Mr Edward Santow, Human Rights Commissioner from the Australian Human Rights Commission has stated that although Australia’s commitment to multiculturalism is broad and enduring, our ordinary law offers some very limited protection against discrimination or vilification on the basis of religion.

He was speaking on the topic “The lion and the lamb: freedom of religion in multicultural Australia” at the lunchtime Affinity Intercultural Foundation’s popular lunchtime Lecture Series held on Wednesday 15 March 2017 at the Affinity offices in Sydney.

The full house event with many guests finding standing room only was facilitated by former Senator and Privacy Commissioner Mr Chris Puplick and was also addressed by the newly appointed Minister for Multiculturalism, and Minister for Disability Services, Mr Ray Williams.

Mr Ray Williams.

Mr Williams during his speech acknowledged the excellent work being done by Affinity and emphasised the Australian values of equal opportunity and respect for all regardless of differences of race, religion and gender. He gave an example of the Premier of the state of New South Wales, Ms Gladys Berejiklian, who rose to the highest office in the state while coming from a non-English speaking migrant background.

Mr Santow started his talk by saying, “My family is a big, largely happy, often chaotic mixture of cultures, religions and languages – and I see that reflected in Australia’s own brand of multiculturalism.

He elaborated on his is own heritage, where his grandfather with Jewish/Quaker heritage and Anglican grandmother migrated to Australia from Europe at the start of World War II while his mother of Jewish heritage fled from Apartheid South Africa to settle in Australia and stated further more that his wife is Catholic.

“There’s enormous diversity in Australia and we should be proud of how well we get along. Yet there are times when our commitment to embrace difference is tested. In some ways, now might be one of those times. There appears to be increasingly combative rhetoric about the value of multiculturalism in Australia,” he said.

Talking about religion, he said that there were two different dimensions in this regard:

There’s the outward-facing role of religion, the vital role that organised religion and people of faith play in helping people who are vulnerable or disadvantaged, especially in education, health and alleviating poverty.

There’s a more inward dimension – religious observance and practice.

In the first dimension, religion is the protector of people’s basic dignity while in the second, religion itself needs protection.

Talking about freedom of religion in international law, he highlighted Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which enshrines the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and indeed to hold no religion at all.

He further explained, “International law makes an important distinction between two elements of religion. First, the freedom to hold a particular religion or belief – this is essentially freedom to think – is absolute.

The second element is the freedom to manifest a religion or belief. These are the actions a person might take in how they worship or practise their religion. International law also protects this second element of religious belief, but it recognises that this is an area where one person’s freedom can come into conflict with another’s, and so reasonable limitations on religious manifestation have always been permissible, largely to apply the ‘harm to others’ principle.

Finally, international human rights law also prohibits religious hatred and discrimination,  prohibiting any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, as well as discrimination on the basis of religion.”

Mr Santow admitted that Australian law doesn’t automatically apply international law and only has piecemeal, narrow protection for freedom of religion.

He pointed out that the Racial Discrimination Act doesn’t explicitly prohibit discrimination on the ground of religious belief. But the courts have decided that a religious group may be protected where they have a common ‘ethnic origin’ like Jewish and Sikh people.

Dr Elizabeth Coombs, A/Privacy Commissioner addressing the audience.

He concluded by saying that what human rights law can do is that it can set boundaries, helping to inhibit behaviour that violates people’s basic rights so that it doesn’t occur at all.

The event ended with presentation of gifts to the speakers and highlighting of upcoming events by Mr Ahmet Polat, Executive Director of Affinity in his unique humorous way as usual.

Read transcript of full speech of Mr Edward Santow:

Watch video of Minister Mr Ray Williams: