Sex and religion on politicians’ minds as Australians contend with cost of living pressures

Most Australians would happily live their lives ignoring the political games that are so often played in the federal parliament.

So you could forgive them for feeling queasy at the news of the late-night political antics surrounded some of the biggest taboo topics in society — sex and religion — not to mention discrimination against vulnerable young people.

You could also imagine that for the bulk of Australians, when they woke up this morning they were more worried about other matters like the price of fuel, whether the supermarket had fully stocked shelves, if their children will get COVID or if they will ever be able to afford a home. 

Elections, as the Clinton presidential campaign famously coined, come down to the “economy, stupid”.

So how was it then that the House of Representatives sat for an extraordinary length of time debating changes to religious freedoms, on the eve of an election, as if it was the greatest threat facing Australians?

At its core, this is about politics and an answer in pursuit of a problem.

Sex and religion on politicians’ minds as Australians contend with cost of living pressures
Scott Morrison has been promising for years to enshrine greater religious freedoms.(ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

Caught on their own wedge

The federal Coalition wants to wedge Labor, in the hope it can campaign against the opposition as being anti-religion in suburban electorates that will determine the election — a move that worked successfully in 2019.

But in order for a political wedge to work, you need everyone on your own side singing from the same hymn sheet.

The Liberal Party likes to describe itself as a broad church. Although, when five of your own cross the floor to join with the opposition and crossbench, you start to get the sense that on this issue, these Liberals come from a different denomination.

Zimmerman and Martin hug as they stand with Allen and Archer chatting.
Liberals Trent Zimmerman, Fiona Martin, Katie Allen and Bridget Archer joined with Labor and the crossbench.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

“I couldn’t live with myself if I did not seek to address those issues,” Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman said, his voice cracking as he spoke about the need to protect queer youths from discrimination. 

Zimmerman, an openly gay man and leading voice in support of same-sex marriage in 2017, described this week as one of the most difficult in his time in parliament.

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Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman says he will cross the floor for the Religious Discrimination Bill.

Just a day earlier, the NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, a religious man himself, said he didn’t believe legislation was needed and feared it would create “more problems that it’s attempting to solve”.

After the same-sex marriage laws were enshrined, the Coalition ordered a review, carried out by former Liberal minister Philip Ruddock, to investigate religious freedoms in Australia.

It found little evidence that religious freedoms were being eroded but made the case for federal laws to be extended to protect people from discrimination on the basis of their faith.

Scott Morrison makes no secret he’s a man of religion. He’s often been photographed at church, sits in a faction dubbed “the prayer group” and most famously cheered “I’ve always believed in miracles” when he pulled off a shock election win in 2019.

He’s promised, since before the last election, that he would enshrine greater religious freedoms, while also protecting LGBT youths from discrimination. 

It now looks all but certain the changes will not happen before the nation heads to the polls again.

Anthony Albanese looks concerned, the walls of a church stand out of focus behind him.
Anthony Albanese remained tight lipped on Labor’s plans when speaking outside a church earlier this week.(ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

A bigger defection than expected

The PM came into the first sitting week of the federal parliament scrapping barnacles off the Good Ship Morrison as he tacks his party back to the political centre.

There was money for the ABC, an apology to Brittany Higgins, a pledge to open the international border, tax deductions for rapid antigen tests and troops sent in to help COVID-ravaged parts of the aged care sector.