Despite all his rhetoric to the contrary, Malcolm Turnbull really isn’t concerned about protecting civil and religious freedoms. In what Paul Kelly labelled as a “dangerous moment” for the PM, even John Howard, arguably one of Australia’s greatest Prime Ministers, has come out publicly on a number of occasions and warned him that this was an issue that he could not avoid.
However, Turnbull and his advisors have turned a deaf ear his advice and this is leading to growing concerns about the assault upon religious freedom in the near future. Now, in the most recent Weekend Australian, John Howard has “condemned Turnbull on the issue.” He said that he feared that the government’s assurance that it would protect religious freedom in the future will “die in the sand.”
The following example is a case in point. Over the weekend, Andrew Hastie, the Federal Member for Canning, was quoted in The West Australian as saying, “I think that parents should be able to raise and educate their children in conformity with their moral and religious convictions. It’s one of the liberties that makes Australia a free society… Parents should be able to pull their children out of Safe Schools or similar programs that undermine their moral and religious convictions.”
WA Liberal, Dean Smith, the sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill, was reported to have “pushed back against efforts to water down or contain his same-sex marriage Bill, arguing the resounding nature of the ‘Yes’ vote shows Australians are comfortable with the safeguards in place.” The problem with Smith’s approach is that, as we were told repeatedly by the ‘Yes’ campaign, the postal survey was not about the issue of religious freedom; there were no questions about freedom of religion in the survey.
On the contrary, it dealt simply with the issue of whether the institution of marriage should be re-defined to involve people of the same gender. These are entirely different questions. How can Smith say, then, that the majority of Australians “are comfortable with the safeguards in place.” How does he know? He certainly didn’t get any data from the survey. As John Anderson, former deputy prime minister, has said: “His [Smith’s] exemptions approach arguably does more harm than good, for it assumes freedom of conscience is of worth only to professional religionists and not to all Australians.”
The underlying issue here is that the Liberal Party has forgotten the real meaning of freedom. It is not just freedom of markets; it is fundamentally freedom of religion. How will they afford religious protection to workers in view of the fact that numbers of them have already been sacked for religious views about same-sex marriage? How are they going to protect the religious convictions of parents who do not want their children exposed to the perversities of Safe Schools? And what right will schools and other religious institutions have to proclaim the fundamental truths that they hold dear? Will they be able to employ staff who will be supportive of those ideals without falling foul of the anti-discrimination laws?
We don’t know the answer to those questions. And Malcolm Turnbull and Simon Birmingham’s platitudinous assurances “that everything will be OK” are worth nothing unless they are enshrined in legislation. If they are not legislated, just wait for the myriad complaints that will be launched against schools, and other institutions from February 2018. It will be ‘game-on.’
Let’s face it. The chances of the current government winning the next election with its current leadership team is bleak, to say the least. What then can be done? That’s the question that everyone is asking themselves at the moment. What has become clear is that Malcolm Turnbull is just a watered-down version of his Labor alternative – and let’s face it, who really wants to have lite beer when you can have full strength?
Veteran commentators like Paul Kelly have warned that a change in in the Liberal leadership would “render far more damage than merely losing office. If this event is unleashed, it will license even deeper personal and ideological tensions that cannot be controlled.” Although Kelly’s warnings against precipitous actions are prudent, there are approximately five million voters who might think differently. Just consider the comment of one reader to Kelly’s article:
True Conservatives would rather die on our feet, than on our knees. No more Progressives thanks, we want a Conservative back as leader, then and only then, will our money flow, and our supporters, and volunteers return…Our party got hijacked, by a left-leaning imposter and his mates; we want it back. Right now the people have a choice of Labor-lite, or Labor full-strength, it’s not good enough; they need to choose between Capitalism or Socialism, not a watered down version of either.
For all the instability that a revolving door of political leadership would bring, it is also true one of Kevin Rudd’s most heroic achievements when he regained the prime ministership in 2013 was to save a lot of Labor seats from being lost at the election held shortly afterwards. If Gillard had remained as leader, Labor would have had an electoral wipeout.
The Liberals can learn something from that. There seems little likelihood that they will win the next election. And the margin that they’re going to lose by only gets greater with each successive Newspoll. The question that needs to be raised is, “Who would Labor fear the most as leader of the party if the Liberals went into opposition?” And the answer to that question is that there is really only one plausible candidate, and that’s Tony Abbott.
Why? Abbott all but destroyed the Labor Party under Gillard and Rudd, and will probably go down as one of the most effective opposition leaders in Australian history. No other member of the present parliamentary party has the ‘mongrel’ required to be an effective leader of the opposition.
However, whether Kelly is right or not, the Liberal Party will never move forward until its core values have been resolved. As one Liberal MP said recently, “The haemorrhaging will continue until a certain growth is removed.”
You know that something is seriously wrong when Mark Latham, an ex-Labor leader, is asked to speak at Liberal heartland meetings in Roseville and Bellevue Hill, Sydney. It’s like a scene from the Netflix series, Stranger Things. Since when did the political scene in Australia become so upside down?
In the meantime, let’s stop all this nonsense about the Prime Minister being concerned about civil and religious freedom. Clearly, he’s not. Aussies know the difference between a beer and a shandy. And most of us also prefer something that’s full strength rather than merely a watered-down equivalent, especially when it comes to ensuring our ongoing basic freedoms. And at the heart of them all is our religious freedom.
Mark Powell is the Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Strathfield.
Cartoon: Ben R Davis.
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