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Tuesday, 28 September 1993
Page: 1293


Senator BOSWELL (Leader of the National Party of Australia) (5.33 p.m.) —I think Senator Kemp's contribution encapsulated the fears of most people about this United Nations convention. People, particularly rural people, are concerned that we are handing over our laws to 18 members of the UN body. What they are saying when they approach us, the members of parliament and senators, is, `We elect you to govern in Australia. We are happy with the Westminster system. We believe in the Liberals'—or the Nationals, the Labor Party or the Australian Democrats—`this is our parliament and we are proud of this system. We want you to enact the laws and be responsible to us, the people who elect you'.

  Unfortunately, all these United Nations conventions that we are signing are taking away the power of their vote when they elect members of parliament. If they are not happy with us, they can dismiss us. But these conventions are taking that right away from them. That is why I believe there is so much concern about these UN conventions. Therefore, I support the motion of disallowance that Senator Vanstone has so ably moved.

  The declaration was put forward by the former Attorney-General under subsection 47(1) of the act and was first introduced on 24 February this year by means of an insert into the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette. It was tabled in both houses of parliament on 4 May. There was no ministerial explanation at the time of why the declaration was needed. In the House of Representatives, the debate was truncated as normal.

  According to the president of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Sir Ronald Wilson, the objective of the declaration is to strengthen the resolve of the nation states in promoting religious freedom. I have been in this place 11 years. Many of my colleagues on this side of parliament have been here as long. In my 11 years experience I cannot recall one occasion when I have received a deputation, phone call or letter from a constituent who has complained that his or her religious freedom is not total. I have never seen any indication in the press that religious freedom is being usurped in Australia. Australia truly must be the most tolerant country in the world.

  However, this assurance has done little to allay the fears of many Australians, who are extremely concerned about what they see as the state further legislating on their religious practices. We have heard that the mainstream churches were not involved by Senator Gareth Evans. I have a list of some people who I believe represent the mainstream churches. The Charismatic Church has a membership well in excess of 150,000 people in Australia. It would have to be considered one of the mainstream churches.

  Others include the Assemblies of God in Australia; the Presbyterian Church, which is a traditional church; the Christian City Church in New South Wales; the Presbyterian Church of Queensland General Assembly; the Baptist Women's Union of the South-West Pacific; the Baptist Church of Western Australia; the Free Reformed Church of Armidale; the Bedford Gospel Chapel; the Anglican Men's Society; and the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Sir Frank Little. They all oppose the declaration. Others include the Seventh Day Adventists; Full Gospel Churches of Australia; and the Christian Women's Communicating International. They are mainstream churches. They cannot be pushed aside as some collection of offbeat people. They represent probably 60 or 70 per cent of the churchgoing community in Australia.

  There has been widespread confusion and anxiety in the community as people struggle to grasp the intention of the declaration and the likely effects of its incorporation into law. The level of community concern has been strong. I do not have to remind people here of that. I have received more letters over this than any other piece of legislation or United Nations declaration that has been dealt with. Some of those letters are form letters, but some are well constructed and well argued letters. I will quote some of them later in my contribution.

  No-one rang me or asked me to allow this declaration to go through. All my colleagues on all sides of the chamber, including the Democrats, were deluged by a string of letters and phone calls from people proposing the opposite.

  The coalition has received hundreds of letters on the issue. The declaration on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief has a long, convoluted history. It started out as a resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations when it was first put forward in 1962. It was finally adopted by the United Nations on 25 November 1981.

  It took more than 19 years of discussion, negotiation and compromise for this resolution to be passed by the United Nations. Yet we and the Australian people are supposed to accept it into Australian law after only about six months, six short months in which no explanation has been advanced by the government to demonstrate why we need this United Nations's declaration to become law. There has been absolutely no attempt by the government to allay the genuine fears of many people in the community about the very real prospect of the greater intrusion by the state into their religious lives.

  I am opposed to this declaration for several reasons. I do not believe that we, as legislators who are elected by vote, should pass our responsibilities away to an unelected group of people that have their head office in Geneva. I do not know who are the 18 people on the United Nations court. I do not know what countries they come from. But one thing I am sure of is that any of those countries that those people represent around the world would not have the traditional freedoms that we have in Australia.

  I do not believe the Australian people want or need this United Nations declaration foisted upon them as law. Our religious freedoms are already guaranteed through section 116 of the constitution, as well as through the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act which gives force to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As a party to this international instrument, Australia must comply with its provision to safeguard the fundamental human rights and freedoms of thought, conscience and religion. We do all that.

  With these religious freedoms guaranteed by the act, and upheld by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission—and there is section 116 of the constitution—why then do we need a declaration citing religious freedoms that we already possess? The last thing Australia needs is more law, particularly so when it is unnecessary, poorly drafted and unclear in meaning in several critical sections. The declaration is a weakly constructed document and open to interpretation and conjecture in several parts.

  Who interprets that? Is it the 18 unelected people in Geneva in the United Nations court or is it the High Court of Australia? Why do we need it? I am uneasy with the imprecise wording and ambiguous meaning found in several articles in the declaration.

  The main principles of the declaration is contained in eight articles. For purposes of shortness, I will address only those which have caused me the most concern. The most ambiguous section of the declaration is that which is related to religious discrimination. Article 2 prohibits discrimination by any state, institution, group or person on the grounds of religion or other belief.

  It is in the definition given for the term intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief in the second paragraph of article 2 where the concern lies. The declaration defines intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief to mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on religion or belief. Concern has been raised over the use of the word `preference' in this concept. Fears have grown that this could be taken to mean that independent church schools would not be permitted to specify the religious orientation of their staffs.

  It is all right for Senator Spindler to get up and give us an assurance that this will not happen, but it will not be this parliament that will be interpreting whether there is a breach. It will not be this legislature that will make a decision. It will be the members of the High Court who are unelected, or it will be the other court where, at the moment, we are represented by one member out of 18.

  It is a fundamental right that parents should be free to choose how their children are educated, and the sort of people who are entrusted with the education, guidance and pastoral care of their children. Discrimination in employment on the basis of religion would therefore seem to breach this section of the declaration. While there is an exception provided in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Act for discrimination on the basis of religion, by religious education institutions, in order to uphold the religious teachings of the institutions, the government has done nothing to allay community anxiety that the autonomy of independent church schools may be under threat.

  Other questions in relation to this section have been raised; such as, would fundamentalist Muslim employers be compelled to employ non-Muslim female workers who might dress in a manner, through display of bare arms or legs, that they would find offensive? Or would an orthodox Jewish restaurateur be forced to hire someone who would not be prepared to observe the kosher rituals in the kitchen? Or would Christian bookshops be required to employ homosexuals who flaunt their lifestyle choice?

  I see that Senator Bolkus has a smile on his face. He may well smile but these are genuine concerns that have been raised by people who have studied this act. Senator Bolkus may not agree with their observations, but I am sure he would agree that they have the right to raise these issues with their federal representatives.

  They are valid concerns arising from the inherent vagueness in the wording of the document which certainly leaves itself open to all sorts of interpretations. Article 5 of the declaration deals with the rights of both parents and children. This has also raised considerable confusion and uncertainty in the community. In this section, parents, as the legal guardians of their children, are given the right to organise their family life in accordance with their religious beliefs.

  Paragraph 5 of article 5 is of particular concern. It states that practice of a religion or belief in which a child is brought up must not be injurious to his physical or mental health or to his full development. Does this mean that religious instruction could be curtailed?

  There are many pieces of legislation that go through this place—I have seen it myself—that end up with unintended consequences. In fact, the unintended consequence clause has now become part of the Australian vernacular. We set out with the best intentions in the world to do what is right by the people and find that the legislation that we pass is interpreted in totally the wrong way and we end up doing more harm than good. I think this could be a case in point.

  Do we really want the Human Rights Commission to be given even more power in the area of overseeing religious freedom than what is already included in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, under sections 11 and 31 of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Act? Already the Human Rights Commission is empowered to intervene in legal proceedings involving human rights, and to require individuals to give evidence and furnish information and documents at these human rights inquiries.

  Gradually our freedoms are being restricted. We start off with equal opportunities and we find that other people are being discriminated against. It is not intended, but it is a result. We can all quote cases of that.

  Do we want the authority of the Human Rights Commission extended further, for the commissioner to become the arbitrator and put his interpretation on our value judgments? At what point do teachings become injurious to a child's physical or mental health or to its full development? If there are occasions that that does happen, and I would conceive that there are, then there are state laws that can be invoked that remove the child from the injurious situation. We have those laws now.

  Would the teachings of fundamentalist Christianity be considered injurious, or Catholicism as viewed by Protestants, or Judaism by Muslims? The point is that this would call for an extremely subjective decision to be brought down. Do we want the Human Rights Commissioner further empowered to make such a decision? Members of the constituency which elects me clearly do not, and they give me this message continually through the branch meetings and the community groups that we represent.

  I do not believe that this unwanted United Nations declaration should be foisted upon the Australian people. Too many people are suffering grave fears that legislation may be placed on their religious practices. Senator Bolkus will probably tell me that their fears are unfounded, but why do we have to go down this path and frighten people? There is no need for it. Can the minister tell me that Australia does not have the best religious freedoms in the world?


Senator Knowles —If there is a problem, why don't they amend the act?


Senator BOSWELL —As the senator from Western Australia quite rightly says, if there is a problem, bring it before us in legislation, prove to us that there is a problem and we will support it; but do not just grab a United Nations declaration as it goes past and say, `This is a great idea. We'll have a slice of this'. That is what the government is doing. It has not put any thought into this at all.

  It may not be the intention of the declaration, but the inconsistencies and ambiguities inherent within it make it possible that at some stage down the track it could be applied in ways that could have the effect of limiting religious freedom. We put this question to the people in 1988; we campaigned on it. One question in the 1988 referendum was this same question: `Do you want religious freedoms incorporated in the constitution?' The people responded with a resounding no vote on the freedom of religion question in the referendum.

   It was spelt out very clearly that an article in the United States constitution says that religious freedom is absolutely fundamental in the United States, but it has been interpreted by the United States high courts as an offence to have a nativity scene because it may offend the Jewish people or Muslim people. People cannot pray in schools because praying to Jesus will offend the Jewish people or praying to another God will offend another religion. Religion has been restricted in the United States.

  People in Australia clearly said to the government, `We don't want this. We are very happy with the religious freedoms that we have at the moment'. The government cannot then go out and act totally in contradiction of a referendum that it put to the people when the people clearly said to this government and to this parliament, `Our religious freedoms are in order in Australia, and we are very happy with them'.

  Australia is one of the most tolerant, open and politically stable nations in the world. Our religious freedoms are already provided and upheld. We do not need to be burdened with any more legislation or United Nations conventions. We do not want any government interference in our religious lives. We certainly do not want any United Nations declarations, riddled with inconsistencies and ambiguities, grafted onto Australian law that we in the parliament have no input into. We are totally without any input into these United Nations conventions.

  There is a growing awareness and fear out there in the community which is reflected in the number of letters that we have received. It is a genuine fear that people are being removed from their parliamentary institution. I think that fear is now becoming real. It has a base which is gaining more acceptance with every United Nations convention that we are unnecessarily signing, although there are some that we do have to sign. I can see no need for it. The majority of people will not support this United Nations convention. I am very pleased to support Senator Vanstone and the rest of my Liberal and National Party colleagues in voting for this disallowance motion.