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Turnbull’s stray dog

Jun 19, 2019 • 16m 39s

The election result has put faith back on the national agenda. But the issue is dogged by a review Malcolm Turnbull commissioned and never had the chance to answer.

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Turnbull’s stray dog

17 • Jun 19, 2019

Turnbull’s stray dog

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

The impact of the so-called religious vote in the last election has put faith back on the national agenda. But the issue is dogged by a review that Malcolm Turnbull commissioned and never had the chance to answer. Martin McKenzie-Murray on the recommendations of the Ruddock Review and the state of religious freedom in Australia.

[Theme ends]

Archival tape – Unidentified man:

"Can we start with the broad question here. Do we have a problem with religious discrimination in Australia?"

ELIZABETH:

Where should we go to begin this story?

[Music starts]

MARTIN:
Well I've gone back quite recently to November 2017.

Archival tape:

[People cheering with loud music, celebrating.]

MARTIN:

Which is when the Australian public had endorsed same sex marriage via the postal vote and Parliament was sitting to debate the legislative form that, that would take.

ELIZABETH:

Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s Chief Correspondent.

MARTIN:

And it was at that point that Malcolm Turnbull who was then Prime Minister tried to pacify social conservatives, perhaps disgruntled, about the passage of the postal vote. And so Malcolm Turnbull convened an expert panel that would look at or review religious freedoms in Australia. It was led by the former Attorney-General Philip Ruddock.

Archival tape – Malcom Turnbull:

"He has the gravitas, the intellect and I think the empathy to listen carefully to the real anxieties and concerns that many Australians in religious communities across the country are now feeling."

Archival tape – Philip Ruddock:

"You need to get the balance right and I hope that with the people that have been asked to help in this task that we can come up with an appropriate response."

MARTIN:

And then there were four experts who comprised the panel and it was kind of an act of mollification by Turnbull to appease those a little concerned about his support for same sex marriage.

Archival tape – Unidentified journalist:

"Joined now by Father Frank Brennan, a Jesuit priest, a human rights lawyer and academic who is a part of the Ruddock review."

Archival tape – Unidentified journalist:

"Can you explain why we need a religious discrimination act as recommended?"

Archival tape – Father Frank Brennan:

"Because we do not have a national human rights act and because we do not have a religious freedom act. Then the way we deal with these matters is with discrimination acts."

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

And what it is set out to do with the review?

MARTIN:

It was a massive undertaking, for one, they received more than 150,000 submissions. It's quite something it was convened in November 2017 and they had handed their report to the government May next year.

ELIZABETH:

So, quick?

MARTIN:

Very quick, yes. And it was to look at, well a few questions of principle question was whether or not there should be a dedicated anti-religious discrimination act, just as there exists for sexual discrimination, discrimination on the grounds of race or age, for instance. Churches for a long time and people of faith had said for a long time that there needed to be a positive recognition of their rights rather than negative recognition. So, in the form of exemptions or exceptions, for instance, and so the panel determined that, yes, there should be one.

ELIZABETH:

A religious discrimination act?

MARTIN:

Yes. And second it found that there should be some exemptions on the discriminations that religious schools are entitled to. And so one would be not allowing any discrimination of students on the basis of sexuality but they found in a pluralistic society within reason schools should be allowed to appoint their staff in accordance with their own religious ethos. Now this was a kind of reflected some of the tensions in the Coalition party at the time. So, Turnbull's moderates thought this should be a tweaking of exemptions, but not the establishment of the Discrimination Act. And the social conservatives thought the opposite. In the end, the Ruddock review commended both.

ELIZABETH:

Was it kind of hedging its bets?

MARTIN:

No, I think it was a fairly sober examination of what are really competing, conflicting values and found that it would be intolerable for schools to discriminate against students. But within reason, appointing staff in accordance with a religious ethos they should be at liberty to do that, just as parents would be at liberty to send their children somewhere else. And so there was from Father Frank Brennan, who is one of the experts, when we spoke there was kind of an invocation of the market there. Schools should have the liberty to staff. But parents have the liberty to put their children in whichever school they want.

ELIZABETH:

So this is an issue not about staff at the school but an issue about students, kids who go to that school. So it's about not being able to expel a student based on their sexuality, if they're gay or trans?

MARTIN:

Yeah, well that is a massive report. And there are lots of other issues but some elements of the report were leaked and that very provocative one about: should schools reserve the right to discriminate the admission of students on their sexuality? I would say widely unpopular and obviously very provocative exemption. And that was leaked. And so we began talking about that.

ELIZABETH:

And when was it leaked?

MARTIN:

Well so the report's finished in May last year, it's handed to the government. The government says we will release it shortly. And they kept telling the expert panel, the authors of the report, within days, within weeks, within months it just kept going. It was leaked at the time of the Wentworth by-election. Which was caused when Malcolm Turnbull, of course, resigned after he was deposed as leader. And so it's not until December, last year, some seven or eight months after the government's receipt of the report that it's finally released.

ELIZABETH:

So the Wentworth by-election happens in October 2018 - the report was released in December. You've spoken to Father Frank Brennan, who as you say was one of their people on the expert panel that were part of this review. Who is he and what did he say about the process of the review?

MARTIN:

Father Frank Brennan has been involved in public policy for some time now. Paul Keating once called him the ‘meddling priest’. He's the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia, and a fairly, fairly prominent voice. He's been arguing for a Charter of Rights as sort of something similar to a Bill of Rights for instance, for many years. He was one of the four figures on this panel. The panels comprised of figures from the church or law and Brennan was suggesting that so provocative was the idea of discriminating against students that, that needed to be dealt with, collectively deemed intolerable, that was not an exemption that would be allowed or enshrined for schools. And then after that, get to the point of enshrining anti-discrimination legislation and then over time, the law and the jurisprudence around it would be able to accrue. He was very much looking forward to that point.

ELIZABETH:

So you know when you speak to Frank Brennan about what his motivation is for why an anti-religious discrimination act needs to be enshrined, what are the grounds for that in his view?

MARTIN:

There's a few things to talk about here. The report accepts that religious freedom in Australia isn't under imminent threat. Happily. But that the legislative protections are inadequate. Frank Brennan also says that some of the prevailing institutions in Australian life, places like universities and the media are largely defined by, at best, an indifference to religion and at worst a contempt. And so given those conditions, it's fair to say that there should be the enshrinement of anti-religious discrimination. Another interesting aspect in this is that faith, religion in Australia, is in decline and the census is very clear about that. And so it might feel at the moment as if the debate is disproportionate, with that in mind. But Brennan would say that because people are in a minority that's not a reason to not legislate for that protection, in fact it's a reason to do it.

ELIZABETH:

And how did he describe the way that the review was conducted?

MARTIN:

Well, he thought it was conducted collegially and there were disagreements amongst the four. But there were constructive ones. His disagreement, or his disappointment was in the government's handling of the report once it had been finished. Brennan thought it very disappointing that their hard work had been kind of swallowed up in the maw of of politics.

ELIZABETH:

Politics hampered the review?

MARTIN:

Yeah. Shambolic, he described it.

[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

I mean in all of this is back in the news because of the election, I guess. And kind of Labor's apparent loss of what some people might call the religious vote or religious Australians.

MARTIN:

Well that depends who you speak to. As I wrote an election loss or an election victory is a mosaic. It's comprised of multiple factors, but one aspect they're looking at, whether or not Australians of faith had any trust in the progressive movement, as it's been called, and more specifically in the Labor Party.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

[Music ends]]

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ELIZABETH:

Marty, religion is back on the national agenda, in part, because of this religious freedom review that we've been discussing. But also because labor is reckoning, as part of its election loss, with the loss of religious voters. Where are they looking now to make some sense of that?

MARTIN:

There's almost always some painful reckoning and some slight to profound reconfiguration of the losing party. That was Labor and the loss this time was particularly humiliating. And so different factors, different agents of the loss are considering different elements of it. Seats in Western Sydney which are considered quite crucial to Labor's path to government, quite ethnically diverse and quite religiously conservative electorates that had some of the highest no votes in the same sex marriage vote. These almost uniformly swung against Labor. So these are big personal issues matters of faith and religious freedom. But there is an electoral bit to it and some in Labor are certainly wondering how costly that was.

ELIZABETH:

What are Labor now saying about faith, publicly?

MARTIN:

So Kevin Rudd has come out and said that the Labor Party at risk of just granting automatically the votes of religious Australians to the Coalition. Chris Bowen has said that on the campaign trail, he said he heard constantly from people who felt left out or left behind by the progressive agenda or by the Labor Party itself. Kristina Keneally, amongst this medley of voices hers might be the loudest. The Shadow Home Affairs minister and a Catholic woman, and she has been saying repeatedly that the large tent, progressive tent, and the tent of the Labor Party, a lot of people feel left out of that. A lot of people of faith. So they're all kind of, of the same idea that the Labor Party has been condescending to or unfriendly to religious Australians.

ELIZABETH:

So what is next for the Ruddock review?

MARTIN:

We're in a funny little space here now because the report and the review, the really salient bits, the really substantive but tricky bits, were referred to like legal review commissions. They just kept postponing it. They didn't really want it to sit in the in the life of politics. There was constant deferral. But now Morrison has this extraordinarily generous mandate in that he pledged very little during the campaign. So it can be revived and we wait to see if that happens. But there is an expectation that it will be and some in Labor wonder if then it's an opportunity to support it, and to and to demonstrate that constructive bipartisanship.

ELIZABETH:

And do we know what Morrison is likely to do with the recommendations of this review?

MARTIN:

Well some more recommendations will come back. Probably we’ll see this year parliamentary debate about it. Labor will have to consider their position but Morrison is a spectacularly empowered prime minister now. He has, for once, control of caucus. And so there's a feeling that we're going to see something legislative on this this year.

ELIZABETH:

Marty, what would, what would an anti-religious discrimination act actually look like?

MARTIN:

It is much too early to say.

ELIZABETH:

It's interesting one way you could argue we might, I mean are we having this debate by accident. Here was Turnbull creating this review in the hope that it would placate part of his party. And I guess part of our community, by saying I’m going to pay attention, I'm going to chair this review, I'm going to create this review. And here we are having a much larger and now more unwieldy debate, arguably, as a result.

MARTIN:

Yeah. That's a really interesting observation and I think I agree. There's there is an accidental kind of quality to this. There's the kind-of desperate act of of mollification from Turnbull. He made other attempts to kind of calm social conservatives which failed. This is one of them. Then it was just delayed, it was deferred. It became a distraction. It was something you never really wanted. Certainly factions in the coalition were opposed to what they would like the outcome of the report to be. Morrison becomes Prime Minister. It's still delayed. Promises are made to the authors. It's delayed, delayed, delayed. Come December, Bill Shorten says Australians don't want religion to be an issue. Morrison doesn't seem hugely comfortable juggling these awkward things of civility and freedom of expression.

ELIZABETH:

And arguably like the representation of his own faith publicly?

MARTIN:

Yeah. Absolutely. And so this thing that Turnbull created back in November 2017.

[Music starts]

MARTIN:

Has been kind-of awkwardly hand-balled and forgotten and leaked cynically, it's had this unusual life. But it's this stray dog that no-one sort-of wants. But now, after the miracle election that has, I mean, it's not enough to change the environment, but I think it's gifted Morrison a mandate that is so large and he has so much freedom, that political possibility has, I think, almost overnight been redefined.

ELIZABETH:

Thank, Marty.

MARTIN:

Thank you.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

The United States has committed an extra 1000 troops to the Middle East after attacks on two oil tankers, which have been blamed on Iran. The acting U.S. Defence Secretary, Patrick Shanahan, said America had received credible intelligence on “hostile behavior by Iranian forces and their proxy groups that threaten United States personnel and interests across the region”.

And in Egypt, former President Mohammed Morsi has died in court, immediately after giving evidence. Morsi won the country’s free elections in 2012, but was later removed from office by the military. He had been sentenced to 20 years prison for allegedly ordering the Muslim Brotherhood to break up protests. Numerous other cases were pending against him.

This is 7am.

I’m Elizabeth Kulas.

See you Thursday.

The election result – and the impact of the religious vote – has put faith back on the national agenda. But the issue is dogged by a review Malcolm Turnbull commissioned and never had the chance to answer. Martin McKenzie-Murray on the recommendations of the Ruddock review and the state of religious freedom.

Guest: Chief correspondent for The Saturday Paper Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Background reading:

Divisions over religious freedom in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is produced by Elizabeth Kulas, Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Equate Studio

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faith religion turnbull morrison ruddock religious freedom




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17: Turnbull’s stray dog