On May 29, 2004, Treasurer Peter Costello addressed a crowd of Pentecostal Christians at Scots Church in Melbourne.
Costello provided his audience with a lesson in Australia’s colonial history. “If the Arab traders that brought Islam to Australia, had … settled or spread their faith among the Indigenous population, our country today would be vastly different. Our laws, our institutions, our economy would be vastly different.
“But that did not happen. Our society was founded by British colonists. And the single most decisive feature that determined the way it developed was the Judeo-Christian-Western tradition. As a society, we are who we are because of that tradition … one founded on that faith and one that draws on the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
Two years later, Costello’s sentiments seem to have made their way into a sample multiple choice question of the proposed Citizenship Test. New citizens could be asked which of the following mutually exclusive sources form the basis of “Australian values”:
- teachings of the Koran;
- the Judeo-Christian tradition;
- Catholicism; and
You’d expect the second option’s correctness would be obvious after even the most cursory reading of our history. Surely the Jewish and Anglican theology and culture of English settlers played a central role in building our colonial institutions.
Costello’s 2004 speech suggests only the traditions of British colonists mattered. Australia’s first few fleets consisted of a handful of English free settlers accompanying shiploads of convicts of various faiths - Jews, Catholics, Muslims and a smattering of perhaps reluctant followers of the Church of England.
Costello’s much touted Judeo-Christian culture wasn’t exactly alive and well in England. Both colonists and convicts would have been aware of the passing of the Jew Bill through the English Parliament in 1753, allowing Jews to be naturalised by application to Parliament. Mr Costello’s ideological ancestors, the Tories, opposed the Bill, claiming it involved an “abandonment of Christianity”. Conservative protesters burnt effigies of Jews and carried placards reading “No Jews, no wooden shoes”.
Jews were forbidden from attending university and practising law in England until the mid 19th century. One can only imagine the prejudice the 750-odd First Fleet Jewish convicts faced from English jailors brought up in such an anti-Semitic environment.
Life for Muslims wasn’t much better. Most were free men working as sailors, though quite a few were convicts. The crew on board The Endeavour, which left Port Jackson in 1795, included a large number of Muslim sailors. Meanwhile, at least eight convicts of Arab descent arrived in Australia.
Melbourne Muslim Bilal Cleland acknowledges in his definitive history of Muslims in Australia: “As Muslims and a subject people, despised for their race, they would have lived on the edge of society. Even Christians suffered persecution at that time if they were from the wrong sect.”
It was not until the 1820’s that legislation discriminating against the followers of non-Anglican Christian sects was repealed. Sectarian prejudice prevailed in Australia, largely focused on a large group of descendants of Irish convicts whose loyalty to a bishop in Rome was often greater than to Queen and Country.
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