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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
His push for greater religious freedoms have an expiry date of this week, with Coalition sources saying they won’t seek to get the changes through the Senate and into law in this term of government.
Why? Because the Coalition suffered a bigger defection from its ranks than it expected and it has just two more days with the Senate sitting between now and the election.
Government spinners are suggesting they’ll “take the win” on getting religious freedom laws through the House of Representatives — though this is the equivalent of claiming to have won the lotto by just buying a ticket.
It’s left Morrison with splinters from his own political wedge that’s gone horribly wrong.
Should the debate continue beyond this week, it risks crowding out the Coalition’s push for the sole focus to be on its budget, which it will release in late March.
Earlier this week, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham gave a clue of where he thinks the debate should move if the Coalition is to win.
Having faced question after question about religious discriminations, he bemoaned that he hadn’t faced a single question about the economy or his portfolio.
He knows all too well that for most Australians, their vote will come down to which side of politics offers plans to cut the cost of living, to ensure they have a job and that they can feed their families.
It’s the economy, stupid.