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Tuesday, 15 August 2006
Page: 60

Senator BARTLETT (4:59 PM) —I rise to speak on Senator Bob Brown’s motion on the reference of matters to the Community Affairs References Committee, with respect to the Exclusive Brethren. This motion is interesting, and it raises lots of different and competing issues. Frankly, I think there are some interesting debates to be had on the role of religion in politics. It is probably something that has been debated ever since politics and religion were invented, and I am not sure which was invented first, but it is a current public debate. I have personal concerns, and I have knowledge of the organisation through personal experience with various people of the Exclusive Brethren going back for quite a long period. There are various aspects of their beliefs and the actions of individuals I have known that I have not been very comfortable with. I have been particularly critical of what I believe is their vilification of gays, lesbians and transgender people. I think that is unacceptable, and I would criticise those views and defend those people who are being attacked by them. That is something I continue to do.

But I find it hard to see why that justifies having a Senate inquiry into that group. I have also criticised Archbishop Pell. I have, indeed, criticised the Pope in this place for his comments with regard to gays, lesbians and others, and I will continue to do so. I have to say—and this does disappoint me a bit—that, such is the nature of this motion, I would have expected it more from the Howard government. If I take out the words ‘Exclusive Brethren’ and the sorts of allegations that go to it about the hidden support they are providing to the government and put in place the words ‘Wilderness Society’ then I hear echoes of the attacks from the other side of the chamber for the support they allegedly provide for the Greens and for their alleged role as a front for the Greens. We have heard speeches from that side threatening to take away their tax deductibility because of them allegedly being a political front.

Senator Heffernan —That’s rubbish!

Senator BARTLETT —I have heard speeches from senators on that side threatening to take away the tax deductibility of the Wilderness Society because they are deemed to be engaged in political activity. I see that as a similar approach, of basically threatening organisations for being politically engaged in supporting your political enemy. There is no doubt that people involved in the Exclusive Brethren did quite strongly attack the Greens in the last election campaign in Tasmania. There is no doubt about that at all. As to whether or not they had orders from above, who knows? Frankly, for each of the issues that is put forward in the suggested terms of reference, there are far more appropriate bodies to look at those things. If there has been inappropriate receipt of funding, inappropriate declaration of expenditure or inappropriate declaration of associated entities then the Electoral Commission is the body for that.

I know that our electoral laws are very poor when it comes to disclosure of funding and disclosure of donations. There is no doubt about that. I take great pride in emphasising that the Democrats have, more than any other party, I believe, played a role in ensuring our disclosure laws are as strong as they are. But there is no doubt they have been weakened in recent times. That has allowed all sorts of groups to get away with funding political activity without being seen to have their fingerprints on it. But that is no reason to single out one group solely for the reason that they happened to criticise the Greens in the most recent election.

The Democrats have not been immune to attack from organisations that one might like to call shadowy. Indeed, we had an instance in Western Australia where an extremely well-funded group were basically able to set up a separate organisation, legally call themselves the Australian Democrats, get themselves registered and run against the Democrats. They called themselves the Australian Democrats (WA) Div. Inc. They had an enormous amount of money come from what we strongly believed were sources within the then Western Australian division of the Liberal Party and from certain people who were then involved in that party. It was extremely difficult to prove. We had to undertake an extended amount of court action to recover our own party’s name. So I am sympathetic to parties being attacked by organisations that might have significant funds, although I would suggest that what was done to us was far more extreme. There were basically people completely misrepresenting themselves as Democrats when they were not.

But these are people engaging in the political process and putting forward their view about other political parties. It is impossible to see this motion, in my view, I am afraid, as anything other than payback. It is attacking an organisation that attacked and stood against the Greens in an election. I think that is very concerning, because it does smell to me very much like what the Howard government does to a whole range of organisations that criticise it. It threatens their funding and it threatens to take away their tax deductibility. It attacks them publicly, it attacks their motives and it attacks individuals involved in them. I think that is a very bad habit. It is one I have criticised in the Howard government, and I do not think I would like to see it in any other political party either. Of course, the Labor Party does it at state level also. I do not think it is a practice we need to be encouraging.

None of this means I have any particular truck with the Exclusive Brethren. It is not an organisation whose views I am particularly fond of, but one principle I hold more strongly than any of that is the principle of supporting religious freedom and religious tolerance. However unusual I might find a religious view someone might hold, that is their business. There is an issue when people’s private religious beliefs move into the political arena. Frankly, that is an interesting debate. I would be interested in having some form of broad examination of that issue—that is, of the role of religious institutions, of the appropriateness of tax deductibility for religious institutions across the board and of the role of religious organisations in our systems of government. It would be for the purpose not of attacking religions or attacking everything they do but of assessing whether or not things have got out of balance.

Indeed, the Democrats have been doing that, and we have copped a bit of flak from some fundamentalist groups as well for doing so. We have a fairly comprehensive public survey on God and government running on our website, seeking people’s views about where the line should be drawn between religion and government, religion and politics. I am not sure you can draw a hard and fast line, frankly, but I think it is worth exploring. We have seen debates—indeed, we have seen them played out in the mainstream media—over differences of opinion within the government party about, for example, how much the religious views of the Minister for Health and Ageing are appropriate in influencing certain policy decisions. We know that is happening at the moment in the coalition party room when they debate stem cell research, for example.

It is a debate worth having, and I think there are appropriate limits to where people’s personal religious beliefs should be imposed on the wider community, but it is a debate we should be having about religion in general. It is not something we should be targeting at any one organisation or any one particular denomination, sect or whatever you want to call it. So I have to say I would call this a witch-hunt, except I know that some people who describe themselves as witches would find that offensive. They are another group of people—witches, Wiccans and others—who believe they are persecuted for their religious beliefs. So I try to avoid that particular phrase, but unfortunately it is a very good description of the act of singling people out, targeting them and trying to attack them. Whatever words you use, I do not think it is an appropriate approach to take and it is not one that I or the Democrats support in this regard.

The Democrats have a long tradition of supporting religious freedom and tolerance in general. The word ‘tolerance’ does have a little bit of an air of accepting something that you are not necessarily comfortable with, and that is probably appropriate in this case because, as I said, there are publicly stated views of the Exclusive Brethren that I am not comfortable with. I know from personal experience, as I said from the start, that for some of those who are excommunicated it can be very destructive to families. But that is not the only religion where that circumstance happens and, frankly, I do not think that is a matter for the parliament to be delving into.

If there are clear allegations of abuse, neglect or other activities like that, particularly of children, as there have been in some cases with particular sects or cults, then possibly there is a role for investigation, although I would suggest that the parliament is probably not the best body for that. There are other organisations that do not have the political taint to them that would be more appropriate for examining any allegations in that regard. I am not suggesting there are allegations specifically about the treatment of children against the brethren, but clearly there are circumstances and cases where there has been enormous emotional and psychological distress caused to people. Frankly, that is a situation that could arise particularly with the more firmly held beliefs or the more fundamentalist approach people take. Obviously, if individual members of the family move away from that belief, it can cause immense distress. That might be an argument against strong fundamentalist religious views, but again that is a decision for people to take as individuals.

With regard to Australian politics and political activities, I am not sure I like sounding like I agree with Senator Abetz terribly much, but he read out a quote from Senator Brown saying that his beef with the Exclusive Brethren is ‘not about religious belief’ but about them ‘venturing into politics in a big way with a big chequebook’. I can understand why he is concerned about that—I am concerned about it as well. I am concerned about people with lots of money who will be promoting a political agenda I strongly disagree with, and I am sure I strongly disagree with the political agenda of the Exclusive Brethren in most respects. But, again, that is not a reason to undertake a Senate inquiry specifically focused on the activities of that group.

Otherwise, the federal government or the coalition parties could quite rightly use a parallel reason to launch a Senate inquiry into the person who funded the skywriting yesterday over Parliament House urging people not to vote for the refugee bill and where that money came from. He may be appropriately declaring it—in fact, I am sure he is—but the fact is that people with large chequebooks getting involved in political activity is not in itself a reason to launch a Senate inquiry into them. It may be a reason to test the adequacy of our donation laws and it is possibly a reason for asking questions of the Electoral Commission in estimates or perhaps through the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, but it is not a reason to launch a Senate inquiry into that specific organisation.

The issue here is about transparency, whether it is transparency of electoral funding laws, transparency with regard to taxation arrangements and the appropriateness of funding for particular bodies or transparency with regard to the impact on children even. If that is an issue then we could have an inquiry into the appropriateness of the transparency of our electoral funding laws or the adequacy of the transparency of our funding of or taxation exemptions for religious bodies running schools and hospitals. But to target it specifically at one religious sect or denomination is, as the word says, ‘targeting’. It is clearly targeting for the purpose of political payback, and that makes me extremely uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable because I have seen echoes of it from the major parties and it worries me to see it coming from another party as well. The core issue here is that issue of transparency.

We have had inquiries in the past, as I think Senator Evans said, into the activities of various church bodies in institutions where there have been allegations of harm to children. I will use the example of a religious institution I am far more familiar with, the Catholic Church. There has been a lot of criticism of them, whether it is of their attitudes towards gays and lesbians or towards the activities of some of their priests and other religious people with regard to the abuse of children, but the issue there has been the cover-up involved and ensuring that investigations of unlawful activities have occurred. It has not been an inquiry into the entire institution and certainly not because they happen to get involved in politics. We all know that the Catholic Church, going back a long period in this country, has been very heavily involved in the political domain, as have other religious bodies in various ways. In many ways, to use the example of the Muslim community, I think they should get more involved in the political process—not to impose their religious beliefs on people but so that people can be more aware of the diversity of opinion within the Islamic community.

So, again, I emphasise that in some ways I can take a more independent view on this because the brethren would never be likely to support a position that is terribly in line with the views of the Democrats. They are certainly not likely to fund us. Clearly, they have provided support to the coalition parties and, from my understanding of what I have read about the Tasmanian campaign, the brethren were about supporting a majority government, which in that case was a Labor government. So I think in some respects I can be more unbiased than anybody else in regard to this issue.

My very strong feeling about this is, as I said at the start, that I am very strongly opposed to some of the statements by people from the Exclusive Brethren, particularly in their attacks on gays and lesbians. But I am even more concerned about any perception that people would be attacked—and the mechanisms of the Senate used to attack them, investigate them, grill them and haul them over the coals—purely because they have taken a stance at odds with the political position that I might hold. I think that is a very worrying trend. It is one that I am concerned to see, to various degrees, in the government, and it is not one I want to see elsewhere.

Can I reinforce, while I am still on my feet, that it is a worthwhile topic of examination to look at the difference between the roles of the systems and engines of government and the roles of religious bodies, but we need to do that in a way that is not seen as attacking religion. It is a continuing debate in the community, and it is a debate we need to have. Indeed, I know that Father Frank Brennan, a Catholic priest who has involved himself in political debates from time to time and who has taken positions which have not been terribly welcomed by the coalition parties in some cases, is about to publish a new book examining some of these dilemmas that arise when private beliefs and public life collide.

I think it is worth examining those dilemmas and competing issues, but it is worth doing so in a dispassionate way. I think we need to get away from attacking religious people for getting involved in politics when they take a position that opposes us and supporting them when they take a position that happens to back our views. It is natural but nonetheless inconsistent to do that. I know that when some of the church leaders came out criticising the government’s workplace relations legislation they were told to stick to their theology and keep out of politics, but of course when the church leaders came out in support of the government’s position on banning same-sex marriage they were supported and their quotes were repeated approvingly.

We need to be more consistent in our approach with regard to this. Frankly, I think this motion is extremely inconsistent. It targets people purely for the offence, or the perceived crime, of attacking a political party, and I think that is a very dangerous trend. It is not one that the Democrats want to be part of.