Who can forget the Beaconsfield Mine Disaster of 2006? For two weeks, the entire nation was gripped with the rescue of the two miners trapped underground. It was also a crucial turning-point in Bill Shorten’s political career. He was the union boss and advocate for workers. It was his voice that Australia heard when they finally emerged safe and sound.
Well, we’ve recently had two other men metaphorically trapped at the bottom of a shaft that is almost as traumatic as the Beaconsfield incident. Their grief and pain is very real. You may have heard about them, the Archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteous and the Rev Campbell Markham, Presbyterian pastor. Their suffering is unseen as they have gone through a long, drawn-out and exasperating form of legal process. Their families and friends are anxious for them as they are burdened under the weight of targeted litigation. And Bill Shorten, the hero of those trapped in a dark place–our peripatetic Prime Minister-in-waiting–has been nowhere to be seen.
As a minister, I’ve become increasingly worried about the issue of religious freedom. And you know it’s getting serious when even Chris Hayes, Labor’s chief opposition whip, has started to articulate the same concerns. This prompted me to write to the shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, about these alarming developments. He, too, has been mouthing the same platitudes about protecting religious freedom, but I’m still waiting to hear from him.
By contrast, when I rang Senator Eric Abetz in Tasmania, he immediately picked up the phone and gave me a prompt and careful answer. This is the proverbial, “Pig in a poke,” he said. “We don’t know what we’re getting. The Attorney General’s Department didn’t even know how many pieces of legislation need to be altered.”
So, I thought I would do a little more digging and speak to the people at the centre of the discrimination storm. The first person I approached was Campbell Markham. What I discovered shocked me. I asked him: “Was the person who brought this action personally offended by you?” He responded, “No, he wasn’t. He wasn’t concerned about any personal offence to himself; he was more concerned how my words would affect others in the community. That’s one of the reasons why this is such a significant case because the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal works on the basis of precedent. If he wins this, it actually gives the Tribunal the right in the future to accept third-party complaints.”
So, in Tasmania, you don’t even have to be personally offended anymore to make a complaint! You only have to think that someone else might be offended and you have sufficient cause for action. Talk about opening a can of legal worms. So, I asked him this: “Are you encouraged that Bill Shorten, Penny Wong, Malcolm Turnbull and George Brandis have all been vocal in stating their support for religious freedoms?”
He went on to say, “The Liberals in Tasmania tried to put through some amendments for religious protections, but they failed. Personally, I wasn’t happy about the way those protections were stated. I thought they were far too narrow. It seems scandalous to me that only clergy are being offered protections against anti-discrimination legislation. I believe that the whole community should have the right to speak freely and to have freedom of conscience and freedom of assembly.”
Well, now I was really starting to get worried. The shadow-attorney general wasn’t answering any of my questions and his state counterparts in Tasmania were doing their level best to block religious protections. This has left Campbell Markham hoping for the best but fearing the worst: “I have no confidence that there will be adequate legal protections for our essential freedoms. I think that the Anti-Discrimination Acts are already in place at the State and Federal levels. The legislation has now been weaponised.”
The strange thing is that for such an important issue there has been so little media coverage. Bill Shorten was on the telly every day when Beaconsfield was on. Where is he now? So, I went down to Tasmania myself to see Julian Porteous, the Catholic Archbishop.
He told me that there was nothing radical about the document that the Australian Catholic Bishops had produced. What’s more, the person who made the complaint didn’t directly receive the material. She had actually gone out of her way to be offended. Porteous said, “It’s the problem of activists using the anti-discrimination laws for their own ends.”
Now if you think this is an example of ‘fearmongering,’ then let me remind you of this. The Labor Party has promised, that if elected, it will commit $1.4 million to establish an LGBTIQ watchdog. The commissioner’s role will be to champion for particular minority-groups in the wider community. Interestingly, Penny Wong has explained that,
The Commissioner will address structural discrimination, work towards ensuring our schools, workplaces, and communities are free from discrimination.
This is a disturbing development because it signals the beginnings of an insidious “Big Brother” approach to monitoring thought crimes, both real and perceived. In fact, Shorten has earlier stated that he is opposed to religious law exemptions and that he would repeal them at the earliest opportunity. Markham observed to me that during the French Revolution there was something eerily similar to this called “The Committee for Public Safety.” My suggestion, though, is why doesn’t Labor become completely Orwellian and just call this new government department the “Ministry of Love”? After all, “love wins”, doesn’t it?
At the end of the day, leadership, like marriage, is all about trust. And trust is only gained when a person honours their commitments above their own personal or political expediency. What has become patently clear though is that Australians cannot trust Bill Shorten to protect religious freedom. Not now. Not ever.
To be fair, Malcolm Turnbull and George Brandis, despite their assurances, haven’t bothered to inform us of the precise freedoms that we will possess if same-sex marriage becomes law. It should come as no surprise to learn that as Turnbull’s support continues to tumble in the polls, Shorten has done a convenient U-turn and is saying all the right things about protecting religious freedoms–even harking back to his religious upbringing–but let’s face it, this isn’t Braveheart, and William Wallace, he ain’t.
Mark Powell is the Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Strathfield.
Cartoon: Ben R Davis.
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