Has our PM let down people of faith?

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, February 10, 2022. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING

As the Coalition prepares to fight for a fourth term, it’s clear some in its own ranks have forgotten who their genuine opposition is in the parliament.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s self-declared miraculous victory at the 2019 federal election could be attributed to a large extent to unexpected swings to the Coalition in electorates with large numbers of migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds, often with a strong commitment to religious faith.

This was no accident.

“High hopes of having this legislation passed by the parliament before an election have now been dashed as a result of an extraordinary backbench revolt which has highlighted serious cracks in Scott Morrison’s authority …”

In Scott Morrison, these communities could see a Prime Minister with a committed Christian faith, who could act as their ambassador in the face of any public attacks on religious institutions.

And the Prime Minister made a concerted effort to demonstrate that this was not mere lip service through pushing for the introduction of a Religious Discrimination Bill (2021), aimed at ensuring that religious institutions could effectively assert their own values and ethos in the running of their own institutions.

Dr Fiona Martin MP, member for Reid. Liberal Party. Photo: Penny Bradfield AUSPIC/DPS
Dr Fiona Martin MP, member for Reid. Liberal Party. Photo: Penny Bradfield AUSPIC/DPS

For Catholic schools, such legislation was long overdue, enshrining in law practices they had long followed, allowing them to recruit practising Catholics to key leadership positions and ensuring that staff and students were expected to abide by the values and ethos of the school.

High hopes of having this legislation passed by the parliament before an election have now been dashed as a result of an extraordinary backbench revolt which has highlighted serious cracks in Scott Morrison’s authority as Prime Minister and which is expected to hurt the Coalition’s standing with faith communities at the upcoming federal poll.

After a long overnight sitting of the House of Representatives on 9 February, Liberal MPs Trent Zimmerman, Fiona Martin, Katie Allen, Bridget Archer and Dave Sharma crossed the floor, voting with Labor to amend a key element of the religious discrimination laws championed by Prime Minister Morrison.

While the Liberal Party has a tradition of allowing MPs to cross the floor and not be expelled, unlike the Labor Party, a rebellion on this scale is unprecedented in recent times, especially coming as it does just months out from a federal election when party unity is so critical to electoral success.

” yet could [T]hese latest dissident MPs effectively be undermining not only their own re-election chances in their seats at the upcoming federal election, but also those of the Coalition as a whole …”

The last time a Coalition government faced such an internal parliamentary revolt was in 1982 when six Coalition senators crossed the floor to support a Labor bill to curtail the power of the Senate to bring down governments by blocking or threatening to block supply.

Yet could these latest dissident MPs effectively be undermining not only their own re-election chances in their seats at the upcoming federal election, but also those of the Coalition as a whole, given the deep setback the failure to pass this legislation amounts to for Australians of faith?

And should these MPs still be contesting their seats as endorsed Liberal MPs when they have openly defied their leader on what was one of his signature policies which had guided him to victory at the last election?

Liberal member for North Sydney Trent Zimmerman (centre) speaks to the Liberal member for Bass Bridget Archer and the Liberal member for Higgins Katie Allen during a division in the House of Representatives. Photo: AAP, Lukas Coch
Liberal member for North Sydney Trent Zimmerman (centre) speaks to the Liberal member for Bass Bridget Archer (left) and the Liberal member for Higgins Katie Allen (right) during a division in the House of Representatives. Photo: AAP, Lukas Coch

One of the maverick MPs, Western Sydney Liberal Fiona Martin holds her seat of Reid by a marginal 3.2 percent and on the basis of current opinion polls, may struggle to retain it at the next election. Reid is highly culturally diverse with 52 percent of the electorate speaking a language other than English at home.

Census data highlights there is a high concentration of Catholics in the electorate, making up around 27 percent of the electorate in the most recent Australian Census.

It would only take a small proportion of Catholics upset over the Coalition’s failure to honour its election commitments and pass the Religious Discrimination Act to swing the result in that seat and force Fiona Martin out of office.

“It was after all only through Labor working alongside the dissident Liberal backbenchers that the Religious Discrimination Act has failed to pass parliament …”

Another one of the dissident MPs, Wentworth MP Dave Sharma, holds his eastern Sydney seat on an even tighter margin of 1.5 percent.

Wentworth, like Reid, is an electorate populated by many people of faith, with 20 percent of the electorate describing themselves as Catholic and 12 percent as Jewish.

Disappointment over the Religious Discrimination Act could similarly impact upon the result in this seat at the upcoming election.

These amendments effectively mean that Catholic schools could potentially be placed in a highly compromised position.
These amendments effectively mean that Catholic schools could potentially be placed in a highly compromised position.

It should be emphasised that Labor has also failed people of faith on this issue. It was after all only through Labor working alongside the dissident Liberal backbenchers that the Religious Discrimination Act has failed to pass parliament, with a Senate vote on it now unlikely before the election.

These amendments effectively mean that Catholic schools could potentially be placed in a highly compromised position where Religious Education teachers may end up in a position where they are teaching traditional Church teaching about sexuality to transgendered children.

All schools would also need to allow for toilets, change-rooms and in the case of boarding schools, dormitories, for children who may identify as one gender, but a gender that is distinct from their biological sex. This in turn raises understandable safeguarding concerns.

“As the Coalition prepares to fight for a fourth term in power, it is clear that some in its own ranks have lost sight of who their genuine opposition is across the floor of parliament rather than in their own partyroom.”

In political terms, “disunity is death”.

As the Coalition prepares to fight for a fourth term in power, it is clear that some in its own ranks have lost sight of who their genuine opposition is across the floor of parliament rather than in their own partyroom.

Their actions have simply amounted to what in football terms could be considered “own goals” or free kicks for the opposite side of politics in what is promising to be a closely fought federal election.