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Scott Morrison’s inability to think or deal with LGBTIQ issues rationally will yet again cost his government, as he heads into the summer break having broken a promise to end the possibility of religious schools discriminating against LGBTIQ students.

To the extent that it wasn’t apparent when he backed the losing side in the marriage equality debate in 2017, Morrison’s hang-up about the issue has been clear from the moment he became Prime Minister. When not randomly sounding off, unprompted, on the topic, he has repeatedly stumbled on the issue, especially during the Wentworth by-election campaign.

That was when the leaked release of the Turnbull government’s sop to the right-wing losers of the marriage equality debate — a religious freedom inquiry — unleashed the issue of discrimination against LGBTIQ kids out of nowhere. Morrison initially didn’t realise how toxic the issue was, declaring it was “existing law,” and that he didn’t want to “take away that existing arrangement that exists”. But then — displaying the capacity for rapid turnaround that is the one area where he is Malcolm Turnbull’s superior — immediately reversed course and declared he would change legislation before the end of the year. Indeed, it was to be done in October.

Apart from his own personal hang-ups about LGBTIQ people, however, Morrison was hampered by the fact that he has made the entirely confected issue of the threat to religious freedom a foundational issue for his reign. It was literally the first issue he identified in his first speech describing his prime ministership.

Now “religious freedom” is what is preventing Morrison from undertaking what should be the relatively simple task of removing any legislative provision enabling discrimination against LGBTIQ students. The specific impediment is a protection to allow religious schools to undertake teaching in accordance with their religious beliefs.

Think about that for a moment — religious organisations say they’re perfectly happy not to expel a gay or transgender student, but want the freedom to teach those students that homosexuality is evil, or that transgender people are somehow unnatural. If a school demanded the right to teach that disabilities were the mark of Satan, or that left-handed people were intrinsically evil, they’d be laughed out of the court of public opinion. But we’re still at a stage of public life where the right to argue that sexuality can be the target of vilification in the classroom is a serious topic for debate.

Worse, there is solid legal advice that such protection is wide enough to allow active discrimination against students, not just permit offensive pedagogy.

It didn’t help that the government was at cross-purposes with itself yesterday — Mathias Cormann was trying to negotiate a deal with Labor in the senate over Labor’s bill to delay the issue into next year, given neither side was happy with the likely outcomes in that chamber. But Morrison suddenly emerged yesterday morning brandishing his own bill –with the right to teach students that being LGBTIQ is evil intact — and suggesting a conscience vote on it. He hadn’t consulted his own MPs, and he still — inexplicably — hasn’t released the rest of the Ruddock religious freedom report. 

For some reactionaries in the Coalition, this isn’t really about LGBTIQ students or even religious freedom — it’s about the relentless culture war that they and a small coterie of cheerleaders at News Corp and 2GB want to wage. Queensland LNP senator Amanda Stoker warned that LGBTIQ students would be able to run “gay clubs” in religious schools.

“Gay clubs”. Seriously.

Over at The Australian, Paul Kelly attacked Labor and bloviated that “the country faces a deep and complex problem”. In fact, the country faces no such thing. The idea that religious freedom is under attack is an invention of the right, primarily championed by far-right white males and the politicians who pander to them, like Morrison.

Churches — especially the Catholic Church — have extraordinary freedom in Australia and other western countries and have systematically abused it, in the process destroying tens of thousands of lives. The idea that religious schools should be able to teach LGBTIQ students that there is something profoundly wrong with them is an offensive relic from an earlier age. Scott Morrison seems unable to see that.

Peter Fray

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