The Hon. Scott Morrison MP
CANBERRA ACT 2600.
10 September 2018
Dear Prime Minister,
The Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) congratulates you upon becoming the 30th Prime Minister of Australia. In case you are not familiar with our society, we are Australia’s oldest freethought group, having been formed in 1906 to stimulate freedom of thought, encourage interest in science and philosophy, and promote a secular and ethical system of education.
We have two concerns we would like to raise with you.
The first is regarding the Government’s response to the Ruddock Report. We understand from media reports that you are intent on introducing new ‘religious freedom’ laws. In your interview with Fairfax media, you say children in public schools “should be able to do Christmas plays, they should be able to talk about Easter. That’s our culture.” Further, you have in the past cited “conscience protections” as a key issue and you have labelled the mockery of Christians as a form of discrimination you would not tolerate.
Prime Minister, children in public schools can do Christmas plays and talk about Easter. That’s what a secular system of education means: acceptance of all religions and of none in a non-discriminatory environment. Further, mockery is not discrimination – it’s freedom of expression at work.
The reality is that religion, particularly Christianity, is not under attack in Australia and there is no need for a federal law to promote and protect ‘religious freedom’. Section 116 of Australia’s constitution prohibits parliament from making laws for establishing any religion, imposing any religious observance, or prohibiting the free exercise of any religion.
Christians are well represented in federal parliament. Over one quarter of parliamentarians meet regularly as part of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship. At the start of every parliamentary sitting day, there is a reading of Christian prayers, with little regard for the sensitivities of Muslim, Jewish or atheist members of parliament. Several Prime Ministers – and now yourself – have been actively observant Christians.
Churches enjoy fringe benefits tax and GST exemptions under the Commonwealth Charities Act 2013. Australia is one of the few countries in the world where taxpayers largely pay for a whole separate school system that represents one denomination of one religion (Catholic). How would Australians feel if their taxes were paying instead for a whole separate school system operated by Sunni Muslims, institutionalising Sunni Muslim beliefs?
Australia already has laws prohibiting religious discrimination. The Federal Fair Work Act prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or activity in employment. All states, apart from New South Wales and South Australia, have laws prohibiting the refusing of service to people on the grounds of religion.
According to Pew Center research that compares attitudes to religion around the world, social hostility towards religion in Australia has increased since 2007 – but this is attributed to “nationalist or anti-immigrant” activity, not hostility towards the dominant religion. They further report that government restrictions on religion in Australia has decreased from an already low base over the same period.
Strengthening some legal protections at the expense of others is misguided. A large majority of Australians voted in favour of non-discrimination through the marriage equality plebiscite. To introduce a law that purports to protect ‘religious freedom’, when there is clearly no need nor demand for it, is likely only to alienate an already disillusioned population.
If there is to be any codification of freedom of religion and belief, it should be within a comprehensive Bill of Rights, designed to balance fundamental human rights. And in such a bill, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion must include the right to freedom from the imposition of religious dogma or doctrine, the right to leave a religion without fear of repercussions, and the right to criticise a religion without fear of prosecution.
The second concern we have is less weighty but more symbolic. You were reported as urging Australians to pray for rain in drought affected areas.
Prime Minister, what is needed is rational planning for drought, not prayers. From the dawn of time, people have prayed for rain in some form, from the tribes of Africa to native Americans. We trust it comes as no surprise that no credible study through a randomised, double-blind trials has ever supported the efficacy of prayer.
Perhaps your reference to prayer in this instance was simply a ‘turn of phrase’, familiar to someone with a religious background; but it is distinctly unhelpful to thousands of Australian farmers who are among the world’s leading users of science applied to farming practices. We would like to be assured that this turn of phrase does not suggest an attitude of science denialism that has so tarnished the pronouncements of some of your colleagues who ought to know better.
In closing, we would be grateful if you could clarify for us:
- Will your Government protect the rights of the increasing number of Australians who do not identify with a religion as to their freedoms on no less a basis than those who do so identify?
- Will you personally affirm your commitment to evidence-based public policy based on science and evidence?
Dr Meredith Doig
 SMH, 7 Sept 2018
 Global Uptick in Government Restrictions on Religion in 2016, Pew Center Research, June 2018
We finally got a reply to this letter, on 6 December 2018. Not from Scott Morrison, but from Steve Irons, the Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister. Here’s what Mr Irons had to say in response to our two questions:
Will your Government protect the rights of the increasing number of Australians who do not identify with a religion as to their freedoms on no less a basis than those who do so identify?
“The Commonwealth Government is a strong defender of traditional rights and liberties, and is committed to protecting freedom of religion. All Australians should be free to choose their religion, and be entitled to express and practise their beliefs, without intimidation or interference, as long as those practices are within the framework of Australian law.
“The Government believes that religious freedom is at the core of the liberties enjoyed in Australian society. This means that Australians who hold religious views should not face discrimination on the basis of those views.
“The Prime Minister has indicated that the Government is willing to make legislative changes, if necessary, to protect freedom of religion. He has also made it clear that parents must continue to be able to send their children to faith-based schools, confident that the faith-based nature of those institutions will not be eroded.
“The Religious Freedom Review was a timely opportunity to examine whether this right is adequately protected under Australian law today. The former Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull, received the Panel’s report on 18 May 2018, reflecting the extensive input from the Australian community, research undertaken, and the expertise of the Panel members.
“Given the importance of this issue, it is appropriate that the Government carefully and methodically consider the findings of the Review.”
Will you personally affirm your commitment to evidence-based public policy based on science and evidence?
“The Prime Minister ‘s first priority is to support farmers and farming communities as we deal with the drought.
“The Prime Minister held a National Drought Summit on 26 October 2018 and brought together the states and territories , local governments as well as industry representatives, farmers, the charity sector and experts to share their knowledge, experiences and ideas.
“The Summit focused on how we, as a nation, can better coordinate our efforts to get through this drought, recover and build our resilience for the next drought.
“The Summit provided an opportunity to build on the more than $1.8 billion in assistance measures and concessional loans the government is already delivering. The Prime Minister announced a package of significant new initiatives to support famers with the immediate effects of the drought and to prepare and build resilience for future ones, including:
- Establishing the Future Drought Fund with an initial investment of $3.9 billion, growing to $5 billion. The Fund will provide $ 100 million each year to assist farmers and regional communities to prepare for, and respond to, the impacts of drought.
- Extending the Drought Communities Programme from 60 to 81 local governments – giving each $1 million to keep people employed and businesses running.
- Establishing a $50 million On-Farm Emergency Water Infrastructure Rebate Scheme to assist drought affected farmers with 25 per cent of the costs of installing piping, tanks, bores, troughs, pumps and fittings and desilting.
- A new online Farm Hub, hosted by the National Farmers Federation, as a single, trusted point of access to a comprehensive listing of available support, data and resources .
- Increasing funding for mental health services by $15.5 million in drought-affected areas across Australia, delivering early intervention and community well-being services.
- Providing key charities with $30 million to support at least 10,000 households facing hardship.
“This work to provide relief and prepare for the future will continue. At the Summit, the Prime Minister, along with the Premiers and Chief Ministers, committed to drought reform principles and agreed to discuss a new agreement on drought reform at the Council of Australian Governments in December.”
In other words, he didn’t respond to our questions.