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Labor religous

Did Labor lose the election because it made religious Australians feel ostracised? Several senior figures seem to think so, with shadow treasurer Chris Bowen warning on Wednesday that the next Labor leader must tackle the party’s problem with religious voters. Crikey sets out here to look into that claim and how religion played into the election more broadly. 

Impact of plebiscite

The 2017 marriage equality postal survey was a lightning rod for religious freedom advocates. But has a solid progressive win in 2017 led to a Labor loss in 2019?

The evidence that marriage equality lost Labor the election is disputable — and much of it is anecdotal — but there may be some truth to it, particularly when looking at electorates that overwhelmingly voted against marriage equality in 2017 and their swings against Labor in this election.

In western Sydney, there were sizeable swings against Labor in traditionally safe Labor seats from electorates that also saw high No votes in the marriage equality plebiscite.

When Bowen — who clocked a 5.6% swing against him in his seat of McMahon — made comments about religious people being left behind. He said:

People of faith no longer feel that progressive politics cares about them. These are people with a social conscience who want to be included in the progressive movement. We need to tackle this urgently. I think this is an issue from the federal election that we simply haven’t yet focused on.

His seat of McMahon in western Sydney had the third highest No vote against same-sex marriage.

In Chifley held by Labor MP Ed Husic, the swing against him was 6.7%. In Blaxland, a safe seat for Labor MP Jason Clare, it was 4.2%. The other swings against Labor in western Sydney were found in Werriwa (2.3%) and Fowler (3.1%). Labor retained these seats despite the swings.

Overall in NSW there was only a 0.5% swing against Labor, but western Sydney holds insight into some complex issues.

Religious groups and the election result

The Australian Coptic Movement Association embraced Bowen’s comments about Labor’s detachment from religious people.

In a social media post, the association which represents Australia’s Egyptian Coptic minority, wrote: “It is great too [sic] see Chris Bowen finally acknowledge this. Others continue to threaten Christians, people of faith and our schools.”

Not only do some religious groups believe their ideals of marriage are under attack, but that their religious freedom is as well.

The issue of religious freedom has re-entered national debate following comments by Rugby Union player Israel Folau’s social media post about gay people and atheists going to hell.

The Coptic Association, like other mainstream Christian groups, have posted that they stand with Israel Folau.

A statement by Catholic Bishops of Australia in the lead up to the federal election did not make any political endorsements, but it did highlight key issues they wanted followers to consider, and interestingly, some of these things were antithetical to Coalition policy.

For example, the statement by Catholic bishops called for an end to offshore detention of refugees and asylum seekers, and re-settling asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru in Australia.

Regardless of how they arrive in Australia, all asylum-seekers should have their claims processed in Australia, according to international conventions, and as speedily as possible. That includes resettling all remaining refugees on Manus Island and Nauru in Australia.

They also highlighted concerns around allowing abortion, and hinted at not supporting same-sex marriage, saying: “We pray for a healthy society in which marriage and family life is respected and supported.”

The publication Catholic Weekly celebrated Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s win, writing on social media it was only a “short reprieve in the fight to protect religious liberty in the community”.

Evangelical Christian religious group Awakening Australia had also been advocating strongly for its thousands of followers to vote for the Liberal Party and other conservative parties.

Daniel Hagen, the associate director of the group, reminded followers to vote for “Scomo and Australian conservatives”. After the Liberal election win, he posted “the bookies said no, the pre-polls said no, the media said no, but God said Scomo.”

“Don’t sleep on the Christian vote! The tide is rising. Thanks to all the many many people that prayed … Australia for Jesus.”

Margaret Court, a former tennis champion-turned-pastor who came under national fire for her homophobic comments, also joined an Awakening Australia ceremony to encourage followers to pray for Prime Minister Scott Morrison prior to the election.

Labor religious
Tennis great and controversial Australian Margaret Court speaks to religious group Awakening Australia.

Court, who was criticised for saying tennis was “full of lesbians” and called transgender children the work of “the devil”, called on the thousands of worshippers to pray.

Crikey understands the Lebanese Muslim Association (LMA) has quietly supported the Liberal Party as well, but has not been as vocal about it, given the polarising views around Islamophobia and the Coalition within the broader Muslim community.

Weeks before the election, on April 30, the Morrison government gave the LMA $4 million in funding.

History repeats?

Frank Bongiorno, an Australian labour historian at the Australian National University, told Crikey evidence was anecdotal and it cannot be known if religiosity won the Liberals the election.

“Those who vote that profess the Christian religion and are regular attender of services tend to be conservative,” he said.  But he added the Labor Party “was hardly running some anti-clerical line. It may be that marriage equality has detached some voters.

“It’s pretty early days … we would have to wait until the Australian election study to see if there was a shift in religiously minded voters towards Coalition.”

Bongiorno said there also “seems to be a repeat of the things said in the later Howard years”.

“Howard sealed up the more conservative devout Christian voters,” he said, pointing to outfits like Hillsong and other evangelical groups.  

But when former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd succeeded him in 2007, one of the readings of the win was that Rudd was a very devout Christian. “He was able to present himself as a Labor version of Howard and the kinds of hesitations that some Christians might have had about a figure like Latham clearly weren’t going to apply to someone like Rudd.”

Bongiorno said the perception of the Labor Party was that it was a more secular party, and Christians tend to identify more with the conservative values of the Coalition.

“There are culturally widespread perceptions that the Coalition takes religious (groups), particularly Christianity christian seriously.”

What do you think about religion’s potential impact on the election outcome? Let us know by sending us an email along with your full name to [email protected]

Peter Fray

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