Trust the perennially sanctimonious Kerryn Phelps to capture in a couple of sentences why the Israel Folau saga has resonated with so many. The one-time MP took to Twitter on Tuesday to share her thoughts on the matter.
‘The haters and homophobes have been waiting since the YES vote for a trigger to set off a “religious freedoms” campaign as revenge,’ she wrote. ‘#Folau’s contractual dispute gives them that trigger and a rallying point for bigotry dressed up as concern for “religious freedom”.’
It’s a response that was as predictable as it was pious. It’s the kind of sneering elitism that ‘quiet Australians’ in their thousands rejected last month. Even those who disagree with what Folau said – and most do, myself included – recognise the treatment of Israel Folau for what it is: The militant, with-us-or-against-us modus operandi of the professionally woke.
But the Kerryn Phelpses of the world do have a point in one respect. This is not your garden variety free speech issue in the sense that nobody is being deprived of their rights by the state, per se. The complexity in the Folau case is that all the players are private – not government – actors.
Maybe Rugby Australia did have the right to sack Folau as a matter of contract law (or maybe not, but that’s for the courts to decide). The likes of Qantas and ANZ can direct sponsorship money wherever they like, and they wouldn’t be the first big corporates to engage in such asinine virtue-signalling. GoFundMe is a private platform, and may very well have been within its rights under its own terms of service to boot out Folau’s fundraising appeal, hypocritical and selective as that may have been.
But just because those organisations could have done what they did doesn’t mean that they should have. As a matter of public policy, the Folau affair is a dead end, but as a cultural issue, it is troubling. It’s another front in what the left derisively write off as the ‘culture wars’, in a world in which what can and can’t be said (by force of law or otherwise) is becoming increasingly limited.
And here is where Phelps is dead wrong: The media feeding frenzy created by the Folau case is not a ‘rally point’ seized upon by the right. If the left are frustrated by the amount of attention Folau is getting – and no doubt they probably are – then they only have themselves to blame.
As many have noted, if Rugby Australia had simply issued a statement distancing themselves from Folau’s views and moved on, then his original Instagram post would have been long forgotten by now. But by overreacting, the Rugby Australia – and the ‘inclusivity’ zealots egging them on – have turned one man’s particular religious beliefs into a full-blown national brouhaha.
That said, there are those in the left who know how counterproductive the response to Folau’s Instagram post have been. Labor frontbencher Stephen Jones has pointed out that multiculturalism in practice means confronting – and tolerating – elements of some cultures with which we disagree. And former President of the Australian Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs – of all people – has voiced valid concerns about the Folau affair’s implications for freedom of religious expression.
The reason that the Israel Folau case resonates is that it is so depressingly familiar. It’s a reflection of the fact that for all the talk about ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’, picking on Christians is still okay, even fashionable. It’s a reminder of cases like Mark Allaby, who during the same-sex marriage debate was forced by his employer to choose between his day job at PwC and voluntary position on the board of the Australian Christian Lobby.
Regardless of its content, Israel Folau’s Instagram post has morphed into an act of civil disobedience at a time in which a tiny elite is dictating the boundaries of acceptable opinion. It has tapped into the frustration of we all feel when yet another advertiser is browbeaten into pulling advertising money from Sky News while we’re all forced to fund the ABC. The grating repetitiveness of climate debates in which anyone who goes against the zeitgeist is a ‘denier’ and that anyone concerned about the costs of addressing it – as Shorten so infamously said – is ‘stupid’. The irritation we all feel when our bank or airline or supermarket gushes about every fashionable cause under the sun at the same time as they’re apparently indifferent to customer service.
With Israel Folau, the dam seems to have burst. At time of writing, the Australian Christian Lobby’s fundraising page has, in less than 48 hours, raised something just shy of two million dollars. It’s safe to say that the vast majority of donors don’t share Folau’s religious beliefs, but they are defending with their wallets his right to air them.
And for many of us, there is the sense that what happened to Folau could happen to me next.
Gideon Rozner is Director of Policy at the Institute of Public Affairs.
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