Aretha Franklin got it right when she sang Respect, R E S P C T. 
Respect is very hard to legislate for but is at the heart of proposed freedom of religion laws.

It seems legislators must legislate, it’s their only tool since moral leadership is beyond their pay scale, and when your only tool is a hammer all problems look like nails.  But governments are often not good at dealing with complex issues which cannot be solved simply with unyielding black letter law.

Think back to relative simple government initiatives – like the pink batts and the schools of the future program.  They unravelled badly, despite good intentions, the victims of over optimistic administration and a rush to money by irresponsible contractors.

However, the draft legislation for religious freedom suggests the government’s plans to legislate are fraught with the prospect of unforeseen consequences.  

Licence Discrimination

The great danger is that the proposed legislation will install licensed discrimination in our society. It seems it will approve disadvantage for those who choose to believe differently, or not believe at all in some religious dogma.

Freedom of speech; freedom of religion and belief; freedom of the press: they are like three colours on a socio- political Rubrik’s cube that we are struggling to align.  And we are not doing well. In a world increasingly under threat from social fracturing and exploitation, is it time to go back to basic human values rather than heaping up laws upon laws?

Discussions about freedom of belief, freedom of speech and freedom of the press tend strongly to centre on issues of responsible participation in democratic governance, but there is another way of looking at freedom of speech, of belief and of the press.

Ironically, it is a view partly based on religious principles: Christianity, Islam and many other mono-theist religions hold that all are people equal in the sight of God.  The same sentiment is right up-front in the US Declaration of Independence… We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.  These ideas, clearly, are not new, but the current attempts to line up the Rubrik’s Cube of rights give them new currency. 

If all persons are regarded as created equal then certain consequences follow.

First, is that all should be equally free to be the best they can be, to achieve their potential or, in US psychologist Abraham Maslow’s words, achieve ‘self actualisation’.  Free speech is essential to articulating what one needs to achieve that potential.  It is the freedom to ask, to seek. Thus, in a society that supports the idea that we should be free to be our best, we must also have free speech. 

But there are limits.  The limit is reached when one individual’s free speech interferes with other’s right to achieve their best, their freedom of speech.  It is a limit we practice every day, as it reflects a concern for others’ feelings.

If we are free to fulfil our potential, then freedom of belief, of religion, follows naturally, without all the political antics of legislation to enshrine a religious brand of privilege.

In Israel Fulau’s case, he is free to believe as he wishes and to express his beliefs, but the manner of such must not curtail the freedom of others.  His condemnation to hell of homosexuals (as well as much of the human race) could profoundly perturb a young Christian, gay or straight, troubled by their sexuality, perhaps to lead to self-harm.  That infringement of another’s right to pursue personal fulfilment is Fulau’s real offence.  

Freedoms of speech and of belief are essentially individual rights, but we don’t live only as individuals.  We are social beings, herd animals. 

Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the press is the extension of these individual freedoms.  It enables one individual to speak to many others, to collect the ideas of many and to be exposed to many different ways of seeing the world.  For some, that knowledge will reinforce prejudice, for others it will build tolerance, even understanding.  It makes democracy possible.

And the free speech and press discourse is not limited to Australia: It blights contemporary US politics in that their president believes that lofty constitutional declaration, inspired by the by French philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau, applies only to wealth, white, heterosexual, US-born males.  It is a blight that degrades US democracy and its humanity and social relations.

Freedom of speech; freedom of religion and belief; freedom of the press are the test of a democratic society, a test that some Australian legislation of the past decade has put us at risk of scraping by with a C minus. Oh yes, multi-party elections are not at risk (at present) but real choice is at risk with no solid knowledge of alternatives for responsible decision making.   And today, in our laws, there are provisions for secret trials and penalties if you should tell anyone you have been charged with certain offences.  Not only is justice to be blind, so too is the public.

What Could Be

Legislation to recognise the equal dignity of all persons, and the rights that follow from that recognition, would made past discrimination legislation superfluous.  Its provisions would render surplus the Sexual Discrimination Act and the Racial Discrimination Act and avoid the need of a Religious Discrimination Act.  Conservatives could rejoice: Section 18C would be repealed, but it would be replaced by a more universally applicable act.

It could, over time, and with the political leadership, create a nation where relationships proceed from a position of mutual respect. Yeah Aretha!

But it won’t happen. 

The wider consequences for government are too onerous.  It would demand effective action to address homelessness and disability; it would require virtually full employment be a key goal of government, because lack of meaningful work is a huge obstacle to personal fulfilment.  It would demand fair and equitable taxation of multinational as well as national corporations. It would mean fair and equitable treatment of minorities and, especially, of the elderly.

But most revolutionary of all, it would require a marked improvement in parliamentary behaviour and rhetoric, both in the House and on the stump to demonstrate that parliament respects its own legislation.

But we can dream.

©Vincent O’Donnell.

Media Analyst & Researcher


  • Thanks Vincent for your thoughtful article, just discovered, and for sharing your dream. We need more to speak out publicly on the universality of human and civil rights, and to challenge government policies and legislation that seeks to undermine these.

    The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights (ICCPR), notably Article 14, have been cited selectively to justify religious freedoms biased in favour of religious institutions and the religiously-minded, for the purpose of justifying intent to introduce the license for bigotry and discrimination.

    Most international provisions have been voluntarily embraced on a lip-service basis by Australia amongst other nations, whilst jealously guarding their notions of sovereignty and non-global citizenship whilst unacceptably aiming to sanction the right to bigotry in policy and legislative design inconsistent with the needs wishes and expectations of the community at large, other than those cohorts that have vested interests political or religious to dominate the secular space in which we all live which must coexist with the religious sector but not be amortised with it without express consent.

    More comment incrementally available.

    Regards, Madeleine Kingston, Concerned Australian Voter

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