Prime Minister Scott Morrison has wasted no time making clear his intentions to protect religious freedom in Australia. Longtime LGBTI rights campaigner Rodney Croome pens his thoughts on why it bears a striking resemblance to John Howard’s same-sex marriage ban in 2004, and why Labor needs to step up.


When Scott Morrison talks about “preventative regulation and legislation” to “shield freedom of religion”, what exactly does he want to prevent?

In terms of the law, he is talking about watering down LGBTI discrimination protections.

Most likely he’ll do this by preventing the mainland states from protecting LGBTI people who face discrimination or hate speech in the name of religion (Tasmania already provides this protection).

But he’s also talking about something much more political, preventing Labor from winning the next election.

For politicians like Morrison, who campaigned against marriage equality and continues to advocate for “religious freedom” (and against “gender whisperers”), it’s a way to keep the postal survey No case alive.

Why would they want to do this when they lost? Because they won the postal survey in a swath of seats they want to win back from Labor in western Sydney, or seats they want to protect from Labor in regional Queensland.

Coalition culture warriors want to bend the strong anti-marriage equality narrative in these seats into an anti-Labor narrative ahead of the next election.

And federal Labor is all too aware of this strategy, which is why it has been quiet about the No case unholy trinity of “religious persecution”, “gender fluidity”, and “Safe Schools” since the passage of marriage equality last year.

Labor mostly held the line against the No case fear-campaign during the postal survey and subsequent passage of marriage equality legislation. But continued pre-election pressure about gender diversity, and particularly religious freedom, will send both party strategists and the Catholic right into a spin.

They will want the ALP to shut down these issues at all costs, even if the cost is agreeing to whatever Scott Morrison thinks is necessary to protect “religious freedom”.

Sadly, even some on Labor’s left aren’t much fussed about the threat.

The current situation is remarkably similar to 2004 when John Howard sought to corral socially conservative voters and wedge Labor, with his ban on same-sex marriages.

The wedge succeeded with Labor voting en bloc for the ban that was only finally lifted last year.

The question for LGBTI Australians and human rights defenders, is how can we stop history from repeating itself?

How can we avoid yet another decade-long campaign to overturn yet another nasty collaboration between prejudice and opportunism?

The first step is to remind the ALP that the discrimination laws Scott Morrison wants weakened in the name of “religious freedom” are, in most part, its achievement.

One reason the ALP caved on same-sex marriage in 2004 was the ambivalence of many Labor MPs towards the institution of marriage, which they associated with the oppression of women (despite earlier reforms creating greater equity between married partners).

In contrast, state and federal anti-discrimination laws are one of the ALP’s signature late-twentieth century achievements.

Any attack on these laws should be seen by Labor as an attack on its legacy.

The second step is to remind Labor that while weakening discrimination laws may win some votes in Western Sydney, it will lose votes elsewhere.

Millions of Australians were exposed to the No case rhetoric about “religious freedom” and consciously rejected it. They are primed to both notice, and grasp the meaning of, any Labor back down on the principle of anti-discrimination.

This is in stark contrast to 2004 when the marriage equality debate was new and most voters only noticed the issue after the same-sex marriage ban was passed.

Back then, barely more than 30 per cent of Australians supported marriage equality, but today 80 per cent want LGBTI staff and students protected from discrimination by religious schools.

It will be impossible to narrow-cast the removal of current or potential discrimination protections.

The third step is a return to grass roots activism.

The LGBTI community needs to take back control of the campaign infrastructure developed during the thirteen years of the marriage equality campaign, particularly the databases and networks we all worked so hard to build.

That infrastructure seems to have vanished or become the property of a handful of largely unaccountable people.

It belongs to all of us and should be returned to us, preferably via a democratically-elected and transparent campaign organisation.

We also need to re-learn the lessons of the early marriage equality campaign when, with very few resources but very smart activism, we were able to win over majority support in the general community and in parliament.

Back then we were strong enough not to compromise in the face of prejudice, but also flexible enough to build alliances across the political, religious, and social spectrum.

We can stop the religious right from stomping through the anti-discrimination garden, but only if we act now to protect these sweet and precious laws.

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