In a disturbing article published in The Epoch Times on July 14, it was revealed that the West Australian government had a policy where it could refuse to lease entertainment venues to groups with alternative views to the government.
Specifically, when the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) applied to hold functions at the Albany Entertainment Centre and Perth Concert Hall, the manager of the venues, the Perth Theatre Trust (PTT), relied on this newly implemented policy to reject ACL’s request.
The policy, which came into effect a few days after the overwhelming election victory of Mark McGowan’s Labor government, states that the Trust will reject applications “where the content of the event does not represent the views of the West Australian government or the vast majority of Western Australians.”
It is difficult to imagine a more blatant violation of the rights to the free exercise of religion, the right to free speech, and the principle, according to which a person should not be discriminated against on the grounds of religion or political conviction.
The policy involves content-based discrimination because the PTT would have to examine the “content” of the applicant’s event. It is also a mystery as to how “the views of … the vast majority of Western Australians” could be ascertained with confidence.
This odious treatment of the ACL surely violates Section 62 of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA) which states that it is “unlawful for a person who … makes facilities available, to discriminate against another person on the ground of the other person’s religious or political conviction—(a) by refusing … to make those facilities available to the other person.”
The PTT’s reliance on this policy raises some troubling issues.
First, the rejection of ACL’s application indicates that a political party—re-elected with a colossal majority—may be inclined to disregard the basic legitimate expectations of civil decency, and may develop authoritarian tendencies that abrogate the rights of people, whose views are deemed to be incompatible with the government’s secular views.
Second, this disgraceful episode proves that human rights and equal opportunity legislation are meaningless legislative documents, if even the government can violate them with impunity.
Surely, if the article in The Epoch Times is a factual account of the incident, the PTT’s rejection of ACL’s application represents an egregious violation of the legislative rights of people to hold unrestricted religious or political views. In such case, these laws merely amount to meaningless rhetoric and vacuous expressions of prejudice and bias which, rather than prohibiting discrimination, instead condone and promote discrimination. Anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws should be removed from the statute books if governments can violate them routinely with impunity.
Third, the actions of the PTT are a reminder that the free exercise of religion is not protected in Australia. Section 116 of the Australian Constitution, which states that the Commonwealth “shall not make any law … for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion” does not apply to the states.
Indeed, as a result, religion as such falls “under the residuary power of the States and not within a specific head of Commonwealth power the effect of Section 116 is limited.”
Fourth, ACL’s treatment illustrates the need for a Religious Discrimination Act, which would be binding on our secular leaders and respected by all people. It has been widely reported that the current Attorney-General, Michaelia Cash, intends to re-introduce the Religious Discrimination Bill later this year.
Personally, I have never been a supporter of legislating for rights, including freedom of religion, because, if the government is empowered to grant freedom of religion, it can also easily take it away. Instead, freedom of religion should be seen as embedded in our judicial culture and political institutions as an inalienable natural right.
However, the many attacks on religion and Christianity, so richly documented in the press, may well necessitate the adoption of such a law, even if it were to serve as a short-term panacea. Indeed, the proposed legislation may be necessary to stem the vicious attacks on religion, which progressive activists often describe as “superstition” and “unscientific.”
Fifth, at present, I am reading a book on religious violence in Pakistan. It is a harrowing story, which cruelly illustrates that intolerance, prejudice, bias, and ignorance can easily destroy a nation. The book portents what might happen to Australia if governments were to institutionalise religious intolerance. Is Australia slowly destroying itself by abrogating the rights of many people to religious freedom and free speech?
I am collaborating on a new book with Prof. Augusto Zimmermann based in Perth, titled “The Rise of the Illiberal Elites: Critical Reflections on the Lucky Country.”
In it, we deplore the decline of religious culture in Australia and the “corresponding belief that reliance on ‘science’ will solve all peoples’ ills and societal problems.” We remark that this development is deplorable because “whenever science solves a problem, it points to the existence of other problems, challenges, and mysteries which it cannot solve itself.”
We argue that the “fundamental values of our liberal tradition were exemplified, formulated, and wrought into the texture of our society by Christianity … as a way of life.”
But, equally important, we also argue that it is certainly not safe to assume that our democratic system of limited government and fundamental rights “will persist while the faith and doctrine that gave birth to it are being deliberately attacked.”
Indeed, historical evidence suggests, and common sense confirms, that the present denigration of Christianity and the abrogation of civil rights, exemplified by the actions of the PTT, is foreboding the unravelling of fairness and decency in the “Lucky Country.”
Gabriël A. Moens is emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean of law at Murdoch University. He has published a novel about the origins of the COVID-19 disease, “A Twisted Choice” and recently published a short story, “The Greedy Prospector” in an Anthology of short stories, The Outback (Boolarong Press, 2021).
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.