Greg Sheridan Editorials

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Rare support for democracy in a sea of misunderstanding
Despite its mistakes, Israel is a legitimate nation & should not be treated as a pariah
Greg Sheridan Foreign Editor
The Australian
May 03, 2007

WHEN you're young, you think that every piece of mail is going to be that special letter that recognises your brilliance. ...

As you get older, you realise that most pieces of mail are bills. But recently I did get a remarkable piece of mail. It told me that if I would accept, I would be awarded the Jerusalem Prize. Sponsored jointly by the Israeli Government and the local Jewish community, it is awarded to people who have supported Israel conspicuously.

Since I believe that Israel is a democracy in good standing I was delighted to accept the award, which has been won by sundry heads of government, foreign ministers, social democrat and conservative European politicians and many others over the years. Its previous Australian recipients include Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, and Frank Sartor, formerly lord mayor of Sydney and now a minister in the NSW Labor Government.

Since the award was announced I have had a certain amount of mail urging me not to accept it. I must disappoint these folks, many of whom have written in good will and some detail, for I am greatly honoured to receive the Jerusalem Prize. I cannot accept the idea that Israel is an illegitimate state, or not really a democracy, or that it should be treated as a pariah.

It goes without saying that in accepting this award I do not compromise my independence as a commentator. I have often been critical of Israeli policies. Last year I opposed its military operation in Lebanon. My views are unusual in the commentator class but they are mainstream in Australian politics. In a fine address to a gathering of Labor Friends of Israel last week, Labor leader Kevin Rudd praised the "vibrancy of Israel's democracy". He said that both Hamas, the dominant political grouping among the Palestinians, and Hezbollah, are terrorist organisations and "you can't negotiate with terrorists". "Israel's strategic challenges," he said, "are great and that's why it's important that the modern state of Israel and its government has friends around the world. And I simply state unequivocally that we remain a strong and close friend of Israel in good times and bad."

This is truly a bipartisan position in Australia. Israel has probably never had a better friend as Prime Minister than John Howard. This was evident in Howard and Downer's decision, along with only a handful of others, to vote at the UN in 2004 against a resolution to condemn Israel's security barrier, following a ruling against Israel in the International Court of Justice. Again, Rudd's view is enlightening. He criticised the vote but argued not that Canberra should have voted against Israel, merely that it should have abstained. Rudd's star new candidate for Eden-Monaro, the distinguished former colonel and military lawyer, Mike Kelly, has argued in a legal journal that the ICJ was wrong and that Israel's security barrier is legal.

But let's pull back and look at a bit of history. There have always been Jews in Palestine. Israel was created by a resolution of the UN to partition Palestine between the Jewish and Palestinian populations. When Israel was founded in 1948 it was immediately attacked by the massed armies of five Arab neighbours.

Twice more Israel had to fight wars of national survival against the armies of its Arab neighbours - in 1967 and 1973. And all through from that time to this, with only fairly brief pauses, it has been subject to terrorist attacks.

In 2000, in Camp David and in subsequent negotiations, the government of the then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, offered the Palestinians their own nation on more than 95 per cent of the West Bank, all of Gaza and part of East Jerusalem. There was also the offer of some land from Israel proper to compensate for that part of the West Bank which is in effect predominantly Jewish suburbs of Jerusalem.

But this offer of land was in exchange for the Palestinians, and Israel's Arab neighbours, embracing peace - accepting Israel's legitimacy, ending their hate-filled and anti-Semitic propaganda designed to make schoolchildren despise the Jews, and stopping terrorist and other attacks on Israel.

The then Palestinian Authority, led by Yasser Arafat, walked away from this offer and did not even make a counter offer, because, like some of the leaders of neighbouring nations, he had never accepted that Israel had a right to exist at all.

None of this means that Israel is beyond criticism. Israel, like any democratic nation, makes plenty of mistakes and sometimes it makes moral mistakes. But it is a robust democracy founded on decent values and it tries to correct its mistakes. This week's Winograd Report on last year's Lebanon action was fiercely critical of Ehud Olmert's Government. That suggests Olmert made some mistakes. But the bigger story is what a vibrant, genuine, problem-solving democracy Israel is to commission such a report and let its findings go where they may. Moreover, the question is not whether Israel is perfect, but are its actions reasonable for a democracy under such constant threat and attack. How would we react in circumstances similar to those Israel faces?

Anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment are all different, yet they are all intimately related. They draw from diverse sources, yet they are all, in their virulent forms, fundamentally irrational and evidence of psychological and ideological dysfunction rather than genuine analysis.

Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the deaths of near enough to 1.5 million Iraqi Arabs and Iranians. He killed 300,000 to 400,000 of his own citizens deliberately and a million or more died in the wholly unjustified war he launched against Iran. Anyone who was seriously concerned about Muslim suffering in the Middle East would have concentrated on Saddam all the years he was in power.

Yet the UN, and the Left internationally, focuses with obsessive zeal on Israel. I once interviewed Abdurrahman Wahid, the former president of Indonesia and a great Muslim leader, and asked him about the Middle East. Israel, he told me, "is a democracy in a sea of misunderstanding".

Commentators should write about Israel the same as they write about any other nation, with a desire to tell the truth, know the facts and make judgments based on civilised values. I agree with Wahid. Israel is a democracy - that fact speaks for itself.

Comments three years later when Canberra expelled the local Israeli intelligence chief, after forged Australian passports were found to have been used in a hit team's assassination of a Hamas terrorist leader in Dubai

Expelling Israeli diplomat was a confected, self-serving exercise

Weekend Australian
May 29, 2010

THE Earth moved between Israel and Australia this week, with Kevin Rudd's government expelling an Israeli diplomat over the Dubai passports affair, and it may be that the Earth moved in Australian politics as well. ...

In an interview with me, Opposition leader Tony Abbott has condemned the expulsion. "It was an over reaction," Abbott says. "Sure Britain has done this but other nations whose passports were misused have not. I think we need to understand that Israel lives in a far more dangerous world than the rest of us. Sincere friendship means an honest understanding of the dangers they face. I don't condone the misuse of Australian passports. The big difference between Israel and almost every other country is that Israel is under existential threat."

There is now a greater difference between the main parties over Israel than at any time since Gough Whitlam. The Abbott-led Liberal Party is now much more deeply committed to the Israel relationship than the Rudd-led Labor Party.

Rudd's policy towards Israel mirrors his policy towards an Emissions Trading Scheme - an extravagant and emotional level of promise, followed by a complete failure of delivery, marred by short-term political expediency. This is a tough judgment, but it is the only one that fits the facts.

The Hamas terrorist leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was assassinated in Dubai earlier this year, almost certainly by Mossad agents. They used Australian, British, French and Irish passports.

First to the morality of the operation. Mabhouh was a leader of Hamas, which is pledged to Israel's violent destruction. He had much innocent blood on his hands. His assassination is morally exactly the same as when an Australian SAS unit targets an al-Qa'ida leader for attack in Afghanistan, as the SAS has often done. It is an even closer parallel to US drones hitting a terrorist in a border area of Pakistan. US President Barack Obama has decided, with Australian support, that merely fleeing the conflict zone of Afghanistan to the haven of Pakistan will not prevent an al-Qa'ida or Taliban terrorist being killed by US forces. So any Canberra moral outrage at the Israeli operation, which Foreign Minister Stephen Smith describes without qualification, or sophistication, as murder, is hypocritical and confected. Objecting to the misuse of Australian passports is entirely reasonable. But the manner in which the Rudd government has effected the expulsion demonstrates cynicism and short-term political opportunism.

When the passport misuse was first revealed in February, the Rudd government made a great song and dance about it. Emotions ran high. The government in effect sooled the Australian media on to savage Israel. It made sure there were cameras outside the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade when the Israeli ambassador, Yuval Rotem, was summoned for a ritual dressing down.

For six weeks, the Israelis were cast into diplomatic outer darkness. There was no dialogue of substance between Canberra and Jerusalem. Then suddenly there was a thaw. As part of its initial response the government sent a delegation of Australian Federal Police to Israel. This was all show - and a pretty poor show given their well-publicised problems with Israeli traffic - as the AFP could tell the government nothing more than it already knew. The Israelis did the operation but there is no proof.

The long delay of three months with nothing happening, and the deliberate resumption of diplomatic dialogue, led the Israelis, and Israel's friends in Australia, to believe the government was going low key. Then, all of a sudden, some internal dynamic changed and a couple of weeks ago, the government sent ASIO director David Irvine to Israel. Irvine is an official of the highest possible quality. But his trip, and the fact that Smith this week publicised it, represents an overt politicisation of ASIO by the government. The Irvine trip, which could produce nothing more than the AFP trip, gave the government cover for the expulsion. The manner and timing of the expulsion reflect very poorly on Rudd.

The government decided to announce the expulsion on Monday, the first day of parliament's new sitting. This was the day it was likely to face its heaviest pasting over the resource super-profits tax, just as the earlier outburst of confected anger against Israel coincided with a spike in the pink batts controversy.

This is a government obsessed with the management of the daily media cycle. The Opposition's foreign affairs spokeswoman, Julie Bishop, instinctively supported Israel but did so incompetently and gave the government more opportunity for confected outrage. But it is very low-grade behaviour to ruin a key relationship such as that with Israel for domestic political advantage.

Smith claimed that he was taking the action to expel an Israeli more in sorrow than in anger.

But Smith made his statement in parliament to get the greatest possible media. Although the government had all the information it needed for any action for months, there was a sense of rush at the last minute. Bishop was rung at 11.30am and abruptly told senior officials were on their way to her office to brief her. The officials were in her office while Smith was making his noon statement. The Israeli embassy was not told of the impending expulsion until 11am.

This is a great contrast to the British behaviour. When the British expulsion was announced, the Israeli diplomat was already back home. If you are doing something to an old friend, more in sorrow than in anger, surely you tell the old friend first. Similarly, it is a great breach of normal practice for a friendly country to publicise the visit of an agency head, such as Irvine. The fact the government publicised the visit is a politicisation of ASIO. It is the government using a national security smokescreen to cover what is entirely a political decision.

Smith also let it be known that the Israeli to be expelled was the Mossad chief in Canberra. In 2006, under the Howard government, Australia and Israel decided to station senior intelligence people in each others' countries. There was a Mossad officer among the Israeli diplomats in Canberra and an ASIO person in the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv. These are declared positions of friendly agencies. They don't spy on each other, but work together.

Australia and Israel for many years have had close intelligence exchanges. The chiefs of our other intelligence agencies also visit Israel, but quietly, and gain an enormous amount of information and insight from every visit. We also send senior national security personnel from across a number of agencies for short courses.

Smith said intelligence co-operation between Canberra and Jerusalem would now cool for an indefinite period. This will be entirely to our detriment. Despite the recent difficulties, not least its agents being filmed in Dubai, kilo for kilo, the Mossad is without question the best intelligence agency in the world.

Australia has significant interests in Iraq, is acutely concerned with Iran, and will, according to our own Counter-Terrorism White Paper, quite likely be a target of Hezbollah terrorism. On all these subjects no country is better informed than Israel. At this stage, Israel has not asked the ASIO representative to go home. Nor is it clear how long the ban on a Mossad agent coming to Canberra will be enforced. Equally, it is not clear Israel will bother sending a Mossad officer to Australia.

This whole sequence has the hallmarks not of an intelligence operation but a Hawker-Britton operation, the Rudd government using one of the most sensitive relationships Australia has to distract the media from the political agenda.

Julie Bishop's clumsiness helped the government. She was mistaken to stress it's not proven whether the Israelis did the operation and she was mistaken to answer yes to the idea that Australia also forges passports, even though I have reported this on two occasions in The Australian and Smith would not deny it at his press conference.

Some context is important. Australian intelligence agents, but also police and others associated with combating drug smuggling and the like, often travel on false Australian passports, that is, passports that do not carry their true identities. That is almost routine.

Much more rare, but not entirely unheard of, is using the passport of another nation. However, it's easy to construct a scenario where this might happen. Say, hypothetically, Canberra wanted to send an ASIS agent of Pakistani origin to Pakistan for an operation and didn't want any indication of an Australian presence. Such an agent might use a Pakistani passport. It's unlikely Australia would forge the passport itself as this is difficult and resource intensive. Instead it would probably borrow such a passport from the British, known to be master forgers, or the Americans.

The government's outrage against Bishop was entirely confected. The government also suggested the Israelis had broken a specific agreement with Australia over passports. This is almost certainly untrue. The Israelis don't acknowledge their passport forgeries and to promise not to do it again can only be predicated on them having done it in the first place. No Howard government minister has any recollection of any such agreement.

The Israelis operate in a unique environment. They have to undertake operations in the Middle East. But use of an Israeli passport in most Middle East countries is impossible. So they are forced to use other passports.

Israel is incredibly beleaguered at the moment. It has never been under such sustained political attack. In many parts of the world, anti-Israel sentiment is morphing into traditional anti-Semitism. By making such a cynical and exuberant public relations bonanza out of this episode, the Rudd government is directly licensing the recrudescence of the worst sentiments imaginable. I can't conceive that this would have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer's way.

The government dismayed many of its own supporters, who took its previous rhetoric about friendship with Israel seriously. Michael Danby is the Labor member for the critical Melbourne seat of Melbourne Ports. He is in no sense a marginal figure in Labor. He is a former secretary of Labor's national security committee, a former Labor whip, and the chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs sub-committee, that is the most senior parliamentarian, outside the ministry, on foreign affairs.

Yesterday, he said: "The expulsion was the wrong policy response. Even if there was some obscure previous incident, Berlin and Paris are as sophisticated as the mandarins of Canberra and their reaction (no expulsion) demonstrates why we did not have to ape the British Foreign Office. Stephen Smith should have made a recommendation to the NSC having the more worldly overview, that this harsh proscription would feed the international campaign of delegitimation of Israel.

This harsh reaction by Australia comes just at a time when we want the Israelis to be as flexible as possible in the new peace talks with the Arabs. This folly, this over reaction, has unwittingly encouraged bigots elsewhere, who have their secret passions sanctioned. I have suggested a series of steps to the Prime Minister to overcome this successful attempt to blot Labor's copybook just weeks before an election."

That's what the government's friends think of it.


Israel rejects Rudd's call for nuclear inspections
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent (plus Greg Sheridan's commentary)
Thursday, December 16, 2010

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman yesterday rejected Kevin Rudd's call that its nuclear facility should be subject to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. ...

Kevin Rudd and Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, during a press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem yesterday   AP

Standing alongside Mr Rudd during a press conference in Jerusalem, Mr Lieberman said what was important was not whether any country was a member of the Non- Proliferation Treaty but that it was responsible. He made it clear Israel did not regard any such inspection as necessary as it was a responsible country "and we have proved this for many years".

Mr Rudd, in an interview with The Australian this week, had said Israel's nuclear facility should be subject to inspection by the IAEA. The comment shocked Israeli officials, who could not recall an Australian minister suggesting that their facility at Dimona should be subject to inspection. Mr Rudd had said: "Our view has been consistent for a long period of time, and that is that all states in the region should adhere to the NPT, and that includes Israel. And therefore their nuclear facility should be subject to IAEA inspection."

But Mr Lieberman said yesterday: "I think that we have a very clear position — we are a very responsible country and a responsible government and we have proved this for many years." He said in his view, the question was not the NPT but whether a country and its government was responsible or not. "Iran joined with the NPT and is part of the NPT and we see every day cheating and many attempts to waste time (allowing in inspectors) and, of course, they're part of the NPT but the reality is completely different."

While Mr Rudd had made his comment in an interview in Cairo, in Jerusalem yesterday he softened his position, saying Australia recognised Israel's "unique security circumstances". He concentrated much more on Iran's nuclear program than Israel's. Mr Rudd said Australia was "deeply concerned" about Iran's nuclear weapons program and while its stated aim was nuclear energy for civilian purposes, it found itself in defiance of provisions of the NPT.

"Therefore Iran has obtained from us and from other countries … universal condemnation, secondly sanctions and thirdly, in the case of Australia, autonomous sanctions over and above those which are required under the UN Security Council," he said. "Iran's nuclear weapons program and nuclear program in general represents a fundamental threat to security across the wider region. On the question of other regional states, including Israel, the position of the Australian government has long been reiterated by governments of both political persuasions in Australia that all states, including Israel, should become accessories to the NPT and its associated obligations. We recognise … Israel's unique security circumstances … but in terms of our fundamental position on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as it applies to this region … all states should be in, including Israel."

Same Day
Commentary: That's no way to treat a precious friend, Mr Rudd
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor

No previous foreign minister has called for the inspection of Israel's nuclear facilities

THIS has been a remarkable week for Australia in Israel, made just a bit perplexing by a baffling little sequence from Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd. This week the third meeting of the Australia Israel Leadership Forum took place in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with a day in Ramallah talking to Palestinian leaders. There is no doubt Rudd is well regarded in Israel and his authentic leadership on Iran is appreciated. However, there was one episode of policy freelancing, or innovation, or just downright oddity, that has no honourable explanation and has perplexed, to put it mildly, his many Israeli admirers.

In an interview with this paper's John Lyons in Cairo on Saturday, Rudd said: "Our view has been consistent for a long time and that is that all states in the region should adhere to the [nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty, and that includes Israel. And therefore their nuclear facility should be subject to International Atomic Energy Agency inspection." Lyons was prompted to ask the question because Rudd had made very similar remarks at a press conference with the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, in Cairo the day before. In fairness to Rudd, he had strongly pressed the case that Iran's nuclear program must be contained. However, the de facto equating of Israel and Iran is bizarre. Rudd may as well have demanded that India open its nuclear facilities to inspection by the IAEA.

But Rudd's words in Cairo were extremely welcome to his Arab interlocutors. No Australian foreign minister in history has previously called for Israel's nuclear facility to be open to IAEA inspection. Israel, not being a signatory to the NPT, has no legal obligation to submit to IAEA inspections. Iran, a member of the NPT, is in clear violation of NPT and IAEA rules. Israel has never threatened anybody with nuclear weapons, Iran has threatened to wipe Israel off the map. Israel is a democracy, Iran is a clerical-military dictatorship. Israel does not sponsor terrorism, Iran is the chief international sponsor of terrorism. Israel has never proliferated any nuclear material, Iran has been intimately involved in nuclear technology proliferation with North Korea and Syria.

Israel does not officially admit to having any nuclear weapons, but most experts believe it probably has about 200 nukes. As Rudd has acknowledged many times, Israel faces existential challenges no one else faces. There are areas of deliberate greyness in international diplomacy. No serious Western foreign minister ever demands that Israel submit to IAEA inspection. Everyone knows that Israel, like India, will never give up its nuclear weapons and a repeated demand for inspections would become just another sterile, anti-Israel agitprop slogan, of no utility to nuclear non-proliferation but very helpful to those who hate Israel and wish to demonise it.

So, presumably Rudd would not take such a radical and fateful step unless this prefigured some new and profound Australian policy objective, right? But, dear reader, the truth is that when Rudd got to Israel he did not raise the NPT and IAEA inspections even once in his lengthy meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, or in his speech to a gala dinner at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Indeed, the timing of the publication of Lyons's story was such that Rudd's most senior Israeli interlocutors were not even aware that he had made these remarks when they saw him on Monday.

At a press conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Rudd did repeat his statement that Australian policy wanted Israel to join the NPT but by then he had abandoned any reference to inspections. On a smaller note, all through the Arab world Rudd had denounced Jewish settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, but in his talks with Netanyahu and in his public speech they didn't get a mention.

Now, in politics you can support policy A or its opposite, policy B. What you cannot credibly do is support policy A in Cairo and policy B in Jerusalem. In a sense Rudd let down both the Arabs and the Israelis. If the Arabs thought he was sincere in wanting the Israelis to submit their nuclear facility to inspection, then they would be bitterly disappointed to know he didn't mention it to the Israelis. If the Israelis thought he was sincere in his presentation of himself as Israel's best friend, they would have a right to be bitterly disappointed that he was espousing much more robust anti-Israeli opinions than the consensus view among even Israel's habitual critics in Western governments.

One interpretation is that Rudd could not resist telling the Arab audience in Cairo what it wanted to hear, then telling the Israeli audience in Jerusalem what it wanted to hear. This is a common interpretation of Rudd, but one this column has resisted, regarding Rudd as a figure of singular substance in foreign policy. But you cannot have it both ways. Indeed, and this is a conclusion this column would be extremely reluctant to reach, Rudd's famous leaked comments to Hillary Clinton, saying that he wanted China to develop peacefully and fruitfully as a fully responsible member of the international community, but that if it didn't the US and Australia would have to have the option of force in reserve, could also be interpreted in this way: that Rudd was telling the Americans what he thought they wanted to hear.

The ongoing tragedy with Rudd is that his ability could never remotely be in doubt. He knows more about foreign policy than anyone on either side of the Australian parliament. But these strange quirks seem to get in the way. Rudd's performance in Israel overall was impressive, but there were times when he seemed to strain just that bit too much to connect with the audience. At the speech at the King David Hotel, for example, he remarked: "From the 1930s, this hotel became the British field headquarters for what was then British Palestine, until Menachem Begin undertook some interior redesign." Rudd was referring to the incident in which Israeli independence activists blew up the hotel. I accept that they were not the equivalent of modern terrorists. But people died in that incident. I don't think such a joke was in good taste, although many in the audience appreciated it.

I remain convinced that Rudd has made a prodigious contribution to Australian foreign policy. His self-confidence on the international stage is a great asset. But he would do well to turn the volume down, stick a bit closer to conventional government positions, be a little less adventurous. Now everyone in the Australian foreign policy debate is bound to explore whether this demand for IAEA inspections of Israel's nuclear facility is a serious government policy. As for myself, I confess considerable confusion about Rudd's purpose in this episode.

God is Good for You

On July 21st and July 23rd, 2018, "Stephen Williamson" wrote:
Subject: The Australian checking out Planetshakers in Melbourne, and talking about belief with Andrew Hastie, Kim Beazley, Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten, Penny Wong, dear Lord reach them all :-)
By Greg Sheridan, THE AUSTRALIAN, July 23rd, 2018   9 min read   105 Comments

Higher authority: Kim Beazley, Andrew Hastie, Malcolm Turnbull, Penny Wong and Kristina Keneally.

Andrew Hastie

When Andrew Hastie went to Afghanistan on combat service with the SAS he wrote a letter to his wife, Ruth, the envelope sealed with wax, to be opened by her only in the event of his death....

He left the letter with a friend, who was to be part of the notification team, the small group that would go and see Hastie's wife if the worst happened.

The West Australian Liberal MP's parents have deep religious beliefs. Hastie rebelled against his dad's beliefs for a while: "Around age 16 to 19 I was very aggressively challenging a lot of what I was taught. The question for me was: can I still be a good person without God? I had embraced the postmodern view I got at school - that I was a consumer and I could make any choices I liked. Partly I wanted to justify under-age drinking and having a good time."

In 2000 his father took him to Biola University, an evangelical Christian university in California. On that trip he met Chuck Colson, the Nixon staffer who went to jail for his Watergate crimes, found God there and later got heavily involved in the Christian mission to prisoners in jail. Hastie also read a book about Christian belief: "The author started off with the empty self, describing narcissistic, modern man, and I felt he was describing me. That led me to ask the question, did I accept the basic tenets of Christianity? The next question was: how do I practise Christianity? What implications does it have for my weekends, boozing and trying to sleep with as many girls as possible?" In one tragic incident in Afghanistan, Hastie called in American helicopter support to fire on two Taliban fighters who were planning to attack Hastie's soldiers and the Afghan base they were visiting when the helicopters came to pick them up. Hastie knew this because the Taliban signals had been intercepted.

In the worst moment of Hastie's life, the helicopters shot the wrong Afghans, killing two little boys, brothers aged six and seven. Hastie took control of his own emotional state, took a few soldiers with him to go out to where the boys had been shot and see if they were still alive and if there was any chance of saving them, then reported everything back to his bosses. He didn't eat or sleep for the next 24 hours and for a long time had nightmares about it. The boys are still regularly in his mind.

Later, he pushed to be allowed to go and talk to the boys' family: "It was about telling the truth and taking responsibility. I wanted to apologise to the boys' uncle. The uncle was about 45 or 50, with a grey, weather-beaten face. He had assumed the role of defender of the family. The 16-year-old brother, you could see the anger on his face. The uncle acknowledged the approach and said: 'You're forgiven.' For me, this prefigured divine forgiveness."

This tragedy didn't shake Hastie's Christian faith: "Imagine if you weren't a Christian, if you were a closed universe atheist, how bleak and senseless those deaths would be."


'I think of religion as a mystery. Just as poetry is that which cannot be translated, faith is in many ways that which cannot be explained' - Malcolm Turnbull

'I don't believe we just end' … Senator Penny Wong. Photo: AAP

Penny Wong

I catch up with senator Penny Wong for a discussion in the comprehensively anonymous offices made available to federal politicians when they visit Melbourne. It is the only discussion I've had with her where she seemed a fraction hesitant or nervous. I feel a bit like a dentist, inflicting pain for a (hopefully) greater good.

She says: "I don't think faith for me is an intellectual exercise. It's a much more instinctive, intuitive proposition. It's hard to talk about, isn't it? The way I like to approach politics, I like to be very rational and factually based and well prepared and talk about things in logical sequences, and I don't think I've ever felt about faith that way."

Faith is certainly not irrational, however: "The important decisions in our lives we make with reference to what we work with intellectually as much as we can, but they're generally made emotionally and spiritually …

"It's a very diverse religion, Christianity. Perhaps I have a certain view because I was born in Sabah (Malaysia). Growing up in a multi-faith society was important. I had friends who were Muslims, family members who were Buddhist as well as those who were Christian. I never had the sense that this (Christianity) is the only way. I always felt there were many paths to God. This was the kind of path that resonated with me.

"When times have been hard, at different times of my life, when I've felt alone or lonely, faith has been important to me. There are also moments of joy when you can feel faith or feel grace. You're with your family and you feel blessed. It's good to be thankful." And prayer? "Yes (I do pray). I'm less at church than I used to be. I used to go to Sunday morning communion more often. You pray at different moments, moments when you're quiet. I have to have moments when I find a bit of calm in my life. If I don't, I don't perform … I don't think of God as a power to go to with a shopping list. I think more of asking for the patience or courage to cope. For me, it's more asking that he walk with me.

"If I'm with my father and his side of the family, prayer is a much more explicit side of their life. He'll say grace and give thanks for the family. I do find being in church incredibly moving."

And what does Wong believe happens when we die? "I don't know. I don't believe we just end."


'There are aspects of faith and religion that don't bear analysis' … Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: AP

Malcolm Turnbull

I was fascinated a few years back to see that Malcolm Turnbull had, as it was presented at the time, converted to Catholicism. As it turned out, the Prime Minister discovered that he had not been christened at all as a child, so it was not exactly a conversion. Certainly it was an embrace.

In private contexts, Turnbull is quite natural and forthcoming about his faith. When former Labor politician Mary Easson was gravely ill, Turnbull sent a message to her husband, Michael, saying: "Lucy and I are storming the gates of heaven itself with our prayers for Mary." Easson herself remembers that when, after her miraculous recovery, she ran into Turnbull at Parliament House, he hugged and hugged her. She was touched by his prayers, and his warmth.

Turnbull is clear that he does believe in the Christian faith. The way he conceives of it, as you'd expect, is individualistic, supple, nuanced. That is not to say it is better or worse than anyone else's belief or lack of belief, but this is the way Turnbull conceives of religion. He says: "I think of religion as a mystery. Just as poetry is that which cannot be translated, faith is in many ways that which cannot be explained. The Western tradition obviously wants to analyse and categorise everything. It's important to remember that Christianity grew as a religion of the East. It grew out of a spiritual world which was a very mystical one. There are aspects of faith and religion that don't bear analysis."

Turnbull is not suggesting that faith is against reason, but that parts of it are beyond reason: "I think mystery is a very important part of it. Everything we do and believe and feel is not capable of the precise analysis of an economist or a chemist." Turnbull nominates the "selfless love of Jesus" as being close to the heart of Christianity and says that when we love selflessly is when we get closest to the divine.

I ask Turnbull if he prays: "Yes, I do. I'm cautious about talking about it. You've asked me a straight question and I've answered it."


'When I first moved to Australia, I was struck by the absence of religion from the public conversation' … Labor Senator Kristina Keneally. Photo: AAP

Kristina Keneally

There was a time Kristina Keneally was angry with God, deeply angry. Grief-stricken, devastated, Keneally was reacting to her daughter, Caroline, being stillborn in 1999. When Keneally talks of her daughter, even today, she often uses the present tense: "I have a stillborn daughter, Caroline. She's my second child. I had this real sense I felt I knew how to have a baby. It hit me very hard. I can remember being very angry with God."

At the same time, faith did not desert her: "I remember having gratitude that I did have faith, that Caroline's life continued on, that she was not extinguished. At the same time, I was very angry that she wasn't with me, that God could let this happen."

I catch up with the US-born Keneally for a long discussion about her religious beliefs in Sydney.

She says: "When I first moved to Australia, I was struck by the absence of religion from the public conversation, the lack even of people to talk to about these things. I was starting a doctorate and at parties people would say: 'What did you study?' And I'd say religion and the conversation would end. They'd turn away, nothing more to be said.

"Then I joined the Labor Party. It was like: Oh, I found them. Politicians are more likely to be churchgoing than the population as a whole. They're joiners, they're inspired by social justice, they're not embarrassed about saying they go to mass on Sunday.

"There's still a lack of comfort about politicians of faith who talk publicly about the inspiration of their faith. That's partly because while politicians tend to be more churchgoing than the population as a whole, they are reported on by journalists who tend to be less churchgoing than the general population."

I ask whether the New Atheists have had any impact on her thinking: "It's not persuasive to me to say that Christians have done some bad things; therefore, the Christian God does not exist. I believe human beings have a spiritual dimension.

"Virtually all cultures, including the Aboriginal culture, have a sense of connection with the spiritual dimension."

What does Keneally believe comes after death?

"I believe I will continue to exist in some kind of spiritual dimension. The idea of existence forever somewhat terrifies me; inasmuch as I don't want to be extinguished, my human mind cannot wrap itself around eternity … I believe I will be one with God."


'Invariably you pray at crisis points' … former Deputy PM Kim Beazley. Photo: Ross Swanborough

Kim Beazley

I put Keneally's suggestion that politicians are likelier to be religious than the general population to Kim Beazley. He thinks she's right: "I agree that there is a much higher level of practice and belief among politicians.

"There is no such thing as a quiet soul in politics. You're basically worried all the time in politics. You're always anxious, always dealing with complex motivations and complex people. Also, politicians get isolated and the more isolated you get the more you need your religion."

Faith remains fundamental to Beazley.

"I pray spasmodically. Invariably you pray at crisis points. And in ambassadorial life (Beazley was Australian ambassador to the US for six years), in ministerial life and in political life, you're engaged in lots of crisis points.

"You don't use prayer to seek an outcome for yourself; you use it to gain peace of mind.

"When I have been worried about my children I have prayed. You're more likely to turn to your religion at times of stress.

"At times your doubts seem to overwhelm you. At different points of time you feel you've got a divine element in your life, then it goes away and you wonder if it was an illusion."

What does Beazley believe happens after death?

"I don't know. My faith tells me there is an afterlife, but your faith doesn't tell you what it is. You have a sense that there will be something there.

"The people you've been close to, you feel a sense from time to time that they are still with you."


Edited extracts from Greg Sheridan's book God is Good for You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times, which will be published by Allen & Unwin on Wednesday.

Greg Sheridan is a foreign affairs journalist and commentator. He joined The Australian in 1984 and worked in Beijing, Washington, and Canberra before starting his tenure as the paper's foreign editor in 1992. He specialises in Asian politics and has written four books on the topic.

Click here to skip to Planet Shakers interview and further interviews with Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten, Penny Wong, Kristine Keneally and Mike Baird

105 COMMENTS  316 people listening
There are definitely comforting reasons to be a believer but for me, that's just not convincing. Still, I prefer the espousing  of Christianity to the espousing of PC. The former is less dangerous. 

Read and re-read Andrew Hastie and Kim Beazley's contribution. Both are men of unmistakeable sincerity, integrity and compassion. Beazley was the best PM we never had. Hastie will be the best PM we one day, hopefully soon, will have. As for the rest featured in this story. their confected mush is not worth the paper it's printed on.

Wow… I had no idea Penny Wong had a sense of God.  It puts her in a new light to me.  Proves how wrong a man can be.  Should  look at myself a bit more closely.
Vicki 45 MINUTES AGO I dont have a problem with politicians having a religion, however I do have a problem with a spirit guiding their political actions. And as for Hastie's comment on the deaths of the children "Imagine if you weren't a Christian, if you were a closed universe atheist, how bleak and senseless those deaths would be." Those deaths were bleak and senseless. Children died, for no good reason. 3 LIKE Kevin 50 MINUTES AGO 🇦🇺Christianity poses the biggest threat to the Communist aspiration to dominate the world. More strength to those who choose to believe. 2 LIKE Michael 52 MINUTES AGO Interesting article, LNP and ALP. Reminds me of a soccer match where players in both teams often pray for a good result which means God is on a winner either way. David 54 MINUTES AGO Just think if they were perceived not to believe. OMG! Peter 57 MINUTES AGO Christianity a minor Jewish sect is an accident of two Empires the Roman and British Russel l 1 HOUR AGO Great that this was published. Western culture has been shaped both good and bad by Christianity so before we throw the baby out with the bathwater it's important to see how it still continues to shape us through our leadership. 1 LIKE Igor 1 HOUR AGO We all want illumination in our lives, a light to follow. We all want a map, because getting lost is so stressful. We all want a guidebook, because without a guide we may make a serious mistake. I used to look to God. These days I look to Google. 2 LIKE Chris 1 HOUR AGO Just back from a trip out west. Absorbed lots of insight into indigenous beliefs and morality teaching. Creation stories are of course pretty basic (at least at the level we Westerners are allowed to hear). You can kind of understand how new generations believe this stuff when it is what they are brought up to and have no other frame of reference. Those with a Western education however, really have no excuse for religion. We do know better. Wake up! 3 LIKE Max 1 HOUR AGO Religion is a personal thing. The state should have no role. So why does the head of the Anglican Church reign over us, as a birthright? 1 LIKE Eric1 HOUR AGO Very interested to hear about the war experiences of Andrew Hastie, as he is the genuine article, the words of the other politicians will never 'cut much ice,' with me. Grew up Cof E, which failed to resonate much, struck a few tough patches in my life so I began to investigate Buddhism, very helpful in facing up to the realities of life but after a while I concluded that whilst 'accepting,' what happens to you, Buddhism gives you no means of remedying injustice. Christianity to me is incredibly valuable as it has the means of giving HOPE that one day you may be able to change your circumstances for the better, that is why it will continue to come back even if it is repressed for years as in the USSR, last century. EAV 5 LIKE Michael 1 HOUR AGO Some good examples of cafeteria following of Christ and His words. Damien1 HOUR AGO Why have the non-believers bothered commenting on the article? Seems there is a lot of underlying doubt about. DJD 5 LIKE David 49 MINUTES AGO @Damien Wishful thinking on your behalf there Damien. 1 LIKE Peter 43 MINUTES AGO @Damien sure is …. Russ34 MINUTES AGO @Damien Nope, just always a concern when political "leaders" and myths begin to mix. 1 LIKE Ross1 HOUR AGO Good for you The Australian for publishing this! An inspiring read. No chance of seeing anything uplifting like this in the Fairfax press :P 12 LIKE Mr Bernard R 1 HOUR AGO It's about time the media stood up for our heritage and western civilisation which, by and large is a reflection of Platonic and Christian teachings. 1 LIKE Peter 1 HOUR AGO Glad there is no heaven, imagine being stuck there with all the politicians? 7 LIKE Terry D 1 HOUR AGO Should I be glad that you won't be with me heaven? (By your own admission.) 3 LIKE David1 HOUR AGO @Terry D That's something no one will ever know. Russ33 MINUTES AGO @Terry D Ain't no one will be there Terry. 1 LIKE Ross 1 HOUR AGO Is that the same Christianity that for hundreds of years dragged non believers out of their homes and tortured them or burned them alive if they did not believe? Or is that the same Christianity that seriously believes God sent himself to earth to born of a virgin, stayed in a small part of the middle east then got himself killed, the sprang back to life then disappeared for 2000 years never to be seen or heard again. 9 LIKE Monarchist 1 HOUR AGO @Ross The second one, or a less caricatured version of it. But you already knew that. 10 LIKE David 1 HOUR AGO @Ross Neither of those versions are the Christianity written about in the Bible. 11 LIKE Tickle 1 HOUR AGO @Ross It's also the Christianity that torture people who wanted to read the Bible in their native English. The learned priests wanted all interpretation in their own hands. 4 LIKE John1 HOUR AGO @Ross "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God". 2 LIKE Terry D 1 HOUR AGO It's not that the Son of God has disappeared for 2,000 years, it's just that he doesn't reveal himself to disbelievers/atheists unless they repent and start believing: "Judas asked him - the other Judas, not Iscariot - 'Lord, what can have happened, that you mean to disclose yourself to us alone and not to the world?'" Mr Bernard R 1 HOUR AGO @Ross, none of the things you speak about reflect the teachings of Christ aka Christianity. Human beings are capable of the most horrendous actions. It has nothing whatsoever to do with their religious beliefs, although they may well use religion in their ignorance to justify those actions. The atheistic communists have slaughtered more innocent people in the 20th century alone than so called 'Christians' have in the previous 2000 years. 1 LIKE Larry 38 MINUTES AGO @Ross Pretty much on the mark.. .done by men, not God. And Christ hasn't disappeared… he's here on a daily basis. Peter 1 HOUR AGO At each census the number who state no religion or simply ignore the question grows where today it is a majority . Christianity will go the way of the Druids just practised by oddballs .. 8 LIKE Catriona 1 HOUR AGO Good article. I like the way you quote the pollies, it's such a private thing, religion, and not easy to talk about especially publicly. 7 LIKE Konrad1 HOUR AGO Complex topic. Infanticide? Ripping out the heart of a living person to please the sun god? Circumcision? Conflicting interpretations of religious writings? Uncertainty re distance heaven is from earth. 6 LIKE Mr Bernard R 1 HOUR AGO @Konrad, what are you talking about? None of the things you listed are mentioned in the New Testament teachings of Christ, so where are you getting your information from? 3 LIKE James 2 HOURS AGO "Politicians are more likely to be churchgoing than the population as a whole." Really? Or are they just more likely to say they are and to make sure they are seen in church? After all you don't lose any atheist votes by going to church, but you lose plenty of Christian votes by declaring atheism. 9 LIKE Chris1 HOUR AGO @James You are more likely to lose votes these days by associating with the Church. 4 LIKE Colin1 HOUR AGO @James I'd say the reverse is more likely. I was genuinely surprised, in fact, to learn of, for instance, Wong and Beazley's faith. 2 LIKE Christine 1 HOUR AGO @Colin Really? Read A book of Beazley's life. He did overseas volunteer work in India (I think it was) when just out of school. patrick2 HOURS AGO if you can't work it out for yourself and you need a church to guide you we are in all sorts. 7 LIKE David 1 HOUR AGO @patrick What did you work out? 3 LIKE Lisle1 HOUR AGO @ patrick Had you been watching "First Civilizations" on SBS, you would realise the importance religion in its various forms has played in the evolution of our species. I have no time for the cynical approach to religion today where it's okay to do anything you like without consideration of others. 6 LIKE Mary 2 HOURS AGO I am sitting in a hospital waiting room waiting for my 6 monthly meeting with my surgeon 30 months after cancer surgery. While I was in this hospital after the surgery s priest walked into the ward and came to my bed. I was quite shocked as during the time I had been there no-one else had been visited by a priest. Turned out that when I was admitted my partner was asked if I had a religious faith. He told them I was a Catholic, even though I hadn't been near a church in decades. That visit brought huge comfort to me during what was a terrible chapter in my life. The church does still have a place in society and I am now more aware of the place of faith in our lives. 36 LIKE Paul 2 HOURS AGO @Mary And maybe a secular social worker could have helped you more or even a Buddhist monk but your religious presence stood in the way. 5 LIKE Wendy 1 HOUR AGO @Paul What a mean spirited . A person who finds comfort cannot be argued with. It's their experience. 18 LIKE Gentle Will 1 HOUR AGO @Mary. Paul, Mary was relating an experience personal to herself and you seize on it to make some mean-spirited snipe at the Catholic aspect of it. Why do you feel driven to do this? If it doesn't matter to you, then why do you feel the need to goad a person for her simple and beautiful story? Yours is a rather empty and arrogant response. I am tempted to assume that you think that you have complete control of your life and that you believe that you are far too intelligent to believe in God- after all, He is our 'imaginary friend' and this glib phrase immediately negates 2,000 years of intellectual rigour in philosophy and theology. I would assume that you do not feel the need to read or study the scholars of the Catholic Church before you criticise it. Mary, to talk to a priest is to talk to a person who has experience both in the secular and the spiritual. A good priest has wisdom and spirituality- secular counsels do not have that extra dimension. When we are facing our mortality we get a perspective on our life and we can see our individual value to God. These moments are precious, as it gives us the opportunity to grow. The fact that, even though you had not attended Church for many years, nevertheless you were open at the moment of need is a special grace. Your gratitude is well placed and you should perhaps see the incident as a beautiful opportunity to reassess the things that are important in your life. 13 LIKE Colin1 HOUR AGO @Mary YouTuber ComputingForever has an excellent video where he discusses, despite his personal unbelief, the important role religion plays in society. I highly recommend it. 2 LIKE Christine 1 HOUR AGO @Paul Read Andrew Hastie's statement again! you might recognise your own shot comings!! Greg 2 HOURS AGO I'd like to know how some of the politicians reconcile their christian beliefs with some of the things they do. Shorten, for example, appears to be a serial offender. 17 LIKE Peter 1 HOUR AGO @Greg Shorten must be a regular at confession Italo 2 HOURS AGO This is more on a defence of small or subjective faith rather than of larger beliefs around Christian doctrine. Its central to freedom of self determination as to matters of subjective meaning that appears as consumption often in the form of religious paraphernalia from a Christian amulet to pagan tarot cards. 1 LIKE Chris 2 HOURS AGO Looking forward to reading this. It would of been great to have interviewed Bob Hawke, a man that grew up surrounded by Christian ethos, his father being a minister, how he feels about it now so late in life. Also Ben Chifley and John Curtin would of been fascinating. 4 LIKE Cameron 1 HOUR AGO @Chris Very much agree with you on the Hawke side. I'm an atheist and found it to be a really good article. 1 LIKE Paul 2 HOURS AGO And so Andrew whitewashes the death of children by believing they will all go to Heaven. Presumably they will all play in the same garden as the suicide bombers. Such a happy reunion. One hundred years ago fifty percent of children died before the age of five, usually from infectious disease and accidents. While Christian beliefs may have eased their passage in the surviving community one has to wonder if that same whitewashing stood in the way of germ theory, hygiene, and the separation of sewerage from the water supply. If Jesus loved the world so much all he had to say was wash your hands after going to the toilet and don't defecate up stream from your drinking water. The killing of children won't stop until people stop deluding themselves that they have gone to a better place. It is only the stark comprehension of their absolute end that leads to the protection of children from war. For instance a good protocol may be for helicopter pilots to ask "Are there children in the village?" If the answer is yes buddy lots." Then the pilot should be required to say "The mission is a no go. You are on your own down their. Take it on the chin you are a soldier." 8 LIKE Garry 1 HOUR AGO @Paul Cynical, judgemental and nasty. May you be judged by the same criteria by which you judge others. 12 LIKE Philip1 HOUR AGO @Paul I'm sorry, Paul, but that is absolute rot! If that is all you took away from this extract I would suggest reading it again. 9 LIKE Scott 1 HOUR AGO What a simplistic, naive view. Never seen a shot fired in anger have you? 9 LIKE Peter 2 HOURS AGO I am an Atheist and I have yet had a Christian explain to me why of the three monotheist religions only Christians have the Trinity. 1 LIKE David1 HOUR AGO @Peter Would you stop being an atheist if someone told you? 6 LIKE Archimedes 1 HOUR AGO @Peter As an atheist why do you care? 10 LIKE Philip 1 HOUR AGO @Peter Why does it matter, Peter? Buddhism has the Triple Gem, the Triptaka which is its "Trinity". 2 LIKE Martins 1 HOUR AGO @Peter Because .. if God existed before everything else … then "he" needed to be more than singular. Philosophy 101: "I think therefore I am" is not sufficient: you only know you are you and are in fact thinking because there is something else. (This is usually used as a proof that ideas of God are flawed.) So: it's interesting that only one religion deals with this issue.. 1 LIKE Terry D 1 HOUR AGO I don't know why an Atheist would want to know why God expresses himself as a Trinity. By the way, I found the answer to your question in the Bible. 3 LIKE Peter1 HOUR AGO @Martins As I understand it the three monotheist religions of Judaism Islam and Christianity believe in the One God . So how do Christians explain the Trinity . 1 LIKE Peter 1 HOUR AGO @Terry D great what was it? 1 LIKE Peter 1 HOUR AGO @Terry D great is it a secret or can you tell us the answer ? 2 LIKE Terry D 36 MINUTES AGO @Peter God is invisible spirit. The Holy Spirit is spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Father of Jesus, the Son of God. "I and my Father (the Holy Spirit) are one." - Jesus. "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father (the Holy Spirit)"-Jesus Jesus Christ is the Son of God (God incarnate) is the Holy Spirit in a human body, i.e. "the Word (Holy Spirit) of God made flesh." So One God - using three names for three different theophanic manifestations. (1) Father - we born again by the Holy Spirit. (2) Son of God - sacrificed for the forgiveness our sins. (3) Holy Spirit - God himself teaches true believers right from wrong. All these facts are found in the Bible - no secret. Helen 2 HOURS AGO God save us from values and behaviour like theirs, (if there is one). 3 LIKE Barb 2 HOURS AGO @Helen Christianity has been the foundation for nearly every law on this planet. And why would you ask God to save you if you don't believe in Him? 4 LIKE David2 HOURS AGO @Barb @Helen Not even a little bit true. The christian laws were derived from what societies and cultures had already established to ensure the success of those societies and cultures. 1 LIKE Russ 43 MINUTES AGO @Barb @Helen Absolute tosh. Every community since the dawn of time has operated within the basic concepts of the ten commandments. Why do people in great pain call to their long dead mothers at times. Barb 3 HOURS AGO Unless someone can give me proof positive that God doesn't exist - I will continue to have faith. My faith, which isn't Catholic, btw, has sustained me through some harrowing times and the deaths of some of the dearest to me over the years. To me, God is personal, and something that I willingly choose to believe in. I don't ram it down anyone's throat or harass them into believing. I figure we are all big enough, and ugly enough, to make our own choices in Life and Dying. I comfort myself in knowing that I will be reunited with my family after my death. 15 LIKE John 2 HOURS AGO @Barb Pretty well sums it up Barb. Well done, you've captured my thoughts exactly. 3 LIKE Paul 2 HOURS AGO @Barb Belief requires no proof; but the facts do. If God exists in reality apart from the mind of man there will be evidence. As there would be for fairies, poltergeists, goblins, elves, magic spells and miracles. Not surprisingly no evidence exists. Absolutely no evidence exists and so one can say absolutely none of these things are facts. They just don't exist. 6 LIKE David 2 HOURS AGO @Paul @Barb Paul, you should ponder on the 2nd law of thermodynamics. There you will find your evidence. 6 LIKE Barb 2 HOURS AGO @Paul @Barb Are you married, Paul? How much "faith" did you have in your marriage? Faith comes in all shapes and forms. Why denigrate others who find comfort, belief and succor in their faith? 5 LIKE Peter 2 HOURS AGO @Barb as an Atheist your first sentence explains why. 1 LIKE Andrew3 HOURS AGO That's all well and good, but is Christianity true? 2 LIKE Barb 2 HOURS AGO @Andrew Can you prove it isn't, though? Jack 2 HOURS AGO If this Man "Christ" was not who he said He was it would be the biggest hoaxes the world has ever known! No other historical human has influenced the world as much as He has. This whole discussion should feature the question," explain what love is?" 2 LIKE Jack 2 HOURS AGO @Andrew What is that is not "true". Christianity exist because of Christ. For those who believe in Christ, Christianity is true. 4 LIKE John 3 HOURS AGO Excellent series Greg. My wife and I are both in our 80th year, met in church as teenagers and married in 1961. Our 2 daughters and their husbands are sound Christians and bringing up their children likewise. We have proved God in many ways, praying that He would lead and guide us in many ways. The miracles of creation and the birth of a child are all proof that there is a God. Faith is real. To believe that everything "just happened " is nonsense, to believe that would need more "faith" than believing in God, the glorious creator. 4 LIKE Greg 2 HOURS AGO Absolutely!! 1 LIKE Scott 3 HOURS AGO I have developed a theory that people believe in God because they are fascinated by their own uniqueness and cannot believe it occurred by chance. Notwithstanding that, I also strongly believe in the Christian ethic. 10 LIKE David 2 HOURS AGO @Scott How do you believe it did occur by chance? Damon 4 HOURS AGO Sheridan should take his preachings to the Catholic Times or some other religious circulation. Most Australians have no interest in this drivel and its actually quite cynical to take advantage of an upcoming election to corner the PM into espousing religious beliefs that I am sure are really nothing more than virtue signaling. On Q&A Turnbull has been quite pointed about not wanting to speak about any beliefs, and quickly ditched the topic after saying "He had a keen interest in theology" like most politicians his position wobbles depending on who the audience might be… 3 LIKE Stephen 3 HOURS AGO @Damon So why did you read the article if you weren't interested? 27 LIKE Chris 2 HOURS AGO @Damon Most Australians aren't interested in your drivel either, is my guess. 2 LIKE Jack 2 HOURS AGO @Damon For those with faith there is no "timing" to talk about God. For them is not cynical to talk about their faith in an upcoming election. God is with us all the time regardless of "actual" events in everyday life. 1 LIKE Damon 2 HOURS AGO @Stephen @Damon Because to form a balanced opinion you need to read both sides of the argument. I recommend you try it, there's no enlightenment in an echo chamber. 1 LIKE Damon 2 HOURS AGO @Chris @Damon I'm not a journalist for The Australian Chris… Damon 2 HOURS AGO @Jack @Damon But it is convenient if you want to try and corner the PM into espousing religiosity. No doubt Sheridan told him if he refused to comment he would get a comment from Tony Abbott. 2 LIKE Wendy 1 HOUR AGO @Damon It's either arrogance or the sign of a weak argument to purport to speak on behalf of most Australians. 2 LIKE Robert 5 HOURS AGO It is sad that grown adults need to rely on 'faith' in some imagined 'higher being'. Yet as an atheist, I have realized that god does exist for those who 'believe' in it. God exists entirely and only in the colorful imagination of the believer. Belief in this fantasy seems to get some people through the trials and tribulations they face in life, others depend on alcohol or drugs or tobacco, etc. as a way of coping. Personally, I find that facing up to reality is the best way of coping. 14 LIKE Matthew 4 HOURS AGO @Robert But you assume your reality is proved 5 LIKE David 4 HOURS AGO @Robert you are so amazing. Robert 1 HOUR AGO @David @Robert Gee thanks David! But I have to say that flattery will get you nowhere! Terry D 1 HOUR AGO Atheists have no imagination when it comes to realising the existence of God. Gentle Will 1 HOUR AGO @Robert. Why do you think that, because other people believe in something that you cut off, that the thing they believe in is a 'fantasy'? Most people who believe have spent many years questioning and testing their own belief. You believe that you are alone in facing up to reality - belief in God does not negate facing reality . It simply gives a dimension to life that is absent if your philosophy of life consists of shopping, or social competition or fast cars and consumer goods. These things seem to work as opiates of some of the masses. However, religion and a belief in God allows the believer to reach inside themselves in every circumstance, both good and bad, to try to dredge up and become the best version of themselves possible. It instills a value in the individual, not because they are rich or good-looking, or a good sportsman, but because they exist. It allows for life to be a journey where the soul can grow. That is my reality - it means that each moment and each encounter is more precious, not less. Robert 55 MINUTES AGO Not really Matthew, but I am supremely confident that the 'reality' assumed by religious believers is nothing more than fanciful nonsense. I totally agree with Christopher Hitchens when he says: "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." And Carl Sagan who said that: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." What more extraordinary claim Matthew, could there be than a claim of the existence of a 'god'? Reality for me, is indisputable something that we (or at least I do) study in physics. Russ38 MINUTES AGO @Terry D Not true, I have a whole thriving herd of Unicorns and absolutely no need to commit babies to "Limbo" Allan36 MINUTES AGO @Terry D Even the Ayatollah of Atheism admits that God could exist. Peter 5 HOURS AGO My idea of hell is a heaven full of politicians. 7 LIKE Garry 2 HOURS AGO @Peter Ever tried it yourself? Might alter your viewpoint somewhat. 1 LIKE Allan 36 MINUTES AGO @Peter Like any other group of people, politicians include the good, the bad and the ugly. Helen 5 HOURS AGO Why does this paper give so much oxygen to this uninteresting subject. Politicians religious beliefs, (even more so if they were sincere), have no need of public airing. 14 LIKE Adam5 HOURS AGO @Helen agree 100%. I think it's the cost of Greg's insightful foreign analysis. 5 LIKE Damon 4 HOURS AGO @Helen Agreed I'm sick of it. 5 LIKE Charmaine 3 HOURS AGO Well, I'm someone who is interested in it. Who are you to say what should be interesting. 17 LIKE Robert 3 HOURS AGO I think we absolutely have a right to know if our politicians are making decisions based on any factor other than the nation's best interests. Helen 2 HOURS AGO @Charmaine their true values are reflected in their actions, enough said! 2 LIKE Hilary 47 MINUTES AGO @Helen I found it very interesting. Allan 35 MINUTES AGO @Helen Uninteresting to you, fascinating to me, and I sure that both of us have our supporters and detractors.

Planetshakers interview and further interviews with Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten, Penny Wong, Kristine Keneally and Mike Baird

Radical obedience
Inside Planetshakers, the Melbourne megachurch where talking in tongues, faith healing and huge crowds are all part of the service.

From The Weekend Australian Magazine July 21st, 2018 8 min read ...

Nicole Yow performs at Planetshakers. Picture: Planetshakers


Nicole Yow strides across the stage, microphone in hand, not so much speaking to the huge crowd at Planetshakers as leading them in a rally of cheers: "Lift your hands right now! Lift your hands because I want to release God into your lives right now. Thank you, Jesus." She pauses, just for a second, walks across the stage again, high energy, high intensity, the music from electric guitars and singers behind her swelling when she pauses, trailing off when she resumes. The auditorium is clothed in darkness; only the stage is lit. Yow's tone rises; she is not shouting, but urgency and insistence ring through her voice. "You know what they say about your generation? They've written you off. What if we were to be radically obedient? Lift your hands now, Planetboom teenagers!"

This is a typical Sunday service at Planetshakers, the biggest Pentecostal church in Melbourne. It has five churches, or campuses, as it calls them, across the city. Most Sundays its combined attendances are about 8000. It has about 15,000 regular members who attend church about once a fortnight.

The city campus at Planetshakers doesn't look like a traditional church. I spend most of a Sunday there and find the place and the people invigorating, full of energy, as friendly as a bowl of punch on a hot afternoon and guilelessly likeable.

Pentecostals, like most Christians, generally get a bad press in the mainstream media these days. They know all about that. They're OK with it, neither too fussed nor too paranoid. They don't want their efforts misunderstood, but their efforts look pretty clear to me. Inscrutability is not a feature commonly associated with Pentecostals. They may sometimes speak in tongues, but when they speak English they make themselves as clear as day. You would have to work hard to misunderstand what the folks at Planetshakers are on about.

Nicole Yow at Planetshakers' city campus. Picture: Julian Kingma


The city campus in Melbourne is a huge converted warehouse. Over the course of several hours I wander around most of it. There is the big, central auditorium, where they have services; a space just in front of the stage where people come forward when they are called or when the Spirit moves them. And hundreds of chairs. Outside the auditorium is a coffee shop and a kiosk selling Planetshakers music and memorabilia. There is a children's playground, a useful and much-patronised resource. Round the corner is a basketball ring; the day I visit a bunch of kids are hanging out with a pastor and shooting hoops. There's also a designated catch-up lounge, and on the other side of the building a music recording studio and a little television studio: Planetshakers posts a lot of spots on YouTube. The band is huge in Christian music, both in Australia and internationally, and from everything I hear that day it's good quality, musically somewhere between upbeat soft pop and rock 'n' roll. If I'd paid good money to go to the service as a rock concert I would have felt it was good value.

I meet both the founder, Pastor Russell Evans, and his collaborator, Pastor Neil Smith. They transformed the building when they took it over, removing - downstairs at least - any accretions of stuffy office-style formality. They emphasised the industrial look: stark, bold, almost Brutalist. But with its huge ceilings and cavernous spaces, combined with busy clusters of activity and lots of people, it doesn't feel unwelcoming. It's a coherent, inner-city aesthetic, but an aesthetic rarely turned to the purposes of God, or at least not to the purposes of God through organised religion. The total staff establishment is around 80, a big workforce for any Christian organisation in Australia. Pentecostalism is the fastest growing branch of Christianity. In its modern form it was originally a movement within evangelical Protestantism. There is now a huge swag of churches that identify denominationally as Pentecostal. There are also Pentecostal traditions within the mainline churches: there is a first cousin in Catholicism, a big, lively and growing "charismatic" movement (charismatic and Pentecostal are almost interchangeable terms; the former connotes a slightly more conservative ambience).

Modern Pentecostalism had the most unlikely roots. It grew out of the Azusa Street Revival at the outset of the 20th century. This was a mixed-race church in Los Angeles led by African-American preacher William Seymour, the son of freed slaves. There were Pentecostal preachers around before Seymour, but he pioneered the new style with its heavy emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the two most controversial being healing and speaking in tongues.

Some 40-odd years ago I attended a couple of Catholic Pentecostal prayer group meetings. They consisted of students or people who had just graduated and I was there mainly out of curiosity, as an observer. Most of the evening was fairly conventional. It ended with tea and bikkies and convivial socialising. But at the start of the meeting, without any particular announcement or signal, all the regular members began to give voice in sounds that were independent but seemed to meld together. They weren't words, yet they contained consonants and vowels. It seemed spontaneous, independent and yet unified. The oddest element of it was that it started off simultaneously, and was conducted mostly at one tone, but then rose a notable tone or two before its cut-off, which was remarkably precise. The nearest sound I could compare it to is that of a symphony orchestra tuning up before the concert begins.

The experience didn't overwhelm me as miraculous, nor did I think it, or my friends, phony in any way. Pentecostals believe speaking in tongues is the Holy Spirit directing them in prayer, that they are given a divine language, that the experience is the Spirit speaking through them. As with most things in the Pentecostal tradition, it is entirely experiential.

I meet Nicole Yow before the service I attend and then speak to her at length afterwards. She is a youth pastor and brims with self-confidence. She was introduced to the church by a friend 12 years ago. "My parents are from Malaysia," she tells me. "I came from an unchurched background - Dad's a Buddhist, Mum's agnostic. I was born in Australia five years after they migrated here. I went to a nominally Christian school but by Year 7, aged 12, I decided I would be an atheist."

A couple of years later she was, she says, trying different things - clubbing, smoking, boys: "I was trying to find something bigger than me. My friends, who were involved in the youth ministry here, kept asking me along. I'd never been to church before. They kept talking about it and I could see how engaged they were. When I came along I thought it was like a rock concert. It was so vibrant, so engaging, so contemporary. It offered a real progressive understanding of what is faith. I made an informed decision [to commit to Christ] three or four months later." What did her parents think? "At the beginning, because I was a teenager, they thought it was just a social activity and might affect my study. At first they didn't realise what it meant for me. But then they saw the impact it had on me, the hope it gave me. Mum's come along to church with me about eight times, Dad about three times. Even though Mum wouldn't say she has a personal faith, she thinks it's a great way to spend your life."

Planetshakers is the biggest Pentecostal church in Melbourne. Picture: Planetshakers


The Planetshakers service I attend has hundreds in the congregation, a mainly young - twenties and thirties - group and predominately of Chinese background. Planetshakers has lots of different groups on the go: Planetboom for high school students and the self-explanatory PlanetUNI and PlanetBusiness. There's work with Syrian refugees, urban-life groups that meet in people's homes, Bible study groups, classes for new Christians, a seemingly endless roster of activities. At the service I attend people bring Christmas gifts for the families, and especially the children, of prisoners in jail. These Planetshakers seem pretty ecumenical.

During the service a short video is played; it features a young man with a painful but certainly not life-threatening ailment experiencing a pretty sudden recovery after prayer. At the end of services people are free to go up the front and talk to Planetshakers pastors, staff or just fellow worshippers, if they wish get help in prayer or counselling or just general empathy.

The whole Pentecostal experience is not only experiential but highly personal. Some people cry, some experience meaningful dreams, some have a sense of peace, some experience help with illness.

The most controversial aspect of Pentecostal practice these days is surely faith healing. In the brilliantly produced and illustrated little book Eternity, which Planetshakers gives to new members, is this rather bold claim: "One of the most incredible and mind-blowing realities of receiving Jesus and the Holy Spirit into your life is that you automatically have the authority and power to operate in the miraculous just as Jesus did when He walked the earth." However, that sentence is balanced to some extent by another, which says: "Though every believer can operate in these gifts to a certain measure, the Holy Spirit gives some the ability to excel in them." In other words, not everyone gets every gift, or not everyone gets every gift to the same extent.

It would be wrong to single out Pentecostals here. Most mainstream Christian denominations believe in the possibility of miraculous cures or just the general efficacy of prayer for the ill, otherwise they wouldn't pray for the sick, and they all do. My sense is that the people here approach the business of faith healing in a responsible way. They believe that people can be healed by God and they offer to pray for people. They are careful in their interactions and always advise people to seek medical attention. Praying for the sick is not the enemy of modern medicine at Planetshakers.

This is certainly a booming, lively, active, growing Christian community. Pentecostals are good at modern stuff partly because they've been doing the modern thing for a long time. When some Christians have tried to make their message culturally relevant, that has meant effectively changing or watering down the message. The Pentecostals, on the other hand, are using the most contemporary techniques imaginable to deliver a traditional message.

John 1 DAY AGO
This is a bit unusual for a mainstream newspaper in 21st century Australia - someone has said something that isn't negative - and perhaps even slightly positive, about Christians. Amazing. 


Christopher 1 DAY AGO
Great commentary, Greg. Good on you for going in there and seeing what it's like for yourself. Christians are good people.


Bill and Chloe Shorten, left, at Wesley Uniting Church in Canberra with Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull in 2016 AAP


Malcolm Turnbull, a convert to Catholicism, avoids talking of his private beliefs in public but has spoken more often than any prime minister of love.
In our interview, he opens up about his private religious beliefs: "Right at the heart of the Christian message is a message of love. Now love itself is a mystery which baffles people in every age. The sort of selfless love of Jesus is even more mysterious. The way I often think of it is that when we love selflessly, that is when we get closest to the divine."

Mr Turnbull also reveals that he loves the tradition and ritual of religion: "The continuity of the tradition of faith and observance is very important. Whenever I am sharing the Eucharist, I reflect on the fact that Christians have been sharing this sacrament for thousands of years in one form or another."

I asked him if he believed in life after death: "Yes, I do. I don't know in what form. Let me turn the question around. Do I believe that literally your life is snuffed out at death and there is absolutely nothing after? No. But what life after death looks like, that truly is a mystery. I guess we'll all find out at some point."


Bill Shorten is also a believing Christian. He converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism when he married his wife, Chloe, but he does not reject his Catholic upbringing.

Like Mr Turnbull, he was at first reluctant to talk about his faith, but in our interview he told me: "I'm very mindful of not trying to appear as a moraliser. How people live their lives is up to them. However, for me personally, my faith has a role in my life and a lot of my values are informed by my faith."

Although the Opposition Leader appreciates the Christian faith his parents gave him, in his childhood he came close to the most evil elements of Christianity: "My parish priest at Sacred Heart, Father Kevin O'Donnell, emerged as a notorious, monstrous paedophile."

This experience did not make him disbelieve in the Christian message: "It didn't make me doubt the values of Christianity, just some of the messengers, and some of the institutional responses. The idea we should love one another - that doesn't change just because you've got people who behave badly or evilly."

Mr Shorten rejected (though didn't criticise) the arguments of atheism: "I know when I watch my children that there's something bigger than each of us individually. I can find scientific explanations of what happens, but when I look at my youngest child I can see that there are deeper intensities at work.

"Love, unconditional love. Gift, the gift of life."


Senator Penny Wong, who worships with the Uniting Church, told me that after the death of her brother, her faith was particularly important to her: "There have been periods when I haven't practised, periods when I haven't prayed. Periods when I've been angry - maybe after my brother's death. But there was no period where I thought I could live without the idea of God. I don't remember ever having the sense that I denied the existence of God."

"When times have been hard, at different times of my life, when I've felt alone or lonely, faith has been important to me. There are also moments of joy when you can feel faith or feel grace."


Her fellow senator Kristina Keneally told me there was a time she felt very angry with God: "I have a stillborn daughter, Caroline. She's my second child. I had this real sense I felt I knew how to have a baby. It hit me very hard. I can remember being very angry with God."

But she never lost her religious belief: "I have maintained belief all my life. I have had plenty of moments of doubt about specific practices. I have complete and utter disagreement with the Catholic Church on some of their teachings.

"But I do believe in the real presence of God in the Eucharist. I do believe that the Bible is divinely inspired. I do believe that the sacraments transmit grace."


Former NSW premier Mike Baird recalled the exact moment, in his teens, when he made a deep, lifelong commitment to Christ: "Two good mates and I were in a Bible group. One of our mates, Jeff, said to us - you blokes just don't understand how much Jesus loves you.

"At first I thought: what's got into him? I accepted it and put it aside. But I started to think about it later.

"A few months later, around a camp fire, I came to accept that Jesus had died for my sins. I accepted him publicly and I haven't looked back since."

Contemporary Australian politicians are extremely reluctant to talk about their private religious beliefs, but in researching my book, which makes the case for religious belief and then seeks to examine the beliefs of a range of Australians, I discovered that our politicians have deep, mostly hidden, interior lives - lives of faith.

Greg Sheridan

** End of article

Move over Hillsong: Meet the new face of Aussie Pentecostalism

He’s a different style of pastor – humble, analytical, intellectual – and seen as an antidote to the excesses of the evangelism movement. Just how big can Mark Varughese and his Kingdomcity congregation become? ...

The Varughese family, from left: Caleb, Jemima, Mark and Zeke.
From The Weekend Australian Magazine
September 16, 2023

The music, already loud, swells – and with it the singing. “Thank you Jesus for the blood applied / Thank you Jesus it has washed me white.”

Two lines of uplifting chorus, then a surging, powerful descant: “Thank you Jesus, you have saved my life!” And the final fall of consolation, though still a little wistful: “Brought me from the darkness into glorious light.”

The chorus is repeated again, and yet again, stronger, harder, louder, more poignant each time. Half a dozen microphone-clutching ­singers, of different racial backgrounds, are on stage, moving and sometimes jumping as they sing, barely able to contain their energy.

Electric guitars, keyboards, drums, then a new verse: “There is nothing stronger than the wonder-working power of the blood. The Blood!” The chorus again, and that powerful descant, rising to a rock opera climax: “Thank you Jesus, you have saved my life!”

It stirs the emotions, as it’s meant to. The ­lyrics appear at the top of the stage backdrop. The visual background, the screen behind the stage, is mostly earth red, with giant crosses to one side, but the screen is also dynamic, vivid, changing, sometimes subdued, sometimes ­exploding, matching the mood of the words.

The insistent repetition has its own power, somehow mixing the effects of a Catholic Hail Mary, a Buddhist mantra, and the roar of a football crowd or rock concert. And maybe something more as well.

I’m attending a Sunday morning service at Kingdomcity, a church in the Pentecostal ­tradition in Perth’s Canning Vale, though the building is more convention centre than gothic cathedral. The soaring music, full of emotion, delivered with intensity and purpose, seeps through all the senses. But it’s just preparation for the main event.

Which is the appearance of Mark ­Varughese, the Malaysian-Australian chief pastor of Kingdomcity, and likely destined to be the new face of Pentecostal Christianity in ­Australia. Varughese neither seeks nor runs away from the term Pentecostal, preferring to describe his church just as “Christian”. But Kingdomcity is something different. Varughese started it from scratch in Malaysia and it now has branches, or “campuses”, in 34 locations across 15 countries, and a regular membership of some 40,000 people.

Varughese, 48, a big man blessed with a strong bass voice, is not your grandfather’s ­Pentecostal pastor. He was once a successful Perth lawyer, he has a commerce degree, and he left Australia in 2006 on a one-way ticket to start his first church in Kuala Lumpur.

At first appearance the service at Kingdomcity is much of the usual razzle dazzle of Pentecostalism, in the music and the visuals and the all-round production values, but it’s a bit ­different too. It’s just a bit more traditional. It starts with the Lord’s Prayer. Varughese’s ­lesson, his preaching that day, focuses on God’s forgiveness. He’s a dynamic preacher, his ­lesson ­reaching a declarative climax: “You are ­forgiven! You are forgiven! You are forgiven!” But it’s also a theologically substantial sermon, with key Biblical verses unpacked.

So what is Pentecostalism – and how is ­Varughese different, and significant? Modern Pentecostalism began with a revival movement in Los Angeles in 1906, led by an ­impoverished black preacher in a small, multiracial church. It grew out of previous holiness movements, but was genuinely something new. It bases itself on the idea of the power of the Holy Spirit (the third person of the Christian trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit), the ­continuing presence of the Holy Spirit in the world, and especially the gifts of the Holy Spirit, among them healing the sick, prophecy, knowledge, speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues.

Pentecostals are often mocked, but they can hardly be ignored: they’ve gone from a standing start in 1906 to some 650 million followers worldwide today. In Western societies, including Australia, they are the only substantial branch of Christianity that is expanding, and they are the fastest growing version of ­Christianity worldwide. Their style is one of ­intense personal experience of God, strong human relationships within their churches, brilliant music and wildly energetic, high-gloss social media. Their success seems to arise from the depth of experience they offer worshippers – the hope for a better life in the here and now, as well as in eternity – and in the strongly ­involved communities they develop.

Varughese and his colleagues don’t leave everything to heaven or providence. Kingdomcity has 12 people working on its social media team, three in Perth alone (out of some 250 employees worldwide, with 70-odd in Perth). It ­produces 40,000 individual pieces of social media content per year. Some form of its ­content is seen on average 48 million times around the world each week. In the past 12 months, the name Kingdomcity figured on ­social media 2.5 billion times, with 507,000 ­followers across its 100 social media accounts. It values people who follow it only online but it also “converts” much social media contact into physical church attendance.

As with other religious groups, Pentecostals (though not Kingdomcity) have had their share of scandals. Until recently the biggest Pentecostal brand in Australia was Sydney’s Hillsong, which was once a huge international movement. It has endured revelations that Frank Houston (who died in 2004), the father of Hillsong founder Brian Houston, was a ­sexual predator and pedophile. Brian Houston was charged with covering up his father’s crimes, but was acquitted on this charge.

Hillsong also suffered from accusations that Brian Houston had engaged in lavish expenditure on private jets and the like. There have also been sexual misconduct scandals involving ­ pastors at some of Hillsong’s international affiliates. It has suffered a significant loss of people attending its services in Australia, and some of Hillsong’s international affiliate churches have cut ties with it. Nonetheless Hillsong remains a substantial church denomination in its own right. Its troubles have hurt the broad ­Pentecostal brand, although it’s not formally affiliated with Australian Christian Churches, the successor to the Assemblies of God, the ­national Pentecostal body.

This has all been a serious setback for Pentecostals, but it’s wrong to judge any movement just by its isolated scandals, or its most unsympathetic media moments.

Not only that, Pentecostalism itself is changing. It recognises its weaknesses. It’s becoming sturdier, putting on more intellectual muscle – achieving a depth of ­learning to match, at least a little, its legendary emotional power.

Enter Varughese, the very embodiment of all these changes. He’s a different style of pastor, though his personal story is filled with radical life decisions and what he considers to be direct encounters with God. But he also has an analytical lawyer’s brain. It’s a distinctive combination.

His life has taken some strange turns and he often didn’t know what was coming next, hence the title of his witty, at times self-deprecatory memoir, Ready, Fire! Aim. His mother was Anglican and his father a member of a conservative Indian branch of Christianity. He was nine when they arrived in Perth; the family started attending a local Assemblies of God Pentecostal church, which held services on a badminton court, simply because it was their nearest church. It was strange for the ­Varugheses, but young Mark liked it. Before ­experiencing ­Pentecostalism, he’d felt differently about God and church: “My perception of God growing up was, he’s a little scary. He’s definitely sovereign. Probably very powerful. But a long way off. One day when I die I’ll meet him.”

The old traditional church services he had previously attended meant, for him, that “you sort of inhale for two hours, tolerate the service and then finally go back to real life. It’s a ­religious duty kind of thing”. The Pentecostal church was different. “It’s a bit more relaxed. Everyone seems to be having fun. But what really captivated me was the ­pastor. He talked about God like he knew him. I didn’t know God can be intimate or involved with your life. That set off a bit of a bomb in me. I thought I better get to know God. I’d rather meet him on this side.”

I’m chatting with Varughese over a long ­weekend in Perth, sandwiched for him between engagements in Kuala Lumpur and Auckland. We have lunch on Saturday, attend a series of church services together on Sunday (at one of which he asks me about my own books on Christianity), and sit down for an interview for several hours on Monday. Like a lot of Pentecostals, he has a big engine and he’s on fire to talk about God. But he has his urbane and self-mocking side, too.

One day, aged about 12, he made a commitment to God. Shortly afterwards, he was in church where a woman was preaching; she looked over to ­Varughese and told him that God wanted to ‘fill him with the spirit’ and then she prayed for him. “I thought, ‘If it’s weird don’t let it touch me’,” ­Varughese says. But he fell to the floor and for 45 minutes, as he recalls, he was speaking in tongues. Pentecostals believe speaking in tongues is the Holy Spirit speaking through them, a way of praying without using normal words. There’s plenty about it in the Acts of the Apostles and in Paul’s letters (some of it cautionary) but it’s not common in other Christian denominations, unless they have Pentecostal or “charismatic” branches.

What it was like? “It was the most strange but life-giving personal experience. I had not experienced anything like it before, because I didn’t come from that background. It was like someone turned the tap on. I didn’t have to do anything. I was on the floor. I could feel this, like, waves of liquid, or waves of something, some substance. I was mumbling but I didn’t want to be too loud because I didn’t want to be embarrassed. At the same time, it was so overwhelming. I didn’t want it to stop. If God chooses to make me look like a fool for a few minutes, but I get him in the exchange, it’s worth it. In my mind I did the trade. At some point I got up, but for a day or two or three I could feel this presence. It’s hard to explain to anyone. I couldn’t even explain it to my family.”

God doesn’t require human advice about what he should do, Varughese believes, but God has nonetheless commissioned people to pray: “God doesn’t need us, he can do it all by himself, but he chose to partner with humanity, for some reason that still mystifies me. [Speaking in tongues] sort of liberates and bypasses your mind, but your spirit comes alive, something inside you.”

Varughese stayed active in his church all through his teens, though he had the normal teen ups and downs. A pastor in another church asked Varughese to come to his church and do some volunteer work. Two years later, the ­pastor, Neil Smith, asked him to join the church staff. By this time Varughese, the apple of his parents’ eyes, was a successful lawyer.

“The pastor asked me, would I give up my career. I think that’s the biggest decision I ever made. Five years of study at university, five years of career, you’re finally starting to hit some straps. To give that up, to work for a third of your old salary. I had a house with a mortgage. The bank doesn’t understand the call of God or faith. I still had to pay the mortgage, so I got some tenants and we made it work.”

It was a shock to his parents, who had the ­normal Asian values of study, hard work, career advancement. Varughese has 41 first cousins, mostly professional people. He jokes he’s never had to pay a medical bill. But his father’s advice was simple: If you’re going to become a pastor, make sure you’re a good one.

Varughese worked for the church for three years and they weren’t entirely happy years. He was looking perhaps for a more intense version of the spiritual experience he found in church. Instead, endless administrative tasks and the like, while not objectionable, didn’t offer the same uplift: “That [three years] probably messed me up more than anything else, not because the leaders were bad people, but it exposed my issues. The best way I can frame it is, I love the restaurant but I don’t like the kitchen. It’s ­illogical to think of the kitchen as a nicer, more polite version of the restaurant. In fact, a crazy kitchen is the key to a really good restaurant.”

So after three years, he decided to quit. It was a bit late to go back to his law firm, so he thought he might do an MBA, maybe travel. He’d bought a map of the world and sometimes just stared at it.

He told his pastor how he felt. “Neil was kind enough to say to me, I’m going to have some meetings with some friends at the Gold Coast, come with me and sit through them, pretend to be interested, essentially. And then we’ll go and ride some roller-coasters on the Gold Coast. Neil was thinking maybe I should go back to KL [Kuala Lumpur] for a short while, go back to my roots, enjoy the food – reset myself and come back to the staff position at church. I was open, I wasn’t closed to it, but I just felt like, ‘I’m done’.”

Varughese was sitting quietly on the outer edge of the meeting when one of the senior ­pastors asked him to share what was in his heart. Suddenly Varughese, not especially lachrymose by nature, found himself on the floor crying. “I had that encounter with God. It was so overwhelming and it was very clear in my heart.

“God was saying to me, go to Malaysia and start a church. And I’m thinking – are you kidding?”

“This is my internal conversation. I’m weeping, not because he’s shown me a ­vision of thousands of people worshipping or anything like that. You know how confused I am then? Three years previously I thought I could make a difference. But now I’m done, I feel like I’ve got zero to contribute, I feel ­unqualified, disqualified.”

Nonetheless, Varughese then sold his house, bought a one-way ticket to Kuala Lumpur on a tourist visa, stayed with his aunty and set up a church, initially meeting in the apartment of a friend of a friend. He was reversing everything his parents had done in migrating and giving him a legal education. “My parents were ­thinking, ‘Well, he’s officially lost it’.

His first innovation was to buy noodles to feed people who came to his church: “The first year of the church was interesting. It wouldn’t matter what I preached or said, all they ­wanted to know after the service was: why did you quit the law, why did you leave Australia? Because they’re all trying to get their kids ­educated and migrated.”

He had to leave KL every three months ­because that’s how long Australians get on a tourist visa. After two and a half years his old pastor from Perth rang and asked him to come back and lead his church (the old pastor was going to eastern Australia). Varughese said no, he’d come to KL after an encounter with God. He had built his church up to 300. He wasn’t going to leave on a phone call.

But church leaders in several Asian cities had asked Varughese to come and lead a church. The Perth pastor persisted. He and the other leaders felt Varughese was the one to lead their church. Why not lead both? So finally Mark Varughese and his newly pregnant wife, Jemima, did just that.

The Mark and Jemima romance itself was like no other. In 2006, Jemima visited his church in KL on a mission trip with other Christians. Though he noticed she was beautiful, she made no special impression on him. Jemima, though, went home convinced she had met her future husband and felt she received signs from God confirming this. Next year she went back to KL on another mission trip. Aware that she’d travelled so far, he invited her to have a coffee at a local Starbucks. At first he didn’t feel anything very strong, but then a voice in his head said: This is your wife. So, without any warning, he shocked himself by saying: “I feel like I’m having coffee with my wife.” He couldn’t believe he’d said it, and worried it might sound like a gross pick-up line from a sleazy pastor. But she replied: “I think you are having coffee with your wife.” And a few months later they married.

Taking on the leadership of a church in Perth and continuing simultaneously to lead his church in KL led to a crazy travel schedule. He and Jemima would spend three months in KL, then three months in Perth. But every month, wherever he was, Varughese would travel to the other city for eight days, including two Sundays. So on a four-week rotation he could preach at each church in each city two Sundays out of four.

He had a strict mental proviso that if either church suffered, he would relinquish one. But they both grew, especially after he organised, in 2013, for a group of Perth church leaders to spend time in KL, for the two halves of Kingdomcity to get to know each other. Since then, Kingdomcity has grown and grown. Sometimes it has “planted” churches intentionally, on a plan. Sometimes it adopts existing churches that want to be part of it. At other times, particular church members came to Varughese with a passion for a particular city.

Varughese and his wife chose the name Kingdomcity for their church because their mission was to bring the Kingdom of God to the cities where they ­established churches. They also wanted the two dimensions of life, life in God’s Kingdom and life in the city, to be ­melded. One student from Botswana had been ­attending Kingdomcity in KL for five years, and wanted to take the same spirit back home. When Varughese visited South Africa, this student took a 26-hour bus ride just to see him. This led to Kingdomcity establishing itself in Botswana, which led to Zambia. Kingdomcity now has churches in several Malaysian cities, in Indonesia, Singapore and Cambodia, in several African cities, in London and in Sydney and Hobart. About a quarter of its congregation ­volunteer in some capacity, from welcoming ­arrivals to Bible study and prayer groups, ­fundraising, organising the worship and a ­thousand other tasks.

At the Sunday morning service I attend there are 900-odd folks. New people are invited to come down the front for the church while the rest pray for them. They’re also invited, individually, to meet in the “connect lounge” where I later see church staff members and volunteers talking at length to new families. I have a chance to mingle with the worshippers as they linger for coffee after the service. There are lots of Africans, ethnic Chinese, many with strong accents, South Asians, lots of others.

An early critic of Christianity, the second-century Greek philosopher Celsus, dismissed it as a religion “of slaves, and women and little children”. There are no slaves at Canning Vale, but nor is it Perth’s power elite. It embodies Christian universalism, it’s as ethnically diverse as any function I’ve been to in Australia.

There is a strong move for Varughese to take the leadership of the Australian Christian Churches, which would make him the senior national Pentecostal spokesman. Famously, former Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a ­Pentecostal Christian, the first Pentecostal to lead an OECD nation. Although his religion was not noticeably an electoral plus for Morrison, on balance it surely helped Pentecostalism enter more firmly into the mainstream.

I ask Varughese about the need perhaps for more intellectual ballast in the Pentecostal movement. He replies: “I don’t believe we should remove our mind. The Bible tells us we should renew our mind. We’re not called to be brainless, experiential people that have no logic or connection to fact. But at the same time, if you elevate your intellect to the point where it is the sole determinant of everything spiritual, if you believe your intellect is your point of safety from deception, you’re already deceived because your intellect is not supposed to be that.

“(Intellect) is a brilliant servant but a terrible master. Christianity is called faith. There’s logic in it, but logic can’t explain everything.”

This reflects a wider mood swing in Pentecostalism. Some years ago, the Pentecostal movement changed its old Bible college in Sydney’s Parramatta into Alphacrucis college. Last year it officially became a university college, on its way to becoming a fully fledged university. It has nearly 4000 students and offers degrees, ranging from Bachelors through to Masters and Doctorates, across its main areas of teaching and research – business, education, theology and ministry. That’s a lot of Pentecostals with PhDs.

Stephen Fogarty, the principal at Alphacrucis, is frank in telling me about its purposes and the need for its higher ambitions: “We’ve been an increasing share of a diminishing Christian pie in Australia. We’re good at evangelisation, full of enthusiasm, but we’ve been pretty juvenile in our theology at times. You’ll see more people now with a deeper understanding, more reflective. God the Holy Spirit has breathed life on us. I hope God continues to trust us.”

What about the controversial “prosperity gospel”, the idea that some pastors get paid too much, or that some members donate money to the church in exchange for a good life from God? Says Varughese: “The pastor should be able to have his faith funnelled into the direction of helping people, not ‘How am I going to feed my wife?’ Pastors should live like the people they lead. The error is always in the ­excess. The pendulum swings from the vow of poverty to, ‘How many private jets have I got’. The middle ground is generally safest. What I do object to is some of the unfortunate excesses we see not just in America but in other parts of the world.”

What about regular church ­members giving in order to get? ­Varughese identifies three main reasons people give: one, as an act of principle because that’s how a Christian should live; that kind of giving, he says, is mandated for Christians in Scripture. Secondly, people give when aroused by a specific cause. And thirdly, people give in part to seek reward: “The problem is it looks a lot more selfish. But you also have to cut out a good bit of the Bible to pretend that God is not a rewarder. God says: I will deliberately reward those who seek me. There’s promises in the Word. The problem, again, is excess. If all you care about is the ­reward, and you give to get, you’re going to get out of kilter and get into some serious problems.”

Here sociology is with Varughese. The sociological evidence is overwhelming that, ­statistically, people with a religious belief, who attend worship regularly, tend to be generally happier, healthier and suffer less social ­dysfunction than others. And it makes sense: if you try to be sober, diligent, respectful, loving, have a higher purpose and value family, you probably will do a bit better in life.

I spend some time at Kingdomcity with Rob Ahern, who runs the church’s social media. Though not from a Christian family, he’d been sporadically attending a Baptist church when in 2014 a friend brought him to Kingdomcity: “I was impacted by an audiovisual display, it was emotional, it was cinematic, I couldn’t believe a church could do that. I felt I just need to get involved with that.” It would be easy to scoff at someone being converted by an audiovisual display. But Christians have from earliest times believed that beauty points to truth. That’s why, down the centuries, so many conversions of the heart have taken place inside majestic cathedrals. Ahern’s brief is to spread Kingdomcity’s message via social media. He uses most social media platforms, though not TikTok. The idea is to help people learn about God, experience worship music, view or even virtually attend church services, and perhaps forge a connection with Kingdomcity itself.

Varughese understands the multitude of ways people can find God, and God can find people: “The Government can do whatever it likes. God will still find a way to build his church. It’s just the reality of God. People crave peace and purpose. Having a faith that gives you both peace and purpose, most people would give their arm and leg for that. The journey of knowing God is way more exhilarating than religion is sometimes painted to be.”

Greg Sheridan visited Perth as a guest of Kingdomcity

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