Dear Australians #2.2: Australia and Human Rights

WW1 and WW2 prompted the whole world to re-evaluate prejudices and the need for equality. In response to Hilter taking racial discrimination to the abominable level of genocide, discussions of basic human rights began to take place.

Australia had direct involvement in the United Nations formation of defining The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The documents contains 30 articles that are designed to ensure peace, liberty, and respect between individuals throughout the world. No single article is supposed to be taken as priority over another. For example, Article 18, which refers to religious freedoms (below), cannot be used as an excuse to attack someone’s honour and reputation, as defined in Article 12 (below). In such cases the right to freedom of religion is restricted so as not to impede other human rights.

Article 18


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.

Article 12


No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Australia and Human Rights

Australia’s acceptance of The Universal Human Rights was a great step towards ensuring a peaceful nation, as was desired by the writers of the constitution. Further, as a nation we are party to seven international human rights treaties. However, it wasn’t until 1986 that the government formalised policies through The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

AHRC is a comprehensive Act that covers religious freedom as follows (from the department of the Attorney-General):

“All persons have the right to think freely, and to entertain ideas and hold positions based on conscientious or religious or other beliefs. Subject to certain limitations, persons also have the right to demonstrate or manifest religious or other beliefs, by way of worship, observance, practice and teaching. Legislation, policies and programs must respect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, unless they clearly fall within one of the permissible limitations”.

Permissible limitations include:

  • protection against brainwashing or indoctrination
  • coercion which would impair a person’s freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice
  • conduct that is required or encouraged by a particular religion or belief that can occur criminal penalties
  • times when there is a need to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others
  • the prohibition on advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence

Whilst AHRC defines Australia’s laws pertaining to human rights, specific civil and criminal charges relating to particular breaches are legislated through several other federal, state, and territory Acts.

At a federal level, the balance between religious freedom and acts of discrimination work in conjunction with the following:

  • Racial Discrimination Act 1975
  • Sex Discrimination Act 1984
  • Racial Discrimination Act 1986
  • Disability Discrimination Act 1992
  • Age Discrimination Act 2004
  • Fair Work Act 2009

The Federal Government’s role of protecting people from inequality and harassment overlaps with individual state and territory responsibilities.

State and Territory Legislation

Each Australian state and territories has the capacity to create and enforce its own anti-discrimination legislations. See table below for summary.

Australian Capital TerritoryDiscrimination Act 1991
New South WalesAnti-Discrimination Act 1977
VictoriaEqual Opportunity Act 1977
Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001
TasmaniaAnti-Discrimination Act 1998
Northern TerritoryAnti-Discrimination Act 1996
QueenslandAnti-Discrimination Act 1991
South AustraliaEqual Opportunity Act 1984
Western AustralianEqual Opportunity Act 1984
Spent Convictions Act 1988

Australia has come a long way in overcoming bigoted views and discriminatory behaviours driven by religious beliefs. Nonetheless, tensions between differing belief systems and/or people with no religious beliefs still occur. Gaps in federal, state, and territory Acts resulted in the option being formed that either adjustments to the Sexual Discrimination Act needed to be made or a specifically designed religious discrimination act created. The arguments surrounding religious freedoms versus discrimination primarily hit upon issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. Ergo, the Morrison government chose to try to implement the controversial Religious Discrimination Bill.

Intertwined with the debate were repercussions of the 2017 referendum that allowed same sex marriages to be legally recognised.

80% of eligible Australians voted in the referendum, with results of 61.6% in favour of supporting same sex marriages. Personally, I am one of the 20% who were eligible but did not vote. The reason being that my original voting slip was stolen from my letterbox and I was not able return the replacement slip in time. (I know the original was stolen because it mysteriously turned up in my letterbox several weeks later, coincidentally, following a conversation I had with a neighbour – I think I stirred their conscience.)

The Plebiscite

40% of eligible Australians voted in the 2017 referendum against same sexed marriages. Given that in the 2016 census 52% of Australians identified as Christians it’s possible they made up a good proportion of the those who objected. Islamics (2.6% of the population) may also have had religious ideologies that persuaded them to vote in favour of only recognising opposite sex marriages.

As a general rule, Hinduism (1.9%), Buddhism (2.4%), and Sikhism (0.5%) don’t have any offical stance on the matter, so their votes could not have been based on faith. Judaism (0.4%) also generally has a progressive view of sexuality, except for fundamentalists, of which there are not many in Australia.

As for any of the 30% of Australians who identified as non-religious or other spiritual beliefs, who may have voted against same sexed marriages, they presumably did so due to personal convictions (or lack of education about sexual orientation).

Based upon the circumstantial evidence of many forms of Christianity having adverse attitudes towards homosexuality and transgenderism, I am quietly confident that it was this sector of the population who predominately objected to same sex marriages.

Of course, not all Christians agree with Biblical inferences that homosexuals are an abomination to humankind. If that was the case, and all Christians voted in the referendum, then the Christian ethos probably would not have prevailed and same sex marriage would not have been legalised. I guesstimate 40-50% of Christians voted against same sex marriages.

Part of Morrison’s selling point of a Religious Discrimination bill was to “bring balance” to religious freedoms. In other words, people who were pissed that the majority of Australian citizens democratically voted in favour of same sex balance, needed appeasing, or more precisely, given the right to discriminate. Somehow, this was going to fill gaps and make things fair for everyone.

Sexual orientation and gender identity issues have an extensive history that extends far beyond Australia’s colonisation and the formation of organised religions like Christianity, and looking at these helps to shed light on current arguments … Dear Australians #2.3: Let’s Talk About Sex …

This blog is part of a series that I hope will encourage deep, thoughtful, respectful discussions about issues relating to the Religious Discrimination bill. If you’d like to be kept up to date, subscribe to receive notifications of new posts by email.

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Dear Australians #2.1: We Need to Have a Heart to Heart Conversations About the Religious Discrimination Bill. I’ll Start …

References

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2017). Main Features – Results. Abs.gov.au; c=AU; o=Commonwealth of Australia; ou=Australian Bureau of Statistics. https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/1800.0

Rights in Australia – Parliamentary Education Office. (n.d.). Peo.gov.au. https://peo.gov.au/understand-our-parliament/how-parliament-works/system-of-government/rights-in-australia/

Feature image: Pix4free.org – link to – https://pix4free.org/