News Analysis

Did religious freedom swing the Australian election?


As political commentators scratch their heads wondering how Labor lost an “unlosable election”, some commentators are suggesting that religious freedom was a crucial factor.

Just months ago, Labor launched an attack on religious liberty in the form of two Senate bills proposing to remove all exemption clauses for religious bodies from the Sex Discrimination Act (1984). These exemptions are the only positive legal protection for faith-based institutions to teach in favour of traditional marriage or a biological understanding of gender, according to their faith.

This, coupled with extensive media coverage of rugby superstar Israel Folau, who was sacked by Rugby Australia for quoting St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, made religious freedom a major issue for many Australians.

That said, it is impossible to be sure that concerns about religious freedom affected the outcome. The May 18 election also saw a collapse in voter support for minor Christian parties compared with the 2016 election. In any case, Australia has elected its first Pentecostal prime minister, Scott Morrison, and many considered this alone a victory for religious freedom.

Last year Morrison spoke against “gender whisperers” in schools and positioned himself as a defender of freedom. But as the election euphoria wears off, Christians are now asking where the Coalition stands on religious liberty, and especially where it counts; where it overlaps with progressive politics.

On April 10, the then government asked the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) to consider legislation that would “limit or remove altogether (if practicable) religious exemptions”, while “guaranteeing the right of religious institutions to conduct their affairs in a way consistent with their religious ethos”, and also to “remove any legal impediments to the expression of a view of marriage as it was defined in the Marriage Act 1961”.

Greg Walsh, a senior lecturer at the University of Notre Dame’s School of Law, says this was a good “political tactic” to avoid discussing the topic before the election.

Morgan Begg, a research fellow at the conservative think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, suggests the review is unlikely to be good news for religious freedom, saying that Australian Christians should be “concerned”. “The scope of the government’s review essentially prejudices the outcome” by limiting the question to the removal of exemptions, he says. “Many commentators and activists view the exemptions as loopholes that confer an unfair legal privilege to religious institutions. This is an unfair characterisation … The special right created for classes of people in anti-discrimination laws to initiate litigation against others would be more appropriately regarded as a privilege, rather than the exemptions under those laws.

“Exemptions are already a very flawed protection for religious liberty. Reducing these exemptions further is a significant threat to the religious freedoms of Australians.”

The ALRC will report to the government on April 10, 2020.