Veterans from the culture war in the last Parliament are watching warily for a new culture war now that the 46th Parliament is under way.
“Maybe he thinks freedom of religion creates more jobs than does freedom of speech,” says one.
The advocates for change to Section 18C lost their fight, of course, and many Australians are thankful for it. With racism an everyday occurrence for so many, the idea of removing a sanction on racist insults was divisive from the start.
Yet the change to the law raised genuine questions about free speech two years ago and will do so again when the government puts a bill to Parliament within weeks to stop religious discrimination.
So sensitive is this issue that the Attorney-General, Christian Porter, will hold meetings with MPs with legal drafters in attendance to try to defuse any problems before the bill is introduced, which could happen in the fortnight beginning on July 22.
The obvious danger is a blasphemy law – if not in name, then in effect. At what point does speaking out against a religion turn into a form of discrimination that should be stopped?
At what point does action against a person of faith, such as punishing that person from speaking his mind out of religious conviction, amount to discrimination?
The Israel Folau case overshadows every aspect of this new bill. Folau gave voice to his faith, and his personal belief that gay people and many others would go to hell, and lost his contract with Rugby Australia.
The discrimination worked on several levels – and opinions about the “good” or “bad” discrimination all depends on one’s view of the world. Folau offended gay Australians and others. Rugby Australia imposed a massive penalty on a Christian.
And what of GoFundMe, the money-raising site that halted Folau’s campaign after it had raised $750,000. Wasn’t this move a form of discrimination? Could it be justified under the new law?
Asked about Folau on June 24, Morrison applied a dead bat. “I think that issue has had enough oxygen,” he said. Yet his new policy will give tankloads of oxygen to the issue.
Social conservatives also have to consider that every protection they seek will apply to every other religion, which will be a minefield for media commentators who want to defend Christianity while attacking Islam.
Porter is yet to reveal the draft bill. One of his objectives is to shield charities from financial consequences under the Charities Act if they support the traditional definition of marriage, but the scale of the other changes remains unknown.
This is not about preventing schools from turning away same-sex students or teachers. The government referred that issue to the Australian Law Reform Commission last year after failing to make changes. This report is not due until April next year.
Morrison and Porter are running far behind schedule. The Prime Minister promised during the Wentworth byelection campaign that he would legislate protection for gay students by the end of the year. Then he said last December that he was “looking to legislate” before the election, but missed that deadline as well.
Porter talks of a “range of circumstances” where it would be unlawful to discriminate against a person for their religious adherence and expression. He says a club, for instance, would not be able to refuse entry to people because of their religion. But he would add an exemption so the branch of a Muslim organisation would not have to accept a Jew.
The politics will be shaped by assumptions about the May 18 election, not least the widespread view within the Coalition that voters backed the government because it stood up for people of faith. It will take time for more data to emerge to be certain of the scale of this support.
The Coalition party room has a solid group of MPs who want stronger protections for religion and they are emboldened after the election victory.
Yet this group was stymied in the Parliament two years ago when they tried and failed to get religious exemptions during the passage of the same-sex marriage bill. Labor, several crossbenchers and a small group of Liberals combined to reject every amendment.
The same dynamic could emerge when Porter puts his plan to Parliament. The bill will only be a first draft, because it is certain to go to a Senate inquiry for lengthy hearings and possible amendment. But it will start a debate that could divide the Parliament just like the Marriage Act did in November 2017.
No wonder Morrison and Porter urged their colleague to remember the importance of unity in this debate. Religious freedom is about to be given a lot more oxygen, and soon enough that oxygen will come into contact with a flame.
David Crowe is The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald’s chief political correspondent.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.