Analysis: Why Labor should resist calls to appease ‘religious vote’

Si Gladman / 05 April 2021

The dust had hardly settled on federal Labor’s election loss in May of 2019 before some parliamentary members and former leaders urged the party to reconnect with religious communities.

With so much media attention in the previous months focusing on Israel Folau’s sacking, the Religious Freedom Review and the Prime Minister’s own displays of his Christianity, perhaps it wasn’t surprising for some in Labor to have reached a conclusion that the ‘religious vote’ had been instrumental in their demise. 

Today, this notion of needing to re-engage people of faith is driving the efforts of some in the party to have Labor provide bipartisan support to passing the Morrison government’s long-promised Religious Discrimination Bill.

But would it really be in Labor’s best interest to support legislation being demanded by church leaders and Christian Right groups such as the Australian Christian Lobby? Would it be the best way to reconnect with people of faith?

For a few reasons, it’s hard to see how doing so could be a winning strategy.

Firstly, religious leaders claim far more influence than they actually wield among their followers.

On issues such as same-sex marriage, voluntary assisted dying, and abortion, the views from the pews on many major issues diverge greatly from the views of those speaking from the pulpit.

On issues such as same-sex marriage, voluntary assisted dying, and abortion, the views from the pews on many major issues diverge greatly from the views of those speaking from the pulpit.

Leaders of conservative religious institutions and religious lobby groups have vociferously opposed reform on such issues, despite surveys showing that the majority of religious people have been in support of change. 

Take the issue of voluntary assisted dying, for example. The Catholic Church continues to refer to assisted dying for terminally ill people as “suicide” and to lobby against new laws being introduced in states such as Queensland and South Australia, even though a large majority of Catholics – 74 per cent, according to Australian Election Study data from 2019 – support the reform.

Secondly, the number of Australians identifying as religious is shrinking.

At the next national Census, to be held in August this year, the amount of Australians identifying as Christian is likely to fall below 50 per cent, while the number of people choosing ‘No religion’ is expected to soar.

Thirdly, despite all the noise around ‘religious freedom’ before the 2019 election, it’s questionable that religion even registered as an issue for voters.

Professor Marion Maddox, an expert on religion in politics, urged caution on the narrative that Christian voters swung election results in particular seats, saying such energised groups were likely too small to have an impact.

The issue of ‘freedom of religion’ barely even registered as a blip on ABC’s Vote Compass survey before the 2019 election, with just one per cent of Liberal-National Party voters and zero per cent of Labor voters ranking it as their top concern.

If Labor chooses to follow the directives of conservative church hierarchies and religious lobbyists on another divisive draft of the Religious Discrimination Bill, it will risk putting itself out of step not only with mainstream religious Australians but also with the fast-increasing numbers of non-religious Australians across the country.

If Labor chooses to follow the directives of conservative church hierarchies and religious lobbyists on another divisive draft of the Religious Discrimination Bill, it will risk putting itself out of step not only with mainstream religious Australians but also with the fast-increasing numbers of non-religious Australians across the country.

Church leaders and religious lobbyists enjoy easy access to political decision-makers and are regularly given a platform in the mainstream media to put their case. But it would be a mistake for Labor to think that such people genuinely represent the views of religious Australians. They demonstrably do not.

Labor would do well to resist calls to appease the so-called ‘religious vote’. 

Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

Banner image credits: Joseph Pearson (Unsplash); Sydney Anglicans (Facebook); Martyn Iles (Facebook); Archbishop Peter A. Comensoli (Facebook).

All the more reason.

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