The New South Wales Labor Party’s proposal to establish a Faith Affairs Council would privilege the voices of religious clerics even further in policy making and marginalise the voices of non-religious citizens, the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) has warned.
Labor leader Chris Minns told a gathering of faith leaders in November that he would establish a council to give “religious organisations a strong advocate within a Minns Labor Government and our decision making process”.
Labor’s multiculturalism spokesperson Steve Kamper said the Faith Affairs Council would provide a “solutions warehouse” and a direct link to government for religious organisations to advise on issues such as “objections to euthanasia/voluntary assisted dying, and religious discrimination”.
Mr Kamper – who the new council would report to if Labor were to form government – told Catholic media that the Faith Affairs Council would “have a role in overseeing the success of any such initiatives”, including “additional funding for chaplaincy” and other community-based programs through places of worship.
Labor’s commitment to set up the Faith Affairs Council follows the Perrottet government’s establishment last year of the Religious Communities Advisory Council, which also excludes non-religious representation.
In a letter to Mr Minns and Mr Kamper, RSA president Meredith Doig called on Labor to change its policy to be inclusive of New South Wales’ non-religious population.
The RSA has written to the Perrottet government, urging it to expand its advisory council to include non-religious beliefs.
While the Perrottet government’s website says the council’s work will be guided by the ‘Multicultural Principles’ set out in the state’s Multiculturalism Act (2000), the principles actually emphasise that all individuals should “have the greatest opportunity” to participate in all aspects of public life, including in “relevant activities and programs provided or administered by the Government of New South Wales”.
In her letter to both parties, Dr Doig said the religious-only advisory bodies would privilege the voices of religious clerics even further in policy making and marginalise the voices of non-religious citizens.
She said religious groups already have extraordinary levels of access to politicians while non-religious groups contribute tremendously to society but remain largely ignored in the political process.
Dr Doig called on both parties to broaden the scope of their advisory councils to include the voices of non-religious community groups such as atheists, humanists and rationalists.
She warned about giving religious clerics even more influence over policy-making when such figures do not represent the views of their own flocks on many social policy issues, let alone wider society.
She pointed to social researcher Neil Francis’ work in the landmark Religiosity in Australia series that showed a vast majority of Catholics, for example, support access to abortion rights and voluntary assisted dying, while Catholic bishops may not.
Dr Doig told both parties that the creation of new bodies privileging religious voices and excluding non-religious groups was at odds with Australia’s international commitment to treating people equally, regardless of religious or non-religious beliefs.
She pointed to Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice…”
In 2018, the Ruddock inquiry into religious freedom in Australia emphasised that freedom of thought, conscience and religion “is a right enjoyed by all, not just those of faith”, and protects “those who live a life of faith and those who live by other beliefs or, indeed, no beliefs.”
In 2021, 33.2 per cent of New South Wales citizens marked ‘no religion’ on the national Census – the lowest for a state or territory in Australia but still a significant increase from 25.5 per cent of five years earlier.
Images: Dominic Perrottet (Facebook) and Chris Minns (Facebook).