Atheist head vies for remaining positions as male religious clerics dominate faith advisory body

Si Gladman / 02 November 2023

Twenty people, including the head of an atheist community group, are vying for the final four places on the New South Wales Faith Affairs Council, which is set to be dominated by male religious clerics.

The head of Multicultural NSW, Joseph La Posta, revealed at a budget estimates hearing last week that 11 of the 12 faith leaders already appointed to the Minns government’s Faith Affairs Council are men.

As reported by the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) in September, Sydney Atheists’ president Steve Marton has nominated for a position on the 16-member body.

In his application, Mr Marton (pictured) argued it would be “an injustice” to exclude representation of the non-religious community in New South Wales, given that the Faith Affairs Council would be influencing government policy on matters that affect all people, including atheists, humanists, non-religious and ex-religious people.

Mr La Posta said the initial 12 members were appointed based on the largest religious denominations as reflected in the 2021 Census and they had already met with multiculturalism minister Steve Kamper at Parliament House. 

The 12 members include Reverend Dr Michael Stead from the Anglican Church of Australia and Pentecostal pastor Ralph Estherby, who is also a member of the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services – a taxpayer-funded committee accused of blocking secular reform of the Defence Force’s chaplaincy capability.

The only female among the current members of the Faith Affairs Council is Monica Doumit, the Director of Public Affairs for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney (see the full list below).

Mr La Posta said a final decision on the make-up of the body and its terms of reference was imminent.

“We’re at the final point now. We have 20 expressions of interest from that process. A decision around that is imminent from the Minister around announcing the new members that will complement the existing 12 on the Faith Affairs Council,” he said.

“At this stage, they’ve had an initial meeting with the Minister at Parliament. We’re still finalising the terms of reference for that group and also the code of conduct in terms of the behavioural framework upon which they’ll operate.”

At the hearing, Liberal Party MLC Scott Farlow asked Multicultural NSW what the differences were between the Minns government’s faith advisory body to the previous Perrottet government’s Religious Communities Advisory Council.

Mr La Posta said the new body would have slightly higher membership numbers and have greater female representation.

“The Minister has made it very clear that he wants to have a greater level of female representation on the Faith Affairs Council than on the Religious Communities Advisory Council,” he said.

Earlier this year, Mr Kamper told the RSA that a “diversity of viewpoints” would be represented on the advisory body and affirmed that the New South Wales government “provides and promotes opportunities for all individuals…to contribute and participate in all aspects of public life” and government programs.

In his application – which was endorsed by a Christian minister and the RSA – Mr Marton argued that, on trends revealed in the Census, non-religious people would now make up about 40 per cent of the community.

“I believe that it is imperative that the non-religious be represented on a body that may give preference, privilege, priority and extra funding to those who follow a religion,” he said.

“It is imperative that those of no religion should not be disadvantaged relative to their religious peers. This is particularly the case when religions are indulged financially by elements of government.”

In public statements, Mr Kamper and Premier Chris Minns have promised that the Faith Affairs Council would have direct access to government decision-makers and advise on issues including “objections to euthanasia/voluntary assisted dying”, religious discrimination, and providing “additional funding for chaplaincy”.

Mr La Posta told budget estimates that the current and former governments, in establishing faith advisory bodies, had “realised that the voice of faith communities needed to be elevated”.

“…for us it’s more just about leveraging those established networks and making it as easy as possible for our faith leaders to have direct access to our agency, and to the Minister, more importantly,” he said.

Appointed members of the New South Wales Faith Affairs Council

  • Reverend Dr Michael Stead, Anglican Church of Australia
  • Associate Professor Gawaine Powell Davies, Buddhist Council of NSW
  • Surinder Jain, Hindu Council of Australia
  • Darshan Singh Gill, Australian Sikh Association
  • David Ossip, NSW Jewish Board of Deputies
  • Imam Shadi Alsuleiman, Australian National Imams Council
  • Reverend Father Christophoros Krikelis, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese
  • Reverend Dr Steve Bartlett, Baptist Churches of New South Wales and ACT
  • Pastor Ralph Estherby, Australian Christian Churches
  • Reverend Dr Kamal Weerakoon, Presbyterian Church of Australia
  • Reverend Dr Manas Ghosh, Uniting Church Australia
  • Monica Doumit, Catholic Church in Australia

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Si Gladman is Campaign & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.

All the more reason.