Rudd Labor signals focus on religious values…

30 Apr 2008

By The Record

By Paul Gray
A senior strategist in the Australian Labor Party has given voice to the Rudd Government’s recognition of the place of religion and religious education in national life.
In an apparent sign of the growing warmth towards religion felt by a party often tagged as secularist, senior Labor MP Bob McMullan has commended the religious role in promoting respect for human dignity, fairness and justice.
“Australia is a secular nation, one in which there is dynamic religious and cultural diversity and this is supported by the Government,” Mr McMullan told The Record after returning from an interfaith meeting in Cambodia.
“All great religions of the world share common perspectives on respecting human dignity and the importance of having a society that promotes fairness and justice,” he said.
The MP added that values “determine how we and future generations live.”
Through his career, Mr McMullan has been seen as a significant powerbroker and strategist in the nation’s ruling party. As well as holding the safe Labor seat of Fraser in the ACT, he is now Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance.
In that capacity he led the Australian delegation to the Fourth International Dialogue on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace and Harmony, held in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh this month.
The delegation included Catholic nuns Sr Trish Madigan (OP) and Sr Giovanni Farquer (RSJ.)
The Dialogue was initiated in 2004 by then-Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, in a joint initiative with the Government of Indonesia.
It was designed to bring about faith-to-faith consultation between Muslims in Indonesia and people of other faiths, at a time of rising concern over Islamic extremism of the type demonstrated by the Bali bombings.
Dialogues have since been held each year in different countries around the Asia-Pacific region. The meetings constitute an attempt to reduce religious extremism across the region by marshalling local forces of religious moderation.
Questioned by The Record about the Rudd Government’s attitude towards religion, Mr McMullan said there is “unity in the diversity” of religious belief in Australia.
In his own international development portfolio, for example, he has noticed that all Australians, regardless of religious affiliation, have a strong sense of moral obligation to help and collaborate with other people around the world.
He said the Rudd Government wants to promote interfaith harmony in the Asia-Pacific region, and to this end Australia co-hosted a Regional Youth Interfaith Forum in December.
This was done in collaboration with the European Union. It involved young people from 12 different countries.
Mr McMullan said Australia has also held regular exchanges between Australian Muslim leaders and their counterparts in Indonesia, the Philippines and southern Thailand.
Australia has also supported some 30 grassroots interfaith initiatives in the Philippines. Some of this work has been done in the media and education sectors.
Mr McMullan said it is critical that faith communities should be ready to speak to one another.
“People at the grassroots level first must understand how their own faith promotes acceptance and love for their fellow man, no matter what their religion,” he said.
“And they need to be encouraged to be open to other faiths.”
Mr McMullan said ordinary lay people ought to become involved in interfaith cooperation.
“Widening the dialogue beyond the interfaith experts to broader lay communities of both practising and non-practising people is important,” he said.
Mr McMullan said governments should only be involved in promoting religious harmony up to a certain point. “Success or failure rests with community leaders,” he said.
Mr McMullan did not reply to a question about religious extremism and the denial of religious freedom in the region.