09 November 2015, The Tablet

Those who mocked former Catholic PM are shameful bigots

Australia's Attorney-General has accused those who ridiculed former Prime Minister Tony Abbott on the basis of his Catholic beliefs of "bigotry at its most shameful".

Senator George Brandis, QC, said Christians, particularly Catholics, were routinely the subject of mockery and insult by prominent writers and commentators.

Opening the Australian Human Rights Commission's Religious Freedom Roundtable in Sydney last week, Senator Brandis said there were reasons to be fearful for religious freedom and religious tolerance in Australia.

"In Australia today, we have somewhat inconsistent attitudes to religious tolerance," he said.

"Members of the Islamic community are sometimes the victims of suspicion and hostility, directed against them by those ignorantly seeking to blame terrorist violence upon Koranic teaching.

"Members of Christian faiths – in particular the Catholic faith – are routinely the subject of mockery and insult by prominent writers and commentators, provoking (former High Court of Australia Justice) Mr Dyson Heydon's observation, in his Acton Lecture last year, that "anti-Catholicism in Australia now might be called the racism of the intellectuals" (The Tablet, 26 April 2014) – or perhaps he should have said, the pseudo-intellectuals.



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"The incessant, smearing ridicule of the former Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, on account of his religious faith was bigotry at its most shameful – made worse, if that is possible, by the added hypocrisy of the fact that many of those very same people like to pose as the enemies of bigotry.

"So, one can be forgiven for being fearful for religious freedom – certainly, for religious tolerance - in Australia. It is the work of this Roundtable to identify some of the challenges which this alarming emergence of intolerance of religious faith, by some of the most voluble elements in the community, presents, and to develop strategies and understandings which promote a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect within a culture of freedom."

Last year, Senator Brandis said while defending the Abbott Government's controversial proposals to change the Racial Discrimination Act that in a free country, "people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive or insulting or bigoted". The proposed changes were later withdrawn.

Mr Abbott, a former seminarian, won Australia's Federal (General) Election in September 2013 but was deposed by his party in September this year and replaced by Mr Malcolm Turnbull. Senator Brandis and Mr Turnbull are also Catholics.

The Roundtable - which drew criticism from some quarters over its composition, particularly who among the Muslim community was represented - included members of the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Baha’i, Russian Orthodox and Buddhist faiths, as well as representatives of the Rationalist Society, the Humanist Society, the Atheist Foundation and the Church of Scientology.

Senator Brandis said the purpose of the Roundtable was to encourage a conversation among people of many different religious faiths, as well as people who did not profess a religious faith but who, nevertheless, took an interest in religious issues.

Senator George Brandis, left, has labelled some critics of former Australian PM Tony Abbott, right, as hypocriticsSenator George Brandis, left, has labelled some critics of former Australian PM Tony Abbott, right, as hypocritics


"Conversations such as this are useful in shaping the Government's agenda, so far as it affects both people of religious faith and people who do not profess religious beliefs, but may, nevertheless, in various ways be affected by the intersection of religion and society," he said.

He concluded his address by quoting a 1942 broadcast of Australia's longest-serving Prime Minister and founder of the Liberal Party to which Senator Brandis belongs, Sir Robert Menzies (PM from 1939-41 and 1949-66), referring to the religious conflicts of 17th century Britain: "… The religious freedom for which the Scottish Covenanteers fought was freedom for all, Catholic or Protestant, Jew or Gentile … [T]o deny it [is] to go back to the dark ages of man. Religious persecution is the denial of freedom.

"Freedom of worship is the victorious enemy of persecution ... There is nothing defiant or sectional about a demand for genuine freedom of worship, which is freedom for all … We are a diversity of creatures, with a diversity of minds and emotions and imaginations and faiths. When we claim freedom of worship we claim room and respect for all."

Human Rights Commissioner Mr Tim Wilson said people of different beliefs needed to be active partners in reshaping the conversation about religious freedom if it was to be preserved in law.

“Increasingly non-faith groups are calling for freedom from religion. And religious communities have raised concerns about the declining respect for religious freedom as part of the human rights discussion," he said.

“True pluralism requires respecting the importance of religion in a multi-faith society. The challenge is how.”



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