PhD Student says Churches left out of Republic Debate

Article by Tania Cutting which appeared in the ANU Reporter, Volume 30, number 14, Wednesday 15 September

There is one powerful voice missing from the republican debate simply because nobody has realised its relevance, according to historian and PhD student, Margaret Hardy.

Ms Hardy, an administrator in the History Department in ANU’s Faculty of Arts and a PhD student at the Australian Catholic University, believes the churches hold the key to republican success in November’s referendum – just as they did during the federalism debate nearly 100 years ago.

“I think the republicans are missing out on a really great opportunity and if they only read their history, they’d realise that,” Ms Hardy said. “Back in 1891, federalism was not an issue and it wasn’t a popular movement but six years later it was and the difference was that the federalists incorporated the churches, and encouraged the churches to participate in the debate.”

The churches were responsible for popularising federalism back in the 1890s but today nobody has included them, Ms Hardy said.

“I’ve felt at times like writing to the republican movement and asking if they realised that they are missing out on the support of the churches, and why don’t they take a look at the history because the conditions aren’t too dissimilar.”

Ms Hardy, who is studying military chaplaincy in the Australian Infantry Forces 1901-45, recently gave a seminar at the ANU on Section 116 of the Constitution which relates to the Commonwealth’s role in religion.

She believes that many people assume that Australia is a godless country and that religion has no relevance because it only seems to surface during times of extreme nationalism.

“If you look at explosions in history such as the time of federation, the wars or the Depression, that’s when Australians became more public about their commitment to religion,” Ms Hardy said.

“When religion is under threat is when people come to the rally, and I think the current debate is not nationalistic enough for religion to become an issue in the debate.”

“I think that if there was a threat to religion or a threat to the inclusion of god in the preamble to the Constitution and, certainly, if there was a threat to Section 116 and its notion of equality and non-establishment, then the churches would become involved in the debate.”

It has been argued that Section 116 spells out the Commonwealth Government’s non-involvement in religion, and the non-establishment of a State religion, but according to Ms Hardy, it is about the non-preferential treatment of the denominations, and the equality of religion in Australia.”

“That has created harmony and consensus and maybe that is part of the reason why we appear to be godless country,” she said.