working across the aisle, pushing back against a majority in both major parties.

“When does the liberal government prevent abortion and euthanasia?” O’Neill asked. “I don’t see it,” she answered.

The third Labor member of the panel, Andrew Zbik, who serves on Lane Cove council, told the story of one victory for the Christian and other faith voices in Labor. He recalled a passionate speech by Muslim shadow education minister Jihad Dibb that saw the NSW Labor state conference vote that Special Religious Education (weekly classes taught by volunteers) has a place in the state’s schools.

The contrast between NSW Labor’s support for weekly religious education in state schools, and Victorian Labor’s abolition of a similar scheme once again underscored a theme of the night – that Christians inside political parties can have an effect. Speaking inside the sandstone walls of the second oldest Anglican parish church, the staunchly Catholic Deb O’Neil said playfully “we need more Christians in the party, probably have enough Catholics, but we need more [other] Christians.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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