After nine years of Liberal government, Australia has voted in a new Labor government.
This was not a traditional Australian election.
The percentage of the primary vote cast in favour of Labor and Liberal fell to unprecedented lows – one out of every three voters voted for a non-major party candidate. A wave of teal independents dislodged moderate Liberals from blue ribbon inner-city Liberal seats that were formerly unimpeachable blue territory. The Green party dramatically increased their representation in both Houses. The Liberals are left with a diminished presence in Parliament and suffered a significant leakage of votes on both the moderate left and the conservative right of the Party.
Even the most savvy political analysts have struggled to read the tea leaves.
People of faith, especially Christians, wonder what implications the election will have for religious freedom in Australia.
In 2019, part of Labor’s electoral failure was attributed to the perception that they had deserted working class people of faith and were preoccupied with progressive political issues. In the 2022 election, Labor presented a much smaller target and supported religious freedom in their national platform. This appears to have successfully arrested the flow of religious voters away from Labor.
But what can the Christian constituency actually expect from Labor over the next three years?
Christians focussed on social issues like climate change, indigenous reconciliation and refugee policy, will be encouraged by this election. There are many genuine members of faith in the Labor party. Already, the new PM has indicated his government’s commitment to implementing the Uluru Statement of the Heart and to establish an indigenous voice in the Constitution. He also placed climate at the top of the agenda for the Quad meeting of international leaders..
However, Christians who are concerned about increasing hostility towards Christians in Australian society will be more ambivalent. The prospect of a Labor government that relies on Greens to achieve its legislative programme will cause great apprehension.
While Labor is committed to protecting religious Australians from discrimination, it will undoubtedly rip up the Morrison government’s Religious Discrimination Bill.
The Labor track record on religious freedom suggests that any protection will be weaker than that advanced in the Morrison Religious Discrimination Bill.
At State level, Labor-initiated human rights legislation has consistently given religious freedom watered-down protection. Federal Labor is likely to follow that same pattern.
Labor is likely to strip away legal protections that allow religious schools to operate according to their beliefs. During the failed passage of the Religious Discrimination Bill, Labor supported the hijack of the Religious Discrimination Bill by LGBT activists and the baseless framing of the RDB as an attack on LGBT Australians. Indeed, in 2019, Penny Wong, now a government cabinet member, spearheaded a Bill to strip legal protections from Christian schools based on unfounded scare tactics of LGBT activists.
Now in government, Labor is likely to introduce legislation to target religious schools and organisations and strip away their ability to keep harmful ideology out of schools, to provide a safe place for kids to experience Christian formation and to educate children in accordance with the teachings of the Church and the wishes of parents.
A Labor government is also likely to introduce gay “conversion therapy” prohibition laws. Ostensibly, these laws are aimed at harmful aversion therapies aimed at changing the sexual orientation of vulnerable people, which all agree are horrendous.
In reality, Federal conversion therapy laws will target Christians and the church using hysterical and emotive language to obscure a deficient evidentiary base. Such laws are likely to criminalise churches and religious organisations that hold to orthodox Christian doctrines on sexuality and identity. Church doctrines that advocate celibacy for the unmarried could be made illegal.
It is a truism that politics follows culture. Much of the hostility towards people of faith arises from cultural forces and the balkanisation of the public square into diverse and combative interest groups. Increasingly, Christians who prioritise their faith over the prevailing ideological fashions of the day face hostility – exclusion at work, discipline in universities, compulsion against conscience, disciplinary procedures and court action to silence their voices. This is quite a separate issue from who currently resides in the Lodge in Canberra, but an incoming Labor government is unlikely to pursue policies which push back against this overreach into the personal faith lives of religious believers by corporations, employers, education providers and professional bodies.
While none of these risks are a foregone conclusion, it is likely that people faith will see further weakening of religious freedom protections under a Labor government. It is quite possible that advocates for religious freedom will increasingly find little ground for confident expression of a grand Christian vision in the public square but will instead spend much time in a wary defensive crouch.
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