I watched with interest the discussion last week over the role of religious representatives on the Education and Families Committee, and it seems that the characterisation of the role of the religious representatives is either misunderstood or being deliberately misrepresented.
The officials’ report to the council referred to the appointment of the religious representatives as being about inclusion and reflecting the make-up of the community.
There are various arguments voiced about the presence of religious representatives, and so we cannot characterise all opposition as the same, but there is almost a “scatter-gun” approach that if people throw enough different arguments against something, there will be something there which everyone will cling on to.
I have heard phrases such as “subverting democracy” and “hidden agenda” and “undue influence” used to describe the role of religious representatives, but this is a mischaracterisation. I had the privilege of serving as a religious representative (and I still hate that title) for 10 years over the course of the last two councils, and I would challenge anyone to point to any instance where this has actually been the case.
At the start of the last council, I was asked to provide a brief biography and general statement about how I saw the role of the religious representatives. In it I said that it was not – in my opinion – the role of religious representatives to initiate or direct overall policy, or to act as an “opposition”, or to push any sectarian agenda. I said that it was our role to support the elected councillors and officials, sometimes bringing a different perspective to an issue, or raise a point that had not been considered.
The religious representatives do have some advantages which makes their contributions worthwhile: they often have a wide set of contacts throughout Shetland from many different backgrounds; they are not bound by a set of promises or policies they made when being elected; and they can say what they really think without worrying what that will mean for their re-election prospects.
I am disheartened that the more vocal opponents of religious representatives have never actually wanted to speak to me about it over the last ten years, and in fact many of whom have never sat through an entire Education and Families Committee to see how it works in practice.
There are many challenges facing the Shetland community at the moment, and when I talk with people, they talk about the ferry problems, or affordable housing, or getting to see a dentist. I have yet to have anyone mention the role of religious representatives on the Education and Families Committee as a concern.
We should all support the council policy on inclusion and diversity, and this does not have to be limited to the presence of religious representatives of the Education and Families Committee. The role of the MSYPs on the Education and Families Committee is only relatively recent, and I think is a great first step in a positive direction.
The biggest threat to any democracy is disengagement, and so any initiative which seeks to broaden participation and representation can only be a good thing.