House debates

Thursday, 25 November 2021


Religious Discrimination Bill 2021; Second Reading

9:32 am

Photo of Scott MorrisonScott Morrison (Cook, Liberal Party, Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Our antidiscrimination laws play an essential role in protecting the liberty of our citizens, each as individual human beings.

Today, we fix an important weakness in our discrimination laws, as our government promised the Australian people that we would do at the last election. Today we honour that commitment.

Laws needed to protect citizens in a tolerant, multicultural, liberal democracy.

The Commonwealth has a Sex Discrimination Act, a Racial Discrimination Act, a Disability Discrimination Act and an Age Discrimination Act.

However, there is no standalone legislation to protect people of religion, or faith, against discrimination. Or indeed for those who choose not to have a faith or religion.

The introduction of this bill, the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021, will fix this.

In this age of identity politics we hear much about how we are identified by our gender, our age, our sexuality, our race, our ethnicity or our level of physical or intellectual ability. These are known as protected attributes, and they should be. We are rightly protected against discrimination in relation to any of these attributes.

But human beings are more than our physical selves.

As human beings, we are also soul and spirit. We are also, importantly, what we believe. For many, this can inform who they are more than anything else.

The protection of what we choose to believe in a free society is essential to our freedom.

In a liberal democracy it is like oxygen.

So it is only right we should expect that what we sincerely believe should be afforded the same protection from discrimination in a free liberal democracy as any other protected attributes of our humanity.

And, as provided for in this bill, this includes not being discriminated against for non-belief.

Such protections respect the true integrity and dignity of the individual. It's what makes them who they are, who we are, and how we choose to live our lives in accordance with the laws of this land.

This bill puts this right.

It is a sensible and balanced bill. I commend the Attorney on the work she has done in ensuring that it is a sensible and balanced bill.

It is the product of a tolerant and mature society that understands the importance of faith and belief to a free society, while not seeking to impose those beliefs on or ever seeking to injure others in the expression of those beliefs.

It balances, as Australia always must, freedom with responsibilities.

This bill also builds on Australia's proud record as the most successful multicultural and multi-faith nation on the planet.

To so many Australians, religion is inseparable from their culture. They are one and the same. To deny protection from discrimination for their religious beliefs is to tear at the very fabric of multiculturalism in this country.

We are the most successful multicultural country on the planet, united in our love of our country and the freedoms so many have come here to enjoy—particularly to escape discrimination and persecution for their religious beliefs. They came here seeking that freedom. That freedom should be protected for them. Those freedoms, those most important to them, should be protected from discrimination.

Our nation is an exemplar of acceptance and tolerance.

The Australia we love is one where the people of all faiths and beliefs live side by side. We're an example to the world.

A free society is a tolerant society.

In a free society, we don't go around imposing our views on each other or seeking to injure one another with those views.

People should not be cancelled or persecuted or vilified because their beliefs are different from someone else's in a free liberal democratic society such as Australia.

The whole point of faith is choice—the action of free will.

It is for this reason that free societies typically have a strong tradition of faith. Faith and freedom have been so inseparable in the formation of liberal democracies all around the world.

It is therefore no wonder that people of faith and religion have played such a prominent role in the creation and establishment of free societies. The underpinning principles of our free societies—indeed, the notion of liberty itself—draw heavily from the roots of faith.

Religion and faith are also about humility and vulnerability.

They are about love. They are about compassion. They are about speaking the truth in love, as the scriptures say.

They recognise the sanctity and dignity of every single human being.

Faith is about the heart. It is about the soul and the spirit. It's not about the state or the marketplace.

In our democracy we rightly divide church from state—that is an important liberty. But we do not separate faith from community.

History has shown that dictators and autocrats have never felt at ease with people of faith amongst their ranks in their societies. They have never felt at ease with faith and religion. They have never felt comfortable with human choice, with human dignity and the refusal of individuals to give to the state, what is the proper place of the divine.

Intolerance towards faith and religion, is to see the life of faith as a threat to nation and liberty and often the state.

In so many settings, faith strengthens lives. It provides that sense of belonging. It builds and sustains and nurtures communities.

I am so grateful for the contribution of countless Australians of faith—who have built schools, hospitals, food kitchens and shelters, and started services to meet almost every human need you can imagine.

Religious communities have always sought to bridge the gaps of human need in our free society, between the state and the market place.

We need institutions like the Salvos, Jewish Care, Lifeline, Muslim Women Australia, Mission Australia, the Brotherhood of St Laurence, and countless others offering services large and small.

All of them bring a vital human dimension to their work.

They attend to the needs of the soul and the spirit—not just the needs of our physical selves.

To leave the fulfillment of such needs only to the government and the state or the market is to weaken our society.

As the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks argued, the state can deliver much—health, welfare, education, defence, the rule of law. But I would agree with him when he argues that the state is not the author of the active citizenship that creates the face-to-face care and compassion that constitutes the good society.

The capacity of the state or the market to meet the needs of our soul and spirit has great limitations, if any capacity at all. They can be incredibly impersonal.

In between the state and the marketplace you will find the community, you will find family, you will find the individual—and there also you will find the work of faith and religion.

The protection from discrimination of faith and religion in the public sphere is therefore central to the strength of our civil society and the health of communities, families and, indeed, our very selves.

Our country is better because of the generosity and charity of our religious communities and institutions.

This bill is about helping protect what we value as Australians: difference, fairness, choice, charity and, if we are not hurting others, the right to live our lives as we choose to.

This bill is a protection from the few who seek to marginalise and coerce and silence people of faith because they do not share the same view of the world as them.

The bill is based on four years of work and is a longstanding commitment of our government.

In November 2017, the government appointed an Expert Panel into Religious Freedom chaired by the former father of this House, the Honourable Philip Ruddock, a fine attorney.

The expert panel received over 15,000 submissions.

It reported to the government in 2018.

In 2019, the government took to the Australian people a commitment to introduce new protections against religious discrimination, consistent with other antidiscrimination laws.

Since then, the government has been working through the issues with so many groups.

We have consulted widely on this bill. And again I thank the Attorney-General for her role in leading this process, and her predecessor.

This bill is balanced and thoughtful. It does not take from the rights and freedoms of others.

We do not seek to set one group of Australians against another, because to do so would diminish us all.

It strengthens important freedoms that have been buffeted over recent years.

The bill honours the mandate we have from the Australian people to protect Australians of faith and religion against discrimination.

This bill is about extending the umbrella of fairness that is so fundamental to our national character, because Australians strongly believe in fairness.

This bill seeks to protect people of faith from discrimination on the basis of their religion in daily life, including work, education, buying goods and services and accessing accommodation.

While there are some provisions in the existing laws that provide some protections for people of faith, these can be complex and can create uncertainty.

And they are inconsistent across Australia.

In particular, there is a gap in New South Wales and South Australia, where there is either limited protection or no specific protection against religious discrimination.

This bill will provide for the first time protections for those of faith at the Commonwealth level, and in the states of New South Wales and South Australia where there is currently no state based religious discrimination legislation.

This bill brings clarity and it provides confidence that Australians of faith can have confidence they will be protected from discrimination.

A Sikh should not be discriminated against because of the turban they wear.

Nor a Maronite because of the cross around their neck.

Nor a Muslim employee who keeps a prayer mat in the bottom drawer of their desk at work.

Nor a Hindu couple who are seeking to rent a property.

Nor the Jewish school seeking to employ someone of their faith—if that is their preference—and the publicly stated policy of the school.

This bill ensures people can't be persecuted for moderately expressing a reasonable belief—what could be fairer than that?—whether that belief is motivated by—or indeed, critical of—a religion.

It recognises the unique ways in which those of faith express their beliefs and ensures that good faith statements of that belief are appropriately protected for both religious and non-religious views.

However, the bill draws a clear line against harassment, vilification or intimidation of anyone. Religious faith should always be expressed in love.

This bill is about creating a bigger space for everyone in our national life—to be themselves, who they believe, what they believe, free of discrimination, coercion and judgment.

That is our Australian way, and it always has been so.

The bill recognises that religious schools must be free to uphold the tenets of their faith and the ethos that makes their school a community. It is recognition of the sacrifices parents make to educate their children in accordance with their values and beliefs and the choices they have made for their children's education.

As many schools have said throughout this process, 'faith is caught not taught'.

The bill protects the fundamental right for religious schools to hire religious staff to maintain their religious ethos in accordance with a publicly available policy.

This protection will be able to override state or territory laws which seek to interfere with this right.

The approach detailed in this bill provides certainty to school communities and to the staff they employ through the development of policies that are transparent to the school community. It's only fair.

Nothing in this bill—I stress: nothing—allows for any form of discrimination against a student on the basis of sexuality or gender identity. You won't find anything of that nature in this bill. Such discrimination has no place in our education system.

The protections in this bill affirm the generous, openhearted and accepting culture that is embodied in much of our national life.

However, we believe it is important that what has been treated as a culturally accepted norm should be better codified in law.

Sadly, every age faces its share of bigotry against people of faith. The Treasurer and his colleagues sadly know too much about this in their own personal lives and in their own communities. I particularly acknowledge all those of the Jewish faith. It is a great shame that the Treasurer of our country has to be offered close personal protection not because he is the Treasurer but because he is a Jew.

The values of 'tolerance' and 'diversity' have been appropriated against Protestant Christians, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha'is, Sikhs and so many more religions.

Discrimination against people of faith is not a new thing; it is ancient.

The sectarian divide that dominated almost the first two centuries of European settlement in Australia is testament to that. Catholics and Protestants. Thankfully now a thing of the past; we worship freely together and openly.

Equally, that sectarian divide is a reminder that people of faith too have a responsibility to treat others as they themselves seek to be treated—another great principle and teaching of faith.

Still, many people from various religious traditions are concerned about the lack of religious protection against the prevalence of cancel culture in Australian life. It's true. It's there. It's real.

The citizens of liberal democracies should never be fearful about what they believe, the lives they lead or the God they follow, if, indeed, they choose to follow one or acknowledge one at all.

Australians shouldn't have to worry about looking over their shoulder, fearful of offending an anonymous person on Twitter, cowardly sitting there, abusing and harassing them for their faith, or transgressing against political and social zeitgeists.

We have to veer away from the artificial and phoney conflicts, boycotts, controversies and cancelling created by anonymous and cowardly bots, bigots and bullies.

In our secular society, every religion and belief should have the same rights and freedoms. That's what freedom is.

That means the faith of any religion, as well as no religion, shouldn't override the rights of others in a free society.

That means we rightly have a secular democracy and government, but that does not afford secular humanism the status of a state religion, as I stated in my maiden speech in this place.

Just over 80 years ago President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke about what he called the four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom from want, freedom from fear and freedom of worship.

In Australia, Sir Robert Menzies was so taken by the four freedoms that he made them integral to his 'Forgotten People' broadcasts. These broadcasts became the intellectual foundation of the party that he founded and I have the great privilege to now lead in this place.

In its DNA, together the Liberal and the Nationals—I join with the Deputy Prime Minister—our government, believes in these four freedoms in the deepness of our own DNA.

The freedom to worship is not merely the freedom to believe.

It's the freedom to think.

It is the freedom to exercise our conscience.

It is the freedom to doubt.

Indeed, it's the freedom not to believe.

This protection will give Australians of faith confidence—confidence to be themselves and confidence in the country they belong to, a resilient democracy that can embrace faith and not be threatened by it.

Our faith communities contribute to our national life, all playing a part in helping live out our great destiny as a people, Australians, one and free.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.