It’s a privilege today to have Andrew Barr, Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory, join National Secular Lobby president Peter Monk for a Q&A. The territory government is now in caretaker mode ahead of the election, with voting commencing on 28 September and concluding on 17 October.

Peter Monk (PM):

Thanks for joining us, Andrew. In your first term as Chief Minister, your government was quite progressive on social issues and implemented a number of pro-secular initiatives, including the removal of federally funded religious chaplains from public schools and the extension of mandatory reporting requirements to cover religious ministers. It certainly gives the impression that your government values and seeks to promote secular policy. Would that be a fair assessment?

Andrew Barr (AB):

Yes – I think it is a fair assessment. We are very clear about our values and live them every day in our parliamentary work.

PM:

What does ‘secularism’ mean to you personally? Has it been part of your political philosophy in any way?

AB:

To me, secularism is more than just the separation of church and state. Secularism champions universal human rights. It is the freedom to practice your personal faith or belief – so long as it does not harm others. It is the operation of a democratic society where religion participates but does not dominate. It provides for a society where religious beliefs, or absence of them, doesn't put anyone at an advantage or a disadvantage.

In a secular democracy, all citizens are equal before the law and parliament. No religious or political affiliation gives advantages or disadvantages, and religious believers are citizens with the same rights and obligations as anyone else. These values are fundamental to my political philosophy.

PM:

If the Liberal opposition were to win the upcoming ACT election, to what extent could the progressive and pro-secular gains achieved in the ACT be undone? What is the risk to ongoing rational social reform?

AB:

Regrettably, it appears that the ultra-conservative Canberra Liberals would seek to unwind many of our reforms if they were elected. It is also clear that there would be no further reforms pursued.

PM:

You have often been a target for criticism from orchestrated religious-based opposition. More recently, in response to your government’s new laws to outlaw gay coversion practices, the Australian Christian Lobby accused you of being focused on "attacking the traditions and lifestyles of people of faith". How representative do you think these kinds of views are of faith communities in the ACT?

AB:

Not very representative at all. Most faith communities in the ACT are moderate and they reject the extremism of the ACL.

PM:

Thinking about Australian politics in general, do you have any concerns about the current or future influence of religious interests on policy and on public institutions, given that our population continues to become more diverse and that people are increasingly identifying as non-religious?

AB:

Not in the long term. I think the long-run trends are very encouraging. In the short term, there are some risks that are implicit in the questions raised in this interview.

PM:

As part of our #SecularGovernment campaign, we’ve been raising awareness of what we argue is the inappropriateness of elected bodies -- the federal parliament, state and territory parliaments or local councils -- to begin their meetings with prayers. Sessions in the ACT’s Legislative Assembly begin by asking members to pause for a moment of silence to reflect or pray on their responsibilities. Do you think this would be a better model for other elected institutions?

AB:

Yes! The ACT Legislative Assembly has proved that it is possible to reflect the diversity of our community through the reflection opportunity.

PM:

Canberrans, like the overwhelming majority of Australians elsewhere, support the right of terminally ill people to have legal access to humane end-of-life options. You have said that you want the removal of federal laws that block the right of the ACT Legislative Council to legalise voluntary assisted dying (VAD). Given the surge of support across the country for VAD and the emergence of new laws around the states, how long can Canberrans be expecting to wait to have the same rights?

AB:

We hope not much longer. We will continue to campaign for this absurd federal veto to be removed from the territories. The more Australian states that pass VAD laws, the sooner the federal veto will be removed.

PM:

When speaking on the National School Chaplaincy Program in the past, you have said that the federal funding of exclusively religious chaplains in public schools was not appropriate and was carried out as part of “a culture war being played out in our schools”. Your government removed that program from the ACT’s schools this year, replacing religious chaplains with secular youth workers and social workers. How has that change been received in school communities this year? Is it an approach that you would recommend to other states?

AB:

It has been received positively by most, although not all. It is an approach that other jurisdictions could follow.

PM:

Your government has strongly condemned the Morrison government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill. You have publicly raised concerns that the legislation would unduly privilege religion and threaten human rights. Given the widespread opposition to the bill, what are the chances of it seeing the light of day? Are you preparing for a fight on this issue next year?

AB:

I hope it has been permanently removed from the legislative program, but that might be too much to hope for. We will continue our strong advocacy against the draft legislation.

PM:

In your public commentary on the Religious Discrimination Bill, you’ve said that consideration is needed for Australians to enjoy freedom from religion as much as freedom of religion. It seems that few political leaders are prepared to acknowledge this vital aspect of religious freedom. Do you have any thoughts on the general reluctance of politicians to explicitly address this?

AB:

I am puzzled by this reluctance. It isn’t a particularly controversial statement. People should be able to enjoy freedom from religion. This does not impact, in any way, others’ freedom to practice their religion. I suspect it will be another decade or so before many other politicians will make similar observations. Generational change is required in this regard.

At the National Secular Lobby, we're pleased to have joined forces with a number of pro-secular community organisations in the #DontDivideUs campaign against the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill. Add your voice to the campaign.