The take-over of Calvary Hospital shows that religious freedom is at risk in Australia

If there is one area of possible conflict for Australia’s Labor government, it is within the realm of religious freedom.

Just when it thought the religious freedom bill was safely out of the way, its colleagues in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) have opened a can of worms with the takeover by the territory government of Calvary Hospital, and this is probably only the first intimation of more to come.

The fear that the ACT government will not stop at one hospital has been realised. When asked if it would take over the Calvary Health-run hospice, the Health Minister gave a noncommittal answer. This week, the government took over the hospice as well.

Unfortunately, the political shenanigans in parliament over the Brittany Higgins case and the Voice have distracted from this.

Forget the notion that the takeover was propelled by a commitment to improve healthcare in the ACT. If that were the case, the Barr government could have spent the $675m it spent on the new tram on the main Canberra hospital, which is beset by staff shortages, poor outcomes and, as reported in the Canberra Times, threatened with the loss of teaching status of the fetal medical unit.

While all this is happening in Canberra, the general population’s fixation on Higgins Mark II and the campaign on the Indigenous voice has provided the best cover for a government that does not really take freedom of religion seriously.

The draft proposals for the imminent Labor national conference might indicate an insidious and dangerous shift against the fundamental religious rights of many Australians. A careful reading of the draft proposal for the 2023 conference in August contains some pertinent clauses on religious freedom, and one alarming caveat.

The most important part of Labor’s current platform (Chapter 5, par 44) says:

“Labor believes in and supports the right of all Australians to have and to manifest their religion or beliefs, and the right of religious organisations to act in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of their faith. Such rights should be protected by law and, in accordance with Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, subject only to such limitations as are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”



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All standard ICCPR stuff. However, the next paragraph deals with the framework of anti- discrimination law. This is the most important bit. It states that Labor would: “Continue to uphold, defend and enhance that framework to ensure that it is fit for purpose, accessible and promotes equality.”

Those words, “fit for purpose”, carry a great deal of weight. “What purpose?” you might ask. And how to interpret “equality”?

The answer becomes clear in the next paragraph. “Labor will simplify federal anti-discrimination laws by consolidating them into a single piece of legislation including a review of existing exemptions to ensure that they do not prevent access to essential social services.”

So, in other words some “fundamental rights” can be interpreted as being more fundamental than others. This is where the weasel words about “religious freedom” clash with the anti-discrimination platform, which is simply a way of getting rid of any exemptions for faith-based institutions such as hospitals and schools.

So it continues, in paragraph 48: “Labor believes it should continue to be unlawful to discriminate against any person on the basis of age, disability, race, religion, sex, gender identity, sex characteristics or sexual orientation”; and paragraph 49: “Labor recognises that discrimination is often multi-layered, with people experiencing discrimination on the basis of intersecting attributes.”

As it stands, this draft document reads that Labor will get rid of the exemptions, which has always been the aim of Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus. In fact, the matrix of anti-discrimination laws is really designed to bring people of faith into conflict with these laws and the state.

So, while the ICCPR is considered the gold standard for the protection of religious freedom, undoubtedly there will be debate over allegations that religious schools manifesting their traditional moral values on sex and marriage constitutes discrimination against “the fundamental rights” of others holding contrary views about sexual morality.

In hospitals the church’s opposition to abortion and euthanasia has already been cited as a possible reason for the Calvary takeover. It was interesting to note the language used by the Health Department and its spokespeople during the initial brouhaha. The word secular, frequently used to describe the takeover regime, ignored the fact the hospital has always been part of the secular and pluralist health system. The message was pretty clear. “We don’t want anybody or any institution with a religious ethical underpinning operating within our aridly secular fiefdom.”

Consequently, the hospice has been taken over despite Anthony Albanese paying lip service to the importance of religious institutions in delivery of social services.

The main area of concern, particularly for many Catholics, is the character of Catholic schools.

It is about time the Labor Party came clean on whether Catholic schools can maintain their ethos. Low-fee Protestant schools are also worried about coming under the hammer of a new anti-discrimination law. If Labor gets rid of the exemptions, it would do nothing more than mouth the most fundamental of all human rights, the right to conscience and religion, recognised by the foundation document of universal international political and civil rights, while undermining those rights.


Angela Shanahan is a Canberra-based freelance journalist and mother of nine children. She has written regularly for The Australian for over 20 years, The Spectator (British and Australian editions) for over 10 years, and formerly for the Sunday Telegraph, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times. For 15 years she was a teacher in the NSW state high school system and at the University of NSW. Her areas of interest are family policy, social affairs and religion. She was an original convener of the Thomas More Forum on faith and public life in Canberra. In 2020 she published her first book, “Paul Ramsay: A Man for Others”.

This article has been republished with the author’s permission from The Australian. 

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