Government advertising may be legal, but it’s corrupting our electoral process


Joo-Cheong Tham, University of Melbourne

The Coalition government’s use of taxpayer money for political advertising – as much as A$136 million since January, according to Labor figures – is far from an aberration in Australia. It is part of a sordid history in which public resources have routinely been abused for electoral advantage.

For example, the Coalition governments of Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull spent at least A$84.5 million on four major advertising campaigns to promote their policies and initiatives with voters. The ALP governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard spent A$20 million on advertising to promote the Gonski school funding changes and another A$70 million on a carbon tax campaign. Going further back, the Coalition government under John Howard spent A$100 million on its WorkChoices and GST campaigns.




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The difference between government advertising and political advertising


This is also a history in which hypocrisy is not hard to find.

When in opposition, Rudd condemned partisan government advertising as “a cancer on our democracy”. His government, however, exempted its A$38 million ad campaign on the mining super profits tax from the government guidelines put in place two years earlier.

In 2010, while an opposition MP, Scott Morrison decried such spending as “outrageous”. In 2019, his government may be presiding over the most expensive pre-election government advertising blitz in recent history.

Few restrictions on government advertising

All of this is perfectly legal.

The High Court in Combet v Commonwealth made clear that legislation authorising government spending (appropriation statutes) imposes virtually no legal control over spending for government advertising, because of its broad wording.

In the absence of effective statutory regulations, there are government guidelines that prohibit overtly partisan advertising with government funds, such as “negative” ads and advertising that mentions party slogans and names of political parties, candidates, ministers and parliamentarians.

These guidelines nevertheless provide ample room for promotion of government policies under the guise of information campaigns – what Justice Michael McHugh in Combet described as “feelgood” advertisements. They permit advertising campaigns such as the Coalition government’s “Building a better tax system for hardworking Australians” (which essentially promotes the government’s tax cuts) and “Small business, big future” (which burnishes its “small business” credentials).

The government advertising campaign spruiking its tax reform measures.

Crucially, the guidelines fail to address the proximity of such taxpayer-funded advertising campaigns to federal elections. They fail to recognise what is obvious – the closer we get to the elections, the stronger the governing party’s impulse to seek re-election, the greater the likelihood that “information” campaigns become the vehicle for reinforcing positive images of the incumbent party.

This risk is clearly recognised by the caretaker conventions, which mandate that once the “caretaker” period begins with the dissolution of the House of Representatives:

…campaigns that highlight the role of particular Ministers or address issues that are a matter of contention between the parties are normally discontinued, to avoid the use of Commonwealth resources in a manner to advantage a particular party

The conventions further state:

Agencies should avoid active distribution of material during the caretaker period if it promotes Government policies or emphasises the achievements of the Government or a Minister

The problem with these conventions, however, is that they kick in too late. By the time the House of Representatives is dissolved prior to an election, the major parties’ campaigns have usually been in high gear for months.




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A form of institutional corruption

A pseudo-notion of fairness tends to operate in the minds of incumbent political parties when it comes to taxpayer-funded advertising.

When she was prime minister, Gillard defended her use of government advertising by pointing that the Howard government had spent more. And now, the Morrison government has sought to deflect criticisms of its current campaign by drawing attention to ALP’s use of government advertising when it was last in power.

Our children are taught to be better than this – two wrongs do not make a right.

Indeed, government advertising for electioneering is a form of corruption. Corruption can be understood as the use of power for improper gain. It includes individual corruption where the improper gain is personal (for instance, bribery) but also what philosopher, Dennis Thompson, has described as institutional corruption, where the use of power results in a political gain.

Government advertising to reinforce positive impressions of the incumbent party is a form of institutional corruption – it is the use of public funds for the illegitimate purpose of electioneering. Its illegitimacy stems from the fact that it undermines the democratic ideal of fair elections by providing the incumbent party with an undue advantage.




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It is an instance of what the High Court in McCloy v NSW considered “war-chest” corruption – a form of corruption that arises when “the power of money … pose(s) a threat to the electoral process itself”.

A longer government advertising ban?

I propose a ban on federal government advertising in the period leading up to federal elections.

Such bans are already in place in NSW, which prohibits government advertising during roughly two months before state elections, and the ACT, which bans government advertising 37 days before territory elections. To take into account the longer campaign period at the federal level, a federal ban should operate for at least three months before each federal election.

The absence of fixed terms in the federal parliament is not a barrier to adopting such a ban. With an average of two and a half years between federal elections, a three-month ban of sorts could take effect from two years and three months after the previous election until polling day of the next election.

By dealing with government advertising for electioneering, this ban will improve the integrity of federal elections.The Conversation

Joo-Cheong Tham, Professor, Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From robo calls to spam texts: annoying campaign tricks that are legal



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Politicians are allowed to spam you with campaign texts.
from shutterstock.com

Graeme Orr, The University of Queensland

“Make Australia Great.” So began several million text messages, sent last week from Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party. Palmer’s bumptious campaign techniques actually predated those of Donald Trump.

But now he is aping Trump’s slogans and nationalism, if with a less reactionary, more third-way ethos. The chances of Palmer rising again, like the proverbial political soufflé, are remote. But what of his campaign methods?

Mass texting (I’ll dub it “mexting”) is nothing new in electoral politics. Fifteen years ago it proved controversial, during a local election on the Gold Coast. Late night texts were sent to target young voters while they were out on the town.

The message – which came from nightclubs, urging voters to keeping licensed venues open all hours – was lost in a backlash. In those days people paid not just per text they sent, but often to receive them as well.

Mobiles have since become more ubiquitous, intimate fixtures, and we no longer pay to receive messages, nor do many of us pay for individual texts.

Palmer’s party admits to receiving more than 3,000 complaints (which he claims were robo-calls by trade unions), and he says there’s more to come. But why risk alienating the very people you are reaching out to? And how, if at all, does the law regulate such in-your-face campaign techniques?

The law on ‘mexting’?

For once, the legal how is easier than the political why. The national Spam Act of 2003 regulates unsolicited electronic messages via telephone and email. But only commercial messages, about goods and services or investments, are prohibited.

Social and political advocacy is not treated as suspect. On the contrary, it is encouraged. The Privacy Act, in particular, lets MPs and parties collect data on citizens’ views, to better personalise their messages.

Exempting politicians from privacy laws is based on the philosophy that freedom of political communication is vital to Australia’s democratic process.




Read more:
Australia should strengthen its privacy laws and remove exemptions for politicians


Even when government agencies, charities or political parties offer services or solicit donations or membership, they are given a free hand. All they have to do is include a link about who authorised the message.

The licence to advocate, provided it is not done anonymously, is an old one under electoral law in English-speaking democracies. The obligation to “tag” messages enables the speaker to be traced and helps us discount the source of political opinions.




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That is merely a rule about form, not manner or content. When it comes to manner, there are laws against offensive messages via mass media – whether broadcast or sent by post. (Good luck enforcing that rule in the back passages of the internet.)

There are also, famously, rules against discriminatory “hate” speech.

When it comes to content, you need to avoid defaming people. But there is no general requirement of truth, in the media or in politics, outside rules against misleading parliament, and a limited offence of materially false, paid, election-time ads in South Australia.

At the 2016 general election, the Labor Party dismayed the government and many observers, by mexting as part of its so-called “Mediscare” campaign. The texts looked like they came from Medicare itself. The trick led to a tightening of rules and a new offence of “impersonating” a Commonwealth body.

Other in-your-face campaign methods

Mexting sits in a long line of in-your-face campaign methods. The century old tradition of handing out flyers lives on, as letterboxes in marginal electorates will surely testify later this year.

Another was the “soap box” speech, trundled around shopping precincts via a loudspeaker on the back of a ute. In the middle of last century it was so typical that, as a young candidate, Gough Whitlam is said to have campaigned this way via a boat, to reach outlying suburbs not well serviced by roads.

Sound trucks show the ‘soap box’ method of campaigning is still used in Japan.
Wikimedia Commons

It is all but dead today in Australia, but lives on in the “sound trucks” of Japan.

More recent innovations are the ubiquitous “direct-mail” – a personalised if expensive variant of letterbox stuffing. Plus the “robo-call”, where a pre-recorded message is automatically dialled to thousands of telephones. I well recall picking up my landline, over dinner in 2007, to hear John Howard greet me. He happily ploughed on despite my unflattering response.

As for how, practically, a campaign assembles thousands of valid mobile numbers… well, Palmer’s party says it has no list. It may have hired a marketing firm to send out the texts. Commercial entities, notoriously, collect and trade files of phone numbers, postal and email addresses, and more.

Still, why? A cynic might say that for Palmer, any notoriety is good notoriety. His gambit has people talking about him again. Minor parties expect to alienate people: their goal is to attract a few percent of the vote.

Why major parties employ such tactics is another matter. They have to build broader coalitions of voters. But there is a cost-benefit analysis at work. Electronic messaging can reach swathes of people more cheaply than broadcast advertising, which in any event lacks the reach it once had. And negative advertising, like Mediscare, tends to work.

As it is, modern parties lack mass memberships and cannot rely primarily on organic influence or door-knocking by activists.

So while spamming, in text or audio, seems perverse – and is unlikely to be as effective as targeted or viral messaging on social media, or community-based campaigning – it won’t disappear.

For my part, I won’t grumble about a text from Mr Palmer popping up in my pocket. It beats his huge yellow billboards in terms of a blight on our public spaces.The Conversation

Graeme Orr, Professor of Law, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Peter Dutton’s decisions on the au pairs are legal – but there are other considerations



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During his time as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton granted tourist visas to four foreign au pairs who were denied entry at the Australian border and detained, awaiting deportation.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Sangeetha Pillai, UNSW

Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton has come under scrutiny for exercising his personal powers during his time as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection to grant tourist visas to four foreign au pairs who were denied entry at the Australian border and detained, awaiting deportation.

Dutton made the decision to grant these visas at short notice and, in at least some cases, contrary to the advice of senior Border Force officials. Here I explain the scope of the minister’s legal power to grant visas in such instances, and the issues at play.




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Did Dutton have legal power to grant the visas?

In a nutshell, yes. Under section 195A of the Migration Act, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection has the power to grant a visa to a person in detention if “the minister thinks that it is in the public interest to do so”. The minister has no obligation to grant a visa in this manner, but may do so at his or her discretion. A decision to intervene may only be made by the minister personally. This means the minister cannot delegate the power under section 195A to other Border Force personnel, although Border Force officials may provide advice and briefing information.

The minister’s power under section 195A is extremely broad. While the requirement that the power must be exercised in the “public interest” appears to impose some constraint on the minister, this is largely illusory. Courts have said that in migration matters, “public interest” is largely a matter of ministerial discretion. Section 195A drives this home by making it clear that it is up to the minister to decide whether granting a visa would be in the public interest.

Whenever the minister exercises the power under section 195, he or she must supply each House of Parliament with a statement that sets out the reasons for granting the visa. This includes the reasons for thinking that the grant is in the public interest.

The purpose of this is for transparency only: parliament has no power to overturn the minister’s decision. The transparency that can be achieved in this manner is limited by the fact that, to secure the privacy of individuals who are granted visas, identifying information must be excluded when a statement is laid before parliament. Visa decisions, including decisions under section 195A, are also excluded from administrative review.

Documents obtained via Freedom of Information request reveal that Dutton’s stated reasons for thinking that one of the visa grants was in the public interest were:

In the circumstances, I have decided that as a discretionary and humanitarian act to an individual with ongoing needs, it is in the interests of Australia as a humane and generous society to grant this person a Tourist visa.

If Dutton acted within the law, what’s the controversy?

There are two broad reasons why Dutton’s decisions to grant the au pair visas are controversial, despite falling within the scope of his ministerial power.

The first is that the breadth of ministerial discretion granted to the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection under the Migration Act is itself a subject of controversy. A 2017 Liberty Victoria report reveals that the minister for immigration has 47 personal national or public interest powers – many more than any other minister. Many of these powers – including the power in section 195A – are “non-delegable, non-compellable and non-reviewable”.

In 2008, the then immigration minister Chris Evans expressed discomfort with the scope of his own power:

In a general sense I have formed the view that I have too much power. The [Migration Act] is unlike any Act I have seen in terms of the power given to the Minister to make decisions about individual cases. I am uncomfortable with that not just because of a concern about playing God but also because of the lack of transparency and accountability for those ministerial decisions, the lack in some cases of any appeal rights against those decisions and the fact that what I thought was to be a power that was to be used in rare cases has become very much the norm.




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The second reason is that Dutton’s decision to intervene swiftly to grant visas to the au pairs on public interest grounds contrasts with the manner in which other migration-related decisions have been made. For example, the department has denied medical transfers to Australia to numerous asylum seekers detained offshore, including children at risk of death.

Recent reports state that an Afghan interpreter who claims his life is in danger after helping Australian troops has been denied a protection visa, and requests to meet with Dutton have gone unanswered. Departmental statistics indicate that, historically speaking, ministerial intervention to grant a tourist visa has been very rare.

Ultimately, the legal framework provided by the Migration Act allows for these variances. However Dutton, like all Ministers, is accountable to the parliament under the principle of responsible government. The Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs is currently holding an inquiry into the appropriateness of Dutton’s decision to grant visas to two of the au pairs. It is due to report by September 11.The Conversation

Sangeetha Pillai, Senior Research Associate, Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, UNSW Law School, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We’re drafting a legal guide to war in space. Hopefully we’ll never need to use it



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Nothing to stop high energy weapons being deployed in orbit around Earth.
Marc Ward/Shutterstock

Dale Stephens, University of Adelaide and Duncan Blake, University of Adelaide

A war in outer space sounds like the stuff of science fiction but it is something we need to consider.

Its impact on everybody on Earth and its implications for future human space exploration would be devastating.

Right now, there are laws that are relevant to the prospect of war in space, but currently it is unclear exactly how these might be applied.


Read more: Step up Australia, we need a traffic cop in space


We and our colleagues from around the world – including experts from Australia, Canada, the United States, Russia and China – are undertaking a multi-year project to provide a definitive guide on how law applies to military uses of outer space.

The aim is to develop a Manual on International Law Applicable to Military uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS) that covers times of tension and outright hostility.

The ultimate goal is to help build transparency and confidence between space-faring states.

This should reduce the possibility of a war in space, or if it does happen, reduce the impact on the space infrastructure that we have all come to rely on so heavily.

The satellites we rely on

We rely on GPS signals for many things, including navigation, communication, banking, agriculture, travel and the internet itself. It’s estimated that 6-7% of GDP in Western countries depends on satellite navigation.

Communications satellites are applied not just for direct broadcast television, but also to enable many terrestrial networks. In remote areas of the world, they may be the only means of communication.

In the near future, communications satellites could provide the whole world with broadband internet.

Satellites help us get weather forecasts and improve agricultural production. They also help us to plan disaster relief, find and mine natural resources, monitor the health of the environment and many other applications.

‘Expect’ war in space

In the military context too, satellites have become essential. In June this year, US Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said a future war in space is likely and the US is investing heavily in maintaining its military dominance in space. She commented:

We must expect that war, of any kind, will extend into space in any future conflict, and we have to change the way we think and prepare for that eventuality.

The first Gulf War in 1991 has often been called the first space war, though it wasn’t actually fought in outer space. Rather, the US and coalition forces relied heavily on GPS and other satellite technology to conduct that conflict.

Since then, space-based assets have enabled even greater capability for land, sea and air forces.

Given the dual use of many satellites, an armed conflict in space could be catastrophic to modern life.

Treaty on some weapons in space

There are only five global treaties specific to space. Chief among them is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, but only one of its provisions (Article IV) directly deals with military activity – it prohibits the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space.

Other means and methods of destroying or interfering with a satellite are not prohibited, although other areas of law, like the Laws of Armed Conflict, regulate their use.

This includes things such as anti-satellite missiles, directed energy weapons (including lasers), electronic warfare, cyber warfare and dual-use technology, such as on-orbit servicing (“mechanic”) satellites.

A combined effort

The MILAMOS project is led by three universities: Adelaide here in Australia, McGill in Canada, and Exeter in the UK. It received some funding from the Australian and Canadian governments, as well as from private donors.

It relies on expertise from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Union of Concerned Scientists and from the major space-faring states, principally the US and Russia, but also China and other countries.

They participate in a strictly personal (rather than representative) capacity to provide an authentic account of what the law is, not to negotiate what states would like the law to be.

Even so, reflecting a true consensus position on the law, in spite of the strongly held personal positions of individual experts, can be challenging. But that is what the project aims to achieve in nine workshops over three years.

So far meetings have been held in Montreal, Adelaide, New Delhi and Colorado Springs in the US.

Mind the legal gap

The alternate is for states to formally negotiate new international instruments to clarify or extend the law. Unfortunately, recent attempts to do so have not met with great success. This creates a legal gap that this manual seeks to fill.


Read more: Star Wars turns 40 and it still inspires our real life space junkies


In this regard, it is similar to other manuals drafted in recent years on the law applicable to warfare in other domains: maritime (San Remo Manual), air and missile (Harvard Manual) and cyber (Tallinn Manual).

Even though these manuals are not formally endorsed by states, they are an essential reference for those who work in the field. This includes military practitioners, government lawyers and policy advisors, the media, public advocacy groups and other non-government organisations.

The ConversationFinal publication of the manual is expected in 2020. Paradoxically, the MILAMOS contributors earnestly hope that the manual will only ever remain on the shelf and never be used.

Dale Stephens, Professor of Law, University of Adelaide and Duncan Blake, PhD candidate, law and military uses of outer space, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Challenges persist for multiple legal actions regarding MH17



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Reuters/Michael Kooren

Amy Maguire, University of Newcastle

Multiple parallel actions are ongoing with the aim of achieving truth and justice for the 298 passengers and crew of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. The flight was shot down over Ukraine on July 17, 2014. The Conversation

An investigative team, led by the Dutch aviation authority and endorsed by the Australian government, concluded that the aircraft was shot down by a BUK missile. More than 100 individuals were identified in the 2016 report as linked to the incident. The investigation is ongoing.

Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, advocated for a war crimes tribunal to apportion blame for the incident. However, this proposal was vetoed by Russia in the UN Security Council.

This week, focus has turned to an action lodged in the European Court of Human Rights by lawyer Jerry Skinner on behalf of 33 relatives of MH17 victims. Skinner claims that the application has reached the stage of “ready for judicial determination”.

As reported last year, each applicant is seeking A$10 million in compensation from Russia. The claim is that Russia is responsible for violating the right to life of those killed due to its alleged supply of the missile that was launched from Ukraine, bringing down the aircraft.

However, the case lodged by Skinner is not yet listed in the court’s database. It is unclear how far the application has progressed but it certainly faces a range of major obstacles. The status of “ready for judicial determination” does not appear to be an official stage of proceedings in the court.

The European Court of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights was established in 1959 and sits in Strasbourg. It has jurisdiction to hear complaints from individuals and countries, alleging violations by countries that are party to the European Convention on Human Rights.

The court has delivered more than 10,000 judgments, which are formally binding on the countries subject to them. It receives more than 50,000 applications each year.

The application from Ayler and others is not the first to be lodged in the court in relation to Flight MH17. The case of Ioppa v Ukraine was lodged with the court in 2016.

The four applicants in that case are family members of three of the passengers killed on board Flight MH17. They have complained against Ukraine, rather than Russia. Specifically, they argue Ukraine violated their relatives’ right to life by failing to close the airspace above the military conflict zone that was active in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The applicants allege that Ukrainian authorities intentionally failed to close the airspace despite their knowledge of the dangers posed to civilians travelling over Ukraine in passenger aircraft.

The application is currently noted as a “communicated case”, meaning it is awaiting judgment. The court has asked the applicants to identify what they have done to exhaust any available domestic legal remedies before applying to the court – particularly any legal avenues available in Ukraine.

The court has not yet published a preliminary finding on the admissibility of the case. This is the necessary first step before notice will be given to Ukraine to respond to the application. The case is certainly a long way from any potential judgment by a chamber of the court.

The Council of Europe

The European Court of Human Rights is not a creature of the European Union, but rather of the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe is a human rights organisation of 47 members, 28 of which are also EU members. All Council of Europe members have signed the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Council of Europe seeks to promote goals central to the international human rights framework, including freedom of expression and of the press, minority rights, and the abolition of the death penalty.

As a Council of Europe member, Ukraine is subject to judgement by the European Court of Human Rights. The applicants in Ioppa v Ukraine are all nationals of Germany, another member. Other Council of Europe members central to the MH17 situation are the Netherlands – because the flight originated at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport – and Russia.

Should the European Court of Human Rights find Ukraine liable for a breach of the convention, Ukraine will be bound by that judgment. The committee of ministers of the Council of Europe monitor the execution of judgments by countries subject to them, including compliance with any orders to pay damages to complainants.

However, the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe both lack enforcement capacity within the domestic jurisdiction of members, and would rely on diplomatic pressure to compel compliance with a judgment. Such pressure may be more or less effective depending on the status, power and political stance of a given member.

Prospects of success

Skinner has called on Australia to support the Ayler application. Bishop has responded that such litigation is a private matter for the families involved and those they are taking action against.

Bishop’s position is that Australia’s role is to support the ongoing investigation into the causes of the incident and then to pursue a justice mechanism with other countries.

It is important to note that Australia has no standing to join any action before the European Court of Human Rights, as it is not a member of the Council of Europe. However, Skinner argues Australia could exert diplomatic and political pressure to support the action.

Unfortunately for the families engaged in the European Court of Human Rights applications, litigation before that court appears to be a very indirect and unreliable route to gain compensation for the loss of their loved ones.

In the case against Ukraine, beyond the as-yet-uncrossed jurisdictional barriers, it may be necessary to prove that Ukrainian authorities knew of a direct threat to those on board MH17. This is a much more difficult standard to prove than a general awareness of threat to any civilian aircraft.

In action against Russia, setting aside the considerable jurisdictional issues and matters of proof, there is a major added barrier to satisfaction for the applicants. Russia has passed a law permitting it to overrule the decisions of international courts.

The Russian Constitutional Court subsequently ruled that Russia is permitted to overrule international judicial decisions where these would conflict with the Russian Constitution.

Russia disputes the preliminary findings of the ongoing MH17 investigation and rejects suggestions of its responsibility for the atrocity. This suggests that Russia would not accept responsibility for any finding of human rights violations by the European Court of Human Rights.

Beyond the human rights context, yet another action has been launched in the International Court of Justice. In that application, Ukraine asks the International Court of Justice to find Russia responsible for the MH17 disaster and order reparations.

From an international law perspective, the stakes of such an action are higher for Russia than human rights litigation launched by victims’ families. However, Russia’s response is likely to be the same. While the International Court of Justice has progressed the case beyond the initial stage, a finding against Russia may well be disputed and any orders ignored.

Amy Maguire, Senior Lecturer in International Law and Human Rights, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Article: Incest – Will it Be Legal in the Future?


The link below is to an article that asks the question, ‘will incest be legal in the future?’ It seems there is a movement to make it so.

For more visit:
http://www.charismanews.com/opinion/34146-here-come-incest-just-as-predicted

Nepal Christians Begin Legal Battle for Burial Ground


Hindu group declares country a Hindu state; upper castes seek halt to conversions.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, April 19 (CDN) — With the government refusing to listen to their three-year plea for an official cemetery and ignoring a protracted hunger strike, Nepal’s Christians are now seeking redress from the Supreme Court.

“Every day there are two to three deaths in the community, and with each death we face a hard time with the burial,” said Chari Bahadur Gahatraj, a pastor who filed a petition in the high court on March 13 asking it to intervene as authorities of Nepal’s oldest Hindu temple had begun demolishing the graves of Christians there.

Gahatraj and Man Bahadur Khatri are both members of the newly formed Christian Burial Ground Prayer and National Struggle Committee that since last month began leading a relay hunger strike in a public area of the capital, asking for a graveyard. They said they were forced to go to court after the Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT), which runs Nepal’s oldest Hindu shrine, the Pashupatinath temple, said it would no longer allow non-Hindus to use the temple’s forested land.

“We don’t want to hurt the sentiments of any community,” Gahatraj told Compass. “Nor are we trying to grab the land owned by a temple. We are ready to accept any plot given to us. All we are asking for is that the burials be allowed till we get an alternate site.”

Judge Awadhesh Kumar Yadav has since ordered the government and PADT not to prevent Christians from using the forest for burials until the dispute is resolved. The legal battle, however, now involves a counter-suit. Hindu activist Bharat Jangam filed a second writ on March 20, saying that since the forest was the property of a Hindu temple, non-Hindus should not be allowed to bury their dead there just as churches do not allow Hindu burials.

Subsequently, the court decided to hear the two petitions together, and yesterday (April 18), the hearings began. While two lawyers argued on behalf of Gahatraj and Khatri, a cohort of 15 lawyers spoke against their petition. The next hearing is scheduled for May 3.

Along with the legal battle, Christians have kept up their relay hunger strike. To step up pressure on the government, the protestors also announced they would lead a funeral march to the offices of the prime minister and the culture minister and hand over coffins to them as a symbolic protest. If that too failed, they warned they would have no option but to go on hunger strike in front of the prime minister’s office and parliament, this time carrying dead bodies with them.

Alarmed at the rate the issue was snowballing, the government finally responded. Yesterday Culture Minister Gangalal Tuladhar opened talks with the protestors, agreeing to continue the negotiations after three days. The government also formed a four-member committee to look into the demand. Currently, Christians are asking for cemetery land in all 75 districts of Nepal.

Protestors were wary of the government’s intent in the overture.

“This could be a ploy to buy time and bury the issue,” said a member of the Christian committee formed to advise parliament on drafting the new constitution, who requested anonymity.

Though the committee formed to look into the Christians’ demand for burial land has been asked to present a report within two weeks, Christians suspect the panel is dragging its feet.

“The new constitution has to be promulgated by May 28, but it does not seem likely that the main political parties will be able to accomplish the task,” the Christian committee member said. “And if the constitution doesn’t materialize in time, there will be a crisis and our problem will be shelved.”

 

Hindu Nation

Adding to their unease, Christians are now facing a redoubled campaign by Hindu groups for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion, five years after parliament declared Nepal, the world’s only Hindu kingdom, secular.

If the new constitution had been promulgated last year, it would have consolidated secularism in Nepal. But with the country missing the deadline due to protracted power-sharing rows among the major political parties, Christians still feel under threat.

On Thursday (April 14), when the country celebrated the start of the indigenous new year 2068 with a public holiday, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, which seeks the reinstatement of Hinduism as the state religion, kicked off a campaign at the Bhadrakali temple in Kathmandu. As curious onlookers and soldiers patrolling the nearby army headquarters looked on, party members fervently blew into conch shells and rang bells to draw people’s attention to their demand.

The party, which is also seeking the restoration of monarchy, took some oblique shots at the Christian community as well.

“There is a deliberate and systematic attempt by organizations to convert Hindus,” said Kamal Thapa, party chief and a former minister. “These organizations are guided by foreign powers and foreign funds. If the widespread conversion of Hindus is not stopped immediately, we will have to take stern measures.”

Three days later, an umbrella of Hindu groups – the Rastriya Dharma Jagaran Mahasabha (the National Religion Resurrection Conference) held a massive gathering in the capital, declaring Nepal a “Hindu state” and meeting with no official objection. The proclamation came as the climax to a three-day public program calling for the restoration of “the traditional Hindu state.” Several Hindu preachers and scholars from neighboring India attended the program, held on the grounds of the Pashupatinath temple, which is also a UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site.

The “Hindu state” proclamation was the brainchild of Shankar Prasad Pandey, a former member of parliament from Nepali Congress, the second largest party in Nepal, now in opposition. Though Pandey was a sitting Member of Parliament in 2006, when the body unanimously declared Nepal secular, he began opposing the move soon afterwards, leading four campaigns against it nationwide.

“I consider the nation and the Hindu religion to be more important than the party,” said Pandey, known as the MP who began to go barefoot 32 years ago to show solidarity with Nepalese, who are among the poorest in the world. “Over 90 percent of the Nepalese want Nepal to be a Hindu state. However, the government is led by people whose only concern is power and money.”

Pandey’s campaign is supported by Hindu groups from India and the West: Narendranath Saraswati, who is the Shankaracharya or religious head of a prominent Hindu shrine in India’s Varanasi city; Dr. Tilak Chaitanya, chief of a group in the United Kingdom that propagates the Gita, the holy book of the Hindus; and Tahal Kishore, head of a Hindu organization, Radha Krishna Sevashram, in the United States.

Two weeks before the May 28 deadline for the new constitution, Pandey and his followers plan to step up the campaign for a “Hindu state” in the capital. Though Pandey denies it could stir up animosity between the majority-Hindus and Christians – whose minority population is said to have crossed 2 million but is actually only 850,801, according to Operation World – there are fears of religious tension if not outright violence.

The Hindu rallies continue to grow as a pressure tactic. Yesterday (April 18), members of Nepal Brahman Samaj, an organization of “upper castes” from whose echelons temple priests are appointed, fought with security forces in front of parliament house, demanding their rights be respected and an end to conversions.

More Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) campaigning is scheduled on April 29, when the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal’s Thapa has called for a mass gathering in the capital.  

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Religious Conversion Worst Form of ‘Intolerance,’ Bhutan PM Says


Propagation of religion is allowable – but not seeking conversions, top politician says.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 13 (CDN) — In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Christianity is still awaiting legal recognition, Christians have the right to proclaim their faith but must not use coercion or claim religious superiority to seek conversions, the country’s prime minister told Compass in an exclusive interview.

“I view conversions very negatively, because conversion is the worst form of intolerance,” Jigmi Yoser Thinley said in his office in the capital of the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Christian leaders in Bhutan have told Compass that they enjoy certain freedoms to practice their faith in private homes, but, because of a prohibition against church buildings and other restrictions, they were not sure if proclamation of their faith – included in international human rights codes – was allowed in Bhutan.

Prime Minister Thinley, who as head of the ruling party is the most influential political chief in the country, said propagation of one’s faith is allowed, but he made it clear that he views attempts to convert others with extreme suspicion.

“The first premise [of seeking conversion] is that you believe that your religion is the right religion, and the religion of the convertee is wrong – what he believes in is wrong, what he practices is wrong, that your religion is superior and that you have this responsibility to promote your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of worship,” Thinley said. “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”

Bhutan’s constitution does not restrict the right to convert or proselytize, but some Non-Governmental Organizations have said the government effectively limits this right by restricting construction of non-Buddhist worship buildings and celebration of some non-Buddhist festivals, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

It adds that Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) further limits proclamation of one’s faith by prohibiting “words either spoken or written, or by other means whatsoever, that promote or attempt to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste, or community, or on any other ground whatsoever, feelings of enmity or hatred between different religious, racial, or language groups or castes and communities.” Violation of the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though whether
any cases have been prosecuted is unknown, according to the State Department report.

Bhutan’s first democratic prime minister after about a century of absolute monarchy, Thinley completed three years in office last Thursday (April 7). While he affirmed that it is allowable for Christians to proclaim their faith – a practice commanded by Christ, with followers agreeing that it is the Holy Spirit, not man, that “converts” people – Thinley made his suspicions about Christians’ motives manifest.

“Any kind of proselytization that involves economic and material incentives [is wrong],” he said. “Many people are being converted on hospital beds in their weakest and most vulnerable moments. And these people are whispering in their ears that ‘there is no hope for you. The only way that you can survive is if you accept this particular religion.’ That is wrong.”

Thinley’s suspicions include the belief that Christians offer material incentives to convert.

“Going to the poor and saying, ‘Look, your religion doesn’t provide for this life, our religion provides for this life as well as the future,’ is wrong. And that is the basis for proselytization.”

Christian pastors in Thimphu told Compass that the perception that Bhutan’s Christians use money to convert the poor was flawed.

The pastors, requesting anonymity, said they prayed for healing of the sick because they felt they were not allowed to preach tenets of Christianity directly. Many of those who experience healing – almost all who are prayed for, they claimed – do read the Bible and then believe in Jesus’ teachings.

Asked if a person can convert if she or he believed in Christianity, the prime minister replied, “[There is] freedom of choice, yes.”

In his interview with Compass, Thinley felt compelled to defend Buddhism against assertions that citizens worship idols.

“To say that, ‘Your religion is wrong, worshiping idols is wrong,’ who worships idols?” he said. “We don’t worship idols. Those are just representations and manifestations that help you to focus.”

Leader of the royalist Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party, Thinley is regarded as a sincere politician who is trusted by Bhutan’s small Christian minority. He became the prime minister in April 2008 following the first democratic election after Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated power in 2006 to pave the way toward democracy.

Until Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the practice of Christianity was believed to be banned in the country. The constitution now grants the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all citizens. It also states that the king is the protector of all religions.

Thus far, the Religious Organisations Act of 2007 has recognized only Buddhist and Hindu organizations. As a result, no church building or Christian bookstore has been allowed in the country, nor can Christians engage in social work. Christianity in Bhutan remains confined to the homes of local believers, where they meet for collective worship on Sundays.

Asked if a Christian federation should be registered by the government to allow Christians to function with legal recognition, Thinley said, “Yes, definitely.”

The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See http://www.compassdirect.com, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)

On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”

Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.

“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”

A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.

 

Religious ‘Competition’

Bhutan’s opposition leader, Lyonpo Tshering Togbay, was equally disapproving of religious conversion.

“I am for propagation of spiritual values or anything that allows people to be good human beings,” he told Compass. “[But] we cannot have competition among religions in Bhutan.”

He said, however, that Christians must be given rights equal to those of Hindus and Buddhists.

“Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of practice – full stop, no conditions,” he said. “But now, as a small nation state, there are some realities. Christianity is a lot more evangelistic than Hinduism or Buddhism.”

Togbay said there are Christians who are tolerant and compassionate of other peoples, cultures and religions, but “there are Christians also who go through life on war footing to save every soul. That’s their calling, and it’s good for them, except that in Bhutan we do not have the numbers to accommodate such zeal.”

Being a small nation between India and China, Bhutan’s perceived geopolitical vulnerability leads authorities to seek to pre-empt any religious, social or political unrest. With no economic or military might, Bhutan seeks to assert and celebrate its sovereignty through its distinctive culture, which is based on Buddhism, authorities say.

Togbay voiced his concern on perceived threats to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture.

“I studied in a Christian school, and I have lived in the West, and I have been approached by the Jehovah’s Witness – in a subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant in the U.S. and Switzerland. I am not saying they are bad. But I would be a fool if I was not concerned about that in Bhutan,” he said. “There are other things I am personally concerned about. Religions in Bhutan must live in harmony. Too often I have come across people who seek a convert, pointing to statues of our deities and saying
that idol worship is evil worship. That is not good for the security of our country, the harmony of our country and the pursuit of happiness.”

The premise of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the agency regulating religious organizations, he said, “is that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different religions see eye to eye with mutual respect and mutual understanding. If that objective is not met, it does not make sense to be part of that.”

It remains unclear what the legal rights of Christians are, as there is no interaction between the Christians and the government. Christian sources in Bhutan said they were open to dialogue with the government in order to remove “misunderstandings” and “distrust.”

“Thankfully, our political leadership is sincere and trustworthy,” said one Christian leader.

Asserting that Christians enjoy the right to worship in Bhutan, Prime Minister Thinley said authorities have not interfered with any worship services.

“There are more Christian activities taking place on a daily basis than Hindu and Buddhist activities,” he added.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

China Keeps Church Leaders from Public Worship Attempt


Police put pastors under house arrest over weekend, before detaining at least 160 on Sunday.

DUBLIN, April 11 (CDN) — Police in China held “about two dozen” pastors and elders of Beijing’s Shouwang Church under house arrest or at police stations over the weekend to keep them from attending a Sunday worship service in a public location, according to Bob Fu of the China Aid Association.

Three top leaders of the church remain in jail and several others are under strict surveillance after  hundreds of Chinese police yesterday cordoned off the walkway to a third-floor outdoor meeting area adjacent to a property purchased by the church in Haidian district, Beijing, and arrested at least 160 members of the 1,000-strong church as they tried to assemble.

The church members were bundled into waiting vans and buses to prevent them from meeting as planned in the public space, Reuters and The Associated Press (AP) reported, and most had been released by today.

Church leaders claimed officials had pressured their landlords, forcing them out of both rented and purchased locations and leaving them no choice but to worship in the open.

“The government cornered them into making this decision,” Fu said, adding that the church had initially tried to register with the government. “They waited for two years, and when the government still denied them registration, they tried to keep a low profile before finally deciding to buy the Daheng New Epoch Technology building.”

Shouwang is a very unique church, he said.

“Most members are well-educated, and they include China’s top religious scholars and even former government officials, which may be a factor in the government’s response to them,” he said.

As one of the largest house churches in Beijing, Shouwang is unique in insisting on meeting together rather than splitting the congregation into smaller groups meeting in several locations, Fu said. Zion church, for example, may have more members than Shouwang, but members meet in smaller groups across the city.

“This is based on the founding fathers’ vision for Shouwang Church to be a ‘city on a hill,’” as stated in the Bible in Matthew chapter five, Fu explained. “So they’ve made a conscious decision not to go back to the small-group model. Either the government gives them the keys to their building or gives them written permission to worship in another location, or they will continue meeting in the open.”

Police arrested anyone who showed up to take part in the service, AP reported.

 

‘Most Basic Necessity’

Church leaders last week issued a statement to the congregation explaining their decision to meet outdoors.

“It may not be the best decision, but at this time it is an inevitable one,” the statement said, before reminding church members that the landlord of their premises at the time, the Old Story Club restaurant, had come under government pressure and repeatedly asked them to leave, while the previous owners of the Daheng New Epoch Technology building, purchased a year ago by the church for 27.5 million RMB (US$4.2 million), had refused to hand over the keys. (See, “Church in China to Risk Worshipping in Park,” April 7.)

The church had already met outdoors twice in November 2009 before officials gave tacit consent to move to the Old Story Club restaurant. Officials, however, again prevented Shouwang Church from meeting in May and August of last year.

Fu said it was common for government officials across China to pressure landlords into revoking leases for house church groups.

“For example, right now I know of at least two churches that were made ‘homeless’ in Guangzhou this week, including one church with at least 200 members,” he said.

Shouwang’s statement pointed to Article 36 of China’s Constitution, which grants every citizen freedom to worship, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by China, which states that every citizen has the right to observe his religion or belief “either alone or in community with others and in public or private.”

For this reason the church planned to meet outdoors until officials granted legal, written permission to worship in an approved location – preferably at the building purchased by the church.

The document also advised church members not to resist if they were held under house arrest or arrested at the Sunday venue.

“Objectively speaking, our outdoor worship must deliver this message to the various departments of our government: attending Sunday worship is the most basic necessity for Christians in their life of faith,” the statement concluded.

The number of Protestant house church Christians in China is estimated at between 45 and 60 million, according to Yu Jianrong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Rural Development Institute, with a further 18 to 30 million people attending government-approved churches.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Church in China to Risk Worshipping in Park


Evicted from one site and denied others, unregistered congregation resorts to open air.

LOS ANGELES, April 7 (CDN) — One of the largest unregistered Protestant churches in Beijing plans to risk arrest by worshipping in the open air this Sunday (April 10) after eviction from the restaurant where they have met for the past year.

The owner of the Old Story Club restaurant issued repeated requests for the Shouwang Church to find another worship venue, and authorities have pressured other prospective landlords to close their facilities to the 1,000-member congregation, sources said. Unwilling to subject themselves to the controls and restrictions of the official Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the congregation has held three services each Sunday in the restaurant for more than a year.

Church members have said they are not opposed to the government and are not politically active, but they fear authorities could find their open-air worship threatening.

“Normal” (state-sanctioned) religious assembly outdoors is legal in China, and even unregistered church activity is usually tolerated if no more than 50 people gather, especially if the people are related and can cite the gathering as a family get-together, said a source in China who requested anonymity. Although the congregation technically risks arrest as an unregistered church, the primary danger is being viewed as politically active, the source said.

“For a larger group of Christians to meet in any ‘unregistered’ location led by an ‘unregistered’ leader is illegal,” he said. “The sensitivity of meeting in a park is not being illegal, but being so highly visible. Being ‘visible’ ends up giving an impression of being a political ‘protest.’”

The congregation believes China’s Department of Religious Affairs has overstepped its jurisdiction in issuing regulations limiting unregistered church activity, according to a statement church leaders issued this week.

“Out of respect for both the Chinese Constitution [whose Article 36 stipulates freedom of worship] and Christian conscience, we cannot actively endorse and submit to the regulations which bid us to cease all Sunday worship activities outside of [the] ‘Three-Self Patriotic Movement’ – the only state-sanctioned church,” according to the statement. “Of course, we still must follow the teachings of the Bible, which is for everyone to submit to and respect the governing authorities. We are willing to submit to the regulations with passivity and all the while shoulder all the consequences which . . . continuing to worship outside of what is sanctioned by these regulations will bring us.”

The church decided to resort to open-air worship after a prospective landlord backed out of a contractual agreement to allow the congregation to meet at the Xihua Business Hotel, the church said in its statement.

“They had signed another rental contract with another property facility and announced during the March 22 service that they were to move in two weeks,” the source said. “In spite of the fact that they had signed a formal contract, the new landlord suddenly called them on March 22 and refused to let them use the facility.”

The landlord offered various excuses for reneging on the contract, according to church leaders, and that disappointment came after 15 months of trying to obtain the key to another property the church had purchased.

“The space in Daheng New Epoch Technology building, which the church had spent over 27.5 million RMB [US$4.2 million] to purchase, has failed to hand the key over to the church for the past year and three months because of government intervention,” the church said in its statement. “For the past year, our church has not had a settled meeting place.”

Beginning as a house church in 1993, the Shouwang Church has been evicted from several rented locations. It also met outside after its last displacement in 2009. The congregation does not believe its calling is to split up into smaller units.

“For the past several years the church has been given a vision from God to be ‘the city on a hill,’” the source said. “Especially since 2009, when they officially began the church building purchase, they have been trying to become a more officially established status. At this point, they feel that they have not completed the journey in obedience to God.”

The number of Protestant house church Christians is estimated at between 45 and 60 million, according to Yu Jianrong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Rural Development Institute. Yu and others have concluded that house churches are a positive influence on society, but the government is wary of such influence.

Yu estimated another 18 to 30 million people attend government-approved churches – potentially putting the number of Christians higher than that of Communist Party members, which number around 74 million.

The government-commissioned study by Yu and associates suggested that officials should seek to integrate house churches and no longer regard them as enemies of the state. The study employed a combination of interviews, field surveys and policy reviews to gather information on house churches in several provinces from October 2007 to November 2008.

Yu’s team found that most house or “family” churches fit into one of three broad categories: traditional house churches, open house churches or urban emerging churches. Traditional house churches were generally smaller, family-based churches, meeting in relative secrecy. Though not a Christian himself, Yu attended some of these meetings and noted that the focus was not on democracy or human rights but rather on spiritual life and community.

The “open” house churches were less secretive and had more members, sometimes advertising their services and holding public gatherings, he found. Urban emerging churches functioned openly but independently of TSPM churches. In some provinces such as Wenzhou, these churches had constructed their own buildings and operated without interference from local officials.

While some house churches actively seek registration with authorities to avoid arrests and harassment, they would like the option of registering outside the government-approved TSPM structure, as they disagree with TSPM beliefs and controls. Many unregistered evangelical Protestant groups refuse to register with TSPM due to theological differences, fear of adverse consequences if they reveal names and addresses of church leaders or members or fear that it will control sermon content.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org