Scott Morrison’s federal government has insisted on putting its Religious Discrimination Bill to a vote in one of the last sitting weeks of Parliament before the 2022 federal election. The proposed laws date back to a commitment then Liberal Party prime minister Malcolm Turnbull made, following the 2017 legalization of same-sex marriage. Opponents of same-sex marriage claimed that the reform would infringe on their ability to discriminate against LGBT people on a religious basis and demanded their bigotry be enshrined as a “right.”
Although a progressive backlash forced Morrison to water down the proposed laws, five Liberal Party MPs voted against the bill in the lower house this week on the grounds that it could expose LGBT students — and trans students in particular — to victimization. Nevertheless, the bill passed thanks to votes from the Australian Labor Party (ALP).
There was no guarantee that Morrison’s laws would find majority support in the Senate. Then, on Thursday, following a further backlash, the Australian Christian Lobby withdrew its support for the bill, saying they would now “do more harm than good.” The Coalition government quickly shelved the legislation, instead proposing an inquiry.
Labor could have blocked the Religious Discrimination Bill. Instead, after insisting on a few amendments, the party voted for it, effectively conceding that a handful of moderate Liberals are more principled defenders of LGBT rights than the ALP. It was an unnecessary capitulation that illustrates the long-term results of a Third Way Labor outlook that doggedly pursues triangulation and a small-target strategy, no matter what principle must be sacrificed.
A Bill to Protect Rights
At its heart, the Religious Discrimination Bill was a clumsy and resentment-driven intervention into the legal framework that protects human rights in Australia.
In 2017, Malcolm Turnbull legalized same-sex marriage following a plebiscite that backed it by 61.6 percent. With the hard right of the Liberal Party up in arms against Turnbull’s moderate faction, he agreed to set up a panel that would review potential legal reforms to protect religious freedom. Chaired by former attorney-general Philip Ruddock, the “Ruddock Review” recommended amending federal anti-discrimination legislation to allow for religious institutions to discriminate on the basis of sexuality and gender identity.
40 percent of Australian high school students attend a private school. Although Australia is a largely secular country, the overwhelming majority of these private schools are affiliated with a Christian denomination. Consequently, the debate over “religious protections” mainly centered on whether and to what degree religious schools should have the ability to exclude LGBT staff and students.
Morrison’s Religious Discrimination Bill was about more than just school students, however. It was also an attempt to wage a culture war against LGBT rights and, at the same time, an attempt to shore up the Coalition’s hard-right Christian support base.
In an attempt to assuage critics of the laws, the government also proposed changes to the Sex Discrimination Act to specifically protect students from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation. As many progressives pointed out, these protections excluded transgender students. The government itself gave credence to these fears by signaling that under the new laws, it would be legal to expel students on the grounds of their being trans.
The most contentious aspect of the bill itself was the “statements of belief” clause. Described as “the right to be a bigot” clause, it granted legal protection to statements underpinned by religious beliefs. For example, a principal could make a speech to a school assembly stating that it is a sin to transition genders, and regardless of the impact this might have on students, it would be protected by law, provided they could prove it accords with a sincerely held religious belief. Thanks to section 109 of the Australian Constitution, this would have overridden state laws and some Commonwealth laws.
Hollow Social Liberalism
Suffice to say, Christians in Australia do not face persecution and enjoy ample protection from laws guaranteeing freedom of religion. The Religious Discrimination Bill was never about religious freedom and always about the so-called freedom to be a bigot.
You would think the ALP — a center-left party — would have simply voted against the bill. Especially given Morrison’s catastrophic unpopularity, they would likely have stopped it in its tracks. Instead, they offered amendments while insisting they would support the laws, even if these amendments were rejected. This was accompanied by strong rhetoric about the need to protect LGBT rights, including an impassioned speech by MP Stephen Jones about the suicide of his gay nephew. Nevertheless, Labor voted for the bill in the lower house while five Coalition MPs refused.
This unnecessary capitulation demonstrates the long-term results of Third Way Laborism, which claimed to uphold socially liberal values while adhering to neoliberal economics. For a time, the ALP sought to distinguish itself from the Coalition on the basis of more progressive attitudes toward women’s rights, aboriginal rights, multiculturalism, LGBT rights, and other socially left-wing causes. Meanwhile, they advanced an economic agenda that was all but indistinguishable.
This fiction can hardly be maintained today. The ALP has had a virtually identical policy as the Coalition on offshore refugee detention for decades now. More recently, Labor abandoned its promise to reverse massive tax cuts for the richest Australians implemented by the Liberals and Nationals.
And now, Labor has found itself to the right of a handful of Liberal MPs on the question of LGBT rights and, bizarrely, less pragmatic than the Coalition government, which decided it was wiser to shelve the bill than risk further controversy. Perhaps Labor’s only unwavering principle is its commitment to abstain from taking a position on potentially controversial questions, for fear of exposing itself to attack from the Right. Not only does this lead to right-wing laws, it undermines Labor electorally. A large majority of Australian voters opposed Morrison’s Religious Discrimination Bill.
By refusing to block Morrison’s laws, it’s not so much that Labor traded principle for pragmatic results. Rather, they threw away an easy political victory, threw LGBT people under the bus, and allowed themselves to be outflanked to the left by the few Liberal MPs who do support LGBT people.