Concerns about religious liberty and freedom of expression were issues that helped topple the Australian Labor Party despite all predictions of a landslide Federal election victory, Christian leaders and commentators said this week.
However last weekend’s shock election result, while welcome, is only a short reprieve in the fight to protect religious liberty in the community, they warned.
Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP said it appeared that concerns around religious freedom affected the election results.
“Anxiety about religious freedom was heightened in recent months, with debates about the funding of faith-based schools, proposed repeal of protections afforded religious schools, the seal of confession, and high profile cases around freedom of speech and belief,” he said.
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“The relative autonomy and legal protections afforded religious institutions, including schools and hospitals, has come under increasing scrutiny and even attack. So too, the ability of individuals to express their beliefs in public.”
Archbishop Fisher said Australian Catholics and other believers will continue to resist attempts to exclude the faith and faithful from public life, including when they exercise their vote.
“I look forward to working with the returned government and all MPs to ensure that respect for religious freedom informs our laws and social policies,” he said.
Media commentator Miranda Devine told The Catholic Weekly that Scott Morrison’s “quiet Australians” had been a key factor.
“They were sick of being derided by Bill Shorten, Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong as morally inferior if they weren’t enthusiastic about divisive identity politics, a radical social agenda and socialist economics,” she said.
“Playing in the background was the Israel Folau saga, which Shorten gratuitously dragged into the campaign as a weapon against Morrison, trying to portray his devout Christianity as bigotry.
Meanwhile, “the booth by booth swings in Western Sydney tell the story of a faith vote which turned towards Morrison on Election Day, and I think it is a glimpse of a future reshaping of the electoral map.”
The Australian Christian Lobby’s managing director Martyn Iles said the result was a win for religious freedom and parents’ rights and it meant that the Coalition now has a clear mandate to legislate for religious freedom, and to stand against radical social policies.
“The policy difference between the two major parties on religious freedom was very clear, on everything from freedom for faith-based schools, to parents’ rights to raise their kids free of gender theory,” said Mr Iles.
“The swings we have seen in these key marginals is partly on account of Labor’s policies which undermine religious freedom, parents’ rights, and pushed a radical social agenda out of step with mainstream Australian values.”
Australian Conservatives Senate candidate Sophie York told The Catholic Weekly that in her campaign travels around regional NSW the issue of freedom of expression came up again and again.
“People were worried about freedom of speech, political correctness and also freedom of religion. They were worried about children being taught only negative things about Australian history, about being taught hypersexuality [through Safe Schools],” said Ms York.
However, she said, “people will have to agitate for protection of freedoms if they care about them and that means meeting with their local Federal member.”
ACU academic Kevin Donnelly said he believed the Labor Party and the Greens were in denial that they lost votes over religious freedom and parent’s rights in education. Prime Minister Morrison “was able to position himself as a rational person and his message resonated with the vast majority of people who are not politically-correct and ideologically-driven when it comes to issues such as the environment and sexuality,” he said.
The turning against Labor in several key seats and especially in northern Queensland also reflected concerns among the more than 30 percent of Australian parents with children in religious schools, he said.
Many of these were worried about radical gender ideology being taught in schools via the Safe Schools program, and the freedom of schools to hire staff who will promote their values.
“An ALP Federal government represented a real danger to – not just freedom of expression – but freedom of religion,” he said.
Professor Patrick Parkinson AM, Dean of Law at the University of Queensland and Chair of Freedom for Faith, said Labor’s policy on religion “was a policy for an aggressively secular society” that has no place for religion in the public square.
“Many of its activist supporters seem openly hostile to those who hold traditional religious beliefs,” Prof Parkinson wrote for ABC Religion and Ethics. “For those voters who hold traditional religious values, the choice was not difficult.”
Sydney Maronite mother of four Mary Giribaldi said Labor did not get her vote because she believed they imposed a threat to religious and personal freedom. “I was also concerned about their anti-life policies including requiring abortion procedures at all public hospitals,” she said.
Mr Iles said that prayer had also played a role. “Among our supporters, I have seen more Christians committed to prayer over this election than any other in living memory,” he said. “By praying and acting, we have seen a win for religious freedom.”
The biggest swings against the ALP in marginal seats across the country included formerly Labor-safe seats in rural or outer-city areas and among migrant communities with traditional values.
In NSW the largest swing was recorded against Labor’s Chris Bowen in McMahon, which includes the suburbs of Erskine Park, Greystanes, Fairfield Heights and Horsley Park. It has a large Catholic, Eastern-rite, Orthodox and Muslim population and registered a strong vote against same-sex marriage in 2017.