Bad time for a time bomb

Herald Sun - - OPINION - DAVID SPEERS DAVID SPEERS IS THE SKY NEWS PO­LIT­I­CAL ED­I­TOR

THERE’S noth­ing quite like a crit­i­cal by-elec­tion to shake-out some pol­icy de­tail. With vot­ers in the Syd­ney har­bour­side 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 in this cam­paign is all about lower tax and stronger growth. He an­nounced the fast-track­ing of tax cuts for small and medium-sized busi­nesses, as was flagged back when the Se­nate killed off big busi­ness tax re­lief.

But Mor­ri­son barely had time for a hand­ful of high-viz vest ap­pear­ances to spruik the pol­icy be­fore 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 ends three years of tor­tur­ous 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 down 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 that 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 that 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 new laws to let 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, the Prime Min­is­ter will come un­der pres­sure to back up his com­ments to Andrew 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, like 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.

Scott Mor­ri­son dons the high-viz vest again while cam­paign­ing in Went­worth this week.

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