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Federal

Jun 30, 2010

Gillard's not our first atheist

Julia Gillard will not be hurt by revealing she is an atheist. Of the 12 prime ministers preceding her, Kevin Rudd alone was overtly Christian, writes press gallery veteran Rob Chalmers.

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Julia Gillard will not be hurt by revealing (when questioned, note) she is an atheist.

Of the 12 prime ministers preceding her, Kevin Rudd alone was overtly Christian. He wore it like a neon sign on his sleeve. Press conferences outside church on a Sunday were common. For sheer crassness, it was hard to top the efforts of Rudd in lobbying the Pope to declare Mary McKillop a saint.

It beats John Howard’s performance of visiting Bob Santamaria on his deathbed. Howard must have known that Santamaria, although the fearsome enemy of Communism, could not stand him. In the end none of this helped Rudd when the polls began to drop.

Of the PMs who came to, or remained in office, as a result of an election, neither Curtin, Chifley, Menzies, Holt, Gorton, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating or Howard was regularly seen on their knees, apart from funerals and weddings. (I include those who remained in office as a result of an election because some became PM as a result of changes in party leadership — for example, Gorton became PM on the death of Holt and subsequently won the 1969 election).

Hawke as PM was an agnostic and Whitlam a proud atheist. Whitlam earned the undying hatred of the churches when he removed the sales tax from the contraceptive pill for women. The general population thought it a great idea.

The founding fathers wisely decided that Australia should have a secular Constitution, not attached to any religion. Whitlam’s most famous reference to the Almighty came with his dismissal by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr in 1975. Then came the dramatic reading of the instrument of dissolution of the parliament on the front steps of the building by Kerr’s secretary, David Smith. The steps were crowded with onlookers and MPs and Whitlam was slightly behind Smith looking over his shoulder.

When Smith finished his reading with the standard exhortation ‘God save the Queen’, Whitlam told those assembled: “Well may he say God save the Queen, for nothing will save the Governor-General.”

Last Easter, the churches and atheists had a good old stoush on whether or not there is a God. Whatever the intellectual argument, it’s clear most Australians couldn’t care less about God.

Bureau of Statistics figures show that in 2001 barely 10% named a Christian religion to which they adhered. Between 1996 and 2001 (a mere five years), the number of adherents dropped by 7%. The biggest denomination, Catholic was a mere 764,800 in 2001, amounting to a dismaying drop (for the church) of 13%. Anglican/Protestant, the next biggest denomination at 759,000, was steady.

Only the Holy roller, hot gospeller, minority groups gained substantial ground. Church attendance is currently less than 8% of the total population and those at church are mostly grey haired old ladies.

The small Muslim population is, of course, devoted to their Mosque and there is a much smaller group of Buddhists.

Fortunately the Almighty, unlike the unfortunate United States, does not receive calls from political leaders (even Rudd when PM) to assist them in their various missions. George Bush was always calling on Him (or Her for the sisterhood) for assistance in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Canberra, the Lord’s Prayer is read by the speaker and senate president every day to start proceedings. This was not the practice in the first parliament after Federation and it was because of pressure from a much larger (proportionately) population of Christians that the parliament agreed to prayers.

Gillard will of course show respect to those who have religious faith, but Australians generally, apart from having no interest in religion, regard it as a private matter as they do s-xual preferences of others. Tony Abbott, who once trained for the priesthood, is a devout Catholic, but will not attempt to make anything of Gillard’s atheism.

He should make sure that every Coalition MP gets this message.

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