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Monday, 20 June 2005
Page: 46


Mr BAIRD (2:58 PM) —I move:

That this House:

(1)   notes with concern the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 and:

(a)   moves to introduce similar legislation into NSW;

(b)   its effect of limiting freedom of speech, especially religious discussion, for fear of legal action;

(c)   its creation of religious tension, where there was none before; and

(d)   that it makes no distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘race’ when clearly one is a personal choice and the latter is inherited; and

(2)   affirms:

(a)   the need to protect all people from vilification and to promote racial and religious tolerance;

(b)   its commitment to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 18 of the Declaration of Human Rights; and

(c)   that the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act 1975 adequately meets Australia’s international obligations and that the Victorian model of racial and religious tolerance legislation is unnecessary.

In many ways religious tolerance in this country was exemplified by Vernon and Malcolm Wood on the release of their brother Douglas. Vernon said:

Iraqis are our brothers and our sisters and we empathise with those who have lost loved ones, lost jobs and lost hope.

When asked about the people who abducted his brother, he said:

It is very hard for us to place ourselves in their context. It is a very troubled country, obviously, and their history is very different. Their heritage is so very different from us it is hard to comprehend what they are thinking, so in a sense it is not possible to hate.

Religious hatred has produced much of the fuel for world conflict. Intolerance, bigotry and reaction to things that are different cause challenges to the search for peace. When we look at Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Serbia and—looking into the past—the Crusades, we can see the toxic mix of religious conflict. Little attention was given politically to the passing in 2001 of the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. With the events of 11 September 2001, community resentment at fundamentalist Muslims ran high and the importance of protecting religious minorities undoubtedly meant that legislators in Victoria thought it was appropriate action to take.

No-one in the Christian community would have been aware of the legislation or its potential impact until a complaint arose from a seminar on Islam organised in Melbourne by Catch the Fire Ministries. The seminar was arranged by Pastor Daniel Scot in March 2002. The equal opportunity commission became involved after a complaint made initially by three Muslim converts who attended the seminar and who were then joined by the Islamic Council of Victoria. An attempt to resolve the case through a conciliation session proved unsuccessful and the case went to a hearing in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. The result of this case was to find in favour of the appellants. Another case involved a man in prison involved in an Alpha Christian course which included the topic of ‘evil’. During the session, the Salvation Army chaplain mentioned witchcraft as being evil. A convicted paedophile in the prison made a complaint to the equal opportunity commission. It is now bringing a case against the Salvation Army, Corrective Services and Alpha Group Service.

Peter Breen, a human rights lawyer and a member of the New South Wales Upper House has introduced the Anti-Discrimination Amendment Bill 2005. The bill deals specifically with religious vilification. The Breen bill parallels Victorian legislation that deals with exceptions but deletes ‘religious purpose’ and adds ‘research purposes’. Arguably, this renders the New South Wales legislation more extreme than its Victorian counterpart.

The shockwaves throughout the Christian community have been significant and the political fallout has already begun. Victorian church leaders have told the Victorian Premier that it is time to change this law. Anglican Archbishop Peter Watson has said that his church had not examined the legislation closely enough in 2001. He has stated that he does not want ‘the law of the land intruding into places where it has no proper role’. It is also interesting to note that some members of Islamic communities have indicated their concern regarding the impact of the legislation and are finding note takers in their own communities to record what has passed. An indication from an Islamic spokesman was that religion is about the competition of ideas and the search for truth and that there is no role for punitive legislation against it.

The main danger of religious vilification laws has been put by Patrick Parkinson, Professor of Law at the University of Sydney. He said in a paper that they will have a ‘chilling effect’ on legitimate religious activity even where the outcome of a complaint is to declare the religious expression to have been lawful. The punishment imposed by religious vilification laws does not lie in the penalties imposed by courts or tribunals for breaches of the law but in the necessity to defend oneself from plausible claims that the law has been breached. I therefore call on this parliament to affirm:

(a)   the need to protect all people from vilification and to promote racial and religious tolerance;

(b)   its commitment to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 18 of the Declaration of Human Rights;—

to ensure the basic freedom of Australians to express their views on religion—

… and

(c)   that the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act 1975 adequately meets Australia’s international obligations—

and that the Victorian act is unnecessary and counterproductive. (Time expired)


The SPEAKER —Is the motion seconded?


Mr Cadman —I second the motion.