Secularism, humanism and political engagement
HSV Public Lecture by Fiona Patten, MLC, Reason Party, at Kew Seniors’ Centre on 28 March 2019
Since 2014, Fiona has been a member of the Victorian Legislative Council and has achieved a great deal within this time. Her consultative style has been an important asset in her work. She believes passionately in the separation of church and state and, although this principle is enshrined in legislation, she is wary of the way religious attitudes can impede social reform. She questions whether MPs should declare any religious affiliation in the same way as they are obliged to register commercial interests or membership of a club.
In the most recent census, 31 per cent of Victorians identified themselves as having ‘no religion’. In 2018, 23 of the 40 members in the Legislative Council chose to make an affirmation when being sworn in. The remainder took an oath on a religious text of some kind. Fiona is active in canvassing for reform of parliamentary procedure which commences each sitting with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. This is now followed by an Acknowledgement of Country. At the very least, Fiona would like to see this order reversed and the Lord’s Prayer replaced by a minute’s silence for reflection. Or a secular pledge, such as the Humanist pledge, substituted for the prayer. In 1851, when the Victorian parliament sat for the first time, the very first division was to decide if each parliamentary sitting should open with the Lord’s Prayer, and the house voted against it. However, in 1919, after the First World War, this decision was overturned.
She attempted to introduce the Charities Amendment Bill in 2017, hoping to crack down on for-profit businesses taking advantage of tax exemptions applicable to charities. For example, companies such as Sanitarium Health Foods and the Catholic Insurance Company, as well as many other church-related businesses, do not pay company tax, land tax, payroll tax or stamp duty. They are owned by religious organisations, but are not engaged in charitable activity. However, although the Bill was discussed in the House and reached the second reading stage, it did not proceed any further.
In 2017, she was an active supporter of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill. This was passed after 36 hours of debate on 28 November 2017 with a conscience vote. It will come into effect on 29 June 2019. The discussion focused on palliative care rather than the question of the right of an individual to choose the time and manner of his or her death. In preparing for the debate, Fiona was alerted to the New Charter for Health Care Workers, the Pontifical Council’s guide to bioethics in the Catholic Church. It advocates that pain and suffering have spiritual value and may be an act of penance at the end of life. It also argues against the use of sedation in someone’s final hours.
Fiona has successfully introduced ‘safe access zones’ around abortion clinics, aware that vulnerable patients and visitors were being relentlessly harassed by ‘right to life’ protesters. While the protesters argued that they had a right to free speech, she countered by adding that it did not include the right to a free audience.
She has been a strong advocate for drug law reform and supported legislation for Victoria’s first safe injecting room to be trialled in Richmond, emphasizing that drug addiction should be seen primarily as a health issue.
Similarly, she is planning to work for sex work law reform in the near future. The Sex Work Act 1994 helped improve the conditions for Victorian prostitutes, but it is no longer adequate. There has been a mushrooming of illegal brothels, with resultant neglect of health screening and security. In Fiona’s view, prostitution should be seen as a job, like any other. There are issues to do with planning and parking that need clarification, regulations about health checks that need review and consideration as to whether alcohol could be served on the premises.
Social isolation is a matter of increasing concern within our society. It is a health risk, undermining both physical and psychological well-being. In the United Kingdom there is a Ministry of Loneliness. Do we also need something similar? Fiona suggested that if this issue were given greater weight, it could become a benchmark against which all legislation is assessed, in much the same way that draft legislation is currently reviewed to check if it complies with the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. This additional screen could raise awareness and would help check whether decisions about urban planning projects, public transport networks and community facilities might aggravate or reduce social isolation.
Report by Jennie Stuart