HV Public Presentation by Victor Franco, 23 November 2023, at Balwyn Library
Report by Stephen Stuart
Victor Franco is a humanist councillor of the City of Boroondara who holds that good governance is inclusive of persons and yet secular. His father was an atheist and humanist, and Victor and his life partner have never had anything to do with religion. So when he was elected to council he was surprised to find that official meetings opened with a prayer to God. Local councils were not churches, and he was not there to advance the glory of God. He set out to find a way to change things.
He found that in 2019 more than half of the local councils in Victoria and New South Wales used a council prayer, while in Western Australia only 8% did so.
The custom was not a relic of colonial times, as one might think. A Victorian minister of local government was quoted on the subject of prayer, in 1906 (The Herald, 14 Jul 1906).
The practice of council prayer seems rather to have been a response to the Cold War. Christianity was called to counter the rise of godless communism. The Municipal Association of Victoria campaigned for council prayers in 1948. Kew and Hawthorn councils adopted the practice in that year, while Camberwell prevaricated until 1953, in the lead-up to the Queen’s visit of 1954. (Those suburban municipalities were later amalgamated as today’s City of Boroondara.) But it was a controversial subject. The Argus reported at the time that opinion was divided as to whether council prayers would be a unifying or a divisive influence. It is controversial again today, with Australian Christian Lobby claiming that our democracy is founded on Christian truth.
In Boroondara the long-established prayer read as follows.
- Almighty God, we humbly seek your blessings upon this Council.
Direct and prosper its deliberations to the advancement of your glory and the true welfare of the people of the City of Boroondara. Amen
As a conscientious objector Victor refused to take part in the prayer at the beginning of council meetings which were open to the public. He remained seated when the other councillors stood to pray, and they took offence. How dare he break council protocol! When he moved that the prayer be abandoned he was outvoted by 9 to 2, his only ally being a person of faith who respected the separation of church and state. Council ordered a community consultation about the question and was surprised – tho undeterred − that most of the submissions were against the prayer.
In June 2021 Council lost patience with Victor and formally censured him for breaching the councillors’ code of conduct, misusing his position as an elected councillor by expressing in the media personal opinions derogatory of council. The censure remains unresolved.
Victor persisted in the face of Council’s intransigence and was assisted by community representations to council, claiming that a Christian prayer was inappropriate for a multi-ethnic municipality. The 2021 Census revealed demographic changes in Boroondara. Humanists Victoria, Rationalists and Citizens
for a Secular Boroondara attended council meetings and supported Victor.
Victor sought legal advice to break the stalemate. He was lucky to find pro bono lawyers who discovered two points of contention: (1) the sectarian prayer was in breach of Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights & Responsibilities; (2) the action of prayer was not authorized in the Local Government Act 2020. Victor forwarded that advice to Council in January 2023 and gave notice that, if Council failed to abandon the prayer, he would take Council to court over the matter.
It was a big undertaking on Victor’s part. If he lost the case, there would be heavy court costs to bear. And Council would face the opprobrium of using ratepayers’ money in defence against human-rights charges.
But in February 2023 in a closed meeting Council decided to suspend the prayer and order a second public consultation. Again submissions came in, now 86% for discontinuing the prayer. Finally, on 23 October, another vote on the question of removing prayer from Council’s governance rules was held. It was passed, by 10 to 1. The majority said they voted begrudgingly, the prospect of court costs giving them no alternative; but, despite the submissions, they really wished the prayer could be retained.
Boroondara Councillors can now pray if they want, but not as part of official business. Victor is pleased. He wants to encourage more councils to review their prayer practice, altho using the threat of legal action is not to everyone’s taste. Twenty councillors from across Victoria have joined with him in sending an open letter to State government, Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission, Municipal Association of Victoria and Victorian Local Governance Association. No reply as yet.