Politics: Federal Election – Meet the Secular Party

And now we have a complete change of pace – moving from the Christian Democrats a by the very big, very established Labor party, we find ourselves at the Secular Party, a party that is brand new and very far from the fundamentalist Christian parties… or is it?

The Secular Party’s preferences are pretty good – Democrats, Sex Party, Greens, Carers Alliance and eventually Labor. The bottom of the ticket, unsurprisingly, is reserved for the Christian Democratic Party, with Family First and the Democratic Labor Party directly above them. They aren’t too keen on the Climate Sceptics either.

I should probably say up front that while I went to their site wanting and indeed expecting to quite like this party, I found that I did not, in fact, care for them. They are so very smugly superior that I want to slap them. For example

Unlike the major parties, we have no allegiance to the sectional interests of labour or capital. The Secular Party bases its economic policies on judgements concerning the long-term public interest and in the interests of global humanity.

Because the other parties are just too caught up in their preconceived notions, but *we* actually use our minds in an objective fashion. Sure.

I like their social justice policies and their left-wing worldview, but in all honesty on the subject of religion they remind me rather strongly of the Christian Democrats. They, too, are convinced that they are in possession of the only correct world view, and while other (ie, religious) worldviews should be tolerated, they must always be subordinate to secular interests and are, in truth, considered to be rather dangerous. In short, this group for me verges on fundamentalist, and their tone is condescending towards people of other beliefs, and they manage to irritate me even when they are being reasonable. So I’m not sure how objective I can be here.

Anyway, here’s one of their less annoying opening statements:

A truly secular country is one in which society is fully organised on the basis of reason. This requires that beliefs based on merely on tradition, superstition, and notions of the supernatural should not be endorsed by the State. While all people should be free to hold any form of religious belief, however implausible, these should be held privately and should not receive government endorsement or support.

The Secular Party recognises and asserts that religious beliefs have no basis in reason or in factual evidence. Given the numerous contradictions within and between religions, in spite of popular sentiment, we conclude that it cannot reasonably be accepted that any religion is true. The failure of society and of government to assert this obvious conclusion is causing increasing dysfunction, the consequences of which, in Australia and the world, are becoming increasingly dire.

The Secular Party holds that religious beliefs impose and give rise to an increasing intrusion on civil liberties and provide an unwelcome source of social disharmony. We seek to rigorously uphold the internationally recognised Rights of the Child. These imply that children should be free to develop to their full potential their capacity for freedom of thought. This necessitates protecting children from religious indoctrination. This involves instructing them with moral values based on universal principles, free from the corrupting influence of religious dogma.

On to their policies.

In Education, “the Secular Party supports the 19th century notion that education be “universal, secular and free”. They feel this is best achieved by public education in high quality government schools incorporating teaching based on universal values (good luck finding some of those) (ok, that was petty. Actually, I quite like this policy so far). They want to remove state funding from private schools, and instead provide a tax rebate for private school expenses, “determined on the basis of the marginal cost of educating a child in the public system. The rebate shall not apply to any expenses for schools that exhibit a bias in favour of any religion.”

I actually liked this policy up until that final line. I do, in fact, think that public schools should receive more funding than private schools, inculding religious schools (the opposite is currently the case). I don’t think it’s fair to give more advantages to richer schools. I think everyone should have equal access to education. But by barring religious private schools from the rebate, you are actively disadvantaging families who want to send their children to these schools, and I don’t think that’s fair either. However, to the Secular Party, sending your child to a religious school for ‘indoctrinaion’ violates the rights of the child.

As someone who went to several religious schools, I don’t see that a religious school necessarily engages in indoctrination. Yes, we had religious education, but it was very vague and mostly focused on the Golden Rule, followed by excursions to a variety of different religious institutions (a mosque, a synagogue, a Buddhist temple) so that we could learn a bit about other religions. In the later levels, it was mostly ethics. There was never very much of it. There was also Assembly or Chapel, with hymns and prayers, but again, I recall these as being reasonably generic. I would agree that this wouldn’t be appropriate in a public school, but in a school where the parents have agreed that they want their children exposed to this religion, I don’t see the problem.

Incidentally, the Secular Party wants religious instruction in schools to be replaced with studies of comparitive religion and ethics. See my comments above about what our religious education actually covered! They also want school chaplains replaced with counsellors, which I think is a very good idea, because even if you *are* religious, the role of a chaplain versus a counsellor is quite different – a counsellor’s role is to be objective, non-judgmental, supportive; a chaplain by definition has a particular set of beliefs and ethics and there are some things I suspect one would be less likely to confide in a chaplain than a counsellor. Assuming one was willing to be seen speaking to either a chaplain or a counsellor in the first place, which is a whole other kettle of fish.

The Secular Party wants to end tax exemptions for religion. Not for charities run by religious organisations, but it “proposes that the “advancement of religion” is not of itself sufficient to warrant exemptions under the definition of charitable purpose or public benefit.” This seems reasonable to me, since we are supposed to be a secular society. Another thing I agree with is their plan to abolish the opening prayers in parliament, to be replaced by an opening statement recognising the duty of parliament to “work together for the peace, order and good government of this Commonwealth”, and resolving to uphold their duties with honour and integrity, followed by a minute’s silent reflection”. They would also get rid of oaths on a religious book as a default option:

The Secular Party believes that all citizens should be bound by the same undertaking, irrespective of their religion or non-religion, and that ceremonial references to religious beings are anachronistic, ethnocentric and divisive. It is our policy therefore that affirmations be taken, following which a religious oath may also be sworn upon request. On ceremonial occasions it is our policy that these entail pledges of loyalty to principles, and to the people of Australia.

Given the number of different religions in Australia, this is only sensible. They want to change the citizenship oath in a similar way ‘to ensure that new Australian citizens understand that their primary loyalty must be to Australia and its values, not their religion’. This makes me twitch a little, partly because in the context of all the other sites I’ve been reading this sounds like a coded anti-muslim dig, but most of all because I don’t think the State gets to decide what my primary loyalty is. Acting against Australia and Australians in the name of one’s religion is clearly not acceptable, but asking people to put their patriotism ahead of their God in daily life strikes me as oppressive (and also impossible to enforce). Perhaps this is the result of my Protestant upbringing, but I feel that my religion is between me and the God/dess of my choice, and that it has nothing to do with Government, except in as much as it informs the way I vote and the letters I write to politicians.

Another policy that annoys me unduly is this:

Some religious groups would like to see the introduction of religious food certification as part of food labelling standards. It is not the role of the state to authorise standards that are based on arbitrary religious doctrines and which have no relation to public health. The Secular Party is opposed to the introduction of any such standards.

Now, admittedly, I feel very strongly that people have the write to choose what they eat and to know what they eat, and I support labelling things as fully as there is room for on the packaging. I don’t know what the policy is that they are referring to… but why make it harder for people to work out whether something is Halal or Kosher? What harm can this possibly do to anyone? (Rereading this policy, that may not actually be what they are trying to do, so it’s possible I’m overreacting here, but it *annoys* me).

Back to some policies I do like. The Secular Party, being sceptical about absolutely everything, is also sceptical about alternative medicine. They don’t want it to be Medicare funded unless it has passed tests for safety and efficacy. I’m entirely behind that policy. Though I would pair it with funded research opportunities to study some of these alternative medicines, so that it doesn’t just become a blanket way to make the whole area expensive and discredited.

The Secular Party supports a Bill of Rights, and condemns the anti-terror legislation which curtails rights and may “produce greater alienation amongst target groups”. They want to get rid of the religious exemption to anti-discrimination legislation, as well they should. They are anti-censorship, and in economics they feel that the Free Market should not be allowed to get out of hand. They support the Resource Rent Tax, and a Carbon Tax (and the need for urgent action on global warming) and they want a Republic. They want us to be more self-reliant and less tied to the US for matters military and of foreign policy. They also want to redesign the Free Trade Agreement with the USA, because of the effect it has had on our intellectual property laws, about which they have many sensible opinions. In criminal law, they want an emphasis on harm minimisation, crime prevention and rehabilitation, not revenge. They want accessible health services and they support medical research (including embryonic stem cell research), and they are pro-welfare and pro-immigration. In fact:

The Secular Party deplores xenophobic attempts to demonise refugees and asylum seekers. We support continuation of an immigration program that is both economically beneficial and environmentally sustainable, and which provides sufficient allowance for our humanitarian obligations. We note that migrants to Australia must agree to respect certain values, including the equality of men and women, as part of the Australian Values Statement in the immigration application form. It is the policy of the Secular Party to consider means by which migrants may be required to respect these values that they have already agreed to.

Big Brother is watching you, though in this case he is fairly benign. They want the International Convention on the Rights of the Child to be signed into law – but they also feel that it is irresponsible to encourage people to have lots of children, and want to abolish the baby bonus.

Not surprisingly, the Secular Party supports gay marriage, and would also like civil celebrants to have similar status to priests in relation to witnessing statutory declarations and GST exemption. They also support equality between men and women. However:

We propose that certain cultural and religious practices that specifically and significantly limit the rights and freedoms of women in Australia be prohibited. This includes situations where women are forced or coerced into wearing garments such as burqas, and where the freedom of movement of women is limited or restricted…

The Secular Party believes that ideally, expression of religious belief should be a private matter for adults. However we endorse the right of adult individuals to wear clothing of their choice.

The Secular Party supports a ban on identity hiding-garments or other items, including burqas and motorcycle helmets, in public places where there are legitimate security and/or safety concerns, or where personal identification is required. The Secular Party supports the right of relevant officials to request that such items be removed.

The Secular Party believes that the religious indoctrination of children in schools violates the rights of the child. The requirement, whether by parents or schools, that children wear religious attire, is a form of indoctrination. The Secular Party therefore opposes this practice. It is the policy of the Secular Party that all forms of religious attire be prohibited in all schools.

I have some problems with this. Firstly, given the Secular Party’s apparent view that religion is intrinsically negative and coercive, I’m not sure I’d trust their judgment on whether women are being ‘forced or coerced into wearing garments such as burqas’. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to see this either, but I wouldn’t trust them not to enforce it. I’m also interested to know what the definition of ‘public places where there are legitimate security and/or safety concerns’ might be. Above all, I’m deeply concerned about the ban of religious attire in schools, which has been known to lead to parents withdrawing their children – generally their daughters – from schools for reasons of modesty (I’m particularly thinking of the situation in France). And there have been cases where the children – generally older teenagers – have themselves been unwilling to go to school if they can’t wear hijab, because it is part of their personal practice of religion. The result in either case is a child who receives either a curtailed education or a homeschooled education which, ironically, is likely to be more insular than the one they would have received in a school where they were mingling with students from different backgrounds. And let’s be honest here – most of these rules are primarily going to affect muslim women, as most other forms of religious attire can be readily hidden. I suspect a bit of an anti-muslim agenda in general here, above and beyond the general anti-religion agenda.

As a feminist, I have a significant problem with people telling women what they should wear, whether the people doing the telling are religious authorities or secular ones. It’s none of their business. A woman should have the right to cover or uncover as much of her body in public as she chooses (short, perhaps, of nudity) without receiving censure.

So which is more detrimental and discriminatory? Allowing children – many of whom are quite able to think, reason and decide on religion for themselves – to ‘be indoctrinated’ by the wearing of religious attire, or allowing them to receive a potentially inferior education in order to avoid such indoctrination… except that if they are staying home, the odds are their education will be even more ‘indoctrinated’ than the one they were getting at school.

Another policy I’m not sure about is this:

Hospitals and medical services that are owned by religious organisations often display religious paraphernalia and may be inclined to favour medical practices that are influenced by religious doctrine. The Secular Party believes that such institutions that are in receipt of public money should not exhibit bias in favour of any religion. It is the policy of the Secular Party that such organisations be required to ensure that no such bias exists.

This makes me slightly uneasy. I think I know what they are getting at, but on the other hand if an institution is owned by a church – or any other body – and they are providing most of the funds for its upkeep, I think that, unfortunately, they do get a say in what happens there. I say unfortunately, because I suspect this is about Catholic hospitals not wanting to provide any kind of contraceptive or abortion services, but I do think there is an issue of private funds as well as public money here. I just don’t know how this should work.

So overall… I don’t know about this party. They stand for a lot of things I like, but they are also so aggressive in their atheism that they make me feel nervous… and I’m not even sure whether I am a believer or what in. Certainly, the effect of reading this policy is to want to defensively draw back into that part of myself which is still the young Anglican Catherine. And I do think a lot of their policies would have the effect of simply changing the direction of discrimination away from atheists towards people who are religious, and particularly towards Muslims. And this worries me – enough that while I won’t put them near the bottom of the ballot, I probably will put them below both the Greens and Labor – in other words, where my vote is not an indictment, but where it won’t do them any good, either.

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