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.

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A close look at the Rise Up Australia Party

June 6, 2011

When people are dissatisfied with their elected representatives, they have a few options open to them.

They can protest, lobby, or mount advertising campaigns to pressure politicians. They can join a party and attempt to change it from within. They can decide to run for office as an Independent. They can ‘opt out’ of voting altogether.

Or they can do what the Australian Democrats and Australian Greens did before them – start their own political party.

This weekend, two groups did exactly that.

Independent MP Bob Katter announced the formation of his Katter’s Australian Party.

And evangelical Christian group Catch the Fire Ministries launched its Rise Up Australia Party.

Since Katter is already a serving MP, he’s attracted a lot of media attention already, particularly since he declared his intention to break the stranglehold of Coles and Woolworths on Australia’s grocery markets. As such, I’m not going to spend time on them here, because I want to get to the party that’s so far gone under the radar.

The RUAP is headed up by Pentecostal minister Reverend Danny Nalliah and Catch the Fire Ministries. The parent group has been in the headlines more than once in recent years; they’ve called for the destruction of mosques and places associated with witchcraft, Hinduism and gambling, they’ve warned that sharia law is being instituted by stealth in Australia, and held numerous prayer vigils in Canberra to ‘break the Satanic power’ allegedly being used by witches to influence the government. Nalliah himself was convicted under Victoria’s racial and religious vilification laws – a verdict that he appealed twice before it was finally overturned. (The judgment is available through VCAT – case number A392/2002.)

The group’s name is directly tied to CTFM – it refers to a series of prayer meetings that began in 2002. In fact, Nalliah refers to CTFM as the ‘cover’ for Rise Up Australia, and had this to say in the 9th anniversary blog:

‘There is one thing I know-we cannot compromise the Gospel in order to maintain status quo. We need to boldly stand for what we believe. Come on men & women who know God, don’t compromise in order to maintain your reputation. Stand up for what you believe. If not, we will lose the Christian heritage of our homeland of Australia.’

The RUAP builds on this statement in its listed aims. But let’s break them down a bit, shall we? Some are listed out of order for the purposes of analysis, but I’ve left in the original numbers assigned to each point.

1. Protect freedom of speech.

Sounds like a good idea, right? But wait. At the very least there’s a vested interest here. Remember that Nalliah was initially convicted under vilification laws for his comments about Islam and Moslems.

2. Establish full employment and fair wages; support/re-establish manufacturing industries in Australia.

Another apparently good idea – until you take into account this point:

7. Faith-based schools are to have the right to employ people of their choice.

So RUAP supports the idea of allowing religious (read: Christian) organisations to discriminate when hiring and firing. I’m sure Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu is happy to know that.

3. Reduce the cost of living by limiting the size of government and limiting the levels of taxation, with the least possible intrusion of governments into the lives of individuals and businesses.

Unless those businesses are churches or church organisations, of course. CTFM is already on record as opposing tax-exempt status for other religions.

4. Reaffirm our Constitutional right to freedom of religion.

6. No religion or religious practices are to be forced upon another person.

Technically, there is no such right. Section 116 of the Australian Constitution states that ‘The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.’ As has pointed out in numerous court cases, that is not a guarantee of religious freedom per se. But okay, religious freedom. Sounds good. And this point sounds even better.

But then there’s this:

8. Schools to have faith-based chaplains.

9. School curriculums to include the teaching of the history of Western civilization and our Judeo-Christian heritage.

So, chaplains should not merely be permitted, but mandatory. Given that – as blogger Mike Stuchbery has established beyond doubt – the chaplaincy program and its accompanying Special Religious Instruction program are firmly in the grip of an evangelical Christian group bent on recruiting children into their religious beliefs, this is hardly consistent with religious freedom (or indeed freedom from religion).

Even worse, RUAP advocates shaping the national curriculum to teach distorted history in order to further their deceptive claims of pre-eminence, to – in their own words:

5. Recognise and affirm our Judeo-Christian heritage.

Australia is not and has never been a Judeo-Christian nation (and even using that word is in itself both nonsensical and insulting – it implies that Judaism is merely a form of Christianity). Our indigenous inhabitants were not Christian until converted by missionaries. Our population has always included migrants who did not subscribe to any form of Christianity – the Chinese migrants to the goldfields were some of the earliest. Our Constitution guarantees no state-mandated religion. And holding no religious belief at all well predates any white settlement on this continent.

RUAP would insist, however, that children be taught nothing of Australia’s varied religious heritage. That children be misled into thinking that white settlement brought one form of religion to this country, establishing itself as the sole possessor of Australian spirituality.

And just to drive the point home, the RUAP have this policy:

15. Protect Australia from multiculturalism. People who live in Australia should become Australian – we are multi-ethnic, not multi-cultural. We do not advocate homogenising – immigrants are free to celebrate their own backgrounds, but must respect the Australian culture. We are opposed to a dual legal system, i.e. we oppose introduction of Sharia law in Australia. We will educate people about the implications of radical Islamic teaching. We advocate no Centrelink benefits for polygamists.

Freedom of speech – unless you want to talk about sharia law in a positive way. Freedom of religion – unless that religion is something RUAP finds abhorrent. Celebrate ethnic heritage – within narrowly specified guidelines that conform to an evangelical group’s definition.

And then there’s the odd little after-thought of the anti-polygamy statement. Clearly, that’s aimed at religious groups, but there is growing support for polyamory in Australia that has nothing to do with issues of faith. They, too, would be affected by this policy – although in the eyes of RUAP, that might simply be an unlooked-for bonus in the quest to make Australia in their religious image.

Which brings us to this:

20. While we recognise the Aboriginal people as the first people of Australia, we encourage them to accept our Government’s apology and invite them to issue a statement of thanks for the good that the British heritage has brought to our nation.

In other words – we did something for you, now it’s your turn to do something for us. This is Brendan Nelson’s non-Apology speech as policy: indigenous people should acknowledge that white settlement was a good thing, accept the symbolic apology they were given (apparently the formal acceptance of the Apology speech by indigenous representatives doesn’t count), and stop whining.

10. Improve discipline in our schools.

This is one of those motherhood statements that is ultimately meaningless unless read in the light of the overall agenda. What, exactly, constitutes ‘discipline’ for RUAP? Obeying the teacher? Complying with a ban on expressions of religious freedom like wearing a burqa or questioning the indoctrination it wants to replace historical inquiry?

And then we get to the social policies:

11. Protect the traditional family unit – father, mother, and children.

12. Parents have the right to discipline their children, within sensible historical, non-abusive guidelines.

13. Protect children from homosexuality as it creates health problems. Promote children’s rights – children have the right to have both male and female role models as parents (father and mother).

14. We wish to make abortion history by providing those social conditions that support women in their lives to become fulfilled and not being forced into situations where they feel there is no option but to have an abortion.

No surprises here, really. Every one of these is consistent with Pentecostal doctrine. And every one contains some extremely ugly ideas. Let’s just grab a few.

‘Protecting children’ is code for any number of repressive policies. This can already be seen in the US, where states and counties justify the removal of women’s reproductive rights, single parents’ rights and queer people’s rights ‘for the sake of the children’. It’s all supported by lofty sentiments about ‘health’, or ‘fulfilling women’, of course – RUAP is not going to come right out and say, ‘Homosexuals and women who have abortions are evil and going to hell’.

‘Homosexuals cause health problems’. HIV/AIDS, obviously. This is the tried-and-true tactic of blaming the victim. The comment about the ‘traditional family unit’ ties in with the generally homophobic sentiment – queer parents would hurt their kids (with the disgusting whiff of ‘gays are pedophiles’ that tends to accompany such sentiments).

‘No option but to have an abortion’. And how about women becoming ‘fulfilled’? Clearly, RUAP’s stance is that every woman’s destiny is to have children, and those who find fulfilment elsewhere are either sick or evil. No woman chooses to be childless, right?

To round out these social policies, the inevitable dogwhistle:

16. All boats trying to enter Australian waters by illegal means should be stopped to preserve the lives put at risk by people smugglers.

RUAP appears to have assimilated Abbott’s ‘Stop the Boats’ slogan – and its ridiculous justification – remarkably well.

Finally we have a couple of motherhood statements:

17. Protect the environment, as God gave it to mankind to look after.

18. We support the right for Israel to exist with Jerusalem as its undivided capital.

19. All elected Members of Parliament for RUA Party are encouraged to donate a percentage of their salary to the poor and the needy.

Number 17 is meaningless – there’s no detail other than the restatement of what is by now unmistakable – it’s all about enforcing a particular religion’s view of the world.

I actually agree with the notion of charitable donations from MPs – only the RUAP doesn’t go far enough. Anyone elected to public office should be encouraged to do this.

The foreign policy statement is pretty much self-explanatory.

So that’s the Rise Up Australia Party – a narrowly representative, single-agenda driven body directly linked to a religious organisation known for its bigotry, hate speech and determination to dominate Australia. It probably won’t get much attention from the media – after all, it’s just a small party, right? What are the chances it could ever influence any government?

I imagine people said much the same thing about Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats, Steven Fielding’s Family First and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party.

In an era where two-party dominance is increasingly coming under fire, and where Independent MPs can hold the balance of power, nothing should be taken for granted.

And our best course of action is to stay informed.


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.


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.


We don’t need your permission, Your Holiness

November 22, 2010

Although this post doesn’t directly bear on Australian politics, it does relate to some of the issues surrounding the imminent Victorian state election. Parties are positioning themselves on issues relating to human sexuality. The most obvious, of course, is same-sex marriage. Saturday’s Equal Love rally in Melbourne saw State Education Minister Bronwyn Pike break ranks with her party to speak out. She was joined by Fiona Patten from the Australian Sex Party and Senator Sarah Hanson-Young from the Greens. In contrast, the Democratic Labor Party went on Sky News to strongly oppose same-sex marriage on religious and (increasingly spurious) cultural grounds, and Ted Baillieu, speaking for the Coalition, simply issued a blunt ‘no, I don’t support it’.

Same-sex marriage isn’t the only such issue, however. In the seat of Richmond, Greens candidate Kathleen Maltzahn has taken aim at sex workers, and the Sex Party in particular for putting forward policies targeted at securing rights and protections for them.

Adoption by same-sex couples is also on the table. Premier John Brumby has already flagged his intention to review the laws surrounding this issue, and both the Sex Party and the Greens have policies calling for same-sex couples to be treated as equal under the law.

And that’s without going into abortion policy, access to reproductive technology, sex education and surrogacy!

Sexuality, it seems, is a bigger issue than it might appear in the Victorian election. It probably pales in comparison to people’s preoccupation with an efficient and comprehensive public transport system, but it’s there. People are thinking and talking about it.

With all that in the air, recent statements by the Pope deserve a closer look. There are a lot of Catholic voters in Victoria, and at least one political party – the DLP – with its roots firmly in the Catholic Church and its doctrines. And while, at first glance, the Pope’s words might not seem at all related to any of the above, take a closer look.

The Pope now thinks it’s okay ‘in some circumstances’ to use condoms. How nice of him. But wait, just what are those circumstances?

“In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, it can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality,” said the head of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics …

“There may be justified individual cases, for example when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be … a first bit of responsibility, to re-develop the understanding that not everything is permitted and that one may not do everything one wishes.”

And this ‘softening’ of a hard-line anti-condom stance is being ‘cautiously welcomed’ by HIV activists and health experts. The AMA even likes it.

I don’t think so.

This isn’t any kind of softening. This is the Pope saying, ‘what you’re doing is wrong, and you get one chance to avoid the wages of sin. I’m being generous here – I’m letting you use a condom but you’d better come to your senses.’

Gosh, whatever can he be talking about? Oh wait, of course, he’s talking about anal sex between men. Which is, of course, wrong. His one example is a little homily about a rentboy – who, implicitly, is infected with HIV – who might be ‘allowed’ to wear a condom so he doesn’t spread the disease to any of his clients. Of course, the Pope’s not condoning it, oh no. He wants said rentboy and his clients to realise that, by generously granting permission to protect themselves, they are expected to – what was the phrase – develop a ‘more humane’ sexuality. In other words, stop what you’re doing and be heterosexual or celibate.

And make no mistake, the Pope’s not saying the client gets to use the condom. No, no, it’s the filthy whore who needs to protect the client – who, after all, can be redeemed. Never mind that sexually-transmitted HIV has to come from somewhere, usually the client – in Pope World, just making yourself available for paid sex appears to automatically ensure you’re infected.

Of course, female prostitutes don’t get a look in. They don’t get the special dispensation. And why should they? After all, this whole sorry mess came about because of a woman, didn’t it? It’s one thing to give men the chance to get on the straight and narrow, but a ‘fallen woman’ doesn’t get the same chance. They reap what they sow.

Oh, and forget about using condoms as contraception. The Church is rock-solid on that one. No special dispensations, either. You don’t want kids? You can’t have kids because it would endanger your life/pass on genetic abnormalities/send you to the poorhouse? You have one option – don’t have sex. Because we all know that sex only has one purpose, right?

There’s a lot of talk about how it might be a small thing, but at least people will be protected.

No, they won’t.

Contrary to Papal belief, most prostitutes are extremely careful about the use of condoms. Many will actually refuse a client who won’t wear a condom. (Oh but wait, the clients don’t have to, do they?)

Yes, there are exceptions – people who are victims of sexual trafficking, who don’t get that kind of choice, and people who are either too stupid or too uncaring to take precautions so that they don’t pass on the infection. Now, I’m going to give the Pope some credit for brains here. I’m going to assume that he doesn’t really think some trafficker of underage boys in Thailand will now sit up and say, ‘Hey, the Pope said it’s kind of okay to give my kids condoms, better go do that’.

So what’s the Pope’s real point?

This little pronouncement of the Pope’s – which the Church are already rushing to say isn’t ‘magisterial’ (i.e. insert disclaimer here) – isn’t some indicator that maybe his religion is finally waking up to a few realities of life. It’s not a ‘compassionate’ acknowledgment that there are terrible diseases out there that can destroy the lives of innocent people. (Remember, this is the same guy who said condoms didn’t protect anyone against AIDS, and banned his African followers from using them.)

This is about some kind of horrible pseudo-redemptive ‘lesson’. Some things aren’t permitted, and you’d just better consider yourself lucky that he’s giving you the chance to wake up and toe the line. After all, unless sexuality is ‘humanised’ – i.e., stop with the buttsex you filthy men – not even a condom will save you. If AIDS doesn’t get you, Hell will. And that goes double for sex workers.

And just to spell it out in really blunt language: this is not really about protecting anyone. Although the Pope – when asked – admitted that using condoms might ‘reduce infection’, he was very clear that the real purpose of this ‘permission’ is purely to give people enough time to repent. It’d be a good thing if people (see: men who have anal sex) didn’t infect others, but condoms are not a ‘moral solution’.

This is entirely in keeping with the Church’s historical aversion to the free exercise of sexuality between consenting adults. That the Pope is dressing it up with grudging little concessions doesn’t alter that one bit. It’s still about dictating what expressions of sexuality are permissible. To paraphrase a certain former Prime Minister: he will decide who gets to have sex, and under what circumstances they can have it.

Now I don’t know about you, but I find that just a tad offensive – particularly when it comes at a time when we are at last talking and acting on issues that have for too long been branded as ‘immoral’ or banished to the too-hard basket by politicians with both eyes on the numbers and none on the people.

So, Your Holiness? Take your oh-so-gracious, lesser-of-two-evils concession and shove it. We don’t need your permission to love each other. We don’t need your permission to protect ourselves from infections that have nothing to do with God and everything to do with blind shitty luck And we don’t need you to tell us we can’t have sex unless we’re prepared to risk pregnancy. We will care for each other without your ‘help’.

We live in the 21st Century, and you have no power over us.


Q&A with Fiona Patten, Australian Sex Party

October 27, 2010

It’s fair to say that the majority of media coverage of the Australian Sex Party during the election tended towards one of three types: the flippant – like this article about Austen Tayshus announcing he would run against Tony Abbott in the seat of Warringah; the bemused – as in innumerable panel discussions on the likes of Sky News’ Agenda programs; or the outraged – such as Christian Democrat MP Fred Niles’ attempt to excuse the evidence that pornography had been found on his computer by saying he was ‘researching’ the Sex Party (which he considered dangerous). It’s also fair to say that, for the most part, very little attention was paid to any policy platforms that didn’t involve pornography or the proposed internet filter.

As a result, anyone could have been forgiven for thinking the Sex Party was a one-issue party whose only purpose was to promote controversial issues of sexuality. This image was probably helped along by the eye-catching T-shirts worn by volunteers during the campaign:

Fiona Patten shows off those bright T-shirts

Now the election results are in, though, and the Sex Party surprised many people with their polling. It gained 260,000 Senate votes in Victoria (roughly 2%), coming third overall and narrowly missing out on a Senate seat after preferences. In the House of Representatives, Sex Party candidates finished fourth overall. Its best result was, surprisingly, in the Northern Territory, where the party gained more than 5% of the vote, and polled over 15% in some booths.

People are now taking a second look – and there’s a lot more to the Sex Party than they might first have thought. Far from being a narrowly-focused special interest group, the Sex Party aims to establish itself in the niche once occupied by the Australian Democrats – as a ‘major minor party’ with broad policy platforms across a range of issues, holding crucial, independent seats in Parliament.

Fiona Patten, the Sex Party’s founder and spokesperson, attended a Q&A with the Secular Society at La Trobe University on October 21. The choice of venue and audience is interesting: this was not a huge rally sponsored by highly visible groups with large memberships. Instead, she spoke to a small but interested audience at an event that had no media value whatsoever. That she could do this is partly due to the relatively minor status of the Sex Party; however, by agreeing to come along, Patten showed that she was willing to engage the community on even this small level.

Patten’s opening talk focused on some of the issues that the Sex Party has identified as among the most crucial for their campaign for the upcoming Victorian election. She spoke passionately about the current preoccupation among politicians with censoring or banning pornography and erotica, while at the same time turning a blind eye to the systemic sexual abuse of children by clergy (particularly within the Roman Catholic Church). For example, she cited how the New South Wales Government recently passed legislation allowing police to determine what classification should be given to material they may encounter – a power normally only granted to the Australian Classification Board. If a retailer does not agree with any police assessment, they will need to pay hundreds of dollars to have material formally classified. In talking about this bill, Patten paid tribute to Labor MP Amanda Fazio, who crossed the floor to support a Greens amendment to remove these police powers from the bill – and thus put herself at risk of expulsion from the party.

Patten linked the discussion on the prevalence of sexual abuse of children to a key Sex Party policy – sex education for all children from an early age. This would not only address the usual subjects of anatomy and reproduction, but also teach children about consent and abuse, encouraging them to report any inappropriate sexual contact. Education would take into account the increasing use of new technologies, to make children aware of potential issues surrounding them (such as cyber-predators and use of mobile phones to distribute sexual content to minors).

Both major parties came in for strong criticism for their willingness to accommodate the Australian Christian Lobby, an organisation that opposes same-sex marriage and blames the aforementioned sexual abuse on churches being ‘infiltrated by the gays’. Even Gillard, a self-proclaimed atheist, took the trouble to appear at one of their events to talk about her government’s priorities. When asked if she would attend a similar gathering organised by the Atheist Foundation of Australia, however, she refused. Patten also pointed out the large number of Parliamentarians who are members of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, a number which she says hardly reflects the diversity of religious belief and non-belief in Australia.

In her blunt, sometimes abrasive style, Patten took aim at the disparity in school funding in Australia. While she recognises a need for funding to both private and public schools, she sees a double standard at work. Donations made to private or religious schools are tax-deductible; the same, however, is not true of public schools. She said she welcomed contributions on this issue, as the Sex Party was developing its policy on the subject.

The party has a mainly consistent stance on the intersection of religion with civil society. This encompasses not only matters of public education, but also extends to issues like abortion, stem cell research and support for the teaching of ethics in schools as part of the proposed National Curriculum.

The exception is the Sex Party’s call for a Royal Commission to be established to look into institutionalised child sexual abuse. Here, governmental intervention is completely justified by the fact that these ‘appalling’ crimes are often concealed by organisations, and never prosecuted. Unfortunately, it is a policy that is unlikely to be supported by either of the major parties, although common ground could almost certainly be found with the Greens.

On the subject of pornography, Patten made it clear that she did not advocate allowing exploitative or abusive material to be freely available. In fact, she was adamant that material featuring children, in particular, did not constitute pornography, but was a criminal act. In contrast, she pointed out that current laws regarding banned content were inconsistent to the point of nonsense. For example, depictions of lactation or female ejaculation are prohibited. ‘It shouldn’t be banned just because you might not like it,’ she said. Sex Party policy calls for a national Non-Violent Erotica classification that encompasses all forms of media (including computer games), and the establishment of a legal ‘X’ rating, which includes fetish erotica. The party also advocates training members of the Classification Board, to keep them aware of issues of sexuality and subculture.

Asked if she agreed with studies showing that access to pornography actually lowered the rate of sex crime, Patten said that in her opinion there was no real correlation between the two. Good sex education and healthy sexual relationships lowered sexual crime, she asserted.

Two of the most controversial policies espoused by the Sex Party concern euthanasia and drug laws. The party advocates a complete decriminalisation of all illegal drugs. Rather than treat drug use as a legal matter, it should be seen as a health issue. There is more danger to the public in keeping drugs illegal than in the drugs themselves, Patten argued. She cited the case of Portugal, which has implemented this decriminalisation policy, spending funds formerly earmarked for law enforcement on health education and health care. Far from becoming a ‘drug mecca’, the incidence of drug use has actually declined, and drug-related crime is virtually non-existent.

Voluntary euthanasia is endorsed by the Sex Party – not as a conscience vote for all members, but as a matter of party solidarity. Patten, who has worked with the Die with Dignity Association to develop this platform, described it as a ‘flagship’ policy. She acknowledged that there is no ‘single’ solution to this issue, but does suggest that there should be less government intervention in people’s end-of-life situations, and more consultation between people and their doctors.

On matters of Industrial Relations, the Sex Party’s policies to date focus mainly on improving conditions for sex workers. Patten commented that this is a policy area under development, as is dealing with the problem of climate change. She was at pains to point out that she felt it was more important to be thoroughly informed about an issue before announcing a policy than to rush out something under-developed to grab headlines.

Perhaps the most striking and refreshing feature of Fiona Patten’s visit to La Trobe was her readiness to admit that she did not have all the answers. Rather than indulge in sloganeering, or retreat to the safe ground of criticising either the Government or the Opposition (although there was plenty of that!), she was willing to canvass other opinions, acknowledged her own lack of knowledge on certain issues, and encouraged her audience to engage with the Sex Party on issues of policy development. It’s a far cry from the polished spin we are used to seeing from Gillard, Abbott and the like.

You could put it down to inexperience, although Patten is clearly media-savvy and quick on the uptake. Perhaps when the Sex Party becomes more practised in the business of politics, we’ll start seeing some slick phrases and elegant evasions of the question. On the other hand, Patten’s own confrontational style may well prevail, and Sex Party representatives could join the likes of Tony Windsor as those strangest of creatures – politicians who give a straight answer.

And when asked whether she would ever change the name of the party to become more mainstream, Patten was characteristically direct. She made no apologies. The name is controversial, she says, and captures people’s attention. That’s exactly what the Sex Party wants – to grab the attention of the Australian people, and engage with them.

‘And you can’t miss our t-shirts,’ she laughs, showing a slide of a polling booth volunteer resplendent in bright yellow with the word ‘SEX’ emblazoned in red across the chest.

The Sex Party seems to have set its sights on becoming what the Australian Democrats once were – the centrist party focused on civil liberties and equality. Although it’s early days, it might just do that.


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