Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Politics, Morrison and faith

It may console some Australians to know that their prime minister is doing God’s work. Millions of others are more likely to be confused, and even flabbergasted. Yet courtesy of a scratchy YouTube video, shot at a Pentecostal conference on the Gold Coast last week, Scott Morrison has given us a window into the soul he has otherwise kept shut.

Over his years in parliament Morrison has taken umbrage at any questioning about his faith. Even innocent queries are belligerently rejected as sneering or disrespectful. Now, though, he has shared with fellow Pentecostals how he sees his beliefs as a mission statement for his prime ministership.

At one level this should not be surprising; after all, we lead our lives according to our own values and beliefs. However, a prime minister is not a private person. He is elected to lead a nation with a secular constitution and in a representative democracy voters are entitled to know on what basis such a leader is prepared to do the job.

It is crystal clear, for example, that if Morrison had been the prime minister during the push for marriage equality, it would never have happened, just as it didn’t happen under Tony Abbott, who was often derided as “Captain Catholic”. It took another Catholic in Malcolm Turnbull – advised by Peter Dutton, who makes no claims to strong religious affiliation – to break the impasse with a national postal vote. Despite Morrison claiming his electorate of Cook would not support gay marriage, it returned a 55 per cent “Yes” vote. Rather than representing this majority view, Morrison abstained from the vote and fled the parliament before it ratified the nation’s overwhelming will.

In fact, it is interesting – in light of the discussion sparked by Morrison’s claim in the video that he has been “called upon to do God’s work” – to see the way Dutton once framed the tension between politics and religion. In Niki Savva’s book Plots and Prayers, documenting Turnbull’s demise and Morrison’s ascension, she describes Dutton lamenting the fact that Liberal moderates voted for Morrison rather than him in the 2018 leadership coup.

Savva quotes Dutton as saying he was no further to the right than Howard or Costello. Tellingly, he said: “I am not the evangelical here, not out-and-proud on abortion, I voted for gay marriage, and I wasn’t going to bring Tony Abbott back. But you are framed with these things.”

Ironically, it was Dutton’s hard-hearted image, created when he inherited the border protection portfolio duties from Scott Morrison, that did much to poison the moderates’ view of him. He was successfully ruthless in implementing Morrison’s “turn back the boats” policy, and continued to do everything to thwart refugee advocates and doctors urging a more humane treatment of those imprisoned in camps on Nauru and Manus Island. This continuation of Morrison’s vision likely stopped him from besting Morrison in the vote.

Only 1 per cent of the Australian population identify as Pentecostal. Other mainstream churches question the orthodoxy of the denomination and its so-called “prosperity gospel”, which measures God’s blessings by material wealth and possession. The “option for the poor” is seen by the bigger, traditional churches as a key measure of “doing God’s work” – found particularly in Matthew’s Gospel. It underpins the social justice teachings of the Catholic, Anglican and Uniting churches, for example. Its application sits badly with a raft of policies pursued by the Morrison government, and opens the prime minister to the charge of hypocrisy.

Besides the continuing harsh treatment of refugees, the robo-debt saga is another indictment. This computerised debt collection from 400,000 welfare recipients led to the government forking out $2.1 billion in a settlement after numerous legal warnings and 2000 deaths. The minister who inherited the scheme from Morrison was the man he calls “Brother Stuie” – fellow Evangelical Christian Stuart Robert.

Two weeks ago, on Insiders, Robert repeated the false claim that the “exact program” had been used previously for 25 years. He conveniently ignored that the Coalition government reversed the onus of proof in 2016, significantly removed human oversight and dramatically widened the scheme’s application.

Morrison was shy about his appearance at the Australian Christian Churches conference. The media was not alerted to it, nor were the usual transcripts supplied. His office says the prime minister was invited to address the conference, “the same as he attends many other stakeholder events including for other religious groups”.

In that respect, it was an official prime ministerial function and one for which he was able to use a VIP jet and the usual “security protocols”. Maybe, as one leading churchman observed, Morrison was aware that he had come perilously close to crossing the line between church and state – and that it was better he be there officially as prime minister, than as a worshipper who happens to lead the country.

In the age of the ubiquitous smartphone, Morrison can’t have been so naive as to think his attendance would go unrecorded. His audience, from its reaction, was clearly rapt by his off-the-cuff speech. According to Guardian Australia, which broke the story, the Vineyard Christian Church broadcast the prime minister’s address and the vision was picked up by the Rationalist Society.

Labor’s Anthony Albanese was reluctant to comment on “the prime minister’s faith”, saying it was a matter for him. But Albanese thought the separation of church and state was important. He told ABC Radio he thought “the idea that God is on any political side is no more respectful than the idea that when someone’s sporting team wins it is because of some divine intervention”.

Clearly Morrison, who revealed he is always looking for signs from God, believes divine intervention delivered him his “miracle win” in 2019. If the latest Newspoll is any guide, he will need similar help next time around. The 51-49 two-party preferred Labor’s way is the same figure the poll returned ahead of the last election. It is, and has been for months, a lineball result and leadership could make all the difference in such a tight contest.

On that score, Morrison would welcome Newspoll’s latest measurement of “leaders’ character traits”. Its results have the Labor Party baffled and even some in the Liberal Party stumped. The new figures claim the prime minister has a higher level of support than any other in the past decade – and that he has recorded the largest margin over an opposition leader since 2008.

Morrison, according to the survey, has more vision for Australia than Albanese and is more likeable, caring, decisive and trustworthy. The findings are in spite of his appalling mishandling of the Brittany Higgins rape allegations and the less than convincing double standards applied to allegations against Christian Porter and Andrew Laming.

Another pollster, Peter Lewis from Essential, has an explanation that is pandemic related. In Guardian Australia he wrote that the initial pandemic response was a series of big announcements and significant increases in public spending. Lewis noted there are few times when a political leader can actually do something decisive – and when it happens, people love it. He wrote: “It’s why the pandemic worked so well for Morrison.”

Morrison is also fortunate the premiers saved him from his instincts to be more Pollyanna in his approach, wanting to go to the footy and keep everything open and functioning. Other right-wing leaders, such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Narendra Modi, were not so fortunate with their denialist optimism. Their nations suffered dire and catastrophic consequences. In the United States and Britain there has followed an exceptional rollout of vaccines, which are now serving to show up how derelict in its planning and delivery the Australian government has been. In India, there has been no such luck.

On this score, the Essential poll has found the number of Australians who blame Morrison for the vaccine debacle is rising steadily. The number is now 48 per cent, up 6 points in just a fortnight. It’s an issue Albanese and his Health spokesman, Mark Butler, have been hammering relentlessly. By contrast, only 16 per cent accept the government’s excuse of unavoidable delays in the production of vaccines.

Certainly, if our vaccine distribution had been anything like what was promised, we would have been in a better position to repatriate the 9000 Australians stuck in Covid-ravaged India, not to mention the 27,000 others who are desperate to come home.

It’s hard not to see the “drums of war” we have been hearing about this week and the $747 million upgrade of defence facilities announced for the Northern Territory as anything other than a distraction from the government’s vaccine and quarantine controversies.

Peter Dutton’s warning that we can’t “discount conflict with China over Taiwan” is certainly a scary prospect; but there’s no escape from the here and now reality of the Covid pandemic. Or from the old adage that, “God helps those who help themselves.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 1, 2021 as "They shall run for office and not be weary".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

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