Liberal Senator for the ACT, Senator Gary Humphries: 'My recent tour of Israel and the West Bank (and Religion & Politics)'
I want to particularly thank Capital Jewish Forum for its tolerance in inviting me to address you after having had an invitation since last November and having to abandon you only a few days before. I had the best possible excuse – I was travelling to Israel! What better excuse could I have than that?
I wanted to start by saying that I was going to somewhat depart from the agenda you have set for me. Having been to Israel in December, having been embroiled more recently in religious issues – you’ll probably be aware of what I’m referring to – has reminded me that there’s an important, but not well articulated publicly, debate about the intersection between politics and religion in Australian society. I wanted to start my remarks tonight by saying something about that.
Of course, when I went to Israel I was visiting the world’s only Jewish state. States with that official enshrinement of a single faith are relatively rare – at least at the official level. And that concept of a nation-state is of course quite unknown and strange to people with experience of Australian government. So it prompted in me questions about the extent to which faith and democratic values can mix; the tension between religions and democratic institutions ought to be understood and debated and we should come to a view with respect to those questions.
You’ll be aware that a few weeks ago this question came home to me in a fairly dramatic way when I tabled a petition in the Federal Parliament. It was a petition from three people; the petition called for a pro-Christian immigration policy to be instituted in Australia, for there to be 10 year moratorium on Muslim immigration to Australia on the basis that this was better for Australian society. And I was a little unlucky that the issue attracted so much attention – I discovered later that a petition of the same words had been tabled not once or twice but 47 times before I tabled my petition, and by a large number of members of Parliament including a few Coalition MPs, some independents and 5 or 6 members of the Labor Party including the Speaker of the House Harry Jenkins, and the former Defence Minister John Faulkner.
And why the 48th presentation of this petition should have attracted the attention in the media that it did I’m not sure, but that’s how it turned out.
I struggled to explain to some in the media, and some organisations I had dealings with particularly in the Islamic community in the ACT, that my tabling of the petition was not an expression of my views. You see, one can’t write to the Parliament. You can write to members of the Parliament, but you can’t present a letter to the Parliament. There’s no means by which the Parliament receives correspondence in that form. The long-established form by which citizens correspond with the Parliament is through petitions, and therefore petitions can and often are presented by a single person.
My view is that providing the petition conforms with the Standing Orders and conventions of the Senate (or House of Representatives), there’s an obligation to receive that point of view in the same way you receive emails and letters. You will filter those you think worth considering, but you will certainly receive everything that comes to you.
There were two disturbing things that flowed from that. One was the misunderstanding ventilated in the media which led to some unfortunate and ill-placed criticism. The other disturbing thing was that I subsequently received a flurry of correspondence from a number of quarters from people who were very supportive of me, and said ‘about time someone did something about these bloody Muslims’. So I’m not sure which was more distressing to have to deal with, but it certainly brought my attention to a lot of bigotry in Australian society.
People said to me subsequently ‘wouldn’t it have been better not to have stirred that pot’? I can’t say I enjoyed much of the publicity, but I would say quite emphatically – and I did to a meeting I had with a number of Muslims in the ACT recently – that I think it is in most cases preferable to have these points of view in a public format where they can be seen, the arguments can be listened to, and then if necessary to reject them. It would be a disaster if channels for such points of view, distasteful or regrettable though they may be, were cut off from public debate altogether and driven underground. I therefore stand by the view that the document should have been tabled.
I think it gives rise to the question of what the role of religion is in Australia, and what role it plays in the government of the country. We know from the 2001 and 2006 censuses that there could be said to be a decline in religious adherence across the board in Australian society. There are some 800,000 more people over this interval who expressed themselves to have no religion. That demonstrates, I think, that there is some weakening of the sense that Australia is a predominately Christian country with a powerful exertion of Christian influence in the way Australia is governed.
It’s significant to note that the number of people who expressed themselves to be Atheist, people who avowedly say there is no god, is probably a smaller number – some have suggested it could be as small as 50,000 people. So I think a lot of those 3.7 million would associate with some religious traditions, but the figures are unfortunately not very clear from the census about those sorts of things.
The sense as a nation that there’s been declining religious adherence, and a decline in the influence of churches, has led us to give a new validity to secularism and the avoidance of religious overtones in debates and discussions of public issues. There’s almost a desire to de-emphasize religion, to wash the religious flavour out of public debates. And that’s manifested itself in a number of ways. In some parliaments – the ACT parliament conspicuously – prayers are no longer said at the beginning of the day. Leaders tend to avoid public acts of faith – although there are some notable exceptions to that. We tend less often to mark national milestones in an overtly religious way. And even this building, though it’s more than 20 years old, is caught up in that concept. Unlike many other parliaments around the world this building doesn’t have a chapel. Some of you would have seen the ‘M’ button in the lift coming up– that refers to the “meditation room”, which is the concession that the builders made to spirituality, so people can go to the meditation room and contemplate the eternal and the supernatural. But it’s not a very satisfactory alternative to a chapel in my view, but that’s the way things went at that time. There’s also a discussion about the privilege of churches, and ongoing debate about what those privileges should be.
Now though I understand why this has come about, I think this new secularism is to be regretted. I think Australia can still justifiably call itself a faith-based nation, but the nature of the faith or faiths is very different to what it was a couple of generations ago. Faith, I think, should still be celebrated, certainly acknowledged. The roots it has put down in our society certainly ought to be celebrated and explored, and in particular understood by everybody who goes through our school system, and it should certainly inform our discussion at every level – including at the level of politics, the decision-making that goes on in this building.
I was having a conversation with somebody earlier today about the new faith of environmentalism. How we have this great doctrine of environmentalism, and there are believers and non-believers. We have a yearning for acts of supplication, of observance, but those acts are not always to traditional religions!
We’ve almost elevated what used to be said by our mothers – ‘in polite conversation you don’t discuss religion or politics’ – and we’ve sort of taken that too far with respect to debates at a political level.
I said that this approach was flawed, and I think it’s flawed for a number of reasons.
First of all, we need to acknowledge that religion and politics are inherently about the expression of values in our society. That is how we govern our nation, that is how we govern ourselves and our communities. We separate those two issues from values at our peril. It may seem on occasions as if we are values-averse as a community and nation. We tend to be less ideological and dogmatic about the things we say in politics than might have been the case a couple of generations ago (for example in the debates about the Communist Party and its abolition) but we never will divorce politics from values anymore than we can divorce religion from values. And I think that the politicians and the political parties which are most successful are the ones whose values systems are the easiest to see and understand by the broader population. When people can see what you are trying to do and when they can see the philosophy behind where you’re going they’re more likely to trust you, even when they disagree with the way you do things or with particular planks of the platform.
The second thing is that the playing field for politics has been levelled in recent decades. We no longer have a political system which is dominated, as it used to be, by Protestants. Today that dominance has been overtaken partly in a sense by Catholics, and partly by other faiths. The present Parliament has two Jewish members, it has its first Muslim member, it has more Catholics than was the case a few parliaments ago, and it also has much more crossover of those faiths between the parties. Back in the day when Menzies founded the Liberal Party it was very much a Protestant party and the Labor Party was very much a Catholic party.
Fortunately for me as a Catholic that has changed, and I’m pleased that it has. I was told by one political scientist that the Government I led in the ACT a few years ago was Australia’s only all Catholic cabinet – all its members were Catholics or Catholics. Certainly today there’s more of a sense of all religions being in play, and that’s certainly a good thing because it shows power is not being exercised by one faith alone.
I think people are more comfortable when they can identify where people are coming from, what their terms of reference are. And although one’s adherence to a religion doesn’t fully describe what your values system is, it does give people clues and signals and it helps them understand what’s going on. It also means that the expression of the churches particularly, and this applies to other religions, needs to be more firmly articulated by the churches themselves and not through the whispers that used to take place at the church doors as politicians went out of Sunday Mass or at dinners et cetera. That sort of understated level of influence is much less prominent today, though it no doubt still happens from time to time, and the positions of the churches can now be discerned by what they publicly say about issues. They will go to the media and say ‘we believe this, politicians should do that’, and people know where they stand. They know what the churches are saying, they know the backgrounds of the politicians who are listening, and thus they know as citizens where the key players stand on those issues.
I remember speaking to a soldier who had come back from Iraq, an Australian soldier, and he said his impression of interactions with people in Islamic societies was that they were more disturbed when they met Westerners who had no particular faith system than those who clearly said they were Christian or Jewish or whatever. They knew where they stood with these people; they didn’t know where they stood with people who expressed no faith.
The next reason we should eschew this approach is that we need to understand the development of our country, and we should be honouring the heritage of our country, including its religious heritage. That heritage has absolutely shaped the Australia we have today, and rather than pretending it doesn’t exist by washing the religious elements out of our debates, we should be prepared to acknowledge them. So for instance we should be proud of the fact that Sir Isaac Isaacs was not just the first Australian to be our Governor-General but also the first Jew to hold that position. Underplaying that particular fact out doesn’t advance community harmony, but does remove a rich thread from the fabric of our history.
Having listed the reasons we should resist the pressure to diminish religious influences in national debates, we still need to understand the constraints of our new approach. The elevation of religious voices into the public debate obviously has to be done in a way that acknowledges that Australia is a very different place to what it was 50 or 100 years ago. We have a great heterogeneity of our religious practices and those loyalties should be capable of being heard in all sorts of ways. Rather than pretending they’re all in the background they should be in the foreground, but reflecting that diversity.
I think it’s a bit regrettable that this building has been used all too rarely for religious observances. We don’t have a National Cathedral like Washington, or Westminster Abbey in London, and we need more than a place with slight religious connotations to mark national occasions. I’d like to see more expression of religion at important national occasions. I note for example that we celebrate Long Tan Day every year on ANZAC Parade at the Vietnam memorial. Buddhism is apparently one of the fastest growing religions in Australia and Buddhists were of course caught up in that conflict, but we don’t see any overtly Buddhist element to that ceremony, and that would be a change that we should perhaps consider.
Having spoken about these issues in various ways in the past, I found myself appointed the other day as co-convenor, along with ACT Senator Kate Lundy, of the Parliamentary Friends of Inter-Faith. This group has been set up with the express purpose of remedying this problem. We have a multiplicity of voices that aren’t being heard inside the Federal Parliament and we should be making that happen, and this group was designed to help that occur. And Jeremy Jones from the Jewish community was very much part of that discussion which took place here a couple of weeks ago.
So that’s my discourse over my question of faith and politics. I do want to touch on the other topic of my trip to Israel. I’m sorry not to bring my slides along, but if you want to see them it would be very easy to arrange!
It was an extraordinary experience, but it was a very short trip – it was less than 6 days. We were moving from place to place, we literally went the length and breadth of the country in the space of those 6 days, and we met a huge number of people. Being there reminded me of how much as a child I’d seen Israel as a plucky little nation that was surrounded by enemies, and deserved to be supported. I remember being in London in 1973 when the Yom Kippur War broke out and having some Jewish friends and seeing their distress at what was going on and feeling a yearning to help them overcome their distress.
The achievements of Israel are really quite extraordinary. It’s particularly stark when you look around the region and you see how backward many of the societies are in that region. But Israel’s capacity to do things as a nation, the efficiency of its ability to realize great national visions and to do things that in this country would be extraordinarily hard to get off the ground – you’d need 50 inquiries before these things would happen! – that’s extraordinary in any context, and I was pleased to see that first hand.
As I said before Israel is an officially Jewish state, and that’s incongruous in our experience, but the historical reasons for that are not hard to understand. And of course it’s not incongruous against the background of the other nations of the Middle East, some of which aren’t expressly Islamic but behave as if they were Islamic states.
The thing I most came away with was that contrast between Israel and its environment, its neighbourhood. It reminded me how much of a country under siege it is. I get the impression that its sense of isolation is probably greater today than it has been for a long time. It certainly has more vocal and articulate enemies than it had at the time of the Yom Kippur War, and that’s troubling. Its achievements ought to have earned it more of a sense of its place in the community of nations than it is credited for by so many in the media in particular. And the recent wave of people power movements across the Middle East and elsewhere I suspect is going to make that isolation more pronounced.
It’s a sad truth – and this was brought home by the revelations by WikiLeaks – that the governing elites of many Arab nations around Israel are much more sympathetic and prepared to work with Israel than the general populations under them actually are. And the extent to which those nations throw off those elites and become more democratic, if that’s what happens, potentially spells more hostility for Israel and some of its key neighbours.
I watched this people power process with some sense of pleasure that these tin-pot dictators were being disposed of at last –nobody could be displeased to see Muammar Gaddafi bite the dust – but I’m not sure it necessarily spells an outbreak of wonderful Western-style pluralistic democratic tolerant societies of the kind Israel is, and of the kind countries in the West are.
In terms of what Israel should do, I was particularly struck by the contrast between the quite plausible arguments put forward about Israel’s settlements in the West Bank versus the perception of the policy in the West as being reprehensible. The gulf was enormous, and that worried me greatly because I felt that there needed to be either some attempt to bridge that gulf so that people were better informed about it, or an acceptance that the policy was un-saleable and needed to be rethought.
So I’m happy to expand on those points, show my slides perhaps! I come back with a sense of admiration for Israel and a sense of the achievements of Israel and its supporters around the world in making this incredible experiment work. A hope through the storm of changes rushing through this region we can see some way of Israel getting more settled, better understood and with a more secure future. And indeed the debate in Australia wouldn’t be hurt by an understanding that religion is not an irrelevancy, and ought not to be swept under the carpet, but should be a central part of the debate. It certainly helps to explain what’s happening in the Middle East at the moment.
Thank you very much.