Be careful what you wish for. Have those pushing for more protections in the same-sex marriage bill, in the name of religious freedom, thought through the consequences of what they are advocating?
At a political level, the calls are coming in particular from Liberal conservatives, Nationals cabinet minister Matt Canavan, and former prime minister John Howard.
Treasurer Scott Morrison is putting himself, via the media, at the forefront of seeking protections beyond those in the Dean Smith bill that is being debated – which already includes substantial safeguards for those of faith who object to same-sex marriage.
News Corp columnist Miranda Devine, characterising the Morrison intervention as resuscitating his leadership credentials among the conservatives, set out in the Sunday Telegraph what amendments Morrison is seeking.
“They include provisions allowing parents to withdraw their children from Safe Schools-type classes that do not accord with their values, and offering protections for people, schools or charitable organisations that maintain a traditional view of marriage, so that they are not sacked or refused funding for their beliefs,” she wrote.
A few days before, an Australian article had Morrison as “the most vocal cabinet voice on stronger freedom of speech and religious protection amendments”.
Fellow conservative Peter Dutton, who’s anxious to get the same-sex marriage issue off the agenda, also wants more protections in the current bill but has proposed a discussion in the new year for a bill covering “a general religious protection”. This would reduce the breadth of the immediate debate.
“I don’t support a bill of rights, but … I want people to be able to practice their own faith, regardless of whether it’s Christianity or any other religion or no religion at all and I want them to do that without fear or favour,” Dutton said last week.
The segue into an attack on the Safe Schools program is a common conservative mantra. “I do think this Safe Schools movement will use this debate as a launching pad for their next wave,” Dutton said. “That is a genuine concern that I think a lot of parents have.”
Tim Wilson, one of the five Liberal backbenchers who forced marriage back onto the government’s agenda, counters by pointing out that the Safe Schools part might run into constitutional problems because the states run the government schools.
Wilson on Sunday also highlighted a contradiction in the conservatives’ push for extending religious rights. “Where this discussion around having an extra protection around religious freedom takes us is towards a charter or a bill or rights,” he told the ABC.
“It’s an oddity to see many people who identify as conservative or socially conservative who have traditionally opposed a bill of rights or charter of rights now prosecuting this cause,” Wilson said.
It might be said that the advocates of extra protections are really wanting a mini bill of rights for those of faith.
Another and potentially serious concern about the push is that it could be counterproductive for our successful multicultural society, where harmony depends on keeping a fine balance between integration on the one hand and the right to maintain separate traditions and values on the other.
The strong pockets of “no” voters in the postal ballot were concentrated heavily in western Sydney, driven by the social attitudes of various ethnic communities there.
It’s one thing for these voters to register their opposition to same-sex marriage. But wouldn’t there be a danger to bestowing a set of rights that could, if taken to the limit by some minorities, balkanise our community?
Isn’t there a risk that these “protections” could be used by those preaching extreme social stands to press parents into what could become educational ghettoes for their children? That would turn the notion of “protections” on its head.
What’s still missing in this debate is any clarity around what people think they won’t be able to do, or where the existing laws are likely to fail to protect them. They will certainly be able to maintain their advocacy of traditional marriage – and remember, the Constitution provides protection for freedom of religion.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the “protections” argument is driven by a combination of three factors – frustration at losing the vote, jumping at shadows, and using the opportunity to advance another agenda.
Smith, interviewed on Sky on Sunday, tagged the tactic as “deny, deflect, and delay” – trying to deny the outcome, deflect from the actual issue, and delay a parliamentary resolution.
But it seems clear that what Howard would call the iron law of arithmetic is against these advocates being able to get their way on the bill. While there will be some fine-tuning, on what we know of the numbers these conservatives won’t have the support in a free vote to change the bill fundamentally.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra