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Dictating to democracy - rule by religion?

By Jocelynne Scutt - posted Friday, 8 June 2007

The divine right of kings was embedded in religion. Charles Stuart believed he had no peer and need answer to no one. According to him and his adherents, his power came directly from the deity, albeit not even God could remove him from the throne.

Democratic rule was supposed to end this nonsense. According to theory, heads of state owe a duty to the people and take their place not as of right, nor as of divine right, but through tacit agreement by the people. Until we decide to change it, constitutional monarchy remains. But, should we determine against kings, queens and princes, they will go and the people will decide who is head of state.

Whether this is by direct voting or some other method, the principle remains. The monarch or president answers to the people. So with the other part/s of the executive - prime minister or premier and ministers are voted in to power by the people and answer to the people, not god. As well, the legislature is wholly elected, not chosen by any divinity. The people are sovereign.


This sovereignty is wholly secular. Neither God nor the Church is involved. Indeed, the Australian Constitution rules out religion as a part of government or as having any role in or support by it. Section 116 says no law may be passed by the federal parliament to establish any religion. Nor may the federal parliament make laws imposing religious observance or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test is required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

At state level, religion has, or should have, no role to play in dictating to or ruling members of Parliament. Yet the principle that the people rule themselves through elected representatives, and that government is a secular system, appears to be under increasing challenge by organised religion.

Most recently, Archbishop George Pell has hit the airwaves with a “warning” that members of the New South Wales Parliament face “consequences” in their religious lives if they support a bill to expand stem cell research in the state.

He is reported as saying that Catholic members of Parliament “would need to think seriously about taking Holy Communion, the sacrament central to Catholic life, if they voted for therapeutic cloning” (Alexandra Smith and Linda Morris, “Catholic MPs to defy Pell over bill” Sydney Morning Herald, June 6, 2007).

This raises questions as to what the people can and should expect of their elected representatives. It also raises questions about the role of the church.

What if the head Imam were to announce that unless Muslim members of Parliament voted in a particular way, they would be banned from prayer in NSW mosques? Or if the Chief Rabbi told Jewish members of Parliament that registering their vote one way rather than another would bring the wrath of Jehovah upon their heads and they would be banished from synagogue rituals?


NSW voters should be able to be confident that the executive and the legislature are not governed nor threatened by religious precepts, principles or dictates. Does the involvement of religious threat or persuasion provide any room for application of the Independent Commission Against Corruption Act 1988 (NSW)?

The ICAC Act was passed to promote the integrity and accountability of public administration, by establishing an independent body, ICAC, to:

  • investigate, expose and prevent corruption involving or affecting public authorities and public officials; and
  • to educate public authorities, public officials and members of the public about corruption and its detrimental effects on public administration and on the community.
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About the Author

Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister and Human Rights Lawyer in Mellbourne and Sydney. Her web site is here. She is also chair of Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom and Dignity.

She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.

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All articles by Jocelynne Scutt

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

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