'Building Constructive Partnerships in Politics'
Transcript of Senator Jacinta Coliins’ talk at Freedom18 on 23 May 2018
Thank you very much Michael, and I want to thank you and the other directors for the opportunity to be here today. I have drawn on your generosity and sat right through the morning and I have to say the program has been very interesting and challenging. I may ad lib around some of the remarks that I've prepared responding to a couple of those issues. But, John Anderson's contribution, Patrick's, Alex-I've found very insightful and quite helpful in developing thoughts around some of these issues.John Anderson, indicated in his comments that he wasn't going to be political and I have to say that I've been relatively cautious about how political I was being in some of my comments too, but it made me reflect on a central theme that I'll be covering in my contribution, which is of course, what is regarded as political? What is the political. And I reflected that possibly, maybe not, the last occasion that I would have been in the public realm, or represented by the [inaudible 00:01:37] media, is running a protection racket for Catholic education. Now, this was an accusation made of me by Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and Senator Bridget McKenzie, who's now the leader of the National Party, so Mr Anderson's' party. But, I don't take those things personally, but it does lead to one thing, which is, what is regarded as political today, and how constructive is that to the positive agendas that we should be progressing, how do we go about actually changing that?Now, I'm not a soft and mushy professional young social worker,I'm probably a pretty hard-won rationalist in the way I approach issues. Philosophically the best approach I've found, was the theology around being a rationalist Christian. And I'm a strong believer in our version of the Westminster parliamentary system, and the element of the basis of conflict in terms of how it operates. I don't see conflict as necessarily a bad thing, how we manage it is the question. But, I agree with John, that the problems that we face here in Australia about trust for the political class, is becoming more and more a serious issue. So when I give you some examples in my contribution, please don't take them as political in the sense that John would have said. I was very impressed with his presentation this morning. But please do take them as a reflection about the care we need to take with how we deal with issues such as religious freedom in the future, and that we don't just simply accept the political posturing, or the rhetoric that occurs in politics and we try and inform as you obviously are today, ourselves a bit more deeply.So I thought I'd start with a reflection on Philip Ruddock's briefing to Labor members of parliament, back in March. So in late March, Philip Ruddock and the four other members of the governments' Inquiry to the Protection of Religious Freedom in Australia gave a briefing at Parliament House about their work. The [inaudible 00:04:27] Senate had received a thumping 16,500 submissions and met with 120 organizations and individuals, whose positions range from, an urgent need for stronger protections to suggestions that the existing exemptions don't go far enough. Now of course, there was the other element
of the submissions which, I think can be characterized along the lines of, we shouldn't do anything and we should remove what current exemptions currently exist as well. But that description of submissions, from my end of the Senate is what we would have expected for the inquiry such as this. Now Mr Ruddock acknowledged that there existed considerable fear amongst faith-based groups that the same-sex marriage legislation would lead to a winding back of religious protection laws. He added that while there was no real concern about current practices, I'm not so sure about that bit, but please take into account I'm operating from one of my staff who was present at this event rather than me directly representing the discussion. Many people had strong concerns and fears for the future. Now I think it's fair to say that there are limitations in existing practice in Australia about how we represent religious freedom but certainly the movement in the submissions to the inquiry would have been around how we deal with the future and fears about what might occur in the future. As Mr Ruddock put it, the concerns are about things that could happen or might happen rather than people saying we have suffered from these particular cases of lack of religious freedom, although I'll come to a couple of examples as I move along. I suspect many people in this room are among those who have strong concerns for the future, thus, you're here. And I believe your concerns are partly justified by our national political process and the way it operates today, and because of the failure of the political class to work together to achieve common purpose. Now, John indicated he'd entered the parliament I think in 1996, I'd entered in 1995, and over my period, I'd say, I think that capacity is deteriorating. It's my contention that a focus on building constructive partnerships in politics across a partisan divide has been eroded and in some cases replaced by, what I would describe as, posturing and parading. And it's that type of posturing and parading I would alert you to, because I think it diminishes peoples’ capacity to constructively promote the cause. Now, we would all agree that Australia has a rich,strong and unique heritage of ...there's limitations in this concept but I'll use if for the purposes here ...of pluralism, that we need to preserve this pluralism and enhance and not put it at risk. And by that I mean, and I'll use this expression a bit later, what I think is an Australian ethos of, live and let live. Some describe it as our unique capacity of multi-culturalism, of accepting diversity and working together. And I'll run through a few examples of that, so it fleshes out my limited... as I said the word plural, the concept of pluralism has been used and abused in so many different ways that I'm cautious about relying on it completely, so please work with me. So, in Australia we have quite a unique school system. Most people don't understand how unique it is,in Australia, wherewe proudly accommodate religious freedom through various educational systems,which has been discussed earlier today. Our Catholic school system with 17,337 schools across the country, but also our Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Jewish and other religious schools. Now, Patrick painted a spectrum earlier about the nature of delivery of certain types of community services in schooling, it's very unique here in Australiain relation to its provision and the nature of government funding.
Now, it's worth pausing a moment on this point, because the current government's Gonski 2.0funding model, actually puts at risk that school system and parental choices have been discussed earlier, by the waythey've introduced funding cuts in education, essentially at the expense of the middle ground within those types of schools. Basically what the government's done is that it's taken what used to be a curve of government funds matching parental contributions, and it's said, we think we should have a harder curve, so in Australia we have this class of schools that fit in the middle of a curve matching parental and government contributions, and if this new funding model is allowed to prevail, eventually that middle class will diminish because parents will no longer want to contribute the levels that government’s expecting them to, to maintain the existence of these low fee schools. Now I was accused of running a protection racket forcatholic schools, because I was very familiar with that model and was advocating their concerns and it's not only catholic schools, it's principally also the Lutheran and the Anglican education systems that will feel the pinch over these changes.But I was maintaining the case similar to the point John Anderson was making in a different way earlier today about safe schools, which is it's about parental choice. Now for me it's about parents choosing to send their children to a non-government school, and I probably won't have time to elaborate on this, but I'd like to on another occasion, I think it's an issue that maybe can be explored around the principle of freedom of association and community. So, parents wanting to choose to send their children to such schools and a level of government funding being withdrawn from that particular class of school. I certainly don't want to see Australia go down the path of some other countries where you essentially have state school systems and high fee elite private education schools and that's in risk of the changes in the model. So about 90% of non-government schools in Australia are all thesefaith based low fee schools that are going to feel the pinch from this model. And the key issue for the Labor party in this respect is, preserving our unique school system and not undermining it and denying parents the right to decide the school that best fits their child without significant increases in the fees that they're expected to pay.And this probably serves a really good model for me to make my point about, posturing or parading in this space. I accept some of the concernsaround safe schools, so I'm a Labor party politician who accepts some of those concerns around safe schools. I think elements of the program have been badly designed, and I thinkthere are good questions about whether you should have a bullying program that focuses solely on sexuality related type matters. And I know a range of other bullying type programs that absolutely do deserve government support. But, the amount of hype and energy that has gone into people campaigning around safe schools, is very disproportionate to significant concerns about millions, even billions of dollars of government funding they have denied, non-government schools so they can continue to operate in the character in which they have.So I offer you that reflection, because I think that some of what you hear, does have sensible elements to it, but is disproportionate to some of what you never hear, from
some of those same areas. We have also a rich heritage of pluralism in our unique system of service delivery inhealth and welfare, and we've discussed earlier the examples of hospitals and Catholic hospitals. We have discussed earlier I think Calvary, and risked suggestions that Calvary should be forced to remove their cross. Let me be very clear with you about some of these issues. And I'm going to skim because some of what I planned to say has already partly beencovered. So please excuse me if I become a bit disjointed. Some of these debates misconstrue or even misrepresent the Labor Party position on these issues. So I'd be tempted to ask this room, how many people understand that the Labor Party's platform, our policy platform ... other political parties don't tend to have comprehensive policy platformsthat are available to the public at large ... How many people understand that the Labor Party's current policy platform as one of its core values, highlights religious freedom? Is there anyone that knows this? One, two, three, okay.Now the existing version of the platform, so the one that we'll be reviewing in a couple of months’ time, also highlights that we have an in-principle position that we should be doing more to implement the ICCPR, which is the International Convention, dealing with matters around religious freedom, freedom of association, freedom of speech, which ones am I missing Patrick?Patrick: Freedom of conscience. Freedom of conscience, of course. And did I say association? I meant to if I didn't. Now, our current circulation draft, which is forconsultation,again fullyout there in the public realm, doesn't go into that level of detail at the moment because we are waiting to see the outcome of the Ruddock review. And, we want our future position to be able to respond to the outcome of the Ruddock review. So, I mentioned Mr Anderson was at the Christian Schools Convention down in Melbourne yesterday, and I was too. And in my contribution there I implored Senator Fawcett, my government colleague, to please do what he could to ensure that the report is actually out before we come to ourconference in July, because I would like our party policy position to be able to represent the most up to date discussion about where we should move forward in this area.Now that unfortunately doesn't stop some people from claiming things such as, ‘the Liberal Party is the only party that will be able to deliverreligious freedom’. Now I don't think that approach is going to be helpful in furtheringthis debate. And I don't think also, some of the secularism that's entered into political discussion is going to help either. If I return for instance to my theme of building common purpose in politics, I believe that part of the reason for demise of constructive partnerships is because of sectarianism and what I've called the posturing in our parliament on some of these issues, and I'll give you a couple of brief examples.In March, Education Minister Simon Birmingham used an offensive reference to Judas, in response to the Catholic Church’s campaign against the federal government’sschool funding package. You might recall some of the coverage of that. So then Birmingham's, some of his Catholic colleagues from the Coalition were reportedly seething. After he
accused the Victorian Catholic Education Commission of being bought by a few pieces of silver following its campaign to support Labour at the Victorian Batman by-election on these education funding issues. This is an example of what I would call, playing the man rather than the ball. Rather than debating the real detail of the differences of opinion about how the government was restructuring education funding right across delivery of education, here in Australia, Senator Birmingham on that occasion wasof course playing the man and to the ball. And this is becoming far more common. So rather than people trying to debunk my arguments, that this is not the way we wanted education to be delivered in the future in Australia, that we wanted to preserve our unique pluralism in delivery, I get accused of running a protection racket. This is not the way we want to move forward in these areas and this sectarianism, this element of sectarianism in our political discussions, is something that I think we need to challenge.Now, Gerard Henderson pointed out in The Australian, on March the 24th, obviously Mr Birmingham would not be pleased with the character of the campaign against the reforms that he was advocating, but Gerard Henderson goes on to make the point that Mr Menzies, referred to earlier by Mr Anderson, Mr Fraser, Mr Howard, so three Liberal prime ministers and their state equivalents, all in the past understood that Catholic and other Christian low fee systemic schools took pressure off the government school system, and that changing that delivery that had been in place for many, many decades in Australia had much broader ramifications and indeed these are the issues that Senator Birmingham should have been addressing rather than personal attacks on individuals who were advocating their cause.Now it's not just Senator Birmingham. In this case, he did eventually ultimately apologize, and I should acknowledge that. But in May last year, former Education Minister, again at the time, very hot issue education at the moment, Minister Christopher Pyne accused the National Catholic Education Commission of waging a dishonest campaign against the government school funding model. So rather than again, challenging their points, they're accused of dishonesty, that was not [inaudible00:20:44] & this type of sledging stymies the ability of parliamentarians to come together and build consensus and achieve solid sensible outcomes. What we're also saying in our parliament is what I've referred to as conservative posturing,around some of these matters. It was in October last year that during the same sex marriage debate, a Liberal assistant minister said of Labour MP's, my colleagues, (although he subsequently said to me I wasn't talking about you, Jacinta), too many of them don't have the guts to speak up. You don't need to attack people to make a political point. And I certainly didn't take well to my colleagues being described as gutless and in the senate at the time, I said that the suggestion that those on the other side of the chamber who have similar concerns, are gutless, is simply unworthy. Another example where Patterson posturing washed through the debate was around when the Labour MPs had a conscience vote on the issue. Maybe I should take a straw poll on this. The amendments to the same-sex marriage bill and whether they were supported by some Labour Party MPs, how many of you understand whether a conscience vote applied or did not apply within the Labor Party’s internal operations? Yes. Let's see if you
agree with my description of it then. Sorry that was only one hand here and there, but one ofthe arguments was “it was the dreaded Labor party that was the problem here, and that they weren't allowing their people who had concerns have a conscience vote”. Now, that simply wasn't true. I disagreed with a Labor Party conference decision at our last conference that we would withdraw the conscience vote after the end of this parliament. But it did apply throughout the period of this parliament. And we had somewhat of a fraught debate because the coalition in this debate weren't allowing their members a conscience vote. But they were insisting we should maintain ours. So it sort of was a complex political situation. But what was very clear and I participated in a Labor Party working group on this, was it was open for any of us to pursue a conscience vote on any of those amendments if that is what we had wished. But what I explained to the main advocate of those amendments, was once the Prime Minister set up the Ruddock Review, any of his colleagues that he was going to rely on along with some Labour Party votes to get the numbers to achieve the outcome they were hoping with those amendments, dissipated. So numbers from Labour Party voters were not going to make a difference and help those amendments succeed. So I and some of my colleagues made a judgment that we were not going to respond on this issue in a way which would allow, unfortunately, some colleagues on the other side to use an argument or a wedge against the Labour Party, on this issue and describe division and difficulty within the Labour Party as being part of the problem. We were going to wait for the outcome of the Ruddock review. And that is what we did.If the Ruddock Review hadn't been established by the Prime Minister, and if the same -sex marriage bill was the best most immediate way to progress certain issues, we may have had a different view. But there were a number of Liberal Party senators who retreated from being prepared to support amendments as soon as that review had been established and that's why we're here, where we are,today. My final point in this area is that there's been some [inaudible 00:24:53] about the Labour Party not supporting religious freedom and as I've said in my earlier remarks, this is simply wrong. It's in our existing party platform. It's one of our key values, because the Labour Party is a broad church, I accept the fact that there's been changes in our composition, as Mr Anderson said, but I would reply to him and say,same to your party too. But we have worked in probably a more collegiate, disciplined way as a broad church for many years longer. And, we work together more constructively I believe, in that way and some of what we're seeing is the Liberal Party in a sense making some of that transition too.I get frustrated when I see the Liberal party push over onto the Labour Party some of their internal problems. When we're dealing with very important issues around religious freedom, discrimination matters,and just as a side on the issue of discrimination matters, I actually approve the approach that, now I can't remember him, unfortunately I never studied Latin at school, the encyclical that Pope John Paul, put right out on homosexuality, where he developed this concept of ‘just discrimination’. And I'm a rare Labor politician who doesn't just simply say,all discrimination is bad, because I do take a
philosophical step back and say well actually human beings discriminate, it's the nature of being human. But the concept about how we as communities operate is an understanding of what's just and unjust. And I think that fits also the understanding of what are protected attributes, because if you're dealing with a protected attribute, well it's pretty clear that your community regards it as unjust discrimination.So I throw that concept into your thinking as well, but what I said in the debate on same sex marriage debate, what I said in parliament, was that some on theother side have thought to beef themselves up and argue that they're the only ones that can deliver religious freedom. And that, that was poppycock, absolute poppycock. And I will continue to say that till my breath disappears. And I'll posit you just in conclusion,that alternative universe. So, imagine an alternative universe where sufficient numbers of considered thinking members of government and opposition or politicians or generally, worked in partnership to achieve religious liberty. Common purpose has been achieved with other contentious legislation. Think of the Andrews Bill, on voluntary euthanasia, or more recently when Labour was in government when we dealt with issues around universal service application in aged care, and remember in some cases allowing aged care providers to continue to discriminate was in conflict with them being a sole provider or reaching the government’s obligations for universal access to services. Now that debate around these issues, I think highlights that Australian ethos of live and let live. And, if we allow this debate to descend in an un-constructive way we'll end down the path that's occurred in Canada or occurred under Tony Blare in the UK, where they say unless you're prepared to be the same, have a positive outcome type approach then you just can't continue to deliver services. So in the UK that happened with the example that springs to mind, the religious adoption services. Religious adoption services just retreated from the field. Now we don't have that approach here, and it's precious. And we must preserve it. But to do that we need to build, maintain and protect the common purpose around those things. And we do have it, so don't listen to people who say that the Labour party doesn't support the exceptions in the current legislation. We do. The leader of the Labour party, Bill Shorten, is on the record supporting the education exemptions, for instance. So, please when you hear reports about what the Labour view is on some of these things, take a moment to actually research whether that really is actually the case. There is a lot of posturing that goes on in this space, and unfortunately as that grows,our capacity to build a common purpose diminishes, and that's why I think it needs to be challenged. Now, the other example I'll leave you with of existing common purpose, which is accepted without dispute really, is back in the schooling area. We have in Australia what we call sole provider schools. These are religious schools in remote communities where a religious school, often associated with their mission, is the only way kids get education.Those schools have been functioning for decades without challenges around whether they discriminate or issues around the hiring or firing or that they're delivering education to all
comers. In Australia what some of this means for many,many decades, we just got on and done it. And, we should acknowledge that, value that, preserve and protect it. And I suppose my main message there is that there's a lot of myths circulated around the Labour approach to some of these issues. And so please think twice or corroborate reports, when you read some of those messages. Now, I'd like to conclude my remarks by acknowledging your efforts(this is to the directors), to host this conference and encourage you to keep engaging. My particular concern is around the standing of religious and charitable organizations to deliver vital social services, and I do hope that the Australian philosophy of live & let live is allowed to prevail. It’s a particular passion I would probably say around my political participation. In the meantime, we know that the best antidote to speech with which we don't agree is warm speech. Freedom of expression as we've discussed earlier. That is the contest of ideas both within the parliament and outside of it. But, I'll answer that, what I've learnt today, which is, we need to act in the more Christian fashion politically. We need to expect our politicians to be more Christian. And they might come at it from a faith end or they come at it from a secular end in how they approach that point. In the Labour party we do expect people to conduct themselves in a Christian fashion and we fight to promote social justice whether you come at it from Judaeo-Christian point of view or if you come at it from a secular point view. But I think being Christian,and this is in Alex's model earlier, being more Christian in how we act is, is the central theme in the way of how politically we need to improve. So it's my hope that parliamentarians show respect and restraint rather than continuing with some of the unworthy contributions that do little to achieve common purpose and consensus of outcome in this area. Thank you.