Kevin Rudd’s recent argument that Christians should get more involved in politics and Peter Costello’s 23 September address to Australian Christian Lobby National Conference have raised the ante yet again on religion and politics. Both assume Christian “values” underpin Australian culture.

But the central Australian values are secular. They are (1) scepticism towards all authority (2) mateship and (3) a fair go. These are essentially the values of the French Revolution: liberté, fraternité, égalité.

If Australia is to truly understand itself it has to review its secular origins and turn itself into a Republic with a constitutional separation of church and state and a neutral, even-handed government that favours neither religion nor aetheism. That is a political definition of secularism.

Australia now is a Constitutional Monarchy with no separation of church and state. To become a secular republic the Monarchy would have to be abolished and a referendum held to ask the people to confirm they wish to see the two great historical authorities, government temporal authority and church supernatural authority, separated by an amendment to the constitution. (The other separation of powers between Executive, Legislature and Judiciary was first expressed by French philosopher Montesquieu in his De l’esprit des lois of 1748.)

This would need to occur because the only section in our constitution dealing with religion, section 116, does not state there is a separation of church and state in Australia. The founding fathers intended separation but section 116 does not spell it out.

It’s passing strange there should be controversy concerning the part played by religious influence in contemporary politics when Australia is in effect a soft theocracy.

What has got under nearly everyone’s radar is the fact that in 1981 the High Court in the Defence of Government Schools (DOGS) case interpreted section 116 to mean there is no separation of church and state in Australia. The Court deliberately eschewed the US Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment of the US Constitution in the Everson case of 1947 confirming a “wall of separation”.

I say the DOGS 6-1 decision (with Lionel Murphy dissenting) was a political coup more serious than the Whitlam sacking. The judges who split hairs over the meaning of small words in section 116 to distinguish the section from its derivation in the First Amendment were faced with a constitutional fork in the road. Either (a) section 116 entailed separation of church and state with inevitable republican consequences, especially the matter over which the case was fought, the funding of religious schools, or (b) it could be given a black letter law interpretation which allowed the funding to flow (unlike in the US) and the implied threat to Constitutional Monarchy government could be quietly scuttled.

The six judges who had all been knighted not surprisingly chose the latter course. I say when they accepted knighthoods they compromised themselves if and when an issue with republican consequences came before them. That is what happened.

The result is we continue to be a soft theocracy becoming firmer as government decisions continue to meld the religious into government instrumentalities. The fact we are a soft theocracy is most evident symbolically: three Christian crosses, St George, St Andrew and St Patrick feature in the Union Jack in the corner of our flag flying atop our Parliaments; parliamentary sessions open with prayers where members pray for the kingdom of the Christian heaven to be established on earth “thy kingdom come” thereby ending representative democracy; the divinely ordained Queen’s face on our currency symbolises the unity of church and state in Australia.

The effect of all this is to tell Australians whose personal heritage is not British or Irish exactly where they stand: on the outer. These others can join the club but they must not rock the theocratic constitutional boat.

Also, at the end of the day, separation of church and state and secular government is ultimately about money. It is an elevated construction of the basic solicitor’s question: where is the money? In the ancien régime, and in some contemporary European states, church taxes take as much as ten per cent up front from citizens’ incomes. In Australia the churches take it mostly indirectly through tax exemptions, including no tax on their commercial businesses. Monarchies also have to be supported in the manner to which they are accustomed.

A constitutional separation of church and state within a secular republic could lead to a reconsideration of these privileges in Australia with an opt-out clause for the non-religious. (Following the Italian example I suggest giving 1 per cent of our income to the charity of our choice, like a Medicare levy.)

Max Wallace initiated the first critical conference on separation of church and state at the University of Melbourne in June this year sponsored by the Australian National Secular Association, the Council of Australian Humanists and Australian Rationalists.

Peter Fray

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