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Tuesday, 28 September 1993
Page: 1301

Senator O'CHEE (6.18 p.m.) —This debate is about freedom. It is about how freedom is established and how freedom is best protected. Those of us in the National and Liberal parties are here today because we seek the disallowance of this instrument. We do not believe that it is necessary to assist in the protection of religious freedom; nor do we believe that the underlying philosophy that the government relies on is satisfactory as a means of ensuring tolerance and good relations between different groups of our society. The whole issue is as simple as that.

  This issue is not about putting up straw men or finding a book and then deriding it and saying that that is the basis of the case. It is not about claiming that people have bullied religious groups. It is not even about counting religious groups. It is much more fundamental than that. It is about how we ensure freedom. Those on the other side of the chamber fall into what is called the positivist camp. They believe that it is possible in this world to create a set of rules and derive everything from those rules. It follows that they say that everything must be legislated for.

  Those of us on this side of the chamber differ because we base our philosophy very much on natural law. The fundamental principle, which Senators Panizza, Ian Macdonald, Ferguson, Watson or myself would all agree with, is that everybody should be free, except when that freedom infringes somebody else's freedom. That is the way one has a harmonious society. In a family one does not have to write down all the rules and say, `So and so shall be allowed to do this and so and so shall not be allowed to do that'. One says, `You have as much freedom as you want, provided that you do not infringe other people's freedom'. That precept requires people in the course of their actions to think about how what they do might affect other people.

  If one takes the view that the government takes and says, `Everything must be legislated', what one is really saying is that an individual's only protection is a bit of paper which, Mr Acting Deputy President, as you well know, can be ripped up as I am ripping up this piece of paper now. So much for that protection. But when one builds a society that is based on mutual respect, the protections run much more deeply. It is totally ridiculous for anybody to say that we do not in our body of law in this country at this moment have protection for people's religious beliefs. Of course we do. It is well recognised. There have been many cases in many places many times.

  It is not as though the proposal that the government brings before the chamber is one that will add to the law. Is it that this proposal will make the legal system function more efficiently? That too is not the case because the body which will be charged with the oversight of these matters is the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission. This is not a judicial body; it does not follow the rules of court that one might find in the Federal Court or the Supreme Court of Queensland or in any of the equivalent courts in other states. It is a body that is not obliged to follow the usual rules of evidence. It is a statutory body, not a judicial body.

  What concerns me and those of us on this side of the chamber is that increasingly in this country we seem to be giving to statutory bodies and public office holders the right to hear matters which should be more appropriately heard in courts of law. It is strange that we have in this constitution of ours a prohibition on the establishment of religion. The government says, `We have a proposal that is going to enlarge religious freedom', but the interesting thing is that it gives the power to decide to Commonwealth officers. When one has government deciding on religion one really does have grounds for concern and fear.

  I come to this debate with a particular viewpoint. In many respects, Mr Acting Deputy President, I share your religious starting point—just one—of the Roman Catholic Church.

Senator Panizza —And a pretty good one too.

Senator O'CHEE —And a good one too. I know that Senator Panizza is very proud of that as well. But I also come with another view point, which is the other side of my family which has more than a flirtation with Taoism. The question is: are minority religions better protected through the positivist viewpoint or are they better projected through natural law? My unswerving belief is that they are better protected through natural law because at the end of the day they are always dependent under the positivist viewpoint on government. They are always dependent on what the government will let them have. Therefore, they are always dependent upon the goodwill of the government not to take away what they have been given.

  In a truly free society it should not be necessary to agree to these declarations, to make these pronouncements, but to rely instead on the equality of men and women before the law as the basis for religious freedom.

Senator Schacht —Who writes the law?

Senator O'CHEE —I missed that interjection, senator.

Senator Schacht —I said, who writes the law?

Senator O'CHEE —Senator Schacht, it worries me who writes the law because you write the law. Senator Schacht has shown himself in this chamber time and time again to be very interested in prescribing the rights of various groups of people and limiting the rights of the Australian population. Do not forget that this government, which comes before us tonight and says, `We are going to champion the cause of religious freedom', was also the government that came before this Senate during the last three years and said, `We are going to protect free speech by banning it'. That is its idea of freedom and protecting the rights of the individual.

  Yes, I do worry about who writes the law because it is written by people like Senator Schacht. But what Senator Schacht does not understand—and this is the important point—is that when one has a natural law basis for one's freedoms one does not rely on people like Senator Schacht and the Labor Party to write the law. One relies on the essential equality of men and women for those freedoms and rights. I believe very firmly that the position that the National and Liberal parties have arrived at is absolutely correct. As a representative of our ethnic community, I feel that I would be doing those people a grave disservice if I voted in any other way than the way which has been indicated tonight.