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The tyranny of the majority

By Peter Fenwick - posted Wednesday, 17 January 2018


The high turnout and overwhelmingly positive result of Australia's voluntary postal plebiscite on same sex marriage enabled our parliament to enact marriage equality laws with public approval. The people had spoken, and the support was clearer than if politicians had made the decision alone. The parliament erupted with joy when the legislation passed.

However, there were concerns about the impact of the SSM bill on religious freedom. These persist. Attempts to modify the SSM bill to protect freedom of speech and religious beliefs got little support and amendments to the bill were voted down. Once the emotional euphoria has settled, these issues should be revisited.

We live in one of the freest and most prosperous societies in the history of mankind. This has not happened by chance. It is due to the institutions we inherited from Britain:

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  • the rule of law;
  • the principle of private property,
  • a free enterprise economy, and
  • a culture that accepts a wide range of human rights –
    • to free speech,
    • to our political and religious beliefs,
    • to choose our friends and associates, and where we may meet with them;
    • to choose whom we may marry, and how many children we may have;
    • to choose our occupation;
    • to choose where we may live;
    • to choose what we may eat or drink or wear;
    • to choose our entertainments;
    • to equal protection under the law;
    • not to be detained unlawfully;
    • to be able to form voluntary associations - clubs, societies and businesses;
    • to be able to enter into legally enforceable contracts;
    • to retain the rewards from our work and to dispose of them as we see fit;
    • and so on

Our freedoms and prosperity are also enhanced by living in a democratic society where men and women are equal before the law and have an equal opportunity to contribute.

These are what distinguish us from the totalitarian regimes which deliver poverty, destroy trust among their citizens, and terrorize, censor and imprison or kill those who disagree with the party line.

Our human rights are so ingrained that we take them for granted. Moreover, we scoff at those who seek to protect them, often accusing them of ulterior motives.

Formerly, many societies shared common cultural and religious beliefs. Nowadays most societies are pluralist. The political culture of such democratic societies is marked by a diversity of opposing and irreconcilable religious, philosophical and moral disciplines. It is important to realise and accept that such views can be reasonably held. Consequently, there is a need to embrace often conflicting values. We need to tolerate others' views even if we do not agree with them.

The virtues of tolerance, respect, civility and decency are essential to the workings of a good society. We need to avoid inflicting our views on others. If we wish to change others' views it should be done by persuasion, not coercion.

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We will wish to encourage everyone's right to their religious and political beliefs; their right to express their views publicly and perhaps to persuade others; their right to associate with whomever they choose without the threat of physical or verbal violence; their right to hold meetings to discuss and debate issues they feel passionately about; their right not to be coerced into joining a group or expressing a view under the threat of a boycott of their business, or being banned from their profession.

In recent years, our governments have enacted laws seeking to protect people from discrimination on the grounds of their identity – their gender, their race, their religion, their sexual preference etc. These laws protect the victim from being offended – an unfortunately subjective concept.

Whilst well-intentioned, such laws are fraught, often producing unintended and undesirable consequences.

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About the Author

Peter Francis Fenwick is the author of The Fragility of Freedom and Liberty at Risk both published by Connor Court.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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