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Tuesday, 28 September 1993
Page: 1297


Senator KNOWLES (5.56 p.m.) —I rise to speak very briefly on this disallowance motion to refute some of the things that Senator Chris Evans said earlier about my role in seeking some consultation on this particular issue. Senator Chris Evans said that I had gone along to the Conference of Churches in Perth and told it about all the shortcomings in this whole declaration and had encouraged people there to oppose it. Senator Chris Evans is pretty new in this place but I did not think that he would misrepresent the truth in the way in which he has done today.

  I want to make it quite crystal clear that my role in this whole exercise was to initiate the consultation that this mob on the other side of the chamber refused to do. It is as simple as that. To demonstrate that, I would like to read to the Senate the letter that I sent to all churches around Australia seeking their response:

  I write to you to canvass your viewpoint on a recent declaration made by the former Attorney-General, Mr Michael Duffy, on the 8th February 1993.

  Attached is a copy of the U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief, and the declaration under the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986, signed by the former Attorney-General and tabled in both houses of Parliament on the 4th May 1993.

  While the overall objective of the declaration, in ensuring that there is no intolerance on the grounds of religion or belief, is wholeheartedly supported by the Federal Coalition, there are, however, grounds for questioning the Attorney General's declaration of it after the recent Federal election was called.

  The Liberal and National Parties always strive for the appropriate balance between human rights and responsibilities especially in areas of such significance. The Coalition believes that to maintain this balance we need to be ever vigilant in this regard. We therefore would appreciate your careful consideration of the Government's declaration.

  The reason why the Federal Coalition has moved a motion, in both Houses of Parliament during the recent Autumn sittings, to disallow the former Attorney-General's declaration, is that it allows respective religious and community groups time to express to their Liberal and National Party Senators and Members their opinions on such an important issue.

  Like so many declarations, they are signed without any public debate. We intend to provide that opportunity.

  Despite some uncertainty in its terms there is much to applaud in the codifying of religious freedoms and rights. However the terms of the declaration are very general and in parts vague and the scope of some terms is uncertain.

  The Federal Coalition is seeking the input of as many religious organisations as possible. We are keen to receive your response and would respectfully request that it be kept as concise as possible and forwarded to the above address . . .

That is the letter that was sent. Senator Chris Evans comes in here today and says that I went around bullying people into opposing it. Let me now tell the Senate about some of the responses that honourable senators and members on our side have received.

  Here are the numbers. A random survey of some of the senators and members of the coalition showed that there were approximately 2,000 negative responses to the declaration. How many were in favour? Two. Yet this mob of senators opposite say that they know everything, that they know what is best for society—not us, not the parliament and most certainly not the people out there who want to have a say.


Senator O'Chee —Heaven forbid!


Senator KNOWLES —Heaven forbid letting them have a say. This is exactly what we sought to do over the parliamentary winter recess: give people a say.

  Senator Chris Evans was also a bit damning about some of the churches, who had the temerity to say that they did not agree with it. I suppose that elements of the Catholic Church would be pleased to know that he thinks they are wrong, so would the Assemblies of God, so would the Presbyterian Church, so would the Christian City Church of New South Wales, and the Presbyterian Church of Queensland, and the Baptist Women's Union of the South-West Pacific, and the Baptist churches of Western Australia, and the Bedford Gospel Chapel, and the Free Reform Church of Armadale, and the Anglican Men's Society, and the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne—he would be exceptionally delighted to know that Chris Evans thinks he is wrong—and the Church Missionary Society of Australia and the list goes on. They all think it is wrong. Admittedly, there are some who think it is right, but the list is nowhere near as long. In fact, I have seven who are in favour of it. I have told the Senate the number of community letters received against it.

  As far as the actual allegation that I had obviously gone in to beat the members of the Conference of Churches of Western Australia over the head to pummel them into submission and into saying that they did not want this declaration, I have to say that the meeting that I attended at their request was a very cordial meeting and we canvassed both sides—for and against. The members of the conference simply wanted the pros and cons. I made it crystal clear to them prior to the meeting, at the meeting and in subsequent conversations and correspondence, that I was in no way seeking to influence them one way or the other. All we wanted was their response and their consideration of the declaration. They were appreciative of that and they then went away and considered their course of action.

  The course of action that they ultimately took, which is their right, was not to oppose the declaration. That in no way means that they were subjected to any pressure from me, or I from them. They were completely and utterly open in the way in which they handled the whole conversation and the whole meeting, and so was I. For Senator Chris Evans to come in here and start putting some other shadow over the meeting is absolutely and utterly absurd and it is rude to those people concerned. I can come in here and defend myself, those other people cannot, but that is the way the Labor Party operates.

  There are many concerns and I do not wish to go over those concerns which have been so eloquently put by my colleagues before me. I think there is adequate evidence coming from members of the community that, for once, the Labor Party should start to listen to them on such an important issue. They do have concerns.

  Members of the Labor Party refused to listen to the community concerns about the Australia Card; they refused to listen to community concerns about a bill of rights; they just tend to think that what the public and the constituents of Australia believe is not important until such a time as they can go to an election and lie their way back into government.

  That is what I find quite despicable. Here we have another example from Senator Chris Evans, who comes in here and says that something took place that did not. I find that quite objectionable on behalf of those who attended that meeting, who were there in all their sincerity to hear both sides of the story. If there is someone who did attend the meeting who had a contrary viewpoint, I would be more than happy to talk to that person about it because there is no way that the tone of my letter or the tone of that meeting was anything other than seeking their input, and doing something that the Labor Party had deliberately chosen not to do.