While Melbourne faces ugly civil unrest, Scott Morrison looks like a political leader throwing himself after a hammer blow | Katharine Murphy

We soon come to Scott Morrison, who “speaks twice to extremists” (as Daniel Andrews put it last Friday). But let’s start with Israel Folau and what Bill Shorten said back in May 2019.

If you forgot this whole thing, Folau wrote on Instagram that gays would go to hell. Rugby Australia then terminated Folau’s contract. As Labour’s campaign review puts it: “This sparked a debate on religious freedom and hate speech. Bill Shorten called out Scott Morrison for his failure to condemn Folau’s remarks. This led Shorten to defend criticism he sought to embarrass Morrison. because of his religion. “

At the time, Morrison was clearly free to believe. The Pentecostal prime minister had invited the media into Horizon Church at Easter just a few weeks before and told voters during his last speech in the election campaign that he would “burn for them every day”.

Morrison’s strategy paid off. Labor, as its campaign review notes, “lost some support” in the 2019 competition “among Christian voters – especially devotees, first-generation migrant Christians”. Labor MPs in western Sydney carried the bulk of this voter reaction.

I remind you of this story and this dynamic of establishing the last fourteen-day parliamentary session in 2021. Morrison currently looks very much like a political leader throwing himself around after a hammer blow. Instead of sitting in a particular pocket, he is on the hunt for definitional struggles, constantly testing the market for what next year’s election may be about.

I suppose Morrison would like to end the parliamentary year with a simple and satisfying battle with Labor over religious freedom. Let’s actually be more precise. Morrison started in 2018 by saying he would legislate to protect religious freedom, but that goal has over time changed to anti-discrimination measures, mainly because a number of government lawmakers believe that legislation to protect religious freedom is either a solution in the hunt for a problem , or a shield for prejudice.

At least the proposal lands finally next week. To secure his pick-a-box fight, Morrison must first capture his own people. Some MPs go after the original goal of religious freedom, others are concerned about vicious prejudices. Remember that backbenchers have not seen this bill yet, they have only been given a general briefing.

If Morrison can line up his own people (check that you’re all logged “if” in that sentence) and steer a package through the government party room without a kettle, he’s on his way. The next obstacle is to persuade faith leaders to support the proposals. Faith leaders are important because they speak directly to the voters that the prime minister is courting, but they have been overwhelmed by the government’s previous attempts. If the Prime Minister can get some buy-in from the churches, it is useful.

If Morrison achieves both of these things, then he will hope for a Labor outbreak – a refusal to support the package, or a split. If Labor refuses to take action, the next best development would be Labor sending the package to a Senate inquiry.

This bill is likely to need a study as the current iteration has been prepared quickly with little or no transparency. But if Labor pulls the procedural handle, Morrison could blame the opposition for delaying the package. Morrison’s script writes itself – this calming tactic shows that Labor does not respect Australians with traditional values.

But not all liberals are convinced that the Prime Minister’s pre – Christmas wedge is a winner. A version of this narrowcasting certainly worked electively in 2019, but things have moved on. Morrison is no longer the new guy with the baseball cap – a politician the voters barely knew. Three years later, the prime minister is a well-known celebrity. His tactics, the ingrained cynicism of some of his habits, are now an established trope of popular culture.

And if the religious discrimination package (at least in part) is a bid on voters in western Sydney, are voters so likely to be receptive? Liberals have been hunting in the city west since the Howard era. Howard’s fighters. Tony’s traditions. Morrison’s silent Australians.

In 2019, it included believers, but the people of western Sydney have just struggled through the Delta eruption and the prolonged shutdown. Liberals tell me that there is residual anger in that part of Sydney because many small businesses did not qualify for government fiscal support because they were cash companies. MPs also point to a widespread perception that there was one rule for the eastern suburbs and another for the western.

Labor frontbencher Ed Husic voiced anger at the community in a recent speech. He noted that 60% of pandemic deaths occurred in the western and south-western part of Sydney. People in the West were “locked in, treated as if we were in charge of the Bondi cluster, forced to jump through test and vaccination bars just to leave our local government areas to earn a living”.

“The Liberals were content to draw a line through the center of Sydney, cut it up – and see how we fared on the other side,” Husic said. “It was a roughly uneven line at that point … The Liberals bizarrely managed to split the Penrith LGA, lock in the largely Labor-voting areas, leaving the largely liberal voters.”

The latest message from Labor has been clear: If you want to arm religious freedom against us in migrant communities in the western part of Sydney, we can see you and bring you up for a pandemic walk of shame. MPs believe that affordability, jobs and even climate change – with the western suburbs now swell in extreme heat in the summer – are more prominent issues than religious freedom.

With the federal election now only months away, some liberals are concerned about how the government is traveling in New South Wales. There is considerable frustration that preselections have not been completed for key seats. There is also concern about bleeding voices for political uprisings on the right, with the long pandemic restrictions accelerating voter dissatisfaction.

Much of the focus this week has understandably been on the ugly and deeply worrying bourgeois unrest in Melbourne. But MPs from major parties believe Clive Palmer’s United Australia party will also get support in NSW, where Craig Kelly is now the party’s Sydney-based frontman. If you’ve seen politics this week, you’ve noticed that both Morrison and Labor leader Anthony Albanese focused their fake campaigns in Sydney and the surrounding areas.

That brings us back to Morrison and Daniel Andrews’ accusation that the Prime Minister whistles dogs to extremists. Premiere has endured death threats, and federal lawmakers report being besieged by furious anti-waxers in their polling stations.

Given the thin line between political discontent, rising extremism and deadly violence we have seen in Britain and the United States, a cautious prime minister focused on government (as opposed to constant campaigning) would be willing to send an unequivocal message about borders, and responsible civic behavior.

But Morrison knows that the coalition is in danger of softening votes for protest parties – so he has made an abrupt change of form. A prime minister who is demonstrably confident of intervening across a range of fronts now feels empathy with frustration and declares that the government needs to get out of people’s faces.

I mean, seriously? Scott Morrison? The Prime Minister who closed the international border. The Prime Minister who put the economy to sleep and distributed billions in financial support. The Prime Minister, who demanded a vaccination mandate for elderly caregivers. The prime minister, who spearheaded lockdowns, read out lists of detailed restrictions on hairdressers, barre classes and density limits. The Prime Minister, who rejected the libertarians in his own ranks by declaring that he would save lives and livelihoods.

How does all the opportunism and inconsistency help him?

We can cut into the bone.

The clear message that Morrison’s constant change of form is sending voters is that Australia’s Prime Minister is fixated on saving one (political) life in particular.

Its own.

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