Crash or crash through: Mor­ri­son politi­cises re­li­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion de­bate

The Guardian Australia - - News - Katharine Mur­phy and Paul Karp

Just be­fore 6pm on Tues­day night, a group of Coali­tion sen­a­tors in­sisted on a meet­ing with the gov­ern­ment Se­nate leader, Mathias Cor­mann, and the at­tor­ney gen­eral, Chris­tian Porter, to thrash out the gov­ern­ment’s po­si­tion on re­li­gious free­dom.

The group of nine con­ser­va­tives made their views clear. They wanted their amend­ments to a La­bor bill cur­rently in the cham­ber to be put as gov­ern­ment amend­ments, oth­er­wise they would vote the bill down.

Over the course of that meet­ing, ac­cord­ing to sources present, an al­ter­na­tive bill was sud­denly ref­er­enced – one that had been drafted by the prime min­is­ter, Scott Mor­ri­son.

There had been two meet­ings of the gov­ern­ment party room this week – the fi­nal sit­ting week of 2018 – and the Mor­ri­son bill was not pre­sented or ref­er­enced at ei­ther meet­ing, which would have fa­cil­i­tated a broad­rang­ing con­ver­sa­tion in­side the gov­ern­ment.

Given re­li­gious free­dom is an eggshells is­sue in­side the Coali­tion, some of the group was taken aback by the sud­den ap­pear­ance of a prime min­is­te­rial bill, but formed the im­pres­sion it was a back-pocket option.

Roll for­ward to Wed­nes­day morn­ing. The prime min­is­ter ap­peared in his court­yard with an of­fer. He was pre­pared to present his bill – the one that some Se­nate con­ser­va­tives had only just been alerted to – and al­low a con­science vote on it, a devel­op­ment that has left in­ter­nal crit­ics frus­trated about the prime min­is­te­rial im­pro­vi­sa­tion.

The in­ter­nal frus­tra­tions are pre­dom­i­nantly about process. Con­ser­va­tives want the po­si­tion ar­tic­u­lated in the Mor­ri­son bill to be a for­mal gov­ern­ment po­si­tion, not an op­tional po­si­tion. An op­tional po­si­tion would give Lib­eral mod­er­ates an op­por­tu­nity to vote against it in the event they chose to do so.

There has also been in­tense frus­tra­tion that Mor­ri­son has not yet pro­vided a for­mal re­sponse to the Rud­dock re­view, that in­quiry that trig­gered the whole dis­cus­sion. One fu­ri­ous con­ser­va­tive told Guardian Aus­tralia on Wed­nes­day Mor­ri­son’s “cap­tain’s call” would only make things worse.

The trig­ger for Mor­ri­son’s of­fer was a de­ci­sion ear­lier in the morn­ing by the Se­nate lead­er­ship to park La­bor’s bill.

The Se­nate agreed to de­lay con­sid­er­a­tion of the La­bor pro­posal to re­peal re­li­gious ex­emp­tions to dis­crim­i­na­tion law to pro­tect LGBT stu­dents be­cause the de­bate had reached a stale­mate.

Ear­lier in the morn­ing, the Cen­tre Al­liance flagged sup­port for a gov­ern­ment amend­ment that would le­galise both in­di­rect and di­rect dis­crim­i­na­tion against stu­dents based on gen­der and sex­u­al­ity through a schools’ “teach­ing ac­tiv­i­ties” – some­thing La­bor de­clined to sup­port.

La­bor’s Se­nate leader, Penny Wong, told the cham­ber the le­gal ad­vice was clear. “This amend­ment would de­stroy the in­tent of the bill, to re­move dis­crim­i­na­tion against LGBT stu­dents,” she said.

“Worse still, the ad­vice is it would worsen dis­crim­i­na­tion against LGBT stu­dents, al­low­ing pos­i­tive dis­crim­i­na­tion by staff. Even al­low­ing teach­ers to refuse to teach LGBT stu­dents.”

Very shortly af­ter the Se­nate lead­er­ship ac­knowl­edged the im­passe and agreed to shelve the de­bate, Mor­ri­son elected for crash-or-crash through.

He said he would re­turn to ne­go­ti­a­tions with La­bor to try and set­tle the is­sue. In the event com­mon ground could not be reached, Mor­ri­son said the is­sue could be de­ter­mined by a con­science vote.

Mor­ri­son quite clearly saw op­por­tu­nity to stir the pot on the La­bor side. He told re­porters some La­bor MPs may want to sup­port the gov­ern­ment’s amend­ment, which states the Sex Dis­crim­i­na­tion Act does not ren­der un­law­ful teach­ing ac­tiv­ity done “in good faith in ac­cor­dance with the doc­trines” of the school’s re­li­gion.

Se­nior fig­ures in the Catholic church were also ac­tive over the course of Wed­nes­day morn­ing, con­tact­ing La­bor par­lia­men­tar­i­ans urg­ing them to sup­port the gov­ern­ment amend­ment.

Bill Shorten re­sponded to Mor­ri­son’s throw­ing down the gaunt­let by say­ing thanks but no thanks.

La­bor didn’t need a con­science vote on the is­sue, Shorten told re­porters, be­cause “no one with a con­science sup­ports dis­crim­i­na­tion”.

Shorten ac­cused Mor­ri­son of “weapon­is­ing” the dis­pute. He ad­vised the prime min­is­ter to look for the out­come rather than “look for the an­gle”.

“I am not pre­pared to give up on re­mov­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion against kids and re­spect­ing re­li­gion in our so­ci­ety, but what we don’t have to­day is a solution,” the La­bor leader said.

“So the ques­tion is – when you don’t have a solution, do you just en­gage in a train wreck? Or do you draw breath?”

Shorten said the op­tions be­fore the par­lia­ment were clear – a “big fight to di­vide the coun­try”, or par­lia­ment could “do what we’re paid to do – which is we sit down and we keep work­ing through the is­sue”.

Pho­to­graph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

At­tor­ney gen­eral Chris­tian Porter and prime min­is­ter Scott Mor­ri­son speak on re­li­gious free­dom and gay stu­dents at a press con­fer­ence onWed­nes­day.

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