Freedom from discrimination in relation to religion in the ACT

Thank you, Madam Speaker. I am delighted that Ms Cody brought this matter of public importance before the Assembly this afternoon, and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to it for a few moments.

Freedom from discrimination is an essential element of a free and just society. As made clear in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law’. In addition, ‘All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination’.

The Universal Declaration then clearly enumerates the various rights regarding which all people must be protected against discrimination, including the following:

  • ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance’.

This freedom of conscience is one of the fundamental human rights because if a person is not allowed to sincerely hold genuine thoughts, beliefs and values, then that person lacks access to an authentic life. It is, of course, equally essential that a person be allowed to act with authenticity on those beliefs and values as long as doing so does not impact on the health or safety of another.

But the freedom of belief is more than just an issue of conscience. For many people, what they believe deeply is an essential part of their cultural identity. This is why, in the anthropological literature, religion is always classed as part of culture.

As Shadow Minister for Multicultural Affairs, I am particularly sensitive to making sure that this aspect of cultural identity is protected. Migrants, refugees and those who belong to ethnic minority groups must be kept safe in their right to believe whatever they choose – including nothing at all! – and to speak and act in accordance with those beliefs.

As a land that has experienced many waves of migration, Australia has often struggled with these basic protections. For example, the first priest who was allowed to say mass for Irish Catholic convicts in colonial New South Wales was James Dixon, a convict himself, in 1803. This lasted only one year. When the Castle Hill Rebellion broke out, Governor King withdrew Dixon’s privileges, and it was another 16 years before mass was legally celebrated again in the colony. Irish Catholics in colonial Australia no doubt understood that an essential part of their cultural identity was being suppressed.

Our modern nation has of course come far in its ability and willingness to protect basic human rights, but multicultural Australians still sometimes face significant obstacles. When the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance visited Australia in 1996, he raised concerns about impediments to the establishment of places of worship for Muslims. These obstacles ‘included planning zone requirements that make it difficult to establish new places of worship, even in areas where there are concentrations of followers’. Recent news reports contain examples of Muslim Australians also facing frustration in getting schools and renovations approved by local councils. Those wishing to construct Christian schools, Hindu temple complexes and other places of essential cultural identity have faced similar frustrations. This must not be!

Living in a land that says, essentially, you can hold deeply cherished cultural values, but don’t talk about them, act on them or make them too obvious by getting together in purpose-built places to fulfil them is unacceptable, Madam Speaker. So is having to live with the fear and uncertainty that comes from having places of worship vandalised with threatening messages, as has happened in recent months near a Jewish synagogue in Canberra.

Migration to Australia is increasing our religious diversity, and this is a good thing, in my opinion. Islam is the second largest religious group in the nation, whilst Buddhism is third and Sikhism is now fifth. In fact, the number of Sikhs living in Australia has risen 500 per cent just in the past ten years.

In a truly multicultural society, it is essential that these new Australians enjoy freedom from discrimination for any reason, whether it is because of their language, the way they look, the way they do things, or what they believe and hold most dear. It is my wish, Madam Speaker, that all Canberra residents regardless of their beliefs be free from discrimination in relation to religion. This is an essential aspect of what it means to be truly multicultural.

Thank you.

#MattersofPublicImportance #MulticulturalAffairs

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