OPINION

Why the PM is shutting up about the culture wars in this campaign

Election campaigns are deeply weird things, involving whirlwind travel, sausage sizzles, the wearing of chinos, and the mild traumatisation of any baby who finds herself in the path of a politician.

Under the weary gaze of the nation, Prime Minister and Opposition Leader must appear energised but not hubristic, natural and yet leaderly, easygoing but ready to attack the slightest mistake made by the other.

We are being told a story about how each leader is, underneath all the politics, a family man. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

We are being told a story about how each leader is, underneath all the politics, a family man. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

It is the time when the leaders want to convince us how normal they are, coming at us live from just about the most abnormal setting possible.

This election campaign, both Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten seem to be lunging for a daggy backyard-cricket dad persona - the kind of man who owns a dress set of cargo shorts for Sunday barbecues, and who refers to his wife as "the boss".

Wives are being deployed, occasionally children, and we are told a story about how each leader is, underneath all the politics, the best kind of man: a family man.

Morrison cooks curries, Shorten packs school lunches.

The huge stretches of time politicians spend away from home go unmentioned.

As part of this normal suburban dad rebranding, culture war issues are dropped, and anything likely to excite moral controversy is avoided.

Note how Morrison, a deeply religious social conservative, this week re-committed to passing laws protecting LGBTI schoolkids from discrimination if re-elected.

This is something he promised previously, following the review into religious freedom led by former MP Philip Ruddock, which itself was a political make-up to the conservative forces within the Coalition so roundly defeated in the same-sex marriage postal survey.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten with wife Chloe, son Rupert (centre) and daughter Georgette with her boyfriend Pat (left) arrive during a visit to the Salvation Army's Lighthouse Cafe in Melbourne on Good Friday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten with wife Chloe, son Rupert (centre) and daughter Georgette with her boyfriend Pat (left) arrive during a visit to the Salvation Army's Lighthouse Cafe in Melbourne on Good Friday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Morrison said the reason his government hadn't legislated yet for the LGBTI students was because Shorten had refused to allow a conscience vote on the issue (something that the Coalition party room would surely still insist on).

"We were trying to do that," he told the Herald's Michael Koziol on Wednesday.

"We have our response to the Ruddock report and we'll follow that through."

But Morrison's promise was lightly made.

In fact, when the government announced its response to the religious freedom review in December last year, the recommended legal changes to remove religious schools' ability to expel LGBTI kids were kicked down the road.

The Prime Minister had pledged to enact them before the election, but instead the reforms were referred to an inquiry by the Australian Law Reform Commission, which is not expected to report back before the end of this year.

Morrison also promised to create a new role of "Freedom of Religion Commissioner" within the Australian Human Rights Commission even though Ruddock specifically said it was unnecessary as the existing Human Rights Commissioner can handle religious matters.

Morrison was strident in his advocacy for religious freedom measures around the same-sex marriage debate. He said there was "no more fundamental liberty that any human being has" than the right to practise one's faith.

His own electorate of Cook voted 55 per cent in favour of same-sex marriage, but Morrison abstained from the parliamentary vote, after proposing amendments to protect the teaching of "traditional marriage" in religious schools and organisations.

Morrison, whose political instincts are Howard-esque in their sharpness, knows this is one subject he has to drop to improve his government's chances of re-election.

Take his comments on controversial homophobic footballer Israel Folau, who is deeply religious.

When Folau first denounced gay people in April 2018, Morrison (then treasurer) said Folau was a "good man", and that he had "shown a lot of strength of character in just standing up for what he believes in and I think that's what this country is about".

But more recently, when Folau took to Instagram to proclaim hell awaits homosexuals (among a long list of other types of people, including several this column identifies with), Morrison whistled a different tune.

"I thought they were terribly insensitive comments and obviously that was a matter for the RA and they've taken that decision," he said.

It was a much more prime ministerial approach, and one designed to neuter the issue. Since 2013, the Coalition government, under its myriad prime ministers, has spent huge amounts of time fomenting public debate, some of it highly divisive, on culture wars issues.

It started with Abbott's attempts to change the Racial Discrimination Act, and ended with the religious freedoms review.

In between we had romps through "disrespect" for Australia Day, the spectacle of young Muslim-Australian Yassmin Abdel-Magied being run out of the country after a disgraceful bullying campaign led by some Coalition MPs, and liberal amounts of Captain Cook fetishisation.

Much of these debates was unnecessary, out of keeping with mainstream Australian values, and irrelevant to people trying to go about their daily lives.

Now, during the campaign, where the effort to appear "normal" and mainstream is paramount, we won't hear a word of any of this stuff.

So next time a politician tries to tell you they are raising a debate about Australia Day/boat people/Muslim integration because ordinary Australians care about it, maintain scepticism.

If they really thought that, they would raise such issues when ordinary Australians have their ears pricked up, in readiness to pass judgment at the ballot box.

  • SMH/The Age
This story Why the PM is shutting up about the culture wars in this campaign first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.