The Prime Minister is promoting not only the importance of protecting religious freedom but also the value of political signalling ahead of the election.
As he introduced the government’s religious discrimination bill, the Prime Minister proudly declared it another example of “the Australian way”. There’s no doubting his personal commitment to protecting the rights of “people of faith”, defending the need for the bill with evangelical fervour.
But there’s also no doubting the political instincts in his determination to take the lead on delivering on this particular commitment ahead of the election – right down to bringing the bill into Parliament himself.
Scott Morrison: “In our democracy we rightly divide church from state, that is an important liberty. But we do not separate faith from community.” Alex Ellinghausen
“Human beings are more than our physical selves. As human beings, we are also soul and spirit. We are also, importantly, what we believe,” Morrison told Parliament. “The protection of what we choose to believe in a free society is essential to our freedom.
“In our democracy we rightly divide church from state, that is an important liberty. But we do not separate faith from community.”
Reactions ranging from outright hostility to scepticism – including from moderate Liberal MPs – only buttress his belief it will help the Coalition in crucial marginal seats, particularly in outer suburban electorates with high levels of ethnic voters.
Morrison describes the bill as a shield rather than a sword but his justification is typically combative.
“To so many Australians, religion is inseparable to their culture,” he said. “They are one and the same. To deny protection from discrimination for their religious beliefs is to tear at the very fabric of multiculturalism in this country.”
It’s another example of how attempts to codify what Morrison calls a ’culturally accept norm’are always going to invite furious dispute.
The majority of the Australian population are still unlikely to change their vote on this issue and for millions it’s just another bizarre political distraction. But for those who do care, it’s an important signal of government intent, for better or worse.
Labor is treading cautiously in its approach, with Anthony Albanese also determined to avoid a repeat of the 2019 campaign. The Prime Minister’s acknowledgment of his faith – and TV images of him worshipping at church – resonated with many religious voters. It contrasted with a common perception of disinterest or antagonism from modern Labor.
And naturally Morrison is also keen to take more general aim at the multiplying instances of illiberal overreach and bullying in the era of “identity politics”, cancel culture and social media pile-ons.
“Australians shouldn’t have to worry about looking over their shoulder, fearful of offending an anonymous person on Twitter, cowardly sitting there, abusing and harassing them for their faith, or transgressing against political or social zeitgeists,” he declared.
“We have to veer away from the artificial, phoney conflicts, boycotts, controversies and cancelling created by anonymous and cowardly bots, bigots and bullies.”
Not that this bill will do much to prevent this in practice. Nor will it be of practical assistance to moderate Liberal MPs – typically in inner suburban seats – several of whom are under assault from independents.
Morrison clearly figures the trade-off is worth the risk given so many of the critics won’t be voting for the Coalition anyway. But for Liberal MPs such as Dave Sharma in Wentworth, Trent Zimmerman in North Sydney and Katie Allen in Higgins, the bill becomes another delicate issue to negotiate in increasingly “progressive” electorates.
They must also acknowledge the awkward comparison between the government’s pursuit of religious freedom legislation with reluctance to force progress on another 2019 election commitment – a federal anti-corruption commission. Tasmanian Liberal MP Bridget Archer even voted for an independent’s bill for this on Thursday.
It’s why moderate MPs want protections for gay or transgender students dealt with simultaneously rather than left for another review by the Australian Law Reform Commission. That’s political whistling in the wind.
As convenient cover, the Prime Minister prefers to insist nothing in the religious freedom legislation will allow for any form of discrimination against a student due to their sexuality or gender identity.
“You won’t find it, anything of that nature in this bill. Such discrimination has no place in our education system,” he insisted.
But having dropped the most contentious clause – named after rugby player Israel Folau – the Prime Minister wants to avoid stirring up his conservative ranks with further concessions. The Folau drama erupted in 2019 after Rugby Australia sacked Folau for posting dire biblical warnings of hell awaiting drunks, homosexuals and adulterers among others.
The 68-page compromise allows a “statement of belief” but excludes protection for those a reasonable person considers “would threaten, intimidate, harass or vilify”. That sounds more like a legal quagmire, including for employers.
It’s another example of how attempts to codify what the Prime Minister calls a “culturally accepted norm” and to “balance freedom with responsibility” are always going to invite furious dispute about what’s in and out. But he will stress the government’s moderate, reasonable approach.
The bill seems likely to go to a Senate committee for review. But the Prime Minister sounds eager to bring on a vote ahead of the election, hoping to sharpen differences with Labor and foment internal party divisions within the opposition rather than only the Coalition.
That also provides another area for disagreement with premiers in overriding state anti-discrimination bills. The Victorian government plans to severely limit an exemption allowing schools to make religion a condition of teacher employment.
Morrison performs best with an agenda to defend and the policy cupboard at the end of 2021 looks pretty bare.
“The Commonwealth has a Sex Discrimination Act, a Racial Discrimination Act, a Disability Discrimination Act and an Age Discrimination Act,” he said.
“However, there is no standalone legislation to protect people of religion, or faith, against discrimination. Or indeed for those who choose not to have a faith or religion. The Religious Discrimination Bill 2021, will fix this.”
And, he hopes, help propel him into 2022 and another come-from-behind election fix.
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