Category Archives: Liberalism

The public funding of religious colleges

The Age ran a page one story this morning on the potential eligibility of religious colleges for public funding, if the revised Pyne higher education reform bill passes. Labor and the Greens oppose the policy on the grounds that it breaches the separation of church and state, although Labor higher education spokesman Kim Carr draws a distinction between religious studies and training for the priesthood.

Australia doesn’t have a US-style separation of church and state. The Constitution ensures that the government will not prevent the free exercise of religion and limits the ways in which sectarian disputes can damage the government, but does not require the state to have no involvement with religious organisations. It is common for Australian governments to fund religious organisations, typically for school education and the delivery of social services.

In my view this is consistent with the original liberal thinking that led to the idea of a church-state separation. This was not based on hostility to religion. It is because religious belief is important to many (and historically most) people that liberals want to protect it. At the same time, attempts to use the state to impose religious belief and practices have often had very negative consequences.

From this perspective, a policy that funds theology studies and training for the ministry is unproblematic provided it is neutral between religions. The Pyne policy meets that criterion. All but two of the current religious colleges are Christian, but there is no legal obstacle in the way of other religions. A third non-Christian religion, Islam, does have a course in the public university sector.

Of course, it would not be hard to make an argument that such funding is unnecessary: religions have been training their own clerics for many centuries. But the same argument could be made against most higher education subsidies. My view on this is that while public subsidy of higher education could safely be reduced, while it exists it should be available to all students on a consistent basis.

Why is there no liberal party?

Last weekend, Don Arthur asked ‘why is there no liberal party?’ By which he meant, why is there no significant political party supporting social and economic freedom?

I’ll leave the deep reasons to one side. But the proximate reason is that the constituency for such a party is very small. So small that I probably know a large proportion of them personally.

The 2010 Australian Election Survey isn’t quite designed to explore the electoral realities. But it has a number of questions that are reasonably open to classifying the answers as ‘liberal’ or ‘not liberal’.

1. Size of government
I deemed agreeing with the proposition that ‘there are more things the government should be doing’ as non-liberal and ‘the less government the better’ as liberal. Liberals=25%.

2. Tax and spend
In response to the question ‘if the government had a choice between reducing taxes or spending more on social services, which do you think it should do?’ I deemed a liberal response as agreeing or strongly agreeing with lower tax. Liberals=37%.

3. Censorship
I deemed the liberal answer to the statement ‘the right to show nudity and sex in films and magazines’ as ‘not gone far enough’ or ‘not gone nearly far enough’. Liberals=9%. Though in this case ‘about right’ is probably a defensible response from a liberal perspective, on about 45%.

4. Drugs
For the proposition, ‘the smoking of marijuana should NOT be a criminal offence’ I deemed the liberal answers as agree or strongly agree. Liberals=28%.

5. Immigration
This is more difficult to classify. I took the liberal answers to ‘Do you think the number of immigrants allowed into Australia nowadays should be reduced or increased?’ as increased a lot or a little. Liberals=11%.

6. Income redistribution
The AES question ‘income and wealth should be redistributed towards ordinary working people’ is not ideal; someone could agree with it in general terms but still think there should be less redistribution than now. But with this caveat I took disagreeing with it as a liberal – or at least classical liberal – response. Liberals=19%.

But the test of a social-economic liberal constituency is not just whether there are some liberal propositions that can win significant public support. It is whether there are enough people with liberal views across a range of issues.

The table below shows the proportion of liberal responses to the six issues. The one person who gave six out of six and the nine people who gave five out of six were rounded down to 0%. Saying three or more liberal answers makes a liberal gets us to 13%, with rounding. That’s half the proportion who gave liberal answers to zero of the six questions. Australians say they don’t like politicians much, but they have a strong belief in government shaping the social and economic structures of Australian society.