Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Govt blocks sharia law push by Federation of Islamic Councils

THE GILLARD Government has quickly moved to block calls for sharia law to be introduced in Australia.

In its submission to the parliamentary inquiry into the government's new multiculturalism policy, The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils has called for Muslims to be granted “legal pluralism".

Attorney-General Robert McClelland stomped on the request. “There is no place for sharia law in Australian society and the government strongly rejects any proposal for its introduction," Mr McClelland said.

Sharia has faced repeated criticism. It is again in the headlines following an Iranian court's decision to delay a planned “eye-for-an-eye" act of justice against a man who threw acid at a woman's face because she refused his marriage proposal.

“As our citizenship pledge makes clear, coming to Australia means obeying Australian laws and upholding Australian values," Mr McClelland said. “Australia's brand of multiculturalism promotes integration. “If there is any inconsistency between cultural values and the rule of law then Australian law wins out."

Mr McClelland is keen to assert Australia's position as a “stable democracy" where “rule of law" underpins society.

“People who migrate to Australia do so because of the fact that we have a free, open and tolerant society where men and woman are equal before the law irrespective of race, religious or cultural background."


Pay for Muslims to feel at home?

AUSTRALIA'S top Muslim organisation wants taxpayers to finance the expansion of Islamic schools and halal food outlets into mainstream suburbs.

And in a sign of growing community tension, the nation's peak Jewish authority has called for new migrants to be put on probation while their commitment to Australian values and laws is checked.

In a submission to a federal inquiry into multiculturalism, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils said Muslims were forced to live in enclaves near Islamic schools, mosques and halal food outlets. "The Government should invest in expanding services like halal and kosher meat and food outlets as well as faith-based schools," it said. "If the Government and politicians cannot recognise this as essential, it should no longer accuse the Australian Muslim community of intentionally living in enclaves."

Heba Ibrahim, the AFIC board member who wrote the report, told the Herald Sun there were reasons groups were drawn to certain suburbs. "I'm saying there needs to be a greater investment generally in schools that wish to go out into other areas that are not heavily populated with particular migrant and religious groups," she said.

Governments do not contribute to the building of new private schools, but private colleges get state and federal cash for running costs and upgrades. For example, Springvale Islamic school Minaret College received about $10 million in recurrent financing and almost $2 million in capital expenditure in 2009, according to the latest MySchool website data.

Melbourne has several halal butchers, but AFIC wants government help to make halal food more widely available. Houssam Dannawi, from Madina Halal Meats in Brunswick, said his customers were not limited to Muslims. "They try it and they come back. They like the diversity of what we offer," Mr Dannawi said.

In a separate hearing, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry has told a Federal Parliament committee on migration that Australia must learn from the failed "anything goes" model of multiculturalism in Europe.

It wants migrants put on probation to enable a "confident assessment of their acceptance of Australian values and laws before granting full citizenship".

The council's executive director Peter Wertheim said there was concern about Islamic extremists. "If they're involved in criminal activity or incitement of violence or incitement of racism, that's something that should be taken into account," he said.

The organisation also wants mandatory English training for migrants.


Gillard and Swan: meet the fiscal incredibles

By economist Sinclair Davidson

Treasurer Wayne Swan claims to have cut some $22 billion out of the federal budget. Well actually that’s not quite right – he claims to have found savings of some $22 billion. Over four years.

Then we discover that some of those savings are actually tax increases. Not to mention the whole heap of new spending initiatives. No wonder people are confused and the budget hasn’t been well received.

To be fair – a tax increase is a ‘saving’ to the Commonwealth budget in some accounting sense but it is not a saving to the taxpayer. So in the very first instance the Government has a framing problem. They have framed their budget as an ‘us versus the taxpayer’ document and it is no wonder they have been accused of class warfare. Being proud of their ‘Labor budget’ doesn’t help either.

The blunt reality is that the Government’s spending cuts are simply not credible. There are actually some good spending cuts proposed in the budget yet good policy doesn’t sell itself and this government has proven to be incapable of selling anything.

While strictly speaking not counted as a spending cut the move to ‘reform’ the Disability Support Pension highlights the communication problem this government faces. It is a good idea to get people on the disability pension to work more – if they can. But this should not be framed in the context of labour force participation. Getting disabled people to work is never going to solve any so-called skill shortages.

Rather this should be undertaken as a social inclusion policy. That means that policy is likely to be expensive. Ideas here would be to exempt disabled employees from payroll tax – that means the Commonwealth would have to compensate states - or to refund their income tax payments to provide them with greater incentive to participate and so on.

The cuts to family payments, designed to save some $2 billion over four years, are incoherent. That isn’t to say they are bad policy. The economic narrative the Government has pursued in justifying those cuts is incoherent.

The Government have been unable to settle on a sensible description of the economy. On the one hand, we’re told Australian economic growth is the envy of the developed world, our net debt is low, unemployment is below 5 per cent, terms of trade are the highest since whenever, and so on. Yet, we’re also being told about the need for frugality, and the two-speed economy, and how the Government understands that families are doing it tough.

Of course, the Government is simply reflecting the uncertainty of current economic conditions but it hardly surprising that average Australians are experiencing some angst over that uncertainty. Winding back the social safety net would be difficult at the best of times – but it is much harder when people feel insecure.

Where the Government is struggling is in defining middle-class and middle-income. Almost everyone conflates the two definitions, but of course they are very different. The middle class is much larger than middle-income earners. Households with an income of $150,000 are not rich but they are well above the middle-income.

Any crack-down on middle-class welfare will require these households to effectively pay more tax or consume fewer public goods. As yet the Government has made no argument why this should occur, apart from vague references to ‘fairness’ and ‘labor values’. True, the prime minister did say on radio recently that ‘high-income earners like you and me do get asked to look after ourselves’. She earns an income far in advance of $150,000 and has few household expenses.

The lack of a coherent narrative isn’t the only problem the Government faces. Some of their cuts are lazy policy. The efficiency dividend will cut a mere $1 billion over four years. Sure everybody wants to have an efficient government, but the amount is trivial in the face of deliberate waste on pink batts and economic aid budget increases by almost $2.5 billion over four years. So while public servants scrimp and scrap to provide Australians with services the Government will be splashing out on foreigners. Does that make sense to anyone?

To place the ‘$ 22 billion over four years’ spending cuts in perspective, think about the total spend of some $362 billion – spell that out to three hundred and sixty-two thousand million dollars to get some idea of the magnitude. Next financial year alone, that amount is some $22.6 billion short of revenue.

Swan’s savings over four years are simply not enough. To make matters worse he is incapable of articulating why the budget needs to be in surplus and how best to achieve that goal. In an open globalised economy government is going to have less control over revenues and spending control is the only mechanism government has to ensure fiscal responsibility.

In 2007 Kevin Rudd stated, ‘this reckless spending must stop’. He was right then; he would be even more right now. This budget does have some good ideas in it, but not enough and those good ideas will wither on the vine unless the Government gets out there to articulate why fiscal responsibility sooner rather than later is good economic policy.


Students caught in the culture war crossfire

Public schools are again the battleground of a culture war. Make no mistake, the debate about the chaplaincy program and religious teacing really is a conflict about culture rather than God's place in a classroom.

The government announced in last week's federal budget an extra $222 million for the National School Chaplaincy program and providing religion classes in public schools. Yet revelations that Access Ministries chief executive Evonne Paddison had spoken in a 2008 conference about the "need to go and make disciples" through a "God-given open door to children and young people" will no doubt further rattle those who resist such moves. The Victorian teachers union called at the weekend for an end to religious teaching in schools.

The battle is an extension of the skirmishes during the Howard years around what constitutes Australian identity and history. Many supporters of Christianity-oriented Special Religious Instruction (SRI) would argue, for instance, that Australia has after all been peopled and shaped by Christians of various denominations.

They have a point. In 1947, 88 per cent of Australians identified with one of these denominations. Even the most recent ABS census reveals that Christianity remains demographically prominent, with 64 per cent claiming at least nominal adherence. Inevitably, in some circles, being Australian is conflated with being Christian.

However, the reasoning that this aspect of Australian national identity needs to be preserved – some would say expanded – is faulty in the same way that an exclusively "white" or Anglo conception of it is false and potentially dangerous. Our social reality is no longer the monoculture it once was and it will never be that way again. Much as Christians would see opposition to SRI as an attack on their values and God himself, the glaring truth is that Australians embrace a range of belief systems that are also life-giving. Religious plurality is simply not the same as moral relativity.

What is thus insidious about volunteer-run religion classes is not that they might result in young people taking up a creed, but that in Victoria in particular, it is being run by a patently Christian organisation whose executive has reportedly said, "without Jesus, our students are lost". For we can all soberly agree that young people need a safe, structured forum for exploring what is right and wrong, but we cannot honestly teach them that Christianity has a monopoly on moral values. We insult their intellect when we do so. We also legitimise prejudice against other faiths.

This culture war, however, is not just about Christianity versus other faiths, but faith versus secularism. It is interesting to see secularists argue with slightly more vehemence than Christians what the character of Australian society really is. They see it progressing inexorably away from religious traditions and structures. The separation of church and state is often invoked, though the constitution merely prohibits imposition of a state religion and a religious test for public office.

They may not realise that many church organisations in fact do a lot of work for the state, especially in social welfare. Why is it that no one seems to be concerned, for example, by the prospect of a homeless man turning to God because of his encounters with the Salvation Army, which receives government grants?

More to the point, when secularists (humanists and atheists by another name) argue that religion has no place in schools, they make exactly the same mistake that Christian proselytisers do: they insult young people's intelligence by doing their thinking for them.

This, in the end, is what evangelists and atheists have in common, the fear that young people will be lost if the other got hold. It is what underpins all culture wars – fear for the future.

Christians, however, should not use government schools as a platform for a new-found crusade against secularism. They will lose. They will lose once young people figure out that being secular is not the same as being amoral. Neither should secularists dismiss religion wholesale, as if it does not offer young people a view that is as humane and ethical is theirs. If they genuinely wish for students to be able to freely choose, then that choice must be made authentic by having all options on the table.

From shared fear, perhaps both camps can thus share a common hope: that young people who wish to live authentically and decently as human beings will find what they are looking for.


1 comment:

Paul said...

"the nation's peak Jewish authority has called for new migrants to be put on probation while their commitment to Australian values and laws is checked".

Pot, meet kettle.