By JAMILA RIZVI
Yes, I mean you. You, the ones who are living with your unmarried partners. You, the sexually active people without wedding rings on your fingers. You, who purchase and use contraceptive devices such as (gasp!) condoms or the pill. You who have sexual relations with people of the same gender… I’m talking to all of you.
So it turns out, the Government isn’t terribly troubled if you’re fired from your job for no other reason than the things you do in your private life are ‘against God’.
Newspaper reports today have revealed that a special exemption permitting the Catholic Church and other religious organisations to ignore much of this country’s anti-discrimination laws will remain intact. And who will they be allowed to discriminate against? You.
And this isn’t just about priests, ministers and members of the clergy. It goes much wider than that. So, that lovely receptionist Casey, who works the phones at the front office of your kid’s Catholic Primary School had better keep the fact she’s using IVF to herself. And your cousin Ben, shouldn’t bother going for that job running communications for a religious charitable organisation because they can legally refuse to hire him on the basis that his life partner happens to be a man.
Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby, Jim Wallace has confirmed that he has had a friendly chat and a cuppa with the Prime Minister several times to discuss this very issue. Now, the power of religious lobby groups like the one Wallace leads may not have the public prominence in Australia that they do in some other countries – but their influence shouldn’t be underestimated.
And according to Wallace (who has proved himself loudly and repeatedly to be no friend of the gay community), the Prime Minister “has no intention of restricting freedom of religion” when it comes to religious groups’ legal rights to discriminate when it comes to employment.
Un-holy mother of science.
That means, amendments to anti-discrimination laws that the Government is planning will not make the much-need change to the status quo. Religious organisations will be allowed to hire and fire people for being gay, or having sex before marriage, or any other such behaviour that could supposedly injure the “religious sensitivities of adherents of that religion”.
Now that’s not to say the the bulk of them will – more and more we’re seeing religious organisations embrace a more tolerant and inclusive position on these issues – but the fact remains that at least one very influential representative group, thinks these laws are absolutely necessary. And why would they be necessary if they weren’t going to be utilised?
So why is the Labor Party giving in to the Australian Christian Lobby on this issue before they’ve even engaged in the political fight in the first place? It’s all a political exercise in trying to stop Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott capitalising on a perceived advantage. Just like Coalition strategists are running interference with the prevailing community view that Abbott is anti-women’s rights, Labor are staunchly refusing to give up ground on the so-called ‘values’ debate.
The Government is terrified of religious organisations running a campaign against them that is based on values issues like this one. Much has been made of the fact the Prime Minister is an unmarried, atheist without children. And while the Coalition won’t attack her on this point precisely, they will seek to paint a picture of Abbott as the happy-families, community leader kinda guy.
It’s about contrast: Abbott delivers a Christmas message alongside his wife, poses for the Women’s Weekly with his daughters and talks about families like someone who knows just a little bit more about them than the Prime Minister. Communications specialists and political strategists say a little prayer, and snap – there’s the election in the bag.
Now, I’m a political pragmatist: A believer that the perfect should not be allowed to become the enemy of the good, that compromise is what gives us the ability to get things done, that settling for incremental change over no change isn’t settling at all. I firmly believe that in pursuit of the right cause – a pragmatic approach is what is best.
And while our Constitution enshrines Australian’s right to religious freedom and thus provides for the separation of the church from the State, there ain’t anything in there about the separation of the church from politics. So, I recognise that deals need to be done, bargains struck and compromises made to achieve an outcome.
But anti-discrimination laws and most particularly this one, aren’t something where the Australian Labor Party should be willing to compromise. This is a change that really matters. It’s not about symbolism or addressing surface level inequality but about putting a stop to actual discrimination that affects the ability of our citizens to enter into gainful employment.
As the law currently stands, Australia enshrines the rights of religious organisations to discriminate; we make it permissible. What is even more repugnant is that this discrimination is allowed to occur in organisations that receive funding from the Federal Government. That’s right, there are religious organisations that are perfectly content getting access to the taxes that gay and lesbian Australians pay, just so long as they aren’t the ones paying those ‘sinners’ in the first place.
You know, I’m not particularly fussed if religious groups want to place absurd and discriminatory restrictions on who can and can’t be involved in their organisation. It’s their club, they get to make the rules and it’s not a club I’m remotely interested in joining.
But when that club gets Government funding? Well, then you need to play by the same rules as everyone else.
Now I’m not religious, so I’m not going to be so presumptive at to try and speak for those who are. But I do think that Labor have it wrong on this one from both the idealistic and the pragmatic perspective. Because aside from the fact that pursuing this change is the RIGHT THING TO DO, I am going to venture that many Australians of faith aren’t with the Australian Christian Lobby on this one anyway.
Many Australians of faith are unmarried. Many of them are using condoms. Many of them are homosexual. And while they are respectful of their church’s position on many of these so-called value issues – that doesn’t mean it’s something they necessarily agree with. The employment of sinners by religious organisations is not something that keeps people up at night. Nor will it sway their vote.
So, how about this for some political pragmatism:
The chances are that Labor is going to lose this election. I desperately hope that doesn’t happen but it’s a very real and at this point in time, likely, proposition. And if the Labor Party is going down federally, why don’t they go down doing something that their members and supporters can be proud of.
Labor needs to remind the public what they stand for and show Australians that they mean it when they talk about fairness and equality for all. They need to prove that as a party they are willing and eager to find political compromise where necessary but that there are some things that matter too much and Australians’ rights to be treated fairly in the employment market – regardless of their religion or sexuality – is one of them.
It’s time for Labor to step up to rather than shy away from the big fights.
And I suspect that if they do, it might just mean those electoral prospects take a turn for the better.
Political disclaimer: Jamila Rizvi is a member of the Australian Labor Party and has worked for both the Rudd and Gillard Governments.