02 February 2016
by Brian Morris

New poll on religion and the Australian Constitution

Changes to the Australian constitution are infrequent. One amendment that many would like to see concerns the head of state, and Australia becoming a republic. But perhaps there's a more immediate issue that is now supported by 78% of the population, in a new January poll. It relates to a minor constitutional clause that will formally remove the influence of religion from the business of government -- an official separation of church and state.

It's been forty years since the last constitutional amendments - following Gough Whitlam's dismissal as Prime Minister by Governor General Sir John Kerr, back in 1975. Amendments were made two years later to codify the conventions for filling casual senate vacancies.

That was one of the triggers, sparked by then Premier of Queensland Joh Bjelke-Petersen, which finally led to a major constitutional crisis. ALP Senator Bertie Milliner died suddenly in mid-1975 and instead of the convention to take the PM's recommended replacement, the Machiavellian Petersen selected Albert Field.

Field was an obscure ALP member hostile to Whitlam who vowed never to vote for his government. The resulting crisis made it necessary to amend the constitution to stablise the mechanisms of parliament.

Today, it could well be said that a similar amendment, and equally simple, is finally needed to codify the constitutional conundrum of religion and how it continues to intrude into the nation's political and secular domain.

A landmark national survey in January, by independent pollster IPSOS, showed that 78 percent of the population thought personal religious beliefs should be separated from the business of government. But the most telling result was that 72 percent also thought the separation of church and state should be more clearly stated in the constitution.

Section 116 of the Australian constitution amounts to just 45 words, in four short clauses. It essentially says the Commonwealth can't establish a national religion; impose religious observances; prevent the practice of religion; and no religious test can be required for any Commonwealth office.

And there's ample historical evidence to show that those who framed the constitution intended Australia to be a secular nation -- a concept approved by popular referendums in all six colonies leading up to its proclamation in 1901.

Many issues have arisen over recent decades which involve a clash of secular and religious principles but few have required the High Court of test the boundaries of Section 116. Regrettably, for the secular community, those cases that were tested have resulted in very narrow interpretations by the High Court. That is not entirely unexpected as the constitution lacks one final defining clause.

In 1981 Commonwealth funding of religious schools came before the High Court. The justices were unable to rule that it directly contravened any of the four clauses of Section 116. More recently -- with two challenges to the National Chaplaincy Program in public schools -- the High Court was again unable to rule against chaplains per se. But under a different section of the constitution they were about to declare that federal funding of the Chaplaincy Program was unconstitutional. However, this was quickly circumvented by administrative changes, first by the federal government under Julia Gillard, and later by the States with assistance from the Abbott government.

The Chaplaincy Program continues despite widespread opposition from professional organisations and many community groups who point up the myriad problems with the scheme -- including comments from the High Court, to the effect that the program is of no benefit to schoolchildren.

Another clear example of how government and religion become hopelessly entangled was the $20m of taxpayer funds that went to finance the Pope's World Youth Day in Sydney. You can't find a more profound illustration that breaches every principle of a secular Australia than parliament handing out millions to Catholic youth for a Papal extravaganza.

So a minor addition or amendment to Section 116 would clearly define Australia as a secular nation. It would allow the High Court to make judgements to uphold unmistakable secular values where religion invades the public realm -- chaplains in public schools, one-denominational religious instruction, Christian prayers in parliament, and all those areas where religion has dominated the mindset of so many nations for almost 2000 years.

Such a change would also put on notice federal and state politicians who, in cavalier fashion, impose their own personal religious beliefs rather than comply with the wishes of their electorates. There's a raft of contemporary social policy issues that demand political action but are thwarted by parliamentarians brandishing religious texts written in the Bronze Age.

This perpetual interference in social and political policy makes a mockery of the shrill cries of Church leaders who claim their voice is being banished from the public square by demonising secular interests.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Christianity's small but still-powerful hierarchies continue to wield enormous political and media influence -- far beyond their congregation strength, which now stands at just 8% of the national population.

So it is no longer surprising that almost 80% of Australians now want outstanding issues on the public agenda to be legalised. Same-sex marriage and voluntary euthanasia are just two that have been interminably blocked on religious grounds.

This landmark IPSOS poll is a stark warning to politicians that it's time to finally separate the entire process of government from centuries of political influence by the Churches, and their professional lobbyists. And while it will take longer to have that minor clause added to Section 116, the unmistakable intent of those who framed the constitution of 1901 is plain for all to see.