Boycott Gloria, but put the pressure on Julia

June 12, 2012

There’s a lot of noise going around the web about Gloria Jeans, the coffee franchise that recently donated $30,000 to the notoriously homophobic Australian Christian Lobby. Remember the ACL? Sure you do. They’re the ones who think that teaching kids not to bully their gay peers is part of the ‘homosexual agenda’. The ones that Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu happily pandered to when he used his party’s majority to completely subvert the democratic legislative process – because the ACL said it was attacking ‘freedom’ to update Equal Opportunity laws. They’re a vocal minority that claims to speak for all Christians, pushing their bigotry, intolerance and outright hatred while crying foul and hugging their martyr’s crowns when any dares to point out their utter hypocrisy.

And they’re the ones our major political parties have given special treatment time and time again. Whether they’re taking meetings with representatives or providing answers to election quizzes, both Labor and the Liberal/National parties allow the ACL an extraordinary level of access. For a secular state, there’s a truly disproportionate level of influence going on there.

But back to Gloria Jeans, now the subject of any number of blogs, newspaper articles and social media calls for boycotts. (A particularly good blog on the current subject comes from That’s My Philosophy, who do a marvellous job of shredding GJ’s claims to be entirely unaffiliated with religious groups.)

GJs has long been associated with Hillsong, a Sydney megachurch that’s come in for its fair share of scrutiny (not least because of some of its more famous visitors, including former Treasurer Peter Costello and former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer). In fact, one of Hillsong’s elders, Nabi Saleh, founded the coffee chain, owned a controlling interest and sat on its board. Saleh’s bio is pretty darned interesting. He looks like your average coffee mogul at first glance, until you look closely at the names of his businesses – Petra and Maranatha, both words closely associated with Pentecostal and Dominionist Christianity. Then there’s his directorships of some of the biggest megachurches around, including Kenneth Copeland Ministries.

Oh, and there are more than a few GJs franchisees who are members of Hillsong. Not really surprising, then, that GJs should be donating money to the ACL. And that’s their choice – it’s not up to us to tell a business they can’t support a cause in which they believe. Of course, they also have to be prepared to cop the flak from people who take offence at their choice of beneficiary.

But wait.

This is by no means the first time GJs has ended up in the spotlight, with people calling for a boycott. They’ve got form.

Back in 2007, I reported on another cause to which GJs was donating money – and providing collection boxes on their counters so that others could help contribute a little more. This time, the cause was a ‘counselling centre’ for women – specifically, women as young as 16.

In reality, that counselling centre was Mercy Ministries, and those brochures were whitewashed lies. Girls who were unlucky enough to fall into MM’s program reported emotional, financial, religious and physical abuse at the hands of their ‘counsellors’. Women suffering from mental illness were subjected to exorcism to expel ‘demons’. They were required to sign over their Centrelink benefits for up to a year, their lives utterly controlled – and if they were pregnant, it was so much worse.

Put yourself in the shoes of one of these girls – the daily meetings with the counsellors who told you your only choice was to ‘face your sin’ and have the baby, the Bible studies focused on promiscuity and the sin of murder, the ‘accountability counsellor’ who would make sure you were ‘doing the right thing’ – all in an environment that you can’t leave except to go to church once a week.

And that church? Yep, you guessed it – Hillsong.

The Sydney branch of Mercy Ministries finally closed in 2009 – almost two years after the original stories started to surface, and women came forward to speak of their experiences. By that time, GJs and Hillsong, no doubt seeing the proverbial writing on the wall, had cut them loose – but until then, they were in lockstep with this abusive organisation masquerading as ‘counselling’.

So, we’re not talking about a simple case of a coffee business making a donation. This is a business with a history of supporting groups that are not only religiously bigoted, but outright deceptive and abusive. Gloria Jeans actively solicited money from the public to further Mercy Ministries’ vicious tactics, and allowed false information to be distributed from their counters. They collaborated in keeping the truth from would-be donors.

At least, in giving money to the Australian Christian Lobby, they’re being honest. Or are they? After the initial outcry, it seems that GJs is not all that comfortable with being associated with the recipient of their generosity, after all – or the church that founded them, and which so many of their franchisees and employees attend. Curious, that.

The ACL seem happy to accept money from an organisation that helped fund a program so destructive to women as to seem almost designed that way. Now they’re receiving money from that same business to prop up their own deceptive campaign against marriage equality. Really, is any of this surprising to anyone?

Actually, there is one thing – that the government has any time for these kinds of tactics at all – although, perhaps that’s not so much surprising as worthy of a cynical sigh of despair.

You want to boycott Gloria Jean’s? Go ahead. Put your money where your convictions are – in fact, I highly recommend doing that no matter what you believe.

Just be honest about it. Don’t hide behind a professional title, or a slick brochure, or weasel words about ‘freedom’ and ‘fairness’, if what you’re really after is the right to determine other people’s lives.

Oh, and don’t forget who the real targets are while you’re buying your coffee from somewhere else – the Federal and State governments who overlook deception and pander to hatred because they think there might be a few thousand votes in it. They’re the ones who should be in focus – not the poor bastards who make a lousy wage frothing milk and making sure your soy chai latte grande is exactly how you ordered it.

We’re looking at you, Prime Minister.

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Marriage equality bills to hit Parliament today

February 13, 2012

Today ALP backbencher Stephen Jones will introduce a bill into the House of Representatives calling for marriage equality. Greens MP Adam Bandt and Independent Andrew Wilkie will introduce a similar co-sponsored bill, containing a specific provision that will exempt religious ministers from solemnising marriages between a same-sex couple.

I’d like to be optimistic, even enthusiastic, about this. But I’m afraid I really, really can’t.

Because unless Opposition Leader Tony Abbott loosens his stranglehold on the Coalition’s consciences, the bills will fail.

We’ve already seen what happens when Bandt or Wilkie tries to introduce ‘controversial’ legislation. The major parties fall into lockstep against them. Granted, the ALP passed the resolution at its last conference to make marriage equality a matter of conscience, so perhaps there might be a few more bums on seats sitting with the two minority MPs this time around. But there are enough Labor members determinedly opposed to same-sex marriage to ensure the bills suffer a resounding defeat.

Jones’ bill may fare more kindly. After all, he’s a Labor man, and even those who won’t support Bandt and Wilkie on principle might vote for one of their own. Again, though, the bill runs up against the Coalition’s refusal to allow its members a conscience vote.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has already signalled her intention to introduce a marriage equality bill later in the year. This is as clear a signal as she could send that she expects today’s bills to fail – and probably her own as well. At this point, the strategy appears to be one of simply flooding the Parliament with similar bills in the hope that it will wear down MPs’ resolve – and that in the end, they might vote for it just to get the issue out of the way.

That this strategy should even have to be considered, let alone employed, is shameful. It’s a matter of civil rights – human rights – that are denied to Australian citizens. Worse, it’s a matter of a privileged majority not wanting to have that privilege ‘sullied’ by having to share it.

Now, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the numbers will be there. Maybe some Coalition members will defy Abbott’s decree and cross the floor to support marriage equality – or at least inform him privately that they intend to do so, at which point I predict a swift reversal of the ‘no conscience vote’ stance. Maybe the rest of the ALP will realise that clinging to privilege and discrimination flies in the face of everything that party supposedly stands for, and support a bill.

It’s possible.

It’s also possible politicians will stop lying in Parliament, abandon mindless party loyalty in favour of the good of the people, and remember that they are our servants, not our masters.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Tell her she’s dreaming.


Census Night and that pesky religion question

August 9, 2011

Tonight is Census Night. I’ve been to more than a few census dinner parties in my time, all of which were a good excuse for hanging out with friends and sitting on the floor after dessert with a wheel of brie and some crackers. One of us would be the designated census-taker, and the rest would call out responses to the various questions.

Recently, though, the Census has become something of a battleground. It entirely revolves around Question 19 – Religion. Interested parties make vehement pleas for us all to write a particular result. This year, that militant rhetoric erupted into outright conflict.

There are two major campaigns: a plea to mark your religion as ‘Christian’ in order to prevent the government building mosques in your neighbourhood; and a plea to mark ‘no religion’ in order to prevent the government privileging the religious over the non-religious.

(That’s by no means a comprehensive list. For example, the ‘Pagan Dash’ campaign is aimed at having ‘Pagan’ included as a category of its own rather than being filed under ‘Nature Religions’.)

Now, the religion question is flawed. Horribly so. For a start, if you practise a religion with very few known adherents in Australia, you’re confined to the ‘Other’ category. The wording of the question also suggests being a member of a religion is the default, or ‘normal’ state of affairs. Finally, if you enter your particular sect in the ‘Other’ category (say, Theravada), it doesn’t count towards the total ‘Buddhist’ number.

All in all, it could do with a serious overhaul, if only to make it more representative of the likely diversity of responses. But let’s examine the assumptions behind these two campaigns.

First the ‘Christian’ campaign. This is scare-mongering, pure and simple – ‘tick Christian or the Muslims will take over!’ And like most scare-mongering, it’s utterly without foundation. The government isn’t about to start building mosques willy-nilly based on census numbers (and wildly inflated ones at that: only around 340,000 people identified as Muslim on the 2006 census, and 2 million rather than 10 million marked ‘no religion’). In fact, the government isn’t about to start building mosques at all – any more than they’d build a church. Why? Because the government doesn’t provide religious infrastructure. That’s the job of private organisations.

It tries to panic people into providing a false response, and sweeps away any concerns that this may not be a true result. Even if you’re not Christian, you’d be doing the right thing by marking your ‘upbringing faith’ (and note the assumption that you were probably raised a Christian. Never mind that it is an offence to knowingly lie on the Census. The cause is too important to worry about such things.

Then there’s the ‘no religion’ campaign. This one starts with a false claim: that governments use census results to privilege the religious, at the expense of those who do not subscribe to a religious belief system. On the face of it, this looks like a strong argument: we have chaplaincies in our public, supposedly secular schools, and government funds are allocated for religious instruction (which is in reality little more than recruitment and indoctrination). But is this really because of the census?

Or is it a cultural blind spot based on the idea that Australia is a white, Anglo, Christian country – always was, always will be?

Never mind the wealth of religious tradition amongst indigenous peoples. Never mind the immigrant workers, especially the Chinese, who brought Buddhism, Taoism and ancestor worship with them. For that matter, never mind the atheists who eloquently defended their right to non-belief in English writings of the period. Early Australia suffered from ‘dominant culture’ blindness and that still hasn’t gone away.

If this were really about the census numbers, then the religion question would likely be compulsory, instead of the sole optional one.

If this were really about the census numbers, the government would be tripped up by a few basic statistics. Even a quick perusal of census results shows a steady decline in Christian religions – dropping almost 30% since Federation – and an increase of almost 600% in those who select ‘no religion’. Hardly a case of the government relying on numbers to justify their programs.

And again – the government doesn’t build religious infrastructure. City planners might look at census results to decide whether a proposed church is warranted in a given area, but they don’t pay for it.

What’s important to remember is that the census is a tool, and like all tools it can be wielded both well and inappropriately.

Census data on religion contributed to the abolition of archaic anti-witchcraft laws in Victoria. Those who identify as witches and pagans may now safely practise their religion without risking prosecution for vagrancy or fraud.

The proliferation of new religious movements (so-called ‘minority religions’) has brought about a serious blow-out in the ‘Other’ category. Although this is broken down into broad groupings in detailed results, strong arguments are now being made for rephrasing the question to be more representative of Australia as it is today.

For that matter, census data such as that quoted above forms part of the current argument against the near-total monopoly of certain Christian groups over school chaplaincies.

And then there’s the Australian Christian Lobby. They claim the right to speak on behalf of every person who nominated some form of Christianity on their census form. But the census isn’t what drives the ACL – it’s simply a way for them to represent themselves as more important than they really are.

The data is valuable. There’s no other way to provide such a comprehensive picture of religious belief and atheism in this country. And if we answer the question honestly, it’s a true picture.

With that data we can mount counter-arguments to the ACL and similar groups. We can demonstrate the diversity of Australian life. We can thoroughly shred the racist claims of those who see the spectre of sharia law lurking around every corner.

It’s in everyone’s best interest to answer the question without trying to frame our responses to serve an agenda. We don’t need to bring up accusations of ‘privilege’ or exaggerated fears of ‘a mosque in every neighbourhood’ (and I’m still not sure why people who think that was a bad thing, in any case). We should focus on the positive aspects and simply encourage everyone to answer honestly.

And if you truly don’t like even the idea of the question, or want to be completely private? Leave the question blank.

Nothing bad will happen. I promise.


Gillard and the Bible – it’s all about the votes

March 22, 2011

By now, no one should be surprised to hear that the Labor government is firmly opposed to same-sex marriage. With the exception of a few outspoken mavericks, the message is pretty solid: no change to the Marriage Act. Add to that the fact that the Coalition have managed to gain traction – at least in some areas – with their accusation that the Greens are ‘really’ in power, and it was probably inevitable that the government would try to present itself as a distinct entity, policy-wise.

That’s exactly what Prime Minister Julia Gillard appeared to be trying to do on Sky News’ Australian Agenda last week. The result, however, was a series of incredible statements that delighted the Coalition as much as it enraged many Labor supporters and social progressives.

Gillard labelled herself a ‘cultural traditionalist’ – which is nothing less than a synonym for ‘social conservative’. Fair enough. There are plenty of social conservatives out there, looking to the past to provide guidance on how to live today. Many of them even acknowledge the fact that they need to set their personal beliefs aside when it comes to social issues. Not Gillard. Her loyalty to her ‘old-fashioned’ upbringing leads her to oppose same-sex marriage – even though the Marriage Act never contained an exclusively heterosexual provision until former Prime Minister Howard shoe-horned one into it.

Gillard’s newly-declared social conservatism is pretty selective, mind you. She’s staunchly pro-choice when it comes to abortion, a vocal supporter of women’s representation in the workplace and the rights of indigenous people to full participation in society. On the issue of same-sex marriage, however, she’s adamant.

But it was what followed this ‘cultural traditionalist’ re-badging that had jaws hitting the floor. Gillard – the avowed atheist Prime Minister – lauded the Christian Bible as a positive, foundational influence on ‘our’ culture. It is so important, apparently, that it is ‘impossible to understand Western literature’ – and, by extension, Western law and culture – without it. Not that she’s advocating religion, oh no – but coming on the heels of her avowed ‘cultural’ opposition to same-sex marriage, it’s not difficult to connect the dots.

Gillard talked about the necessity of understanding Bible stories. Which stories might those be? The story of how a man who threw out his concubine and their son into the desert because his wife was jealous? The story of how that same man was prepared to kill his remaining son to show his faith in God? How about the story of how a woman secured victory for the Israelites by first seducing, then murdering an enemy war leader?

The suspicion has to be, though, that Gillard – who’d just finished voicing her belief that heterosexual marriage had a ‘special status’ – had Sodom and Gomorrah in mind. You know, the story of the evil cities, destroyed by God because they were places where men had sex with other men?

But hold up a moment. Let’s take up Gillard’s recommendation, and really look at the story, which can be found in Genesis. There’s no indication as to why God wants to destroy the cities – just that there is an ‘outcry’ against them. The one instance where male-male sex is even mentioned is in a sequence where a group of men threaten to gang-rape two angels – and this happens after the descruction is decreed. And just incidentally, the sole ‘righteous man’ in the city tries to protect the angels by offering his daughters up as substitute rape victims. Not exactly the story most people tell, is it?

Gillard’s right – you can learn important things by reading Bible stories. In this case, you can learn that a story long used to deny same-sex attracted men equality is actually completely different.

Maybe Gillard was thinking of Leviticus, where there are a whole slew of laws set down for the ancient Israelite people – including prohibitions against male-male sex, punishable by exile. That’s fairly clear – but then why doesn’t Gillard have a problem with men who engage in sex with menstruating women? Or recommend that a man who curses his parents be executed?

Oh, maybe she’s just thinking of Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he warns that those who engage in same-sex intercourse are evil and will suffer God’s wrath. But then she doesn’t seem equally concerned with gossips (read: leakers), who will apparently suffer the same fate.

All of which is a revolting display of cherry-picking, but ultimately, means nothing.

Why?

Because we are not a theocracy.

We are a secular nation. We have specific Constitutional prohibitions against any form of mandated religion. And make no mistake – for all Gillard’s claims that what she’s talking about is ‘cultural’, the reality is that she appeals to a religious text to justify her actions as Prime Minister in denying equal rights to same-sex attracted people.

Gillard is simply trying to hide behind a smokescreen, here. It’s not ‘religious’, it’s ‘cultural’. It’s not about exalting one religion’s doctrine, it’s about staying true to an ‘important part of our culture’. Classic spin – reframe the issue, change the language, and obscure the truth.

And it’s a fair bet that the truth, in this situation, is that Gillard is dogwhistling to the Australian Christian Lobby and similarly vocal conservative Christians.

It wouldn’t be the first time, after all. Despite Gillard’s protestations that she would treat people of all faiths equally, it’s very clear that the only faith she has any time for is that espoused by the most socially regressive lobby group in Australia. And why? Because it’s vocal. Because it consistently pushes the lie that it is representative of all Christians, who – when all sects are lumped together – remains the single largest represented religious group on the Australian census. In other words, it’s about buying votes.

This is hypocrisy on a grand scale.

It is absolutely nonsensical. There are no dire economic consequences foreseeable by removing discrimination against same-sex couples – in fact, a University of Queensland study suggests an economic boost from marriage licence fees and wedding costs. There are no dire social consequences foreseeable – the old myth that ‘kids need a mum and dad or else they’ll grow up to be juvenile delinquents or worse – homosexual‘ has been well and truly debunked. No one is seriously suggesting Australian society will shatter into tiny pieces because ‘Heather has Two Mommies’.

Labor’s oft-stated opposition to same-sex marriage always rang hollow. ‘We don’t want it because, um, it’s traditionally between a man and woman, and besides, the Marriage Act says so’. They hung their argument on legislation, and recently-amended legislation at that. Now, perhaps, we see what’s really at work.

Whether Gillard’s new justification is political expedience or an admission that conservative religious beliefs influence her far more than her atheism might suggest is irrelevant.

What’s relevant is that Gillard gave legitimacy to prejudice, and enshrined it in an appeal to a mythical Golden Age.

Maybe that will get her the votes she needs to govern in her own right at the next election. But those votes come at the expense of the hopes and dreams of Australians. In granting authority to a bigoted minority, Gillard has coldly dismissed the fact that she is condoning prejudice and perpetuating victimisation.

And who are those victims? They’re the people next door. They’re the people we work with, and socialise with every day. They’re the people who service our cars, fix our computers, stack our supermarket shelves and teach our children. They’re same-sex attracted people who simply want to enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals. They want to get married. As long as they are denied that right, the message is clear: they do not have ‘special status’. They are not ‘real’ couples. Their love is not worthy of recognition by the State. All in the name of votes.

And for that, Prime Minister Gillard, you should hang your head in shame.


Anti-Greens ratf*ckers come out for Mardi Gras

March 6, 2011

Last night was the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. This year, 135 floats made their way through Sydney street, celebrating queerness in all its wonderful and outrageous manifestations. Highlights of the night for me were: the giant sequined whale from Taronga Zoo (because queer penguins need love too, apparently); the ’78ers (those amazing people who started out marching in protest and founded a tradition that has become part of Sydney life); the Rainbow Babies (celebrating the New South Wales Parliament finally passing laws to allow same-sex adoption); and a couple of mystery guests.

A surprise appearance from our fearless leader and her Opposition counterpart - or their stand-ins, at least.

It was a night for making statements, the strongest of which forcefully made the case for marriage equality. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who has repeatedly introduced bills calling for the Marriage Act to be amended to allow same-sex couples to marry, marched in the thick of the throng. Given such an atmosphere, it was probably inevitable that some slightly less positive sentiments would make an appearance.

So was anyone really surprised to see a slew of badly-printed anti-Greens posters suddenly appearing taped to telephone poles around Oxford Street? The Conscience Vote’s ‘fabulous informant’ snapped some pictures:

LOOK OVER HERE!

First, the scream sheet, following a time-honoured tabloid tradition. “DO THE NSW GREENS OPPOSE GAY RIGHTS?” Now that it’s got your attention, it gives you just a little more information: ‘By boycotting Israel, the NSW Greens are boycotting the only country in the Middle East where homosexuality is not a capital offence, or even a crime’. Finally, the admonition: ‘Choose freedom. Don’t vote Green on March 26’.

Cunning, eh? It’s even printed on green paper. That’ll get the message across to those ‘gays’.

For those who were more detail-oriented (or who perhaps just had a little more time to kill while waiting for a taxi), some considerate souls also posted the full text version:

Note the scattergun approach.

The cutaway quote from the scream sheet heads up the litany of Terrible Truths, but it doesn’t stop there. The Greens, it charges, also oppose democracy – because they’ve called for a boycott of Israel, and Israel is the ‘only’ democratic country in the Middle East. And they support ‘terror’ – because Hezbollah and Iran want to attack Israel, and by boycotting Israel, the Greens are on their side.

Seeing a theme here? And I don’t just mean the breathingtakingly, mindbogglingly hamfisted excuse for logic. It’s all about Israel. The Greens hate Israel – therefore the Greens must hate homosexuals and democracy. And support Evil Dictators and Terrorist Organisations. We must stop these terrible people gaining any sort of representation in ‘our’ government. The fate of Israel depends on it!

It’s barely worth ripping down the arguments used here – they are transparently spurious. Whoever wrote this piece of nonsense deliberately misstated facts and massacred logical thinking. Mind you, they also credit the Greens with an astonishing amount of influence – if they call for a boycott of Israel, gay people will be killed, Hezbollah and Iran will attack and the Last Bastion of Democracy (TM) in the region will fall.

So, it’s all about Israel. But who could be the Concerned Citizens behind this poster campaign? Who are these brave souls, who subjected themselves to driving rain, loud music and an onslaught of glitter and leather to bring their message of Imminent Disaster to the unsuspecting people of Oxford Street?

The crucial point is revealed in the last paragraph: “DO THE GREENS HATE CHRISTIANS?” The authors of this poster were already drawing a very long bow, but this is the point where the string snaps violently: ‘By boycotting Israel, the Greens are boycotting the only country in the Middle East with a growing Christian population’. Adopting a somewhat pleading tone, the authors cry plaintively, ‘Christians are people too’.

I smell a ratf*ck.

Remember the One Vote videos during the 2010 Federal campaign? Similar anti-Greens message, similar mixture of fabrication and a similar amount of scare-mongering mangled arguments. Similar production values, too – although in the ‘One Vote’ case, it was a failure of web design.

The Conscience Vote and The Notion Factory traced those ‘concerned citizens’ back to the Christian Democratic Party. This latest effort, however, is likely to prove much harder to track down. Not only is it (thus far) confined to photocopied posters on cheap paper, it’s devoid of any information as to who might be responsible.

But really, that’s the point. We’re supposed to think this doesn’t originate with a political party, or even a lobby group. We’re encouraged to believe that this really is some kind of grass-roots, spontaneous uprising of The People, forced to take to the streets because their voices are not heard in the corridors of power. It’s heartwarming, really.

And of course, it’s complete rubbish.

I’m not about to point the finger at anyone. It might not be the CDP behind this latest offering. After all, there’s a fine tradition of ratf*cking in Australian politics.

But it is very interesting how the same language, the same sentiments and the anonymity just keep turning up – all directed at one political party.

This time, however, it looks like the minds behind this strategy badly misread their target demographic – my fabulous informant tells me he witnessed people reading the posters and laughing.


Repression is not reform, Mr Baillieu

February 15, 2011

Newly-installed Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu isn’t wasting any time making good on those campaign promises. Or at least, making good on some – those that have a potentially devastating effect on the way we live. It’s all about religion, you see. Specifically, it’s all about how insisting on compassion, decency and above all fairness unfairly discriminates against a few vocal conservative groups.

The former Brumby government laid down a series of changes to Equal Opportunity legislation that would have taken effect in August. Religious organisations would have had to prove that they had good reasons for refusing employment or services to people beyond the basic excuse of, ‘We don’t agree with how they live their personal lives’. Under these changes, such organisations would have had to show that employing someone who was gay, or a single parent, would ‘undermine’ the organisation’s beliefs or that the job in question required someone who conformed to the faith in question.

Christian lobby groups – most particularly the Australian Christian Lobby – complained bitterly at what they characterised as an attack on freedom of religion, particular religious schools. Well, now they’ve got a government who speaks their language, and that is prepared to allow these organisations to go on discriminating against anyone they don’t like.

This is what the Attorney-General, Robert Clark, had to say in this article in The Age:

‘The 2010 legislation is a far-reaching attack on the freedom of faith-based organisations and freedom of religion and belief. The amendments will restore tolerance and a sense of the fair go. Faith-based organisations and political organisations should be free to engage staff that uphold their values.’

He went on to talk about the ‘direct attack’ on religious schools, implying that somehow, the Liberal government were protecting parents’ rights to choose a good education for their children. This was further rationalised by the claim that the issue had been ‘well-canvassed’.

Well-canvassed among the vocal – and rabid – minority of the Australian Christian Lobby, perhaps. A minority that, for reasons passing understanding, seems to have the ear of government at every level.

This is an appalling decision by the Victorian government. This policy decision doesn’t only prevent reform that would allow real fairness. It sends a clear message that these organisations can go even further. By scrapping the proposed reforms, Baillieu is effectively saying to these organisations – you can do what you like, and we’ll back you up. We consider your interests to be more important than those of single parents, queer people, and those who don’t believe as you do.

This is the party that frequently rails against the idea of giving in to ‘special pleading’ from ‘minority groups’. Apparently, it’s only some minority groups, however.

Baillieu’s government thinks this is a great piece of reform, and they’ve trotted out the clichés to back themselves up. It’s a ‘fair go’. It’s about ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’.

It’s nothing of the kind.

It’s a warning: conform or be punished. And it’s targeted at people who already suffer massive discrimination simply for being who they are.

Oh, it all seems very reasonable. After all, if you’re not a member of this kind of religion, why would you want to work for them, or seek their help? But it’s not that simple. Understand, we’re not talking about church membership here, where belief – or even, the will to believe, could be considered a reasonable requirement. This unlimited power to discriminate extends to any business that describes itself as a religious organisation. That’s a broad spectrum, encompassing everything from schools to charities to community-based organisations to health care.

Single mum looking for a part-time job now that the kids are at school? Young gay school-leaver seeking to work in a gap year before going to uni? Devout Muslim woman wanting to help the local community by working for a welfare agency?

Need not apply.

In rural areas, sometimes these religious organisations are the only ones available. Baillieu’s so-called ‘reforms’, then, have
potential knock-on effects that could disrupt people’s lives. The only job going for teachers in any given town might be in the local Catholic school (the only one in the area) – but if the most qualified applicant is an atheist or in a de facto same-sex relationship, that school can legally refuse to employ them on those grounds alone. So that teacher faces two equally unpalatable choices; seek a job much further away, perhaps requiring hours of travel or even moving to another town, or forget about the idea of becoming a teacher in their home town.

What if a single woman employed by a religious charity became pregnant, and elected to keep the baby? She could be dismissed. Ditto the man who, after wrestling with his own sense of self for many years, finally accepts that he is a woman, and needs to transition.

And it goes further. A religious school would be able to pick and choose its teachers. Evolution? Sex education (beyond abstinence)? Forget it. And the kid who’s discovering her sexual identity is something other than what she’s been told is ‘normal’? Well, she’d better be prepared to keep it quiet, because her principal might just decide she needs to go elsewhere.

Oh, and just as a point of contrast … a convicted criminal would have more protection under Equal Opportunity in Victoria than a bisexual man or a pagan if Baillieu has his way.

Baillieu and Clark are happily condoning the kind of prejudice that leads to mental illness, violence and suicide. Worse, they’re actually championing it. Their ‘wide canvass’ doesn’t seem to have included people like these teens, who wrote of their experiences with homophobia at school:

I tried to kill myself because I was so badly teased at school for being a lesbian.. it never ended and I got severe depression and I saw no other way to be happy, I was in hospital for 2 months trying to control my depression and because doctors thought I would hurt myself again if they let me out and it also forced me to drop out of school.
(Claudia, 16 years)

i thought about it so much, i came close just as many times. but for some reason i never bought myself to try. i did have a complete plan though, i took a week to plan the whole thing out. (Craig, 16 years)

(Source: Writing Themselves In Again: 6 years on, 2nd national report on the sexual health & well-being of same-sex attracted young people in Australia, via La Trobe University)

These are the kind of kids who exist in a school system where there are programs to address issues of homophobia and violence, and where teachers are encouraged to support same-sex attracted students. Imagine these kids under Baillieu’s ‘reforms’. Because their parents want them to get a good education, or because there’s no decent public school available, they attend an independent school (most of which, as the ACL has noted on many occasions, are at least nominally religious). No teachers for them to turn to when they are victimised, no positive role model with whom they can identify. An unmistakable message that there is something ‘wrong’ with them for being queer – or even suspecting that they might be so.

This isn’t about ‘freedom’. Baillieu and Clark, with this plan, would sacrifice the well-being – and perhaps the lives – of Victorians just so they can pander to groups that believe they have the (literally) God-given right to demonise others. The very same people who tend to howl about how badly they are discriminated against if another religious group wants to exclude them, or if Mardi Gras tells them their lying rhetoric alleging all gay men are pedophiles isn’t permitted in their celebrations.

And they have the nerve – the absolute, outrageous nerve – to tell us it’s reform. It’s fair.

This is not reform, Mr Baillieu – it’s repression, pure and simple. You can dress it up with buzzwords designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, because after all, none of us like to feel we’re being denied a fair deal. But there is nothing fair about this.

The Shadow Minister, Martin Pakula, weaselled when asked whether Labor would support Baillieu on this plan. He said Labor would have to look at the amendments. That’s not good enough, Mr Pakula. Your government wanted to bring in these changes in the first place. Your government was the one that really undertook a wide canvass. You know just how important it is that these groups not be allowed to reduce people to outcasts. No amount of appeals to sacred texts can disguise the fact that what they want is the ability to arbitrarily declare some people less worthy than others. Despite their often-repeated claim that Australia is a ‘Judeo-Christian’ nation, we are a country of diverse beliefs, none of which should be subject to favourable treatment or prejudice. We are not a country subject to the doctrine of one interpretation of one religion.

And we should not be a country that turns a blind eye to the deliberate attempts of a lobby group to strip away the rights of those they simply do not like.


Cyclone Yasi and some thoughts on those ‘religious explanations’

February 3, 2011

First, on a personal note …

My brother and his family live in Townsville, on the Ross River. They decided not to evacuate ahead of Cyclone Yasi, because their house is made according to new building codes specifically designed to withstand cyclones – and because there were a lot of other people who needed those evacuation shelters. Besides, their home is far enough from the river that it would take a truly horrific storm surge or flood to inundate them – and that wasn’t predicted. So they moved their valuables upstairs, laid in supplies and settled down in the laundry to wait it out.

Cyclone Yasi made landfall around midnight last night, but even before then, they were being lashed by strong winds and nearly horizontal rain. They lost the landline early in the evening. We kept in touch during landfall, and then I managed to get a bit of sleep before hearing from him again at dawn, Townsville time. My poor niece, who’s about the same age as my youngest daughters, was terrified – she kept saying to her Dad that she didn’t want him to go to sleep, because then he couldn’t keep her safe.

All we could do down here in Melbourne was keep sending our love to her.

This morning there’s a lot of damage in terms of trees and power lines down, and debris is everywhere. Part of the ceiling will need to be replaced, and it’ll be a while before they get their landline back, apparently. They’ve been asked to conserve water, since the water treatment plant has lost power and several pipes were damaged.

People slightly north of them didn’t get off so lightly. Early reports say the towns of Cardwell and Tully are devastated. No reported loss of life at this stage, though, which is a huge relief.

All in all, my brother’s family are very fortunate – so far. Winds are still high, and they’re still watching the river nervously, as another storm surge is due soon and the rain is bucketing down. He texted me a little while ago to tell me that the river, which he can see from his front room, was running backwards. Apparently the tidal surge, backed by the high winds, had enough force to push against the natural flow.

Again, we’re back to a waiting game.

At this point, I just want to have a bit of a rant. I know I’m sleep-deprived, and wobbling between relief that my loved ones are safe, apprehension that it’s not over and they may still be flooded out, and sorrow about what I’m learning about the damage in the region.

Nevertheless …

I can understand why people seek some kind of transcendent explanation for disasters, both personal and regional. Certainly the Twitter feed last night was full of messages to the effect of, ‘Jeeeeeeeez, what has Queensland done to deserve this?’ We want to believe there’s some kind of reason that terrible things happen. Part of the healing/grieving process afterwards always involves this kind of questioning.

But frankly, the idea that people can just blithely waltz uninvited into the middle of someone else’s pain with glib explanations about ‘God’s plan’ or ‘God’s punishment’ is offensive. It’s bad enough we get people like Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella and Greens leader Bob Brown duelling climate change theories while Queenslanders are sandbagging their homes or digging bodies out of the mud. We don’t need religion as well.

People might be out there on the internet posting about their situation on Facebook and Twitter. They might be telling perfect strangers standing in front of them in the supermarket queue how worried they are about their relatives in the cyclone zone. In the immediate aftermath, they might laugh distractedly or burst into tears and babble into a microphone for a reporter. If people choose to share that fear and trauma with others, it’s their way of coping, of reaching out. They want to know that someone out there hears them and acknowledges what they’re going through – even if it’s only someone with a weird username like ‘Bobluvsballoons999’ who they don’t know and will never talk to again.

And if they want to seek transcendent explanations, they’ll ask. They’ll go to their churches, ring their clergy, ask friends who share their faith.

They don’t want to be told that the reason their family is in serious danger is because we have an atheist Prime Minister and an ‘openly gay’ Greens leader, so we’d better turf them out and make a good, heterosexual, Christian man the leader of our country. (That one came courtesy of Danny Nalliah and Catch the Fire Ministries; but the disgusting Westboro Baptist Church wasn’t far behind with its howling, gleeful condemnation).

They’re not interested in platitudes about the-Lord-working-in-mysterious-ways-His-wonders-to-perform, or how there’s a Lesson in this for all of us. They don’t want to hear about how all this was predicted in Revelation and by the way, it’s repentance time, step right this way, we have counsellors waiting to pray with you.

They couldn’t care less that their situation is so much less horrible than what’s going on in Egypt or Brazil or wherever, and they should be thankful.

And they’re particularly not interested in how these disasters are the harbingers of the Great New Age Ascension as Gaia births herself into a new Utopian Era and we should all come and ‘midwife’ the changes so that we can go the next level. As if the terror of a little girl hearing her neighbourhood tear apart around her can be assuaged by telling her she can ‘level up’ and go play with the benevolent aliens – assuming she survives.

So all you proselytising, insensitive bastards … take your religion and peddle it elsewhere.

You don’t get the right to capitalise on people’s pain any more than politicians do. You’re not entitled.

You want to help? Pull on some gumboots and fill some sandbags. Get into the disaster areas and help with cleanup. Sit silently beside someone who’s crying their eyes out and hand them tissues and a cup of tea. Wear your uniforms or your badges if you must, so that anyone who wants to find you can do so, but don’t you dare presume that gives you an invitation to spruik your particular philosophy.

You’d be the first to exclaim at how unfeeling it would be if a bunch of particularly militant atheists fronted up to tell disaster victims that there was no God, it was all just blind chance that they got hurt, so sorry.

Have some simple, decent, human compassion. Don’t hand them your carefully marked-up Bible or waft your patchouli-drenched crystals over them. Give them a hug, bring them a blanket and make vaguely comforting noises.

Then leave them alone. Believe me, if they want to find you, they will.


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