Morrison left empty-handed by botched attempt to appease bigots

Feb 15, 2022
scott morrison barnaby joyce
Morrison received an apology from Joyce, but the damage had been done. (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

The Prime Minister’s abject defeat spotlighted the decline of his moral authority and standing in his party.

The courage and tactics of Anthony Albanese over the religious bigotry bill were clearly superior to those of Scott Morrison. If there was any doubt about that it was dissipated by the government’s decision to abandon the bill rather than to chance its arm over numbers in the Senate, and the fury of the fundamentalist lobbies when they announced they would rather not have their freedom of religion legislated for in the form that Labor, Independents and a number of religious moderates wanted.

Labor achieved this while always insisting that it was in broad favour of the idea of legislating a right to ban discrimination on the grounds of religion — in a manner similar to other anti-discrimination law. Indeed, Albanese said, Labor had been in favour of Morrison’s originally announced formula, and if it now wanted amendments, particularly so as to prohibit discrimination based on gender, that was because Morrison had considerably narrowed his promise that the legislation would not allow the expulsion of school students on the grounds of sexuality or gender.

Morrison overreached, and retrieved nothing by promising that he would, if re-elected, review the position of transgender students in the first six months of the new term. It’s possible that the promise reduced the number of Liberals who crossed the floor in opposition to the discrimination clause, apparently on the basis that a net advance in the rights of homosexuals was worth a temporary suspension of equivalent rights for transgender children.

But he did not satisfy all of the Liberal moderates — who ended up voting for a formula that significantly enhances the rights of gay and transgender people, at school or otherwise, and which may effectively prevent discrimination against gay and transgender teachers and others working in religiously bigoted schools and institutions.

It is not the first time in Australia that religious organisations seeking to reduce rights for others have shot themselves in the foot. While it is true that anti-abortionists in the United States have been very successful in state legislatures and in the courts in reining in the right to abortion, those who have moved to restrict abortion laws in Australia have almost invariably ended up being the direct cause of legislation which has widened and entrenched a woman’s right to choose. Those opposed to that right in Australia do not have open to them the constitutional pathways, or the partisan courts, that exist in the US.

Morrison’s abject defeat on the issue joined with other humiliations during yet another week in which the luck never ran his way, and during which his moral authority and standing in his party and the electorate continued to decline.

The week before an anonymous cabinet minister was said to have leaked emails in which Morrison was described (by Gladys Berejiklian, during the bushfires two years ago) as a “horrible horrible man” more interested in politics than people, and as a “psycho” by one of his colleagues. Then it emerged that Barnaby Joyce had sent a private message to Brittany Higgins rejecting, as a lie, Morrison’s claim that he had not known about her complaint of rape.

Joyce had also referred to Morrison as a hypocrite and a liar, who was always rearranging the truth into a lie. Joyce apologised and withdrew of course, but could hardly undo the damage. It had been Labor members who had put Morrison’s habit of twisting the truth into campaign fodder, but now they could step back, using instead the statements of Morrison’s own close working colleagues.

In some respects it was not his fault that the National Press Club had invited Grace Tame and Higgins to speak in the middle of the first week of parliament. But it was no coincidence that parliament was making apologies over sexual harassment and assault on its premises. The government’s staff work was again seen to be wanting in the failure to invite prominent victims.

And it was natural and predictable enough that Higgins and Tame would be asking questions about the depth of the government’s commitment to workplace measures to attack the problem of men’s violence. Morrison may have sounded sincere enough — they are just words after all — but there was every impression given of another obstacle to re-election being ticked off as neutralised or put to rest.

For good measure female ministers, especially for “women’s matters” were dispatched to the press club to glare at the speakers, with body language showing they would rather be anywhere else, perhaps somewhere they could be shown deference or respect from the many other accomplished women present. Perhaps the ministers attended of their own accord, but if so they showed no signs of solidarity. Nor of conversion or epiphany, or even understanding of the speeches about power, strategies and action.

Whether or not the great hand-washer and  hair-washer has neutralised the unease and anxiety he seems to excite in women, Morrison could blame no-one but himself for the scorn thrown at him, and the gibes that a good many of his measures were announcements rather than actions, gestures rather than real changes, politics rather than policy. Those most likely to be disaffected, male as well as female, were, of course, likely to be hostile to the idea of entrenching bigotry.

His focus on images and impressions was further undermined when he let it be known that he was “staking his leadership” on the religious freedom legislation, and begged backbenchers who had already been expressing public reservations to stand by the government in a sign of unity, the more important given that an election was imminent. They had all, after all, shown solidarity by voting for National Party ideas to frustrate effective climate change action over most of the term.

And that in spite of the fact that inner-city Liberals were complaining that one of the most effective arguments being used against them was that, on climate change matters, a vote for the sitting Liberal was a vote for Joyce’s position. Claims that they were enabling discrimination against gays and transgender people would be even more damaging.

Unless Morrison is returned at the election, it can be assumed that the legislation is dead. If there is to be a legislated freedom, it will be in completely different form, certainly not one drafted to suit the ambitions of a tiny minority of practising Christians.

The completeness of the humiliation was underscored by reports that Morrison was rolled in cabinet by his own ministers on the tactics to be followed after the passage of the bill through the House of Representatives. Morrison was, apparently, furiously trying to devise new, even more absurd tactics, such as the making of a deal with dissidents over the passage of a somewhat improved anti-corruption commission in exchange for getting the legislation through in unamended form.

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