The devil you know

September 17, 2020
Sydney marriage equality rally, September 2017. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Australia’s Religious Freedom Bill is part of an ongoing unholy war on our increasingly fragile democracy. Currently in second draft, the bill would write into law the right to discriminate — on the grounds of religious freedom — against citizens in ways currently illegal under the Anti-Discrimination Act.

So, how did a democratic, secular country like Australia find itself in a place where a bill like this can survive to second draft?  Like most things in politics, it’s all about context.

Way back in 2009, right-wing commentator Andrew Bolt wrote two articles which, in 2011, the Federal Court found breached the Racial Discrimination Act. Conservatives were very cross and framed the verdict as an attack on free speech, rather than the racial vilification the Court found it to be.

In retaliation for the Bolt verdict (and Labor’s 2013 royal commission into child sex abuse in the church) and with a cheer squad led by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott (2013–2015) then Attorney General George Brandis sought to amend Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, saying it infringed people’s “right to be a bigot”. There was a significant media assault and lobbying by conservatives in support.  

In March 2017, amendments to 18C were voted down in the Senate. Malcolm Turnbull was by then PM and conservatives were now fighting on multiple fronts.

The marriage equality debate was also raging and, by then, had reached fever pitch. Rather than do their job and vote for or against it in parliament, according to their constituencies’ express wishes, conservative MPs, aided by church lobbyists, made sure the Turnbull government conducted a public plebiscite instead. That way they didn’t have to put their name to it.

Things were bad enough on the right, and same-sex marriage was a step too far towards the progressive democratic socialist hell they feared. Equality brings transparency and accountability. Both are conservative kryptonite.

Led by Abbott church lobbyists, the conservative right and their media set the dogs on marriage equality. Homophobic discourse was unleashed, disguised as free speech. Ridiculous scenarios were aired as real possibilities: priests being forced to preside over people marrying their dogs; bakers baking gay wedding cakes under duress. 

Biased coverage and hellfire rhetoric abounded, ensuring the much-warned-about death threats and hate indeed materialised. 

Anti-gay sentiment was whipped into a frenzy. The plebiscite was shaping up to be everything the conservatives wanted. They should have been more careful what they wished for. Sometimes it’s better to keep the devil you know.

As it turned out marriage equality and democracy had a resounding win. Overall, 61.6% of Australians voted “Yes” and there was much waving of rainbow flags in euphoric victory.  Apart from the obvious win for inclusion and equality under law, for once the increasingly fundamentalist religious right in parliament had to give the electorate what they actually wanted.

On December 9, 2017, same-sex marriage was made legal after a long and courageous campaign by its supporters.  

That should have been the end of it, but even as the party streamers and spent balloons were swept away, conservatives cranked past mere outrage. They were incandescent with indignant rage at the consecutive losses and vowed to do whatever it took to get their power back.

As the defeated regrouped in parliamentary offices and diocesan presbyteries, a call to arms was issued to the faithful. They needed something that would give them back what they had lost: the right to be racist, to cover up and perpetuate child sex abuse (citing the sanctity of the confessional) and the right to exclude anyone but white heterosexual Christians from their ranks if they wished. Nor would they make the mistake again of allowing the decision to be influenced by the electorate. The Religious Freedom Bill was the answer to their prayers.

It was on.  Every cross-media favour imaginable was called in. The airwaves blistered with scathing commentary. Conservative media dredged up every fundamentalist theologian and far-right commentator they could find. They fed the privately owned 24/7 news cycle with a ceaseless tirade of half truths and ominous warnings of a bleak future under the jackboot of “The Left”. 

In Parliament House the usual lobbying, skulduggery and deal-making continued. Late last year, the fundamentalist conservatives carried the hopes of their well-funded base — and the first draft of the Religious Freedom Bill — into Parliament.  

And now, here we all are.

Right now the second draft sits in Attorney General Christian Porter’s out-tray awaiting redemption. We have a devout evangelical PM, a majority privatised media and MPs appearing on Sky News.

We must do whatever it takes to stop it. The greatest irony of all is, if the Religious Freedom Bill isn’t stopped once and for all, it is democracy itself that goes to hell.

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