Independent member Mike Gaffney’s bid to remove prayer rituals from the Legislative Council of the Tasmanian Parliament has been thwarted, with a vote on whether to send the issue to a committee narrowly falling short.
Instead of supporting Mr Gaffney’s original motion today, the Legislative Council agreed to an amendment to refer the matter to the Standing Orders Committee. But, following a lengthy debate, members of the chamber voted 5-5 on the amended motion, meaning that it failed to gain majority support to go to committee stage. Four members were absent from the vote.
As a result, the Legislative Council will no longer consider the issue, leaving the majority non-religious Tasmanian public without an opportunity to provide input into a committee inquiry.
Mr Gaffney had proposed a new Sessional Order to substitute the current Standing Order that relates to the opening daily procedures for the duration of the current session of parliament.
As the Rationalist Society of Australia reported last week, the motion was to replace the recital of Christian prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer, with a new secular statement inviting members to pray or reflect in silence on their responsibilities to the people of Tasmania.
In a passionate speech, Mr Gaffney argued there was a clear need for modernising the Legislative Council’s procedures, given the Tasmanian community’s richness in diversity and the increasing proportion of society with non-religious worldviews.
He pointed to the 2021 Census results which showed that Tasmania had the highest proportion of citizens identifying as non-religious – at 50 per cent.
Mr Gaffney argued that the parliament, as the state’s primary institution of democracy, should be welcoming for all people and that people should also enjoy the right to freedom from religion.
“By having a favoured religion and by asking all in attendance to observe the worship rituals of that particular faith, the parliament sends a poor signal to everyone else in society – that they are excluded and less worthy,” he said.
“One of our fundamental rights each of us have is the freedom to choose a religion or not to have a religion. Similarly, each of us have the fundamental right to not have tenets of religions imposed upon us. This is the crucial ethical part of religious freedoms that must be balanced with secular rights.”
Independent Ruth Forrest successfully moved an amendment for the matter to be referred to the Standing Orders Committee, arguing that broader consultation should be sought before changing the traditions of parliament.
Liberal member Joanne Palmer argued that the current wording of the Christian prayers “appropriately caters for the secular position of members”, and suggested that members who did not wish to participate in the Lord’s Prayer did not have to.
Also opposing Mr Gaffney’s motion, Liberal member Jane Howlett argued that Australia’s common law system was “heavily influenced by the Bible”, with the freedoms that Australians cherish being “based on Christian concepts”.
Independent member Megan Webb supported Mr Gaffney’s original motion, arguing that it was inappropriate to start proceedings each day with Christian prayers and that it made non-religious members uncomfortable.
Mr Gaffney also noted that momentum for change was building across the country for parliaments and councils to replace prayer rituals with more inclusive practices, pointing to the Victorian government’s commitment to replace prayer rituals and a number of local governments that have recently done so.
He had argued that it was not necessary to subject the matter to a lengthy committee process, but ultimately support the amended motion to allow for further consideration.