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Religious Protections Enquiry – What will you learn if submissions are kept secret?

By Terence Mills

We’re going to have a public enquiry headed up by Philip Ruddock into religious freedoms and religious protections. Submissions are called for from all sectors of our community and based upon the findings of the Expert Panel and their report to government, we can anticipate that legislative change may follow: that’s how democracy works. Right?

The Expert Panel comprises:

  • the Hon Philip Ruddock (chair)
  • Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM
  • the Hon Dr Annabelle Bennett AO SC
  • Father Frank Brennan SJ AO
  • Professor Nicholas Aroney

Philip Ruddock is an odd choice as Chair of this enquiry as it was he who on 27 May 2004 as the then federal Attorney-General introduced the Marriage Amendment Bill 2004 to incorporate a definition of marriage into the Marriage Act 1961 to outlaw the recognition of same-sex marriages in Australia and to make it unlawful to recognise the marriages of same sex couples lawfully entered into in foreign jurisdictions. This is the legislation that was finally repealed in favour of marriage equality. He hardly comes to this matter with clean hands.

The other experts are a highly qualified group but, and I may be wrong in this, don’t appear to represent religious beliefs beyond those of the Christian faith.

Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM is President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Hon Annabelle Bennett AO SC is a retired Judge of the Federal Court of Australia and was an additional judge of the Supreme Court of the ACT. Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO is an Australian Jesuit priest, human rights lawyer and academic. Nicholas Aroney is Professor of Constitutional Law at The University of Queensland. He is also a Fellow of the Centre for Public, International and Comparative Law, a Research Fellow of Emmanuel College at The University of Queensland, a Fellow of the Centre for Law and Religion at Emory University

This group will accept submissions up to 31 January and will report back to the government by 31 March 2018, a very tight schedule for such a vast subject: their brief requires them to receive submissions, consider and report on the following:

  • 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

Submissions by 31 January 2018 can be submitted on this form: Religious Freedom Review Submission.

Normally submissions to an enquiry of this sort would, in the democratic tradition, be published online along with the final report to government. But it seems that there is a push to keep the submissions secret in a marked departure from normal processes.The PM’s department, which has control of the inquiry, said it would not publish the submissions but gave no reasons for this departure from normal procedure. Late on Tuesday, however, Mr Turnbull’s media team sought to intervene by suggesting that enquiry chairman Philip Ruddock would decide if submissions were published. The PM’s office then instructed his own department to issue a new statement to that effect.

The PM’s department then issued a statement saying that decisions on releasing submissions would rest on “whether individuals have provided consent“. A very strange approach, surely? Wouldn’t you think that an organisation or individual making a submission to a public enquiry would expect and even insist that their submission get a public airing even if for reasons of sensitivity you remained anonymous: why would you want to keep your views and opinions secret?

It is expected the inquiry will attract submissions from Australia’s biggest churches, including the Catholic and Anglican archdioceses of Sydney and Melbourne together with Muslim groups who will seek recognition of some aspects of Sharia law in Australian legislation and Jewish groups all of whom have their own barrow to push and that includes issues such as abortion and contraception. Then you have human rights groups and inevitably atheists who will seek to have human and secular rights protected. It presents an opportunity for all of these groups and other advocates to spell out the exact changes to the law they believe are necessary and we, the long suffering public, deserve the right to see and consider these submissions and their likely impact on us if adopted.

The expert panel will meet for the first time next week on Wednesday and will make the decision on whether to publish submissions then. Ruddock has said that “what I sought when I was first asked to chair this inquiry was whether or not a decision had been taken on how these matters would be dealt with. It became clear when I spoke to the prime minister’s office that this would be decided when we met and that is what I thought would be the appropriate approach.”

So, whilst the PM’s office have shown their preference for not allowing the submissions to be published they have grudgingly accepted that this is a decision that must be left to the Expert Panel, otherwise what’s the point of an independent public enquiry? If the expert panel decide not to publish submissions then you can anticipate that this whole enquiry is a sham and was merely been set up to appease the Right wing of the LNP in the lead up to the same sex marriage vote.

Ruddock also said “In all of these things, there are always some circumstances where if people have a view that there is material that they want to provide but it is sensitive – yet they want it brought to the committee’s attention but not necessarily the public’s – then you have to have some regard for that.” He said his personal view, from his experience sitting on other committees, was that it was important for people to be able to maintain anonymity if requested.

I agree absolutely that anonymity should be protected where it is sought but for the life of me I cannot understand how a submission to a public enquiry which is designed to influence the decisions of the expert panel and ultimately the government should be withheld from public scrutiny.

The Australian Greens are planning on using this federal review of Australia’s religious freedoms to put the idea of a bill or charter of rights back on the political agenda. They argue, why just provide rights and protections for religious groups when the country is badly in need of basic human rights along the lines of the various UN Conventions we have signed but never adopted into Australian law: that inevitably will be a topic for discussion on another day.

Then we have the curly question that was part of the Racial Discrimination Act section 18C discussion. The right-wing of the coalition were passionately opposed to the provisions of the section which makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people in circumstances where this is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group. Scott Morrison seems to want to extend this prohibition to include religious groups but, confusingly he still says that such protections in the context of racism infringe on the democratic right to freedom of speech: he has yet to explain his rationale for that line of thought.

By this time next week we will know if the expert panel will permit submissions to be made public and if they decide against doing so we will also know that this public enquiry is a sham. However, I believe that the participants on this panel are fundamentally people who believe in transparency, democracy and the rule of law and that it would be anathema to them to be subjected to politically motivated censorship. We shall see!


17 comments

  1. Max Gross (@Max_Gross)

    Religious freedoms, my arse! This is just another attempt by LNP troglodytes to thwart the result of the totally unnecessary SSM postal plebiscite opinion vote referendum poll which merely confirmed what everybody already knew!

  2. Ken

    9 March 2016 – The freedoms of religion and of expression are not contradictory but complementary, as both rights are the twin tools in combating incitement to hatred, an independent United Nations human rights expert said today.
    http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsId=53403#.Wk9R1SR_WhA

    Since then Australia has introduced more and more restrictions on religion in contravention of the UN covenant.

    This enguiry has the ability to properly inform Government on the discrepancies and give guidance of meeting the UN covenant to which we signed & ratified but didn’t implement.

  3. Vixstar

    I think we are entitled to be” free from religion “as over 60% Australian’s said they aren’t religious and our fastest growing religious group are Hindus. The whole set up is pointless its just bowing to a minority of old white supremists. Look at Ruddock a 75 year old fart responsible for the “children overboard” and Howards little goblin of nasty policies. He wants it to be a secret he should just get in the confession box and lock himself in forever.

  4. Miriam English

    “Religious freedom” is code for freedom for religion to flout antidiscrimination law.

    Religious people should be deeply worried by this. If a small number of petty, hateful, religious bigots capitalise on this, it will succeed in turning Australians away from religion more effectively than ever.

    Gay people should be worried, naturally, because you know who the bigots will be looking to hurt.

    Other minorities should be worried because, if successful, the bigots in the church will use exactly the same “freedoms” to discriminate against a whole slew of other people.

    In fact all religions face the prospect of being discriminated against by all the other religions.

    You can expect racists to use the relevant changes for their “heartfelt beliefs” too.

    Oh, won’t this be fun. 🙁

    All because a tiny number of brittle religious dinosaurs desperately want to hate gays. [sigh]

  5. Michael Taylor

    All because a tiny number of brittle religious dinosaurs desperately want to hate gays. [sigh]

    Yup. That’s about it.

    Funny how it coincides (almost) with the same-sex marriage result going against the NO vote.

  6. Zathras

    Religions already have the right to comment, criticise and even discriminate and they consider this to be Religious Freedom.
    However if you dare to “return the favour” they immediately cry “Religious Persecution”.
    They have an in-built persecution and martyrdom complex as we see and hear every Christmas and Easter where they claim to be under some sort of threat.

    There are already Doctors and Pharmacists who refuse to provide birth control for religious reasons and are free from legal prosecution.
    What they are seeking is to have this “right” protected by Legislation and extended into other areas.

    They may only have gay wedding cakes and wedding ceremonies in their sights at the moment but taken to its logical conclusion, one day you may have the situation where for example, certain supermarket checkout operators may refuse to scan pork products and the employer is powerless to rectify the situation for fear of prosecution.

    There was a costly legal battle in the USA where a government official refused to issue marriage licences to gay couples. Her employer (The State of Kentucky) was forced to pay costs and not the employee, despite the fact that she refused to perform her appointed duty.

    As much as religion has been a scourge and a handbrake on society in many areas, it can still continue to co-exist and is under no real external threat.

    The real problem is intolerance and that’s the common basis for them all.

  7. lawrencewinder

    Typical ruling rabble “innovation”… re-constituting an Inquisition. Why do these limited intelligence and socially retarded Neanderthals always have to muddy the waters on every issue to suit there own selfish sectional agendas?

  8. Jack Russell

    Ruddock looks just like the Sith Lord he is, in that picture above.

  9. Kyran

    Oh dear. This a tad embarrassing.

    “On Tuesday, 29 November 2016 the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, asked the Committee to inquire into and report on ‘The status of the human right to freedom of religion or belief’.”

    http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Foreign_Affairs_Defence_and_Trade/Freedomofreligion

    “Terms of Reference
    The Committee shall examine the status of the freedom of religion or belief (as recognised in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) around the world, including in Australia. The Committee shall have particular regard to:

    The enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief globally, the nature and extent of violations and abuses of this right and the causes of those violations or abuses;
    Action taken by governments, international organisations, national human rights institutions, and non-government organisations to protect the freedom of religion or belief, promote religious tolerance, and prevent violations or abuses of this right;
    The relationship between the freedom of religion or belief and other human rights, and the implications of constraints on the freedom of religion or belief for the enjoyment of other universal human rights;
    Australian efforts, including those of Federal, State and Territory governments and non-government organisations, to protect and promote the freedom of religion or belief in Australia and around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific region.”

    That #4 sure looks like the same brief given to Ridiculous, aka the cadaver who walks. The existing enquiry already has 382 submissions. It has already dealt with the secrecy/privacy issue.

    https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House/Making_a_submission

    Way back in November, 2017, it produced an interim report.

    https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Foreign_Affairs_Defence_and_Trade/Freedomofreligion/Interim_Report

    Far be it from me to suggest that this government has no f’ing idea what it is doing, but do you think there is any chance the cadaver who walks can walk down the corridor to Julie Bishop’s office and save us all a heap of time, trouble and money. The enquiry should be just about complete by now!
    Thank you Mr Mills and commenters. Saving this government from themselves is becoming tiresome. Take care

  10. Jack Russell

    I think universal freedom from religion would be such good thing.

    Perhaps just simply disconnecting religion from all sources of power, influence, and the public purse, could achieve that? No need for a public talkfest either – just have Robodebt send out notices . . .

  11. Glenn Barry

    I find the congenital cruelty, nastiness, selfishness and generally hateful behaviour of the LNP thoroughly exasperating – They may well label themselves conservative, when in fact their direction is retrograde, their ambition retrogressive and methods oppressive.

    The LNP also has a dangerous penchant for secrecy in all of it’s guises; national security, operational matters, commercial in confidence etc

    I am beginning to wonder if this is what it felt like to be in Italy when Mussolini came to power.

    Section 116 of the constitution already guarantees freedom from religious observance.

  12. Rob

    NB: Kyran A well dressed cadaver. 🙂

  13. babyjewels10

    Nothing like introducing a bit of inequality into the hard-fought equality we just won…

  14. John

    Perhaps the terms of enquiry should be expanded to investigate the behind the scenes manipulations of outfits such as opus dei and the USA based ultra-fundamentalist outfit called The Family. Its dark history and modus operandi are described in the truth-telling book by Jeff Sharlet. According to Sharlet the Family has a significant presence in influential circles in Australia. They are also the outfit that runs the “prayer” (let us PREY) breakfasts in Washington, which are more or less obligatory for House and Senate members.
    Speaking of opus dei one of its principal propaganda factories is Campion College in Sydney – check out the list of fellows, many of which are associated with the IPA, including John Roskam

  15. BazJon

    Hmm. Constitution says religion is outside of government powers. But we are war with Islam, don’t protect the nonviolent Buddhist against communist oppression and then give Christians a chance to change laws because we improved humans rights by allowing same sex marriage. Wow. If only they would use such illegal powers to protect the future of humanity and do so real governing!

  16. Terry2

    Kyran

    Indeed, the cross over between this ongoing committee and the new enquiry set up by Turnbull is very strange.

    In his preamble to the Interim Report the Chair of this Senate Committee, Senator David Fawcett
    (Liberal SA) mentions :

    Firstly, legal protection of religious freedom in Australia is limited. Australia is unusual among modern Western democracies in that it lacks a codified bill or charter of rights. While a culture of religious freedom has thrived, and the common law has respected religious freedom to a large extent, the legislative framework to ensure this continues is vulnerable.

    The PM in setting up the Ruddock enquiry has specifically said several times that he doesn’t want this to become a discussion about a Bill or Charter of Rights, yet that appears to be the inevitable direction that this is likely to take as, it seems to me and many of those commenting on this subject, that you can’t just focus on religious rights to the exclusion of ‘human rights’.

    We have the odd situation that the rights protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which are, in almost every country in the world, implemented by a domestic guarantee of rights, in a ‘bill of rights’ yet at a Federal level, Australia remains the only democracy in the world not to have passed a law directly implementing the ICCPR. The ICCPR commits its parties, of which Australia is one, to respect the civil and political rights of individuals, including the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, electoral rights and rights to due process and a fair trial yet we seem preoccupied only with religious freedoms.

    One irony that will be addressed when the Ruddock panel sit on Wednesday will be : can a submission to a public enquiry be kept secret when the enquiry is dealing with rights and freedoms including freedom of speech ?

  17. Kyran

    Curiouser and curiouser, Terry2.
    Of the 382 submissions made to the already existing committee, all of which appear to pre-date the establishment of this new committee, only 21 are marked ‘name withheld’. If they already have direct, firsthand experience that only 0.055% of submissions request anonymity, why would they anticipate such a problem?

    https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Foreign_Affairs_Defence_and_Trade/Freedomofreligion/Submissions

    If you flick through the 20 pages, it isn’t too hard a stretch to imagine that a lot of them would have drawn attention to a Charter of Rights. I haven’t read any of the submissions yet but note the HRC and Amnesty have made submissions. I very much doubt they would have missed the opportunity.
    It’s also interesting that searches on ‘australian church councils’ only reveal christian churches. None of them seem to have non-christian constituents.
    At the risk of sounding cynical, what are the odds of a prefabricated stitch up? Ruddock in charge changes the odds a lot!
    Thank you. Take care

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