Fred Nile is now the longest serving member of the NSW Parliament, having stuck around in Macquarie St for even longer than his own eyebrows. In what he promises will be his final term, either God, fate or the folly of the NSW electorate has granted him the balance of power. And Rev Nile has celebrated by proposing an “Ethics Repeal Bill”, whose name would surely be too absurd even for the writers of The Thick Of It. He’s argued for the cancellation of ethics classes in NSW schools by claiming that they have been shown to bring about Nazism and, simultaneously, communism. All of which would seem a terribly jolly farce if he wasn’t in a position to pass his bill by cutting a deal with Barry O’Farrell.
So why in heaven’s name is an ordained minister not a fan of kids learning about right and wrong? Because they provide a secular alternative to “special religious education”. The classes were introduced by the former Keneally Labor Government, whose members were reminded of the value of ethics on almost a weekly basis by ministerial scandals, to solve a silly situation whereby students who opted not to receive religious instruction weren’t allowed to study anything useful in case it disadvantaged their classmates.
Furthermore, as Teresa Russell pointed out in Eureka St, the churches even objected if the “non-scripture” kids learned chess or knitting, in case all of that knee-slapping fun tempted kids away from the Good Book. But honestly, what chance does a juvenile religious conviction have of surviving into adolescence if it can be undermined by the siren song of knitting?
Not every Christian shares Nile’s view that this ethics course, which was developed with the help of the St James Ethics Centre, is a recruiting programme for the minions of Satan, however. The Anglican bishop Rob Forsyth even suggested that Christian students might do well to attend them.
So why is cancelling them so important to God’s Man in Macquarie St? Long-term Nile connoisseurs might assume that his jihad on ethics is just another ultra-conservative thought-bubble from a man who is amusingly incapable of mentioning the Greens without calling them “pagan”, as though they spend their spare time dancing naked in forests and – wait; actually, perhaps the sandal fits. But while it’s asinine to argue that ethics classes will lead to the Third Reich, they do pose a genuine threat to scripture classes. The Anglican Church says its classes have lost half their students since ethics came in.
Given my hazy primary school memories of drawing pictures of Noah’s ark, singing maudlin choruses and being scared by the prospect of hell, I’m not enormously surprised that kids are switching in droves. I went non-scripture in Year Six myself, happily spending the time playing poker instead. But instead of improving the appeal of the scripture classes, Nile simply wants to ban the alternative. It’s almost like how when Jesus came along, the Pharisees felt threatened and tried to – actually, let’s not get into that. In short, though, the scripture teachers want to run a cartel.
If Nile’s bill succeeds, non-scripture students will once again be forced to waste hours of school time doing nothing. But really, when some students are getting a stimulating course in addressing moral complexities delivered by trained teachers, and others are getting a double-up on stuff they could and in many cases do learn in Sunday School, the solution’s as straightforward as turning water into wine to gee up an outdoor event. What should be dropped is not ethics but scripture.
This is hardly a radical suggestion: in fact, in the US, it’s the law. Despite being a more devout nation, religion classes and even school prayer are banned because of the First Amendment. Our Constitution contains a similar guarantee, and why the mandated separation of church and state isn’t extended to our own public schools escapes me.
How did we come to accept the idea that people with no formal educational training should be allowed to take up precious school time for religious indoctrination? Why can’t parents who want their children to share their beliefs teach them at home, or hand them over to religious instructors on weekends, or enrol them in a religious school? Moreover, why did we for so long accept a situation where, so some kids could learn religion during school hours, other kids were required to sit around twiddling their thumbs?
Parents aren’t allowed to impose any of their other beliefs in the public school classroom. Science classes aren’t split down the middle according to whether mum and dad believe in evolution. Year 3 never divides according to their parents’ football team so some can study the history of the Sydney Swans while others learn the words to “Good Old Collingwood Forever”. And a good thing too – there are already too many Collingwood supporters.
What’s more, the scripture classes on offer can’t possibly cover the smorgasbord of beliefs in our multicultural society, wth the result that kids who belong to a religion with a lot of adherents are allowed school time for their beliefs, but those who subscribe to a creed with fewer members – including Buddhists and Muslims in my primary years – are obliged to go without. The effect of this is for state education to inequitably privilege certain religions over others. And if Christian kids can study the Bible, surely those kids whose parents who identify as Jedis should be allowed to watch Star Wars during scripture?
With compulsory ethics classes, some religious topics could still be covered in the classroom, and the learning process would benefit enormously from all the kids studying together. Those who believed could share their perspectives, which might inspire others to find out more about their religions. Wouldn’t that be a better preparation for living in a society where not everybody shares the same beliefs, and yet we have to work through complex moral issues together in order to co-exist harmoniously?
That’s not Rev Nile’s forte, unfortunately. Whatever you think about ethics and scripture, I’m sure most NSW residents would agree that he’s not best placed to decide such a sensitive question of public policy. He claims that Jesus is “history’s greatest teacher of ethics”, and yet has throughout his political career conspicuously failed to follow one of Jesus’ most basic commandments, which is incidentally an excellent topic for an ethics class. Nile is not a man with a track record of loving his neighbours if they happen to be gay or Muslim, as he’s demonstrated yet again this week with some astoundingly insensitive comments about Penny Wong’s partner’s pregnancy.
Two consecutive landslides in opposite directions have left the Legislative Council deadlocked, and so for the next four years, Fred Nile is our parliamentarians’ cross to bear. I hope Labor and the Coalition can compromise to exclude him from decisions like these, as currently seems to be the case on ethics. His views are a long way from the majority of NSW voters – even his fellow Christians, in many cases – and that’s where his policies should stay. And whether or not kids continue to study the parting of the Red Sea in public schools, I for one will be glad to witness the parting of this Nile.