Religious freedom will be one of the hot button issues in federal politics during 2020. The others will include the economy, China, climate change and the environment, aged care, border security and terrorism, and people with disabilities. Religious freedom appears to stand out as a curious case of misplaced government priorities given there is little evidence that most Australians consider their religious freedom under threat compared to the community's grave concern about these other issues.
Some background explains how this situation has dragged on since 2017 despite the independent Ruddock review.
The place of religious Australians as well as those who are not religious is protected under s.116 of the Australian Constitution which provides for equal protection from and for religion. That constitutional provision and the generally unproblematic character of Australian society has since maintained that balance.
The High Court has done very little business interpreting s.116, much of it to do with minor elements of Christianity, including Jehovah's Witnesses. When the court did take on a major issue in the Defence of Government Schools (DOGS) case it reached a conclusion which protected government financial support for faith-based schools. The DOGS attempt to cut off funding from non-government schools was rejected by a clear majority of the High Court.
Political developments also meant that the faith-based Christian sector of the community did comparatively well. Tax exemptions for church income and property and exemption from full compliance with the regulations of the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profit Commission protected the sector. Exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation at the state level also protected the sector from the unwelcome intrusion of challenging social values like inclusiveness.
The Christian sector fought its own massive internal battles. Sectarian conflict between the big denominations, including Roman Catholics and Protestants, became a distinguishing and damaging feature of Australian society. But the Christian community generally did well vis-à-vis others.
Christian values enshrined in law did much less well as the social reforms of the 1960s onwards took place. What is often called the Judaeo-Christian framework unravelled under pressure from new social movements campaigning on reform of divorce, abortion, gender, euthanasia and sexuality regulations. That is still taking place as legislation about euthanasia and abortion is approved by state parliaments to bring about reform to the status quo. Same-sex marriage legislation in 2017-18 was a landmark moment in which the conservative mainstream churches lost once again.
Inevitably these social, cultural and religious battles have also been fought out within the major political parties. For 60 years, aided by a split, the Labor Party has moved steadily towards becoming a largely secular party with only a rump of more conservative religiously motivated MPs. The Greens have moved further in the same direction to become the most secular party.
Similar battles have been fought in the Coalition parties and, reflecting the more secular character of urban Australia, divisions have been greatest within the Liberal Party. There are many progressive secular Liberals, but its public image, as well as the party majority, remains more conservative. Civil war exists within the Coalition on issues with a broadly religious-moral character and the Nationals remain the more conservative of the two Coalition parties. The tortured progress of debate about same-sex marriage within the Coalition during the Abbott and Turnbull years demonstrated such internal conflicts.
The conservative religious establishment is making a last stand against what it sees as death by a thousand small cuts on a range of individual moral/religious issues.
During this time the Coalition was heavily lobbied by conservative church leaders, but the conservative coalition for extreme freedom of religion laws is itself unstable. A conservative-progressive civil war is also going on within the mainstream churches themselves. The "voices of the faithful" are often divided and conservative church leaders are also fighting doubters within their own ranks. A serious question exists over just who these conservative church leaders represent. Their own congregations, though reinforced by recent immigrants, are still shrinking and conservative leadership campaigns are challenged from within.
Undoubtedly Prime Minister Scott Morrison's public persona as an enthusiastic Pentecostal Christian reassures conservative elements in the wider community which back the Coalition over Labor. Both sides of politics agree that some parts of the 'faith community', especially those associated with recent immigrant communities, distrust Labor on cultural/religious issues. Western Sydney is one geographical focus of such distrust. This conclusion was reinforced by the recent Labor Party election review conducted by Craig Emerson and Jay Wetherell.
This means that the conservative position within political parties can be advocated not just on the grounds of principle but also of electoral expediency. This is a powerful weapon if it can be shown to win votes in enough swinging electorates to make a difference - as it appears to have done in May this year.
Nevertheless, at face value, the freedom of religion issue still seems to be a case of misplaced political priorities when viewed just as a single substantive issue.
Its high priority makes more sense when viewed in a wider context as a big symbolic issue. The conservative religious establishment is making a last stand against what it sees as death by a thousand small cuts on a range of individual moral/religious issues. In its view secularism has made a triumphant long march through society. It feels isolated, aggrieved and defensive and is now determined to fight back.
Whether they will be successful is doubtful. They might win a battle or two, including this one, but they probably won't win the whole war as the historical tide in Australia and the western world is against them. If they do prevail in 2020 on the freedom of religion issue it may be at great cost to the government and its allies when the wider society reacts.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University