“They’re also in the Liberal Party. The sense of ownership that the Liberal Party seems to have tried on with the community that they believe they are the party of faithful people… well, I don’t think reality bears that out as a truth.”
The review of Labor’s disastrous 2019 election defeat found the party would be wise to reconnect with people of faith on social justice issues and emphasise its historic links with mainstream churches.
“On the whole, people of faith did not desert Labor, but Labor lost some support among Christian voters – particularly devout, first-generation migrant Christians,” the report found. “Other religious denominations did not swing decisively one way or the other.”
It warned that with Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking openly about his Christian faith during the campaign, Labor as a whole “did not project an image that was appealing to devout Christians”.
“Announcing Labor’s sexual and reproductive health strategy 10 weeks from the election enabled conservative groups to target Christian voters in marginal electorates around the country, and in traditionally safe Labor seats in western Sydney,” the review found.
Sam Crosby, who unsuccessfully ran for election in the inner-western Sydney seat of Reid, says he felt unease at “so-called Labor supporters” mocking Morrison’s appearance at his Pentecostal church during the campaign.
He says Labor had allowed itself to be framed as anti-religious through debates surrounding marriage equality, abortion, anti-discrimination exemptions and religious freedom.
“We didn’t talk about God, faith, religion or any of these issues in a positive context and haven’t done so for years,” Crosby writes in a new book, The Write Stuff: Voices of Unity on Labor’s Future.
“There are those in the party for whom religion is a deep driver of who they are and why they have chosen a life of public service. We need to hear from them and soon.
“Where they disagree with the party line on issues, they should be given room to voice their concerns.”
Among those to echo Crosby’s views have been opposition frontbenchers Chris Bowen and Michelle Rowland, who suffered significant swings against them in their diverse, multicultural electorates.
The current ALP platform, last updated in 2018, had just one short sentence on its position: “Labor supports the appropriate protection of religious freedom for all people.”
The draft that O’Neill has overseen for the 2021 national conference will be a more detailed statement which says Labor believes in the rights of religious organisations to act in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs and teachings of their faith and that such rights should be protected by law.
It’s been drafted following more than 15 consultations with different communities of faith including the Hindu Council of Australia, Buddhists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Baptists and the Australian National Imams Council, a body of Muslim clerics.
“And I’ve had fantastic submissions from the Greek Orthodox community, from evangelical communities up in far North Queensland and Freedom for Faith,” O’Neill says.
“These are great Australians who want to be part of the conversation about what kind of a nation we are.”
The Morrison government has used the COVID-19 pandemic to shelve discussion on religious freedom legislation, which had threatened to expose division within its own ranks.
Mark Edwards, a pastor at Cityhope Church, Ipswich, became the spokesman for Australian Christian Churches (representing the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal community) two years ago amid growing concerns about the curtailment of religious freedoms following the marriage equality debate.
He said religious freedom was an issue that should concern both sides of politics and Senator O’Neill had an acute understanding of the concerns within the Christian community.
“There is still a considerable amount of people who exercise their faith in this country,” he said. “That might sound blunt, but all sides of politics need to listen and engage with people of faith.”
He said O’Neill had opened her office to hear the views of his churches’ thoughts on a whole range of subjects and had worked through issues with the party platform.
“Now that doesn’t mean she’d adopted everything we want, but she has been genuine in her dealings and given us a very honest hearing.”
Peter Wertheim, co-chief executive of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said the significant reduction in the proportion of Australians who identified themselves as adherents of a religion suggested there had been a decline in the standing of religion in our society.
“Whenever there has been public debate about the balance our society strikes between religious freedom and other freedoms and rights, there have been calls from human rights and other groups, outside faith communities themselves, to shift that balance further away from, not further towards, religious freedom,” Wertheim says.
“So we welcome Labor’s efforts to engage with people of faith and faith communities in the process of updating the ALP platform. I believe they are taking the issue very seriously, and rightly so.”
Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra