BRUCE WEARNE. What can we infer from the more than four month delay in releasing the Ruddock Panel’s Report?

Sep 26, 2018

According to the Government’s web-site, the Religious Freedom Review received over 15,500 submissions. In political terms the review was established so that Parliament and the citizens of this country could have qualified juridical advice about the prevailing situation across this Commonwealth and thus how subsequent public debate should proceed, particularly in terms of the consequences that will follow on from the change to the Marriage Act’s definition of lawful marriage as enacted in legislation last December. It is now over 9 months since that legislation was passed and now it is over 4 months since the Review’s report was handed to the Prime Minister.

But true to form the Liberal Prime Minister, in several statements made by him since he was installed, having replaced Malcolm Turnbull, presumes that, we the body of citizens to whom elected members of Parliament are accountable, can simply rely on the Liberal-National coalition to be the harbingers of religious freedom even while he still sits on the report. It was after all said by the Government back on May 18 that it would be released “in a matter of weeks”. Well, it is now days and Mr Morrison seems to see no presumption in his presumptive comments about what his Government plans with respect to ensuring “freedom of religion.” It is all too ambiguous. Why hasn’t the report been released?

Last year, when our Federal Parliament debated the Government’s “Plebiscite legislation”, the Leader of the Opposition made the impassioned claim that such Legislation would bring on an enflamed debate that would have dire consequences for those who already were seriously at risk because of their sexuality. What he didn’t provide at the time was a well-elaborated view of the Labor Party’s commitment to bring the Marriage Act into line with the 2013 Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status). Well, perhaps he couldn’t have done that without pre-empting the conscientious stand of some members from his own side, because, after all, it would be only at the 2019 election that all endorsed Labor Party candidates would be required, as a matter of party principle, to abide by the National Conference’s stipulation that “same-sex marriage” be a compulsory part of the party’s platform. Just as the Parliament knocked back the Brandis amendment on the legislation, so that there could be untarnished conscientious civil ceremonies giving expression to a “religious” belief that marriage is indeed a union of male to female, husband to wife, so also the Labor Party, presumably, does not have any “freedom of religion” scruples about requiring all candidates to henceforth subscribe to same-sex marriage as a matter of public-legal principle. 

Now that is a state of affairs to keep in mind as we now wonder why, more than 4 months after the report of the Ruddock panel of jurists was handed to the Prime Minister, we still are waiting for its release. This is surely something the new PM has had to deal with behind the closed doors of his Party and his cabinet. And we can’t avoid wondering whether, and if so to what extent, this matter has functioned in the anarchy we have recently witnessed. 

So keeping mind the comments from last year of the Leader of Opposition, and respecting the Parliament’s responsibility to prevent public debate from spiralling out of control because it might have serious social-psychological consequences upon vulnerable people, we can also appreciate why Bill Shorten now, as Leader of the Opposition, is not asking “Questions without Notice” of the new PM to explain why the report still has not been released.

Given the Labor Party’s policy platform it is understandable why the Leader of the Opposition has not put the new PM “on the spot” by asking him to explain the delayed release of the Review’s report. There is a political vulnerability on his own “side” in relation to this matter and no doubt the Liberal-National Coalition will be keen to exploit this given their standing in Newspoll.

But truly, given the 15,500 submissions, one would think that there is a sizeable chunk of the citizenry who would not be pleased with the delayed release. Is the Government and Opposition playing cat and mouse on this? Of course, be accusing the other of doing so they will drop their “side” of politics into profound ambiguity. This is, after all, a vital public-legal issue that is not going away, and is going to be part of our ongoing political debate into the foreseeable future.

And perhaps we should not too quickly assume that Malcolm Turnbull kept the report completely under wraps. The question is an obvious one: have not his Government colleagues, let alone the Leader of the Opposition, already apprised themselves of the contents of the report? Surely the contents could already be well known across “both sides” of the Parliament. But if that were so we, would have to concede further that our Parliament certainly knows how to prevent leaks when the future viability of their own “side” is on the line. Whatever the case may be, we still wait for the public release of the Ruddock panels report. 

The Parliamentary silence about this Report, let alone the extraordinary 4 months of its non-release, by the ABC, the Fairfax and News Corp tabloids, not forgetting the “dogs of war” residents of the kennels of Murdoch and Stokes, suggests in its own ambiguous way that this report is indeed very significant. Maybe it will challenge the self-appointed “movers and shakers” of our fragile parliamentary democracy. Maybe it is that kind of challenge that has necessitated 4 months of careful reflection.

Could it be that the Liberal-National Coalition and their back-room bully-boys have already decided how to use the panel’s report to wedge Labor on its 2019 same-sex marriage electoral platform commitment? Could not the release of the Ruddock panel’s report around the time of calling the next election, enable the Liberal Coalition to point to Labor’s denial of “freedom of religion” and “free speech” on this matter within its own party ranks? Could not such an orchestration help claw back support for the Liberal-National Coalition when a new election campaign gets underway? 

Bruce Wearne (BA, 1972), former Monash University lecturer in sociology, lives in Point Lonsdale, and seeks to contribute to his local and wider community by informal sea-side conversation and the occasional blog.

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