It’s six minutes into the second half of the World Cup game between Argentina and England in 1986, and the scores are locked at nil-all. This is a quarter-final, and the two football powerhouses are battling through a frenetic game, there are over 114,000 people packed into Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, and the aura of the Falklands War still lingers in the air, four years after it ended.
As the ball travels towards the goal, Argentina’s Diego Maradona reaches out with his left hand to knock the ball into the goal and, with the infringement unseen by the referee, the goal is allowed, Argentina go on to win this game 2–1 and become the world champions in the tournament final.
Maradona later said the goal was scored with the use of his head and “a little with the hand of God”, and it gave him the impetus to score another goal four minutes later, winning the game for Argentina.
Was it an obvious attempt at cheating or was it the divine intervention from above, as claimed by Maradona? Argentina wasn’t regarded as the better team in this game, so was the ‘hand of God’ on call to restore the wrongs committed by the British government when they declared an unjust war in 1982 over a collection of disparate islands in the Southern Atlantic Ocean, a claim made by the Argentinian media?
Or was it just a lucky break where a player cheated and the actions were blanketed by a swarm of players, blocking the view of the referee?
We should be wary when anyone claims their actions are guided by divine and unseen beings, but we can live with this when sportspeople use this to verify misguided and unfortunate behaviours where rules are bent to claim an unfair advantage.
Political leaders? Well, we should definitely be en garde and very cynical about their motivations and how they use their religion to guide public policy and their political action.
Australia is a secular state and is based on the doctrine of the separation of the state and the church but the newly-installed Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has already commenced his term with a religious fervor and acts like he wants to reduce the gap in this church–state schism – and for those following his career over the past decade, this is not a surprise.
Morrison was raised in the Presbyterian Church but is now a Pentecostal, attending the Horizon Church in the Sutherland Shire, one the most conservative and least diverse urban areas in Australia. Around 74 per cent of the population in this area is Anglo-Australian and around 73 per cent support a Christian-based faith. He also contemplated studying theology – presumably with the intention of becoming a priest – before being convinced by his father to move into a business-related field.
While Morrison may have been brought up in the church as a youngster and is fully engaged with Pentecostalism, subscribing to Christian beliefs and the practice of politics should remain mutually exclusive, and entwining religion and politics is fraught with danger.
In one of his first press conferences in response to Australia’s drought, Morrison – looking like a cross between Mark Latham, Billy Graham and a rather dull-looking accountant – implored the community to “pray for that rain everywhere else around the country. And I do pray for that rain. And I’d encourage others who believe in the power of prayer to pray for that rain and to pray for our farmers”.
One of Australia’s most severe period of drought and the Prime Minister’s first response is to “pray for that rain”?
Morrison also said “we all love Australia. Of course we do. That’s what brings a country together. You love all Australians if you love Australia.”
Love? After the week we’ve had where Malcolm Turnbull leadership was brutally terminated by his own party? After two members of the Liberal Party – the member for Chisholm, Julia Banks, and the member for Gilmore, Ann Sudmalis – decided to resign at the next election because of bullying in Parliament House? Scott Morrison has a strange perception of ‘love’.
Morrison’s behaviour in recent Question Time sessions has resembled a religious revivalist’s meeting – geeing up his side of the chambers through a call to raise the hands of his MPs (sorry for invoking the Goodwin convention but these actions remind me of a Nuremburg rally in the 1930s rather than an Australian parliament in 2018). Already, two Liberal backbenchers have relayed a message to Morrison’s office to stop this hand-waving charade, saying it’s demeaning, childish, and not playing out very well in their electorates.
But parliamentary antics are one thing, and actions do speak louder than words. While he claims to be a Pentecostal Christian, Morrison’s political acts engage the most fundamental un-Christian behaviours. It commenced with his entry into Parliament in 2007, a backroom hatchet job which destroyed the career of the preselected Liberal candidate in the seat of Cook.
This preselected candidate, Michael Towke, was considered one of the bright up and coming lights of the Liberal Party – a long-term and active party member, degrees in engineering and sociology, an MBA from the Australian School of Graduate Management, Catholic, conservative, and a member of the party’s right.
These are all excellent credentials for a Liberal candidate in a safe conservative seat such as Cook – held by the Liberal Party since its inception in 1969, except for a brief period during 1972–75 – and the two-party preferred vote was 65 per cent to the Liberals at the last election. Perfect credentials, except for the fact Towke is from a Lebanese background, something the white-bread party couldn’t tolerate in the lead-up to the 2007 election, especially after the Cronulla race riots of 2004.
Towke won the initial preselection vote against Morrison 82–8, but was immediately accused of branch stacking and embellishing his resume on his candidate nomination form. These allegations were published in the Daily Telegraph, Towke’s reputation was destroyed, he was disendorsed and the preselection was quickly handed to Scott Morrison.
The allegations were found to be totally fabricated, and an out-of-court settlement was made with Towke in 2009. It is unclear who made the original allegations but Morrison, with the intervention of the hard-right of the Liberal Party and support of News Limited, was the beneficiary. And is still in Parliament. And is now the Prime Minister.
That, to me, doesn’t sound like the behaviour of a true Christian believer but, when the ‘hand of God’ is on your side, anything is acceptable after a short session in the confessional box.
Roy William, in the excellent book In God They Trust?, assessed how religion has influenced the 23 Prime Minsters since Federation (the book was published in 2013, so it doesn’t include Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull or Scott Morrison). His conclusions were that the Prime Ministers with the best race and human rights records were non-believers – Harold Holt, Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam – but the more ‘Christian’ Prime Ministers, such as Billy Hughes and George Reid, were intolerant bigots that used political and social issues to divide the community for personal political advantage.
And the Prime Ministers that scored highly in practicing what they preach? Paul Keating and Joe Lyons.
It’s interesting to note the Prime Ministers that have had the strongest relationship with churches – Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison – have displayed the least amount of generosity and religious spirit in their political deliberations, both having selective hearing when it comes to public policy on social issues and displaying the most appalling and destructive behaviours seen in Canberra; Tony Abbott during his time as leader of the Liberal Party between 2009–15; Scott Morrison during his time as Minister for Immigration and Treasurer.
How does Scott Morrison reconcile his detention of asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island and Nauru with his Christian belief to provide for the less fortunate people in the world, protect innocent people, and support a culture of empathy and compassion?
The Australian Medical Association recently called on the government to remove families and children from immigration detention on Nauru, recognising it was “a humanitarian emergency requiring urgent intervention”. Recent events on Nauru include a 10-year-old boy who attempted suicide three times and needed surgery; a young girl who attempted suicide three times; a 14-year-old girl who doused herself in petrol and set herself alight; a 17-year-old boy who suffers from psychosis.
Morrison’s response had been that he will not remove any of these people from the island and will not “put at risk any element of Australia’s border protection policy”.
How does this rest with his Christian conscience?
Or cooking sub-continental curries with Annabel Crabb on the ABC’s Kitchen Cabinet, while incarcerating Sri Lankan in immigration detention? Or his gift of customs patrol boats to the Sri Lankan government, which were then used to stop Tamils fleeing from persecution and human rights abuses?
How does he reconcile the removal of $1.2 billion from aged care services during the 2016/17 Budget, with the Christian belief to look after the aged, frail and infirm?
Morrison has announced the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, but immediately denied he made any cutbacks to age care during his time as Treasurer, the following exchange between journalist Alex Morton a prime example:
- Morton: “Prime minister, when you were treasurer you cut $2 billion from aged care.”
- Morrison: “No, no. That’s what the Labor Party says.”
- Morton: “No, you did.”
- Morrison: “No I didn’t. The Labor Party says that.”
- Morton: “You cut $1.2 billion from aged care funding.”
- Morrison: No, I don’t accept that. If people want to put questions, they’re not allowed to put lies.”
- Morton: “Aged care funding had $1.2 billion …”
- Morrison: “No. We’re increasing aged care funding by $1 billion every year.”
- Morton: “No, it’s a direct question, Prime Minister.”
- Morrison: “We have put in place compliance measures to ensure that public funds don’t get misused. So, this is why we are going to have a royal commission …”
- Morton: “Are you ignoring the facts?”
- Morrison: “No, I’m not ignoring facts. That’s why I’m calling a royal commission, if you’ll just let me finish the answer.”
In contrast to Morrison’s continuous denials, the budget papers from 2016/17 clearly state:
“The Budget includes savings of $1.2 billion over four years through changes to the Aged Care Funding Instrument (ACFI) used by residential aged care providers to determine the base funding for each resident. This is in addition to the $472.4 million savings over four years through changes to the ACFI scoring matrix that were announced in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook 2015–16 (MYEFO).”
It’s crystal clear that $1.2 billion was removed from the sector and anyone with a relationship with an aged care home will report the quality of care and levels of staffing deteriorated markedly from 1 January 2017, the day the cutbacks were implemented, but Morrison keeps denying he made cutbacks in the first place.
Whatever happened to the eighth commandment: ‘thou shalt not lie’?
Morrison has also announced a funding boost of $4.5 billion to the non-government school sector, while public schools will have a funding cut. How does Morrison reconcile this with the Christian values of equity and opportunity for all?
The Catholic church has access to vast amounts of land, buildings and resources and, from evidence extracted during the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, spent most the 1970s and 1980s sexually abusing children in their care. Why should Catholic church be rewarded with access to a $4.5 billion fund for their schools?
Of course, the mix of politics and religion throws both into the field of double-standards and hypocrisy, but politics is essentially the art of managing the lie and distorting the truth wherever possible. Many politicians live dual lives, where there is a schism between their public lives and their personal lives, where they can cast aside what they personally believe in, in favour of the party line, self-aggrandisement, and political opportunity.
But when both of these lives start to career into the other, as they are with Scott Morrison, it becomes difficult to assess where the ‘hand of God’ commences, and where the public interest and common good ends. Morrison needs to decide whether he’s a religious leader at the pulpit or the secular politician working for the good of the community. He can’t do both. And the combination of the two is not going to do anyone any favours.