Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Fake freedom under fake threat
Let’s have a real debate: release the Ruddock review


If I understand the prime minister correctly today, he can’t comment on how the government may respond to the confidential Ruddock review, which, as revealed in Fairfax Media, has proposed to codify the freedom of religious institutions to discriminate against LGBTI people; but he can confirm that the freedom to discriminate already exists under current law. So … what exactly is this religious freedom debate about? Nothing: marriage equality was never a threat to religious freedom. It is a pure confection of the reactionary, religious right. This makes the debate especially treacherous, because if the sensible among us aren’t careful, and write it all off as a complete joke, the zealots who have dreamed up this nonsense play – with its fantasy cast of very bigoted, extremely-uncommercial-but-nonetheless-highly-vulnerable wedding celebrants, hairdressers, cakemakers and the rest – will use it as a ruse to bring in a raft of new discriminations that will shunt us back to the Dark Ages even faster than we seem to be hurtling already.

As a frame of reference, notwithstanding that our new PM is himself religious, remember that Australia is becoming less religious. So for the first time in our history, in the 2016 census, the number of Australians who put down “no religion” (30 per cent) overtook those identifying as Catholic (23 per cent), the largest faith. Overall, Christians still make up 51 per cent of us, but this is way down from 1991 (74 per cent) and 1966 (88 per cent). Google “Australia is becoming less religious” for lots of coverage of that census finding.

As this excellent explainer points out, the review – which the government has been sitting on since May – by former immigration minister Philip Ruddock was commissioned in the lead-up to the passage of last year’s same-sex marriage laws, as a sop to conservatives (including Morrison and John Howard) who were worried that marriage equality would restrict their religious freedom. For example, that gay couples would force churches to hold gay weddings, or force bakers to make a gay wedding cake when they didn’t want to. Evidence of concern from people was very thin on the ground, but the Christian lobby went to town on it.

According to this morning’s Fairfax report, the review dismisses the notion that religious freedom in Australia is in “imminent peril” and “warns against any radical push to let businesses refuse goods and services such as a wedding cake for a gay couple”. Phew.

Apparently the Ruddock review does recommend an amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act to allow religious schools “to select, or preference, students who uphold the religious convictions of that school community”. When Scott Morrison was asked about that today, he said “the existing law enables schools to do exactly what was in that report. So, that’s not a change. That’s actually backing in an existing law.” He went on:

We’re not proposing to change that law to take away that existing arrangement that exists. So, I think there’s been a bit of confusion about this. I’m sure it wasn’t wilful. But … we have a report that’s been provided to the government. It’s a report to government, not from government. It’s a report that the government will be considering and developing a balanced response to, and we will do that in our orderly process, taking it through cabinet. This has not been through cabinet at this point. It hasn’t been considered by cabinet. So, we’ll take it through that orderly process, and we will come out with our response to the Ruddock review. But I want to make it clear that what was reported today is existing law.

It’s gibberish worthy of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Very handy when a sensitive issue lobs ahead of a tight by-election race, and your burning desire is to say absolutely nothing to scare the horses on either side of a deeply divided Coalition. As Crispin Hull wrote last week, the debate is a minefield for the government: “Morrison will not be able to legislate for the freedom of white, mainstream religious values without ensnaring himself in the questions of what other religious values should be upheld.”

Morrison may not even be telling us the truth: the Greens today issued a statement pointing out that while the PM says the Ruddock review has not yet been to cabinet, last month Mathias Cormann refused to comply with an order from the Senate to produce the review, citing ongoing confidential cabinet deliberations. “Either Scott Morrison is lying to the Australian people, or Mathias Cormann is lying to the Australian Senate. Either way, it’s absolutely unacceptable and they need to come clean,” said Greens Leader Richard Di Natale.

The review should be released immediately, so we can have a real debate: why these religious institutions have a right to discriminate at all.

since this morning

Médecins Sans Frontières has confirmed that it has officially been forced to end its mental health work on Nauru, leaving local and refugee patients behind in a situation it said was “beyond desperate”.

The Guardian reports that former Liberal leader John Hewson has called on voters in his former seat of Wentworth to use the by-election as a referendum on climate change and vote against the Liberals.

NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian says she has heard Sydneysiders “loudly”, after more than 1000 people shone torches onto the Opera House sails last night to disrupt a racing promotion.

Part one of Bernard Keane’s Crikey examination of what went wrong with the Future of Financial Advice reforms is here [$].

in case you missed it

On day one of its national energy summit, the AFR reports [$] that federal energy minister Angus Taylor is pushing to keep alive the reliability mechanism in the now-abandoned National Energy Guarantee, putting the greatest pressure on states that have the highest renewable energy targets. The AFR is live-blogging the conference here [$].

The Australian reports [$] that state and territory governments would have to sign up to new teaching standards and improved student results in return for a $14 billion public school funding boost, under a second pillar of Bill Shorten’s promised education policy announced today.

As G20 finance ministers and central bank governors prepare to meet in Indonesia tomorrow, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has urged the US and China to de-escalate their trade war before it gets “out of control”, after the International Monetary Fund yesterday issued a sharp downgrade of Australia’s economic growth for next year.

Richard Cooke
Tired of Winning
Heavy water
Flint, Michigan, has become a symbol of American dysfunction, but the city is operating just as intended

by Bronwyn Adcock
Sick on the inside
Our corrective services struggle to cope with the mental health requirements of inmates

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.


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