Philip Ruddock religious freedom

Philip Ruddock must have paused over the final recommendations of the religious freedom report, and pondered one recommendation in particular. Come on Phil, he would have said, part of this is regularising the law. It’s gotta go in.

Thus it is that the Maritime Act’s cruel and unusual ban on blasphemous boat names will be lifted as one of the report’s recommendations. Thus it was that a thousand names for tinnies — “Jesus Shaves… His Balls” was the best — were launched upon the Twitter.

It’s a measure of the report’s origin, purview and fate that this is not the most absurd aspect of it. This is a report into discrimination on the basis of religion, which concludes that there isn’t much of it going on, and that most of it can be dealt with by existing law or regulation.

Ruddock has been this morning half-spinning it in the meeja — he seems unwilling to save the government’s bacon (non-pork metaphors are availae), but he can’t bring himself to admit that he signed on to a farce — and his heart wasn’t in it. So far, no one has brought up the Goddy McGodface thing.

Launched in the wake of the plebiscite “yes” vote, the Ruddock report is from that long distant era in which the Libs were still listening trustfully to their own right, to the Decline and Fall Catholic Eeyores at The Australian, to the hysteria of Bolt and the Parrot. They believed that they represented something out there, rather than the fossilised power of right-wing media capital, and a neoliberal order’s need to manufacture intact “traditional values”.

They sat on the report for six months because it didn’t say what they wanted it to — a classic right-wing culture war fail — and have now released it in the aftermath of the Victorian election, which was the most significant event to date manifesting the shift in social values to a widespread progressivism on a range of issues.

That includes LGBTQ issues, so the report has now had exactly the opposite effect of that intended: exposing the shocking fact that religious schools currently have the power to expel LGBTQ people for their expressed selfhood alone. Once again, the right has been tripped up by its own mythologising: that anyone who believes in LGBTQ equality believes in gender fluidity, etc.

Actually, most people now believe in LGBTQ equality because they believe the exact opposite about sexuality — rightly or wrongly, they believe it to be deeply set within individuals, and part of their nature. So the revelation that religious schools can expel LGBTQ kids effectively exposes something abhorrent — as if they could expel kids for being black. It’s a massive own goal by the right.

It gets better. As a story in the Oz by Joe Jr Kelly notes/dodges up, the issue of religious freedom will be a potential LABOR HORROR STORY among multicultural communities.

In other words, in order to get some desperate purchase for this culture war disaster, the right is going to big up religious-cultural community separatism, of they type it has been abhorring for decades. What exactly could this new religious freedom drive protect? Separate and inferior education for girls? Creationism? Rigid and destructive school guidance counselling, including gay conversion advocacy? Invocations to pay lip service to man’s law, while cherishing God’s law, etc, etc. Protection of ritual, minimised female genital mutilation (FGM) in parity with male circumcision? Looks like we might find out.

But of course it doesn’t end there. Because as Paul Karp notes in The Guardian, a new religious freedom statute — which has included atheists’ rights, for cover — would allow for a challenge to other culture war artefacts, such as the school chaplains program. Would it allow for a challenge to male circumcision, if minimal FGM is outlawed (as it should be)? Could be a lotta lotta fun.

Overseeing it all, if this goes through will be a religious freedom commissioner — another desperate stack of the Australian Human Rights Commission by the right. This only serves to bed in something that should be abhorrent to liberal-conservatives, the manufacture of further explicit, bespoke rights, detracting from minimal law and principles. Given that our only explicit constitutional freedom (apart from rail gauges) is section 116 (i.e. freedom of religion) this pretty much marks the final point of trashing liberal-conservative principles for short term culture war “gain”.

The whole point of the conservative side of the liberal-conservative mix the so-called “broad church” of the Liberal Party (it’s more like Broadchurch — a dying town of weirdos, where people disappear on a regular basis) is that plural social practices survive by not being drawn into abstract legal structures. Ritual circumcision (and scarification of youth, in other traditions) is an example of that. Once removed from communal and specific context, how can it possibly be tolerated? This whole thing has been an object lesson in how not to take liberal-conservatism into 21st century society. Still, I can now call my ketch (“my, she was yare”) Shiva Me Timbers.

So we windjam towards the future, turning about then forward again.

Peter Fray

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