Tuesday, 16 October 2018
Matters of Public Importance
I have received a letter from the honourable Deputy Leader of the Opposition proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The need to remove discrimination against LGBTI students and school staff.
I call upon those members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
We're very pleased, on this side of the House, that the Prime Minister has accepted Labor's overtures to remove the existing exemptions in antidiscrimination law that would allow discrimination against children in non-government schools on the basis of who they are. But we are very disappointed about two things: firstly, the government's refusal to work with Labor to remove discrimination against teachers and other school staff and, secondly, the timing of these moves.
The Prime Minister said very clearly today that he would like to see legislation passed in this sitting fortnight. I'm not sure if he's aware of this, but I believe the Senate's not sitting next week. That would mean passing legislation through this chamber and the Senate by Thursday this week. My understanding is that no legislation went to the Liberal party room today. So, if no legislation has gone to the party room, it is very difficult to believe that the Prime Minister is sincere in his claim that legislation can go through this sitting fortnight—so that would mean waiting until November. The Prime Minister has said a lot about the insecurity that children and teenagers are feeling and about putting this beyond doubt. Well, to do that, we need to see legislation now.
Schools have been very clear that they don't want to discriminate against children on the basis of their sexuality. They want to nurture and protect and support their students. I think it's very important to listen to what the schools have been saying. I've consulted very widely with schools, parents' organisations, principals, the Independent Education Union, teachers and representatives of teachers, and the universal view is that schools do not wish to—and do not in practice—expel students on the basis of their sexuality. In fact, Dr Andrew Watson, the president of Catholic Secondary Principals Australia, said:
Catholic Secondary Principals Australia welcomes changes to anti-discrimination laws that remove any right religious schools have to expel students because of their sexuality.
This is a very welcome comment. But if it's not right to discriminate against children on the basis of their sexuality then it can't be right to discriminate against adults on the basis of their sexuality. Many Liberals support our view. Dave Sharma, the Liberal candidate for Wentworth, has said:
I'm fundamentally opposed to discrimination in schools, for pupils or for teachers, on the basis of sexual orientation, gender, or really anything else for that matter.
The Treasurer has said: 'I don't think these laws are right.' Senator Dean Smith has said he supports 'amendments to remove discrimination against LGBTI teachers'.
We can get on with this. In 2018, allowing discrimination on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation and relationship status is completely out of step with community expectations. It is not the best way to safeguard the mission and identity of religious schools. We propose to remove from the Sex Discrimination Act exemptions for religious schools in relation to discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation or gender identity, because no-one should be sacked because of who they are or who they love. No-one should be denied employment because of who they love or who their partner is. But schools are also entitled to have rules that ensure that staff—and I'm quoting one of the organisations that wrote to me—don't 'deliberately and wilfully behave contrary to the values of the school'. I believe this parliament, working together, working with schools and working with representatives of the LGBTIQ community can ensure that we achieve both aims. As the Australian Council of Jewish Schools put it, and I think they put it very well:
None of our schools discriminate against staff employed or to be employed on the basis of their sexuality, gender or sexual preferences.
However, they do need to have the capacity to insist on a public lifestyle that is consistent with the ethos of the school.
… as to discrimination in enrolment and employment, we do not need or support any continued exemption.
So when making these decisions, we'll consider commonsense, current practice and human rights, because it is very clear, in current practice, that schools don't wish to and don't generally use these provisions.
And when we're looking at, for example, Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the Convention on the Rights of the Child or the Convention against Discrimination in Education, parents and families have the right to choose a religious education for their children. However, we cannot accept discrimination against whole groups of people for a characteristic that is intrinsic to themselves: who they love. That is completely out of step with modern, mainstream Australian values.
Labor's record has always been strong when it comes to removing discrimination. Premiers like Don Dunstan led the way on decriminalisation of homosexuality. In 1992, the Keating government removed the ban on LGBTI people serving in the military and, of course, that was opposed by the Liberal Party at that time. In 2009, the Rudd government, which I was part of, removed discrimination against same-sex couples from 85 areas of Commonwealth legislation.
What have you ever done? Not a thing! And in 2013, Labor expanded the protections under the Sex Discrimination Act to cover sexual orientation and gender identity. We did that in 2013, with those opposite supporting the legislation that retained the discrimination exemptions to the Sex Discrimination Act that were there from the time that the SDA was written in 1984. Those opposite have been very conveniently forgetting that in the debate this week. They have been pretending that we inserted discrimination into the act. We extended protections that were welcomed at that time by the LGBTI community.
Now it's time to take the next step. I'm proud that we on this side are ready to take that next step; yes, in favour of removing discrimination against children—and we welcome the support of those opposite on that—but also to remove discrimination against adults, because if it's not right to discriminate against kids then it's not right to discriminate against adults.
The government are saying that they can't change this until we've released and debated the Ruddock review. Well, I mean, honestly? This government has had that review for five months. It cannot be so hard to read that they need longer to have the review sitting on their desks. Philip Ruddock; Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM; Hon. Dr Annabelle Bennett AO SC; Father Frank Brennan SJ AO; and Professor Dr Nicholas Aroney received 15,500 submissions. They've obviously given some thought to this issue of religious schooling. We would love to be able to benefit from the consideration that these eminent Australians have given this issue. Why can't we? We can't because it's not politically convenient for the government to release this review before the Wentworth by-election. Nobody thinks for a second that if this had not been leaked last week we would have any inkling of what the recommendations are. The fact that it was leaked was very inconvenient for the government, but it has brought this debate on. Let's have it with the full benefit of this report.
The government should immediately release the review to give this parliament and the Australian community the benefit of the thinking of these eminent Australians, because if the government are sincere in saying they want to see legislation introduced this week then that legislation could rightly comprehend not just students but also teachers and school staff. We are up for that conversation. I've held discussions with representatives of religious schools and I'll continue to do so, but their very clear message is that they don't want to discriminate against students. They don't discriminate against teachers and school staff. I've got to say this: I think it is beyond time that we deal with this—one of the last areas of discrimination against LGBTI Australians. It is beyond time that we get this done, and all we hear from those opposite is delay, excuse and obfuscation.
Can I make very clear at the outset that the government believes that no student should be discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality. I would like to provide some background to this MPI today. In 2013, the Gillard government amended the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to provide an exemption for religious schools to discriminate against students and employees on the basis of their sexual orientation in certain circumstances. The explanatory memorandum of Labor's bill, circulated in March 2013 by then Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, said:
The Bill will extend the exemption at section 38 of the SDA, so that otherwise discriminatory conduct on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity will not be prohibited for educational institutions established for religious purpose. Consequently, the Bill will not alter the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief in respect of the new grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.
This was reiterated in the second reading speech to Labor's bill, where, on 21 March 2013, the now shadow Attorney-General said:
The bill also amends existing exemptions as appropriate to reflect the new grounds. This includes exemptions for religious bodies in relation to employment and the provision of education that have been in place for many years. These exemptions will continue under this bill and encompass the new grounds.
I think it's very important that we put this in context. This was the question that was put by David Speers to the shadow education spokesperson on Sunday in the interview which got a bit of publicity today: 'Well, that's true, and certainly those I've spoken to this week agree. That's true, but it still leaves the question as to why Labor did this at all in 2013.' 'But, look, anyway, it's 2018,' the shadow education spokesperson said, 'so let's talk about 2018.' They then go on, and David Speers says: 'Okay, all right. On Friday morning, you said it's not Labor's plan to reduce any of the existing exemptions. Then a few hours later Bill Shorten said it was, and, as you've just articulated, you're going to back the changes. What happened there? Were you on the same page on Friday morning?'
The shadow spokesperson then says: 'Well, we've been talking about this for some time. We hadn't made a decision at the time. We were looking particularly at exemptions for teachers, which is something that is raised with us a lot—all the time, in fact—so we're talking to school communities about how kids—
We've clarified that schools don't want the ability to discriminate against students, and I think it's also now been raised with us that the schools need to consider whether they actually want the ability to discriminate against teachers as well.' And then Speers goes: 'What is your position on that? Do you think schools should be able to sack teachers for being gay?' The shadow spokesperson: 'We've got Louise Pratt, who is our spokesperson on equality, and Mark Dreyfus, who is our shadow Attorney.' It goes on and on and on and on.
Eventually we get back to this: 'Well, we're back to the Ruddock review. It's just spent months listening to people—15,000 submissions. You've got a number of very sensible and thoughtful people on that review. Could we please just take a deep breath, see the report, see the logic that has taken them to where they are, see whether there's any room for movement from the recommendations they have made. I don't support discrimination. I think discrimination on the basis of sexuality is wrong. But I also understand that you're talking about organisations that have a particular ethos, and they want to reflect that ethos in the way they conduct the work of the organisation. So, you know—calm, deep breath. Let's just work through it methodically.' That is exactly what the government wants to do. We want to work through this methodically.
Our government knows what it wants to do and we will be taking action. As the Prime Minister announced on 13 October, our government will introduce amendments as soon as practicable to make it clear that no student of a religious school should be expelled on the basis of their sexuality. Our government does not support expulsion of students from religious non-state schools on the basis of their sexuality. This view is widely shared by religious schools and communities across the country. Our government is focused on protecting the best interests of children.
As the Prime Minister has said, our focus is to ensure that the children at the centre of these issues are at the centre of consideration. The law that we currently have, which the Labor Party brought in, actually doesn't do that. The government, more broadly, is considering the religious freedom review. The government will release the report with a comprehensive and balanced response to ensure the needs, interests and protection of the child are central. The government will consider recommendations concerning employment related decisions of educational institutions established for religious purposes as part of its consideration of the review. This is a very important fact: what the government wants to do is exactly what the shadow minister said on David Speers on Sunday: work through this methodically, work through the process and look at the recommendations. As the Prime Minister has said, he wants to make sure that, as Prime Minister, he has time to look at it. He wants to take it through cabinet processes, which is the right thing to do, and he wants to make sure that the government has a response to all the recommendations.
I also wanted to make it very clear, while we're talking about education and students and teachers, that our focus as a government is also on ensuring that we look after our teachers and make sure that we continually improve teaching quality. It's why we established the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group, to provide advice on how teacher education courses could be improved. We are now implementing its recommendations to deliver a teacher education system that will ensure all teaching graduates are classroom ready, no matter where they study. These reforms are strengthening the selection criteria for entry into courses, quality assurance of teacher education courses and professional experience placements. From next year, all pre-service teachers must complete a robust and rigorous assessment of teaching practice against the graduate teaching standards as a requirement of graduation.
Our government has also introduced literacy and numeracy tests for all trainee teachers, to ensure graduate teachers have personal literacy and numeracy skills equivalent to the top 30 per cent of the Australian adult population. From next year, all primary initial teacher education students will graduate with a broad range of teaching skills and knowledge as well as a subject specialisation. The government's High Achieving Teachers Program will bolster our future teaching workforce by supporting the growth of alternative pathways into teaching for high-quality individuals with the skills, knowledge and commitment to become high-quality teachers. National induction guidelines and supporting resources have been developed to support the successful induction of teachers into the profession. Our government has established the Australian Teacher Workforce Data strategy to improve the quality of data which will help enable governments to better understand their teaching workforce and better manage workforce needs.
So, in conclusion, ensuring Australian students get the education that empowers them to be the best they can be is our focus. The Labor Party should join with the government, make sure that we end discrimination when it comes to students, and then in good faith enter into discussions with the government when the Ruddock review is released, so that we can consider all matters pertinent to that review at that time.
The Minister for Education, near the end of that riveting contribution, said the words 'in conclusion'. This was remarkable because he hadn't actually begun to talk about the subject matter of the debate. To be fair to him, though, it was a balanced speech we just heard. He spent five minutes reading out Labor transcripts and five minutes reading out departmental documents. This isn't good enough. What we need to be doing in this place, as lawmakers, is talking about freedom from discrimination, not licensing further discrimination.
I want to set out my values and views, as the minister has seemed reluctant to do and the Prime Minister has refused to do. I believe that everyone should feel proud to be who they are, especially so at school. I think everyone understands how important that is for children at school, for young people finding their way in the world, who are finding out about their sexuality and gender identity and whose relationship status should not shape the quality of the education they receive. It's also, of course, true for teachers and staff. They should not be discriminated against in the course of their employment.
What we heard today in question time from the Prime Minister, though, was no statement of his values, no statement of how he sees these issues. He talked about the Ruddock report, of course, and I'll come back to that. He said of that report that there are many views on these issues, but he did not say what his are. That is unacceptable. We shouldn't be licensing hurtful and harmful discrimination against children or against adults, and the Prime Minister should clearly set out what he thinks about this.
It is also utterly inappropriate for the government to hide this question of discrimination behind the Ruddock review, for two reasons. One is that this is a secretive process that has sat in government for five months—for five months! And, fundamentally, the Ruddock review, the Ruddock investigation of so-called religious freedom, should not be the basis upon which we decide whether or not to continue discrimination against LGBTI young people or LGBTI workers. Their rights should take prominence. Their rights should be pre-eminent in this debate.
It is also disappointing in circumstances where we have seen some movement from the Prime Minister in response to the Leader of the Opposition's letter and in response to the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition reaching across the aisle so this parliament can join together in rejecting discrimination. We welcome the Prime Minister's movement as far as it goes, but it could, should and must go further, for plenty of reasons that go to the principle here but also to the standard that we set in this place.
I was disturbed by comments today by the member for Petrie, who talked about this issue as being an absolute beat-up. How callous, how wrong and how hurtful not to recognise the harm that is being done to lives—to the lives of young people and to the lives of teachers, some of whom have been discriminated against in the course of their employment by reason of their sexuality or by reason of their gender identity. It is utterly shameful that a member of this place would describe this issue as an absolute beat-up. Of course it is not. It is a challenge for all of us who are lawmakers to respond to. It is a challenge for the leadership of this government, in particular the Prime Minister, to clearly set out what his views are, what is right and what is not right. What is not right in this place is to allow continued discrimination for children or adults.
The minister in his contribution talked about context. What he means by 'context' is giving us a history lesson. What we are talking about here are provisions which have been substantially in place since 1984 and which were amended in 2013 by all of us. This is a law on the statute books that belongs to all of us as lawmakers. It is a law that is no longer fit for purpose. It is a law that should be changed. I invite government members to think about whether they can continue to stand up for this discrimination, whether it's in education directly or in employment.
The last point I want to make is to respond to something the minister said. He said the government is focused on protecting the best interests of children. Well, he's got a chance to make that right. He's got a chance to actually ensure that discrimination in schooling comes to an end. When he talks about teachers, too, it's fine for him to talk about the work that he's doing, but he could not once mention in a 10-minute contribution whether he is concerned about discrimination against LGBTI teachers. That isn't good enough.
I rise to talk on this matter of public importance today. I thank the member for Scullin for his respectful contribution, and also the member for Wannon. I think that in this area where we're dealing with discrimination of any sort, whether it be in education or whether it be in other walks of life, we will always have differing points of view and we'll always have the opportunity to be respectful in our discussions with each other and to listen to those views.
I must admit I have not seen the report as yet, so I have not achieved a decision from that report—
Member for Wakefield, I'm sure there's more to it than just the leaks from that report.
The fact is that I had a religious background. My father was a minister of the Methodist Church back in my early days. I can remember when religion was nearly a war at times, and I'm sure there are places around the world where there are still wars going on because of religion. We had a Catholic church across the road from our Methodist church, and there were constant battles after school between the Catholic schoolkids and those attending the public schools. It's something that has been happening in our society, in Australia, for a long time.
To get back to the subject—discrimination—my personal view is that there shouldn't be any discrimination. But the question of discrimination shouldn't be open-ended; we should have some form of protection for children. I say this as we approach the national apology following the royal commission into the sexual abuse of children in institutions. In those institutions, which were run by different organisations and also run by churches and charities, there were people employed who abused children. If your position on discrimination is open-ended, where we can't discriminate against anyone's sexuality or preferences—which is what I'm hearing from the other side—will you take the risk of employing all sorts of people who aim to work in areas where there are children?
He's been warned twice now, Mr Deputy Speaker. The matter for discussion today, according to the opposition, is the need to remove discrimination against LGBTIQ students and school staff. As we know, all Australians are free to choose their religion and are entitled to express and practise their religion and beliefs without intimidation and without interference, as long as those practices are within the framework of Australian law. We hear from those opposite that they want to change the law, which they're entitled to say. And we're entitled to have an open and honest debate about it.
In 2013, the Gillard government amended the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to provide an exemption for religious schools to discriminate against students and employees on the basis of sexual orientation, in certain circumstances. As the Prime Minister announced on 13 October, the government will introduce amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to ensure that religious schools are no longer permitted to expel students on this basis. In the drafting of the amendments, the government will carefully consider how to protect the best interests of children. The amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act are necessary and appropriate to provide greater certainty to students and their parents.
We heard the member for Scullin talk about certain instances and certain practices where there has been discrimination against teachers. I must admit that in my electorate of Swan I have a mixed bag of religion based, full religion and public schools. There are 64 schools in my electorate, and in the 10 years I have been there not one example of a teacher being discriminated against because of their sexuality has come to me. I am saying not that it doesn't exist but that in my particular electorate I've never seen it. In the discussion we're having today, on the matter proposed by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, we should talk about these things in an open forum and we should have the respect that everyone needs to have when it comes to discussing religion and, in particular, discrimination.
As I said, Labor changed the laws back in 2013. If you look at what Mark Dreyfus said in 2013 in his explanatory memorandum to the bill, you'll see it was:
The Bill will extend the exemption at section 38 of the SDA, so that otherwise discriminatory conduct on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity will not be prohibited for educational institutions established for religious purpose.
That bill was passed, and I'm sure it had the support of the opposition at that time. I look forward to contributing to and hearing the rest of the arguments on this. (Time expired)
It is my absolute pleasure to rise today on this important matter of public importance. As a classroom teacher and school principal for 27 years in the state system, after a wonderful local education in the Catholic system, I rise today to make my contribution and to focus that contribution on what I know about what happens in classrooms and in schools. What I know, from my many, many years in classrooms and in schools, is that our bright, curious children don't only listen to what they're told in the hours of nine until 3.30. They hear us, and they see us.
One of the proudest moments I had as a former teacher who joined this parliament was when we voted for marriage equality in this place. It made me proud because I knew that children around this country were watching us and could hear us. And what they heard was that, no matter who you are and no matter who you love, in this country you won't be discriminated against.
So this debate this week is incredibly important if we look at it through that lens. We told children that we valued them all. We told every adult in the country that, regardless of their gender or their sexual preference, we valued them all. What we're doing today is setting up to confirm that to the children around this country—that we value them all.
I worked in schools for a long time. That means that I have worked with children struggling with their sexual identity. I have seen what can happen where they don't feel included—where they feel that they're being asked to deny who they are. We know what the consequences of that world can be. We've seen it firsthand in schools around this country: the damage it can do to a person's self-worth; the damage it can do to their mental health; the damage it can ultimately do in terms of young people taking their own lives. So this debate today is really important.
I welcome the government's support to remove discrimination for children. I welcome it. But children hear us. If we agree to remove discrimination against them, they have to hear that we've removed it against the adults who work with them. It really is that simple.
I'm reminded of my own education. I'm reminded of the gay teachers who taught me in my Catholic school. I had the privilege of catching up with a few of them at a recent reunion, and it was a fascinating night because all we girls—it was an all-girls school at the time—couldn't wait to chat to our teachers because, of course, we always knew that our teachers were gay! They lived, and held to what they were asked to do in their workplace, and they never discussed it with us. It was never spoken of.
Children are not stupid. They are insightful. They are curious. They test parameters. They know these things.
I'm reminded of teachers that I've worked with—young teachers that I have worked with in the state sector, who were allowed to be openly gay in the school that they worked in. Their experience was vastly different from that of the teachers who taught me those many years before. And I'm reminded of the students who interacted with those teachers.
Kids are not born into a place where they come into classrooms with prejudice. It's exactly the opposite. Our children hear us and see us. They see their teachers in their classrooms. They value them. This place needs to be reminded that in classrooms we do more than the stated curriculum. They are human places of human interaction. The best schools get the best results because of the quality of that human interaction.
What we're debating today—the decisions that we are going to make going forward in this space—is critical. We can't, on one hand, say we have to stop discrimination against children, and continue to allow active discrimination against the adults who will be working with them. It really is that simple.
I want to make this one final point today. Many people have made it, and it's about federal funding. I think it is really important because kids know that too. They know that what we fund is what we care about. I want to fund inclusion. I want to say today that this debate has raised the importance of a strong, state, inclusive secular system of education in this country. (Time expired)
Obviously, in the light of the leaking of the Ruddock report, there has been quite a flurry of activity around this particular subject, and concern about laws in this place in recent times. It's worth reflecting, of course, that until the report was leaked so many people were pretty much unaware of the laws as they exist at the moment. But I, like other members in this House and other members in the government, completely reject discrimination of all types, including on sexuality.
At the moment, religious schools do have the right to discriminate against both students and teachers on the basis of sexuality, which, as I said, was something most Australians were blissfully unaware of until the last week or so. In fact, the ability to do so was legislated in 2013 by the Labor Party, and that position was supported as recently as January this year by their deputy leader. So at that stage there was no great urgency to change things.
I'm not aware of any schools within Grey—indeed, I don't think any have been raised Australia-wide—that have actually been discriminating on this basis or been using those laws. If there is—certainly, on my own patch—I will be highly surprised. But because of the leaks, apparently, it needs to be fixed yesterday.
Well, there you go. But the government has announced that it will move immediately, certainly on the discrimination against children. And there will be further indications on the government's moves on any changes in this area, or intent, when the report is officially released.
There are great calls that the report should be released immediately. There is a long history in Australia of governments taking their time to consider reports, particularly ones that don't have that pressing implication of something having to be done tomorrow. And in the case of this, whilst those laws might be offensive to some—and most of us actually recognise they need to be changed—the fact that nobody has been using those laws, and that religious organisations and schools have not been using those laws to discriminate, would tend to indicates it's not as urgent as others might say.
But we are committed to religious freedom. We most certainly must be, because, of course, it is our Constitution, in section 116, that prohibits the making of laws to establish religion. It prohibits the making of laws to impose religious observance and it prohibits the making of laws that impact on anyone's ability to freely exercise their religion. It's very important. It prohibits anything that impacts on the provision of the freedom of religion. And so it is right, particularly when we change laws or when we consider change in this place, that we review what the likely impacts will be and, indeed, what the impacts have been when the laws were made.
When we get a change of legislation, like the same-sex marriage legislation that went through this place earlier this year, it is quite right that we should review it. It is right and proper that we should consider those implications. And that is exactly what the Ruddock report—well, I believe that is exactly what the Ruddock report is doing, Of course I haven't read it; no-one has leaked one to me! But we must consider those implications if we don't deliver on the intent of that section of the Constitution.
While many of us are concerned with things like that, I think the concerns are about the Catholic bishop in Tasmania who was pursued legally for publishing the views of the church. They should be allowed to do that. And I think that people in the public are concerned about the ability for schools to use Christmas carols, those that include religious content. I think they're pretty sick of the idea that the meanings and the reasons and the origins of Easter and Christmas have been drummed out of schools and pushed upon.
I rise to speak on this matter of public importance. We've called on the government to support the notion that we should treat teachers in non-government schools—all schools—the same way that we want children to be treated. There is no magical time, when you turn 18, that it's okay to be discriminated against for who you are and who you love. That's the notion we're putting forward. But I do thank the Morrison government and the Turnbull government for bringing on this debate.
I do have some background in this area, not only having been a teacher in Catholic and state schools but also having worked as a union organiser in non-government schools. I dealt with schools grappling with religious tenets—Jewish schools, Islamic schools, Catholic schools, even closed brethren and evangelical schools, Anglican schools and many others. I gave advice to members of the union who were, perhaps, contemplating coming out at school. I gave advice to members of that union when they even took a discrimination case to court. Religious belief or activity is protected under the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 in Queensland. One of its attributes is that people can go to court and say, 'I was discriminated because of that.' I've run a case where someone was discriminated against because of their religious belief.
The starting point for this whole MPI was the idea that we should look after our children in schools and, similarly, we should look after the staff in those schools. No-one would have seen this coming. The religious report was commissioned by the Liberal government. The person they put in charge of it was a former Liberal Attorney-General, a Liberal politician. That Liberal-engendered report was given to the Liberal Party. Yet we have a Prime Minister who says, 'This has nothing to do with the Liberal Party. This has nothing to do with us.'
I look forward to reading the report from Ruddock, Brennan, Croucher et al. I am sure it will provide some good insights. All the people who have prepared this report are well respected in their own disciplines. But it comes in the context of modern Australia. We do know the reality that the chances of suicide are two or three times higher for gay children. Lived experience at school has the potential to be so much more traumatic for gay children. Hopefully, now that we have marriage equality, that journey might be a little bit easier for some.
Maybe it will get better much quicker now that the nation has finally recognised, in law, what we always had in the Constitution the power to do. The parliament has finally recognised the vote of the Australian people and said, 'Yes, we will get this done.' However, the government has been strangely quiet on recognising that we should not be discriminating against someone as soon as they have their 18th birthday, that it's not okay to discriminate against someone because of who they love or who they are.
We know this would not be the state imposing its will on religious schools. Obviously, there are sensitivities there. There are taxpayer dollars—secular taxpayer dollars, from the secular state that is modern Australia—being put into these religious institutions, and they should be able to run their schools according to the 'tenets of their religion', which is the term used in the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act. But that might mean that, for a person mowing the lawn at a religious school, it would not be an inherent quality that they must have the same faith as the religious school. And, like any teacher, irrespective of their sexuality, what they do in their private life would not have anything to do with their classroom, I would hope. I would hope that my children, one at a state school and one at a Catholic school, know nothing of the lifestyles of their teachers.
In recent days there's been some public controversy about whether students can be expelled from religious schools on the basis of their sexuality. Our government doesn't support the expulsion of students from religious schools on the basis of their sexuality, and that view is widely shared by religious schools and communities right across the country. Because of this public controversy, the government has been taking action to ensure that no student of a non-government school can be expelled on the basis of their sexuality. The Attorney-General is working through amendments and the Prime Minister has invited the opposition leader and the shadow Attorney to help work through this so that we can provide certainty in this area and remove the anxiety that is being created by this public debate.
Last year the government commissioned my distinguished predecessor, Philip Ruddock, and a panel of eminent Australians to look at issues of religious freedom in this country. That panel received 15,500 submissions—that must be something of a record—and held 180 consultations, and I think we owe it to the people who made the submissions to that panel, and to those who attended the consultations, to seriously consider the recommendations of that panel in a sober and careful way.
The broader issues of freedom of religion, I think, should be considered by the government's proposed response in due course, whilst it's been through the appropriate deliberative processes. If this were easy it would have been done already. The government is going to deal with this in an orderly way and I think we'll release the report and its response in due course following consultations.
On Sunday, the member for Sydney, who has initiated this motion, said Labor would wait for the release of the report before considering the issue. She even praised the members of the panel—and I agree with her. Today, the member for Isaacs said that the question of exemption for staff and teachers and other staff working in religious schools is a complex one—and I agree with him, as well. He said, 'We in Labor recognise the need to protect the right of religious schools to run their schools in accordance with the tenets of their faith.' Yet, instead of adhering to the process, today's motion has put the politics before the process.
I want to use the remaining time available to talk a little bit about the place of religion in Australia, because I think too often we hear only one voice about religion in Australia and it's often not a fair or accurate voice. Australia is founded on a Judeo-Christian condition, the font of liberalism, which has two notions at its core. The first is that life is a sacred gift from God and, secondly, that human beings are all created in the image and likeness of God. If all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, then all human beings should have the freedom to worship God in their own way. This notion has underpinned much of Western theological thinking since the Westphalian settlement and has had a particular resonance in the postwar era through such statements as Nostra Aetate, the Vatican's declaration on relations with other faiths.
For people of faith, their particular faith is fundamental to who they are and how they see the world. For people of faith, the idea that a tradition or a set of beliefs is ordained by God, or whatever supreme being they might believe in, makes that tradition or set of beliefs fundamental. Therefore, the right to practice your faith according to its traditions, customs and beliefs is fundamental to a believer's very existence. That is why true believers seek to leave countries where people are not able to freely exercise their religious beliefs or, worse still, are persecuted for doing so. Australia has never been that sort of country.
Although I'm not a Catholic, prior to entering the parliament I spent the best four years of my working life at the Australian Catholic University, the largest mission of the church in Australia, where I spent time thinking not only about education policy but also about the future of the church in Australia and its place in our national life. I also had the privilege of serving on the board of Mercy Health, a large Catholic health organisation run by the Sisters of Mercy. While Catholicism isn't my faith, in order to support the mission of the university I would often attend mass, celebrated by the university chaplain, Father Anthony Casamento. There's something quite beautiful about sitting quietly and watching people of deep faith observing the rituals and hearing the biblical readings, some from my own Bible and some from the New Testament, and reflecting on what that wisdom means for each of us. Rituals of this sort provide clarity and calm in what can often be a chaotic world.
Today, as a parliamentarian I regularly attend church services, as well as services at Hindu temples, Buddhist temples, gurdwaras, Baha'i temples and mosques. Despite the increasingly questioned place of religion in the public square, religion continues to survive. The former chief rabbi of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks, reminds us:
Religion survives because it answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? We will always ask those three questions because homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal, and religion has always been our greatest heritage of meaning.
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We stand to lose a great deal if we lose religious faith. We will lose our Western sense of human dignity. I think we will lose our Western sense of a free society. I think we will lose our understanding of moral responsibility.
Religion retains a key importance in our life, and we should give it some respect.
When it comes to discrimination, this government's been nothing but own goals. It railed against marriage equality, beginning fights with itself before and after, eventually requiring a divisive and conclusive plebiscite to decide the matter. Then the government called the Ruddock review on religious freedom, and after 15,000 submissions a report was delivered to government in May of this year—a report that the government has refused to release and which has now been leaked against the government. What have they got to hide? Why don't they think the voters of Wentworth, let alone the rest of Australia, deserve to see it? The Liberals must release the Ruddock review immediately and respond to its recommendations. That will inform a proper discussion of religious freedom.
Despite all of this, we are pleased that the Prime Minister has accepted Labor's call to remove existing laws that could allow religious schools to discriminate against schoolchildren because of who they are. It is wholly unfair to discriminate against students because of their sexual orientation and gender identity, just as it would be unfair to discriminate against them based on race, skin colour, height or the colour of their eyes. All aspects of our schools must be about the best interests of those students.
But Labor is also disappointed at the refusal of the government to work with Labor on removing the exemptions as they apply to teachers. We hope that the government will reconsider its response to this as well as the matter that it debated in the Senate yesterday. Clearly, the government at this stage should start seeking advice from some other sources, so I suggest they bear in mind the classical view of the always erudite Dead Kennedys about what Nazi punks should do!
We respect the right of religious schools to run their schools in line with their beliefs. Despite what those opposite try to say about us on this side of the House, we also respect the right of parents to send children to the schools of their choice and to have their children educated in accordance with their religious convictions. These rights are not inconsistent with our position on discrimination. We also understand that the mission of a religious school is delivered not just in a religious education class but also through the culture of the school via religious services, sporting activities, community service, student leadership and the many areas of the education curriculum. In fact, removing these discrimination exemptions actually buttresses the freedom of thought, conscience and religion as well as the liberty of parents to ensure the religious and moral education of the children in conformity with their own conviction. Resolving this will make clear the basis for actions concerning enrolment, hiring, discipline and termination as well as stop some gross overstepping.
When it comes to employment, we understand that religious schools and parents of students expect that teachers and staff support the ethos, values and principles of the particular faith of that school and not act in a way to undermine the school's mission. That's no different from saying that all schools are entitled to have rules that govern the conduct of staff—all staff, not just teachers—in the way in which they relate to students and in the way in which they go about their work at the school. Just as all employers are entitled to require employees to act and perform their duties in accordance with the stated policies and mission of their organisation, religious schools have the right to conduct their schools in accordance with the tenets of their faith. This is actually broader than the issue of gender identity. The reality also is that staff who choose to work in these religious schools understand this too.
But our LGBTIQ students and their teachers don't deserve to live in fear that they may be kicked out of a school merely because of who they are. Our schools should be a place of learning, safety and flourishing fun for all. In 21st-century Australia, exemptions from discrimination law are no longer appropriate, nor are they the best way to safeguard the mission and identity of religious schools. That is a discussion that should be ongoing. The government's amendments must not stop at students—they must include the abolition of exemptions as they apply to teachers and other staff—and the government should work with Labor to ensure that this is done in a holistic, workable and acceptable way to the Australian community that affirms the ability of religious schools to operate consistently with their mission.
Like two gangs turning up and looking to have a fight and realising there's actually nothing to fight over, everyone's scratching their head and asking whether it's someone's haircut or the footy team they support. We have fabulous schools across this nation. We have independent and state schools doing an incredible job. Today, we have managed to have a completely hypothetical debate over Labor Party exemptions—not just federal ones—in every state and territory that provide an exemption for religious schools to allow them to hire people who share their views. And today we find ourselves tied up in knots, detaining the great parliament of Australia to try and reverse a Labor exemption from 2013 as if something's changed in the last five years.
There's one thing I'm not going to let happen from this debate, and that is that our independent schools—faith based and non-faith based schools—will not be traduced and cast by the Labor Party as being places of bigotry and discrimination, because nothing could be further from the truth. There are a lot of MPs in this chamber who know nothing more about schools than when the next P&F meeting is, but, in reality, inside those schools are incredibly hardworking staff and they are teaching students they love. It has been made very clear in the last week that this is really about the Labor Party egging on a debate to make themselves look good with their minorities—that they're fighting to remove something that they introduced themselves as recently as five years ago.
I don't always find myself jumping in to defend the views of independent education, but I do need to read into Hansard the views of some of the most senior educators in this country, who are saying, 'Why on earth are we having this ridiculous debate?' The answer is that a report was leaked. We've got the results of the leak and those opposite need to desperately create some kind of debate to try and get the report released. The reality is that most people involved in education are not professional politicians. I can't think of a solitary example of someone being discriminated against in an Australian school based on their gender preference or their sexuality—not a single case. You're welcome to bring one forward. That might be a reason for the debate, but nothing has initiated this debate except a political gain from the other side.
The Uniting Church has said, 'Our current commitment'—like other churches—'is that we would not seek to discriminate except in key leadership roles'. It's absolutely self-evident, as Christian Schools Australia have said, that they want to be able to ensure that staff who share the values of their school and share the beliefs of their school teach in their school. One would think, if you listen to the Labor Party over there, that the whole game was about trying to find a single student that you could jam into a school that least wants them and use legal tactics to make sure the school has to take them. In reality, students of all different gender preferences, sexuality and backgrounds are being taken in by schools right across this country, and proudly so, and we're not going to let extremists in the Labor Party try and embarrass this great nation by claiming this is an endemic problem—'We just can't possibly protect all of the students who have gender and sexuality preferences and are fundamentally unsafe in independent schools.' That is a complete creation for Labor Party convenience.
In interviews, we've heard the most senior people in education saying, 'I cannot see any reason for expelling any student on the basis of sexual orientation.' They've said, 'I cannot even think of a particular example where it has ever happened.' Why are we having this ridiculous debate? I've got no problem with changing Labor Party exemptions from five years ago—no problem at all. I just don't want to allow this to ever turn into a debate where we corrode or erode the great achievements of independent education in this country, because you just don't find that quality of education in any other comparable OECD nation.
There are a few things we could be focusing on. We could be focusing on the school in my electorate that cannot find a grade 6 teacher. There have been five teachers for grade 6 because no-one will teach at that school, because the department cannot provide a qualified teacher. We could be talking about opportunities that simply aren't there or available to do postgraduate research as a teacher to get higher pay by doing an extra qualification or about ways to manage teachers that can't function within the system or are struggling and can be not paid increments automatically.
Lastly, we can't be the only nation where teachers hit, at the age of 29, the highest wage they'll ever get as a teacher. How will we ever retain great teachers with those issues? Instead, the Labor Party over here detains this parliament on this ridiculous debate.