Senator John Madigan 

John Madigan, an Independent senator from the state of Victoria, made a blistering speech in Federal Parliament in Canberra on Tuesday evening about the right of Australia’s Catholic bishops to place their position on same-sex marriage before the public.

I rise tonight to speak in support of our Constitution, I rise to speak in support of freedom of speech and I rise in support of the freedom of religious belief.

Additionally I want to put on the record the hypocrisy of those in this place who seek to silence people for their religion. I want to put on record my condemnation of the use of lobby groups who are not necessarily representative of the wider community, that do not have widespread support yet seek to bludgeon our religious institutions.

And I speak out against the duplicity of some of those in this place. I condemn their political expediency. This group speaks of human rights and discrimination and accuses others of hate speech, but like George Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Truth’, they seek only to lie and distort, they condemn and vilify and try to silence those who dare to express a different opinion.

Specifically I refer to the willingness of the Greens to condemn religious leaders in this country for disseminating a booklet that informs and explains a central tenant of their religion. Earlier this year the Archdiocese of Hobart distributed a book to 12,000 families at Catholic schools. The same book was also widely distributed across Australia. It was produced as a pastoral letter from the Catholic bishops of Australia to explain the church’s position during the same-sex marriage debate. The humble 15-page document, titled Don’t Mess with Marriage, sought to explain the Christian case against gay marriage. Church leaders attempted to explain clearly and succinctly their position while this country grappled with the issue of same-sex marriage.

In short, the book said families are the founding blocks of society and children need a mother and a father. This was not revolutionary; I would have thought that, in fact, until recently this was a widely-held tenant shared by both major political parties. The book was not strident or hate-filled in tone. In fact, it said the gay community must be treated with love, respect and sensitivity. The Catholic Church opposes all forms of unjust discrimination, the book says. I quote: “We deplore injustices perpetrated upon people because of religion, sex, race, age etc.”

As commentator Chris Berg wrote in The Age this week:

It’s hard to overstate how moderate this book is. It offers not fire and brimstone. It’s not fire and brimstone. It’s gentle and Christian, of the suburban pastoral variety. It is a calm explanation of major position on a prominent political policy issue.

Mr Berg continued:

To be offended by the booklet is to be offended by what was, until recently, the mainstream view on marriage, and one still shared by a large majority of the population.

And do church leaders, in this case, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, not have the right to put a high-profile public debate into context among their parishioners? Is this right not the very bedrock of religious freedom and expression, particularly when that message is contextualised in an attitude of respect and care?

Apparently not. A group calling itself Australian Marriage Equality accused the Catholic Church of breaching the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act. A Mr Rodney Croome from the group accused the Catholic Church of prejudice in the book and of enlisting young people as couriers of its message.

I understand the book was delivered directly to students in Catholic schools in some cases and in others it was given to students in a sealed envelope to take home to their parents. I have read the book, and I look forward to sharing its contents with my own children. But the campaign of hate and discrimination to silence church leaders did not stop there.

Lo and behold, we had a Greens candidate in Tasmania, Martine Delaney, make a complaint to the Office of the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner for a possible breach of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998. Yes, of course, where we find hypocrisy and political mischief-making, where we find toxic sanctimony, we invariably find the Greens.

How long did it take for the newest member of the Greens in the Senate, Senator McKim, to jump on the train? In a speech earlier this month, Senator McKim called the church booklet, which had been distributed to members of its congregation, ‘offensive material’. He said there was a danger of the gay marriage debate being hijacked by a small but well-resourced lobby group.

But isn’t that exactly what the Australian Marriage Equality group is —a well-resourced lobby group of indeterminate size with deep pockets and a flashy website?

We are all entitled to our opinion, but it seems we are not entitled to a difference of opinion. The church has responded to the accusations with restraint. Archbishop Porteous has agreed to a conciliation process. I admire his grace and equanimity, and his courage under fire from cowards.

Finishing up, I refer Senator McKim and Ms Delaney to the words of the founder of the Australian Greens, former senator Bob Brown. Speaking in 2008, Senator Brown urged the Senate to condemn the bloodshed in Tibet by China. Senator Brown spoke strongly and passionately about the rights of the Tibetan people: their right to freedom of speech and their right to freedom of religious observance. In another speech at about the same time, Senator Brown upheld the Australian tradition of democracy:

…that we believe in the freedom and the rights—political, civil and religious—of every human being but in particular of every citizen in this country.

Senator Brown was a staunch defender of religious freedom—be it in China, Tibet, Australia or elsewhere. He saw it as a fundamental right; the cornerstone of a civilised society.

As noted in The Age by Mr Berg:

Free-speech theorists have talked about the ‘chilling effect’ when the cost of defending oneself against baseless claims hampers the open expression of views.

But this is the world the Greens would have us inhabit. I am sure Senator Brown was familiar with section 116 of our Constitution, which states:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law … for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion …

The free exercise of any religion is enshrined in our Constitution. I refer Greens senators to Senator Brown’s previous comments, and I suggest they take some time to study his speeches. I also refer the Greens to the Australian Constitution, and I suggest they become familiar with it before making further comments on this matter.

John Madigan is an Independent senator from the state of Victoria.