Israel Folau
Israel Folau leaves a conciliation hearing at the Fair Work Commission in Sydney. (Image: AAP/Peter Rae)

The conflicts within conservative ranks over religious freedom may not ostensibly relate to divisions within the Coalition over energy policy, but there’s a connection, and one that points to the underlying force driving the eruption of demands for some kind of legislated recognition of religious identity.

The key policy challenge of the previous parliament for the government was energy policy, and not just because it pitted moderates against a rump of climate denialists. It also required the Liberals to abandon core doctrines around free markets in favour of dramatic government intervention.

It was the government that ended up advocating a power to break up energy companies, opposed by Labor who warned of sovereign risk for investors, and the government that swallowed its previous opposition to modest interventions in the gas market in favour of threats of a gas reservation. There remains within Liberal ranks — especially on the competition issue — a core of neoliberals who opposed such interventionism as antithetical to the free market.

A similar split exists on religious freedom. Social conservatives want a maximal approach to guaranteeing religious freedom, complete with a religious freedom commissioner at the Human Rights Commission. Neoliberals, especially the Institute of Public Affairs coterie, see that as little short of a bill of rights that would unleash activist judges; they want, if anything, a minimalist approach — and want to abolish the HRC, not expand it, thank you.

The concern about a de facto bill of rights is overblown, but the neoliberals have a point: enshrining an ever-expanding set of rights linked to identity gives more options to litigate against, if not other legislation (as a proper bill of rights would), then the activities of others in the community. This includes the business community that provides the IPA’s funding and would prefer no one interfering in any contracts they sign with employees. 

Why the sudden push from religious conservatives? The primary narrative is the impact of the marriage equality plebiscite, as a result of which, however irrationally, religious-minded homophobes feel constrained in their capacity to, literally, demonise LGBTI people, with the case of devout sportsballer Israel Folau demonstrating, as Monty Python put it, the violence inherent in the system. I’d argue something deeper is at work. Religious freedom, like other forms of tribalism of varying degrees of legitimacy that have re-asserted themselves in the political sphere in recent years — nationalism, hostility to open borders, ethnocentrism, white supremacism, men’s rights — is a response to neoliberalism.

Like those racial/ethnic/gender-based identities, it reflects a backlash against the central message of neoliberalism, that each of us only has value as an economic unit, that it doesn’t matter if we’re male, female, black, brown, white, queer, Muslim, atheist, from Sudan or St Kilda — all that is important about us is our economic value, consisting of our skills and willingness to work, and that our success as humans is measured only in economic terms. In a society where half of us will earn below-average incomes and most of us will earn a fraction of what is earnt by the ostentatiously wealthy, it’s a message that must inevitably push people toward other identities that can offer a greater chance of fulfilment. That’s what’s happened in recent years across the West and particularly in Anglophone countries.

And what these re-assertive tribes have discovered is a language and thought-system to exploit that had been developed in the identity politics of minority communities. Ignoring that identity politics had been about asserting identity and rights in the face of dominant cultures like white heterosexual males and Christian conservatism, white groups, male groups and, increasingly, conservative religious groups has seized on identity politics to prosecute their own interests — often while still complaining about identity politics themselves (Mark Latham is a beautiful example of this hypocrisy in action).

That the business sector is seen to be aligned against this assertion of religious tribality — corporate backing for a “yes” vote, Rugby Australia’s handling of Folau — demonstrates this split between neoliberalism and social conservatism. For corporations, anything restricting the free operation of the market and individuals’ participation in it — say, discrimination, national borders, social customs around when businesses should open — are anathema, so they’re only too happy to support the rights of minority groups to full participation in society.

This also makes perfect sense to neoliberals within the Coalition, but not to social conservatives who regard their own dominance as under threat from assertive minorities and who regard those minorities as challenging their fundamental view of society — a bit like electricity companies or banks that have tried to exploit their customers as cynically as possible without regard to community standards.

It’s not a tension that is easily resolvable, if at all.

How do you see this new schism developing? Write to [email protected]. Please include your full name if you’d like to be considered for publication.

Peter Fray

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