Former Prime Minister John Howard has blasted the “maddening” debate over religious freedoms in Australia, venting his frustration at parliament’s failure to reach a “commonsense solution” to preserve the ethos of faith-based schools as part of the push to protect gay students from discrimination.
Mr Howard's sentiments reflect those of Conservative Party leader Cory Bernardi who has long said that our freedoms are under attack from political correctness activists.
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Australia’s second-longest-serving prime minister told The Australian the failure to reach agreement was driven by the rising influence of the “politics of discrimination” which he argued had contributed to increased political fragmentation.
The intervention from Mr Howard comes ahead of the release later this month of a long- awaited review of religious freedoms and the breakdown of political negotiations last week over how to balance the rights of faith-based educators with the rights of gay students.
“Nobody wants to expel gay kids and to my knowledge it’s not happening. I mean, this is the greatest red herring imaginable,” Mr Howard said. “Surely everybody agrees, of course, you don’t expel gay kids. That’s ridiculous and unfair".
“(But) 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. 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,” he said.
Mr Howard used a speech to the National Press Club in Canberra ahead of the January 1 release of the 1996-97 cabinet documents to sound the alarm on the rise of the “curse of identity politics” which he described as “an absolute evil thing for rational political debate”.
Addressing the crisis of values and belief within the government, Mr Howard defended the role of conservatism within the Liberal Party and argued against the use of “far right” as a label for those who took traditional positions such as Senator Bernardi.
“I think one of the things the Liberal Party should do is more vigorously bang on the head these prescriptions ‘far right’. What’s far right about having a conservative position on a social issue? It’s not far right. It’s just conservative,” he said.
Mr Howard said the Turnbull government had made a mistake in not passing further protections for religious freedoms at the time it legislated to allow same-sex couples to marry, “I think this issue should have been dealt with a year ago … It should have been fixed at the time".
Mr Howard warned that the “politics of discrimination” had “become so potent” it was difficult to have a rational discussion over religious freedoms. He also defended the ability of faith-based educators to sack staff who undermined their values.
“I’m disappointed that we can’t have a commonsense solution,” he said. “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.
Senator Bernardi told Paul Murray Live on Sky News all of this negative fallout from the gay marriage vote was entirely predictable.
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