Religious freedom on this election agenda

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

It is probably understandable that an interminably long election campaign may result in many people “switching off” and reading no further than those election countdown clocks showing the day, hour, minute and second until you can tick the boxes and say “all over for now”.

One person even suggested to me this campaign was a little like The Longest Day minus the all-star cast, while some are even spending more time reading guides to the US presidential election than guides to our Federal election.

Then along comes one of the most unashamedly intolerant statements of all from one of the minor parties and shakes us out of our election fatigue.

The Australian Sex Party (ASP) loves a headline. The name of the party itself makes that obvious. But last week its president, Fiona Patten, showed those who preach tolerance are anything but tolerant. Yes, bigotry is alive and well.

A member of the Victorian upper house, Patten wants a seat in the federal parliament on 2 July. And she has declared an “all out war on the Catholic Church”.

She is seeking crowd-funding to produce another party video promoting euthanasia, same-sex marriage and ending tax exemption for religious organisations.

However, the rancorous and pernicious anti-Catholic sectarianism of the ASP’s recent statement doesn’t sit with a party which claims to represent itself as a civil liberties party.

In fact, many may ask if this party is a political party or a lobby group, a sex industry lobby group.

What the ASP’s statement last week has shown is that we cannot “switch off” during the home stretch of this election campaign.

We need to be up to speed with the policies of the major parties and even some of the minor ones whose extreme policies or single-issue platforms could gain enough traction to secure a parliament without a clear majority. We need to re-engage.

Religious freedom is on this election agenda. However, opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia is not an exclusive Catholic Church position.

However, it does seem to be part of the ASP’s label and dismiss strategy – if a person’s religious and moral beliefs conflict with some ‘politically correct’ position, brand that person as intolerant and bigoted and dismiss the substance of their argument.

In other words, shut down freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

The ASP’s call to end tax exemptions for religious organisations but apparently not for secular not-for-profit organisations is also part of their call to arms, naming the Catholic Church as directly in their sights.

However, it is not just this minor party that ignores or refuses to recognise the contribution the Catholic Church makes to health, welfare, education, Aboriginal ministries, overseas missions, disaster relief and more.

The Greens are hardly a party that embraces religious communities.

It’s an increasingly tough message to sell to the Greens that the Catholic Church seeks to service the community on a daily basis and in doing so saves the government a lot of money.

In the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney for example, apart from donations, a key way to provide this service and support is through the Catholic Development Fund which directs monies to the pastoral and charitable works of the Church.

The Catholic Church in Australia is the biggest welfare and social services provider in Australia looking after thousands of homeless and underprivileged with the help of an army of volunteers.

The Catholic Church is also the largest non-government health care provider employing nearly 7000 people and providing 9000 hospital beds and in the aged care sector more than 21,000 residential aged care places.

CatholicCare, the official welfare arm of the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Sydney, delivers more than 140 programs in areas of ageing, dementia and disability care; employment, education, training and support services; children, youth and family services.

Other services include family and relationship counselling; drug, alcohol and gambling support services; foster care and adoptions; services for at risk children and young people; mediation and counselling; support accommodation and respite services. These are inclusive of the whole community regardless of circumstances, ethnicity, religion, economic situation, age, gender or ability.

Catholic schools are also an invaluable part of the nation’s educational system.

Catholic education extends from the cities to the most remote parts of Australia and currently 764,000 students attend 1731 Catholic schools – that is one in every five students in schools. These schools employ more than 91,000 staff.

All schools in Australia –Catholic, government and independent – receive funding from the Commonwealth, state and territory governments. How that funding is distributed varies between school sectors and within school sectors, according to learning needs.

However, on average, students in Catholic schools receive 17 per cent less government funding than a student in a government school.
Government funding covers 71 per cent of the cost of educating a student in a Catholic school.

Parents pay the rest, slightly more than $3 billion.

That saves governments billions of dollars annually.

Despite this the Greens’ policy argues that non-government schools have had an adverse impact on public education and, as a result, Commonwealth funding must prioritise the public education system.

Unlike government schools the policy also states that funding to independent and Catholic schools must take into account the school’s capacity to generate income from all sources, including fees and other contributions.

Surely unfair and discriminatory, especially when parents already pay taxes for non-government schools they don’t use.
Catholic and independent schools also pay for the vast majority of capital improvements and new constructions in their communities. Again, additional savings to government.
And when the government did make special grants available to schools following the global financial crisis for school building projects, it was generally and publicly recognised the Catholic education system delivered projects on time and on budget thanks to efficient and prudent management. Contributions and donations to assist these agencies, building funds and special ministries are tax deductible.

And while many receive some government support they are not fully funded by government.

How services are funded is through prudent investments in order to provide a multitude of services like health care, education and welfare.

And these services are not exclusively for those of the Catholic Church, but for all Australians in need.

The Church is not a corporation but good and responsible stewardship is expected of us and we must work, manage and invest wisely, consistent with best practice.

If the ASP and others have their way, tax deductions to all these essential services would go. That would leave us with massively increased costs therefore reducing the charitable works we do for free.

The government simply could not afford that and our society would be worse off.