Bill Shorten in a thoughtful mood in Parliament / Wikimedia / Creative Commons
The Australian Labor Party has abandoned Aussies of faith. This is the story being told by media outlets as diverse as the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, SBS, Nine News and the ABC, in the fallout from Labor’s shock election loss.
Labor’s own Chris Bowen agrees. Pulling out of Labor’s leadership contest, he reflected that, “During the election campaign… it has been raised with me that people of faith no longer feel that progressive politics cares about them.” In a gesture to the faithful—and a rebuke to his colleagues—he declared, “We need to tackle this urgently.”
Labor does need to tackle this urgently. If May 18 taught us anything, it is this: Australia is still a country deeply shaped by faith, and any political party or prospective PM that ignores this fact will pay the price at the polling booth.
The ALP has traditionally appealed to the working class because of its strong stance on welfare and workers’ rights. As such, it would normally win huge support in Labor heartlands like Western Sydney and the blue collar strongholds of Queensland, where voters have the most to gain from their policies.
But it’s precisely here that huge swings were recorded against Labor. And as analysts have pointed out, it’s precisely here that religious voters are also well represented.
Not just the rusted-on Liberal types either—but believing battlers from the lower classes, Christians who have fled persecution in the Middle East and Asia, and many Muslim and other faithful besides.
Looking back on the election campaign, there are two defining moments that clearly carried weight with religious voters around the country.
The first was Scott Morrison, worshipping in his home church south of Sydney with hands raised. Despite all the negativity the media could muster about that photo, there was an authenticity and abandon there that stood out to the Aussie public.
The second was Bill Shorten bullying ScoMo about his religious beliefs. “I cannot believe that the Prime Minister has not immediately said that gay people will not go to hell,” scoffed Shorten, effectively creating a de facto religious test for office―which, by the way, is outlawed in Australia’s Constitution.
One candidate for PM wore his faith out in public, unconcerned about the public reaction. The other told the country that faith is out of place in public. For religious Australians, the choice between them was easy.
If the ALP is to gain back ground with religious voters, there are a number of issues they need to address as a matter of priority before the next election.
First, Labor needs to realise, as University of Queensland Professor Patrick Parkinson points out, that “multicultural Australia is also religious Australia”.
Labor cannot afford to welcome outsiders with open arms but then turn around and tell them to keep their beliefs to themselves. Five minutes ago, secularism meant freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. If Labor likes open borders, it also needs to have an open mind.
Labor MPs could begin by making believers of all stripes feel more welcome and valued in their caucus. It’s not uncommon to hear of MPs of faith within the ALP increasingly sidelined for their convictions. “Few active Christians remain in the parliamentary party,” writes Parkinson.
Second, Labor needs to step back from such an aggressively secular vision to more moderate, mainstream values in line with the people they hope to represent. Their current platform might resonate with activists and inner-city types, but not with middle Australia.
Writes Parkinson, “On social issues, Labor is now much closer to the radical Left than to the Labor Party of Hawke and Keating.” Labor would be better off leaving radicalism to the fringe parties, where it belongs.
Third, Australia needs to know that the ALP is committed to religious freedom. In theory, Labor supported the Ruddock review, but unlike the Coalition, it didn’t commit to any of the inquiry’s recommendations.
In the lead-up to the election, Labor also set itself in opposition to religious schools, moving against their right to choose staff who teach their values. When Christian leaders wrote to both major party leaders for clarity around religious freedom, Bill Shorten didn’t respond.
Finally, Labor would do well to demonstrate to people of faith that they’re a valued and respected part of mainstream society. This is about more than Bill Shorten’s ‘Christian-shaming’, mentioned earlier.
Shorten should have learnt from Kevin Rudd, himself a Christian. For the most part, Rudd had a great track record of giving voice to people of faith. But consider the words of the ABC’s Andrew West on Kevin Rudd’s demise:
“Then, on the eve of his thumping defeat at the 2013 election, Rudd went on ABC's Q&A program. In response to a question from a pastor―asked more in sorrow than anger―about why Rudd had changed his position on same-sex marriage, Rudd tried to humiliate the man, almost spitting the word ‘mate’ at him.”
Simply put, Aussies vote against anyone who treats them with contempt—and Australians of faith are no exception to this. As John Wilson, moderator-general for the Presbyterian Church of Australia, has said, ordinary Australians want “a country where it’s okay to disagree and express that disagreement, to hold opposing views and not be marginalised for it.”
None of this should be a big ask for the ALP.
The Australia Labor Party began with strong Christian roots. It was born in the late 19th Century out of the emerging labour movement in Australia which was in turn inspired by those fighting for workers’ rights in Britain.
One such inspiration was Keir Hardie, a founder of the British Labour Party. Hardie was a lay preacher and an advocate for women’s suffrage and self-rule in India. He was quoted as saying, “The inspiration which has carried me on… has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than from all other sources combined.”
Keir Hardie was friends with our own Labor PM Andrew Fisher, who was in office intermittently between 1908 and 1915, and who was also a committed Christian.
In fact, no fewer than half of the Prime Ministers provided to Australia by the ALP have been committed, churchgoing Christians.
Besides Andrew Fisher, these include James Scullin (1929-1932), Joseph Lyons (1932-1939), Frank Forde (1945), Ben Chifley (1945-1949) and Kevin Rudd (2007-2010, 2013). Many others had a Christian upbringing that influenced their time in parliament.
Put simply, Labor doesn’t need to be the party of sectarian secularists. This was not the case in the past, nor is it necessary today. Indeed, it was once known as the party of hard-working Catholics whose faith shaped the Labor emphasis on equality and social welfare.
It’s impossible to relive the past, but a better future can be forged. Australia is best served by two major parties whose ‘inclusion’ doesn’t feel like exclusion for a vast swathe of voters.
With a left-faction opposition leader now in Anthony Albanese, that might be a challenge, but it’s far from impossible. And it’s in Labor’s best interests.
God-fearing Australians shouldn’t have to choose between the God they believe in and the party they vote for.
Labor, the faithful haven’t left you. You’ve lurched too far left and you’ve left them.
Please come back soon.