Religion And Politics Don’t Mix. Someone Should Tell Our Prime Minister

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Freedom of religion is an important part of any democracy. But when it starts dictating government policy, Dr David Swanton draws a line.

Some people may suggest that the machinations involved in political leadership struggles are tantamount to madness. But stupidity knows no bounds. Recent policy developments in Australia that removed climate change emission targets and prevented the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) legislating for voluntary euthanasia have taken irrationality and stupidity to new levels. It is now time that some politicians’ policies are called for what they are: acts of stupidity born of religious indoctrination.

It is worthwhile considering how religious politicians think. Most have been indoctrinated, usually since early childhood, to believe in fictional, primitive scriptures that discriminate against women and the LGBTQI community. They pray to and worship a mythical god that they think has murdered millions, including children (through a Great Flood and Passover) and in whose name millions have been murdered in religious conflicts over the centuries. Their religious belief determines their worldview. They have a right to that belief. Their indoctrination and flawed analytical skills may warrant education, but not condemnation.

What ought to be condemned is that many religious politicians are using their subjective worldview as a basis for public policy, which they impose on others. Religious politicians do not understand that if instead they were indoctrinated in another culture and religion, they would have followed the other religion and have another worldview. They are so tightly wrapped in their religious security blanket that they cannot comprehend that their subjective worldview fails any rational, objective test. They cannot see the hypocrisy of imposing their worldviews on others when they would detest other religions’ subjective beliefs and worldviews being imposed on them.

Ideally, politicians should consider dispassionately the economic, social, legal, environmental, scientific and other underpinnings of competing public policies to determine the extent to which they can generate national benefits. Consequently, politicians who use their religion as a basis for public policy, including on climate change, euthanasia or even embryonic stem cell research, must realise that their religion will be scrutinised. If a policy and its underlying philosophical basis is found to be irrational, unsubstantiated or unsound, it should be rejected and condemned. Or so the theory goes.

Religious politicians have nonetheless continued to offer subjective and superficial explanations to justify policies for political or personal expediency. Their faux policy explanations on climate change and euthanasia have been left unscrutinised by some of the media and foisted on an ill-informed public.

How have religiously motivated politicians affected climate change policy? Evidence from climate studies suggests drought frequency and intensity should increase over time. While short-term drought assistance measures are important, the causes of anthropogenic climate change must also be addressed in the short-term to prevent potentially more severe longer-term problems. New Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, himself religious, has indicated that his Government’s most urgent need is to address the current drought affecting much of eastern Australia. Regrettably, he has already evaded a discussion linking human-induced climate change to drought.

Lake Hume, in southern NSW. (IMAGE: Tim J Keegan, Flickr)

It was only in the past few weeks that the Government announced that greenhouse gas emission targets would be removed from its signature energy policy, probably to appease religious climate change sceptics. Yet these sceptics cannot tell us in what universe carbon dioxide does not absorb in the infrared. They might try praying to prevent on-going drought. But that would rate as stupidity compared to action on objective, evidence-based emission reduction policies to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change.

Fossil fuels have long been used to provide reliable power. Historically, they have been very useful and beneficial, but the latest advice is that any infatuation with finite fossil fuels is misguided. Renewable energy sources are the only option that will be available to future generations, certainly from 2100, and thereafter, for as long as people inhabit this earth. It is difficult to imagine that anyone with concern for the future of the planet could seriously consider extensive investment in new fossil fuel-based power generation. This is partly because of the overwhelming international support for the Paris Agreement, which is based on scientific evidence warning against greenhouse gas production.

The scientific reports indicating the dangers of generating more greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels would be incomprehensible to the average parliamentarian. Fortunately, the Australian Parliamentary Library has succinctly summarised the situation outlined by the International Panel on Climate Change. Specific risks to Australia from climate change include ‘greater flood damage’ and ‘limited water resources in southern Australia’, ‘greater impacts from heat waves on infrastructure as well as human health and mortality’. It states these threats ‘are not simply theoretical but already occurring’. Unless climate change causes are satisfactorily addressed, increasingly more drought-assistance funding will be required. And that would be adding economic stupidity to environmental stupidity.

The recent defeat of the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015 in the Senate cranked political stupidity up a few notches. This bill would have reinstalled the right of the ACT and Northern Territory to enact legislation for voluntary euthanasia. States have such a right, and Victoria has already enacted legislation. This bill would simply have been giving territory citizens, through their legislative assemblies, the same decision-making rights as those living in the states.

ACT Senator Zed Seselja opposed this bill. ACT Legislative Assembly opposition leader Alistair Coe declared that the “Canberra Liberals were not lobbying for the voting rights to be restored to the territories.” Zed Seselja and Alistair Coe do not want the ACT, the jurisdiction they represent, to have the same decision-making rights as other jurisdictions. That is embarrassing for them and insulting for their ACT constituents.

They voted against the bill to prevent the possibility that the ACT could regulate euthanasia. Yet, neither of these religious politicians can justify the unjustifiable: why their subjective religious views should be imposed on their constituents and so deny people choice on euthanasia. They would undoubtedly demand a conscience vote in any euthanasia debate. However, by opposing euthanasia and worshiping a god that causes suffering they ensure people who want to reduce their suffering through euthanasia are denied their choice. Hypocrisy and stupidity abound.

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Zed Seselja, Alistair Coe and Vicki Dunne (an ACT shadow minister who did not appreciate that suicide was legal in the ACT until we informed her at a recent End of Life Choices inquiry hearing) reject the idea that people can make choices about their own lives. Former prime ministers Keating, Howard, Rudd, Abbott and Turnbull oppose voluntary euthanasia, probably because of their religious upbringing. Such a capricious approach to policy is deplorable. It is not the rigorous evidence-based approach to policy that we should expect of our leaders.

These leaders lack the moral fortitude to develop a cogent policy position outside their religious security blanket. As leaders, they should have the courage to stop believing in angels, devils, gods, miracles etc, and realise the moral stupidity of worshipping a murderous god and the hypocrisy of imposing their subjective personal views on others. However, indoctrination is both hard to resist and to overcome.

It is also disturbing that indigenous Senator Pat Dodson, a former Catholic priest, opposed the bill. As an Indigenous person he should rightfully reject unjust discrimination, but his religion discriminates. He said the bill would leave Indigenous people ‘even more vulnerable’. Yet the evidence indicates that the Northern Territory’s short-lived legislation to allow assisted dying years ago was used by only four people, all of whom were white, and all had to be assessed by doctors and psychiatrists before they could make use of the legislation.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

We have heard these politicians’ distracting regulatory arguments against voluntary euthanasia, including the need to protect the vulnerable. Competent regulators can address these concerns. Regulation can and should specify eligibility criteria, penalties, compliance, enforcement, monitoring and reporting requirements. These politicians should firstly consider whether everybody has the ethical right to their own bodies, rather than distracting others with the regulatory matters that they should be managing. This is the individual freedom that liberals espouse, but so conveniently ignore.

Regulators could start with eligibility being limited to those who are sufficiently competent to prepare their own will. If politicians lack the competence to regulate, then they should stand aside for those who can.

Australians’ desire for voluntary euthanasia regulation is reflected in numerous polls. However, given that many politicians are abrogating their responsibility to regulate voluntary euthanasia, it is unsurprising that many Australians, particularly members of Dr Philip Nitschke’s organisation Exit International*, are taking matters into their own hands. Suicide is legal and these Australians, and many worldwide, are now equipped with the information to have a legal and peaceful death, without the involvement of doctors, regulators or others.

Such information is readily available to those studying medical or science degrees. Voluntary euthanasia — more properly rational suicide or rational death — is happening now without regulatory control. The regulatory option is being overtaken by greater information availability.

Given these developments, there are two scenarios. Weak religious politicians will continue to ignore the fact that voluntary euthanasia is happening. This is the most probable scenario, because the alternative would be repugnant to most of them. It would mean they might have to discard their religious security blanket, recognise that they should not be imposing their subjective worldviews on others, address their existential crisis (and of course they should seek professional help if necessary) and regulate voluntary euthanasia. Such an undertaking would require religious politicians to show the integrity and moral fortitude they lack.

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Voluntary euthanasia advocates have been advocating the primacy of individual freedom and autonomy for years. Prime Minister Morrison should be supportive of ‘individual freedom’, as it is a core Liberal Party belief. In his first press conference he said, “We believe that we should decide our own future as individuals, as families, as communities, and of course as a nation. We all want to be able to make our own choices in life.” On that basis, he should support voluntary euthanasia.

Australians deserve the most effective policies to improve their quality of life. Only objective, evidence-based policy can provide the most effective means to ease droughts, mitigate climate change, prevent suffering, and solve Australia’s and the world’s problems. The alternative, pursuing policies based on the subjective worship of mythical gods, is only stupidity.

* Dr David Swanton is Director of Ethical Rights and ACT Coordinator for Exit International.

David Swanton

David Swanton is an ethicist and scientist. He worked as a research scientist in Australia and overseas and had a career within the federal public service. He has been an active advocate for voluntary euthanasia for over twenty years and strongly opposes invidious discrimination. He established Ethical Rights (www.ethicalrights.com) to provide information to challenge people on ethical, human rights, scientific and related issues. He has family, gardening, sporting, music and writing interests and tweets @DavidSwanton.

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