John Howard: ‘Politics Of Discrimination’ Hampering Religious Freedom Debate


Former Prime Minister John Howard
Former Prime Minister John Howard.

Former Prime Minister John Howard has said that he’s frustrated with the “maddening” debate around religious freedoms in Australia.

Howard told The Australian on Wednesday that the “politics of discrimination” had “become so potent” it was difficult to have a rational discussion about freedom of religion.

“Nobody wants to expel gay kids and to my knowledge it’s not happening. I mean, this is the greatest red herring imaginable,” he said.

“Surely everybody agrees, of course, you don’t expel gay kids. That’s ridiculous and unfair.”

But Howard said the debate around discrimination in religious schools required an “outbreak of common sense” and the schools should be able to sack staff who “undermined” their ethos.

“A faith-based school should be able to teach the ethos of the school. That’s why people send their children to Jewish schools or Anglican schools or Catholic schools,” he said.

“If a teacher tries to undermine that, well, they should be able to let them go.

“It’s always been my belief that, in a small business, if you’ve got somebody who’s undermining the business you should be able to let them go.

“If someone is teaching at a Catholic school and they start ridiculing the Catholic religion, well of course the school is entitled to arc up about that.”

Howard told the National Press Club on Wednesday that “the curse of identity politics” was “an absolute evil thing for rational political debate” and reiterated his opposition to marriage equality.

Last week, the Coalition and Labor failed to break a political deadlock on the detail of legislation to protect gay students from discrimination, delaying any action on the issue until the new year.

Earlier this week, former High Court judge Michael Kirby slammed the laws allowing faith schools to discriminate against gay or transgender students as “medieval stuff” and argued teachers at publicly-funded private schools should be protected from dismissal on the basis of their sexuality.

“One of the problems in Australia is we don’t have a charter of rights that people can go back to and say, ‘This is just universal human rights,'” he told ABC Radio.

“We don’t have that so people go on with their own theories and their own problems in their own mind.”

Justice Kirby said in his view the issue boiled down to public money going to faith-based schools.

“My own view is that if they take federal gold they’ve got to comply with a non-discrimination requirement,” he said.

“If they want to go off on their own and have their religious prejudice and hobgoblins and so on, then that might be acceptable, so long as they don’t use federal money of taxpayers of Australia to fund institutions that act in that way.”

Asked about religious freedom, Kirby pointed to a legal expression suggesting, “The right to swing my arm finishes when I hit another person’s chin.”

“The right to swing my arm of my religious beliefs really hurts when that then hits either students or hits staff or other people in publicly-funded education,” he said.

The debate around discrimination in religious schools emerged after the leaking of parts of the Ruddock religious freedom review in October.

The federal government has previously said it would release the Ruddock review in full before the end of the year after receiving it in May.