Paul Bongiorno
Australia’s political leaders enter the lions’ den

Reaching for the Bible is more often than not frowned upon in contemporary, secular Australia. But Bill Shorten did it with gusto in a major speech that may well help define his leadership. At the same time Tony Abbott has embarked on a mission that may well end his.

Both men could be likened to Daniel in the biblical story, entering the lions’ den. He emerged unscathed after saying his prayers while his enemies perished when they were meted the same punishment. The prime minister may need to say his prayers after setting his government on a course to reform the basic arrangements of the federation, which in no small part would mean a radical shake-up of the way Australians are governed and taxed. The opposition leader, on the other hand, has survived telling the annual conference of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) that he is a Christian and his faith values lead him to respect gays and to want an end to discrimination against their relationships. 

This aspect of the opposition leader’s speech grabbed the headlines but was not all of it. He was not making a sensationalist play for attention. It was a carefully thought-through statement of his principles and a manifesto for his leadership. It answered the core question many, particularly his political opponents, throw at him: What does he stand for?

Shorten came in for severe criticism from many supporters of marriage equality for even daring to speak to the ACL. The more rabid bombarded the Facebook page of the Hyatt Hotel in Canberra, where the conference was held. The hotel was attacked for being a venue for “bigots”, “hypocrites”, “homophobes” and worse. Shorten was shocked the lobby group attracted such hatred. But he was determined to press on. His speech was not directed at the ACL as such but more broadly at militant conservatives who see Labor pursuing an agenda that undermines the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage as they narrowly perceive it. 

His intent was clear from the start: “I hope we can share our hopes and ideals robustly, respecting each other’s dignity and conscience.” At the suggestion of his parish priest, he began his spiel quoting Matthew’s Gospel and the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” And at the risk of sounding like a bible basher, he went on: “Judge not, Jesus tells us. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged. And above all he tells us to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. In everything, do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” This is the golden rule he says he’s spent his working life trying to live up to.

But far from claiming all wisdom and knowledge is Christian, the Labor leader showed a sensitivity to the contemporary secular ethos the ACL and its supporters in the past have failed to acknowledge: “No faith has a monopoly on compassion. No religion ‘owns’ tolerance or charity or love ... And Australians rightly expect our national leaders to respect the constitutional separation of church and state ...

“And no faith, no religion, no set of beliefs should ever be used as an instrument of division or exclusion ... Condemning anyone, discriminating against anyone, vilifying anyone is a violation of the values we all share.”

In clear and unequivocal language he shocked some in his audience and outraged others with this searing synthesis: “How can compassion, charity, love recognition and endorsement continue to be restricted to heterosexual Australia and the nuclear family? I believe in God and I believe in marriage equality under the civil law of the Commonwealth of Australia.”

ACL managing director Lyle Shelton resented Shorten’s accusation that his organisation used the Bible to attack gay marriage or blended families. He rejects the suggestion that the lobby group is in fact the equivalent of the Christian right in Australia. 

This sensitivity is curious as he mounts the argument against gay marriage and parenthood in the same terms as the leading Liberal conservative, senator Cory Bernardi: “Children have a right to know and be raised by their biological parents.” 

In January, the ACL blog cited him approvingly: “Bernardi marshals the well-known (but frequently ignored) social science evidence which says children do best when raised by their biological mother and father.”

“The ACL is championing the rights of the vulnerable child over the rights of the adult gay couple,” Shelton says.

But there is evidence public opinion is increasingly on Shorten’s side. The Essential poll has found 60 per cent support for gay marriage with only 28 per cent against it. Overwhelmingly Labor and Greens voters are for it, Liberal voters are more or less evenly split, while a clear majority of “Others” back the proposition.

While Shorten emerged from the ACL lions’ den not only relatively unscathed but with his reputation enhanced, at least among marriage-equality advocates, Tony Abbott is still to be tested. Indeed, he appears to have put his head in a lion’s jaws like a circus daredevil. The prime minister would have no illusions about the potency of a boots-and-all tax scare campaign that he has gifted to the opposition. 

His Sir Henry Parkes Oration, delivered in Tenterfield, is about more than the GST, it is also about shrinking the federal government dramatically. There is one dynamite paragraph that his office did not release in its pre-delivery briefings to journalists: “The Commonwealth would be ready to work with states on a range of tax reforms that could permanently improve the states’ tax base – including changes to the indirect tax base, with compensating reductions in income tax.”

The biggest indirect tax is, of course, the $55 billion goods and service tax. Abbott’s offer to consider raising it has to be seen alongside his pre-election agenda “that our federation reform white paper was meant to make each level of government more sovereign in its own sphere”. This can only mean the Commonwealth retreating from health, education, roads, police, housing and planning, and restoring full responsibility to the states where the constitution allocates them. It would be a winding back of the post-World War II evolution to a stronger national approach.

In his 2009 book Battlelines, Abbott didn’t think the states were up to it, and the early signs are they are not willing to wear the blame for hiking the GST. Victoria’s Liberal premier, Denis Napthine, facing an election this month, knows it’s electoral poison and would not have a bar of it. Queensland’s Liberal National Party premier, Campbell Newman, was less emphatic, but he, too, said he was not calling for a tax hike. South Australian Labor premier Jay Weatherill rejected it as unfair, and his view was shared by federal Labor: “It is by its nature regressive. It will place the burden more on those who can least afford it.”

Having opened the door to the possibility of a major shift, the prime minister retreated somewhat in parliament under sustained attack for breaking his promises on tax.

“Let me make it absolutely crystal clear – no one in this parliament at this time is proposing change to the GST.” Hardly a ringing endorsement of his own clarion call for all sides to embrace the reforming zeal of old.

“What I am proposing is that we have a mature and rational debate about fixing our federation … I am proposing that just for once everyone in this parliament put the long-term national interest ahead of the short-term politicking.”

It’s a call that rings hollow in the hands of this prime minister who, when he attacks “rancid partisanship”, reminds his political opponents of his own record as a hardball political pugilist of 20 years standing. Clive Palmer actually laughed when asked on Radio National if Abbott could lead the sort of debate he’s calling for.

There was more than a hint of maturity from the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. Its chief executive, Professor Stephen Martin, a former Labor politician, is backing the need for serious tax reform within the federation. He released a report showing the current revenue-sharing arrangements are failing to deliver for the states. But, unlike the prime minister, he told the ABC there would have to be winners and losers. It would take a lot of courage for a political leader to make that part of a sales pitch. Most think of “courage” in the same way as it was used in the hit TV show Yes, Prime Minister. There, it meant political suicide.

Abbott prefers: “Tax reform means lower, simpler and fairer taxes with more incentives for all Australians to follow their dreams.”

He is also looking for allies to take up the cause. In a steal from the John Howard playbook he urged the Business Council to lead the charge as it did in the lead-up to the GST. But it failed to persuade a majority of voters then. Labor won the popular vote in 1998 but Howard won the election with more seats. Just a reminder of the danger, and no wonder the call for the protection of bipartisanship.

Shorten, on the other hand, is using the Abbott template to run a great big tax scare. He parts company with the prime minister on cosying up to hardline Christian conservatives by applying freedom of conscience and an end to discrimination.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 1, 2014 as "Saint Bill and the Tenterfield haggler".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.