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 This is the legislation that was finally repealed in favour of marriage equality.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!