Moderator's Comments - Posted 1 March 2018

I love our political process and I love the freedom we have in Australia to engage in it. There are many places in the world where old men cling to power without regard to the people. By comparison, Australia’s democratic governance is transparent, consultative and accountable.

Mind you, it’s not always easy to understand what’s going on: is it debate or charade, argument or theatre? Last month I represented the Presbyterian Church of Australia in Canberra, pleased at how our MPs make themselves available to speak with us when we press them (admittedly, through minders at first). It’s a privilege to exchange ideas with MPs, to raise our concerns, to engage debate. The conundrum, though, is the theatre of the “bear pit”, heightened by the daily ritual of Question Time. Reasoned argument and meaningful debate are excluded from this hour and a half spectacle.

Bob Hawke (BBC documentary “Larrikin and Leader”) said he left the theatre to his political attack dog, Paul Keating. For Hawke, it too was a conundrum, he said: “I was used to appearing in tribunals where your argument counted … but in Parliament, it was a b______ charade.” I think what Hawke was saying is that he preferred to argue with words and reason, while Keating revelled in the theatre of Parliamentary debate.

But outside Parliament’s debating chamber, we have an amazingly transparent, consultative and accountable system. Last week I represented the PCA before the Ruddock Review Expert Panel – a panel charged with the responsibility of constructing an acceptable parliamentary legal framework for the protection of religious freedom in Australia.

I always feel awkward sitting as part of multi-faith platforms. It doesn’t ‘sit right’ with me, for how can I be integrally part of multi-faith when I represent a particular faith? However, given the awkwardness of the moment, it was an opportunity I wasn’t going to miss – to speak directly to each member of the panel that otherwise I wouldn’t have.

Of a group of ten representing the Multifaith Advisory Group, there were two of us Presbyterians, and as 1/5th of the total representation I felt we contributed at least ¼ of the input and debate. We were able to put a clear Christian position to the panel to which there were nods of agreement from time to time from the Hindu, Muslim and Baha’i reps. The Hon Philip Ruddock and his team are good listeners and open to reason. They are in no doubt as to the difficulty of the assignment they’ve been given by the PM, as they travel around Australia listening to lobby groups and other interested parties and as they sift through 16,500 written submissions.

What a privilege that we have such opportunity, that we are consulted and that we do have listening ears to speak to. The question is whether, or not, the Expert Panel can persuade Parliament to legislate for a federal overlay that genuinely protects the expression of religious freedom – such overlay that provides restraint on States who otherwise feel they can use their anti-vilification laws as a heavy-handed whip on Christians who speak out against current moral trends, or on Christian faith-motivated organisations that want to maintain their mission enterprise by employing the best qualified persons who demonstrate identification with, and support of, their mission.

While grateful for the existence of the PM’s Expert Panel and for the openness of its members, I think they might not fully grasp the trajectory of cultural change, and the regulatory creep that gradually impinges on Christian freedom. When the opening question to us was “Well, which of your faith leaders is in jail today?” and “What specific problems can you cite now?”, I felt they were ignoring this trajectory and diminishing debate on it.  The opening challenge seemed to be: “But, is there a problem?” Have we learnt nothing from the Archbishop Porteous affair, the Markham case, and overseas kickbacks against Christians?

This month has made me realise afresh how hard it is to serve in Parliament. Mr Ruddock is a former MP who’s served his country well for an amazing 43 years, serving in immigration, multi-cultural and indigenous affairs portfolios as well as Attorney-General. He is the second-longest serving MP, now called back into service on a rushed two-month no-win assignment. But we pray some real good will come from it – something akin to the Apostle Paul’s wish “to live a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2). This outcome we know to be good as it pleases God.

The Westminster Confession of Faith reminds us how God has appointed the civil magistrate “to be under him over the people, for his own glory and the public good”. Our duty is to pray for all those who rule us in Parliament, “It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honour their persons, to pay them tribute and other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority …” (WCF ch 23.4).

I’m encouraged to know that we have Christians in Parliament. Pray for them, because they live under intense workload that militates against quality family time at home. Theirs is the constant battle to remain humble and composed when fawned over by the lobbyist and every manner of the would-be who wants to gain their favour and secure their vote. They work under the constant alluring temptation of compromise that their position of power and prestige can bring. They face the agonisingly difficult pressure to toe the party line while their heart’s desire is to know the mind of God and follow their Spirit-led consciences.

But then, many are not Christians. No matter, we pray all the more. Yes, we are also ruled by non-Christian and even non-religious MPs. Pray for them especially. The WCF continues: “Infidelity, or indifference in religion, doth not make void the magistrate’s just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to him.” When we hear of our MPs behaving badly, we must pray for them. The worse the behaviour, the more we must pray. Their lack of faith (which is the meaning of “infidelity” here) or casual attitude to matters of faith, does not disqualify them from their position or their rule over us, and therefore does not put them outside the scope of our prayers or of God’s sovereign rule.

So, whether we think it’s debate or theatre, Parliament is our civil magistrate appointed to be under God and over the people. So, we pray. We have the superior weapon: prayer. Greater things have been achieved through prayer than we could EVER imagine.

So, praise God for the substantial freedoms we enjoy in this beautiful country. Praise him for access to a consultative parliamentary process. And we remain thankful that our relatively small denomination, representing no more than 50,000 Australians (not even 0.2% of the population) is a valued member at the discussion table.

John P Wilson