What are we going to do to advance secularism in Australia?

Our theme today, as I understand it, is: ‘what are we going to do to advance secularism in Australia?’ The main problem is the same as it has ever been: there is no constitutional separation of church and state in Australia, either federally or within the states. This means government can fund and privilege religion as it sees fit. That qualifies Australia as a soft theocracy rather than a secular democracy.

Australia’s political-religious complex was contested in the High Court last year arguing federal funding for religious chaplains in public schools was unconstitutional. For technical, legal reasons this was not an establishment clause case asking whether s.116 of the constitution means separation of church and state. The case was won, but then the government legislated over the head of the High Court to continue funding the chaplains. The plaintiff, Ron Williams, has issued another writ to contest this legislation but I suspect it won’t be a separation of church and state case.

No major political party will ever legislate for separation of church and state although I have a petition here today calling on the government to do just that. See me afterwards if you would like to sign it. The point is just to get in their face with this issue. I was pleased that it was signed by Barry Jones, the former president of the Labor Party.

Given no real possibility of federal legislation, the High Court is, I suggest, the most likely option to address the question of separation in an effective way.

There are four possible routes:

 

  • I could be wrong and the next case contesting the new legislation allowing funding of chaplains, if it happens, may have a church-state component;
  • when the Gonski funding for public education fails to materialise we could capitalise on public anger and re-run the 1981 Defence of Government Schools case where it was decided that federal funding for religious schools was not unconstitutional on the grounds that the money was for education not religion. That route is fraught with danger for public schools should we lose;
  • we could contest the new federal Discrimination Act, arguing the exemptions which allow religions to discriminate against employees on the grounds of their religion are unconstitutional. This new law allows religions to sack gays and anyone else whenever it suits their religious purposes.
  • we could argue the tax exemptions for religion are unconstitutional. This may be the way to go because, I suggest, there is a lot of mileage in the wealth of the churches.

Here is the net equity and cash and bank balances of the top fourteen religious organisations in New Zealand from the data bases of the New Zealand Charities Commission. (SLIDE 2).  I can’t give you the Australian wealth figures because religious organisations have been exempted from reporting to the new Australian Charities Commission.

ORGANISATION NET EQUITY CASH/BANK
Catholic Diocese Auckland $695,018,000 $5,810,000
Salvation Army NZ Group $425,238,000 $17,343,000
Dilworth Trust Board [Anglican] $390,691,000 $46,436,000
Catholic Archdiocese Wellington $329,234,465 $3,161, 919
St John’s College Trust Board[Anglican] $315,775,000 $13,085,000
Catholic Diocese Palmerston Nth $241,816,810 $2, 670, 134
McCauley Trust [Catholic] $198,311,597 $45,635,341
Catholic Diocese of Christchurch $187,287,898 $887,982
Catholic Diocese of Hamilton $177,640,036 $3,576,187
Church of JC Latter-Day Saints $173,404,000 $7,339,000
Selwyn Foundation Group[Anglican] $162,733,000 $21,094,000
Anglican Diocese of Christchurch $161,483,732 $3,175,513
Catholic Diocese of Christchurch (2) $137,818,000 $3,785,000
Seventh Day Adventist Church of NZ $131,414,054 $37,413,435

 

In total, religious organisations in New Zealand report they have $13.3B in assets of which $744M is in cash and bank accounts. If they are this rich in New Zealand, how rich are they in Australia, and indeed, the United States? Could the Catholic Church in Australia fund its own schools? It is likely they are the richest church in New Zealand despite only 10 per cent of New Zealanders indentifying as Catholic. 

It’s important to note that these figures don’t take into account the fringe benefits of individual ministers of religion. Instead of taking say, an income of  $100,000, these citizens can legally substitute their church paying their mortgage or rent, the cost of running a car, school fees for their children, and sundry other benefits, in place of income. This effectively lowers their taxable income below the tax threshold so they can pay no tax at all. There is also the hot button that religious organisations pay no rates on church properties. 

Given this, I think attacking the tax exemptions for religion in the courts could be the way to go. It‘s a hip-pocket nerve issue as it affects all taxpayers.

There has already been a step in this direction. In 2008 disaffected Catholics attempted a case in the High Court arguing federal funding for the Pope’s World Youth Day in Sydney was unconstitutional. It didn’t make it to the full bench because two Catholic judges, including the Chief Justice, said the writ was ‘vexatious’.

However, in fact, the plaintiff’s barrister, Peter King, had a clever argument. He said the Court found in the 1981 Defence of Government Schools case that federal funding for religious schools was for education, not religion, as I mentioned. If that is so, he argued, how can $20M of federal funding for the Pope’s big event in Sydney not be unconstitutional? In 1981 the Court, with its hand on its heart said, ‘oh no, the money is not for religion’. Now here in 2008 was a case when the money is clearly for religion and they scuttle the case.

It’s a lot more complicated than that, but, I believe, an establishing clause argument could be constructed and won. All we lack is a few hundred thousand dollars to have a go.

Our theme today, as I understand it, is: ‘what are we going to do to advance secularism in Australia?’ The main problem is the same as it has ever been: there is no constitutional separation of church and state in Australia, either federally or within the states. This means government can fund and privilege religion as it sees fit. That qualifies Australia as a soft theocracy rather than a secular democracy.

Michael Gawenda’s comment in The Age (June 26, 2008) that “there is no constitutional separation of church and state in Australia” was the first time those words have appeared in any Australian newspaper under the by-line of a respected commentator. The former editor-in-chief of The Age could draw this conclusion as he had been reporting from the US for many years as a political correspondent. Living among American political culture and looking back at Australia from that standpoint, he could see what nearly every other Australian journalist or political commentator has failed to see.