Religious Discrimination Bill

House of Representatives
9 February 2022

Everyone deserves the right to live free from discrimination. It's that simple. In my consideration of the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021, I have made a point of consulting with my local churches, faith leaders, community organisations, mums and dads, grandparents and children, who have told me firsthand the impact and their experience of two things: their dealings with religious leadership and also some of the discrimination they have faced.

The important work that faith communities do in my community cannot be underestimated. I want to make sure that they feel safe from discrimination and vilification as they carry out their work. People like Pastors Phil and Krista Kennedy of Shiloh Church in Goodna in my electorate of Oxley do incredible things for people that they serve. In their own words, they bring 'hope to those who are broken'. They have run programs that feed, counsel and support people who are in need. Organisations like CareForce, which is run from St Hugh's Anglican Parish in Inala, offer much needed supplies and services to vulnerable members of our community. The Springfield Christian Family, through their charity arm, Westside Community Care, reaches out to struggling families and individuals in the Greater Springfield region and surrounds in Queensland to offer vital programs and services. The Vietnamese Catholic community in Inala is also a fantastic example of religion's power to unite and uplift through a sense of shared culture and belief. Whether it be any of the Buddhist temples, the Darra mosque or Camira mosque, they reach out and help those in need. It's these people and organisations—along with the likes of Pastor Mark Edwards from Cityhope Church and Pastors Robyn and John Robertson from Riverlife Baptist Church—that remind me each and every day of the importance of religion in our local community. These local organisations and the many people who rely upon them for comfort, faith and support are why we must protect the right of every Australian to practise and express their beliefs.

I am a person of faith, a Christian, but my faith is no more important than anyone else's. I grew up in a household where my mother, a devout Christian, ran a prayer group and believed in the power of prayer. My father was not particularly religious. But both fundamentally believed in the creation of equality in our community, just as Labor has a number of fundamental principles for our consideration in this bill, including: first, as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights makes clear, religious organisations and people of faith have the right to act in accordance with the doctrines, beliefs and teachings of their traditions and faith; second, support for the extension of the federal antidiscrimination framework to ensure Australians are not discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or activities; and, third, consistent with the international covenant, to ensure that any extension of the federal antidiscrimination framework does not remove protections that already exist in the law to protect Australians from other forms of discrimination.

From engaging with my local religious leaders and people of faith, I know that there is overwhelming support for extending the federal antidiscrimination framework to protect religious people. And I want to thank everyone for the constructive way that they have engaged in this debate. It's funny that the constructive debate has happened outside of this place—sadly, not inside—because of the way the government has handled this debate. At the same time, I've heard from those in my community who have real concerns about the contentious elements of this bill.

What I find most disappointing is that the importance of a religious discrimination framework has been overshadowed by a mishandled and rushed process by this government. On 13 December 2018 we saw an announcement from the Prime Minister that his government would enact a religious discrimination act and appoint a religious freedom commissioner before the 2019 election. That promise was broken by Mr Morrison and it became one of the government's election commitments for this term.

The Australian public were promised that the government would work in a spirit of bipartisanship with the opposition, the crossbench and stakeholders to introduce a religious discrimination bill into the parliament that already enjoyed cross-party support. That is not what occurred. The government has broken a multitude of promises surrounding this legislation, particularly regarding the drafting and consultation process. And now, on the eve of an election, five minutes to midnight, we are seeing antidiscrimination laws that bear little resemblance to what was promised.

I know that religious freedom and antidiscrimination legislation is incredibly important to so many of the people that I represent, and this legislation is just too important to get wrong. That's why Labor called for the joint parliamentary inquiry to be conducted with sufficient time for all interested Australians to review these complex laws. Such an inquiry would have ensured that all members of this parliament could participate, asking questions and representing the views of their constituents. The government point-blank refused such an inquiry and instead demanded that two parliamentary committees conduct rushed reviews of the legislation over the Christmas holiday period, in the middle of the last outbreak of COVID.

Even so, both reviews identified multiple problems with these laws. Unfortunately, the government has completely ignored many of the problems identified in those inquiries, particularly those raised in relation to the most contentious aspects of these bills, including the proposed overrides of state antidiscrimination laws. As late as yesterday morning, on the day the Prime Minister demanded these laws be debated in this parliament, the government was still frantically drafting amendments to fix some of the problems that have been identified in this bill since it was tabled in November last year.

Given the importance of protecting people of faith from discrimination and promoting freedom of thought, conscience and belief, we need to get these bills right. That's why we've been urging the government for years to work with the Leader of the Opposition, the crossbench, members from both sides of parliament and stakeholders to produce a religious discrimination bill that is fit for purpose and that does not create needless community disunity and discord.

While most of the provisions of the religious discrimination bill are straightforward, and are drafted in a manner that is broadly consistent with other Commonwealth antidiscrimination statutes, other aspects of the bill are complex. For many provisions, their precise scope and their practical implications remain entirely unclear. This applies in particular to the provisions that interact with or override existing and possible future state and territory discrimination laws.

As we know, possibly the most contentious provision is clause 12 of the Religious Discrimination Bill, followed by clause 11 of the same bill. Both of these provisions involve overriding state or territory antidiscrimination laws, among other things. Both have been described by a number of legal experts as procedurally unworkable, potentially unconstitutional and, in relation to clause 12 in particular, diminishing existing protections against discrimination and vilification. These provisions are summarised, as we know, in today's debate.

Clauses 7 and 9 have been the subject of a lot of criticism from all corners. ACT equality groups, the Law Council of Australia and the Hindu Council of Australia have all pointed out concerns. Most alarmingly, the Law Council and the Hindu council, among others, have argued that those provisions would result in more religious discrimination rather than less, particularly against people of minority faiths. Labor have always sought to consider these issues carefully and reasonably. While many of these concerns are valid, we have not allowed the controversial rhetoric surrounding the bill to get in the way of what we know the community is crying out for: an extension of the federal antidiscrimination framework to protect people of faith against discrimination.

As I've said, while many of the changes proposed in the bill are sensible, I'm concerned that this bill does not, in large, do what the government is advertising it should do. This bill will not protect a person of Islamic faith who is abused in the street or a Hindu man who is vilified for his religious beliefs. Labor has raised this issue with the government, but as of right now the government has refused to include an antivilification provision. Since the first explanatory draft of this bill when it was released two years ago, a range of religious groups have argued the bill should include an antivilification provision. They've even put forward drafting suggestions. The government has wilfully ignored those submissions over the course of two years.

Religion is a beautiful thing, and religious people across Australia deserve the right to practise their beliefs without fear of vilification or discrimination. I'll always fight for the rights of my local churches, mosques and temples and my constituents who count themselves as people of faith. We must also uphold the values, shared by many religions, of generosity and compassion towards others, and we must ensure that a bill is designed to provide protection from discrimination and does not breed further hatred. In the opinion of the Uniting Church in Australia, this bill does not balance these values and the need for a religious discrimination framework. It stated on Monday:

… the Bill fails to strike the right balance between people's rights, protections & responsibilities, and may embolden discrimination in the broader community should it pass without substantial amendments.

Our fears remain for the safety and wellbeing of the LGBTIQ community, people with disabilities, women, and minority faith communities.

We have seen recently that religious institutions can and will use their power to discriminate against people of the LGBTQI+ community. The Citipointe enrolment contract in Queensland was a clear example of the ways in which religious belief can, in the wrong hands, be wielded as a sword against those in our community who are most marginalised. I am glad that the Citipointe contract was withdrawn, but the attitude that led to its creation remains. I am deeply concerned that this bill does not protect children from the damage that identity based discrimination can do at such a young age.

People of faith deserve to feel safe in our society, as do members of the LGBTQI+ plus community. I believe it's possible to balance these two things, but I don't think the bill as it stands hits the mark. That's why I'll be strongly supporting the amendments moved by Labor, including an amendment to delete clauses 12 and 15, which relate to statements of belief and override state and territory laws, from the bill; an amendment to introduce an antivilification provision; an amendment to make it clear that in-home care service providers in the aged-care sector cannot discriminate in the provision of services on the basis of religious belief or activity; and an amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act to remove the exemption of section 38(3). I believe that with these changes this bill can strike the right balance and protect all vulnerable people.

I finish where I started. Everyone deserves the right to live free from discrimination—it's that simple. I'll work with anyone to see religious freedom protected in this country, but I implore the government to listen to the wider community and to work with Labor in a constructive way to improve this legislation to deliver protections for people of faith without the need to see an increase in discrimination for anyone else. I commend the bills to the House.