In the same way former Attorney- General George Brandis caused freedom of speech to be redefined as “the right to be a bigot”, so too has the Prime Minister derailed his religious freedom agenda by allowing it to be rebranded “the right to discriminate”.
Even if the Morrison government had not withdrawn its religious antidiscrimination legislation from parliament altogether last week, the hopes of Christians to practise their faith in peace may be thwarted because of an intellectual and philosophical weakness at the heart of the centre-right in politics. By using the anti-discrimination framework to address concerns about the place of Australians of faith in the public square, the government has in effect accepted the dangerous notion that rights and freedoms are created by governments and given to the citizenry at their whim.
Reframing the natural rights all Australians possess as citizens of a free nation to a positive right produced through state power is a disempowering notion that implies our ability to lead a dignified, independent life is conditional on those who occupy positions of political power. By pursuing religious freedom through provisions in anti-discrimination law, the government is attempting to impose restrictions on speech and acts against Australians of faith, while also retaining exemptions for faith-based decisions or actions, granting what some label a “licence to discriminate”.
In 2014 this was enough to kill the Abbott government’s noble effort to repeal the restrictions on speech in section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, when George Brandis famously said that a person “has the right to be a bigot”.
Then and now these questions about our fundamental freedoms are being reduced to the lowest common denominator. A real debate is not possible when people are arguing over a caricature of what is a serious issue.
When one of roughly 2500 Christian schools currently operating in Australia published a letter to parents outlining its moral view on issues such as sexual activity and gender identity, the Prime Minister immediately responded by promising to make it harder for a faithbased school to make decisions about enrolment in accordance with its religious values.
Having accepted anti-discrimination laws as a means of protecting freedom, the Morrison government was illequipped to mount a defence for religious exemptions in the same type of laws.
It is not clear if any Christian schools in Australia have a policy of expelling or refusing to enrol gay students or whether anyone mounting the argument has ever investigated the claim.
The strawman argument over gay students is a facade to cover an underlying hostility to Christian schools imparting on students a faith-based education. This hostility explains why the threats by Coalition MPs such as Bridget Archer and Trent Zimmermann to cross the floor to vote against the religious discrimination legislation is the opposite of courage.
Such a stand is only possible because it is so safe to do so. MPs like Archer and Zimmermann will promote the welfare of children in a hypothetical scenario but have been silent about the mental health crisis inflicted on our nation’s youth during the course of two years of lockdowns and Covid restrictions.
Much of the problem may be beyond a quick government fix but there is a role for legislation and the way existing anti-discrimination laws are weaponised against Australians of faith must be a part of the discussion.
But because of its philosophical uncertainty on the issue, the federal government opted to add more antidiscrimination laws, and to water down one of the few safeguards set aside for faith-based schools.
This flawed strategy will ultimately mean Christians could be more easily targeted by atheists for acting in accordance with their religious beliefs under laws Christians are told will protect their right to live in accordance with those same beliefs.