The courage and tactics of Anthony Albanese over the religious bigotry bill were clearly superior to those of Scott Morrison. If there was any doubt about that it was dissipated by the government's decision to abandon the bill rather than to chance its arm over numbers in the Senate, and the fury of the fundamentalist lobbies when they announced they would rather not have their freedom of religion legislated for in the form that Labor, independents and a number of religious moderates wanted.
Labor achieved this while always insisting that it was in broad favour of the idea of legislating a right to ban discrimination on the grounds of religion - in a manner similar to other anti-discrimination law. Indeed, Albanese said, Labor had been in favour of Morrison's originally announced formula, and if it now wanted amendments, particularly so as to prohibit discrimination based on gender, that was because Morrison had considerably narrowed his promise that the legislation would not allow the expulsion of school students on the grounds of sexuality or gender.
Morrison overreached, and retrieved nothing by promising that he would, if re-elected, review the position of transgender students in the first six months of the new term. It's possible that the promise reduced the number of Liberals who crossed the floor in opposition to the discrimination clause, apparently on the basis that a net advance in the rights of homosexuals was worth a temporary suspension of equivalent rights for transgender children. But he did not satisfy all of the Liberal moderates - who ended up voting for a formula that significantly enhances the rights of gay and transgender people, at school or otherwise, and which may effectively prevent discrimination against gay and transgender teachers and others working in religiously bigoted schools and institutions.
It is not the first time in Australia that religious organisations seeking to reduce rights for others have shot themselves in the foot. While it is true that anti-abortionists in the United States have been very successful in state legislatures and in the courts in reining in the right to abortion, those who have moved to restrict abortion laws in Australia have almost invariably ended up being the direct cause of legislation which has widened and entrenched a woman's right to choose. Those opposed to that right in Australia do not have open to them the constitutional pathways, or the partisan courts, that exist in the US.
Morrison's abject defeat on the issue joined with other humiliations during yet another week in which the luck never ran his way, and during which his moral authority and standing in his party and the electorate continued to decline.
The week before an anonymous cabinet minister was said to have leaked text messages in which Morrison was described (by Gladys Berejiklian, during the bushfires two years ago) as a "horrible, horrible man" more interested in politics than people, and as a "psycho" by one of his colleagues. Then it emerged that Barnaby Joyce had sent a private message to Brittany Higgins rejecting, as a lie, Morrison's claim that he had not known about her complaint of rape. Joyce had also referred to Morrison as a hypocrite and a liar, who was always re-arranging the truth into a lie. Joyce apologised and withdrew of course, but could hardly undo the damage. It had been Labor members who had put Morrison's habit of twisting the truth into campaign fodder, but now they could step back, using instead the statements of Morrison's own close working colleagues.
In some respects it was not his fault that the press club had invited Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins to speak in the middle of the first week of Parliament. But it was no coincidence that Parliament was making apologies over sexual harassment and assault on its premises. The government's staff work was again seen to be wanting in the failure to invite prominent victims. And it was natural and predictable enough that Higgins and Tame would be asking questions about the depth of the government's commitment to workplace measures to attack the problem of men's violence. Morrison may have sounded sincere enough - they are just words after all - but there was every impression given of another obstacle to re-election being ticked off as neutralised or put to rest.
For good measure women ministers, especially for "women's matters" were dispatched to the press club to glare at the speakers, with body language showing they would rather be anywhere else, perhaps somewhere they could be shown deference or respect from the many other accomplished women present. Perhaps the ministers attended of their own accord, but if so they showed no signs of solidarity. Nor of conversion or epiphany, or even understanding of the speeches about power, strategies and action.
Whether or not the great hand-washer and hair-washer has neutralised the unease and anxiety he seems to excite in women, Morrison could blame no-one but himself for the scorn thrown at him, and the gibes that a good many of his measures were announcements rather than actions, gestures rather than real changes, politics rather than policy. Those most likely to be disaffected, male as well as female, were, of course, likely to be hostile to the idea of entrenching bigotry.
His focus on images and impressions was further undermined when he let it be known that he was "staking his leadership" on the religious freedom legislation, and begged backbenchers who had already been expressing public reservations to stand by the government in a sign of unity, the more important given that an election was imminent. They had all, after all, shown solidarity by voting for Nationals ideas to frustrate effective climate change action over most of the term. And that in spite of the fact that inner-city Liberals were complaining that one of the most effective arguments being used against them was that, on climate change matters, a vote for the sitting Liberal was a vote for Barnaby Joyce's position. Claims that they were enabling discrimination against gays and transgender people would be even more damaging.
Labor played possum, to deep concern among some of its supporters, and doubt among others about where Labor would be left, if its hope, that the defeat of the more odious parts of the bill should be made to depend on Liberal-moderate revolt and cohesion among the independents and minor parties. Labor had serious objections of principal to the form the legislation had taken, which had violated explicit promises of an agreed approach. But while it would put up its objections as amendments, it would wave the legislation through the House of Representatives if its amendment failed to get support. It would put up the same amendments in the Senate.
It was a tactic without much in the way of a strategy - at least a strategy that was worth the effort, and it yet again invited questions about whether Labor and Albanese had any bottom - some line they would never cross. The same-sex marriage plebiscite had shown that there were significant groups of morally conservative folk, particularly in Sydney's western suburbs, deeply offended by the idea of same sex marriage. Most of these were of migrant background; many were Muslim. These have become a bogey in NSW Labor circles, particularly among a Labor Right always inclined to grasp at any excuse to do nothing much. There are even some inclined to believe that this pocket of people (not many of whom, incidentally, seem to be adherents of the American cults claiming to encompass all Christians), had kept Labor from power at the last election.
Morrison, and before him Malcolm Turnbull, had used the promise of a legislated right to freedom of religion to neutralise some of the religiously-based opposition to same-sex marriage. But it was never very clear what form this right would take, or what evil it was needed to combat. The urgent need for such legislation had not much galvanised the leaders of most mainstream Christian groups, which is to say about 95 per cent of those professing to be Christians, but not including the cults such as Hillsong which are so dominant in the Morrison ministry, and, increasingly, in the membership lists of the Liberal Party.
After all the Sex Discrimination Act already permitted a good deal of bigotry to "protect" schools from gay students or teachers, or from others whose lifestyles, like those of the publicans, ne'er-do-wells and prostitutes Jesus hung around with, were a "challenge" to Christian values.
Even some of those who recognised that religious values were under some assault in an increasingly secular society, or that religious groups had to do rather more to compete for attention these days, were hesitant about asking for too much help from the state. First, religious bodies already received an enormous amount of direct help from the state, including subsidisation of schools, hospitals, aged care homes and community facilities, and even more once their tax-free status was taken into account. Too much moaning about the difficulties of managing in this vale of tears was apt to draw attention to this assistance, and, perhaps to jeopardise it. All the more so given that many of the leaders of such churches are not so popular these days, particularly because of institutional scandals of the physical and sexual abuse of children, and evidence that organisational wings of the churches - as well as organs of the state itself - had covered up such scandals. Indeed some of the more worldly and experienced church leaders recognised the risk that demands for a higher level of protection, particularly for discriminatory practices, would backfire. This is what has happened.
Dominic Perrottet, regularly called an ultra-conservative Catholic and a leader of a NSW Liberal right-wing faction once nicknamed the Taliban, made it clear that he could not see the point of having a religious freedom "right" created. It was not clear what problem it would solve. It was all too clear what problems it would create.
It has, moreover, become increasingly clear that the perceived need for such a right was not very much about protecting the rights of individual members of particular churches or cults. These rights are rarely under assault - or, where they are, as is sometimes the case with non-Christian religious adherents, such as Jews or Muslim people, their rights can be protected and vindicated under other anti-discrimination legislation. The strong demand for freedom, where it existed, came from particular religious groups - mostly of American origin - who wanted to loudly proclaim, as matters of religious principle, their bigoted opinions about gays and transgender people and want their right to discriminate against them to be a matter of law. Indeed they should be allowed to use these rights as weapons - to persecute others - as well as shields, protecting their beliefs and their freedom of expression. A nation with a constitutional separation of church and state was being invited to lend the coercive power of the state to do things that would otherwise be illegal, to minority groups, in the name of religion.
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Such bigotry, seen from this point of view, should have been resisted by all political and social groups espousing tolerance, common decency and respect for others. A high proportion of the population, including most supporters of the Liberal and National parties, reject the idea of a "right" to exclude, to punish, and to dismiss students whose sexuality or gender identity does not "fit in" with the particular orthodoxies of religious schools. Likewise with the right to sack teachers and others working in schools and other semi-public (and publicly funded) institutions because of their sexuality, or because they are not in lockstep with the beliefs about sexual morality of the school authorities. In recent times, school principals and others who have promoted their right to enforce such views have retreated in the face of vocal opposition - and not from the general public, but school parents, cult adherents and sometimes tithing prime ministers.
No doubt, Labor, put to the crunch would have made clear that its opposition to any extension of the right of religious bodies to discriminate was fundamental. The funny-buggers it was playing was a tactic, a part of a game of chicken in which Labor wanted to outstare moderates inside the Liberal Party, shaming them into doing the right and decent thing. Certainly, Labor speakers during the debate were clear enough about their personal opinions on such matters, even if they were directing their anger not at their leader or their whips but at the other side. And certainly the tactic worked, indeed beyond initial imagining, given that Morrison would not even risk the bill's going to the Senate, and has withdrawn it altogether. It seems impossible now that the matter could be revived before the election. Unless Morrison is returned at the election, it can be assumed that the legislation is dead. If there is to be a legislated freedom, it will be in completely different form, certainly not one drafted to suit the ambitions of a tiny minority of practising Christians.
The completeness of the humiliation was underscored by reports that Morrison was rolled in cabinet by his own ministers on the tactics to be followed after the passage of the bill through the House of Representatives. Morrison was, apparently, furiously trying to devise new, even more absurd tactics, such as the making of a deal with dissidents over the passage of a somewhat improved anti-corruption commission in exchange for getting the legislation through in unamended form.
It may have been good and keen judgment that saw Albanese outsmart Morrison. But some of the reservations about the tactic must remain, if only because civilised people, even civilised Labor people, should not be playing tactical games with the rights and the dignity of other Australians. Imagine, for example, if Parliament had been dickering about the rights of bigoted Christian schools to exclude Jewish teachers or pupils. Could Labor have pretended to go along with it in the strong belief that the other side would blink before they did? What if it were about the right, in practice, of mining companies to override the views and interests of Aborigines in relation to mining or the protection of sacred sites? Oh heck, sometimes we do that.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
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