Prime Minister Rudd’s new cabinet was announced and sworn in yesterday. Though there were few surprises, there were several appointments of note – and one who attracted attention for all the wrong reasons.
Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese picked up the Communications portfolio in addition to his current responsibilities for Infrastructure and Transport. This is a natural, and very clever move. The NBN is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in our history, and Albanese is a practised debater with a proven ability to think on his feet. You couldn’t find a better advocate for what will undoubtedly be a major plank in Labor’s election campaign.
Mark Butler, who’s perceived to be somewhat above the usual gutter-level politics of day to day governing, moves from Mental Health and Ageing to Climate Change and Environment. It’s a major step up for Butler, but his appointment conveys the message that the portfolio is in safe – and, perhaps more importantly, untainted hands.
There are 11 women in Rudd’s cabinet, including a number who enter the ministry for the first time, such as Melissa Parke, who heads up the newly created International Development portfolio. Given Rudd’s emphasis on engagement with the Pacific Region, and China in particular, this is a major responsibility.
Inevitably, those who supported Rudd all the way along were rewarded. Recent convert Bill Shorten picked up Education along with Workplace Relations; and far be it from me to suggest that there’s more than a little irony in his taking on almost identical responsibilities to those first held by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard in the first Rudd cabinet. Encouragingly, though, many of those who held ministries under Gillard retained those positions (such as Penny Wong with Finance), or were reshuffled (O’Connor moving from Immigration to Employment).
It’s a new cabinet, with very little time for a shake-down cruise. Far from Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s sneer that this is ‘not the B team, it’s the C team,’ however, more than half of Rudd’s ministers are extremely experienced, both as politicians and in various portfolios, many of those major areas of responsibility. Their expertise will be available to new ministers, who will also be ably served by their departments.
The transition to the new cabinet went off without a hitch. The swearing-in ceremony is a formality at best; though technically able to do so, a Governor-General is hardly likely to object to any appointments. Usually, the new minister reads out a Christian oath or secular affirmation and signs a copy of said oath, which is then witnessed and proclaimed by the Governor-General. Yesterday, something new happened.
For the first time, an Australian cabinet minister swore their oath upon the Koran.
The person in question was Ed Husic, new Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and for Broadband. At his election in 2010, he was the first Muslim to enter Parliament, and took his oath alongside Jewish MPs Josh Frydenberg and Michael Danby (who swore on what The Age fatuously called ‘the Jewish bible’).
The evening news reported Husic’s use of the Koran in a relatively neutral way, commenting on it as a curiosity more than anything else. Social media was more polarised. Husic’s Facebook page became a battleground for religious commentary that went far beyond general argument, and entered the realm of personal abuse directed at the MP.
With the breathtaking arrogance that seems to accompany only the truly uninformed, Husic was told: that it was ‘impossible’ for him to take that oath, since Islam and democracy were completely incompatible; that he was committing ‘treason’; that his appointment was un-Constitutional; that he’s not a ‘real’ Muslim, so shouldn’t use the Koran; that he was exploiting Australia for his own (no doubt nefarious) purposes; and – at the height of the absurdity – that Husic’s appointment meant sharia law was on the verge of being instituted.
This is why we can’t have nice things, Australia.
Husic made a decision to take his oath of office upon the holy book of his religion – which he was perfectly entitled to do. Nothing in our Constitution prohibits that, despite those amateur Constitutional Scholars who quoted s.116 as justification for their ranting. That particular section guarantees that the government may not establish a religion, nor impose a religious test for office. No minister is required to make an oath upon a religious text – they always have the option of taking a secular affirmation.
The notion that Islam is incompatible with democracy simply shows the ignorance of those asserting such nonsense. Islam is a religion; it is not a political system. Whether it is the dominant religion within a country may influence the politics, but there is a world of difference between that and a theocracy.
As for the accusation of the country being on the verge of the sudden imposition of sharia law – well, really. There’s ridiculous, and then there’s the kind of idiocy that leaves one open-mouthed with awe. This is on a par with Senators Cory Bernardi and Mitch Fifield thundering that we are being ‘forced’ into eating halal meat, leading to ‘Islamisation-by-stealth’ of our ‘Christian’ country. According to the wingnuts on Husic’s Facebook page, however, our way of life is in danger. Oh, and apparently shows just how low Rudd is willing to go.
I confess, that one escapes me. Perhaps the poster was suggesting that Husic has secret powers over ‘The Muslims’, and will instruct them all to vote for Rudd in the upcoming election – on the condition that Rudd will bring in sharia law as soon as he takes office?
That Husic’s appointment as a Parliamentary Secretary should provoke such bigotry is perhaps not surprising, although it is disgusting – and shows just how far we have to go.
The election of an indigenous person to Parliament was a moment of celebration, lauded by all comers – and rightly so. Politicians often trot out their children-of-migrants credentials, telling fond anecdotes about when their parents first came to this country. People, apparently, like to feel that they have something in common with their representatives. Unless they’re Muslim, I guess. Oh, it was fine for Husic to be a Muslim while he was a lowly backbencher, but in the cabinet? That’s going too far.
There’s more than a whiff of tokenism about that, a sense that Australian Muslims should be satisfied with having someone in Parliament who’s ‘one of them’ (never mind that Islam, like Christianity, is a religion with many sects and diverging beliefs). What more do ‘they’ want?
I don’t know about what ‘they’ want, but what we should want is more diversity. More voices bringing different perspectives, different heritages, different ideas. We should celebrate the fact that Husic felt he could show his commitment to serving us by taking the oath on his religion’s holy book, as we should celebrate others who take affirmations or swear on other sacred texts.
Diversity does not dilute; it enriches. It allows us to embrace what is new, while affirming traditions that continue to serve us well. In doing so, we become a stronger, more compassionate nation.
Congratulations on your appointment, Mr Husic.