Mike Gaffney’s motion to replace prayer puts Tassie upper house on verge of history

Si Gladman / 21 March 2023

The Tasmanian upper house could become the first house of an Australian state or federal parliament to replace daily prayer rituals with more secular and inclusive practices, with a new motion expected to be debated soon.

In parliament today, Mike Gaffney, an independent member of the Legislative Council, gave notice that he would move a motion proposing to change the Standing Orders with a Sessional Order which would replace the recital of the Lord’s Prayer with a new secular statement.

The new statement would be read by the President of the Legislative Council at the opening of each day, following the Acknowledgement of Country. It says:

Honorable members, I now invite you to pray or reflect in silence on our responsibilities to the people of Tasmania, understanding and acknowledging that we will, at all times, perform our duties and participate in discourse, treating each person with respect, dignity and compassion.

Mr Gaffney is well known in Tasmanian politics for having spearheaded the state’s adoption of voluntary assisted dying laws – a reform that drew opposition from church groups but was widely supported across the state.

Debate on the motion is expected to take place next week.

Rationalist Society of Australia president Dr Meredith Doig has welcomed Mr Gaffney’s motion to replace the prayer.

In a statement today, she said the proposed change to the chamber’s practice “better reflects both the religious and increasingly non-religious diversity of the Tasmanian community.”

According to the 2021 Census, Tasmania ranks first among the states for the highest proportion of non-religious people – at 50 per cent.

Independents have significant power in the state’s upper house, holding seven of 15 seats. The remaining eight are divided between the Liberal Party and Labor.

The RSA will urge its supporters and members in Tasmania to contact their upper house representatives and call on them to support Mr Gaffney’s motion.

All other state and federal parliament chambers across Australia open their daily proceedings with Christian prayers, although the Victorian government has promised to develop a replacement statement.

In the mid 1990s, the Australian Capital Territory’s Legislative Assembly moved to a moment of silent prayer and reflection.

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Editor’s note: This article was updated on 28 March to make clear that Mr Gaffney proposed a Sessional Order.

Statement by Dr Meredith Doig, president of the Rationalist Society of Australia

We welcome the motion from Mike Gaffney MLC to replace prayer rituals in the Tasmanian Legislative Council with a more secular and inclusive practice. We thank him for his attention to this significant issue.

By allowing everyone to participate, Mr Gaffney’s proposal of a moment of silence for reflection or prayer provides a more welcoming and uniting way of opening the parliament each day. It better reflects the religious and increasingly non-religious diversity of the Tasmanian community.

The 2021 Census showed that 50 per cent of Tasmanians identify as not religious. It is time for the parliament to modernise its proceedings to ensure that all people – members of parliament, staff and members of the public – can feel welcome and included in all of the parliament’s proceedings. It is untenable to continue to impose acts of religious worship on half the population who do not identify with religion but also on followers of other faiths.

With this issue, Tasmania has another opportunity to lead the rest of the country on matters of equality. All other houses in state parliaments and the federal parliament continue to begin their working days with recital of the Lord’s Prayer. Australia has changed dramatically since this tradition was introduced and parliaments should reflect the current multicultural communities they serve. 

We urge Mr Gaffney’s colleagues in the Legislative Council to support the motion in the interest of serving all Tasmanians, and we hope the Legislative Assembly will follow suit. Last year, we called on the Tasmanian Premier to replace the practice of prayers before parliament but, sadly, the government at that time showed no interest in modernising parliament’s procedures to reflect community diversity.

In recent years, many religious leaders have been calling for federal ‘religious freedom’ laws. Recently, 21 Victorian councillors sent a joint letter to the Victorian government opposing prayer rituals, arguing that ‘freedom of religion’ necessarily entails an equal to right ‘freedom from religion’. 

Tasmania’s most important institution of democracy – its parliament – should embody genuine secularism – that is, elected representatives and other citizens should enjoy both the right to freedom of religion as well as the right to freedom from religion. This is just what Mr Gaffney’s proposal can achieve. By replacing the current sectarian prayer ritual with a brief period of silent reflection, the religious can use the time to silently recite a prayer of their choice and the non-religious to reflect on their own deeply held principles. Both could usefully reflect on their duties as representatives of a diverse community.

This motion is another sign that momentum is building across the country for parliaments and local governments to replace prayer rituals with secular and more inclusive practices. In recent years, many councils have acted on this issue – including Clarence and Glenorchy councils in Tasmania in the past few months.

All the more reason.