You might labour under the delusion that a carbon tax, or the flood levy, or perhaps even milk prices, were the issues that got Coalition MPs agitated in their joint party room meeting yesterday. No, a number of them were up in arms over bibles at citizenship ceremonies. Or, more particularly, the lack thereof. Oh, and bees, but that’s another story.

“Political correctness gone mad,” fumed Tasmanian senator and zealous Christian Guy Barnett, who has been trying to give the issue some higher profile than the Mercury for several months courtesy of various Estimates hearings. His concern? That the Government’s code for citizenship ceremonies says they “must not be used as forums for political, partisan or religious expression or for the distribution of material which could be perceived to be of a political or religious nature.” Which means that local councils, politicians, religious proselytizers or anyone else can’t hand out political or religious material at the ceremonies. People can bring their own holy book to use, but other people can’t use ceremonies as a chance to hand out material.

Even Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull weighed into the issue in the partyroom to express concern. So did another frontbencher. “Political correctness gone mad,” declared Scott Morrison to The Telegraph (yes, he said it too).

Far Right commentator Bill Muehlenberg leapt on the issue to declare “there is a major attempt by the Liberals to put the Bible back into citizenship ceremonies. This is because Labor thinks they should have no part in such activities, and they have been banned.”

Can we call it Biblegate yet?

So who is responsible for this, erm, political correctness gone mad? Has that unmarried atheist Julia Gillard snatched bibles from the desperate hands of would-be citizens? Was it Chris Bowen or Chris Evans who removed the divine presence from citizenship ceremonies? Does Labor hate God that much?

Well, no. The guilty party is in fact in Queensland. The man responsible for Biblegate is 4BC’s very own Gary Hardgrave.

Hardgrave was one of John Howard’s Ministers for Citizenship. And it was he who overhauled the code for citizenship ceremonies in 2003. The previous code, established in 1998, specifically identified bibles as an appropriate gift at citizenship ceremonies. Under Hardgrave, the code was changed to remove that, and to make clear that political and religious material was not to be distributed at citizenship ceremonies.

Hardgrave sent the code to all local councils – indeed, he had worked with the Australian Local Government Association in developing it. And a few months later, Hardgrave got into a blue with ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope over the latter’s involvement in citizenship ceremonies. Hardgrave warned of the importance of ensuring ceremonies were “off-limits to potentially divisive issues such as political, religious and social commentary.”

Under Hardgrave’s code, people can bring along Bibles, Korans, astrology charts, copies of the collected works of L. Ron Hubbard, or whatever they like to ceremonies for the purposes of swearing allegiance. But other people can’t hand out political or religious material or use such events for the purposes of spruiking a party or religion. It’s an eminently sensible approach. But perhaps the likes of Guy Barnett and Scott Morrison can join the ranks of his talkback callers to tell him they disagree.

You may think it odd that such an issue – and one entirely made by the Howard Government – occupies the time of our hard-working Coalition MPs. But the Coalition has history on citizenship ceremonies. It wasn’t just the Howard Government’s repeated attempts to dogwhistle via the issue of Bradman-based citizenship tests. Age journalist Julie Szego did a great feature back in 2006 on how citizenship ceremonies were politicised by the then-Government despite the code ostensibly banning it. The efforts included a quite extraordinary “mistake” in which an attack on groups “who do not respect nor value diversity” was added to the Ministerial Message of welcome to new citizens, a fairly unsubtle attack on Muslims in the febrile atmosphere of the war on terrorism and the occupation of Iraq in 2005.

Not, of course, that the complaints about the lack of bibles would be related to the recent round of poisonous Islamophobia and exploitation of asylum seekers by senior Liberals.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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