Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (14:57): I am very pleased to rise to speak to this motion, and it is a very simple one. It is about freedom and it is about fairness, and it is that simple but it is that profound. From the outset, and let us make this clear, I am not against the Lord’s prayer. I know it by heart. I used to say it many times. This is pro-religion. This is about disadvantaging no-one and making space for everyone. Should any member wish to continue to recite the Lord’s prayer here, of course they can under my motion. Should those of other faiths wish to recite a different prayer, well, they can. And for those of no religion, I invite you to reflect on your responsibilities and how you are going to serve the community while you are here. Why are you here? And I would urge all of us to reflect on that, to think about that, to consider the start of the day with a sincere moment of reflection.
This is not a crusade against Christianity, as some of the more hysterical voices and extremes would have you believe. Again, as I say, this is pro-religion and thus pro-Christianity. It is not some form of culture war. It is not cancel culture. The power that people seem to think I have is quite extraordinary. ‘Cancelling God’ I think someone from the other house may have accused me of. This is not about cancel culture, and those that are resistant to this are really arguing this on the grounds of tradition; that is all—that this is tradition.
And of course tradition is important. Our heritage is important. But it is not immutable, and I think it is certainly insufficient grounds to reject a simple change that reflects the changing nature of our community. Were tradition the key determinant to so many things, we would not evolve. Women would not be voting. Women would not be here in this house. Children would still be beaten as a matter of course in our schools and in our homes.
There are so many examples of this change. Change is how we progress our civil society, but it does not deny our heritage. Evolution in rules and proceedings just reflects and respects the changing nature of society and economies.
When this was first debated, and I would encourage people to look at the Argus of 1851, it was the first vote that was made in this chamber, and at that vote they opted against a compulsory recitation of the prayer. It was a very interesting debate. Most of it came down to the fact that they were saying, ‘If you want to pray before you begin Parliament, by all means do that—but do it outside. This is a chamber for everyone from all religions, from all races, and we should be respectful of that’. This is a secular chamber. It is not a church. It is not religious. Yes, we have angels surrounding us—little naked ones as well—but this is the Parliament of Victoria. This is a place where we are here to represent everyone in Victoria. And when the prayer was finally adopted by the standing orders in this chamber, nine out of 10 people in Victoria identified as Christian. Today that has halved. Today many, many religions are practised here. Today almost a third of Victorians follow no religion. Today half of our entire population was either born overseas or has at least one parent who was. And so today the compulsory recitation of one religion’s prayer has become divisive and disrespectful but also discordant to our society.
I know many of you have received letters from a range of people, but I just want to quote a couple that I have received, including one as late as today. A voter from Mornington said:
I’m shocked that such a practice continues in 2021, when we have come so far to remove discrimination. If a prayer was recited at my workplace, I’d soon be getting a call from HR.
I think for many of us when we have discussed this around our community—I know from my experience when I have discussed this with my community—the first thing is that they are shocked that we do it. They cannot believe that that goes on in a parliament—a parliament that they just assumed had a clear separation, a parliament that they just assumed was secular. Indeed Yehuda Hamor, who wrote to me today, said:
You start each day with a statement that automatically excludes me and people like me. I see it as an unambiguous declaration that you are not in a place to work for my kind. I understand that this insult may be a historical anachronism, but it’s insulting nonetheless.
So my motion is in the spirit of inclusion, and it is about being more inclusive in our daily proceedings, progress and respect. I mean, seriously, I think as someone who spent a lot of time—well, maybe not a lot of time, but some time—at Sunday school and certainly in religious studies, as most people my age grew up with, we heard about a Jesus who was very progressive. We heard about a Jesus who was there for everyone. We heard about a Jesus who advocated for fairness. He championed the downtrodden. He denounced the abuses of powers. In fact he was probably one of the most prominent progressives in history.
Now, as I said in an article yesterday in the Herald Sun:
Everybody has the right to religious faith. Nobody has the right to impose their religious faith. No religion has a spiritual or moral monopoly.
With freedom of religion comes the responsibility to respect others’ freedom to follow another god, or none.
The Age’s editorial said:
While Christianity is still the most common faith, it is evident that the religious and ethnic make-up of our state is far more diverse today than it was a century ago, when the Lord’s Prayer became a daily feature of Parliament.
They went on to say that they believed that:
… Parliament should reflect these societal changes—
and that they could—
… see a future where there is an opening of Parliament that is more inclusive of all faiths than the current practice of reading the Lord’s Prayer …
I would like to note that this is not something that we have not been talking about. This is something we have been talking about for the last couple of years. We certainly had the Premier a couple of years ago also agree that we needed to move in another way. And I actually appreciate the conversations that I have been having with the government about this—about how we can be inclusive, how we can greater reflect our community and how we can not insult people in our community by leaving them out and by them feeling excluded by the way we start our day.
I get this from most people that I meet. They want to see an inclusive parliament. They want to see a parliament that reflects the people that it represents. In conversations with different faith leaders, with different organisations, this came out clearly from them too, and I include in that the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, the Victorian Council of Churches and the Buddhist Council of Victoria. They all supported a quiet moment of prayer or reflection on the duties and solemn responsibilities that each and every one of us has in this place today.
We also had an open letter that was circulated today from eminent people across the community, and those signatories included people like Reverend Ian Smith, who is the executive officer of the Victorian Council of Churches; Daniel Aghion, the president of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria; Eddie Micallef, the chair of the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria; Professor Gary Boumer, who is the UNESCO chair in intercultural and interreligious relations; Father Bob Maguire, a Catholic community leader; Professor Pat McGorry, professor of youth mental health at the University of Melbourne; and Simon McKeon, a lawyer, philanthropist, sportsman and chancellor of Monash University. In part, that letter that they were all signatories to said:
We believe it promotes community harmony, better protects freedom of religion and reflects the evolution of Australia from its Judeo-Christian heritage to its current and future diversity of culture and religion.
It is clear too that we can do this, but we probably should do this in both houses—and that is beyond my remit. But certainly if the knocks on my door and the emails that I have received over the past couple of weeks are any indication, there is a great willingness for change not just in this chamber but in the other chamber as well.
I note the opposition’s position—and this was I think very eloquently put by Mr Davis in the Herald Sun yesterday as well—but the point that they raised when we discussed this in the Procedure Committee was that we need to respect the rights of each and every individual. Now, in some perverse way, to do that we maintain a prayer that excludes people and we maintain a process that excludes a large number of people even in this chamber, not to mention the exclusion of people in our community. I think you just have to look at the census to see that that proposition of maintaining a prayer is utterly inconsistent. I think people who are opposing this motion are reading the community wrong.
A number of people from both sides of this house have privately shown support for this, and I understand that this has been difficult. I also want to just make the point that, when you look at this motion, this is actually about how we begin our days on sitting days. In recognition of that tradition and heritage that Mr Davis has spoken about, which the minority report of the Procedure Committee about this exact same issue spoke to, on that opening day when the Queen’s representative comes to this house, when we have the chamber filled with that tradition and heritage at the opening of each session—when we have the black rod, when we have that pomp and ceremony—that is the day that I believe that we can maintain that recitation. That is a day that is a tip to our heritage and to our tradition, but on a daily basis it would be far more inclusive and it would be far more reflective if we actually did something that reflects our whole community: a quiet moment where we could think about how we are going to behave in this house—how we are going to reflect and represent our community. That, I think, would be a very important activity for us.
Elizabeth Reid, who was the first women’s adviser in the federal government many, many years ago, was making this point, because she was arguing that a moment of reflection at the start of a council meeting would be more appropriate than a prayer. She said: in a place where you are going to conflict, where there are going to be contrasts of opinion, where there are going to be disputes and differences, maybe starting the day with silence actually starts the day in a better way to listen to others—to listen to the views of others and to be respectful of other people’s views. I think that that would be something that our community would love to see.
This is a compelling change, and it is based on the evidence that Parliament needs to evolve with the community. It is driven by the fundamental value of fairness, of justice. It is driven by freedom—freedom of religion and personal liberty. These surely are principles upon which we can agree. Anglican Bishop of Wangaratta Clarence Bester put it well the other day:
The Lord’s prayer is relevant to those of us who are part of the Christian society and … a secular state should not and cannot favour a particular religiosity or even where people do not adhere to any religion or faith.
No particular faith or religious tradition should have the monopoly of our ever changing society …
It is beyond doubt time to give all religions a fair go and all people their due respect. I commend my motion to the house.
Fiona Patten MP
Leader of Reason
Member for Northern Metropolitan Region
Motion on sessional orders 4/8/21