Last night I attended an interfaith forum hosted at UWA, and put on by the Uniting Church and others. You can see the details on the website, and hopefully there will be some video of the event up soon. Then you can check out what they had to say themselves; meanwhile I’ll give just a couple of comments below.
The purpose of the event was to raise the tone of political dialogue by seeking direct and meaningful responses from politicians on issues regarded as of urgent importance by religious communities.
Each religious representative was asked to give two questions, which the politicians responded to. The questions covered a broad range of issues, including, as one would expect, climate change and asylum seekers, but also questions such as religious vilification, the homeless, and wealth inequality.
The pollies present were Sen Scott Ludlam for The Greens, and Ms Alannah McTiernan, Labor Party candidate for Perth. The Libs were absent.
Unfortunately there was no chance for dialogue, it was a pretty much straight question-answer affair. Still, this did give the chance to hear some reasonably coherent and rational presentations of the issues.
Here are the two questions I asked.
In the past year we have seen multiple incidents of sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims. Nearly every country in our region has been involved: Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia. On 7th July the most sacred site for Buddhists, the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment in Bodhgaya, India, was struck by 9 home made bombs. As I write, the culprits have not been identified, but it is suspected that this is a reprisal for the anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar. And on 4 August a bomb was set off at a Buddhist temple in Jakarta, also apparently reacting to the repression of the Rohingyas. What is your party doing to promote harmony between Buddhism and Islam, quell the sources of sectarian conflict, and in particular, to promote Australia’s successful example of multi-faith cooperation?
To this question Sen Ludlum responded by confirming that Australia had a respected role to play in countries such as Burma, particularly due to our large aid contributions. Ms McTiernan, on the other hand, gave what I thought was a rather astonishing non-answer, which ranged from the lack of European culpability in creating the world’s problems (!) to asserting that I should be asking the religious leaders to look after this issue. Which, considering that I was actually invite to ask questions of Australian politicians, was weird.
Thankfully, this non-answer was entirely different from the response I got from Bob Carr when I asked him the same question a month or so ago. He responded by saying that he was going to Rakhine state to raise the profile of the issue, to assert Australia’s support for Rohingya citizenship, and also emphatically re-asserted his support for the ongoing series of Regional Interfaith Dialogues, which have been sponsored over the past several years by DFAT.
At least by asking the question I hope to put the issue on notice, and to affirm that the Australian Buddhist community is not interested in a partisan slution, but in genuine lasting harmony. I do believe that the Australian Government has a role to play in this, and can do more to highlight the success of our multifaith society. Nevertheless, the important work is to be done at the grass roots, by you and me. Don’t let the dialogue of hate gain traction among your family, friends, and colleagues!
For the last several years the Australian Buddhist community, with the leadership of the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils, has strongly expressed its support for legalization of same-sex marriage. Past months have been a watershed for this issue internationally, with major shifts in both public opinion and legislation in the US and many other countries. What are you and your party doing to finally bring an end to the social and legislative discrimination against persons of diverse sexualities and genders?
In this case both pollies expressed their support for same sex marriage. Obviously the Greens have been pushing the issue for years.
As it happens, it was only a couple of days after I submitted the question that Kevin Rudd announced he would allow a conscience vote if he is reelected. The politicians did offer different opinions on this: Sen Ludlum wondered whether that was a purely cynical move, knowing that such a vote would fail. But Ms McTiernen, interestingly, said that she was very confident that a vote on the issue in the next few months would succeed. Time will tell.
Just one final comment. Something that stuck in my mind was a remark by Sen Ludlum about climate change. He was, incidentally, a very impressive speaker, soft spoken, well informed, with an intelligent and reflective perspective on every question. He remarked, almost in passing, that one of the reasons he stood for re-election was that he was terrified by the prospect of a bunch of climate change denialists getting into power. Australia has introduced a number of meaningful reforms, and these are having an effect: our carbon emissions are down this year. If we were to dismantle this architecture, we would be put back a decade in addressing a problem which will determine the survival and nature of human civilization in the coming centuries. We can’t expect to look after our precious, fragile, limited planet, if our policies are determined by people whose ideology is disconnected from such a plain reality.