Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
The narrow road to the Trojan Horse

A hung parliament after the next election is emerging as a real possibility, enhanced by this week’s divisive religious discrimination debate. Among the winners could be the Greens and others who have stood up against a push to wind back years of Australian anti-discrimination laws for the sake of pandering to a loud fundamentalist Christian minority.

The Morrison government has found itself in a shambles after its tawdry attempt to turn religious freedom into a cudgel to wield against Labor failed for two significant reasons. Anthony Albanese read the mood of the nation and the parliament better than an arrogant and inept Scott Morrison. But the Labor leader was able to turn the tables on the prime minister only because Australia has a hung parliament.

It has become the rule rather than the exception that Australians refuse to give a governing party a majority in both houses of parliament. Rarer is the emergence of a hung house of representatives. In the early hours of Thursday morning five Liberal members demonstrated that the government’s effective majority of one in the house made it as vulnerable as any minority government.

These moderate Liberals were aghast at their own government’s attempt to turn a religious freedom bill into a law allowing religions to discriminate against children on the basis of their sexuality and gender identity. They were joined in this abhorrence by most of the crossbench and the Labor Party.

The difference between the Greens and independents and Labor, however, is that the opposition vying to be the next government of Australia had to be more tactically adept. It needed to avoid the trap Morrison was attempting to set for them. And in that, Albanese succeeded spectacularly. Instead of Labor looking divided over the issue, what we saw was the prime minister lose control of his own government’s numbers in the house and be too afraid to test them in the senate.

Left on the record as we go into a hard-fought election is Labor’s support for a religious anti-discrimination bill. Albanese was confident he could muster the numbers in the senate to ensure the flawed “statements of belief” clauses in the bill did not become a vehicle for protected religious hate speech.

A clue Morrison was putting his own political survival ahead of the consequences of this cobbled-together pastiche came in a long-winded pleading to his members and senators in the party room. He warned them to unite behind him or lose the election. He said, according to the official briefing, “My appeal to you is to come together and think about our team.”

Tasmanian backbencher Bridget Archer was not persuaded. She would not put “the team” ahead of hard-won protections of equality in Australian state and federal law. Archer later told parliament she could not support the bill because “it allows discrimination” and would erode “Tasmania’s gold-standard anti-discrimination laws”.

Greens Leader Adam Bandt and others on the crossbench unequivocally rejected the flawed anti-discrimination bill. Bandt confronted the prime minister with the sort of consequences it would produce. Consequences that an overwhelming majority of Australians reject, according to a YouGov Galaxy poll taken late last week.

“Even with your amendments,” Bandt said, “a school can sack an unmarried teacher because she’s pregnant if it’s against the school’s beliefs; a doctor can tell their patient that their sickness is a punishment from God because they’re gay; and a student can be expelled because they are transgender.” The sting was in his question: “We all support protecting religious groups from victimisation, but why are you using the dying days of this parliament to push through a Trojan Horse for hate that will mean more discrimination, not less?”

Morrison’s reply did little to alleviate these concerns, though he took the opportunity to remind parliament it was Labor who legislated the exemptions to the Sex Discrimination Act 11 years ago that allow the situations Bandt cited. In itself, this raises the question why the Australian Christian Lobby pushed for more protections than they already had and more to the point why Morrison was happy to open this can of worms. Especially after the Ruddock religious freedom review found that Australians already freely practised their faith.

The most persuasive explanation is probably found in the leaked texts of former New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian, where she said Morrison was more concerned with “petty political point scoring” than people.

The closer the election is, no doubt that obsession will become even more acute. And on that score the latest Essential poll has again thrown up the likelihood of a hung parliament. Its methodology does not distribute undecided preferences. So, its two-party preferred result has the Coalition on 46 per cent, Labor on 47 per cent and undecided on 8 per cent. Other polls have Labor in a landslide winning position, but do notionally distribute the undecided cohort.

That 8 per cent will certainly decide the next election. It’s unlikely they would all go Labor’s way, though if we take the other polls as a guide, enough of them would see Anthony Albanese become prime minister. Still, the Labor leader was well advised in his party room to warn his MPs against thinking they had already won.

Morrison told his party room he was “going to lead and I am asking you to once again follow me to an election victory”. This week showed the followers are losing faith, but a key part of his strategy is to relentlessly attack Albanese and focus on the economy in the hope that the Covid-19 virus will not roar back into contention.

The prospect of a hung parliament is behind the government’s other tactic to claim a vote for Labor is a vote for the Greens. It is based on Julia Gillard’s formal alliance with the Greens and other members of the crossbench when she formed a minority government in 2010. That partnership led to a price on carbon, which was demonised as a “carbon tax” and which the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, attacked every day this week in parliament.

Anthony Albanese has already ruled out any formal alliances with the Greens or anyone else. Adam Bandt says he’s not seeking such an arrangement. The Greens believe they have offered an olive branch to Albanese by not laying down any conditions for their support of a Labor government. They have, however, outlined a key amendment they would be seeking when Labor comes to legislate its climate change policies.

They would seek a freeze on 112 new coal and gas projects that have not yet begun, pending the next United Nations climate summit in Egypt at the end of the year. Bandt says every time the government attacks the Greens for wanting to phase out coal and gas, it is merely flying in the face of public opinion and handing votes to them.

The Greens are running hard in three Queensland seats: Griffith, held by Labor; and Ryan and Brisbane, held by the Liberals. Bandt says there has been an intensive doorknocking campaign, helped by the fact there have been few weeks lost to lockdowns in the Sunshine State.

The party is confident it is well placed to pick up an extra senate seat in South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales. The Resolve political monitor has found 62 per cent of Australians support no new coalmines and that the Greens’ emissions reduction target of 75 per cent by 2030 has the most popular support of any party. Bandt says even if Labor were a majority government in the house of representatives, it would certainly be in a minority in the senate with the prospect of the Greens holding the balance of power in their own right.

If Morrison thinks the Greens are a negative for Labor, they return the compliment by claiming on billboards in targeted seats, “If you vote Liberal, you get Barnaby.” The Nationals leader is pictured holding a lump of coal.

Barnaby Joyce doesn’t need much help from the Greens to be a drag on the government. He admitted to a sullen Nationals party room on Monday that he had made a big mistake in sending a damaging message to Brittany Higgins, calling the prime minister a “hypocrite and a liar”.

How Joyce can continue to serve as Morrison’s deputy prime minister is astonishing, despite the PM’s “Christian forgiveness” of him. Joyce’s messages went on to say he had reached his conclusion about Morrison “over a long time”, had “never trusted” Morrison and dislikes “how earnestly he rearranges the truth to a lie”.

At the National Press Club this week, Higgins put Joyce’s comments in the context of him implying he didn’t believe the prime minister’s denial when Morrison said he knew nothing of her alleged rape just metres from his office in the ministerial wing.

Whether voters believe Joyce’s effusive assurances in parliament that he now stands by Morrison because “he’s a great prime minister doing a great job” is still to be tested. It doesn’t do much to stave off defeat or at best deliver minority government.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 12, 2022 as "The narrow road to the Trojan Horse".

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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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