Secular government in a multicultural society?

HSV Public Lecture by Senator Richard Di Natale at Balwyn Library on 27 March 2014

Senator Richard Di Natale spoke about his personal background, how he formed his views on religion and how this led  him to advocate the removal of the Lord’s Prayer at beginning of parliamentary sessions. He is the son of Italian migrants who arrived in the 1920s. He was brought up in a traditional Catholic household, but his parents were not deeply religious. In his 20s, he started questioning his religion and realised that his values were then informed by a secular morality. In fact, religion and morality are absolutely not the same thing.

He started out as a medical doctor, working for a few years in Aboriginal health in the Northern Territory. He also worked overseas and in areas focused on drugs and alcohol. Richard was elected in 2010 as a Senator for the Greens and felt very honoured to take his place in the Parliament. However, he recalled one jarring memory that stood out during his swearing in; this was when the Senators recited the Lord’s Prayer. In a secular country where there is a (supposed) separation between church and state, he found this recital a bizarre experience. It was said to him that it’s a tradition to recite the Lord’s Prayer and he would get used to it. In fact, standing orders do require the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate to read a prayer for the parliament and the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of each sitting of the Parliament.

There have been a number of attempts to get rid of this tradition. In 2008 the former speaker, Harry Jenkins, attempted to get rid of the Lord’s Prayer and then Bob Brown, when leader of the Greens tried, but to no avail. What really triggered the current debate was a review of the national curriculum. When Kevin Donnelly was appointed to review the national curriculum he was quoted as saying:

When you look at parliaments around Australia – they all begin with the Lord’s Prayer. If you look at our Constitution, the preamble makes reference to God, and so it would be appropriate to teach about God and the Christian heritage in schools.

A day later, Richard joined a press conference on a separate issue and was asked about Donnelly’s quote. He made a simple comment, that if Kevin believes that the reason to teach more religion in schools is because the Parliament begins with a prayer in which we acknowledge God, then we should stop doing it. That statement drew comments from a number of people, calling him the anti-Christ and sending him hate mail. A later debate with Cory Bernardi on the TV program The Project led to a torrent of hate mail to his office. Richard mentioned a wonderful anecdote, describing one hate mail Bob Brown had received: “Dear Bob, as a committed Christian I think what you are doing is outrageous – you piece of shit!” The note was sold at a Greens fund raiser.

Donnelly and co’s argument goes something like this: We are a Judaeo-Christian country; that is our tradition and heritage and we should acknowledge and celebrate it.  And to oppose the Lord’s Prayer being recited amounts to not acknowledging that heritage. Eric Abetz (Leader of the Government in the Senate) has said, “refusal to acknowledge their country’s own heritage and rich traditions and beliefs is as sad as it is divisive. And we will refuse to air-brush it from history in our past.”

Richard asserted that parliamentarians are engaging in actual prayer in the nation’s parliament and it is not an attempt to acknowledge our past. The act of prayer is not simply an acknowledgement, but something very different. It is a disregard and exclusion of other religions.

He has been criticised from both sides of the fence. The gist of it takes the form that there are bigger issues The Greens ought to endeavour, and the Lord’s Prayer is not relevant.  Richard reflected that this goes to the heart of what informs policy, law makers and the role of religion is our national parliament.  It’s an issue that goes to say a lot about this country and in what we in fact embody.

Joe Hildebrand’s obscure piece on The Daily Telegraph in January 2014 goes to show the kind of response mainstream media has pursued this issue:

The Greens’ campaign to scrap the Lord’s Prayer from parliament is so exquisitely boutique, bourgeois and anally introspective that it is hard not to believe it was deliberately conceived in an effort to make the party even more repellent to middle Australia than it already is.

Indeed, it is almost as though the Greens’ Marketing Sub-Collective had stumbled across a hitherto undiscovered rock-dwelling hermit who didn’t already regard them as a pack of inner city wankers and thus determined that they would have to ratchet up their brand messaging.

Richard spoke briefly about the history of the Lord’s Prayer. It was formally introduced in the Standing Orders in 1903 and not in 1901 at Federation, as it’s widely believed. It was also vigorously debated back then. Politicians who debated in 1903’s Parliament reached the conclusion there is a separation between church and state and they had no doubts that it is enshrined in our constitution.

Sec 116 of the Constitution states:

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.

To get rid of the Lord’s Prayer requires a change to Standing Orders. There is a committee, made up of representatives across the parliament, that looks into these issues, but unless there is a majority it won’t pass.

Richard ended by saying we are a secular nation made up of many faiths and no specific faiths, different backgrounds and races and we are, after all, now in the 21st century. The parliament is changing but much more slowly than the rest of country, and it’s time that its practices reflected that. Richard concluded by saying “all he was trying to do with his attempts was to bring the parliament to the 21st century”.

Report by Inga Anthonipillai

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