Winning voters of faith back to Labor

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Senator Deborah O’Neill says “there is no denying that people of faith told us they were unsure of a welcome in Labor and that perception was a problem at the 2019 Federal election.”

We are rebuilding bridges with communities of faith

Many of us felt hopeful about the calendar ticking over into 2021 and the opportunities of this New Year stretch out before us. But some did not. They felt hopeless and fearful of the uncertainty of the days and weeks that lie ahead.

Many of us know in the arms of family and friends alike, smiles and celebration, and joy, and a shared history of the journeys of life recounted and anticipated. But some do not. They feel very alone, unseen and unloved, not welcomed and without community to remember who they once were and no care about who they may become.

My faith demands me to act in ways that reveal it: “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

“I see a worrying divide emerging between Australians of faith and Australians of no faith … These are the signs of battle and impending casualties. I say – there is room for all of us.”

My politics demands of me to give that faith-filled love practical shape in my time.
That is perhaps the best explanation of why I carry two essential items with me in my handbag wherever I go: a set of pink rosary beads and a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The rosary beads, a reminder that I’m never alone and to be “still” amid life’s busy demands, and the Declaration because it is the collective voice of wisdom of the world following the two great wars of the last century and the horror of the Holocaust.

The belief in the fundamental dignity of each person came first to me in Catholic words, the Declaration is for me those beliefs given shape in democratic words. Despite the harmonious co-habitation of these two items in my handbag and my life, I see a worrying divide emerging between Australians of faith and Australians of no faith.

Anthony Albanese delivers a speech during the Labor Party National Conference in 2018. Photo: AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Barricades are being erected, trenches dug, troops digging in. These are the signs of battle and impending casualties. I say – there is room for all of us. The artificial divisions between these different groups can have dangerous and damaging consequences.

The flames of difference and intolerance must not be fanned by political leaders. People of no faith now have many champions, inside and outside of every political party. That is a reflection of the reality of our cosmopolitan reality.

But I’m determined to make sure that alongside (not above or below but alongside) those of no faith, people of all faiths and beliefs feel heard and welcomed in the Labor Party. There is no denying that people of faith told us they were unsure of a welcome in Labor and that perception was a problem at the 2019 election. Since then, Labor has been quietly rebuilding bridges with communities of faith.

Personally, I’ve undertaken 27 consultations to date with leaders of different communities of faith from so many faith groups across the country including the Hindu Council of Australia, the Buddhists, the Lutherans, the Anglicans, Jewish faith leaders, Baptist and Seventh Day Adventist, Uniting Church, Baptists, Catholics, the National Imams Council and the Ba’Hai.

“Labor believes in and supports the right of all Australians to have and to manifest their religion or beliefs, and the right of religious organisations to act in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of their faith.”

These are great Australians who rightly take their place as leaders of communities that rightly seek to manifest their faith in our free pluralist society. Many of these great men and women represent people of faith who have fled religious persecution in less tolerant places in the world. They understand deeply that politics matters and that democratic beliefs matter.

They quite naturally want to be part of, and have a right to be part of, the ongoing conversation about what kind of a modern cosmopolitan nation we are and will become.
Labor is listening. And we hear you loud and clear.

My experience in life was only reinforced by these fruitful conversations, and that experience tells me that while we all speak in different faith/life languages, we as Australians are bonded together by a deep and shared belief in the fundamental dignity of each person. This is really our national faith – we are all believers in democracy.

Labor’s Draft Policy Platform is a public document available on the internet. It is our version of a plan to give rise to lives that share in the benefits of those democratic beliefs in our time. It is our way of saying to Australia this is what equality and dignity for all looks like to Labor people in 2020.

We need to find generous and respectful ways to live with differences and hold to a firm egalitarian centre, writes Deborah O’Neill.

People of faith care about and live out their faith in our economy and our society. They care about business, success and job security, about education and health, about our environment and our future, about our infrastructure and our elderly, about our relationships with our international neighbours, they care about our poor and about fairness.

Faith doesn’t disappear as you step over the door of your place of worship and into the wider world it is a fundamental part of who you are. Faith is with you in business, community and home just as much as it is when you’re in your church, your mosque, or temple and synagogue. In my consultations, faith leaders had plenty to say about the alignment of Labor’s policies with religiously informed views of how a just and faith-filled life can be lived in ways that not only benefit from but delight in the freedoms for all established in a healthy tolerant democracy.

“There is no one voice of people of faith, but neither is there a single voice of people of no faith.”

There is no one voice of people of faith, but neither is there a single voice of people of no faith. We need to find generous and respectful ways to live with those differences and hold to a firm egalitarian centre. For the record, Labor has for decades, both in government and in opposition, supported the UN Declaration and its articulation of the right to freedom of religion. In the 2018 platform, where there was one very short sentence, chapter nine, paragraph 29 – “Labor supports the appropriate protection of religious freedom for all people”. It seems it wasn’t enough.

The new draft platform further clarifies our commitment – so there can be no doubt: Labor will protect and promote the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in accordance with Australia’s international obligations, including our obligations under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Labor recognises that the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief, to change a religion or belief, or not to have or adopt a religion or belief, is absolute. Moreover, Labor believes in and supports the right of all Australians to have and to manifest their religion or beliefs, and the right of religious organisations to act in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of their faith.

In 2018 independent political activist Milan Maksimovic (right) said the major parties can no longer take the votes of people in ethnic communities for granted, particularly when it comes to religious freedom and same-sex marriage. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Such rights should be protected by law and, in accordance with Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, subject only to such limitations as are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

Labor believes that no Australian should ever be vilified or subjected to violence or threats of violence because of that person’s religion or religious belief. Labor will therefore ensure that Australia’s anti-vilification laws are fit for purpose.

Labor could not be more transparent in its process to present to the Australian people a document that says, “this is who we are, this is what we believe as a political organisation”.
We seek to govern for all, to enliven democratic politics and civic engagement with all Australians in our diverse and changing multicultural and multi-faith society.

“No Australian should ever be vilified or subjected to violence or threats of violence because of that person’s religion or religious belief”

The voices of people who have no religion, the voices of people who have doubts about whether religion should have primacy, and the voices of people whose lives are entirely motivated by the sense of service to others that their faith gives them, are within the Labor Party and have always been within the Labor Party.

They reflect that wide range of different faith and other languages, differing lives and breadth of views on matters of importance that exist in our community.

Deborah O’Neill is a Labor Senator for NSW.

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