Gearing up for big fight
The Ruddock report leak could sink the Coalition’s ship in Wentworth by-election
THERE’S nothing quite like a critical by-election to shake out some policy detail. With voters in the Sydney Harbour-side suburbs of Wentworth heading to the polls in seven days, the two leaders rolled out their big guns this week. And they weren’t the only ones throwing some policy meat on the table.
The Prime Minister’s pitch is all about lower tax and stronger growth. He announced the fasttracking of tax cuts for small and medium-sized businesses, as was flagged back when the Senate killed off big business tax relief.
Scott Morrison barely had time for a handful of high-viz vest appearances to spruik the policy, though, before Opposition Leader Bill Shorten backed it in.
Labor previously opposed such a generous tax rate for small business, but never mind. Neither side can claim consistency in the company tax debate. With an energetic new Prime Minister ready to target every shopfront in every marginal seat, Shorten made a pragmatic call.
He doesn’t want to hand Morrison a campaign weapon.
This now ends three years of tortuous debate over company tax. The Coalition and Labor are now on the same page: big business gets nothing; the small end of town takes the lot.
For his part, Shorten offered $14 billion this week for public schools, funded through Labor’s already announced tighter rules for negative gearing, capital gains and franking credits. There will be no such bipartisan agreement here. This, says Morrison, is high-taxing, high-spending Labor at its worst.
As with any campaign, though, it’s the stuff that comes from leftfield that can have a far greater impact than the best-laid policy plans. And so we come to this week’s mysterious appearance of the Ruddock report on religious protection.
The report from former attorney-general Philip Ruddock was commissioned by Malcolm Turnbull last year in an effort to settle angry conservatives during the same-sex marriage debate. It has sat in the in-tray of Turnbull and now Morrison since May.
Someone clearly felt the voters of Wentworth deserved to know its contents before casting their votes.
When news broke that a central recommendation was for religious schools to be “guaranteed the right to turn away gay students”, Morrison’s initial reaction was to simply say “they already can”.
He was right to point this out but missed an opportunity to take a strong personal stand. Clearly the idea of religious schools kicking out kids simply for being gay was an offensive one. It may be technically allowed under the existing law, but schools have rarely, if ever, used this power.
Morrison has strong political instincts but showed a blind spot in his initial reaction on this. He said “no one” was arguing for the existing laws to be repealed.
To his credit, the Prime Minister shifted ground by the end of the week. He told Andrew Bolt on Sky News: “I don’t think if someone’s at a school they should be kicked out because they have a different sexuality to what might be believed to be the appropriate thing by a particular religious group.”
If that’s what he thinks, the Prime Minister himself believes the existing law needs to change.
As for Shorten, he initially called it a “silly idea” to bring in new laws letting religious schools discriminate against gay kids.
The Opposition Leader made no mention of the existing laws and Labor’s role in writing them.
By yesterday, Shorten was calling on Morrison to “work with him” to fix these laws and “ensure no child is denied human dignity”.
Wentworth has the highest proportion of gay voters in the country. In this final week of campaigning, Morrison will now come under pressure to back up his comments to Bolt with action.
The Ruddock review calls on the Commonwealth to “amend the Sex Discrimination Act to provide that religious schools may discriminate in relation to students on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status”, as long as “the school has a publicly available policy outlining its position in relation to the matter”.
If Morrison really wants to ensure no kid is “kicked out because they have a different sexuality”, he will have to reject that recommendation. He will also have to change what he rightly says is the “existing law”.
The Ruddock review contains some sensible suggestions to modernise state and federal laws, such as abolishing the offence of blasphemy. Its call for a religious discrimination act is also worthy of consideration. But this whole debate was hardly a can of worms Morrison wanted to open on the eve of the Wentworth by-election.
If things go badly next weekend for the Liberals, some will blame the leaking of the Ruddock report. Given it’s been sitting in the in-tray for five months, there was always a risk this ticking time bomb would detonate at the worst possible time.