Thursday, 13 September 2018
Senate Procedure Committee; Report
Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President Kitching, for taking the chair to allow me to present this report. I present the Senate Procedure Committee's second report of 2018 Proposal to replace the parliamentary prayer. I move:
That the Senate take note of the report.
On 27 June 2018, the Senate referred to the committee a proposal to amend standing order 50 to replace the traditional parliamentary prayer with an invitation to prayer or reflection. The committee received approximately 820 submissions, the vast majority of which did not support replacing the prayer. The tenor of those submissions is recorded in the report, and the committee thanks all of those who contributed their views. Essentially the same matter was referred to the committee in 1997. On that occasion the committee reported:
It is clear that many senators who join in the prayer regard its retention as important, but among those who do not join in the prayer there does not appear to be a strong view that its proposed abolition is a significant question which should occupy the time of the Senate.
The submissions made on this occasion and the views of the committee members and their colleagues suggest the opinions are not significantly different in 2018 than they were during the 1997 inquiry. Those in favour of the prayer strongly favour its retention, whilst those opposed are less vocal and less concerned to see it changed. The committee does not consider on the evidence before it and after its own deliberations that there is momentum for change. The committee therefore does not recommend that the amendments proposed in the reference should be adopted.
The committee considered, without making any recommendation, whether an invitation to a personal prayer or reflection could be inserted alongside the current prayer. The committee also noted the practice in other jurisdictions of the chair inviting other members to read the prayer. The committee draws those options to the attention of senators. I commend the report to the Senate.
I rise to speak with regard to the dissenting report from the Australian Greens on this matter. The Australian Greens firmly believe that the current practice of reciting the Lord's Prayer, something that's occurred in this place since 1901, is outdated and no longer reflective of Australia's religiously diverse and secular society.
It's understandable that, back in 1901, when 97 per cent of Australians identified as Christian, this parliament would open proceedings with the Lord's Prayer. However, modern Australia is a far more diverse society. As of the last census in 2016 only half of the population identified as Christian. We have a significantly more varied and less religious population today. It no longer relies exclusively on a Christian concept of morality for guidance. Many people in this place consider themselves to be atheists, some are agnostic and some of them are followers of non-Christian faiths, and yet we start each day in this parliament with an entreaty to a Christian God.
We don't think that's appropriate. We think the time has long come to recognise that this is a secular society and that we should give people, everyone in this place, the opportunity of beginning proceedings in a way that they choose fit. In fact, the Catholic Women's League of Australia supported this general view by stating:
However, we also recognise that in an increasingly secular society not all Australian citizens choose to pray. Such an amendment recognizes the diversity in spiritual and religious beliefs and is a positive development. Therefore a space for them to reflect is important too, and provides an opportunity of mindfulness for every person engaged in parliamentary work.
It's clear that the Lord's Prayer is no longer appropriate for the representative body. This is, after all, a representative body. We are here to represent the breadth of views across the Australian community, and when half of the Australian population do not identify as Christian it's important that those views are represented in the way we conduct our business.
It's also not appropriate in a secular society. It's the Greens' strong view that the Australian parliament should uphold secular values and not have those important values undermined at the beginning of each day with something that sends precisely the opposite message. We make it very clear that this is a country where there is separation between church and state. It's a country of many faiths. In fact, it's a country where many people have no faith, and therefore our parliament should reflect that.
Our proposal is a very straightforward one. It's one where we invite people to prayer or reflection, but in silence. Basically, we put forward a proposal where we could use the opening statement that's read at the start of each day in the Legislative Assembly of the ACT. That procedure was adopted back in 1995, and not a moment too soon. To summarise: our recommendation is that as a parliament we no longer begin each day with the Lord's Prayer—something that is inconsistent with a modern multicultural, multifaith democracy—and instead we recommend that the requirement for prayer under standing order 50 be replaced with an invitation to prayer or reflection. That could be done in silence, it would be a much more inclusive gesture and it would reflect the breadth of views right across the Australian community.
I seek leave to continue my remarks later.