Ladies and gentlemen, good morning.
I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Ngunnawal people.
I want to say thank you very much to Aunty Violet, as well – an institution here and very well respected by members of parliament, always provide a great welcome to country.
Some of us were anticipating stories on Cousin Stan. Perhaps you can provide some of those to us later on!
Thank you very much to Adeline as well, for that beautiful rendition of Advance Australia Fair.
To all of my Parliamentary colleagues, thank you very much for being here today. It is very difficult to get parliamentarians out to breakfast. There are events that go on all day and I have to be back up at the House by 8 o’clock. So, Mark I’m not going to be here for your speech but I’m sure you’ll send a copy through to me. So, it’s great to see you here as well.
Can I say thank you very much for the interaction that we’ve had over a number of years. In particular in relation to the work that the ACU is doing around veterans and helping people transition into a post-career life with the Australian Defence Force and that can be difficult for many Australians, as we know, particularly with their service and what they’ve been through. Your leadership has been quite exceptional.
Similarly with Martin. Thank you very much for your work at ACU, but to all the faith and religious leaders here today, it is a great pleasure to be here with you.
To your Excellencies, the Ambassadors of Argentina, Ireland, Panama and the Philippines. Thank you all for being here.
To Professor Stan Grant, for your leadership. Not just within the Indigenous community but what you do within the Australian media circles.
For our late sovereign – Queen Elizabeth II – faith was a constant source of personal comfort and reassurance, especially in difficult times.
Indeed, it was for many Australians as we faced the solitude of the pandemic and separation from families and loved ones.
With faith and confidence, our late Queen knew that the pandemic would pass, as she said, and that we would meet again.
So, here we today, and it’s with much joy then that we can reconvene this marvellous event after a two-year hiatus, that we can come together again as friends and as Australians of faith.
Of the eighteen national censuses held since 1911, the question on religious affiliation has always been voluntary.
The findings, of course, from last year’s census make for interesting reading.
The number of Australians, as we know, who stated they were not religious has increased from about 30 to 40 per cent between 2016 and 2021.
But we are far from being a godless society or indeed a godless country.
Around 54 per cent of Australians identified as religious – some 13.5 million compared with the 9.8 million who are not.
Of those, some 11 million Australians are of Christian denominations, with some 2.5 million being of other faiths.
Whilst there has been a decline in Christian affiliation overall, the number of Australians identifying as Muslim, as Hindus, as Buddhist, Sikhs and Jews have all increased since the last census.
Now, the sustained growth of these religious affiliations over many decades speaks to the influence and success that migration has played in the great building of our nation as we know it today.
Today, we are a nation of Indigenous heritage, of British inheritance, of Judeo-Christian tradition and migration achievements which has embraced people of many backgrounds, many faiths, and indeed those of no faith.
In 1998, John Howard discussed what he considered to be one of the greatest Australian achievements.
He said our country has been able to absorb people from more than 150 different countries with a remarkable degree of harmony and success unlike any other nation.
One of the traits which he defined as core to this achievement was:
‘a respect for the right of every Australian to treasure, to practice, and to mark his or her own cultural heritage consistent with their membership of the broader Australian community.’
Indeed, the tolerance which John Howard spoke about is enshrined in our Constitution.
It’s worth reminding ourselves of this in the current age and in some of the current debates.
It says, ‘the Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.’
Religious tolerance is therefore in our national DNA.
But concerningly, tolerance of course for religious belief is being tested.
All Australians of faith and all Australians who value freedom of religious association should be alarmed at the circumstances surrounding Andrew Thorburn’s resignation as CEO of the Essendon Football Club.
Why did Essendon management ask Mr Thorburn to choose between his job and his faith?
Not because of anything Mr Thorburn himself said publicly about his beliefs.
Not because he tried to impose his religious views on others.
Not because of anything abhorrent he did in the name of his faith.
Mr Thorburn kept his religious views to himself.
His faith to him was deeply personal – as it is of course for many.
There wasn’t a suggestion whatsoever that he had been discriminatory toward others.
No, his sin was simply to belong to a church.
A church where a senior pastor delivered a sermon in 2013.
We may disagree with the views and objectionable analogies expressed by that pastor.
The pastor himself has acknowledged his choice of words were wrong and sloppy.
But we must be clear-sighted about this incident.
The ultimatum put to Mr Thorburn was premised on two dangerous ideas:
One, the blurring of boundaries between the private and the public.
And, the second, guilt by association.
In the former, it is presumed the individual is considered incapable of moderating or separating their personal religious beliefs from the professional realm and from their work duties.
In the latter, one is judged not by their own words and actions, but by those of someone else and indeed, sentenced in a manner reminiscent of something from the medieval age.
This sort of incident can’t go past without significant examination.
It has again shone light on threats to freedom of religious expression and to the fundamental liberties which make our society tick.
In this instance, a corporate entity sought to make a Christian choose between his job and his faith.
Tomorrow, another entity could be exacting similar conditions on an Australian of Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, or indeed of any faith.
Now, it’s incumbent on all of us as political and faith leaders to stand together on this issue – to not vacate the public discussion.
We must call out religious intolerance wherever it manifests, regardless of the faith which is targeted.
If we don’t, our silence will surely be a signal to the intolerant that their intolerance is tolerated.
Merely being a person of faith must never be grounds for the interrogation of an individual’s soul or their expulsion from being considered for, or holding, a professional non-religious position.
The incident has been a significant awakening for the Australian public.
I don’t think we should make any mistake, what is on the precipice here is not just freedom of religion and association.
On the cliff face also stands freedom of thought, freedom of conscience and freedom of speech – the core tenets of individual autonomy and our democratic way of life.
My hope is that decent Australians, those of faith and those who aren’t religious will come together to unite and to calmly call out these deeply regressive and illiberal corporate behaviours.
My hope is that, as a nation, we push back against this corporate authoritarianism in which some boardrooms have put into practice a set of ideas which is not consistent with the beliefs that many of, indeed all of you, practice.
This corporate behaviour preaches inclusivity – but is deeply exclusive.
It moralises about diversity – but is profoundly censorious.
It advocates for justice – but it’s simply retributive.
In an Orwellian sense, we could say that this corporate authoritarianism acts under a slogan that ‘all people are equal, but some people are more equal than others.’
So, ladies and gentlemen, we must not simply dismiss the incident involving Mr Thorburn as something remote and unlikely to be repeated.
The fact is, it has occurred and it means there is an air of permissibility.
Indeed, Mr Thorburn’s case is not the first and it won’t be the last.
But it can be a turning point and provided we speak with a collective voice which champions our fundamental democratic liberties.
Provided that we point out in a sensible and reasonable manner the hypocrisy of those who preach tolerance but are intolerant in their actions.
So, thank you for the work that you do in the name of your faith, for being here today.
That, in itself, is a very significant expression of the way in which we work very well together – and we should celebrate that.
Thank you very much for being here today and on that note, I will allow breakfast to be served so that you can continue to enjoy your morning.
Thank you very much.