Religious freedom, One Nation, it's all spin

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash
Monday 29 November 2021

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

In politics, a name says everything about how a given party wants to be seen but obscures what it actually does.

Globally, democracy is sliding as parties parade their democratic bona fides but consolidate their power.

Central and Eastern Europe is leading the descent. Poland’s Law and Justice Party delivers nothing of the kind. And Viktor Orban’s Hungarian Civic Alliance (Fidesz) is an alliance of the favoured few over the disadvantaged many.

Both were elected on reformist pro-democratic platforms. Both quickly set about re-drawing the system by changing the electoral rules, stacking the courts, incorporating media, enriching their inner-circle with plum posts and contracts, and silencing opponents.

What about the Anglosphere?

Surely the trusty old Tories in the British Conservative Party are solid? Forget it. Ruthlessly pushing Brexit, they ignored the constitution to shut down Parliament, lied constantly about Brussels and the EU, lied about Northern Ireland, traduced the courts and crashed through parliamentary conventions. Some of the party’s older burghers were expelled for putting up resistance (including Winston Churchill’s grandson and two former chancellors of the exchequer).

Extreme anti-Europe fervour was pursued in the full knowledge it might well cause the break-up of the UK itself.

The ongoing debacle showed the Tory party was many things, but conservative wasn’t one of them.

All across the pseudo-democratic world, parties promenade as one thing, deliver something else.

And they extend these marketing tricks to programs as well like the war on drugs, and the war on terror. Operation Enduring Freedom delivered a colossal amount of death but secured precious little “enduring freedom” for the women of Afghanistan or anyone else.

The marketing name-game follows ‘the law of inverse relevance’ which states “the less you intend to do about something, the more you have to keep on talking about it”.

In the pilot episode of Yes, Minister, Sir Humphrey pithily explains why a departmental report titled ‘Open Government’ actually defends secrecy, “Always dispose of the difficult bit in the title, [it] does less harm there than in the text”.

The parties shaping the Morrison Coalition’s tremulous approach to vaccines and climate adhere to this law also via virtuous names like One Nation, United Australia Party, The Nationals, and The Liberal Party of Australia.

Consider what they do in practice.

One Nation divides. It belittles scientific knowledge, attacks consensus, and fans social disharmony. Similarly, UAP peddles lies and stokes outsider resentment aided by a flood of Clive Palmer’s money.

Both parties seek to undermine national purpose channelling anti-vax sentiment and asserting the rights of the unvaccinated over the more fundamental rights of the majority trying to protect each other.

Then there’s the Nationals. Besides, the obvious flaw that the party room has no MPs or senators from WA, SA, Tasmania, or the ACT, (ie half the country) the dear old Nats seem most passionate about foreign controlled fossil fuel companies. They could easily be called the multi-nationals.

The Liberals pursue illiberalism as often as not, opposing improved accountability and integrity measures which would better protect the individual from government overreach, financial waste, and corruption.

With some honourable exceptions, Liberals reflexively block individual freedoms even when supported by mainstream Australians such as voluntary-assisted-dying, private cannabis use, and same-sex marriage.

Their simmering rage at being forced into that 2017 liberalisation can be found in the current pernicious Bill fashioned to give religionists special dispensation to keep discriminating against women, LGBTQI+, and non-believers. And what a triumph of false nomenclature that Bill is also. Mostly it is short-handed in media as the religious freedom bill. Genius.

But there is no fetter on religious freedom, nor prohibition on faith – just on the prejudicial treatment of others. As then AG, George Brandis once told the Senate, “people have a right to be bigots”. This bill seems to be about legislating that right. Such retrograde law might qualify as right-wing libertarian, but liberal?

The Liberal Party’s commitment to the Religious Discrimination bill underscores the extent to which its priorities match those of the more extreme right-wing parties.

That’s concerning enough given that just weeks back the junior Coalition partner was effectively handed veto powers on the nation’s Glasgow climate position.

The outcome was longer on the PM’s political self-interest, than any national benefit. But Morrison’s prime goal was the headline. Marketing. Always marketing.

Whether we are entering the final week of this parliamentary term will depend on Morrison. Does he come out of the summer break and proceed to a March election or wait to deliver a budget before a May poll?

Either way, female voters will be an interesting dynamic. After the stresses of home-schooling and working and doing everything else, the nation’s women are exhausted.

Few felt that the PM every really connected with them through the long dark days of lockdown even as they carried the economy and held the straining social fabric together. Fewer still will have been convinced by the government’s reluctant response to assault allegations, and subsequent revelations of endemic sexism in politics.

Seeing a PM back in hardhat and hi-viz only confirms the suspicion that to the Coalition, the only jobs that count are those held by men. Men who drive utes.

Still, even hardhats might be a better look than any more parliamentary weeks like the last one.

Despite his majority, it turned into a shambles.

It began with five Coalition senators crossing the floor to back a Hanson bill she couldn’t even vote for herself. If ever there was an image of a government adrift and forlorn, here it was with Hanson directing the chaos via Zoom link.

It ended with Morrison railing in the Parliament against a lawfully constituted anti-corruption commission in New South Wales – just hours after one of his own backbenchers crossed the floor in protest at the absence of a corresponding federal anti-corruption body.

 “What was done to Gladys Berejiklian … was an absolute disgrace,” Morrison thundered in an attack apparently designed to launder the erstwhile premier’s reputation and discredit her investigators.

Berejiklian, who remains popular in her home state of NSW, is said to be the Liberals’ favoured candidate in the federal seat of Warringah at the coming elections.

Morrison continued, “…I’m not going to allow that sort of a process … the Australian people know that Gladys Berejiklian was done over by a bad process and an abuse.”

Viktor Orban wouldn’t have put it any differently if it were happening in Hungary.

Mark Kenny is a political analyst for The Canberra Times. He is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast. 

Updated:  30 November 2021/Responsible Officer:  Institute Manager/Page Contact:  Institute Manager