Coalition to protect religious freedom: PM

Labor party urged to rethink attitude to faith after election loss

PHOTO: G20 Argentina

By Stephen Cauchi

May 31 2019The Coalition will legislate to protect religious freedom following its shock election win last month, while the impact of the religious vote has prompted Labor Party leaders to call for an urgent rethink of the party’s attitude to faith.

Although religious matters received little coverage during the election campaign – notwithstanding controversy over rugby player Israel Folau – research has indicated that the nation’s most religious electoral seats recorded swings to the Coalition.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison celebrated the stunning win in a victory speech that declared “I have always believed in miracles” and “God bless Australia”.

On the day following his win Mr Morrison attended his church, the Horizon Pentecostal church in southern Sydney, where he hugged members of the congregation.

He told media outside the church that “I give thanks to live in the greatest country in all the world … thanks again to all Australians all across the country.”

Earlier in the campaign, Mr Morrison had invited media to Horizon to film its Easter Day service. Photos of Mr Morrison worshipping with an outstretched arm and closed eyes attracted widespread comment on social media.

In a televised debate during the campaign, Mr Morrison repeated a pledge to protect religious freedom through a Religious Discrimination Act, if the Coalition was returned to office.

Religious freedom issues, including the right of faith-based schools to hire staff with the same values, may have played a significantly understated role in the Coalition’s victory. The impact of the religious vote has attracted widespread media coverage since the election.

Research from the Grattan Institute shows that eight of the nation’s 10 most religious seats recorded a two-party-preferred swing to the Coalition. 

Deakin University research shows that four seats in Queensland and New South Wales – all with numbers of Pentecostals 50 to 80 per cent higher than the state average – recorded swings of around 7 per cent to the Coalition.

Assessing the Labor Party’s electoral performance, Labor party frontbencher Chris Bowen – whose seat of McMahon in western Sydney was one of the 10 in the Grattan Institute study – has stressed the “urgent” need for the party to engage with faith communities.

Mr Bowen cited the issue in his short-lived run for the party leadership last month, telling Australian Associated Press many Australians of faith felt Labor did not care about them.

"I have noticed as I have been around during the election campaign and even in the days since ... how often it has been raised with me that people of faith no longer feel that progressive politics cares about them," Mr Bowen told reporters in Sydney.

"These are people with a social conscience, who want to be included in the progressive movement.

"We need to tackle this urgently. I think this is an issue from the federal election that we haven't yet focused on."

Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese backed Mr Bowen’s comments, saying that "you shouldn't put someone in a position of choosing between the faith that they genuinely hold, and the love that they have for the Labor Party."

Mr Albanese also believes the party should have had a conscience vote, rather than a binding yes vote, on same-sex marriage.

Mr Bowen's seat was among the Labor electorates targeted by the Australian Christian Lobby, which believes the Coalition has a better position on religious freedom issues.

His views on the faith vote are not universally accepted, with Labor MP Anthony Chisholm stating that the party’s socially progressive agenda had not alienated voters.

"From my point of view it's more around that economic reassurance and ensuring Queenslanders understand that we will be responsible economic managers," he told ABC TV.

But Professor Patrick Parkinson, Dean of Law at the University of Queensland and chair of the religious freedom think tank Freedom for Faith, echoed Mr Bowen’s comments.

“Labor may want to look at its attitude to religious faith among the causes of its disastrous performance,” he told the ABC.

“It did poorly in areas of Australia where religious faith â�� of all kinds â�� is alive and well. This was particularly the case in Queensland.”

Western Sydney – home to many devoutly religious ethnic minorities, including Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim communities – was another example.

“Multicultural Australia is also religious Australia,” he said.

“Kevin Rudd, who was not shy to proclaim his Christian faith, won support from many of these religious voters in 2007, and this was important to Labor's victory that year. Labor has not won a majority in a federal election since then.”

In the Labor Party itself, “few active Christians remain”, he said.

“The lack of authentically religious voices within Labor is one reason why the party made it very difficult for religious voters to support it in 2019.

“Many of its activist supporters seem openly hostile to those who hold traditional religious beliefs.”

Labor’s position on the Ruddock inquiry into religious freedom was “a concern to a large number of people, not least those who have fled religious persecution elsewhere,’’ he said.

“Labor's policy on religion was a policy for an aggressively secular society, not a multicultural one,” said Professor Parkinson. “In this election it faced a devoutly Christian Prime Minister and a Party with a strong core of MPs who are practising Christians or Jews. For those voters who hold traditional religious values, the choice was not difficult.”

Although economic and climate change issues dominated the election campaign, the religious views of rugby player Israel Folau did attract significant controversy.

Both Mr Morrison and former Labor leader Bill Shorten weighed in on the rugby player’s views that gay people will be sent to hell.

In a televised debate with Mr Shorten, Mr Morrison said that freedom of speech and religion had to be respected but also exercised with civility and due care and consideration to others.

Public figures such as Folau also had to respect the terms of employment laid out in a contract, he said.

Mr Shorten, who attended an Easter Day service at an Anglican church in Brisbane, said that he was “uneasy” about Folau’s job being threatened. However, he also rejected his views on gays and hell.

Mr Shorten was also accused of “weaponising” Mr Morrison’s faith by saying Mr Morrison should have made it clearer he didn't think gay people go to hell.

On the issue of asylum seekers, 15 Christian, Muslim and Jewish faith leaders – including former Melbourne assistant bishop and current President of the National Council of Churches in Australia, Philip Huggins – released a statement calling for their settlement in Australia.

“Marking this time of new beginning, we urge the newly elected Federal Government and Prime Minister Scott Morrison to resolve the plight of the 1000+ refugees in Manus and Nauru, some of whom are now in Australia,” said the statement. “Let them settle here.

 “Unless there is some initiative by the new government, given previous policy, the refugees remaining in Manus and Nauru will face many more years stuck as they are today, drained of hope. This is painful beyond words.”

Anglicare Australia congratulated the Coalition and Prime Minister Morrison on regaining government. 

Executive Director Kasy Chambers said that Anglicare Australia would continue to work with the Government for a fairer country.

“The Government, and the country, face major challenges. Hundreds of thousands of Australians are struggling to find an affordable home. Those who are out of work or underemployed are struggling to make ends meet. And many older Australians are retiring into poverty.

“Climate change will have the worst impact on the poorest in our community. But climate action also offers opportunities to create a fairer country. We will continue to call on the Government to develop a serious climate strategy.”

The Australian Christian Lobby hailed the Coalition's election victory as a win for religious freedom.

“The policy difference between the two major parties on religious freedom was very clear, on everything from freedom for faith-based schools, to parents’ rights to raise their kids free of gender theory,” said ACL managing director Martyn Iles.

The ACL ran an extensive campaign, he said.

“Hundreds of thousands of leaflets, countless phone calls, and an extensive digital campaign went into seats like McMahon, Canning, Bass, Chisholm, Boothby and Petrie.”

The Coalition government, he said, had “a clear mandate to legislate for religious freedom, and to stand against radical social policies”.