Conservatives agitate for religious freedom law but Coalition voters not on board – Essential poll

Conservatives within the Morrison government are campaigning for a religious freedom bill, but less than half of Coalition voters argue that there should be stronger laws to protect people who express their religious views in public, according to the latest Guardian Essential poll.

While only 44% of Coalition voters would back a proposal like the one currently being sought by a group of rightwingers in the government, support for the idea across all the voting cohorts is even more tepid, with only 38% backing the move (16% strongly and 22% somewhat).

Clear majorities in the sample also agree with the statements “it is only right that people consider how what they say can affect others” (69%) and “people should not be able to argue religious freedoms to abuse others” (64%).

While the poll suggests Australians are reluctant to codify freedom of religious expression, the latest poll also indicates Australians feel constrained in what they can say and are concerned about the capacity of employers to dictate behaviour outside working hours.

A majority, 64%, agree that people now hesitate before saying what they really think because they are afraid of how others will react, and a majority 58%, agree that employers should not have the right to dictate what their employees say outside of work.

Coalition voters were more likely to feel their speech was constrained by negative reactions from others (74%) than other voting cohorts (61% of Labor voters and 47% of Greens voters). Older voters were also more likely to feel curbs on their expression (75% agreement from the over 55s compared with 62% of 35 to 54-year-olds and 52% of 18-to-34 year olds).

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A majority of the sample, 68%, have been following the heavily publicised dispute between Israel Folau and Rugby Australia, triggered by a social media comment from Folau that gay people go to hell.

But the headline-generating dispute has divided the sample, with respondents sharing nuanced views. Similar proportions in the survey report the dispute is mainly about Folau’s freedom of speech and right to express his religious views (43%) and the more mundane issue of Folau breaching his employment contract (49%).

Voters who support the Coalition are more likely to see the dispute as a free speech issue than a breach of contract issue (49% Coalition compared with 35% Labor and 28% Greens).

A majority of voters in the sample agreed with the statements: “Israel Folau chose to share his religious views on social media and should take responsibility for them” (68%) and “Israel Folau has used his public profile to attack a minority group in the community” (51%).

Only 34% of the sample agreed with the statement: “Israel Folau has the right to voice his religious views, regardless of the hurt it could cause others.” A slightly higher percentage, 36%, disagreed with that statement.

Coalition voters were more likely than Labor or Greens voters to agree that “Israel Folau has the right to voice his religious views, regardless of the hurt it could cause others” (41% of Coalition voters agreed, compared with 30% of Labor voters and 20% of Greens).

The attorney general, Christian Porter, has indicated cases like Folau’s will be captured by the government’s proposed religious discrimination bill. Porter told Guardian Australia this week legislation will include a “powerful avenue” for people of faith who face “indirect” unfair treatment.

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But Porter is holding firm against calls from conservative MPs to establish a religious freedom act, saying such legislation could see “sensitive public policy” determined by the courts as it adjudicated competing rights.

With the 46th parliament opening last week, voters were asked which groups in the community were the likely beneficiaries of the Morrison government’s post-election policies.

A majority thought big companies would do well under the re-elected government, while less than a third (28%) thought the government would be good for them and their families.

Voters are also expecting that older Australians (38%), the environment (33%) and farmers and rural communities (33%) will have a bad time over the next three years as a result of the government’s direction and policies.

There has been controversy post-election about the reliability of opinion polling because none of the major surveys – Newspoll, Ipsos, Galaxy or Essential – correctly predicted a Coalition win on 18 May, projecting Labor in front on a two-party-preferred vote of 51-49 and 52-48.

The lack of precision in the polling has prompted public reflection at Essential, as has been flagged by its executive director, Peter Lewis.

Guardian Australia is not currently publishing measurements of primary votes or a two-party-preferred calculation.



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