'I'm Not Running For Pope, I'm Running For Prime Minister'
Being forced to clarify that you don't believe gay people go to hell is not exactly an ideal situation just days out from an election.
But it's where Prime Minister Scott Morrison has found himself on the Tuesday before a Saturday poll, as several days of questions about his faith -- questions he has largely batted away -- have added up to present a cherry of an opportunity for Bill Shorten to go on the attack.
Just weeks after inviting media cameras to capture him in Easter worship at his church, Morrison has in recent days clammed up about his faith, paving the way for Shorten to launch what the PM called a "cheap shot" attack.
Headlines along the lines of 'Prime Minister Declines To Answer Gay Hell Question' aren't ones you see every day. The extraordinary story came to light on Monday, when Morrison was asked about issues of faith at a press conference. The questions were influenced by two matters -- the controversial decision by Rugby Australia to sanction star Israel Folau over an Instagram post, and several scandals over anti-LGBTQ social media posts shared by Liberal candidates.
Morrison was asked bluntly in Perth: "do gay people go to hell?" It came after questions on whether he still remained opposed to marriage equality, considering he was one of only a handful of MPs to abstain from the 2017 vote on conscience grounds, to which he responded that it was the law and he was "glad that the change as now been made".
He answered the hell question by saying he doesn't like to "mix my religion with politics". It was a different story over Easter, when journalists were brought to his Pentecostal church in Sydney, with cameras capturing the PM -- arms raised, eyes closed -- in prayer.
He had an opportunity to quickly rubbish the question, snuffing out the topic. But he didn't. It wasn't until nearly 24 hours later -- after being hit with more religion questions on Adelaide radio, and after Shorten called him out for fudging his answer -- that his office circulated a short written statement.
"No, I do not believe that," Morrison's statement read, calling Shorten's criticism a "desperate, cheap shot" -- then segueing into further criticism of Labor's proposed negative gearing reforms.
To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a politician holding deep religious convictions. Millions of decent, hard-working Australians do. Religion has been a central pillar of human society since human society has existed.
But it is not unreasonable to ask how those convictions may influence a man running for the nation's top job, especially in the context of a landmark decision like that involving Folau.
The original hell question on Monday come from a reporter from Sky News, no great friend to Shorten, and several days after the Labor leader himself had made his thoughts on the Folau saga clear. A question at last week's leaders debate about the NRL-turned-rugby superstar received a short answer from Morrison about how public figures needed to be mindful of how their words can affect others; Shorten said he felt "uneasy" about Folau being punished for exercising his free speech, but added he himself did not think gay people went to hell.
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Morrison did not touch on that specific component in his answer, so a follow-up question -- even coming days later -- is not exactly unwarranted.
On Adelaide radio on Tuesday, Morrison was asked whether he would accept Saturday's election result as "God's will". Again, he said he didn't want to lean on his religion in the midst of an election campaign.
"I'm not running for Pope, I'm running for Prime Minister. My faith informs me in how I live my own life and how I raise my family," he responded.
But what is becoming increasingly clear is that Morrison can't, and shouldn't, hide from his faith. To be fair, he does not publicly trumpet his religion in public addresses or comments -- but having already invoked his church on Easter, going so far as to bring cameras into what is meant to be a quiet moment of reflection and prayer, he cannot suddenly claim questions about his faith are off limits.
But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, he is presiding over a Liberal Party that has lost several candidates for religion-fuelled comments about homosexuals and those of other faiths; a party which has come under fire in recent times for its stance on marriage equality, while issues of the relationship of party members to the church have come under scrutiny too. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was criticised for his support of George Pell after his conviction for sex abuse.
Dumped Liberal candidates have questioned whether same-sex couples should be able to adopt children, and linked homosexuality to paedophilia.
These issues do stand apart from the PM not instantly answering a question the way some people expected him to. But all these concerns do live in the same universe, especially considering the marriage equality reforms remain only recent in our political history. Taking into account Morrison's own voting record on that reform, and in the context of the Folau controversy, it's not unjustified to ask the question of a man looking to stay the nation's leader.
Josh Butler is travelling with the Morrison campaign.
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