Surprise! The government of Australia is pushing a so-called religious discrimination bill that has nothing to do with religion.
What it does have a lot to do with is conservatives trying to snatch by stealth political victories they have comprehensively, resoundingly, publicly lost with the electorate.
It was not a coincidence that the conservatives first mooted such a bill after losing the cruel, expensive “postal survey” on marriage equality they forced on to every Australian of voting age in 2017. Please note: Australia’s now-prime minister, Scott Morrison, could not even bring himself to remain in the chamber when the parliament voted to enable equal marriage rights for all Australians.
Pentecostal Morrison is on record describing a reluctance to “mix my religion … and my faith with politics”. It’s a statement in curious contrast with a man who brought camera crews with him to church during the election campaign, and who is now, of course, pushing legislation that would enshrine a special right for religious individuals to discriminate against other Australians into Australian law.
Morrison represents a certain kind of conservative politician uninterested in promoting the traditional values of the ideology, and a contemporary movement unbothered by such quaint old habits as defending the rule of law, let alone the integrity of a parliament or the centrality of the family to social stability. In light of recent events, it’s interesting to note that Stuart “robodebt” Robert, Bridget “sports rorts” McKenzie and Barnaby “consistently, the less said the better” Joyce were uncharacteristically abstinent from a marriage equality yes vote.
No, the religious discrimination bill kind of political conservatism is one that defines itself by preserving an unearned status amid its adherents by excluding LGBTQIA+ people and women from equality of experience in civic life. Yes, exclude – and not only as the fever dream of job-providers or schools salivating for licence to do so. Advocacy organisations have made the point that under the bill’s proposals, hospitals and healthcare providers could abrogate medical responsibility towards LGBTQIA+ patients and simply refuse them healthcare, citing naught but the will of a self-designed god.
“Specifically, they say this could have an impact on transgender people accessing hormone therapies or lesbian couples wanting fertility treatment,” a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald said.
The impetus for the bill is, of course, to stall the overwhelming popular momentum for the political alternative. Most Australians didn’t only turn out for marriage equality; since the vote they have lent support ensuring the reproductive rights of women, too. The issue attracts a consistent 80% approval rate and is one of the most unifying political beliefs in Australia.
Victoria passed “safe access zone” legislation to shield women from harassment around abortion clinics in 2015, to public acclaim. Similarly intense public pressure saw abortion subsequently removed from the criminal code in Queensland in 2018, and fully decriminalised in New South Wales last year.
The religious discrimination bill is a Trojan horse that undermines these gains. The women’s advocacy group Fair Agenda and the Human Rights Law Centre made submissions about the nefarious intent of bill to the attorney general’s department, calling it “the biggest threat to reproductive healthcare access in decades”. Various state laws already enfranchise doctors a right to conscientious objection in regards to abortion – a right passionately defended by the AMA – obliging the doctor to make a referral elsewhere so patient care is not compromised. But the new bill prioritises the religious views of any healthcare provider over meeting their patient’s needs.
Should a doctor cite “religious belief”, existing professional duties to provide referrals or information to women seeking reproductive healthcare services or products, such as emergency contraception, could be challenged and undermined.
For women in vulnerable personal situations, in rural or isolated areas affected by intersections of geography, complex care relationships and other disadvantages, these obstructions don’t just amount to inconvenience, or even compromised care. They contribute to the forced distress of traumatic, unwanted pregnancies.
But – pah! – of what significance is the trauma of women or the ongoing, debilitating disadvantage of LGBTQIA+ Australians when one’s ideological conviction necessitates the misery of others for vindictive political satisfaction?
It’s curious that for those who self-consciously personify a Christian political incursion, the bill’s parliamentary advocates aren’t so up on their Romans 14, or the consistent and rather specific biblical instruction to not be cruel and self-righteous. Perhaps their perspective is limited by the fact that Christians in Australia aren’t actually subject to police surveillance of their gatherings, or subject to street harassment and parliamentary stunts for wearing the symbols of their faith, or being told that those publicly celebrating the architects of their people’s genocide are just exercising free speech, man.
Because they seriously would be “religious discrimination” issues – ones that might deserve the most serious of parliamentary action. “Love does no harm to a neighbour,” instructs the Bible, “therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.”
The god invoked to oversee the religious discrimination bill avers such radical lefty chat. Instead, Voltaire’s suggestion that “If god [does] not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” describes the Liberals’ preferred “religious” entity with some prescience. It’s a small and petty, vengeful creature that squats in medical trauma and old bigotry, a deity conjured of conservative political resentment, and convenience.
• Van Badham is a Guardian Australia columnist