A terrible year for the Liberal–National Government has almost ended, but if there was any hope the final week before Christmas might offer some hope for a reset and a springboard for a resurgence in 2019 – an election year – it was extinguished by two announcements by the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison.
On face value, it’s obvious these announcements were made to close off political issues that have caused the LNP trouble in recent months but a closer analysis shows the two issues will create even greater problems in the months ahead.
The first announcement had been in the pipeline for some time.
Following on from the recommendations from a review into religious protections in Australia – which the Government has sat on since May 2018 – Morrison has decided to take a proposal for a Religious Discrimination Act to the next election, as well as opening up a position of religious discrimination commissioner at the Human Rights Commission.
It’s not clear which problem in the community Morrison’s proposal is trying to solve, but it’s clearly an appeasement to the extreme religious right wing cabal of the Liberal–National Party, a group of fanatics which includes Craig Kelly, Eric Abetz, Andrew Hastie, Stuart Robert, George Christensen, Kevin Andrews, Tony Abbott, Ian Goodenough – and Morrison himself.
Religion freedom is strongly protected in Australia, except for where it may be inconsistent with Australian state, territory and federal laws. This protection has been in the Australian constitution since 1901, and there is a clear delineation between the practice of state and the practice of church – which, of course, is a fundamental principle of secular democracies. On an international scale, Australia is ranked fourth in the world for religious and personal freedoms, just behind Hong Kong, New Zealand and Switzerland.
So far, Morrison’s reasoning for a Religious Discrimination Act has been filled with hyperbole and statements of opinion, where he claimed
some people of faith felt the walls closing in on them;
some people said they left where they came from to come to Australia because of religious persecution in the countries they were living in – only now, they feel, to be potentially facing the same sort of limitations to how they practice their religion in this country.
Who are the ‘some people’ the Prime Minister refers to? Which religions do they represent? Is it reasonable to install an entire suite of legislative changes just because of what ‘some people’ want? I can accept the walls are closing in on some people of faith, for example, George Pell, but who is being persecuted?
Are we expected to believe that people fleeing real religious persecution, for example, the Hazaras from Afghanistan living in Australia, are feeling the same limitations to their freedoms that existed under the Taliban regime? I really don’t think so.
Genocide, slavery and sexism are all promoted in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus, along with public stoning and condemning men to hell for acts of homosexuality. Are these the religious beliefs Scott Morrison wants to protect and insist religious schools should be able to enforce? Should religious schools hold the right to discriminate against students on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation? Should staff at these schools be sacked or students be expelled for not upholding these religious values?
How about female genital mutilation, lashings and the death penalty? Or banning teenage boys and girls from speaking to each other, and locking them up for a month if they regress, as permitted in the Exclusive Brethren?
These are not the values of the Australian electorate and are the antithesis of a how a civil secular society needs to function adequately. Yet, there are the values Morrison and his religious cabal want to enforce.
Religion is not an issue a secular government should either involve itself in, or risk political skin in an area that is potentially divisive and not worth wasting political capital. In 1988, there was a referendum question put to the electorate seeking to enshrine freedom of religion within the Australian Constitution. Against all sensibilities, the Liberal Party campaigned strenuously against the proposal (led by a young Peter Reith, who used the referendum to hone his skills in negative campaigning and tactics), resulting in a resounding loss (a nationwide vote of only 31 per cent in favour).
So, an opportunity to protect religious freedoms was presented in 1988 which the Liberal Party failed to take up. That was 30 years ago, but has Australian society changed so drastically that religion requires further legislative protection?
If anything, Australia is less religious today than in 1988. In the World Values Survey, the proportion of Australians who said religion is ‘not at all important’ to them increased from 19 per cent during 1994–98 to 37 per cent during 2010–2014, although these figures are not as extreme as a 2008 Gallup Poll, which showed 70 per cent of Australians stated religion as having no importance to them. Monthly church attendances have fallen from 44 per cent of the population in 1950, to the current level of 16 per cent. In a 2011 Galaxy report, 43 per cent of the population claimed no religion at all.
Clearly, levels of interest in religious practice have fallen markedly in Australia, but Scott Morrison wants to dedicate what would be a large part of his election campaign to religion. Morrison is a devout Pentacostal and, as we’ve outlined previously, mixing firmly-held religious beliefs with politics is an act fraught with danger.
The electorate isn’t interested in the personal religious beliefs of most of its parliamentarians, as long as it remains personal and doesn’t filter through to the political domain. What the electorate is mainly after is good competent government. Morrison is making the mistake of blending his politics with religion, and it means it will become a political issue he can easily be blindsided by.
As shown by the ad hoc announcement during the Wentworth by-election to consider moving the Australian Embassy to Jerusalem, Morrison is not a clear strategic political thinker and these vexed considerations – which only concern a small section of the community – are certain to cause problems for him in the lead up to the next election.
It takes a special skill to upset both sides of the Middle East equation, but that’s exactly what Morrison has done, with the recent decision of his Government to formally recognise West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and keep the Australian Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Integrity is not such a fringe issue
The second announcement by Morrison was a surprise. It’s obvious the strategy behind the Commonwealth Integrity Commission is to neuter Labor’s own plan for an anti-corruption commission, if it wins the next election. The LNP has consistently denied the need for such a commission, and only voted for it on this occasion to save itself from embarrassment on the floor of Parliament. But it’s never too late to catch up.
The Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, announced Labor’s intention for an anti-corruption commission in January 2018 and sought bipartisanship to establish one, but it was consistently ruled out by the two Prime Ministers we’ve had this year, Malcolm Turnbull, and Scott Morrison.
As recently as four weeks ago, Morrison said an anti-corruption commission was just a “fringe issue” and the public just wasn’t interested – odd for a Prime Minister to say, in the context of the recent Essential Poll which shows 82 per cent of Australians are in favour of the creation of a federal anti-corruption body (compared to 5 per cent opposed to the body).
However, instead of neutering the issue, the Liberal–National Party has opened itself to a new line of attack. Why is Morrison creating the CIC if he thinks it’s just a “fringe issue” and he feels the public isn’t interested? Will he direct enough resources and funding to the CIC if he thinks it’s not of significance to the electorate, an opinion he firmly held just four weeks ago?
The vague outline the Government has released does not augur well. The CIC will not hold public hearings, will not accept allegations of corruption from the public, will not make its findings public, and will provide recommendations for prosecution to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions – in secrecy.
What happens with those recommendations will be up to the public prosecutor but I’d imagine there’d be room for political interference to ensure any recommendations unfavourable to the government of the day will never be released or acted upon, until it’s politically convenient.
There is a cloud hovering over Barnaby Joyce and, as we’ve mentioned before, there are allegations of impropriety in the purchase of landholdings near the proposed Santos gasfields in Narrabri and the location of the Melbourne–Brisbane train line near Gwabegar.
Under the guidelines of Morrison’s CIC, we could end up with the peculiar situation of Joyce contesting a future election in the seat of New England, while concurrently investigated by the commission – and the electorate would never know, even up to the point if prosecutions are recommended by the CIC.
Likewise, with any possible investigation into Scott Morrison’s handling of overseas contracts during his time as the head of Tourism Australia between 2004–2005, or the reasons behind his sacking and subsequent termination payment of $300,000. The events from this time are very unclear, and will probably remain unclear – Morrison’s CIC won’t cover allegations of corruption prior to the inception of the commission, so whatever happened at Tourism Australia will be kept under wraps, as well as the entire period of the Liberal–National Party in office from 2013 onwards.
Morrison also claimed the Government had been working on the idea of this commission for 12 months, but the proposal is a barely fleshed-out 21-page “consultation” paper on one page of the Attorney–General’s website.
In reality, I’d say it’s probably the work of a small team of bureaucrats over one week of late nights holed up in a Canberra parliamentary office. However, if it truly is the result of 12 months’ work, it’s a good indication of the laziness of this Government and provides an explanation for why it finds itself in so much political trouble. Not enough work in the development of good public policy.
But should the public be too worried about Morrison’s CIC? Others involved in previous corruption inquiries feel the CIC could create outcomes that are worse than having no commission at all.
The former head of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, David Ipp, said it was the “kind of integrity commission that you would have when you don’t want to have an integrity commission”. Another former head of ICAC, Ian Temby, said it was “not the right model” and holding public hearings are critical to the success of any anti-corruption body.
But rest assured: this body is one that will never be created under this Government. The timeframe just doesn’t allow for it.
For a start, public submissions will be accepted as part of the consultation process up until February 1, 2019. The wheels of bureaucracy move slowly in Canberra and the collation and assessment of public submissions usually takes between two–three months and, with the election due before May 18, 2019, the Government is likely to be in caretaker mode by the time this stage is completed.
And there are only 10 sitting days scheduled for Parliament before May 18, even less if Morrison decides to hold the election on March 2, 2019. Like many of the policy areas this Government is proposing, this CIC is unlikely be implemented.
The Morrison Government is treading water, thrashing about in a sea of irrelevance, before the electorate, in all likelihood, pulls it down and puts everyone out of their misery, including some Liberal MPs. It’s a sentiment best summarised by NSW Liberal Party MLC, Peter Phelps:
“The best thing the Fed Libs could do now is deliberately engineer a vote of no confidence in the Reps; go to an early election; get smashed; and stop driving down the vote in NSW and Vic in the lead up to our state elections. PS this is the near universal view of my colleagues”.
Two announcements, one on religion and one on corruption. This is a Government solidly working towards an outcome on religion no one really cares too much about, and dragging its feet on an outcome on corruption the electorate has been demanding for many years.
It’s not difficult to see why this Government is struggling so badly.