For a government that desperately needs to convince voters it is actually focused on their needs rather than internal Liberal party feuds, the sight of Scott Morrison on a far-right talk show promising to introduce new religious discrimination laws should be very worrying.

It’s bad enough that the prime minister of the country skipped cabinet to grace Sky News’ after-dark goonfest, occupying a spot sometimes graced by frolicking fascists, but his apparent obsession with the issue of religious freedom signals a man with priorities other than the concerns of ordinary voters. 

Voters are concerned about stagnant wages, especially in the private sector where workers have been going backwards. They’re concerned about health services. About housing. About whether their kids will have a lower standard of living than they will. But for Morrison the priority is “preventative regulation and legislation to ensure your religious freedom in this country”.

Note the term “preventative”. Morrison actually admits that none of the problems he wants to regulate against actually happen in Australia. Prevention is, apparently, the best policy — albeit not in relation to climate change, which the government has no policy of any kind on, preventive or otherwise. And not in relation to wider rights protection beyond religion, such as via a bill of rights.

What Morrison doesn’t admit is that existing anti-discrimination laws indulge religious institutions to an extraordinary degree already, allowing institutions to discriminate against and punish people for who they are and what lifestyle choices they make, in a manner entirely unacceptable in ordinary business and workplaces.

[Ostentatious religion could make a bad situation worse for ScoMo]

Morrison’s bizarre views on the need for preventive religious freedom protection might be related to his own faith. More likely, however, is that he is keen to shore up his support within the right of the Liberal Party — the sort of people who actually watch Sky’s goosestepping parade, and who have the sense of victimhood of powerful white people terrified that their privilege is under threat. But this focus on the concerns of a small minority comes with an opportunity cost in an electorate convinced the Liberals — and, for that matter, all politicians — don’t serve the interests of ordinary voters but of the influential, the connected, the political donors.

Morrison also professes to be concerned about freedom of speech: “Issues of freedom of speech, I’ve seen where they’ve gone over the last 10 years. I’m not quite sure I’m pleased with the trajectory.”

Well, Prime Minister, you’re in luck, because you could strike a big blow for freedom of speech this very minute. Pick up the phone, call your Attorney-General and tell him to revoke his approval for the vexatious and malicious prosecution of Witness K and Bernard Collaery for the “crime” of embarrassing the Howard government, Alexander Downer and ASIS, and doing so entirely legally.

That would demonstrate that you believe in freedom of speech even when you don’t like what’s being said, even when it’s embarrassing, even when it reveals your own side behaved badly.

But perhaps Morrison, like pretty much every free speech supporter on the right, only likes free speech when people like him want to use it to criticise people they don’t like.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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