bill of rights james paterson

Senator James Paterson

Conservatives averse to a bill of rights are correct to be wary of the push to entrench religious freedoms in Commonwealth legislation. It stands as the best opportunity to override resistance within both sides of politics to an effective bill of rights.

The case put forward by some Liberals for protections for freedom of religion has an innate flaw (and, as James “Desperate for Preselection” Paterson’s humiliation by Hamish Mcdonald yesterday shows, has been argued badly; we await the inevitable letter of complaint from Mitch Fifield). The rights of the religious remain entirely unaffected in Australia; what has been rolled back is the irrational and often superstition-based impact on others of the actions of the religious. The incoherent limitation of marriage to heterosexuals, harassment of women seeking to legally access reproductive health services, the enforced agony imposed on the terminally ill by bans on euthanasia, the desire of members of churches to cover up rape and abuse, are all irrational attacks on the basic freedoms of others, not innate rights acquired simply because one believes a certain set of supernatural claims. Actual religious freedom remains unimpinged; the “freedom” to impose it on others is all that has been damaged.

Nonetheless, if we’re going to participate in the fiction that religion and its expression are under threat in Australia, there are potentially significant benefits. The strongly religious often make strong advocates for freedom, and not merely for themselves; an attempt by Islamophobic Knesset members to ban the call to prayer in Israel was opposed by ultra-orthodox Jewish MPs who feared such a ban would be used against them as well.

Some advocates are ahead of the game on this and understand that religious freedom should be part of a broader rights framework. The Australian Federation of ­Islamic Council’s Rateb Jneid argues that religious freedom is being undermined but the best protection is the enactment of the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as a bill of rights. Article 18 of the Covenant deals with religious freedom. The very next article, as it turns out, deals with freedom of expression and the freedom to share information.

Conservatives participating in the “religious oppression” fiction will be keen to confine legislation to religious protection — perhaps oblivious to the fact that it won’t merely be Christianity that gets protected, but that’s their problem — but once protection of specific rights is legislated, it becomes harder to oppose protecting other rights. In particular, it is absurd to argue religious freedoms should be protected and political freedoms should not. A protection of religious freedom could provide the thin end of the wedge to establish a de facto (OK, well, de jure) bill of rights in Australia.

Such a bill of rights, of the kind the Americans and Europeans have had for so long, is sorely needed. In the absence of an effective parliamentary opposition to the government’s police state agenda, entrenching protections that establish significant hurdles to further attempts to erode basic rights — such as the freedom to reveal the criminal conduct of our intelligence agencies and its cover-up — is one of the few viable strategies to resist where the Liberals and Labor want to take us. All power to the fundamentalists and conservatives who want to truckle to them. They could be doing more good than they realise.

Do we need a bill of rights? What should it look like? Let us know what you think by emailing [email protected].