Listening to the debate in the House of Representatives on stem cell research over the last fortnight I finally realised that there was one subject being avoided like the plague. None of the majority of members supporting relaxation of the law to allow further research that I heard was prepared to come out and say that they were sick and tired of ethical questions being dominated by Christian beliefs.
Opponents of the bill were thrusting religious morality about the sanctity of life to the forefront of their speeches. The supporters, almost obsequiously, were paying respect to the right to hold such views while grabbing, almost shamefacedly, the rationalisation that the potential saving of lives as a result of the newly allowable research was reason enough to ignore the ethical difficulties.
What would have been refreshing was a member of parliament prepared to say, as that great philosopher of science, JBS Haldane, so pointedly put it, that “there is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god”. Or one who would quote the Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, saying no government has the right to decide on the truth of scientific principles, nor to prescribe in any way the character of the questions investigated. Instead it has a duty to its citizens to maintain the freedom, to let those citizens contribute to the further adventure and the development of the human race.
A speech by a proudly proclaimed agnostic or atheist along those lines would have been refreshing but there was not one while I was listening. There are some things, it seems, that politicians feel they must politely sidestep talking about even while they are in the process of changing them. So Australia will now have the research on artificially created life while Parliament still pretends that its laws are guided by Christian principles.
Political hypocrisy of another kind was evident as well this week in the response to Pauline Hanson, while on a book promotional tour, daring to talk about Muslim migrants eroding Australian values.
Politicians of all persuasions are well aware that an overwhelming majority of Australians believe that the country made a great mistake when it allowed a major influx of Muslim migrants.
John Howard has twigged to the need to react to the sentiment but is aware as well that our closest neighbour is a Muslim nation. His Government is thus attempting to disguise slowing down future Muslim immigration behind his code words of redefining multiculturalism and insisting on English as a prerequisite for entry.
Labor so far has done nothing but hope the problem goes away.
Pauline Hanson campaigning for a return to federal parliament will make that an impossibility. Hanson is quite prepared to call a Muslim a Muslim and pretending that she no longer has a following, as Howard did today, will not lessen the impact of her message.