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Jane Caro - 2011 Juanita Nielsen Lecture

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Lee Rhiannon 28 Jun 2011

Jane Caro delivered the 2011 Juanita Nielsen Lecture on separation of church and state and the importance of public education.

It’s a great honour to be asked to speak in memory of Juanita Nielsen who is a woman who we can’t help but admire and who also continues to be mysterious and troubling because of the awful absence, unexplained absence, of such an inspiring person.

I remember very well the era of green bans and all of that because my mother in the 70s was a leading light in saving Duffy’s Forest on the edge of Ku-ring-gai Chase from becoming Sydney’s small airport. And to tell you the truth I was an adolescent, you know, in high school at the time, and I bitterly resented the amount of time she spent on the phone discussing her political, you know, fight. I was hardly sympathetic at all but then teenage children aren’t. It’s their job not to be.

My subject tonight and I didn’t choose it, Leslie Cannold chose it...but it’s such a good subject , I thought, OK, I’ll stick to that, is how can Australians draw a clear line between church and state and why does such a separation matter anyway? Whenever I think about Australia and the separation of church and state, I’m reminded, strangely, of what Mahatma Ghandi said when he first landed in Britain in the 1930s. And the British press were gathering around him as they still do know now, around celebrities, and said, flashing cameras at him and firing questions and one of them said to him, “Mahatma, what do you think of Western civilisation?” and he said, “I think it’d be a very good idea.” (Laughter)

And I, when I’m asked about Australian separation of church and state, I give exactly the same answer, I think it’d be a very good idea. But unfortunately we don’t have it. 

Max Wallace, who some of you will know, who is indefatigable on this subject and a real powerhouse of knowledge, much more informed than I - I’m, as you hear, I’m not a lawyer –than I am about the details of this, calls Australia a ‘soft theocracy’ and I’m going to give you some evidence as to why I think Max is on the money with that one. But I want to begin, just following Mahatma Gandhi, you must be pleased, with another quote from a hero of mine. There’s a fabulous book if any of you can get hold of it; it’s called “The War for Children’s Minds” and it’s written by a British philosopher called Stephen Law. And this is his quote, “The great religious traditions do not have a monopoly on addressing the most fundamental and challenging issues. They share that honour with the secular philosophical tradition and one advantage of a more philosophical approach to such questions which certainly doesn’t rule out religious answers, of course, is that it doesn’t prejudge the issue. Rather than approaching such questions in a genuinely critical open-minded way religious inquirers have sometimes already made up their minds. They’ve already decided that only a religious answer will do.” And I think that’s very important to hold in mind as I speak. It’s certainly my concern about the lack of separation between church and state. That is the fundamental problem in that there are people who have certain beliefs and who want to fit the evidence to fit the beliefs.  That’s not my belief about how we approach life or how we approach the problems that we are doubtless facing at the moment.

So, the problem with that blurring of the lines is not insurmountable, but I think we have been failing for quite a long time to do anything much about it. I’ll read you now the actual section of the constitution which actually is called the establishment clause, some of you will be aware of this clause which is the one that basically sets up some sort of separation or is supposed to.

“The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion or for imposing any religious observance or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”

Now this Section 116 in the Australian constitution is extremely similar to the establishment clause in the American constitution. However, they have much stricter separation of church and state than we do. That is because their Supreme Court defined that constitution, the constitutional clause, in a different way from the way our court did and it was during the DOGS case, I think ’79, ‘80ish when, in fact, the definition in Australia was made, that made separation really no longer seriously exist in any real way.

To me, the best, this is best evidenced by the public funding of mostly religious private schools with no reciprocal requirement on them to shoulder any of the obligation for compulsory education. Alone in the Western world, primarily because of this difference in definition of the establishment clause Australia is waay, waay, waay out ahead on a radical path of basically residualising public education. What we now have is two publically subsidised systems of education. One has all the rights. It has the right to decide where it will or will not open schools. It has the right to decide which children it will or will not educate. It has the right to decide what fees and how high it will charge. And it can do many other things that public education is not able to do. The other system of publicly subsidised education that we have, of course, is the public education system, and it is the system with all the responsibilities. It shoulders the responsibility for the compulsory education of every school age child in Australia. It is much harder, for example, for public schools to decide to let a child no longer, I think the term in some private school or headmasters’ offices is, “They no longer fit our culture.” That‘s how they fire you in private enterprise, too. You don’t fit our culture. It usually means you’re the wrong race, gender or talk too much. Yes, me!

So, basically the system with all the responsibilities is struggling. People use this nonsense about choice, “it’s my right, it’s my choice”, but if you set up, if you basically set up two systems and you give one all the opportunities and help you possibly can and you make the other one compete with both arms and legs tied behind its back, it’s not entirely surprising that people make, a lot of people make the choice they do.  Tragically, of course, they spend a great deal of money and, having come to the end of my children’s school life and having had to put up with being called brave in the Sir Humphrey’s manner, being told that I was sacrificing my children for my principles. An interesting argument to make...what are they modelling to their children? “I have principles until it gets too uncomfortable to have my principles and then I compromise them”. Excellent parental modelling! Uhh, you know, tragically for some of them, we’ve all come to the end of our children’s school lives and I, my husband and I calculate we’ve probably saved about 300,000 after tax compared to some of our friends and I’m so we could line our kids up side by side you’d be hard picked, hard put to pick the $300,000 difference let me tell you.

That’s the saddest thing; there’s a sort of conning going on of the middle classes, that they’re actually getting more for their money because they’re not. But the more serious part, quite frankly, bugger the middle classes. In fact, one of my favourite sayings now, you know people talk about aspirations. I think that was one of John Howard’s favourite terms, wasn’t it, ‘aspiration’. Personally, I hope the aspirationals aspirate on their aspirations. 

The problem however, is that we’ve now got a two-tiered education system. Not just two different systems, but a two-tiered or perhaps multi-tiered system increasingly. We’ve got increasingly well-resourced, publicly subsidised, mostly religious-based education for the children of the better off, and an increasingly poorly resourced, wholly publicly funded secular education. Well, hmm, slipping secular, slipping, we’ll get to that later, secular education for the children of the worse off. 

Barbara Preston, a wonderful researcher in this area, says that in 1996 for every 10 kids from higher income households in public secondary schools there were 13 from low income households. By 2006 this had become 16 kids from low income households to every ten kids from high income households. So, what we’re actually seeing is the flight from our public system of the children from the highest socio-economic backgrounds.  We’re also seeing white flight from our public education system - particularly in rural areas, we’re seeing Indigenous high schools and white Catholic private schools.  Sometimes there will be a difference between two public schools in an area, so people are choosing. In certain parts of Sydney people will do, it seems, and pay almost anything so their kid doesn’t have to sit next to a kid who is wearing a hijab. We’re actually walking away from the great tolerant mixing pot that we created with our public education system in 18, around 1850; Henry Parkes was the father of our public education system.

And it’s funny, isn’t it, because you think about it, in the 1850s and thereabouts Australia was a pretty poor community; we didn’t have a lot of money and now we are richer than probably we ever dreamed we could possibly be. And yet, we are so tight-assed now. You know, we’re not alike; we’re very anti-generous. You know, we’ve all got every orifice clenched as tightly as we can, particularly those with the most.

And I’ve puzzled over this and thought why? Why is it that a poor community would have the imagination and the energy, the generosity of spirit and the courage to create compulsory secular education for all? And it wasn’t easy; they had to fight the churches to do it. Umm, but why did they do it and why now are we walking away from it? And why have we all become so, “Oh! Born out of the wrong womb? Oh well, stuffed for life then, I don’t care.”  Why has that become such an attitude out there in the Australian kind of, conversation? And I think it’s because when you’re poor, when you’re poorer, you have a lot of hope because you have a lot to gain and little to lose. But I think when you’re rich, you have a lot of fear, because you have a lot to lose and little to gain. So I think sometimes prosperity drives anxiety. It actually makes people frightened and sometimes, if we’re honest with ourselves, we think, “Do I really deserve everything I’ve got?”

People love to claim that they work incredibly hard. Apparently merchant bankers work harder than anyone else in Australia. It’s quite…gawd! poor things. It’s terrible really, isn’t it - they should have a union. (Laughter) There’s an idea. Apparently that is...you know, they’re always going on about how bloody hard they work. 

But I don’t think, I don’t think that’s got anything whatsoever to do with it. I think that it is very hard for the privileged now to recognise that sometimes their determination to hang on to their privileges has a direct effect of the under-privileged staying that way. 

So there’s been a lot of attempts. I think there’s a kind of guilt out there.  I think there is a feeling amongst those who are privileged and who are doing well...there’s an unease about this public education thing. And there’s an unease about the long tail, the persistent long tail in our results of underachieving kids who mostly come from lower socio-economic backgrounds. It’s a stubborn long tail. We haven’t been able to do anything about it.

But, you know, we don’t want to spend any money on it. Because then we might have to increase our tax or we might, heaven forefend, have to take some money away from Kings or Abbotsleigh or one of those schools and give it to, you know, a public school, and well, you know that can’t, the merchant bankers, they work really hard so we can’t do that.

So, there’s been an attempt to do a whole heap of quick, cheap fixes and, I put the national chaplains in schools program under the heading of a quick, cheap fix. It is an attempt by government to be seen to be doing something in public schools.  These are entirely unqualified people except that they have to come from a recognised religious background. That’s the only qualification they have to have. And they are being sent out into our schools that are more and more are struggling with greater and greater concentrations of vulnerable and disadvantaged kids. And being, I don’t know, told apparently, I guess to “be nice to them”, because they are not allowed to proselytise, apparently, which is odd, because why would you have to have a religious background if you’re not allowed to mention Jesus?

They’re not allowed to proselytise and they’re not allowed to counsel. So what are they doing? I mean, singing songs, doing the barn dance, distracting the teenagers from anything that smacks of something sexual? I use the word ‘smacks’ there advisedly. It’s hard to know.  But it looks like they’re doing something. Disgracefully, the latest distribution of funds in public schools has given more money to the chaplains in schools program and less money to computers because, let’s be frank, which one’s going to be more useful in the brave new world we’re approaching for our public school kids. They’re going to be the proles – they’re going to be cleaning the offices and the toilets and sweeping the streets and doing those kinds of jobs, so they need Jesus to keep them happy. Because they won’t have a lot else and they don’t really need to know about computers. It’s the children of the merchant bankers that need to know about those.

There are all sorts of things going on in our schools that I find, our secular public schools, that I find quite astonishing, clearly in breach of any understanding of separation of church and state that I foolishly might have. One is the wonderful Shine programs in some of our state schools. Are you aware of the Shine programs? They’re run by Hillsong and yes, they have a different one for girls than for boys. And the girls’ one is actually called Shine because that’s what little girls are meant to do; they’re meant to shine. They’re meant to be decorative and make our life better. Just intuitively know how to run around and make a man feel twice his natural size. (Laughter) That’s what God wants for little girls. It’s fantastic.

Of course the boys’ program is called STRENGTH! STRENGTH! Because how can you pretend to be twice your natural size if you’re not STRONG? It is outrageous – can you imagine for a minute – and I did write an op-ed about this some time ago and I was thrilled it got up on Richard Dawkins’ website - well, for an atheist, that’s like getting knighted. (Laughter) I wrote a thing about this and I said, “Imagine if there was a program run by lesbian feminists” which was in schools, secondary schools, under the name Shine which was teaching girls about, I don’t know, whatever it is lesbian feminists might want to teach them and, quite frankly, I don’t care and if they want to, “go ahead”. And then people found out? The horror, the immediate outcry, about the godless public schools etc. etc. But then I turned it around and said, “But of course that’s not what’s happening.” In fact, it is Hillsong that are going into schools and pretending to parents that they are doing a grooming course for girls called Shine and a self-esteem course for boys called Strength and unless you inquire you’re actually not told that this has any religious underpinning at all.

Another area I think which is problematic – it’s gone off the boil a bit since we got rid of Brendan Nelson. Tragically whenever we get rid of a federal education minister another federal education minister comes along to take their place and though we cry into the wilderness none of them have been really any better than any of them that went before.  But Brendan Nelson had a particular thing about intelligent design. I think it had the word intelligent in it and that turned him on. It was one of his aspirations. (Laughter) He actually did fight for a second or two there until he found out it wasn’t a very intelligent thing to do – that intelligent design should be taught in science as an alternative theory to evolution because they were both just theories. Isn’t it great to have education ministers who know so much about their subject? 

The other one that really gets right up my nose – totally up my nose – is the fabulous statutory exemption to the Anti-Discrimination Act that private religious schools in NSW enjoy. Now, what is really beautiful about this - this is a superb piece of legal engineering, it really is, you have to admire them for the cleverness - is that they can apply it or…not. As they choose. And they don’t have to specify on what grounds they discriminate – whatever takes their fancy on the day, one assumes. 

And they can just – say there is a shortage of physics teachers – no, I don’t have to say there’s a shortage of physics teachers, there IS a shortage of physics teachers. And, you know, a religious school, the applicant is a gay physics teacher - well, you know, they might just put aside their prejudice against homosexuality because they need a physics teacher, until, of course, a more acceptable physics teacher comes along. And then, of course, they can apply their exemption. “Oh sorry, you don’t fit our culture. Byeeee!”

It is outrageous to me that people should be able to do this. If you want to discriminate, that’s what it is, if you want to discriminate on people on whatever basis: their gender, their sexuality, their marital status, whether they speak in tongues, whatever it is that you have a particular problem with, you should at the very least be required by this law to nominate what basis you discriminate on and required to tell all parents that you will choose a physics teacher on the basis of their belief about speaking in tongues over their ability to teach a class or, that should be told to all parents on a prospectus and it should be on all job ads. It is quite outrageous that people should innocently apply for jobs in New South Wales they have no hope of getting because of the statutory exemption that is not specified and given to all private religious schools.

A group of education students got a horrible shock when their tutor showed them the article that Lyndsay Connors and I wrote on this where we were talking about the case of The Holy Family Primary School in Skennars Head where the principal of the school was fired because he was divorced and then remarried. And so he was fired by the diocese because that was one of the areas on which they secretly discriminated. The education students were horrified because they suddenly realised that as teachers their private life could be used against them in terms of hiring. This is virtually the only group in New South Wales left where if you are living with someone - Julia Gillard, unmarried, could indeed, had she gone into teaching...Penny Wong – very vulnerable - you know, could be discriminated against by one of our private schools. They should have to say so. 

I sort of, I wish they weren’t allowed to discriminate in one way but then in another I think, “No! Let the bastards discriminate!” But make them say so. Again, it’s another case of them having their cake and eat it too; they can be horrible but pretend they’re not.  Why doesn’t that surprise me? Now, at the moment, we’re in very interesting times, though, on this particular area because, of course, all of you will know about Ron Williams. You all know Ron Williams? He is the extremely gutsy guy, father, of four I think it is, who is mounting a High Court challenge to the National Chaplains in Schools Programs. It will be heard in August. He’s doing incredibly well. This is a fascinating case. This is really revisiting to some extent the ground that the DOGS case looked at 20 odd years ago. And, if he is successful, this will open up a very large can of worms in terms of separation of church and state and the ability of Australian governments to fund private, religious schools. We may be going to have that battle again which is both exciting and terrifying because it was lost once, but it’s a very, very important battle for us to have.

I don’t really mind if religious people want to send their children to religious schools. I just wish they’d pay for it, fully.  But there is a part of me that’s sympathetic to an argument, but again, to bring him up again, Stephen Law makes in The War for Children’s Minds where he asks us why we would be horrified by the idea of conservative schools, Liberal, I mean large ‘L’ liberal schools, or Labor schools, or imagine if you guys tried to start a Greens school? Can you hear Andrew Bolt now? You know, you could have a Marxist school or a I don’t know, pick any political movement you fancy and have them have a school. 

If we would be terribly uneasy about that, and I think we would be right to be terribly uneasy about that, by the way, and most people would be. Then why are we so relaxed about a Catholic School or an Anglican school or a Muslim school or a Jewish school or a Hindu school or a, I’m ecumenical, I don’t have a particular prejudice against any one religion; I don’t like them all. So, you know, we just accept it. Richard Dawkins points out in his book, that there’s no such thing as a Catholic child or a Christian child or a Muslim child; there are only children of Catholic, Muslim and Christian parents. And I think he is fundamentally right about that. 

The reason why compulsory education which is so important because you know, any bloody tin-pot country can create a highly educated elite. Uganda has a highly educated elite. Saudi Arabia has a highly educated elite. The Congo has a highly educated elite. Any country can do that. The really really tough thing, the really hard thing to do is to have a well-educated total population. And it is probably one of the fundamentally most important things you can do for prosperity, for safety, for coherence in your population, for a sense that people have that all this talk about the free market and opportunity and aspirations - it only works surely – at all - if you give every child the opportunity to fully develop their potential, regardless of who their parents are. No child is disadvantaged through any of their own doing. They’re only disadvantaged because they have been unluckier in the lottery of birth. They’ve been born to parents who are less able to navigate their way through society than some other child’s parents. 

Now the problem when you predicate access to schools and public resources, because when you publicly subsidise private schools, schools that, you know, limit access – when you do that, you actually can do nothing but entrench privilege and underprivilege. Because if you give parents total control over their children’s education you must then entrench privilege for the children of the privileged and underprivilege for the children of the underprivileged.

What else can you do?  That’s why public education matters so much and why it must be compulsory and, of course, if it must be compulsory it must be secular. It must be secular because it must be as welcoming to any child from any religious background as it can be.

John Stuart Mill, just quoting all the good ones tonight, John Stuart Mill has this, and I love this, “Secular instruction is instruction respecting the concerns of this life. Secular subjects therefore are all subjects except religion. All the arts and sciences are secular knowledge. To say that secular implies irreligious implies that all the arts and sciences are irreligious and is very like saying that all professions except that of the law are illegal.

His logic is very good. The idea that secular means ‘godless’ which is coming up more and more. You’re hearing it more and more that oh, you’re not getting, as if the only possible way you can have values, the only possible way you can have morals or do good is because you’re either desperate to get to Heaven or terrified of burning in Hell. As if there’s never any intrinsic worthwhile motivation from a human being that just looks around and sees a need or sees how they can make someone’s life a bit better and they just do it.

It’s weird to me that there’s a stick and carrots belief in people and that because secular schools don’t have a God to reward or punish you in their curriculum, they must therefore be, values, what was John Howard’s brilliant phrase? “Values neutral”. There is a difference between ‘irreligious’, says John Stuart Mill, and ‘not religious’, however it may suit the purposes of many persons to confound it. Education provided by the public must be education for all and to be education for all, it must be purely secular education. 

It’s not rocket science. It’s not complicated. Even private school students ought to be able to understand it. 

The battleground for separation between church and state is, in fact, tragically in Australia, mostly in our schools. And we are using our most vulnerable and disadvantaged children to fight it out.

To the churches’ eternal shame they now educate the middle class and the better off. Some of the religious are deeply concerned about this. To their credit I am often approached by deeply religious people terribly, who send their own children to public education, get this argument and who are very much concerned about what is happening in our public schools and are ashamed of the use the churches’ are making of these arguments for their own end.

I very much admire those people.

Let me just give you a few other examples of our ‘soft’ theocracy, flaccid theocracy attracts me, but no, let’s not say that.

Abortion remains a crime in every state of Australia except Victoria and the ACT. Very recently, two young people in Queensland were actually prosecuted for procuring their own abortion. 

To return to schools for a moment, the extraordinary display over the very reasonable request that during religious education periods in New South Wales public schools an ethics alternative be permitted.  I couldn’t believe for an instant that anyone thought this was a bad idea or could have any possible objections but apparently it’s OK, parental choice is really important as long as you choose the right thing. So as long as you choose a religious education then parental choice is yes, tick, “it’s my choice, it’s my right”. But if you want to choose ethics – oh no! Oh no, we shouldn’t have parental choice there. There should be compulsory religious education or it’s the back of the hall with a DVD for you. 

Oh, we also have the rather extraordinary display at the moment of an atheist, unmarried prime minister who is opposed to gay marriage. Now, I don’t know, maybe she doesn’t fancy Tim as much as she’d like us to believe, but I don’t think that that should colour her belief about everybody else’s right to marry somebody. And that, it seems to me, well, I just don’t believe for one second that Julia Gillard the person has any problems with gay marriage. I really don’t. But I think it is her fear of the extraordinary power of the religious lobby that creates that. Well, there you have it in a nutshell; the insidious power of the fact that we do not have separation of power between church and state. And, in fact, the reason that it was developed in the first place because there was an understanding that the churches are extremely powerful and their power needs to be contained. And vice versa. The states are also really powerful and their power needs to be contained and that’s what separation was originally all about. 

The tax exempt status of churches in Australia, including Scientologists. Donations to private schools are tax deductible. They are not tax deductible to public schools. Correct. Very recently, I am on the board, the Public Education Foundation was founded in New South Wales. We have limited DGR status for the first time; we can only give scholarships. So if you want to make a donation to a private school – Kings, a very needy – there’s lots of merchant bankers there and you know how hard they work – very needy. If you make a donation to their fund you can get a tax deduction. 

Should you go to Nepean High School in Emu Plains and wish to make a donation, thanks very much for your money. Don’t bother the tax department with it, though. They don’t care.

Kelloggs, an old client of mine – didn’t like them much at the time – but I do have some sympathy with their fury about Sanitarium’s tax-exempt status. It is unfair competition – no question about it. 

The right of Catholic hospitals and other religious hospitals to refuse contraceptive and reproductive advice. There was a recent case in the US - which does have much better separation of church and state in education than we do but health, hmm, little bit tougher. 

There was a recent case in the US where a Catholic nun was excommunicated because the hospital she ran decided to give a woman an abortion because if they didn’t she would die. She was excommunicated. Mind you, I suspect they did her a favour.

The extraordinary insidious influence of some people’s belief that their religion gives them the right to decide what other people should do. I know of a young campaigner, you probably know her too, Nina Fennell, who’s a fantastic young woman. And she speaks about, she was sexually assaulted, and she’s very brave and speaks about her experience in groups all over Australia, often to young women, and she often has the experience of young women coming up to her and telling her about their own sexual assault, recent sexual assault. They have never told anyone before but they tell her.

And a number of times, Nina has then taken these young women to the pharmacy because she’s said to them, one in particular, she came up to her that night and said it happened to her the night before. And Nina said to her, “Have you taken the morning-after pill?” She said “I haven’t even thought about it.” She said, “OK, I’m going to take you to…” – it’s one pharmacy, it’s a country town, OK, in outback, well, rural New South Wales. She takes her to the pharmacy and Nina says, “Let me ask for it.” Just as well. The pharmacist comes out and says, “Was this casual sex?” I said to Nina, “Did you say, ‘no, it was forced’?”

 Can you imagine the harm that does? Or the fear that creates in people who have gone through a traumatic experience and the only pharmacy in town is run by someone with strong religious beliefs which they then decide to impose on young women whose circumstances they know absolutely nothing about?

I don’t know how you put a law against that, but I just threw it in there because I hate it so much and it makes me so angry. 

There is an increasing fear of even satirising religion. This is what I hate, too. You don’t actually have to make things illegal. You don’t actually have to ban things. You don’t actually have to broadcast about laws and things like that. You can just use your power. 

We were told last night at dinner by a well-known performer who will remain nameless about a skit that they were doing using Gilbert and Sullivan songs and they changed some words in the song to just say, to just ask the ‘happy-clappies’ to desist. After the performance, they received a writ asking them to desist in describing anyone as ‘happy-clappies’. So what does that do? That makes everyone afraid of saying anything that is remotely critical, satirical, funny or, in any way, could be seen as casting aspersions against religion.

That kind of thing…I believe we should allow bad taste, occasional falls from grace...

Remember The Chaser when they got into all sorts of trouble about that skit about the celebrities who make hay out of their careers by appearing to help sick kids? Yes, Star Foundation or whatever it was. The problem with that, the outcry that went with that, whether you think the skit was funny or not, is that now there’s an added level of fear about that kind of humour, about pushing the envelope that far, particularly as somebody in the ABC was demoted as a result of that skit.

That’s dangerous, let bad taste through.

We all know this one. The religious ability to resist voluntary euthanasia and legal abortion despite the vast majority of Australians being in favour and survey after survey after survey shows us that they are.

We have an extraordinary number of religious believers in our political parties - a disproportionate number given the percentage of Australians who are actually strongly religious. This means that that influences the way we do things. I will never forget the RU 486 debate in the Senate with Tony Abbott, of course, declaring that his Catholic religion had nothing to do with his objection to RU 486.

It was wonderful to see all the women in the House basically with a few exceptions banding together and getting that through. That was marvellous. And is a real reason why we need more women in positions of power because they get this argument a lot more than some of the men do. Not all of the men but some of the men.

My favourite story about that is Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria was the head of the Church of England just as Queen Elizabeth is now. And…must kill them really, mustn’t it – a woman as the head of the church – damn it! And here’s why it really killed them, because while she was queen they invented chloroform and ether and doctors said, “Fantastic! Let’s use it in childbirth to relieve the pain of childbirth and the religious…why does this always happen? “Oh no, no, no, no, no. It was ordained by God that Eve for her Original Sin, women must suffer. That’s God’s punishment for the temptation of Adam. We can’t have pain relief in childbirth. Are you kidding me?”

Fortunately the head of the Church of England was a birthing mother – she had nine children, Queen Victoria – and she said “Shut the fuck up”, grabbed the ether and it was never a problem again.

A bit like gay marriage. I think gay marriage is like votes for women; once it’s through, we’ll never talk about it again.

The other thing that really annoys me is the tendency of some religious pundits to call opposition to their funding or any of their other precious policies “sectarian”. Have you noticed this tendency to attack those who say ‘whatever, whatever’, “You are being sectarian.” But that’s why I keep saying, “No, I’m ecumenical, I equally dislike you all.” It’s not anti-Catholic, I promise. I’m no more anti-Catholic than I’m anti-Hindu. 

And I think we are coming to some sort of crunch point, not just in Australia but the world over. People like me, for some reason; I don’t understand it, are called the New Atheists. I’m a third generation atheist – it doesn’t feel very new to me. It feels like normal to me, but it’s the New Atheism and there’s a lot of concern about the New Atheism, for some reason. I think perhaps that’s a compliment – if they’re ‘concerned’.  But I do think that atheism has grown in its impact and in its determination to be heard. I think for a long time atheism was quite content to go, “Well, you know, you go believe what you wanna believe; I’m not gonna really worry about it.” But they’ve started to get a lot more active and I think it’s probably the rise of militant Islam that has actually energised a lot of the New Atheists. 

It’s funny though because that’s creating a bit of a problem too. No one’s picked on this very much; certainly not on the other side. We fund Christian religious schools so we also have to fund Muslim religious schools. Okay, we have to do one, I agree, we have to do the other because otherwise we really would be sectarian. But then we have the crazy anomaly that Alexander Downer and John Howard decided they had to fund secular schools in Indonesia because they were frightened of what the Muslim schools were teaching, so we fund Muslim schools here but we were actually funding secular schools in Indonesia. The lack of logic – I love it!

We also only recently and good on Kevin Rudd for doing this - abolished the Brian Harradine ban on funding family planning organisations in the Third World. For a very long time Australia gave no aid to organisations that were prepared to offer family planning advice to women in the Third World. There is no doubt in my mind at all that many, many, many millions of women suffered terribly as a result of that.

And it’s not just militant Islam, I think, that has energised the New Atheists. I think it’s also the militant Christianity of the US Tea Party-style movement. I think that is starting to frighten people, too. Apparently there’s some bizarre…I’ve seen this in Vanity Fair, which, if you don’t read, you should. It’s absolutely fantastic. Fabulous celebrity gossip – which I like - but high class - and great writers and occasionally there’s these superb articles. And it’s a very secular, subversive publication. And they did a big expose or big article on this weird evolution museum run by an Australian (Isn’t it fabulous the claim to fame we have?) somewhere in those states in America where they all speak real funny which literally posits the, has terrible, really badly-done models of dinosaurs with human beings riding them and saying that we were all around at the same time and the world’s only 5000 years old because it’s written in this book. So it must be true. 

Wonderful.

And there is part of me…did anyone read Virginia Haussegger’s article in the Sydney Morning Herald today? It’s about Afghanistan and she is concerned, and, you know, a lot of you aren’t going to like me saying this, but there is a concern with her and I feel uneasy, too. When the West leaves Afghanistan, which undoubtedly we’re going to do and there’s a lot of good arguments to support that, where does that leave Afghani women?  What is going to happen to those women? Because Afghanistan really is the hardest of the hard theocracies if the Taliban come back in. And I know the Taliban are saying, “No, we’ll be nicer, we promise.” But pardon my scepticism; I really worry about what will happen. Women are always the victims in the hard theocracies. Religion often seems to victimise women when it takes control.

We do have some Christian theocracies. Ireland ‘til very recently; no contraception. The ferry between Ireland and England was thick with pregnant young women or even just young women looking for contraceptive advice so they wouldn’t get pregnant.

And Malta, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, only just voted to legalise divorce just a month or so ago.

Theocracy is very, very damaging to human rights and to freedom. It doesn’t care whether you believe or not. It insists that you obey. This leads me to something that came out of Stephen Law’s book, “The War for Children’s Minds”, and he redraws the battle of the future. He takes it away from the old economic definitions of right- and left-wing – the old Marxist definitions. He redraws it as a battle between authoritarians and liberals, and I find this a very interesting way of reframing how you think about the future. Basically he sees it as a conflict between those who want to teach kids what to think and those who want to teach them how to think. And I think if you looked at a theocracy and a secular democracy and said what was the fundamental difference between those two? It is that one wants to tell you what to think and the other one wants to teach you how to think. And I, it is increasingly becoming evident that we can’t take that for granted anymore. That as we’ve lost separation of church and state, many other countries of the world have never even got close to it.

Everything is changing so fast at the moment. I don’t now about you but it feels like every time I turn round something has changed, developed, fallen in a heap. I gotta program it and I don’t understand how.

And what that’s doing is sending anxiety through the roof. Choice, for example, this much flaunted thing – there’s now much good work going on about choice theory which shows that choice drives anxiety. It actually makes us more anxious, not less, because we have too many decisions to make and we don’t have the information and that makes us scared. And what it does is it turns us back to old certainties. It makes us look backwards. It makes us look to what people did in the past. How they did things before. Religion has really leapt into this void. Back to the old certainties. Back to the old rules. If I feel frightened it makes me feel much more comfortable to think that there’s a Big Daddy in the Sky who’s making sure it’ll turn out alright, maybe not for you unbelievers but, I’ll pray hard and it’ll be okay for me.

I think that anxiety is something we need to fight against. The funny thing is the US still has very strong separation of church and state, even though there’s much more religiosity in the US than there is here. And I think that’s partly because like the French, their democracies were formed in the Enlightenment – were actually children of the Enlightenment and, of course, they came out of violent struggle: the French Revolution, the American War of Independence. And I think therefore the understanding of the need to separate the power of the church from the power of state came very clearly to them through the struggles that they had.

In Australia what were we settled by? A bunch of thieves and pickpockets. Now basically, I like that. Means we wear our virtue very lightly, we don’t take ourselves terribly seriously and occasionally we’re a bit naughty and have our eye on the main chance. Ooop! Not great, it’s not terrible, better than Puritans any day, but it means we take our separation for granted. We don’t care about it. It doesn’t impinge on us directly. It’s all a bit complicated and intellectual. Isn’t God meant to be good?  Aren’t churches good? What religion are you? What was Mum? C of E? C of E. We’re…we lack an intense engagement with this. We lack an understanding of how important it is. And people are taking advantage of that. There’s a whole series of new moral panics being stirred up furiously.

Poor old Bill Henson. Who knew that the only group of people you could never show in the nude were human beings aged between 12 and 18? Up to 12, pre-pubescent? Cute. After 18? Money-spinning. Between 12 and 18 – you’re a paedophile!

This whole thing about the sexualisation of children…I understand what people are talking about but I worry about the intensity of it. The thing to always remember with children is, if you see a kid dancing along to a Beyonce clip, you might think the Beyonce clip is pretty sexy, the kid has no idea. They’re just enjoying the dance. So any sexualisation that’s going on is in your head, not the child’s, and I think we’re starting to lose that separation and that’s a really important one.

Many years ago I remember being at a suburban barbecue and a whole bunch of little girls got dressed up in their shiny nighties and they were dancing away furiously and enjoying themselves enormously and all the adults were watching and some man looked at one girl and said, “Oh my god, look at that little tart”. I turned around and said, “She’s nine. What’s wrong with you?”

Always remember the kids are not sexualised, the adults looking at them might be. There’s also, and there are people driving this, I won’t mention any names, who are very powerful speakers and very good, but are not admitting to strong religious agendas. I don’t mind if you have a religious agenda, you have every right to put your case, but you should also tell us where you’re coming from.  Be honest about who you are. Don’t hide it. Why do you hide it? You ought to be proud of it, if you believe. 

I’m also concerned about the new Puritanism of authoritarian feminists like Gail Dines. That worries me.

The theocrats whose major emphasis seems to be on controlling sexuality, particularly female sexuality and reproduction, have lost every battle in the West but one. And that’s why they are gearing up with this one. You can’t claim to be protecting female virtue anymore. That used to be the big one. Have to look after women – poor little things.  And you have to cover them up because men are ravening beasts. And they need only see a glimpse of female flesh to be unable to control themselves.  This is still the view of those who believe that women should cover from head to toe. But feminism has revealed the deeply patronising and oppressive aspect of that so it’s no longer acceptable to the general public to talk about protecting female virtue. And you can’t really formulate about homosexuality so much anymore, though some try. But that one’s pretty much been lost and I think gay marriage will go through eventually.

So fear of paedophiles and the sexualisation of children has become, if you like, it’s like a step back…step back…step back. And now that’s where they’re drawing the line and they’re moral-panicking and they’re making people very afraid of something which remains incredibly rare…unless you’re in a private school. So how do we draw the line again? Because it’s incredibly important and that’s the second part of my topic. I think the best hope we have at the moment is this High Court challenge. I think it’s really exciting. Support it if you can afford to. You can go to the High Court challenge website. Just Google it. And donate and help Ron Williams cover his costs.

But also do not allow yourself to be bullied or intimidated out of criticising religion and religious ideas. There is a lot of attempts now for some people to say that they find, particularly what I say – I can’t imagine why – ‘offensive’.

I am always being told that I’m offending people. I’m afraid I’m not very sympathetic to that. I can say to them, “Well, if the worse thing that ever happens to you in your life is you get offended by something, you’re living a pretty good life really aren’t you?

What I’d really like to say is “Suck it up”. I once gave a, recently was in a debate with a theologian at a particular event and I got an ‘I’m offended’ email three weeks later from his wife – which I thought was a bit pathetic. Anyway, my immediate response - because I’m really quite a nice person – was to say “I’m sorry if I offended you”, but I stopped myself, and I sent an email back which included this quote from Salmon Rushdie, “At Cambridge University”, he said, “I was taught a laudable method of argument; you never personalise, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You’re never rude to the person but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me the crucial distinction; people must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say any idea system is sacred, whether it is a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision or contempt” – I love the way he doesn’t pull any punches – “freedom of thought becomes impossible.”  I think that’s what we need to remember. The next time you feel contemptuous – let yourself go!

You’re defending freedom of thought. It’s a very good thought to leave you with. But I have one last thing that you can do to draw that line between church and state, to help to support it. Make sure you send your children to secular public schools and don’t let anyone talk you out of it.

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