Israel Folau comprehensively upstaged the recent election campaign. But both leaders fled from the issue of his sacking by Rugby Australia over his social media posts, despite its obvious importance to ordinary people.
They kept the conventional political wisdom, which is to stick tightly to the well-worn path of “it’s the economy, stupid” and to treat other issues as dangerously off-message.
But the interest was so intense, and the events so current on election day, that it would have affected the psychology of many voters.
Voters don’t always know what “it” is but they connect it to stories like Folau’s. It’s often called political correctness. Others relate it to freedom of speech, cultural Marxism or the Greens. Whatever it is, Scott Morrison’s “quiet Australians” hate it.
These are the people who don’t care to know what a Ruddock review is, nor do they pontificate in the abstract world of political philosophy and democratic freedoms.
The only politician most of them can identify is the Prime Minister. But they sure know Folau. When issues of political correctness touch something as dear to the Australian heart as their sport, it suddenly becomes very relevant indeed.
The outcry over Folau’s treatment was enormous. Everyone who wrote or spoke about him was guaranteed an audience.
The last time I saw something gain so much traction from the world of political correctness was when that world touched something else Australians love: their kids. When the so-called Safe Schools program brought it home to the family, people got mad.
Yet, true to form, politicians ignored it, fled from it or became complicit in it.
I have seen focus groups and polling done on this stuff, and it tears the conventional political wisdom to shreds. People do care deeply about it and it makes them angry, every bit as angry as a death tax or indeed any economic issue.
Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle. Picture: AP
It comes as no surprise to me, then, that voters who care about such matters swung to the government in droves. The outer suburbs and smaller cities of middle Australia delivered big swings, along with ethnic and faith communities. A coalition of groups campaigned in crucial electorates such as Chisholm, Boothby and Bass with a steady flow of materials on religious freedom and political correctness. It worked.
Maybe it’s time for these Australians to know they are free to talk like a footballer and keep their job. To quote their sacred texts without fear. To take their son’s dress off and tell his primary school to please cut it out.
Here is a chance for Morrison to tell the quiet Australians he is for them and, because he is for them, he is giving them legislation that says “rack off” to the politically correct bullies.
Scott Morrison has the opportunity to put his stamp on the freedom of speech debate. Picture: AAP
But first the government needs to stop fleeing from opportunities such as the Ruddock review into religious freedom; to stop treating them as controversies to be avoided but opportunities to be seized.
Some legislated freedoms in the realms of thought, conscience, and religion would have been a welcome political counterbalance to the festival of anti-discrimination statutes.
How anti-discrimination — a single human right among many — came to be legislated in more than a dozen acts, enforced by state-based commissions and tribunals, and rounded out with six of the eight commonwealth human rights commissioners, is bewildering. Small wonder, then, that we are drowning in activist-led litigation and bullying.
Folau was merely the famous one who got noticed. There are dozens more who have been in similar trouble for much less.
The law firm I helped establish has handled more than 60 cases where Australians have lost their jobs, were stripped of their professional accreditations, were hauled up for hate speech, booted out of university, denied the right to be foster parents, and generally bullied every which way imaginable by activists wielding reams of legislation, backed by a discrimination commissioner with an Orwellian mindset.
And yes, like Folau, they have mostly been religious. Because the religious are the low-hanging fruit for these bullies.
But mark my words, they won’t stop there.
Meanwhile, the government is holding out a few shrivelled fig leaves to solve the problem — running away, as usual.
On offer is another anti-discrimination act (this time for religion) and a review of exemptions to anti-discrimination laws to be done by the Australian Law Reform Commission — no doubt destined to say much, do little and ultimately gather dust in the parliamentary library.
Where is the real answer?
And why are our politicians so afraid?
Pass a restoration of freedoms act (or whatever name gets a tick from the focus groups) that spells it out, warts and all. An act that tells those who voted for the government that they are not aliens in a politically correct country but that the politically correct are aliens in a free country.
Free speech. Freedom of association. Freedom of conscience. Freedom for parents.
Write them down. Legislate them and watch the quiet Australians rejoice.
To the average voter, the Morrison government’s odour of political correctness seemed less stench-like than Labor’s.
But it can, and should, do better than fig leaves.
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