There are many things which I miss about working as an adviser at Parliament House. And there are many things which I do not miss in the slightest. At the end of this, the first fortnight of sittings since I left Canberra, one thing which I am more than comfortable living without is the recital of the Lord’s Prayer at the start of each parliamentary day, both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives.
The majority of the Australian population do not pay close attention to what happens in parliament (indeed many pay no attention at all), so they would be blissfully unaware that each day begins with our parliamentarians engaging in a prayer in adherence to one particular religion. Indeed, even though I was relatively politically engaged before starting work there, even I was unaware that each and every day starts with the same religious ceremony, as it has done during every sitting since Federation.
This is simply unacceptable in a modern secular democracy. One of the core tenets of the Australian system of Government is, or at least should be, the separation of church and state. We are not a theocracy, there is no religious test for standing for public office and there is no official state religion – in fact, these principles are enshrined in our founding document (s116 of the Constitution reads “[t]he Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office of public trust under the Commonwealth”).
It is also curious that the prayer remains part of the order of parliamentary business when our Senators and House of Representatives members come from a wide range of religious backgrounds. Many are christian, but some are from other religions (including our first muslim MP in the current parliament), some are agnostic and many are atheist. Those who are not christian should move to end the recital of the Lord’s Prayer because it has no place in a house of legislation rather than a house of god/s.
In theory, they would be joined by the majority of capital ‘C’ christians, who should understand that the separation of church and state means that, in order for all faiths to be protected equally, the state should not preference any one religion and should not engage in religious observance itself. This is also necessary to protect those, such as myself, who have no faith. In fact, only the most extreme christian fundamentalists would argue that an arm of government should begin each day by invoking a prayer to one particular deity in whom many parliamentarians do not believe, just like many people in the community that they represent.
So why, in 2012, does this relic of religious observance continue to corrupt the beginning of each sitting day? Well, despite the notable efforts of some MPs in recent years to raise its profile (especially Bob Brown and Harry Jenkins), this issue is admittedly minor in consequence when compared to others which affect vastly more people more seriously (the only people directly affected by the recital are our MPs, the staff who work in Parliament House and the very small number of people watching via APAC).
It is also fair to say that only a small number of citizens care passionately about the issues raised either way – on the one side, secularists who support the separation of church and state, and on the other religious fundamentalists who believe that they should be able to impose their religion on others. And while secularists, such as myself, are and continue to be vocal, religious fundamentalists are an increasingly rabid group of people who, now used to getting their way (see: banning same-sex marriage, parachuting chaplains into schools), would likely employ a nuclear response to any attempt to jettison the prayer.
Which means that the majority of MPs who are not christians do not actively support this reform for fear of being labelled anti-christian (which is of course fundamentally untrue – secularism is not explicitly against any particular faith, rather it opposes the intrusion of faith into areas where it should not stray). Even parliamentarians who are capital ‘C’ christian but support the separation of church and state do not take on this issue because they do not want to incur the opprobrium of people like George Pell, Peter Jensen and Joe De Bruyn. The small minority of MPs who are religious fundamentalists do not have to do anything to secure yet another victory.
As a result, even though most Senators and House of Representatives members probably know that it should be removed, and it would take only a small amendment to standing orders to achieve, each sitting day still starts with the Lord’s Prayer. It will continue to do so until enough MPs are willing to stand up for principle over pragmatism. Well, one can hope anyway.
In the meantime, should you ever catch a glimpse of the start of parliamentary proceedings on APAC, or happen to be in the public gallery, it is interesting to witness the strategies which MPs adopt during the prayer. While some say the prayer out loud (you can probably guess which ones), others stand silent, looking as if they want to be anywhere else at that particular moment, and some orchestrate their late attendance so they arrive in the chamber after the prayer ends.
My coping mechanisms involved a combination of going for a well-timed coffee, judiciously employing the mute button, or simply talking over the top of the Senate broadcast. Unfortunately, on a couple of occasions I had to sit in the adviser’s box in the chamber, because a bill I was responsible for was coming on for debate as the first item of legislative business, and so listening to the prayer was completely unavoidable.
I don’t think that any employee in any workplace, let alone one working for the federal government, should have religious observance imposed upon them. That is a fundamental human right which should always be respected. In fact doesn’t s116 already say something along those lines? If only the High Court had the courage to invigorate that particular clause. But that is another post for another day…