The decision by a Sydney RSL club to cancel a panel discussion on abortion is a blow to free speech and community values amid a crucial social debate said pro-life speakers.
North Ryde RSL informed organiser Robert Assaff in an email on 23 September—the day before debate on the NSW abortion bill resumed in the upper house—that his booking to have a Q&A on abortion held at the club on 26 September had been cancelled.
The club said it made the decision after receiving just one complaint by phone from an individual who had seen the event advertised.
“You have confirmed to me that this will likely be a hot topic of discussion and as explained, this raises major concerns for us as a non-political club,” read the email from a staff member.
“Certain political and advocacy groups are not permitted to host events at North Ryde RSL in an effort to protect the club from any potential damage to its brand and due to past incidents, which threatened the safety and security of attendees and other club patrons.”
The event was the inaugural Conservative Q&A panel discussion, organised by the Liberal Party’s Marsfield branch and advertised as the ‘Pro-life edition’.
It featured panellists former attorney general Greg Smith, MPs Lou Amato and Nathaniel Smith and Director of Life Choice Australia Rebecca Gosper and was moved to the church hall of St Kevin’s Parish, Eastwood, at the invitation of parish priest Father Martin Maunsell.
North Ryde RSL did not respond to The Catholic Weekly’s request for comment.
“It’s disappointing and goes against freedom of speech, which is something I am quite passionate about and everyone should be,” said Nathaniel Smith, who said he had attended many Right to Life events in previous years at the club.
“Are they going now to ban pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia groups from the RSL? Are they going to ban a climate change advocacy organisation? You can’t have one rule for one group of society and a different rule for others.”
Ms Gosper said the actions of the RSL club were “not only disappointing but contrary to the very basis upon which RSL clubs were founded”.
“Historically, RSLs have embraced the needs of the local community,” she said. “Their promotion of key values such as self-sacrifice and loyalty have earned them respect from many.
“Instead, North Ryde RSL now values the pro-abortion agenda and ‘deplatforming’ pro-lifers rather than these key values.”
By shutting down this event, North Ryde RSL has shut down critical conversations around support for women faced with an unplanned pregnancy and how we as a society can be better serving women and children. This is completely unacceptable and will not be forgotten by the community.”
Father Maunsell said he had planned to attend the event and was happy to be able to accommodate it at the last moment. “It’s outrageous and very disappointing, especially to do that to them at the last minute,” he said.
Mr Assaf said he had never before encountered a problem finding a host for an event.
“It’s tragic that an issue as serious as human life is now not even able to be discussed,” he said.
“Yes, this is a highly emotional debate, but the effects of this legislation on the unborn, mothers and families alike deserve to be discussed before this bill is hurried through the Parliament.
“It begs the question, do organisations like the North Ryde RSL fear commercial repercussions if they cater for organisers who wish to promote human life and the current law?”
Mr Smith said he had received more than 800 phone calls and emails from his electorate about the extreme abortion bill since its hasty introduction to parliament at the start of August and “well over 98 percent” were opposed to it.
“It is a big issue and it affects everyone in the community,” he said.
Mr Amato said the decision was “appalling”.
“Australian soldiers have fought and died for the freedoms we enjoy today, including our freedom of speech and freedom for religion and for an RSL club to take a stance like that is atrocious,” he said.
“I encourage all Catholics to continue to press our concerns, we have a right to freedom of speech. If we don’t stand up for our rights where does that leave our faith?”