Is it time to curb immigration in Australia?

To curb or not to curb immigration? It’s one of the more polarising questions Australia grapples with amid anxieties over a growing population and its impact on the infrastructure of cities.

Over the past decade, Australia’s population has grown by 2.5 million people. Just last year, it increased by almost 400,000, and the majority – about 61 percent net growth – were immigrants.

Different studies reveal vastly different attitudes.

While Australians have become progressively more concerned about a growing population, they still see the benefits of immigration, according to two different surveys.

Times are changing

In a new survey recently conducted by the Australian National University, only 30 percent of Australians – compared to 45 percent in 2010 – are in favour of population growth.

The 15 percent drop over the past decade is credited to concerns about congested and overcrowded cities, and an expensive and out-of-reach housing market.

Nearly 90 percent believed population growth should be parked because of the high price of housing, and 85 percent believed cities were far too congested and overcrowded. Pressure on the natural environment was also a concern.

But a Scanlon Foundation survey has revealed that despite alarm over population growth, the majority of Australians still appreciate the benefits of immigration.

In support of immigration

In the Mapping Social Cohesion survey from 2018, 80 percent believed “immigrants are generally good for Australia’s economy”.

Similarly, 82 percent of Australians saw immigration as beneficial to “bringing new ideas and cultures”.

The Centre for Independent Studies’ own polling has shown Australians who responded supported curbing immigration, at least until “key infrastructure has caught up”.

In polling by the Lowy Institute last year, 54 percent of respondents had anti-immigration sentiments. The result reflected a 14 percent rise compared to the previous year.

Respondents believed the “total number of migrants coming to Australia each year” was too high, and there were concerns over how immigration could be affecting Australia’s national identity.

While 54 percent believed “Australia’s openness to people from all over the world is essential to who we are as a nation”, trailing behind at 41 percent, Australians said “if [the nation is] too open to people from all over the world, we risk losing our identity as a nation”.

Next steps?

The question that remains is what will Australia do about it?

The Coalition government under Scott Morrison recently proposed to cap immigration to 190,000 immigrants per year. Whether such a proposition is the right course of action, and will placate anxieties over population growth, remains to be seen.

Join us

We’ll be debating IQ2: Immigration on March 26th at Sydney Town Hall, for the full line-up and ticket info click here.

Immigration Infographic - 2

Join the conversation

Is it time to curb immigration in Australia?

Should we stop immigration

Limiting immigration into Australia is doomed to fail

Should we stop immigration

Few topics bridge the ever widening divide between both sides of politics quite like the need to manage population growth.

Whether it’s immigration or environmental sustainability, fiscal responsibility or social justice. That the global population breached 7.5 billion in 2017 has everyone concerned.

We are at the point where the sheer volume of people will start to put every system we rely on under very serious stress.

This is the key idea motivating the centrist political party Sustainable AustraliaLed by William Bourke and joined by Dick Smith, the party advocates for a non-discriminatory annual immigration cap at 70,000 persons, down from the current figure of around 200,000 – aimed at a “better, not bigger” Australia.

Join the first IQ2 debate for 2019, “Curb Immigration”. Sydney Town Hall, 26 March. Tickets here.

While the party has been accused of xenophobic bigotry for this stance, their policy makes clear they are not concerned about an immigrant’s religion, culture, or race. Their concern is exclusively for the stress greater numbers of migrants will place on Australia’s infrastructure and environment.

It is a compelling argument. After all, what is the point of the state if not to protect the interests of its citizens?

A Looming Problem

We should be concerned with the needs and interests of our international neighbours, but such concerns must surely be strictly secondary to our own. When our nearest neighbour has approximately ten times our population, squeezed into a landmass twenty five per cent Australia’s size, and ranks 113 places behind us in the Human Development Index, one can be forgiven for believing that limited immigration is critical for ongoing Australian quality of life.

This stance is further bolstered by the highly isolated, and therefore vulnerable nature of Australia’s ecosystem. Australia has the fourth highest level of animal species extinction in the world, with 106 listed as Critically Endangered and significantly more as Endangered or Under Threat.

Much of this is due to habitat loss from human encroachment as suburbs and agricultural lands expand for our increasing needs. The introduction of foreign flora and fauna can be absolutely devastating to these species, greatly facilitated by increased movement between neighbour nations (hence the virtually unparalleled ferocity of our quarantine standards).

While the nation may be a considerable exporter of foodstuffs, many argue Australia is already well over its carrying capacity. Any additional production will be degrading the land and our ability to continue growing food into the future.

The combination of ecological threats and socio-economic pressure makes the argument for limiting immigration to sustainable numbers a powerful one.

But it is absolutely doomed to failure.

Fortress Australia

If the objective of limiting immigration to Australia is both to protect our environment and maintain high quality of life, “Fortress Australia” will fail on both fronts. Why?

Because it does nothing to address the fundamental problem at hand. Unsustainable population growth in a world of limited resources.

Immigration controls may indeed protect both the Australian quality of life and its environment for a time, but without effective strategic intervention, the population burden in neighbouring countries will only continue to grow.

As conditions worsen and resources dwindle, exacerbated by the impacts of anthropogenic climate change, citizens of those overpopulated nations will seek an alternative. What could be more appealing than the enormous, low-density nation with incredibly high quality of life, right next door to them?

If a mere 10 percent of Indonesians (the vast majority of which live on the coast and are exceptionally vulnerable to climate change impacts) decided to attempt the crossing to Australia, we would be confronted by a flotilla equivalent to our entire national population.

The Dilemma

At this point we have one of two choices: suffer through the impact of over a decade’s worth of immigration in one go or commit military action against twenty-five million human beings. Such a choice is a Utilitarian nightmare, an impossible choice between terrible options, with the best possible result still involving massive and sustained suffering for all involved. While ethics can provide us with the tools to make such apocalyptic decisions, the best response by far is to prevent such choices from emerging at all.

Population growth is a real and tangible threat to the quality of life for all human beings on the planet, and like all great strategic threats, can only be solved by proactively engaging in its entirety – not just its symptoms.

Significant progress has been made thus far through programs that promote contraception and female reproductive rights. There is a strong correlation between nations with lower income inequality and population growth, indicating that economic equity can also contribute towards the stabilisation of population growth. This is illustrated by the decreasing fertility rates in most developed nations like Australia, the UK and particularly Japan.

Cause and Effect

The addressing of aggravating factors such as climate change – a problem overwhelmingly caused by developed nations such as Australia, both historically and currently through our export of brown coal– and continued good-faith collaboration with these developing nations to establish renewable energy production, will greatly assist to prevent a crisis occurring.

When concepts such as immigration limitations seek to protect our nation by addressing the symptoms, we are better served by asking how the problem can be solved from its root.

Gordon Young is an ethicist, principal of Ethilogical Consulting and lecturer in professional ethics at RMIT University’s School of Design. 

Join the conversation

Protect citizens first and foremost or help everyone who needs it?

Adoption without parental consent: kidnapping or putting children first?

Adoption without parental consent

Adoption without parental consent: kidnapping or putting children first?

Australia’s two biggest states are moving in opposite directions when it comes to adoption. While New South Wales is accused of tearing families apart, is Victoria right to deny children a voice?

A new stolen generation is coming to you soon.

Or so you would think if you read the reaction to recent NSW reforms aimed at making adoption easier.

NSW Parliament has passed new laws placing a two year time limit on a child staying in foster care. After this time, the state can pursue adoption if a child can’t safely return home, even if birth parents don’t agree.

Critical articles across media raised the spectre of another stolen generation.

An open letter signed by 60 community groups said the NSW Government was “on a dangerous path to ruining lives and tearing families apart”. Indigenous writer Nayuka Gorrie tweeted, “Adoption without parental consent is kidnapping”.

But should a parent really have the right to block the adoption of the child they neglected?

Laws prohibit journalists from identifying people involved in child protection cases so media coverage rarely includes the views of children, even after they turn 18. The laws exist to protect vulnerable minors, but such voices could add some balance to the debate and explain why NSW is ahead in putting children first.

Foster care crisis

Out-of-home care adoption – where legal parenting rights are transferred from birth parents to foster parents – is extremely rare in Australia. Last year, there were 147 children foster care adoptions. That’s a tiny fraction of the 47,000 Australian children living in out-of-home care.

Previously, kids could be placed in state care simply because they were born to a single mother or an Aboriginal woman.

These days, child protection workers only remove children if their lives are in danger due to repeated abuse or neglect.

While foster care is supposed to be a temporary arrangement, children on average spend 12 years in care, often bouncing from one temporary home to another.

It’s no surprise more than a third of foster children end up homeless soon after leaving care.


Permanent care instead of adoption 

While NSW is trying to make adoption easier, Victoria is not. None of the more than 10,000 children in Victorian state care were adopted last year.

Victorian children who can’t return home are placed in ‘permanent care’, where they remain a ward of the state but are housed by the same foster carers until age 18.

Paul McDonald, CEO of Anglicare Victoria, describes permanent care as a “win-win-win” for children, birth parents and foster carers. He argues it provides stability for children without changing their legal status “so dramatically”.

Ignoring children’s voices

Former AFL player Brad Murphy, who grew up in Victorian permanent care, begs to differ. “From a child’s perspective, you don’t always feel secure in permanent care,” he said. “I longed for adoption. I wanted to belong to my foster parents, I wanted the same surname.”

Victoria didn’t allow him to be adopted by his loving foster carers because his birth father wouldn’t provide consent.

Murphy believes the Victoria Government should give children a say. “When I was 3 years old, I was calling my foster carer ‘Mum’, as I do now at age 33. I always knew what I wanted”.

The other problem with denying children an adoption choice is they continue to belong to the state. “Government were making all the decisions in my life. And like everything with government, it’s never done quickly,” Murphy said.

He often missed out on school camps and excursions because bureaucrats didn’t sign off permission.

Brad was placed in foster care at 16 months of age. Soon after, his mother ‘did a runner’ to Western Australia. His father was in jail for most of his childhood.

“I was never going back to my birth parents. If birth parents don’t make any effort to change their ways, why should the child suffer any longer?”

Case for reform

There are other parents, though, who want to change their ways but support is scarce. Housing, counselling and rehab facilities across Australia are lacking for low income families.

Some argue we should devote more resources toward keeping vulnerable families together, rather than promoting adoption reform.

There is no reason why we can’t do both. Help families where change is possible, but give children a choice when it’s not.

Though separating children from birth parents can prove traumatic, so is constant abuse. Some kids are terrified of their parents and want stability and the feeling of belonging with their new family.

In NSW, caseworkers must ask children what they want, if they’re old enough to understand. Prospective adoptive parents must educate kids about their history and culture. Birth parents can remain connected to children when it’s safe and in the child’s interests.

Overseas studies show adopted children have better life outcomes than those who remain in long term foster care.

Adoption won’t work for everyone, but it could benefit many kids.

Those criticising NSW reforms should also ask the Victorian government why it continues to deny children the basic human right to be heard.

Are you facing an ethical dilemma? We can help make things easier. Our Ethi-call service is a free national helpline available to everyone. Operating for over 25 years, and delivered by highly trained counsellors, Ethi-call is the only service of its kind in the world. Book your appointment here

Oliver Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer.

Join the conversation

What more important, a child's rights or their parents' wishes?

Is it right to edit the genes of an unborn child?

It’s been called dangerous, unethical and a game of human Russian roulette.

International outrage greeted Chinese scientist He Jiankui’s announcement of the birth of twin girls whose DNA he claims to have altered using the gene editing technique CRISPR. He says the edit will protect the twins, named Lulu and Nana, from HIV for life.

“I understand my work will be controversial”, Jiankui said in a video he posted online.

“But I believe families need this technology and I’m ready to take the criticism for them.”

The Center for Genetics and Society has called this “a grave abuse of human rights”, China’s Vice Minister of Science and Technology has issued an investigation into Jiankui’s claims, while a UNESCO panel of scientists, philosophers, lawyers and government ministers have called for a temporary ban on genetic editing of the human genome.

Condemnation of his actions have only swelled after Jiankui said he is “proud” of his achievement and that “another potential pregnancy” of a gene edited embryo is in its early stages.

While not completely verified, the news has been a cold shock to the fields of science and medical ethics internationally.

“People have naive ideas as to the line between science and application”, said Professor Rob Sparrow from the Department of Philosophy at Monash University. “If you believe research and technology can be separated then it’s easy to say, let the scientist research it. But I think both those claims are wrong. The scientific research is the application here.”

The fact that we can do something does not mean we should. Read Matt Beard and Simon Longstaff’s guide to ethical tech, Ethical By Design: Principles of Good Technology here.  

The ethical approval process of Jiankui’s work is unusual or at least unclear, with reports he received a green light after the procedure. Even so, Sparrow rejects the idea that countries with stricter ethical oversight have some responsibility to relax their regulations in order to stop controversial research going rogue.

“Spousal homicide is bound to happen. That doesn’t mean we don’t make it legal or regulate it. Nowadays people struggle to believe that anything is inherently wrong.

“Our moral framework has been reduced to considerations of risks and benefits. The idea that things might be inherently wrong is prior to the risk/benefit conversation.”

But Jiankui has said, “If we can help this family protect their children, it’s inhumane for us not to”.

Professor Leslie Cannold, ethicist, writer and medical board director, agrees – to a point.

“The aim of this technology has always been to assist parents who wish to avoid the passing on of a heritable disease or condition.

“However, we need to ensure that this can be done effectively, offered to everyone equally without regard to social status or financial ability to pay, and that it will not have unintended side effects. To ensure the latter we need to proceed slowly, carefully and with strong measurements and controls.

“We need to act as ‘team human’ because the changes that will be made will be heritable and thereby impact on the entire human race.”

If Jiankui’s claims are true, the edited genes of the twin girls will pass to any children they have in the future.

“No one knows what the long term impacts on these children will be”, said Sparrow.

“This is radically experimental. [But] I do think it’s striking how for many years people drew a bright line at germline gene editing but they drew this line when gene editing wasn’t really possible. Now it’s possible and it’s very clear that line is being blurred.”

Join the conversation

Is it right to edit the genes of an unborn child?

Noam Chomsky

Big Thinker: Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky (1928present) is one of the foremost scholars and activists of our time.

With over a hundred books, thirty honorary degrees, and a generation of aspiring leftists behind him, Chomsky’s life puts a practical lens on the motto ‘protest is patriotic’.

The human tendency towards freedom

Chomsky earned a PhD in linguistics for his theory of “universal grammar”, a theory where all people are “born knowing” shared properties that underpin all human language. These properties, which create what he calls a “language acquisition device”, are what helps babies pick complex languages up instinctively.

According to Chomsky, while language’s laws and principles are fixed, the manner in which they are generated are free and infinitely varied. This view of human nature is one that runs through Chomsky’s attitudes to linguistics or politics: we must protect the innate human tendency towards freedom.

Pessimist of intellect

Chomsky’s opposition to war and totalitarianism started early. He wrote his first paper on the threat of fascism at ten. He opposed the Vietnam War while working at MIT, a military-funded university. He called Gaza the world’s “largest open-air prison” and said the US bears full responsibility for Israel’s war crimes.

Chomsky’s public denunciations of US foreign policy in Central America and East Timor, its interference in Middle Eastern elections and the shoot-first-ask-later’ type of diplomacy have drawn widespread ire and admiration. At the height of his fame in the 70s, it was discovered the CIA was keeping tabs on him and publicly lying about doing so.

Noam Chomsky’s consistent and vocal criticism of the US government comes from the belief that he, as a member of that country, holds a moral responsibility to stop it from committing crimes. That, and it’s far more effective than criticising a government that isn’t responsible for him.

“States are not moral agents; people are, and can impose moral standards on powerful institutions.”

Manufacturing consent

In what is arguably Chomsky’s most famous work, ‘Manufacturing Consent’, he outlined mainstream media’s complicity with government and business interests. He traced the capitalist formula of selling a product at a profit to the highest bidder in relation to the media. Here, people are the product and advertisers are bidding for our attention. Compare this with the monopoly social media has over our time and the ensuing competition for available ad space, and you’ll notice this line of argument growing in prescience.

Chomsky argued the advertising market is shaped by the external conditions of the state. It’s in their best interests to placate their ‘product’ and water down anything that would spur them to act against it. Any dissenting opinion is either ignored or presented as an anomaly. This is anti-democratic, said Chomsky, for a nation is only democratic insofar as government policy accurately reflects informed public opinion.

“If we don’t believe in free expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

Speak truth to power

Fred Halliday, an Irish academic, has criticised Chomsky for overestimating the power and influence of the US. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, Oxford historian Stephen Howe, and linguist Neil Smith, have called him a fierce and aggressive moral crusader, who dismisses critics as unqualified, mistaken, or even “charlatans“.


Today, Chomsky is outspoken on what he considers the two greatest threats to humanity: nuclear war and climate change. But with NEG scrapped, the Doomsday Clock inching to midnight, and Congress split, it looks unlikely that decisive action against either of these threats will be carried out anytime soon.

Follow The Ethics Centre on TwitterFacebookInstagram and LinkedIn.

Join the conversation

Should some ideas be privileged over others?


Big Thinker: Eleanor Roosevelt


Eleanor Roosevelt (1884—1962) was an American diplomat and longest serving First Lady of the United States, best known for her work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

She was affectionately dubbed “The First Lady of the World”. The thread running through her massive body of work is the single idea: fear threatens our lives and our democracies.


To live well means to live free from fear

Roosevelt lived in a world reeling from fascism. Though the Second World War had ended, the horrors of Nazism, the Holocaust and Stalinism revealed the depths people would succumb to out of fear and insecurity.

It wasn’t your garden variety type of fear she was concerned with. It was the type of widespread fear that debilitates courage, rewards conformity and stifles “the spirit of dissent”. By succumbing to this immobilising fear, Roosevelt said, we waste our lives.

“Not to arrive at a clear understanding of one’s own values is a tragic waste. You have missed the whole point of what life is for.”

Roosevelt wanted all people to know their values. As an influential public figure and patriotic American, she especially wanted this for her country.

This wasn’t without reason. The growing fear of political others (McCarthyism) and racial others (the push for segregation) mobilised Roosevelt and emboldened her stance. She didn’t want conformity to win.

 “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your own surrender, less of a human being.”

Find a teacher in every person you meet 

Roosevelt felt the danger of fear and conformity went beyond the trauma of war. It could quash “a spirit of adventure”, a way of viewing and experiencing everyday life that made you a better person.

She wasn’t talking about a thrill seeking, you-only-live-once, way of navigating the world. She meant close mindedness – denying your life experiences the opportunity to change your mind and mould your actions.

“Learning and living are really the same thing, aren’t they? There is no experience from which you can’t learn something. When you stop learning you stop living in any vital or meaningful sense. And the purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

Roosevelt believed that everyone has something to teach you, and you are the ultimate beneficiary. Your character, your actions and your democratic polity. 

And some might find being motivated by self-betterment alone to be selfish. After all, shouldn’t we do good simply because it is good? Isn’t it more noble to be motivated by what Kant called “good will”, or a moral duty? 

Even if it’s possible that realizing motivation from a place of moral obligation is a higher ideal, Roosevelt was grounded in the everyday. She wasn’t concerned with principles the vast majority of a traumatised, distrustful nation would find out of reach, so she focused on the individual.

A principled life

The most remarkable thing about Roosevelt aren’t necessarily her ideals. It was her moral gumption to act on them even if they were unorthodox for the times or grossly unpopular.

She lobbied for greater intakes of World War II refugees when immigration was not supported by many Americans still reeling from the hardships of the Great Depression. She criticised her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, for a policy intended to address the post-Depression housing market crash that segregated black and white citizens.

She broke with tradition by inviting African American guests to the White House. She spoke out against the internment of Japanese soldiers to the very population grieving the 2403 Americans they killed at Pearl Harbour (in comparison, it’s reported 55 Japanese lives were lost).

Roosevelt’s reputation for loving all has not gone unchallenged. She has been accused of taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights she worked on. While famous for wanting to protect displaced post WWII refugees, who were often Jewish, she felt the solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict was to resettle indigenous Palestinians in Iraq – the suggestion being she had a Zionist bias.

Roosevelt nevertheless maintains her name as a pioneer in humanitarian efforts who walked her talk. Fast forward to today’s polarised political spectrum, and her story reminds us the tools to make it through are there.

Follow The Ethics Centre on TwitterFacebookInstagram and LinkedIn.

Join the conversation

Is every person you meet a teacher?

Big Thinker: Adam Smith

Big Thinker: Adam Smith

Big Thinker: Adam Smith

It’s no exaggeration to say the ideas of Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723—1790) have shaped the world we live in.

By providing the core intellectual framework in defence of free markets, he positioned human liberty and dignity at the centre of trade and money – all for the common good.


Adam Smith, the pioneer

In the 18thcentury, the race to colonise as many resource rich places as possible meant powerful countries were often at war. Companies which added to the wealth of empires were protected by grateful governments, creating trade monopolies that seemed impossible to dismantle. This was the heyday of mercantilism.

Smith noticed how these actions created concentrations of wealth, benefiting the wealthy while the labour class struggled to survive. His first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, argued that the virtues of sympathy and reciprocity could tame greed.

His second, The Wealth of Nations, was about promoting a new way of approaching wealth that was as lucrative as it was just. The approach Smith adopted was multifaceted: economic, defensive, legal, and moral.

Smith argued that countries were competing for the wrong thing. Wealth wasn’t to be found in commodities like gold and silver. It resided in human labour and ingenuity. Smith encouraged countries that would normally look externally for wealth, suppressing the labour class and enslaving others, to look internally instead.

If the labour class could have the freedom to pick their job, all the while knowing the government would leave the money they made well alone, why wouldn’t they work hard at it? They would produce goods and services of even higher quality, and the government could buy these and trade them with each other. Everyone wins.

Collaboration would mean countries wouldn’t need to waste money on defence and war. They could save and accumulate capital, and invest that into better machinery, freeing people to work more productively. The labour class would grow richer, and so would the nation.

Smith stressed that in order for a free market to ensure fair pay for fair work, contracts had to be honoured, people had to keep their word, and governments mustn’t get into debt or take people’s property. Theft, negligence, mistakes, or irresponsible government spending must to be managed by the rule of law. And in the case of foreign powers, defence.

Thus, for Smith – a free market must rest on a sound ethical foundation. Given this, he argued for moral education of a kind that would lead people to be honourable and behave justly. This included the rich. Smith thought that an appeal to ‘enlightened’ self-interest might lead them to act honourably. By lavishing praise, accolades, and rewards on those who spend their wealth in charity, the rich gain the status and rank they really desire.

Adam Smith, the legacy

Claims of plagiarism, usury, inconsistency, racism, and all else aside, the major complaint directed towards Smith is his concept of the “invisible hand”. His observation that self-interested individuals end up benefiting the common good – that they are “led by an invisible hand to promote an end that was no part of his intention.” – has prompted some critics to label him naïve, idealistic, or even immoral.

The following quotation (misattributed to John Maynard Keynes) sums it up: “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the wickedest of men will do the wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone”. But that plays into the Smith = laissez-faire trap, and ignores the safeguards he proposed against human corruption

Smith did not think greed was good, saying this removed “the distinction between vice and virtue”, nor did he believe business interests and the public interest necessarily coincide. Instead, his perspective was that market competition forced people to act in ways that benefited others, regardless of their intention. And when it failed to do that, an overarching authority should step in. For Smith, markets have no intrinsic value – they are merely tools for the betterment of life for all.

No doubt the world we live in now is vastly different to pre-Industrial Scotland. Mass media, the Internet, the textile industry, factory farms, surveillance, housing prices, offshore tax havens…much would have seemed strange and unfamiliar to Smith. But his work and legacy leave a lesson in economics, ethics, and politics – all the more prescient in a world where the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Follow The Ethics Centre on TwitterFacebookInstagram and LinkedIn.

Join the conversation

Where does true wealth exist?

When human rights complicate religious freedom and secular law

As the Commonwealth Government ponders its response to the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review, it’s worth considering what people of faith may be seeking to preserve and what limits society might justifiably seek to impose.

The term ‘religious freedom’ encompasses a number of distinct but related ideas. At the core, it’s freedom of belief – in a god, gods or a higher realm or being.

Many religions make absolute (and often mutually exclusive) claims to truth, most of which cannot be proven. Religions rely, instead, on acts of faith. Next comes freedom of worship – the freedom to perform, unhindered, the rituals of one’s faith. Then there is the freedom to act in good conscience – to give effect to one’s religious belief in the course of one’s daily life and, as a corollary, not to be forced to act in a manner that would violate one’s sacred obligations. Finally, there is the freedom to proselytise – to teach the tenets of one’s religion to the faithful and to those who might be persuaded.

In a secular, liberal democracy the four types of religious freedom outlined above –  to believe, to worship, to act and to proselytise – attract different degrees of liberty. For example, people are generally free to believe whatever takes their fancy, no matter how ill-founded or bizarre. This is not so in all societies. Some theocracies will punish ‘heretics’ for holding unorthodox beliefs. Acting out of belief – in worship, deeds and proselytising – is often subject to some measure of restraint. For example, pious folk are not permitted to set up a pulpit (or equivalent) in the middle of a main road. They are not permitted to beat a woman, even if the teaching of their religion allows (or requires) her chastisement. They are not permitted to let a child die because of a religious objection to life-saving medical procedures. Nor are they able to teach that some people are ‘lesser beings’, lacking intrinsic dignity, simply because of their gender, sexuality, culture, religion, and so on. In other words, there are boundaries set for the expression of religious belief, whatever those beliefs might be.

It is precisely the setting of such ‘boundaries’ that has become a point of contention. Some Australian religious leaders claim they should be exempt from the application of Australian laws that they do not approve, like anti-discrimination legislation. This is nothing new. As it happens, in Australia, a number of religions have long denied the validity of secular law, even to the extent of running parallel legal systems.

The Roman Catholic Church regularly applies Canon Law in cases involving the status of divorcees, the sanctity of the confessional, and so on. The Government of Australia might recognise divorce, but the Church does not. The following text is taken from the official website of the Archdiocese of Sydney: A divorce is a civil act that claims to dissolve a valid marriage. From a civil legal perspective, a marriage existed and was then dissolved. The Catholic Church … does not recognise the ability of the State to dissolve a marriage. An annulment, on the other hand, is an official declaration by a Church Tribunal that what appeared to be a valid marriage was actually not one (i.e, that the marriage was in fact invalid) [my emphasis].

In a similar vein, the Jewish community maintains a separate legal system that oversees the application of Halakhic Law through the operation of special Jewish religious courts called Beth Din. Given the precedents set by Christians and Jews, it’s not surprising that adherents of other faith groups, notably Muslims, are seeking the same rights to apply religious laws within their own courts and to enjoy exemptions from the application of the secular law.

“Fundamental human rights come as a ‘bundle’. They are indivisible.”

Given all of the above, are there any principles that we might draw on when setting the boundaries to religious freedom?

Human rights

Fortunately, the proponents of freedom of religion have provided an excellent starting point for answering this question. It begins with the core of their argument – that freedom of belief (religion) is a fundamental human right. Their claim is well founded. However, those who invoke fundamental human rights cannot ‘cherry pick’ amongst those rights, only defending those that suit their preferences.

Fundamental human rights come as a ‘bundle’. They are indivisible. It follows from this that if people of faith are to assert their claim to religious freedom as a fundamental human right, then the exercise of that freedom should be consistent with the realisation of all other fundamental human rights. Religious freedom is but one. It follows from this that any legislative instrument designed to create a legal right to freedom of religion must circumscribe that right to the extent necessary to ensure that other human rights are not curtailed. For example, a legal right to religious freedom should not authorise violence against another person. Nor should it permit discrimination of a kind that would otherwise be considered unlawful under human rights legislation.

If there is to be Commonwealth legislation, then it should establish an unrestricted right of belief and a rebuttable presumption in favour of acting on those beliefs. The limits to action should be that the conduct (either by word or deed): does not constrain the liberty of another person, does not subject another person to any form of violence, does not deny the intrinsic dignity of another person and does not violate the human rights of another person. Finally, it is essential that as a liberal democracy any Australian legislation specify that the tenets of a religion only apply to those who have freely consented to adopt that religion.

So, what might this look like in practice – say, in relation to same sex marriage now that it is lawful?

Baking cakes

Nobody should be compelled to believe that same sex marriage is ‘moral’. That is a matter of personal belief unrelated to the law. Second, it should be permissible to teach, to members of one’s faith group, and to advocate, more generally, that same sex marriage is immoral (a view I do not hold). The fact that something is legal leaves open the question of its morality. Third, no person should be required to perform a marriage if to do so would violate the dictates of their conscience. Roman Catholic priests refuse to marry heterosexual divorcees. Such marriages are allowed by the state – yet no priest is forced to perform such a marriage because to do so would make them directly complicit is an act their religion forbids. Such an allowance should only extend to those at risk of becoming directly complicit in objectionable acts. For example, such an allowance should not be granted to a religious baker not wanting to provide a wedding cake to a gay couple. Cakes play no direct role in the formalities of a civil marriage. So, unlike a pharmaceutical company that might justifiably object to becoming complicit through the supply of drugs to an executioner, a baker is never going to be complicit in the performance of a marriage. As such, a baker should be bound by law to supply his or her goods on a non-discriminatory basis. Of course, there will always be some who feel obliged to put the requirements of their religion before the law.

To act according to one’s conscience in an honourable choice. But only do this if you are willing to bear the penalty.


Dr Simon Longstaff is Executive Director of The Ethics Centre:

Join the conversation

Is religion ever above the law?

Big Thinker: Germaine Greer

Feminist firebrand or second wave scourge? When The Female Eunuch was published to international success, it was obvious Germaine Greer (1939—present) had hit a nerve – something she continues to do.

This article contains language and content that may be offensive to some readers.

Germaine Greer is an Australian writer and public intellectual who rose to international influence with her book published in 1970, The Female Eunuch. It was a watershed text in second wave feminism, a bestseller around the world, and it made Greer a household name.

Greer’s infamously bold voice and sense of humour permeates throughout the book. Her strong character and take no prisoners approach to public debate saw her regularly contribute to panels and broadcast media. Greer was launched into the public eye as a young, bolshie feminist star.

Since then, Greer has written many books spanning literature, feminism and the environment. She has become one of Australia’s most ‘no-platformed’ thinkers. Almost five decades on, we take a look at her contributions to feminist philosophy.



Human freedom is intrinsically tied to sexual freedom

Greer is a liberation, rather than equality feminist. She believed achieving true freedom for women meant asserting their uniquely female difference and “insisting on it as a condition of self-definition and self-determination”.

Greer wanted to be certain about this female difference, and for her, this certainty started with the body.

You can think of Greer’s claims like this:

  1. Women are sexually repressed.
  2. Men are not sexually repressed.
  3. The difference between men and women is their biological sex.
  4. Biological sex determines if you’re sexually repressed or not.

The second part of her argument is as follows:

  1. Women are expected to be ‘feminine’.
  2. Women are sexually repressed.
  3. The expectation to be ‘feminine’ is sexually repressive.

Greer is scathing in her portrayal of ‘femininity’. She claimed it kept women docile, repressed, and weak. It stifled women’s sexual agency, hence the ‘eunuch’, which was intrinsically tied to their humanity.

Only by liberating women sexually could they remove this imposed submissiveness and embrace the freedom to live the way they wanted.

“The freedom I pleaded for twenty years ago was freedom to be a person, with dignity, integrity, nobility, passion, pride that constitute personhood. Freedom to run, shout, talk loudly and sit with your knees apart.” – Germaine Greer (1993)

A feminist utopia is an anarchist utopia first

In the London Review of Books 1999, Linda Colley wrote, “Properly and historically understood, Greer is not primarily a feminist. More than anything else, she should be viewed as a utopian.”

For Greer, the greatest danger of the widespread female eunuch is not an unfulfilling sex life. It is in her being so concerned with femininity that she is incapable of political action. Greer believed this social conditioning was dire and its enforcers so embedded that revolution rather than reform was required.

Greer called for this revolution to start in the home. She spoke openly about topics that at the time were taboo: menstruation, hormonal changes, pregnancy, menopause, sexual arousal and orgasm. She decried the agents of femininity that she felt kept women trapped: makeup, constricting clothing, feminine hygiene products, stifling marriages, misogynistic literature and female sexual competitiveness. She reserved her greatest fury for widespread consumerism, which she believed kept women dependent on the systems that forged their own oppression.

Like Mary Wollstonecraft before her, Greer argued neither men nor women benefited from this. She called upon women to rebel again these “dogmatists” and create a world of their own. But the solution she presents is exploratory instead of pragmatic. Perhaps women could live and raise their children together, making their own goods and growing their own food. It would be somewhere pleasant like the rolling landscapes of Italy, with local people to tend house and garden. (It’s unclear whether these local people would be liberated too.)

Intellectual criticisms

Greer’s celebration of non-monogamous sex in The Female Eunuch and her derision of Western society’s obsession with sex in Sex and Destiny led critics to label her ideas slipshod and too inconsistent for a public intellectual.

The root of most criticisms and controversies surrounding Greer, tend to stem from her view of the sexes. Like other second wave feminists, she suggested biological sex determined women’s oppression. This stands in stark contrast to the perspectives of third wave feminists and queer theorists, such as Judith Butler, for whom gender’s learned behaviours play the crucial role.

Greer and her contemporaries are often criticised by third and fourth wave feminists for predicating their philosophies on a male/female binary. A binary that does not account for the broad chromosomal spectrums found among intersex people or the many ways in which individuals feel and express their gender.

Infamous commentary

Greer is not the docile feminine woman she warned of in The Female Eunuch. She has long been celebrated for bucking trends and being refreshingly bold and frank. She is also heavily criticised for being rude, offensive and out of touch. She has been described as having “the self-awareness of a sweet potato”, a “misogynist”, and “a clever fool”.

After she extolled the work of Australia’s first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard on an episode of ABC’s Q&A, she was slammed for criticising Gillard’s body and clothing:

“What I want her to do is get rid of those bloody jackets … They don’t fit. Every time she turns around you’ve got that strange horizontal crease which means they cut too narrow in the hips. You’ve got a big arse Julia…”

Social media lit up with calls for Greer to “shut up” after she linked rape and bad sex in the age of #MeToo:

“Instead of thinking of rape as a spectacularly violent crime – and some rapes are – think about it as non-consensual, that is, bad sex. Sex where there is no communication, no tenderness, no mention of love. We used to talk about lovemaking.”

It is probably Greer’s public statements around transgender women that have attracted the most protest. In an interview after an intense no-platforming campaign to cancel a lecture Greer was scheduled to give at Cardiff University on women and power in the 20th century, she said, “Just because you lop off your penis and then wear a dress doesn’t make you a fucking woman”.

This sentiment probably links with Greer’s ideas on sexed bodies. A sympathetic reading of the comment might see it as one about being born into oppression – a rather second wave feminist sentiment that echoes the racial and queer politics of the same era. An idea that’s sometimes cited as analogous to Greer’s controversial comment is that you cannot understand what it is to be black, unless you were born black and experienced discriminations since the day of your birth. Perhaps she was suggesting we cannot understand the oppression experienced by women and girls unless we are born into a female body. Perhaps not. Either way, the comment was received as incredibly offensive and naive to transgender women’s experiences.

“People are hurtful to me all the time. Try being an old woman. I mean for goodness sake! People get hurt all the time. I’m not about to walk on eggshells.” – Germaine Greer, 2015

Greer and second wave feminists generally are at odds with intersectional feminism which is prominent today. Intersectional feminism holds that many factors beyond sex marginalise people – age, race, nationality, disability, class, faith, sexual orientation, gender identity… Different women will be oppressed to varying degrees.

Whether Greer is a trailblazer or tactless provocateur, it is doubtless her ideas have influenced the political and personal and landscapes of gender relations and feminist thinking.

Join the conversation

Is human freedom tied to sexual freedom?

Free markets must beware creeping breakdown in legitimacy

Free markets must beware creeping breakdown in legitimacy

Free markets must beware creeping breakdown in legitimacy

This article was written for, and first published on the Australian Financial Review

This much we know: a blistering series of scandals has led to a profound loss of trust – not just in Australia but across the developed world. Consequently, the issue of trust has become a hot topic – a new staple item on meeting agendas of cabinets, boards, conferences, etc.

However, what if the spotlight being shone on the topic of trust is blinding us so that we fail to see a far greater risk lurking in the shadows – the potential loss of legitimacy?

Creating Transparency

The Ethics Centre has just published a paper that raises this possibility and sounds a warning that should be heeded by those of us who believe in the virtues of the market economy. We do not argue that trust is unimportant. Instead, we make the case that while individuals and institutions can (and do) survive a loss of trust, they rarely (if ever) survive a loss of legitimacy.

“We do not argue that trust is unimportant. Instead, we make the case that while individuals and institutions can (and do) survive a loss of trust, they rarely (if ever) survive a loss of legitimacy.”

At the core of our argument is a simple truth of economics. A reduction in trust can be compensated for by an increase in the “deadweight” costs of surveillance and enforcement. The classic case is the making of agreements. A high trust context can see agreements made on the basis of a low-cost handshake (or its equivalent). Low trust contexts are burdened with the high costs of detailed contracts, enforcement provisions, litigation, etc.

The Definition

Bearing this in mind, we distinguish between the concepts of trust and legitimacy according to the following definitions:

Legitimacy is a recognised and well-founded right to claim a certain status, role or function.

Trust is a belief that a person or institution will perform their role or function in accordance with its obligations or where not bound by duty, in a predictable manner – often in accordance with its interests.

The less formal distinction is as follows: where low trust can be compensated for by a higher degree of checks and balances (deadweight costs), a loss of legitimacy cannot be compensated for at any cost.

Making The Case

Now, if you accept our argument that there is a difference between trust and legitimacy and that a loss of the latter is usually fatal, it soon becomes clear that some of our institutions are at grave risk. We see the early signs in a number of areas. In politics, it is not only political parties and politicians that risk losing legitimacy – it is the system of representative liberal democracy that is being called into question.

As the Lowy Institute has reported, a growing number of younger Australians doubt the capacity of democracy to respond to the challenges of modern life. In economics, there is growing scepticism about the legitimacy of an international economic order. Especially when the focus shifts to free trade and the operation of free markets. We see both trends converging in movements (sometimes dismissed and derided as mere populism) that are reshaping the political and economic landscapes in Europe, North America, Central America and at home.

The great risk in this is that each and every part of the political and economic ecosystem becomes tarred by the same brush – with the spiral of decline sucking in all…the good, the bad and the indifferent…without distinction.

Our Role

For its part, The Ethics Centre has a long history of calling attention to the ethical underpinnings of the free market…recalling that Adam Smith championed markets as the means by which to bring prosperity to all (and not just a few). We (again) make the case for free markets in this latest paper – but go one step further by outlining some core principles that we think should be adopted by corporations if they are to help maintain the legitimacy of the system upon which they ultimately depend.

At one level, the headline principles are deceptively simple: respect people, do no harm, be responsible and be transparent and honest. However, rather than simply state self-evident pieties, we have tied these principles back to the underlying concept of free markets as tools for increasing the stock of common good. These tools and mechanisms can only function, as intended, if participants do not lie, cheat or use their power oppressively.

“Businesses are struggling to develop enabling connections with communities. Their efforts are embedded in conversations about trust, social licence, shared value and so on.”

Businesses are struggling to develop enabling connections with communities. Their efforts are embedded in conversations about trust, social licence, shared value and so on. There are major programs to increase transparency – often as an alternative to trust (which makes transparency unnecessary). We argue that the problem with all of these efforts is that they fail to address the larger problem of a system whose parts are progressively undermining the legitimacy of the whole.

The good news is that the unravelling is reversible and that some fairly straightforward measures can be applied, but only if we rediscover the purpose of the free market and the economic actors that it sustains – for the good of all.

 Visit to download a copy of the Trust, Legitimacy and the Ethical Foundations of the Market Economy report. 

Join the conversation

How many times should we be forgiven for the same mistake?