refugee medical review panel

LGBTIQ issues seem to occupy some weird mental territory for Scott Morrison, and have done ever since his side was trounced in the marriage equality plebiscite. It’s a hang-up his government could do without.

In retrospect, that Morrison has some obsession with LGBTIQ issues emerged just days after he became prime minister, when, out of the blue, he used social media to share a false, transphobic Daily Telegraph story, adding “we do not need ‘gender whisperers’ in our schools. Let kids be kids”. That was shortly after he agreed with broadcaster Alan Jones that classroom references to bisexuality and lesbianism “made his skin curl” [sic]. Jones himself is a supporter of marriage equality, in contrast to Morrison, who strongly opposed it. Morrison had told a constituent:

The fundamental reason for my position was well summarised by [John Howard], who stated when legislating the current definition ‘marriage, as we understand it in our society, is about children, raising them, providing for the survival of the species, and I think if the same status is given in our society to gay unions as are given to traditional marriage we will weaken that bedrock institution’. For me this is ultimately about a child’s natural right to a mother and father…

This echoes the homophobic argument from groups like the Australian Christian Lobby that same-sex parents harm their children — a claim repeatedly shown by peer-reviewed studies to be false.

Separately, Morrison also dismissed a question about “gay conversion therapy”. “I’ve never been involved in anything like that,” he responded. “I’ve never supported anything like that, it’s just not an issue for me and I’m not planning to get engaged in the issue.”

At the time this response drew some over-the-top criticism. But his understandable lack of interest in what is a third-order issue even for LGBTIQ people was in peculiar contrast to his oft-restated belief that religious freedom is under attack.

Far from being besieged, religious freedom is in rude health. Taxpayers lose billions of dollars a year subsidising it through the tax and educational systems. Churches are allowed to evade the consequences of their long history of child rape. The most offensive smears were peddled about LGBTIQ people in the marriage equality debate without consequences. There is literally no way in which religious freedom is threatened.

But Morrison has been claiming it is ever since the marriage equality debate. He complained he himself was a victim of “hatred and bigotry” in 2016. He tried to delay and amend the marriage equality bill last year to insert religious freedoms protections, arguing support for extending religious freedom protections was as high as that for marriage equality. 

Since becoming prime minister, Morrison has discussed religious freedom half a dozen times — often of his own volition — and even accused Labor of “lukewarm positions on religious freedoms” while campaigning in Wentworth. He made the issue central to his first major speech as prime minister.

The inquiry into religious freedom set up by Malcolm Turnbull that is now bedevilling Morrison was established to placate him, so he has no grounds for complaint. Apparently it dismisses the lie that religious freedom is under attack, but suggests clarifying law around the ability of religious schools to discriminate against kids based on their sexuality. Morrison professed contentment with this. “It’s existing law,” he declared on Wednesday, indicating — using that weird redundancy tic he has — no desire to “take away that existing arrangement that exists”.

Just how politically toxic this idea is was shown by the speed with which a copy of the report was rushed to a friendly outlet to try to hose down the issue.

It’s also possible that Morrison’s views have been in part shaped by his religious affiliation. Hillsong used to support “gay conversion therapy”, but no longer does so, though it appears to host conversion therapy campaigners. Hillsong head Brian Houston has repeatedly claimed to share the views of St Paul on homosexuality — that it is unnatural, “shameless” and deserving of divine punishment.

Whatever its origins — from his personal faith, or because his side lost the marriage equality debate — Morrison’s obsession is problematic for the government, as Crikey noted some weeks ago. He seems to seriously think religious freedom could be an election winner against Labor, oblivious to the damage it will inflict on his own side. Morrison needs to get over it, and stop obsessing about LGBTIQ issues, for his government’s sake.

Peter Fray

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