There have been many people (me included, initially) unable to believe that the Labor Party voted for something so appalling as the Religious Discrimination Bill, and many have been complaining about it subsequently.
Many need to realise that this Morrison bill was simply designed to wedge the Labor Party. It is not like there aren’t other more pressing problems, but this was one thing Morrison wanted people to think was important. Morrison knew that it was something the Labor Party were not favourably disposed to support. However, if they voted against it, he could wave it in front of any religious group and say ‘see the Labor Party don’t care if you are discriminated against’. That was to be the wedge in this case.
This legislation was also a sop to the religious organisations who were vehemently opposed to marriage equality, and who can never forgive the Australian people for voting overwhelmingly for it, especially when the religious believe they know what is best for everyone.
The government has stated that the Religious Discrimination Bill “will ensure that individuals cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their religious belief or activity”. The Australian Christian Lobby, a prominent supporter of the legislation was a bit less vague when it said “Religious freedom laws are essential to ensure that you – and all Australians – can live according to their convictions in public life” and “increasingly, you can be punished if someone feels offended by you expressing your beliefs. You could even face investigation or legal action for your stance on faith, family, abortion, marriage, sexuality, gender and more1.
There have been several drafts of the bill, with earlier versions causing an enormous amount of consternation and fear in the LGBTIQ+ community, and among women and some minorities2.
This is because large parts of the bill were about maintaining the ability to indulge in hate-speech, and maintaining the ability to discriminate on the basis of sexuality and gender3.
The recent Citipointe Christian College debacle is symptomatic of the sort of discrimination that the Religious Discrimination Bill would allow. The college drew up an enrolment contract for the parents of students to sign. It stated “the college will only enrol the student on the basis of the gender that corresponds to their biological sex” and says homosexuality is “sinful”, like bestiality, incest and paedophilia. Fortunately, there was such an outcry, including from some students and their parents, that the college had to back down and the Principal had to go on gardening leave. There were also complaints by the Queensland Human Rights Commission and concerns raised by Queensland Education Minister Grace Grace. The Non-State Schools Accreditation Board has also begun to consider whether the contract breached rules for students to be treated equally, under rules for schools that receive state government funding. The school receives $3.6 million in recurring state funding and more than $10.8 million in federal government funding4.
As shown by the outrage over the Citipointe ‘contract’, most Australians do not support such bigotry, but Scott Morrison is not one of them. He is quite capable of using bigotry if it suits his purposes.
As I say above, there are many people who are incensed at the fact that the Labor Party would even consider voting for such a bill. However, there was a reason for this, which stems from Morrison’s approach to politics and his use of the wedge at every opportunity. It was explained in detail by Van Badham in a Facebook post which I paraphrase here. While most people who read this blog have an interest in politics, there are a few who don’t so much, and even some people I have met, do not know much about the mechanics of parliament. So, at the risk of stating the bleeding obvious to some, here goes:
There are 151 seats in the House of Representatives (the House) which are occupied by your local Members of Parliament (MPs). Scott Morrison is Prime Minister because the Liberal and National parties won a majority (76) of those seats in the 2019 election
One of these seats belongs to the Speaker of the House (which leaves 75 seats), and the Speaker only votes when there is otherwise a tied vote. So, Morrison has a very slender majority, but it is a majority. When a bill is debated in the House, it needs a majority to pass, so normally the government can pass whatever it wants because it holds that majority5.
People have spent days demanding that Labor block the Religious Discrimination Bill. Labor are the Opposition because they are the second largest party in the House – but they only have 68 seats. Therefore, in addition to not being able to pass any legislation, Labor does not have enough votes in the House to block any legislation. 75 beats 68 every time.
In addition to the Labor Party, there are also 7 seats held by representatives who are not from the Liberal, National or Labor parties. These are called the “crossbenchers*” and even if every one of them voted with the Labor Party in an attempt to block the bill their vote would only top up the Labor vote to 75 which would not be enough because the Speaker would vote with the government making it 76 vs 755.
So what can you do if you want to stop the bill? You try to break off votes from the Liberal Party. You need at least 3. Not voting with your own party is called “crossing the floor” and it is extremely unusual in Australian politics because of internal party discipline and likely punishment which could be demotion or disendorsement by the party5.
As is now obvious, Scott Morrison playing footsies with far-right religious bigots (like the Australian Christian Lobby) is not universally popular within the Liberal Party. The party has an internal, if small, faction known as “Moderates” whose politics are more pro-business than social conservative and who tend to have live-and-let-live civil libertarian principles. Moderates tend to represent seats that are full of rich people, but tend to be socially progressive. In these seats, if a sitting Liberal member expresses arguably homophobic or misogynist attitudes (like Tony Abbott did), their electorates pump money and resources into campaigns for more progressive, if-pro-business independents (like Zali Steggall). Some of these Liberal Moderates fundamentally disliked the homophobic/transphobic elements of the Religious Discrimination Bill, and have seen the anger it could arouse in their seats. However, they knew their political futures in the Liberal Party would be doomed if they crossed the floor to block the legislation, so they were never going to do that5 if the Labor Party simply voted against it.
In this situation, what other parties and independents can do in the House – even from their minority position – is propose amendments to legislation. Normally, the government can just use their majority to ignore these, of course. However, Labor had heard enough rumblings from disgruntled Liberal MPs to know that if they banded together with enough crossbenchers, they could split the bill into tiny pieces and propose a stream of amendments that some Liberal Moderates would support, thereby progressively cutting out the worst parts of the bill. The political slang for this is ‘gutting the bill’. It would provide opportunities for some Moderates to alter or remove bits of the bill that they could not stomach, such as the part allowing trans children to be expelled from a religious school5.
To reassure the community – in case this strategy failed – Leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese made a commitment that if the bill did pass in a disagreeable form, Labor would repeal it when next in government. So, Labor pledged publicly to support passage of the bill. If they had pledged to vote against it, the Liberal and National parties would have just waved the bill through without debate, the rebel Moderates would likely have fallen into line and the ‘gutting’ process would not have been possible5.
Not all of the Moderates agreed with all of the amendments. The whole process meant all the MPs had to stay up until 5am debating the various amendments. But what emerged was a bill that had removed enough of the hateful content that it did not give the bigots – or Scott Morrison – what they wanted5.
Once a bill passes the House, it goes to the Senate, where more amendments are debated and it is voted on again. Whatever the Senate agrees on goes back to the House for the government to decide if they’ll accept the Senate’s version of the bill, or not. The government does not have a majority in the Senate. At present, there are 35 Liberal and National senators and 26 Labor senators. There are also 15 crossbenchers**. To get their bill through, the government needs to find 38 votes. One Nation vote with the government almost always, but finding the last vote can be difficult as the remaining senators serve vastly different agendas5.
What Labor were banking on with their ‘gutting’ of the bill in the House was that the government would not like the butchered legislation enough to do deals to get it passed in its amended form. However, for Morrison to get it rewritten to what he wanted would take a mammoth effort of negotiation – all the crossbench senators would be very aware that the only party likely to benefit electorally from making the bigots happy would be the Liberals5.
Also, depending on the mood of the Senate, more amendments than those Labor had managed in the House might be possible with the participation of enough crossbenchers – and maybe more Liberal Moderates. The likely result would be a bill so changed from what Morrison intended that when it went back to the House, the Liberals would not pass it.
Was Morrison prepared to spend political capital doing deals with cross bench senators on an unpopular, mutilated bill that had already revealed deep divisions in his own party?
As it turns out, he was not5.
As a consequence, Morrison announced that the Liberals were shelving the bill. The amended version had even been disowned by its chief spruiker, the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL). They stated that removing the exemptions which allowed schools to discriminate against trans students “completely undermined” the bill6. That says much about the vicious bigotry that is part of the ACL’s ethos.
Labor’s strategy worked, and this egregious piece of legislated bigotry is likely no more.
*House of Representatives crossbenchers: There are 3 independents, 1 Green and 1 person each from Centre Alliance, 1 Katter Party and 1 United Australia Party.
**Senate crossbenchers: – 9 Greens, 2 One Nation, 1 Centre Alliance, 1 Lambie Network, 1 Patrick Team and 1 independent