Paul Bongiorno
Scott Morrison, prayers and Hillsong

Rapturous applause welcomed Scott Morrison to the annual Hillsong conference. Twenty-one thousand delegates bowed their heads as the prime minister led them in prayer for our nation – for veterans doing it tough, young people considering suicide, those facing the challenges of middle age, remote Indigenous communities, people with disability, and drought-breaking rain.

Morrison’s office didn’t put out an official transcript as it usually does, but ecstatic worshippers more than filled the breach. Smartphone recordings of his 15 minutes in the spotlight were posted across social media. Eternity Media reported Hillsong’s founder Brian Houston told the assembly he “couldn’t pass up the chance to have a Christian, charismatic, Pentecostal prime minister pray for the conference”.

Morrison said, “This country needs more love and less judgement”, echoing Houston’s opinion piece in The Sydney Morning Herald, which had a message for controversial rugby star Israel Folau: “The world doesn’t need more judgmental Christians.” Morrison promised he would do what he had to do “from a legislative point of view” to ensure freedom of religion. But he said it is not laws “that make freedom of religion work, it’s the culture that accepts it”.

Morrison was accompanied to the Hillsong event by Stuart Robert, his close ally and key strategist in the coup that ended Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership. As Robert told Niki Savva for her book Plots and Prayers, before the final party room vote, he and Morrison prayed together “that righteousness would exalt the nation”. After the election, the canny tactician was rewarded with a cabinet job as the minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and government services.

As the member for a Gold Coast electorate, Robert has raised eyebrows in the Liberal Party by establishing his ministerial office in Melbourne – the only minister to go out of their home state in this way. According to a Sydney Morning Herald report, Robert’s NDIS adviser Garry Simpson works out of Adelaide and “is telling people wanting to meet with him to discuss the multibillion-dollar insurance scheme that he is available only in the City of Churches”. Robert’s senior press secretary lives and works out of Brisbane.

Whatever else, Robert will be relying very heavily on the internet to carry out his duties. Last year, he had to repay almost $38,000 after charging taxpayers for his home web use.

On Monday, he again accompanied Morrison, this time to northern Tasmania, where they discussed the NDIS with various stakeholders. Here it was the prime minister raising people’s eyebrows when he said, “The wonderful thing about the NDIS is it is not a welfare program … It’s a program that simply wants to ensure that every Australian, regardless of life circumstances, has the same opportunity to fulfil everything they hope to achieve in life. That’s what it is in a nutshell.” In kinder, gentler times the PM’s definition would be the target of any well-designed welfare programs with funding to help people “trampoline” off the safety net rather than be almost permanently entangled in its penury.

Welfare, it seems, is a dirty word for the prime minister. “It sure is for this mob” was the angry reaction of an adviser from one of the bigger welfare agencies – not prepared to go on the record for fear of repercussions. The sector is still reeling from the Liberals’ shock election win, busily trying to regroup as it fears more severe trimming of funding for their already strapped services. Any hopes of the Newstart unemployment benefit being raised from $40 a day have already been dashed.

Though Morrison and his treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, deny there will be any cuts to services now the government’s $158 billion tax-cut package has passed, few if any in the welfare sector believe them. Furthermore, many fear the language and sentiment of “those having a go will get a go” or “Australians know best what to do with their own money” is softening the nation to the concept of the “worthy” and “unworthy” poor. An excuse for flatter taxes and lower spending on welfare.

Frydenberg spent the week touting the success of the stage-one tax cuts, with people rushing to file their returns in record numbers in order to receive the $1080 rebate for singles or double that for working couples.

Near-record iron ore prices and company profits will almost certainly provide a buffer to deliver the projected $7 billion budget surplus this financial year. But there are disturbing signs the government’s fiscal blessings may end more quickly than Treasury’s rosy forecasts. This week, the NAB business survey, the ANZ–Roy Morgan consumer confidence rating and the Westpac–Melbourne Institute consumer sentiment index all dipped, showing the post-election euphoria was short-lived.

Frydenberg is hoping the stimulus of the tax cuts will have people spending, particularly in the struggling retail sector. But the Australian Bureau of Statistics provided a harsh reality check – underemployment is at 8.6 per cent. This is the slack in the jobs market that has the Reserve Bank governor worried. The ABS found 46 per cent of underemployed workers in 2019 reported they had been working insufficient hours for a year or longer, with the median duration of underemployment now 39 weeks, up from 26 weeks in 2009.

Stagnating wage growth, even for those in full-time work, is already seeing people dip into their savings or keep their wallets shut. The one-off payments will be welcome but hardly enough to do the trick. The opposition, much like the RBA governor, says more is needed.

The shadow treasurer, Jim Chalmers, says the government should “stop pretending that more of the same will work when it comes to turning around our flagging economy”. He says the Coalition has to “recognise that only 30 per cent of their investment in infrastructure, which is currently in the budget, will actually get out the door in the next four years’ time, and that’s not good enough”.

Adding to the treasurer’s woes is the fierce campaign being run by seniors’ organisations to end what they are describing as a breach of trust with older Australians. At issue is the rate the government deems part-pensioners are getting from their bank deposits and other investments. This then determines the size of their part-pensions. At present, it is set by the government at 3.25 per cent, well above the Reserve Bank’s official cash rate of 1 per cent.

Frydenberg is warning pensioners not to expect the rate to be slashed to match the RBA’s 1 per cent. National Seniors Australia’s chief advocate, Ian Henschke, who wants the rate set independently of politicians, says the issue will become the equivalent of what the Liberals attacked as “Labor’s unfair retiree tax”.

While Morrison’s language has the welfare sector worried, his words and actions so far on Indigenous constitutional recognition are more reassuring for First Nations Australians. His appointment of Ken Wyatt as the first Aboriginal cabinet minister for Indigenous Australians was a historic start. The prime minister’s speech at the opening of parliament last week spoke of Aboriginal claims to sovereign rights to the land, of coming to terms with the nation’s past and of “walking together side by side towards reconciliation”. Included in his Hillsong prayers were “remote Indigenous communities”.

On Wednesday, Wyatt committed to a constitutional referendum this term. But only if it involves “the right set of words”. Those words, Wyatt concedes, must be accepted not only by the wider Australian community and his hitherto reluctant conservative colleagues but most importantly by Aboriginal Australians themselves. The basis of those words has to be the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

That statement calls for a “voice to parliament” enshrined in the nation’s birth certificate, the constitution. As an act of reconciliation it must involve truth-telling about the history of dispossession and settlement, and there must be a makarrata, an accommodation for a just relationship with the First Nations of Australia.

Wyatt told the National Press Club these aspirations can be met with the “right words” in the constitution laying the foundation for parliament to legislate a statutory authority giving effect to “the voice”. Seven million dollars has been set aside for the consultations and collaboration needed to come up with the design for this historic righting of enduring wrongs.

Labor’s Linda Burney, a Wiradjuri woman, appointed by Anthony Albanese to shadow Wyatt and work with him to realise the shared dream, is cautiously optimistic. She says she has known Wyatt for more than 30 years and trusts him. But she insists she and Labor are not “talking about a race to the bottom”. There’s “not a chance in hell”, Burney says, that Labor will agree to anything that falls short of “excellence”.

Like Wyatt, though, Burney is prepared to think laterally and assuage any fears people from all sides might have. Wyatt says that while he is confident the nation can be ready for a referendum in three years – after all it has been on the agenda for 20 years – he won’t proceed if the required overwhelming consensus can’t be reached.

Maybe it could be another of Scott Morrison’s “miracles”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 13, 2019 as "Going prayer-shaped".

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

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