The Politics    Monday, October 15, 2018

Backing in a backflip

By Paddy Manning

Image of Scott Morrison


Thank the Wentworth by-election for this outbreak of good sense

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has a singular advantage when it comes to placating the lunar right of the Liberal Party: he is not Malcolm Turnbull. They will tolerate common sense from him that they would never have copped if it was coming from Mr Harbourside Mansion. After the nonsense of last week – about the Ruddock review “backing in the existing law” that allows religious institutions to discriminate against LGBTI people – Morrison backflipped on the weekend. At tomorrow’s partyroom meeting, Morrison’s hardline colleagues will have no choice but to go along for the ride. That is, at least until Saturday’s crucial by-election in Wentworth. After that, depending on the result, all hell may yet break loose.

With Wentworth on a knife edge, today’s Fairfax Ipsos poll carries a resounding warning for the conservatives, finding that a whopping 74 per cent of voters – including 62 per cent of Coalition supporters – oppose laws to allow religious schools discriminate against gay students and teachers. Fairfax’s David Crowe writes that Christian school leaders told him that “they did not turn away gay students and believed they had been unfairly targeted in the ferocious debate of the past week, but they also said they needed to be free to run their schools according to their deeply held convictions.”

Also in Fairfax titles today, the first major academic study into the nature and extent of gay “conversion” practices in Australia has found that up to 10 per cent of LGBTI Australians are still vulnerable to so-called conversion therapy, much of it taking the form of faith-based counselling or pastoral activities steeped in the belief that homosexuality is a form of “brokenness” that ought to be fixed. The story builds on an earlier investigation that found one Christian school had sent a transgender student to seven counselling sessions with a chaplain – without telling the student’s parents – in an effort to stop the student transitioning. The study recommends a ban on conversion therapy.

You don’t have to dig very far to hear other similar stories – about students and staff at certain Catholic schools run by Opus Dei, for example – being told that same-sex attraction is a disorder that can be cured. And what are religious schools of other faiths teaching their students about homosexuality? It’s high time a light is shone on what religious schools are teaching about sexual orientation.

Most Australians weren’t aware that faith institutions like schools and hospitals benefited from such discriminatory laws, and trying to dress these laws up as a protection of religious freedom doesn’t fly for a second, particularly if these institutions receive public funding. With a sudden outbreak of bipartisanship – which was unthinkable to the Coalition on the National Energy Guarantee just two months ago – it seems a rare case of progress.

Moderate Liberals warned of “world war three” if any new laws stemming from the Ruddock review extended discrimination, and it is clear that the Morrison government cannot survive another conflagration between conservatives and moderates. It was always perverse, cynical politics to take an affirmation of tolerance by the overwhelming majority of Australians, who voted in favour of same-sex marriage in the postal survey last year, and use it as a pretext to write new laws entrenching the right of religious institutions to discriminate against LGBTI students and staff.

So the Ruddock review, by shining a light on the “existing” outrageous law, has turned into an own goal. As David Marr said on the ABC’s Insiders yesterday: “There’s very wise old heads in the religious political world who say, never try and get better advantages than you’ve got at the moment for religious privileges. Every time somebody in the last 20 or 30 years has tried, for instance, to toughen the laws around abortion, the laws have got much, much, much more liberal. Every time you try and make things worse for other people in a secular society, in fact, you finally draw attention to these ugly rules and decent Australians sit back and say ‘What? Our money is being used to run a system like that?’”

since this morning

The Australian reports [$] that an inquiry headed by the communications department secretary, Mike Mrdak, has been unable to determine whether former ABC boss Michelle Guthrie’s handling of the “Alberici and Probyn matters” had a “direct impact” on the board’s decision to dismiss her.

Crikey’s Glenn Dyer writes [$] that the independent expert’s report in the recently released merger scheme for Nine-Fairfax “confirms what Nine really wants to get its hands on: the 50% of the Stan streaming service it doesn’t yet own, and Fairfax’s 59.4% stake in the Domain property listing business”.

in case you missed it

The latest Fairfax-Ipsos poll has the Coalition trailing Labor 45–55, while The Australian’s latest Newspoll, headlined [$] “Scott Morrison takes fight to Bill Shorten”, shows the gap has narrowed a point to 53–47.

The tax-free threshold would be scrapped, tax rates would increase for every $1000 of income earned, and savings would be targeted by the tax office under an ambitious tax plan by PricewaterhouseCoopers, released to Fairfax Media.

The Young Nationals in New South Wales have suspended new memberships after the ABC’s Background Briefing program uncovered a covert plot by Australia’s alt-right movement to join major political parties and influence their policy agendas from within.

Trade minister Simon Birmingham, who will introduce the TPP-11 implementation bill to the Senate today, has warned that sectors including steel, wine and agriculture would be disadvantaged if it doesn’t pass parliament, The Australian reports [$].

The AFR’s Adele Ferguson writes [$] that the big four banks and AMP may be facing a bill of at least $6 billion for consumer refunds, reviews and litigation.

As part of a new podcast, Matters of State, ahead of the Victorian election, the ABC explores whether Melbourne’s population explosion threatens to create a “Bangkok situation”.

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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor at The Monthly and the author of Inside the Greens and Body Count.

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