When politics discovers faith
Religious freedom may be dead for now, after the Morrison Government failed to get its proposed bill through Parliament, but the politicians who killed it have hardly shied away from appearances at Churches over the Easter Season.
The Federal Election has seemingly transformed the country’s critics of religion into saints, with the campaign serving as a factory of faith to produce pitches for religious voters.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has set the tone, and his public religiosity has been on full display for both good and ill. He has shown solidarity with various Church communities, including the Ukrainian and Maronite Churches, but has also been exposed to attack for his closeness to Hillsong’s leadership, and by the losers in the Liberal Party’s factional warfare.
Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, in a blistering speech in late March, described Morrison as “lacking a moral compass and having no conscience”.
“His actions conflict with his portrayal as a man of faith. He has used his so-called faith as a marketing advantage,” she said.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has been reminding voters of his “three great faiths: the Labor Party, the Catholic Church and the South Sydney Rabbitohs” as part of a Labor push for Catholic votes in Western Sydney.
Even those directly responsible for the defeat of the religious freedom bill have seen the light this election.
Liberal MP Fiona Martin, who is seeking re-election in the western Sydney seat of Reid, crossed the floor during the marathon Parliamentary debate over the bill. After its defeat she said, despite assurances from the Prime Minister, that “nothing was guaranteed to protect [gender diverse] kids” in the bill.
In 2019, following the conviction of Cardinal George Pell – later overturned – she posted on Facebook: “Sure the church is much more than how it is being perceived, a wealthy international tax-free pedo ring?”
Yet Martin’s social media during the campaign has served as a production line of religious commemorations and appearances, including appointments on Good Friday at St Charbel’s Monastery, and at the 2022 Annual Iftar dinner with the Muslim Community and Grand Mufti at Bicentennial Park on 19 April.
She rolled out further branded posts on Facebook celebrating Passover (15 April), the Sikh and Hindu festival of Vaisakhi (14 April), as well as the Tamil New Year feast of Puthandu (14 April) and the beginning of Ramadan (2 April).
Dr Martin, who is of Greek descent, also posted images of her celebration of Orthodox Easter and the Baptism of her daughter four years ago at St Ambrose Catholic Church in Concord West.
Trent Zimmerman, another key Liberal player in the destruction of the bill, walked with clergy in the Easter procession at St Michael’s Greek Orthodox Church in Crows Nest. He posted several photos on his Facebook page wishing the Greek community a happy Easter.
In 2019 Zimmerman said a religious discrimination bill was “a missing link in our legal regime” but, after months spent publicly opposing the bill, said that crossing the floor was “an opportunity I cannot let go pass”.
Catholic votes are especially sought after in key Western Sydney seats this year, after the Labor Party’s 2019 post-election review found they had lost first-generation migrant Christians, in particular.
In December the Labor Party organised a faith climate summit in Liverpool, attended by the Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese, as well as Labor heavy-hitters Tony Burke, Deborah O’Neill and Kristina Kenneally.
Kenneally, who in 2019 described the church as “a failing and decaying institution” was also photographed in the communion line at Sacred Heart Cabramatta earlier in April. She is attempting to make the switch from the Senate to the lower house seat of Fowler, which has a strong community of Catholics (26.7% at the 2016 Census) and is more than one fifth Vietnamese.
And Tanya Plibersek, the MP for Sydney, said Labor was still true to its roots in Catholic Social Teaching when she presented the Mannix Oration at Newman College in late March.
Political scientist Greg Melleuish, from the University of Wollongong, said that this year the rise of minor parties and Australia’s increasing pluralism meant there were “multiple elections going on” according to voters’ State, religious beliefs, ethnicity and a raft of other factors.
Politicians “have to construct an almost contradictory personality,” Dr Melleuish said. “They’re both conservative and progressive. That’s what I think the leaders have to do.”
“They have to portray themselves – Morrison is probably better than Albo at this – one way in one electorate, and another one in another electorate. Like a chameleon.”
Dr Melleuish says the PM’s “manner and style ooze this mixture of salesman and Pentecostalism, and perhaps the two go together very well”. Nevertheless he is “a very wily character, and he knows that he can only go so far” before he alienates supporters inside his own party. “Pentecostalism is a bit of an acquired taste in many ways.”
Religious voters are also being wooed because the minor parties have become more disciplined and determined to increase their showing this election.
“It’s the mavericks [like Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer] who strike me as having a big picture strategy. They’re engaged in different activities – they just want to build supporters,” Dr Melleuish said.
“Given that they’re making so much more effort this time, if they’re ever going to make a breakthrough you’d think it would have to be this election.”
“[The major parties] never had quite this level of ‘outsiders’ push in, and how do they react? Maybe going to Mass, and trying to shore up a few votes in that direction.”
“it’s disappointing that after two years of debate, the answer is, ‘it’s all too hard”.
Dr Renae Barker, an expert on the intersection of law and religion at the University of Western Australia, said it was understandable for religious communities to be suspicious of politicians’ displays of religiosity at election time.
“As for authenticity, politicians will be politicians,” she said. She added that, in the wake of the religious discrimination bill, “people are feeling very stung, very disillusioned on all sides.”
“The religious communities that wanted the bill put a lot of effort into it, and to be frank so did a lot of academics. It’s disappointing that after two years of debate the answer is, ‘It’s all too hard.’”
As Australia becomes more secular and religious affiliation declines, we are likely to face more issues in which voters and parliamentarians make decisions based on vastly different sets of values. The religious discrimination bill was always going to leave some people “unhappy” even if it had succeeded, Dr Barker said, “because some of the positions were so diametrically opposed and entrenched”.
“Some of the religious communities will feel understandably a little nervous that promises were made, promises were not kept. Where do they go from here?”