House debates

Wednesday, 9 February 2022


Religious Discrimination Bill 2021, Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021, Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2021; Second Reading

7:25 pm

Photo of Tony ZappiaTony Zappia (Makin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Throughout history, governments, parliaments and the judiciary have grappled with the concepts of human rights, personal freedoms and discrimination. In Australia, for all of the laws, international conventions and public debate, we still have gaps in the national human rights laws that guide our country. Perhaps that is because every right and every freedom granted to one person diminishes the rights and freedoms of another. Striking the right balance is always a challenge.

We see that today around the world and on our doorstep, with people wanting freedom and protesting against COVID-19 restrictions. In reality, laws may modify behaviour but they will not end prejudice and discrimination. That can only be achieved through understanding, acceptance, goodwill and a change of attitude. That is why dealing with religious freedoms has proven to be so difficult, as the Ruddock inquiry found, as the two Senate committees found and as the Prime Minister and this parliament are now finding out.

In my time in this place, few, if any, other issues have been more difficult to resolve to the satisfaction of all. Our constitutional founding fathers attempted to deal with religious rights as far back as 1891 and finally settled on section 116 of the Australian Constitution, which simply states:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

Section 116 of the Australian Constitution is very simple and very clear. Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Australia is a signatory to, expresses the right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief. Article 26 of the covenant reinforces article 18. However, covenants must be enacted into Australian law if they are to be effectively enforced. It seems, based on several High Court judgements, that section 116 of the Australian Constitution only provides limited protection for people of faith.

This brings us to this legislation and the need for it, and the need to protect people of faith from ridicule, discrimination, persecution and even physical harm. For people of deep faith, their faith is paramount to their lives. It guides them through their lives, even in the face of personal harm or, in some places, death. Such is their conviction and faith. Just as we have enacted legislation about racial discrimination, sex discrimination, disability discrimination, fair work conditions and so on, it is reasonable that we legislate religious freedom and religious protections.

From my observations, religious discrimination is on the rise, with people of faith being increasingly mocked, ridiculed and vilified. Many no longer openly talk about their faith and feel uncomfortable in the company of nonbelievers. It is a similar story for people of the LGBTIQA+ communities, who are at times equally targeted because of who they are. They too are all too often made to feel inferior to others and subjected to cruel, derogatory comments and actions.

It has always been the case that to be different attracts attention and often exclusion and derision from others. However, any freedoms or protections granted in law should never be used to discriminate, spread hatred or vilify others.

Over recent years there have been numerous examples of discrimination and offending against religious or LGBTIQA+ people. Other speakers in their contributions to this debate referred to some of those examples. Not surprisingly, therefore, both sectors have taken a deep interest in this legislation and have had some disagreements over the proposal before us, so it is up to the parliament to bring the parties together, to find a way forward, to mediate and, importantly, to ensure that all parties are respectfully listened to and responded to.

No legislation will ever satisfy every grievance raised, but with goodwill this legislation could be improved and could overcome many of the concerns raised. That is what Labor's amendments seek to achieve.

Ultimately, it is the intent of this legislation that matters most because the courts or others in positions of authority, if and when they are asked to adjudicate over matters of discrimination or wrongful conduct, will draw on the intent of this legislation for guidance.

Labor's position has been clear from the outset. The freedoms of thought, conscience and religion or belief are fundamental human rights. Labor supports the extension of the Commonwealth's antidiscrimination framework so as to ensure that Australians are not discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or activities, while at the same time not diminishing the rights and freedoms of others.

In its consideration of this legislation, Labor has been guided by three very clear principles: firstly, 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 or teachings of their traditions and faith; secondly, support for the extension of the Commonwealth's antidiscrimination framework to ensure Australians are not discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or activities; and, thirdly, consistent with the international covenant, ensuring that any extensions of the Commonwealth's antidiscrimination framework do not remove protections that already exist in the law to protect Australians from other forms of discrimination. I do not believe that any fair-minded person could disagree with the three guiding principles, and Labor's amendments are consistent with each one of them.

Getting this legislation right, particularly as it interacts with other laws, is complicated. However, only time will tell whether the legislation, if it passes through parliament, will achieve its objectives. As with all legislation, parliament has the right to review or amend legislation at any time, if flaws are identified. Perhaps a commitment to an early review of the legislation would allay some of the fears that have already been raised.

I said earlier that this legislation is complex. The complexity of this is well summed up in an amicus brief provided by several legal academics to the US Supreme Court when it was considering state based same-sex marriage legislation. The brief, which is also directly relevant to the legislation before us, was referred to in an Australian Law Reform Commission paper on religious freedom. It states:

… No one can have a right to deprive others of their important liberty as a prophylactic means of protecting his own … The proper response to the mostly avoidable conflict between gay rights and religious liberty is to protect the liberty of both sides.

That is what we should strive for, and I believe it can be done.

In an excellent analysis of this proposed legislation, Emeritus Professor of Law Rick Sarre concludes with this statement:

I remain confident that, with some tweaking of current laws, Australians will be able to continue to enjoy freedom of religion and belief, and freedom from religion and belief with or without new legislation. If there is to be a new Act, legislators must ensure that it encourages tolerance and denies bigotry any oxygen. If we can adhere to this commitment, the long and winding road that leads to a plateau of religious freedom that is acceptable to all will be less difficult to navigate.

Sound advice indeed.

In conclusion, can I stress this: Labor are committed to ending religious discrimination, as we have always been committed to ending any form of discrimination. Indeed, it has consistently been Labor that has led the way towards legislation that has ended discrimination wherever it has been identified. The Morrison government has now had some three or four years to deal with this matter, and it is clear to all of us that it simply now wants to use this legislation to divide Australians and to wedge Labor in the lead-up to the next federal election.

My view is that, at this time, when we are dealing with a matter that is not only complicated but also affects so many sectors of society, the parliament should be working at its best: the parliament should be coming together and showing the national leadership that people in the community consistently call for. It is a time when we can, collectively, as people elected to this parliament to make decisions for the nation, come up with a response that at least meets the needs of most people in this country.

I believe that is possible, but it will take the goodwill of this parliament. There is a lot of goodwill on this side, as the Leader of the Opposition made clear in his contribution to this debate earlier on this afternoon. There is goodwill from the crossbenchers, from what I've detected from the speeches that I've heard. And I believe that there is goodwill from many government members as well.

Let us show the Australian people that we are here to serve them, and let us come together and put together legislation that overcomes the concerns of all those people who have contacted us. Like other members of this House, I have been contacted by people from all sides of this debate, and each of them, in my view, raised legitimate concerns with what they see before us. If the Morrison government does not get this legislation right, a future Albanese Labor government will, and we will ensure that religious freedoms are secured in law forever and a day.

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

I remind the House that it has been agreed that a general debate be allowed covering this bill, the Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021 and the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2021. The original question was that this bill now be read a second time. To this, the honourable member for Clark has moved as an amendment that all words after 'that' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question is that the amendment be disagreed to, and I give the call to the member for Blair.

7:38 pm

Photo of Shayne NeumannShayne Neumann (Blair, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel) Share this | | Hansard source

It shouldn't have been beyond the wit and wisdom of the Prime Minister to make this a unifying moment in this country—to legislate to create history. This could have been a Prime Minister who extended the antidiscrimination legislation in the same way that previous prime ministers did in relation to age, disability, race, sex, gender identity, sex characteristics and sexual orientation. But he has botched it. He absolutely has botched it when it comes to this issue.

On this Australian continent, for tens of thousands of years, there were multispiritual, multilingual people walking this earth, and they were there at the time of colonial settlement. When people came to this country—many of them, forced—they came with their religious discrimination ideas and religious preferences. It was not that long ago in this country that Protestants and Catholics fought bitterly, and we had terrible signs saying that people couldn't be employed if they were Catholic or Protestant. Indeed, in my first job in the law, I was the first Protestant to ever be employed in my Catholic law firm.

But this Prime Minister has absolutely blown it. Like many on this side, and I'm sure many on the other side, I've consulted with many religious leaders at a state level and locally, including the Catholic community, the Anglican community, the Uniting Church community, the Baptist community, the Pentecostal community, Presbyterians, and the Churches of Christ. I've also discussed these issues with people from the Muslim and Hindu communities in my area.

I want to pay tribute to people of faith and what they do because, as it says in chapter 2 of the book of James, 'faith without works is dead'. In my electorate of Blair in South-East Queensland there are religious and faith communities who put their faith into action each and every day, whether it's the growing Catholic community amongst the Filipino communities in Kilcoy, the massive multicultural communities amongst the Catholic communities in Springfield or Cityhope Church's wonderful work with the Domestic Violence Action Centre and the police to help women and children fleeing from domestic and family violence. Little churches like Raceview Congregational Church—which have an enormous soccer club, a kindergarten, a childcare centre, and do so much good work—have really put their faith into action. They show what they really believe. There are Sunni and Shia faith communities in my electorate as well. There is the Vedantu Centre, in the Hindu community in Springfield, whose soup kitchen and relief work, particularly during COVID-19, have been exemplary. And I've been happy to support that with federal government grants. The growing BAPS community based in Logan has many adherents in my electorate around Ipswich. In my own faith tradition, great work is done by Carinity in Colthup Manor and Elim village.

There are so many schools in my electorate, whether it's Lutheran schools like Bethany Lutheran and St Peters Lutheran, or the Catholic schools like St Edmonds and St Marys and St Peter Claver College, or independent Christian schools like Staines Memorial. I say to the Prime Minister that I have been speaking to the school principals in those school communities, and never once have any of the school principals said to me that they would exclude or expel students from the LGBTI community. That is because they put their faith into action. Faith without works is dead. And I make this point to the Prime Minister: in your faith tradition and mine, the greatest commandment that Jesus of Nazareth said was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. The second greatest commandment was to love your neighbour as yourself.

I don't see a lot of love in this legislation; I really don't. You can't elevate someone else's rights above another's. I think you haven't got the balance right, Prime Minister, with this legislation. I am neither a fundamentalist nor a Pentecostal; neither in politics nor in theology am I a conservative. I am a middle-of-the-road Protestant and I am a member of my Baptist Church. Last Sunday I prayed and did my personal devotions, I went to my local church and I had what the Catholics would call the Eucharist. There were no stormtroopers or instruments of state to prevent me from worshipping. But there are people in this country who have suffered—and on a regular basis continue to suffer—discrimination, vilification and hostility regarding their faith. That should not happen in a pluralistic, multicultural, multifaith society like Australia. They should be protected. So the concept of a religious discrimination bill is a worthy one and should be supported. But you cannot elevate someone's rights and diminish others' rights. That's simply not good enough.

The Prime Minister has missed his moment. He announced in December 2018, three years ago, that he would introduce legislation in early 2019, before the last federal election. He failed to do it. And what have we got here? Right at the end of this parliamentary term, we have a Prime Minister trying to ram legislation through without giving the parliamentary committees that examined this—the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee—the period of time they needed to examine it. It's been rushed through. And so many of the things the Prime Minister said he would do—reach out to the Leader of the Opposition, be bipartisan, consult, get involved in making sure this was a unifying moment—have not happened. That letter that the Leader of the Opposition talked about and submitted and tabled in his brilliant speech earlier tonight showed the true attitude of the Prime Minister, weaponising this bill and weaponising faith. It's not good enough.

I say to the Prime Minister: in your faith tradition and mine, love your neighbour as yourself and make sure that you live your faith individually, but live it in community. We are an Australian community, and people who are vulnerable and frail—in the Old Testament they called them the poor, the weak, the oppressed—should be looked after. People who are struggling and vulnerable should be looked after. In our faith tradition, we look after people. We accept people because they are all children of God. Whether we are people in the LGBTI community or people like me who went to church and who live in a heterosexual marriage, we are all God's children and should be protected from discrimination.

This legislation doesn't achieve what the Prime Minister on multiple occasions told the Australian community and faith communities it would achieve. He has betrayed them. Things that were supposed to happen haven't happened. He hasn't worked with the opposition. He hasn't consulted with the states and territories. That's the evidence that came up before the parliamentary inquiries. He hasn't legislated, like he said he was going to, in a timely way.

This legislation here tonight has lots of flaws. There are clauses that the parliamentary inquiries have referred to. There are submissions from the Sikh community, from the Law Council, from the Uniting Church and a whole range of other churches, from organisations, from the LGBTI community and from law groups. They have been critical and have talked about the flawed aspects of the legislation. There are problems in section 7, section 9, section 15, section 11 and section 12 of this legislation. There are major problems with constitutionality, with the fact that people could end up being discriminated against in a worse way, with discrimination against the poor and the weak and the vulnerable in terms of disability. There are issues of professional bodies being overridden. There are issues of state and faith based communities, where a minister has power—and I can say this as someone who's a Baptist, who's really concerned with the issues of state and church not connecting in a way so that people of faith can live their lives freely. There are ministerial determinations in this legislation which really affect faith communities and individual organisations and individuals, to their detriment, potentially. There are constitutional issues as well. There are workability issues. And the Prime Minister has not adhered to what he said he would do. He has not been true to his word with this legislation. So I say to the faith communities that listened to him and that believed him: you have been let down by a Prime Minister that has not done what he said he would do. He has not looked after those people and he has not brought this country together.

We on this side of politics have a longstanding commitment to legislate to prevent discrimination against people of faith, and an Albanese Labor government will do it. We will also make sure that those schools that I listed in my electorate and elsewhere would have the right to prefer people of their faith, in a religious ethos, in terms of employment. If a Jewish school wants to employ Jewish teachers or a Catholic school Catholic teachers, that should be okay. But everyone knows—you can go to any school in any electorate in the country—that there are people of different faiths and people who have no faith whatsoever. What we can't do is have a code-of-conduct-type thing as contemplated in this legislation. We saw an expression of that in my home state, with Citipointe. That was a disgraceful abuse of scripture and a distortion of the Christian faith, a distortion of the words of St Paul in 1 Corinthians. They have absolutely distorted that. That is not loving your neighbour as yourself. To love your neighbour as yourself is not to discriminate against people in the LGBTI community. They are all God's children and should be cared for and loved and respected accordingly, because everyone has value. That is a scriptural point as well.

When it comes to these issues, the Prime Minister has let us down, has let faith communities down and has let the LGBTI communities down. There are amendments that should be passed. I urge those moderates on the crossbench and others to pass these amendments. Why shouldn't we have an antivilification clause in relation to this issue? It's absolutely important that that happen. Why shouldn't we clarify situations in terms of home-care service providers not being able to discriminate on the basis of religious belief or activity in the provision of their services when we do in residential aged care? As I mentioned earlier today, I spent 14 years on the board of Carinity. We ran aged-care homes all around Queensland, and I've acted as a lawyer for aged-care providers. We didn't discriminate on the basis of religion, and the Labor government made sure we didn't discriminate on the basis of religion and issues like that when we were last in government. You shouldn't be allowed to do that, and these amendments that Labor is proposing would prevent that from happening in relation to in-home care service provision.

I urge those opposite to make sure they delete section 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act and the consequential amendment. We've got to make sure that Citipointe never happens again. We've got to make sure that religious schools cannot discriminate against students on the basis of sexuality, gender identity, relationship status or pregnancy in relation to the provision of education or training. Why should they be allowed to discriminate? Those schools have federal and state government funding, and people in the community send their children to those schools because of the values, ethos and morality of the schools and they want their kids to get a good education. Every child should have the right to go to a fantastic state or public school, and parents should have the right to send their kids to the schools they want to send them to. But when they send them to those schools, they want to make sure that those kids respect, love and care for one another. Faith, hope and love are the greatest virtues, as St Paul said. He didn't do a Citipointe. He talked about faith, hope and love, and this legislation should be about those virtues, which should be protected in antidiscrimination legislation.

We've got to protect people of faith and protect people who are vulnerable because they are questioning their sexual identity. They should never be discriminated against, and neither should someone who wears a cross on a chain around their neck or who has a certain religious attire be criticised, vilified or abused or have violence perpetrated upon them. We live in a great country. I commend two wonderful books to you. Meredith Lake's brilliant book The Bible in Australia: A cultural history is about the history and the importance of the Christian church and the Bible in our faith tradition and the importance of Christian schools that predated state and public schools. I also commend a brilliant book by George Megalogenis, Australia's second chance: What our history tells us about our future, which talks about the banality and the scourge of the White Australia policy and how Australia has been given a second chance by the multicultural faith communities who've come here and blessed our country. That's the sort of community I want to live in in Australia, an Australia where we're all respected, where I can worship in my church and someone can worship in their mosque, synagogue or temple and not be criticised, vilified, abused or have violence perpetrated upon them.

This legislation does not do what the Prime Minister promised. I urge the government to reconsider their position. If they're fair dinkum about faith, human rights and discrimination and they're fair dinkum about making sure that this country is what it should be, they should support Labor's amendments.

7:53 pm

Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What a privilege to listen to the member for Blair's contribution to debate on the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021. There have been extraordinary speeches in this place on this legislation. One of the privileges we have as members of parliament is to read the minister's message at citizenship ceremonies throughout the year. One of my favourite parts of the message is: 'We believe in the freedom and dignity of each individual, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of association. We value the rule of law, democracy and equality of opportunity for all people.' This is what we say to people as we welcome them in becoming Australians. We talk about our values, and I wholeheartedly agree with this parliament supporting freedom of religion and stating explicitly in law that people should not be discriminated against because of their religion. I have no hesitation in doing that, whether it's for the Uniting Church members of Australia's oldest church at Ebenezer in my electorate, the parishioners of the historic Anglican and Catholic churches across the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury, the Jewish members of my community or those of the Baha'i. There are also those citizens new to Australia who bring to our region an array of religions, from Hindu and Islam through to our large upper mountains Buddhist Tibetan community. None of them should face discrimination for any reason, let alone on the basis of religion. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief is a fundamental human right.

There can be no question that Labor supports the extension of the federal antidiscrimination framework to ensure Australians are not discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or activities. When, in those citizenship ceremonies, we say, 'We believe in the freedom and dignity of each individual,' we also mean that. That is why this legislation is flawed. That's why I cannot support it without amendments. In my view, the Prime Minister has done the nation a disservice by seeking to divide us rather than unite us.

I believed the Prime Minister when he said that the government would work with the opposition, the crossbench and stakeholders in a spirit of bipartisanship to introduce a religious discrimination bill into the parliament that would have cross-party support. This hasn't happened. I don't think I can forgive the Prime Minister for breaking that promise, because of the hurt that it has led to. I see that hurt and anger in the emails and messages that I've received in the last few days from people who are horrified about what the government has put forward.

And let's not shy away from the politics of this bill. The Prime Minister has rushed this through in the dying days of this term of parliament to create a wedge, to deliberately weaponise and create division. I think people can see that. On this side, we will do all we can to try and turn a divisive and damaging piece of law into something that represents progress in reducing discrimination and increasing protections. We encourage government members to support the series of amendments that Labor will pursue.

I've listened to more than a dozen speeches on our side of the House. We make the point time and time again that we do not support this bill. In the way this legislation is written, it offers protections to one group but removes protections for others. We surely should be able to do both—enhancing protections against discrimination without enhancing discrimination against others.

I will stand up for the rights of people to practice their religion, but, as the opposition leader said this evening, I won't support anyone who wants to use their religion as an excuse to be cruel and to deny the rights of others who just happen to be different. I note that the Leader of the Opposition earlier this evening did reach out a hand across the parliament to the Prime Minister, asking to work together to ensure we protect the freedoms of people of faith without hurting another group of vulnerable people. Labor will use every opportunity in this place and in the Senate to amend this bill so that it achieves progress rather than takes us backwards. We are the minority; we may not be successful, but we will try. And we'll urge those opposite who've expressed concern to join with us to change it for the better.

One of the ways that I've considered this bill is through the prism of mental health. It's something that I've spoken about many times in this place since my inaugural speech. And there's been much spoken on the subject by people on all sides of the parliament about the need to support those who are unwell or who have serious mental illness. It's one thing to put supports in and provide services and tackle issues once they occur, but today is where the rubber hits the road. These are the sorts of laws that can actually make a difference to a life. They can actually be the difference between life and death. Whether it's a gay teacher or—as the focus has narrowed in the debate on this legislation—a trans student, if we are serious about improving the mental health of our society, it can't just be for some; it needs to be for all. It can't just be: 'If you fall into one category, we'll care about you and protect you, but, if you're someone else, you're on your own.' That's why Labor wants to see changes to this bill.

As it stands, this legislation results in gay students being protected from expulsion from school but not from any other form of discrimination, such as suspension, detention and unfair treatment. It does not extend even that protection to trans students. I know that I'm not alone in feeling that this is an act of cruelty by those who've put forward this bill. It's not humane to do that to a person, especially a young person, who may already be grappling with complex issues within themselves and under extreme pressure as they navigate their journey to the person they'll become. We should not be making judgements about that person. They should be respected for who they are, and our laws should allow for them to be respected.

While we've had so little time to properly discuss the amendments the government has made back in our electorates—because we only got to see them in the last 24 hours—it's inconceivable to me that people of faith in my electorate would want to single out any group of kids and ask them to bear the brunt of this law. Labor's amendment will change that. My colleague the member for Whitlam gave us an insight into the way this bill makes parents of children who are excluded from its protections feel, and I commend his lovely, brave young son for reaching out to support other kids, as he has done on TikTok. I believe young people like Olivia Stewart, a transgender student who's spoken publicly about the impact on mental health of even having this debate, describing it as 'intensely distressing to see our basic rights up for debate'.

It's on the Prime Minister's conscience that we are here now having this debate about such deeply personal and private things. In fact, the reason we're here is that there has been a total failure by the government to engage in a consultative process, particularly given that we've always agreed with the principle of legislating for religious freedoms. Please, no-one blame COVID! This was announced by the Prime Minister in December 2018, and, when the promise wasn't honoured before the 2019 election, it became an election commitment for this current term of government. And here we are, rushing to an election and trying to tick something off the list. I think the Australian people deserve better. None of the promises to consult with us or the states or the territories were kept, and that's why there is a deep flaw in this bill, in that it overrides state laws. Our amendment will address that.

One of the promises made by the Prime Minister was:

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.

Yet the bill introduced by the Prime Minister does not prohibit vilification of people on the basis of religious belief, religious dress or religious activity. This bill will not protect a Muslim woman who's abused on a train or a Buddhist who's vilified for his religious beliefs. So another of Labor's amendments will address this.

I think it says a lot about the Morrison government that this is what the last few days of parliament for this term are being spent on—us trying to minimise the damage that the government is knowingly and wilfully doing. If we get our way, if Labor gets its way, we will have legislation that prohibits vilification, that prevents discrimination against children on the grounds of sexuality and gender identity and that makes it clear that in-home aged-care service providers and disability services can't discriminate on the basis of religion when they provide services. And we'll have a law that makes it clear that the statement-of-belief provision does not remove or diminish any existing protections against discrimination. We will have that plus the protection from discrimination that people of faith deserve. It's not too late for the Prime Minister to change this debate from disunity to unity. It's a chance to show leadership and to bring Australians together. If the Morrison government doesn't get this right, then Labor will take on that challenge, and we will do it in an Albanese Labor government.

8:04 am

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I hadn't intended to speak on this bill, the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021, tonight, but I feel it is important to outline to my community the position I'm taking in relation to this important legislation. I can honestly say that this has been one of the most difficult weeks of my time in parliament. I also reflect on the fact that it's just under a month until the anniversary of when I made my first speech to this chamber—and what a special day that was. It was special in a number of other ways, and most particularly because, when I stood—almost in this exact spot; it was a few rows in front of where I am now—I talked about the fact that I stood in this place as the first openly gay man in the House of Representatives. That was not just an important milestone for me, I hoped it was a significant milestone for so many other Australians—particularly those who were still struggling with their sexuality and wondering whether they could achieve all that they wanted to in life. I said in that first speech that I hoped that my mere presence in this chamber would send a signal that you could be gay and be a member of the Parliament of Australia.

Of course, since that time there have been so many momentous decisions that have affected the community of which I'm a part. Several years later in this chamber, several years after my first speech, following the vote by the Australian people, we celebrated the passage of the marriage equality legislation. It was in fact this flag that made headlines around the world as the backdrop to that incredible scene as the member for Leichhardt and the member for Barton embraced in this chamber. It symbolised so much of what was special about that day, and I honestly believe that there will not be a day as special for me as when marriage equality became the law of this country.

I raise these issues because it is important to understand the significance of this legislation. And I want to start my discussion about the bill by saying that of course it is a no-brainer that in this country we should have legislation which prevents one person discriminating against another person because of their religious faith. It is an international obligation. It is a human right. It is simply wrong that any person could be discriminated against because of the faith that they hold dear. And I know that the Ruddock review of religious freedom in this country made the point that, unlike so many other nations, we, as part of our wonderful liberal democracy, provide opportunities for people of all faiths like virtually no other country. And I know in that review they found religious freedom was not in imminent peril. But I also know that there are some who face discrimination based on their religion, particularly minority faiths—people of Jewish faith, people of Islamic faith; there are perceptions among some Christians of that as well—so the concept of having a religious discrimination bill is one that makes sense.

I also want to highlight the fact that in all my work as the member for North Sydney, one of the highlights has been working with so many wonderful religious organisations, from the Sisters of Saint Joseph at Mary MacKillop Place in North Sydney, who do so much for those in need of help, to our local religious schools. For example, this week I am visiting Riverview with the Minister for Indigenous Australians to meet with the Indigenous students that they support. There are the charity groups—Vinnies, Salvos—that I've worked very closely with among so many others. And, of course, just simply the inherent fellowship that churches and other religious organisations, synagogues and mosques provide to their adherents. So it is right that we have religious discrimination laws on our statute books, and it is an important part of our liberal democracy.

But I have had concerns about this bill because it does extend beyond the orthodox provisions of discrimination laws in this country. It goes beyond simply preventing and outlawing discrimination on the basis of a person's religion and their faith. I do want to acknowledge that there have been improvements to this bill over time—the deletion of the Folau clause and the moderation of those clauses relating to medical practitioners are really, really important—but there are still aspects of this bill that concern me. Most particularly, it is the statement of beliefs clause in this bill.

Human rights are a difficult issue; no human right exists in a silo. Inevitably many do conflict. In many, we try to balance and judge competing interests and competing human rights. But my concern about the statement of beliefs is fundamentally that it extends a greater privilege to freedom of conscience based on religious views. For me as a Liberal, freedom of conscience and freedom of thought is the most important thing in our society, and religious faith is one of those expressions of freedom of conscience. It's no more important and no less important than any other. My concern with the statement of beliefs and the way it's constructed is that it actually puts religious faith on a pedestal above other rights in a way that I have serious problems with.

But I also want to talk about another aspect of the legislation and the debate that's occurring today, and that's in relation to the Sex Discrimination Act. Some have said this is tangential, almost accidentally involved in the debate we're having tonight. For me it's not, because in the Religious Discrimination Bill we are talking about new provisions that relate to educational settings and educational institutions. That's why for me we have a historic opportunity to right what I think is a significant wrong in the Sex Discrimination Act, and that is in relation to its treatment of teachers and students.

The current SDA provides that, effectively, someone can be discriminated against based on inherent characteristics like their sexuality, gender, sex, pregnancy or marital status. For me, that is fundamentally wrong. Those are exemptions that belong in the 19th century, not the 21st century. That's why, for me, having the opportunity to reform the SDA as part of this debate is so important. For me it's about teachers. Let me tell you that the hearings of the two committees that looked at this made us realise that this is not some mere academic issue. There are teachers today who love their job, who love their profession, who love the schools that they work for and who love their students but have been sacked for things like the simple fact that they were gay. As the son of a Christian school headmaster, I know how important those educational settings are. I understand that schools want to protect the ethos and the mission of those schools, and there's nothing wrong with that, but there is something profoundly wrong when you judge a person based on their sexuality or their gender. That's why I believe that today we should be addressing the issue of teachers in the SDA.

I also fundamentally believe that it's an opportunity to address the issue of discrimination, which is permitted in the SDA, against those that we have the greatest responsibility to in our education system: students themselves. Again, at the moment the SDA allows schools to discriminate based on all those characteristics I mentioned before. Of course, the reality is that it's uncommon for that to happen. I think of the wonderful schools in my electorate. I have spoken to many of their school principals just this week, and all of them strive to provide a supporting environment to students based on their sexuality or gender, including those who are transgender or going through the transition. But there are still some, and we've seen this just in recent weeks, that would purport in the name of their religion to discriminate in what I think is quite a heinous way.

I want to tell you why this is important to me: because my own journey—something I don't talk about, because I'm intrinsically a private person—is a reflection of what many other people have experienced. It was a different age in the seventies and eighties, but, like so many of my peers, I went through that long period of struggling with my sexuality, where I lived in fear of discovery, where someone simply talking about homosexuality sent me rushing in case it led to some type of exposure, and where I could spend weeks after an incident, if I'd said the wrong thing, wondering whether I'd revealed myself. That is so debilitating. I did that in the environment of a school that was not particularly conservative. I can never remember it preaching against homosexuality. I did it in an environment where I had such a loving family and support group of friends, but nonetheless for people in my situation in that age it was such an ordeal. Can I say that, whilst we have improved so much, so incredibly much, just in my lifetime, I know that that is still the experience of so many Australians.

There are people today who are in mental anguish because of their sexuality. There are even more people in anguish because of their gender. We have to provide a legal environment that supports them. Part of that is ensuring that when they're going to school, when they're going to an educational institution, they do so with that struggle that might be within them but knowing, at the very least, that that school cannot legally discriminate against them, the school cannot expel them and the school cannot penalise them in a way that they have a de facto expulsion because their life becomes so unpleasant. I want every child in those educational settings, whilst it's not a solution of itself, to know that the school itself is not going to be the cause of the problem that they face. One of the things I am most proud of in my position as a member of parliament is that so many parents have contacted me, even about my first speech, and said, 'We gave that to our child to help them.' So many young people have approached me and said, 'Thank you for setting an example that we can aspire to.' Our school settings should provide similar support, which I believe they so desperately need.

Today, there are people who will consider taking their own lives because of the internal struggle they go through. For me, it wasn't until my 30s that I came out completely to my family. Of course, like most people, my family said it doesn't make any difference. That's as it should be. But that's not always the case. There are people who are threatened with violence in the home and with, effectively, exile from their families for going through that same journey. That's why for me it's really the core of who I am that is leading me to make some difficult decisions in relation to what I do in this chamber. And I'd like to think that my community will support me in that journey.

I will be forever proud and grateful for the fact that North Sydney residents, for the first time in Australian history—as progressive as they are—said: 'It doesn't matter what your sexuality is if you're standing for parliament. We're going to vote for you based on your merits, not whether you're gay or straight.' They were the first to do that in the country, and I am so grateful in so many ways for the opportunity that they've given me as a result. But I also hope to be an example to anyone who is part of the LGBTI community.

In that regard, I want to say that one of the things that's disturbed me most this week is the debate about transgender children. I cannot support a situation where we solve a problem for one community but in fact enhance a problem for another. And we are. It's a bit of a misnomer that this is actually new legislation that's putting in place something punitive. We are dealing with the existing laws which allow discrimination based on your gender and your sexuality. The fact is: if we solve one problem and not another, by omission we are sending a message to those people in the transgender community.

They are the most vulnerable people in our society. All the statistics show what they go through: the suicide rates, the attempted suicide rates and the mental health problems. I cannot do anything which makes their situation more difficult, which sends anything other than a message from this parliament—as most receive in their schools, but sadly some don't—that we want to embrace you, we want to love you, we want to support you and we want to nurture you during what is a difficult and often challenging part of your own lives, as you realise who you are and who you should be.

I simply want to say that in these debates some are saying we can push this down the road and have reviews. Some are saying that there is something different about sexuality or gender identity. For me—and I made this point in my first speech—there is nothing different about your sexuality or your gender from the colour of your skin. I don't believe that this parliament would waste a second if there were some old law which said that a school or any institution could discriminate against you because of your race, or allow that to stand on the statute books if it were discovered that, in fact, that law were being exercised in a way that discriminated against someone based on their creed or their colour. For me, that's why this is important.

As I said before, we know that teachers today are being removed from some schools—a minority of schools—because of those inherent characteristics. We know that there are some schools that would effectively penalise those people based on their sexuality. The case we saw in the last two weeks, which equated homosexuality with bestiality and paedophilia, was just disgusting. And that's in modern Australia. That's why we have the opportunity, by supporting amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act, to address that problem in the overarching framework of what we can achieve for our educational settings through this religious discrimination bill.

I want to indicate that I will be making the difficult decision to part with my party on some of the amendments that are before the chamber tonight. I'll speak more about those, but I've highlighted the two that are most important to me: the statement of beliefs and the opportunity to fix the SDA. It's an opportunity that I can't let go past. I could not live with myself if I didn't seek to address those issues.

8:19 pm

Photo of Joanne RyanJoanne Ryan (Lalor, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Australia watches this parliament tonight. They're watching this debate. It's not often we know that people are as tuned in as they are tonight, and they're tuned in because the debate is incredibly important. As we've heard from, in the last 40 minutes, the member for North Sydney, and my colleague from New South Wales the member for Macquarie, it's an incredibly important debate, and I think they both touched on some really important points.

I want to make my contribution as brief as I can, because I don't think I can reach the soaring rhetorical heights that many of my colleagues have on both sides of this chamber today. So I will zone in on my community and I will zone in on where my past experience and expertise has been and perhaps echo some of the things mentioned by the member for North Sydney.

I represent a growth corridor, an area where nearly 50 per cent of our residents were born overseas. We are a vibrant, multicultural, multifaith community. We build community every day. We build houses, then people move in, and we get busy and we build community. We have clear aims: we want to build harmonious, inclusive, cohesive communities. They are our aims. And, you know, the most important places in those communities that help to build them are our schools. They are the core of our communities.

In my electorate, there are 51 schools. Eighteen are independent, most of which are religious. Our schools in my community are a microcosm of our community. They are a microcosm of this country. And they should be at the centre of this debate tonight.

We have heard many mention that we should—and I know that I've had emails, and I've been watching Twitter today, and I've been told a thousand times today that I should—'just vote this bill down'. And I'm here to tell you exactly why I can't vote this bill down. And it's not about numbers. It's because the bill, as it stands, as the government has brought it into this chamber, does do one very important thing, and that is it enshrines that people cannot discriminate against somebody else for their religious beliefs.

Now, in my community, I can go back, not so many years ago, to standing in this place and talking about a mother in my community, in my Muslim community, at the height of some of the worst religious vilification that I have lived through. She rang me on a Saturday morning. She said to me: 'I know you've been speaking to the imams. I know you've spoken to my dad. And I know, Joanna, they've told you that everything's okay, everyone's fine.' She said: 'Well, let me tell you, when I woke this morning—on Saturday, my usual practice is to take the kids to the park—my husband said to me: "Perhaps today, love, I should take them,"' because she wears a hijab, and he was frightened that that would single them out in our community to be discriminated against because it was a symbol of Islam.

This legislation means that that discrimination against that woman in my community would no longer be legal. So I can't vote this down. I have to have that. My community needs to know that, regardless of their religion, they won't be allowed to be discriminated against because of it. And currently, in this country, that's not enshrined in our law. This woman would have been protected, if an event had occurred, if she'd been discriminated against because of her race but not if it'd been because of her religion.

So the one thing this government has done right is to bring that into this place to be enshrined in law. It does, however, puzzle me how you can have that as your intent and manage to package it so that it allows active discrimination against another group of people in our community. For them I speak tonight, and it's why I want to zero in on schools.

I want to remind everybody, particularly in my community, that I've stood shoulder to shoulder with my multicultural, multifaith, vibrant community to defend 18C from those opposite—and not just once. Section 18C protects people from racial vilification, and this government wanted to remove it from the statute books. So you can understand why Australia is watching us, why people are confused and why some think that everything in this legislation is bad—because they see it as being delivered by a government that wanted to remove 18C. Not everything here is bad. Labor will introduce amendments that may see us through this mire that has been put in front of us by this government.

I want to focus on my schools, which are a microcosm of my community and this country. I spent decades in schools, and I've got something to share with you about the power of 18C. Kids bring into playgrounds, whether they be in primary schools or secondary schools—let's not forget that, in a secondary school, we throw together up to 1,200 or 1,300 or, in my electorate, sometimes 3,000 kids, at the most antisocial time in their lives, when they're searching for their identity. We throw them all together for eight hours a day, and we say, 'Get along and learn.' So there is always conflict in schools. Kids are rubbing up against one another. Racial discrimination or racial vilification happens in the playground. It happens in the classroom. It happens because kids come from homes where people think that's okay. You want to be able to sit with kids in a mediation session where there has been racial discrimination, racial abuse or racial vilification and say to them: 'Listen. You just can't do this. It's against the law.' It seems a silly thing to say that that would be so powerful, but it is. Young people say: 'It's against the law, Miss? I didn't know that.' In that moment, there is education. In that moment, there is understanding. In that moment, they understand something about this country that they didn't know before that moment. I desperately want schools to have the power to educate kids about religious discrimination. I want them to know that in this country that's not on, but I also want them to know that it's not okay to discriminate because of someone's gender identity, because of someone's sexuality. I want them to know that too. We have an opportunity tonight to make that happen.

So I want the opposition to come into this chamber, to think about these amendments, to put your partisan hats aside and to do something for the 51 schools in my electorate and for schools around the country. I want you to listen to the member for North Sydney when he talks about his school education. A lot of the conversation today has been about institutions discriminating against people. Let me tell you, sometimes in schools it's just kids discriminating against kids, and they need to be educated that it's not okay. This package of laws, with our amendments, would give them that message. It would tell them that everybody is valued, that everybody has the right to exist, the right to be treated humanely and the right to learn.

There is one other thing from my time in schools that I want to share with the parliament tonight, in terms of the power of it. I was in schools when it became outlawed to discriminate because of disability. I was in schools when suddenly we had to change our culture because this place said so. We had to educate adults in our communities. We had to bring in human rights experts to talk to our teachers and our families and to tell them that it was illegal to discriminate against a child because of their disability. It was an incredibly powerful moment. But I'm standing here and telling you that this place has the power to change culture on the ground, in our schools—the places where our children learn not just the three Rs, not just the curriculum we like to argue over, but how to live with one another, how to be joyous for one another, how to be a part of society, how to improve their own lives, how to improve this country. That's what we do in our schools.

I implore every member of this chamber not to listen to the outside world that doesn't seem to quite understand the debate we're having here tonight. They have picked up one piece of the debate and not another. They don't understand that what Labor's amendments are trying to do is to erase discrimination. We created the antidiscrimination framework in this country. We've defended section 18(c), and our amendments will also make vilification illegal on the basis of religion, which is an added bonus. We have an opportunity tonight to deliver these things for the Australian people.

8:30 pm

Photo of Terri ButlerTerri Butler (Griffith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Environment and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm not religious, I've never been baptised, but I show respect to those who are religious. Anyone who's read Umberto Eco's letters to the cardinal, for example, can appreciate how a non-religious person can nonetheless learn from and draw from the lessons of religion. I certainly attend church services quite frequently, as the member for Blair knows, not out of my own belief but out of respect for my constituents and for others who are religious. For example, this week I attended the ecumenical service at the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Nicholas for the opening of the parliament, just as the Leader of the Opposition and the member for Blair did. I listened to the archbishop's sermon, in which he drew on scripture, etymology and philosophy from a number of sources to tell us that inherent in personhood is love for other persons. To me, that implies that we should continue to work towards making sure that everyone, whether they share our values or not, whether they share our identities or not, can live their lives fully as their authentic selves. Of course, the Leader of the Opposition's reading from Corinthians made the same point in a different way. It was about the qualities of love that require us to have respect for others, not for our own benefit or out of our own sense that they are like us but because inherently they should receive it from us.

For me, this means that it is important that we as a parliament continue, from a secular perspective also, to heed in different ways these same lessons: that people are inherently deserving of dignity, that people should be treated with dignity and that people should be equal before the law. One of the ways we in parliaments do that in the law is by continuing to broaden antidiscrimination laws to give effect to international obligations such as those in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This covenant protects religious freedom and the right to freedom of conscience, thought and religion. I believe that this parliament should, as the Goss government did more than 30 years ago, legislate to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion, just as this parliament did under the Whitlam government to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race and the Hawke government did to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sex. I want to pay particular tribute to the late Susan Ryan for the Sex Discrimination Act. Later, that same government prohibited discrimination on the grounds of disability, and, I will confess, the coalition government in 2004 prohibited discrimination on the basis of age.

All of these bills have helped us to give effect to our obligations under the ICCPR and the rights that are protected under that international instrument. But these laws have also given effect to basic human decency and the ability to live free from discrimination, so, given Labor's long history of standing up for human rights and for antidiscrimination laws, I believe that no-one should be surprised that Labor supports protections against discrimination on the ground of religion. I would like to see us as a parliament introduce national protections against discrimination on the basis of religion.

As a lawyer, I did some discrimination law. I remember one person who'd converted to a different religion and was suddenly getting treated differently at work. I remember reading a case of a prisoner who was being denied halal meals in prison, and using the discrimination laws in relation to religion.

These are important matters. These are not trifling matters. Just as our national law protects from discrimination on the grounds of sex, family responsibilities, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status, marital status, relationship status, breastfeeding, race, disability and age, we should protect against discrimination on the ground of religion. Everyone who's been discriminated against for wearing a turban or a cloak or a robe or a hijab, ought to have the knowledge that this parliament will stand up for their rights, and we should do that.

There are some serious shortcomings with this bill. This parliament should also amend those provisions to minimise those shortcomings. But, more importantly, it should also take this opportunity to proactively and positively improve our antidiscrimination laws. The member for North Sydney talked about the provision of the Sex Discrimination Act that positively allows for discrimination against school students. That provision says:

… Nothing in section 21 renders it unlawful for a person to discriminate against another person on the ground of the other person's sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy in connection with the provision of education or training… that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, if the first-mentioned person so discriminates in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.

That is the current law that is in force today and has been in force for decades. It is not a new provision that this bill of the government's is seeking to insert into the sex discrimination law. It is the existing law and it is no longer, if it ever was, fit for purpose. As the member for North Sydney said, this government's Religious Discrimination Bill gives us as a parliament the opportunity to right this historic wrong by altering the Sex Discrimination Act to remove the licence for discrimination that it provides against students.

Those people—and there are many who have been raising concerns with me about the rights of gay or lesbian students, bisexual students or students with diverse gender identities, for example—would, I believe, want us to take every opportunity to seek to reduce the capacity for discrimination against those kids. I would say that particularly trans kids, whose identity reveals itself at quite a young age, I think, compared to sexuality issues, are vulnerable, and we must protect them. We would be remiss if we did not take this opportunity to seek to resolve this problem that currently exists in law, and one of the ways that we can do that is to seek to include an amendment in this bill to remove discrimination, to try, as we have the power to do in this parliament, to protect those students. We can do that with this bill. We can move that amendment, and if this House supports it, or if it's supported in the Senate, we can right this historic wrong and we can improve the circumstances for young people and children who are gender diverse, who have diverse sexualities. That ought to occur. It's important, and we should pursue it.

The other matter that we have an opportunity to address right now by amending this bill is the absence of religious vilification laws in this country at a national level. Again, we have them in my state, in the state laws, but we don't have a national antivilification law that protects on the ground of religion. We have them for race. The Abbott government sought to repeal those laws. We fought against that repeal because we believe that there should be antivilification provisions protecting people on the grounds of race, and we equally believe that there should be antivilification provisions protecting people on the grounds of religion. As the Leader of the Opposition says, anyone who remembers—and everyone does—what it was like when an Australian killed tens of people in two mosques in Christchurch could hardly say that we don't need and deserve religious antivilification laws in this country. In my electorate, after that horrible event had occurred, one of our local mosques was vandalised with graffiti referring to that shooter and with right-wing extremist symbols.

Religious vilification ought to be against the law at a national level. This bill presents us with an opportunity to establish that antivilification provision. It would be remiss of us not to seek to use the opportunity we have right now to establish antivilification provisions on the ground of religion. I have long supported the need to create protections for people on the ground of religion, for these reasons and for the many other reasons that people have recited tonight. That is why Labor is seeking to move amendments to this bill—those are some of them; there are others—that will not just reduce adverse effects of the bill but make a positive step in the advancement of the civil and political rights of Australians and the protection of people against discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, gender identity, pregnancy, marital status and religion. That is what our amendments seek to do.

People from other parties have criticised us for saying that we will pursue these amendments in both the House and the Senate. They want to know why we don't just 'kill the bill' in the House. First, let me say again that I support the concept of religious antidiscrimination provisions, and I think it would be odd for Labor not to support the introduction of ICCPR protections in domestic law. Let me also make a comparison with another achievement of Labor and others in this House against the wishes, frankly, of the government of the day. That's when we introduced the medevac provisions.

Deputy Speaker, you will remember as I do how those provisions came to bear. It wasn't from a private member's bill. There's a party in this place that's moved 15 private members' bills in this term, and not a single one of them has even got to a second reading, let alone passed. That's not how laws are made here. What happened was that a government bill was passed in this House. It went to the Senate. In the Senate, amendments were passed allowing for the medical evacuation of refugees to Australia. Then that bill came back to this House, and this House insisted on those amendments, and they were passed. Now, the same people who are criticising us for wanting to use every opportunity we have to amend this bill, to positively and proactively advance the rights of Australians, are the same people—I would wager—who were very pleased they we're able to use a very similar process in order to achieve medevac. That's how medevac was achieved. The bill passed the House and went to the Senate. It was amended in the Senate and came back to the House, where they insisted on the amendments. That is what we are saying we want to do here.

We will prosecute our case for these positive amendments to protect Australians in this chamber. Our colleagues from the Senate will do the same in the other place. If we are successful in amending the bill, we will be insisting on those amendments. If that is achieved that will mean protection from discrimination on the ground of religion and protection from vilification on the ground of religion, and an increase in the protection of students who are gender diverse, who are pregnant and who have the different attributes that are currently referred to in the exemption that appears in the Sex Discrimination Act.

So for those of my constituents who are contacting me, I want to assure you that I will always do whatever I can to advance the human rights of Australians and protect the human rights of Australians. I will always do that. I will always stand up for vulnerable Australians, especially vulnerable children. I will never cop the idea that it's somehow okay for a school to do what Citipointe College did recently in trying to create some sort of quasi contract precluding kids from expressing themselves in their true and authentic identity. I'll never cop that.

In this case, I'm not going to just because minor parties want to use this as some sort of spin opportunity against Labor. I'm not going to forgo opportunities to increase protections for people. I'm going to support—and Labor will support—doing everything we can to improve those protections and to stand up, particularly, for vulnerable Australians, for Australians who are at risk of facing discrimination or vilification. This is the right thing to do, and I encourage every Liberal, National and other person in this chamber to vote on our amendments with us.

8:45 pm

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 and the related bills. I want to begin my remarks by acknowledging the literal hundreds of people who have written to me in the last few days, via email and on various social media platforms, and who have called me. I want to say that I have read each and every one of your emails. I have read each and every one of your texts. I hear you, and I'll be getting back to each and every one of you soon. I hope that the House makes significant amendments that I can update you on so we can strengthen protection for people.

Let me say from the outset that I feel this bill does not get the balance right. This bill, in my opinion, has too many aspects that are divisive and that override existing protections in the law. I feel that this bill did not get the balance right. While I won't go into what was discussed in internal Labor meetings, I did express my view in those meetings, and I do not feel that this bill in its current form should get passage through this House. But we can improve this bill. We can go a long way towards fixing this bill.

Before I talk about the bill, I want to say something as a side point. My electorate of Macnamara is filled with amazing people, people who care about one another and about issues of protecting people's identities, whether they be gay, straight, bisexual, trans, intersex or queer. It does not matter who you are. In the electorate of Macnamara, in the suburbs of St Kilda, Port Melbourne, Ripponlea, Caulfield and Elwood, I know that the people where I come from and the people that I represent do not want Australia to be a place where one group is discriminating against another. They do not want that. I have heard them loud and clear.

I also say to any young people who I represent or who are participating in this debate or raising their voice: keep raising your voice. Your voice matters in this debate. We in this place hear you. I want to acknowledge that, for a lot of people, this debate has been really hard. This debate has been, at times, one where people in this place are questioning whether a young person is okay. It has morphed into this quite awful debate about whether people feel that they are accepted or not in this country. I want to say that if you feel that way that's okay. It's okay to feel that you've been let down by the way in which these issues have been debated, not just now but in the past.

Before I move on to the bill, I also want to say that my family, like so many others in this country, has people from a range of genders and sexualities. It hasn't been a smooth passage towards acceptance for people that I love dearly. It hasn't been easy. The pathway to acceptance has not been a straightforward one for many people, including people that I love. And I did not come to this place to enable discrimination against one person by another. I will continue to work, while I'm privileged to be the member in this place, to ensure that we in Australia remove discrimination and end it, as opposed to provide legal protections for it.

So let's go into the bill. There are huge swathes of this bill that are not only uncontroversial; they are good. You should not be discriminated against in this country if you hold a particular faith. If you are a Hindu and you are Australian, that is brilliant. If you are Jewish and you are Australian, that is excellent. If you are Christian and Australian, good on you. If you are Islamic, then more power to you. Whatever faith you hold, whoever you believe in, whatever you believe to be true to who you are and is part of your identity, we in this country should celebrate our differences. I love going to see the wonderful multicultural aspects of our community.

My family is a family that understands religious freedom being taken away from us. We do. My grandmother fled Nazi Germany when she was four years old. My grandmother didn't have religious freedom. We have religious freedom in this country. We accept people and their faith, and that is something I am deeply proud of. And this bill does go some way to ensuring that people—whether you wear a hijab, whether you wear a yarmulke, whatever religious garb that makes you who you are—shouldn't be discriminated against. And that's a good thing, and I stand by that. And I think we all stand by that.

Had the Prime Minister left it at that, had the Prime Minister left the only aspects of this bill that protected people from discrimination—instead of providing various frameworks that enable discrimination—then I think all of us in this place would be celebrating a true moment of leadership, just in the same way that the Labor Party celebrated John Howard and the Age Discrimination Act, just as Labor moved various other pieces of discrimination acts—the Sex Discrimination Act, the Disability Discrimination Act. We don't believe that one Australian should be discriminated against, but that's not where the bill ends.

There are parts of this bill that override and intersect with existing protections. The most egregious is the statement of belief. I believe that you should be able to state what you believe. You should be able to confidently and proudly express your faith in this country—of course you should. But should you be able to vilify someone whilst doing that? No. We must have respect, and I think that is a central tenet of faith. I grew up and went to a Jewish school, and I was always taught to do as to others as you want done to yourself. For me, expressing faith and spirituality and religion has never been something where we would use that to belittle another human being, to express opinions about another human being. It was a way of interacting and asking of yourself: how do you interact with others in a way that lifts them up, not brings them down? The statement of belief clause should be amended so it doesn't intersect with existing laws. We should not be weakening existing laws in this country.

Before the Christmas break, the government announced an amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act. Four members of the government and the Attorney-General announced that they were going to remove the ability for students to be discriminated against in schools. The Prime Minister then also recommitted to that exact thing. He wrote to the Leader of the Opposition saying that he was going to remove the ability for schools to discriminate against their students. We also had the Citipointe incident, where a pretty outrageous contract was asked of students, to define what they are and what they're not. And that received the appropriate backlash. But the Prime Minister made a promise to protect kids, and at the moment what the government has put on the table is an amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act that would prevent kids being expelled—not kids being treated differently, not kids being discriminated against, not kids being put in detention, not kids restricted from being on the debating team; it is just that you can't expel kids.

Are we really, in this place, comfortable with the threshold that the House of Representatives of Australia believes that kids can be discriminated against in our schools? I know that this is existing law and this wasn't originally in the Prime Minister's legislation, but that is the question that we are going to have to ask ourselves later tonight. Are we really, in the Australian House of Representatives, on 9 February 2022, as members of various political persuasions, going to be happy saying that we can discriminate against some kids, whether you're gay, you're bi, you're trans or whatever you are? Are we saying that that's grounds for discrimination against kids? Of course it's bloody not.

I know that there are members on that side, people I consider friends, who are deeply disturbed by that question. And I know that there are members on that side who are grappling with what the political equation is. But, putting that aside, tonight, in the House of Representatives, we are going to be asking ourselves: do you, as an adult, as a member of this privileged place, sign your name to an amendment that means some kids can be discriminated against, or not? I would urge—please—a majority of members of this place to decide that question in the right way. That will end a lot of pain tonight. That will send a clear message to children who grow up questioning who they are—not choosing to; that's just who they are—that this place believes that they are exactly who they should be, that they are worth every bit as much as the next person in this country, and that they deserve protections equal to those of any other person in this great place and in this great country.

Labor will also move amendments around antivilification, which, again, I implore the House to support. The power of speech to cut through and to hurt is immense, and we should not be discriminating against another Australian on the basis of our speech. We do not want the right to be a bigot in this country. I'm proud of the Labor Party's consistent position on matters of vilification and antidiscrimination.

There are many places around the world where people of various faiths are not free. I am immensely proud of Australia and the wonderful multicultural success story that it is. I love going to see my Hare Krishna temple and the generosity that they provide when they just give out meals because that is who they are. I loved going to the Pride Shabbat at Temple Beth Israel on Friday night, where Jewish people were celebrating members who have been ostracised in the community. I love going to visit my Anglican church and seeing a priest named Kath, who I consider a friend, who is one of the most inspiring and generous people, who gives to her community and who looks after some of the most vulnerable and needy people in our community because she cares. I am inspired by Father Cox, who works in the small parish next to our public housing. Religion can be a great source of comfort and support to people in this country. We should have the freedom to express ourselves and express our faith, and I wholeheartedly support that. But that doesn't mean that religion can be used as a tool—see the way in which this has been morphed into the Prime Minister basically insinuating that someone's faith is enough of a reason to discriminate against someone else. It's not.

Just as I am proud to walk into those places of worship, I am proud to walk down Fitzroy Street each and every year in the Pride march, in the heart of my electorate, the heart of St Kilda, the heart of diversity. I am proud to see people lifting themselves up with their chin held high, celebrating who they are, celebrating themselves and their different identities and sexualities. It doesn't matter whether they are gay, straight, bi, trans, queer, intersex, asexual—it doesn't matter. Each and every person on this planet deserves respect. This bill doesn't get that balance right.

I would urge the House: please, please, support the amendments. Give a bit more dignity to some people who really need it right now. Say to them without fear or favour that the House of Representatives in this place wants to see all people treated equally, and especially to see our children protected under the laws that we hold so dear. Thank you.

9:01 am

Photo of Clare O'NeilClare O'Neil (Hotham, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021. I really want to thank the speakers that have preceded me, in particular my friend the member for Macnamara, who has just made a great contribution. Our electorates are close geographically, but they are very different communities that we represent. I come to this place from the most extraordinary patch of our country, the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. I represent one of the most diverse electorates in the country. It's a very religious electorate and very religiously diverse. That's the input I want to give to the parliament tonight.

When the Prime Minister announced that he was going to legislate against religious discrimination, I knew this was going to be a very important topic to the people I represent in this parliament. Over the last couple of years since he made that announcement, I've done a lot of consultation with my faith leaders and my faith communities to understand what problem a law such as this might try to solve and how they would see it best solved. So I want to talk briefly about the four main things that came out of those conversations.

I mentioned I have a very religiously diverse community. Within that are very large groups of Catholics, as many of us have in our electorates, and very large groups of others from the Christian religion—Uniting Church, Pentecostal, Evangelical, Lutheran. I have a very large Greek Orthodox community in my electorate. I have a very large Buddhist community—around 7.5 per cent of my constituents are Buddhist adherents. I have a reasonably sized Muslim community and also a reasonably sized Jewish community. Religion is a critical part of life for the people that I represent in this parliament. Somewhere around 75 per cent of my constituents say that they adhere to a particular religion. It's interesting that we are coming to this debate after this two-year pandemic where the spiritual support and guidance provided by religion has been incredibly important to so many people that I represent in this parliament.

The first big finding that came out of my discussion with faith community leaders in Hotham was that there is a need for better protection of religious beliefs in Australia. There are lots of other types of antidiscrimination law in our federal sphere, including for gender, age, disability and race. When I talk to my religious leaders about whether such a thing was necessary, it was agreed that there was generally a gap in the law in the protection of religious beliefs. It was also really clear from the conversations I had that discrimination on the basis of religion is a very real and very large part of life for a lot of people that I represent in parliament. Some of that discrimination is direct, severe, personalised and inciting to violence. We see that most frequently for people who wear some sort of garb associated with their religion—of course, Muslim women wearing a headscarf of some kind are the obvious example here.

All the people that I talk to about these issues reiterate to me that Australia is a beautiful, open, incredibly tolerant country celebrating of difference, but there is a minority of people who treat people who are different very badly. A lot of the examples that were given to me were things that occurred on public transport, where Muslim women in particular were spat at, viciously attacked and very much physically intimidated by people. People coming and going to and from mosques was another example where we heard of some awful acts of discrimination. Things relating to abuse of Jewish people around synagogues was another specific example that was raised with me. I heard some good examples, as well, of Christian community leaders talking to me about how they sometimes get abused when they're wearing a religious collar. This is something that actually is quite pervasive, and I think that everyone who I talked to agreed that we shouldn't see as much of it. If a law can help us do that, then we should have a law.

One of the things I want the parliament to note was that there is a broader discussion about discrimination against people of faith happening out there. I want to aerate that tonight, although it is controversial. I think there are a lot of controversial views being shared, so let's give it a go. I think one of the things that led to a really good conversation with my faith leaders was the role of religion in society. There is a general sense across many types of religious leaders that Australia is becoming a more secular country. Where does that leave religion? Historically, religious beliefs in Australia have had a special place; they've been almost above reproach because they are attached to a religion, particularly Christianity. Talking with my Christian leaders, they're having really deep, thoughtful conversations about how you manage a religious community, and how you converse with a less religious society with the sort of transition that they're seeing. One of the things that we did talk about was the sense, in general, that in the public conversation we are moving into a space where there are less diverse views being allowed to be expressed. People feel that there is a more doctrinaire approach to discussion of issues in public life, and that that really affects some people who are of religious faith. I think this is a real problem—that it's one of those things that it doesn't help us not to talk about, aerate and discuss. It's for that reason I'm raising it with you tonight.

The second important finding that came out of the discussions I had was that religious schools need the ability to preference staff of their own religion. Perhaps to some, that's a controversial statement; to me, it's not controversial at all. Talking with my faith leaders, they're saying to me, 'What is the point of a religious school if we can't provide a certain set of values and beliefs surrounding young people as they go through their most formative years of education?' To me, that is a very obvious and straightforward one, but it was very important. I had this conversation with my faith leaders, not just in their roles as leaders but in their roles as parents. A lot of them are saying to me: 'This is more important to us than academics, than the sporting program in a school, than anything else that might drive our school choice. We will do anything to get our kids in the right faith community in their school.' Of course that requires the school to be able to choose people of that faith.

The third critical point was that there is broad agreement that we need better laws in Australia against religious vilification and incitements to violence. I talked a little bit earlier about some of the real discrimination that my constituents experience because of their religion. We, as the Australian parliament, need to stand and, with one voice, make it absolutely clear that that is not acceptable in Australia today, and that there need to be clear punishments and penalties attached to Australians who treat one another in that way. One of the things that I really enjoyed about the discussions with faith leaders was speaking to them in a multifaith context. There's a lot of solidarity there, especially for the Muslim community, who do feel the brunt of a lot of this vilification. There is very broad agreement that we do need to have better laws—and you will note that Labor's amendments to this bill would put some in place.

One of the controversial aspects of this law is the statements of belief exemption, which would allow people to make statements of belief that are religious in nature, that would then exempt them from various other types of discrimination law. I just want to put a couple of things on the record.

Firstly, this wasn't a very animated part of the conversation that I had with faith leaders. I just want to say that a lot of this debate that we're having about the bill tonight, and a lot of the debate that is had about religion in society, goes immediately to the extremes. I want to say something very obvious here: in my experience religious people don't want to discriminate against other people; they don't want to make statements of belief that would offend other types of discrimination law. That's not a goal, objective or desire of anyone I know who's religious. I think that's why when we talked about this in the groups that I ran, people weren't clear on why anyone would want to be offending other parts of discrimination law.

Something else that they raised with me though, was a very important point about who gets to define what a religion is. They talked to me as faith leaders about the difficulties that they have, where certain fringe groups or extremist offshoots of their own religion are presented as the mainstream of whatever it is they believe, and they said that that's very hard for them to pass out. It's important that the law we pass in parliament tonight makes it clear what a religion is and what a religion isn't.

Those are the four main points that I wanted to make to the parliament tonight. But I wanted to close with one final one that we didn't even talk about in the groups that I ran, because I didn't think that I needed to raise it, and that is that children should not be discriminated against for any reason in this country—they should not. There is not a religious leader in my community who would argue for such a right to discriminate, and I think it's very unfortunate that this debate has descended into a dispute about whether children should be discriminated against. The parliament should not be deliberating on that question; it has a clear answer, and the answer is no.

One of the things that I find frustrating, and I know my religious leaders find frustrating, is the tenor and tone of the discussion we have in the public square about religion in society. And it does feel to me, to be honest, as a progressive person, that the debate is so often dominated by fringe aspects of religions that don't at all reflect the almost-100,000 people who are religious that I represent in this parliament.

Over the last two years, my faith leaders have been telling me this has been the most difficult two years of their life. They have done so much for my community: they have fed hundreds of people I represent; they have cared for people when they've had COVID; and they have provided, apart from material support, enormous spiritual support for so many people that I represent. That doesn't seem to get a lot of airtime. Instead, we talk about Israel Folau. How did he somehow become representative of Christian beliefs in this country? In my experience, dealing with Christian leaders, that's not how they see Israel Folau. In fact, they were, in many instances, deeply offended by some of the things that he said.

Citipointe, again, is not reflective of mainstream religious views in this country, and I feel frustrated that that seems to be the debate we're having as a parliament, pitting this sort of extremism as somehow reflective of the views of mainstream religious people in this country, and it's not. Again, I've never met anyone who's religious in my community who's argued that discrimination towards children is somehow justified by religion, and I don't think I ever will.

The discussions that I had with my faith leaders about the Religious Discrimination Bill filled me with huge hope and respect. I have so much respect for these leaders and the work that they do. One of the overarching themes that we kept coming back to in the discussions was that we live in a very diverse country, and in that diverse country, we are all going to have different views about things. Our goal and our role in this parliament is to join hands and walk forward as a country together, and it is a real question about whether the law is actually the right place to do that, and whether some of these problems are much too complex, much too nuanced and much too difficult to resolve through a law.

While there was general support amongst the leaders that I talked to about a religious discrimination bill, the thing I think they're most concerned about, and the thing I'm most concerned about, is creating the tolerant community that's reflected in the millions of households of people that we represent in this chamber. I don't know if that's a role for the law; I do know it's a role for leaders and for leadership.

9:15 pm

Photo of Kate ThwaitesKate Thwaites (Jagajaga, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

People of faith in our community should be free from discrimination. I have nothing but respect for people of faith in my community and around this country, but this parliament should not be passing laws that, in protecting people of faith, discriminate against others—and that is what we are currently being asked to do. It is to the discredit of this government that the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 and the debate that has surrounded it, like so much of what this government does, divide our country. It sets people against each other. Rather than seeking our points of commonality and building us up together as a community, it pits us against each other. It is an indictment of this government that in a global pandemic, as older Australians are dying and neglected in aged care, the government has fostered a national debate about whether it's fair enough to exclude gay and trans kids from schools.

Young people whom we should be surrounding with love and affection, whom we should be supporting and who should know that they are welcome in our community are being made to feel like they are a problem and are not welcome. I want to thank all the gay and trans young people in my electorate, their parents and their supporters who have contacted me about this bill in the last couple of days but also over the last couple of months. I know there are hundreds and hundreds of you and I have been reading all your emails and messages. This is part of my response to you, but I will get back to you personally as well. I understand how worried you are about this bill and I am sorry for how damaging this national debate is for you. It should not be like this.

Young people in my electorate have explained how this bill and the debate around this bill have left them feeling anxious and unprotected. As one young transgender person put to me this afternoon, their generation is just starting to undo years of trauma and to finally feel like they can come out as themselves safely, and this bill, in fact, undoes decades of work. Another person, the grandmother of a year 7 transgender student, pleaded with me that we, please, don't play politics with vulnerable children's mental health. Surely it is a fundamental responsibility of us in this House that we don't play politics with vulnerable young people's mental health.

Here are some other views from my community: 'I'm writing as a gay constituent and as someone who was a school teacher for 25 years. LGBTQI+ students need protection, as do teachers, adults, families, employees and others who would be negatively affected by this proposed legislation.' This person explains that they lived in daily fear of losing their job in the days before antidiscrimination legislation and they feel that their human rights will be threatened by this bill. Another writes to me as an extremely concerned resident, a gay Australian, and explains how going through the plebiscite on marriage equality made them feel like their rights were up for debate and that this bill and the debate around this bill do a similar thing to them. They feel that the bill would erect a barrier to accessing health care for women, LGBTIQ+ people and people with disability at a time when we should be removing such barriers.

Beyond the people in my immediate electorate, a number of groups have raised concerns with this legislation. The peak disability groups have stated their concern that this bill will erode protections for people with disability. People with disability have explained some of the very harmful comments that they have experienced from people who put those comments as religious views, such as, 'This is obviously what God wants for you.' Their concern is that this bill will enable more of those types of comments and may affect their ability to access care, support and medical treatment. Advocates for women's rights have made the case that this bill could harm efforts to build safe and respectful workplaces, something that is of great interest to those of us in this place, by protecting the expression of sexist views in the workplace. They express concerns around women's ability to access health care. People from multicultural backgrounds have expressed their discomfort with this bill. Again I reflect there is not one view of this, but I do want to make the point that some from multicultural backgrounds have expressed their discomfort with a monolithic view being put of what multicultural communities think of this bill and how they would like it to play out. Melbourne woman Nyadol Nyuon, said that this bill 'is trying to create this false choice by conflating multiculturalism with almost, to some degree, religious bigotry … You can support multiculturalism and support equal rights for all citizens.'

Of course there are numerous other problems with this bill that have been highlighted through the committee processes that ran over summer—committee processes that were far too short because this government did not take the time and did not do the work with this bill. They are looking for a wedge; they are not looking for a genuine outcome. Some of those concerns are raised around particular provisions in the bill—particularly that it overrides state laws and there is a potential for harm to come from that. I pay tribute to the Victorian government in my home state and the efforts that I know they have gone to and continue to go to to make young people in our community feel safe. I am concerned that this bill has the potential to override some of those efforts.

I also note, as some of my colleagues have, that we are debating this bill in the absence of our country having a bill of rights. Unlike many liberal democracies similar to Australia, we do not have a framework for how we have these discussions. Hence we are in a position where we are having a discussion without a framework—a discussion that seems to be setting communities against others and that seems to say that we will give some people rights and take those rights away from other people. I think giving consideration to a bill of rights in this country would give us a broader framework to have these discussions in and hopefully lead to a much healthier debate—a debate that does not cause the harm that this current debate, I believe, is causing to the mental health of too many young people in our community.

Photo of Bob KatterBob Katter (Kennedy, Katter's Australian Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Have you heard of the Magna Carta?

Photo of Kate ThwaitesKate Thwaites (Jagajaga, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, I have heard of the Magna Carta. Many liberal democracies also have a bill of rights as well. Thank you, member for Kennedy.

Many people of faith I know also have concerns with this bill, and I want those people to know I've also heard their concerns. I want people of faith to know that they are an important part of our community. They absolutely deserve to have their faith respected. They deserve so much better than this debate and this bill which doesn't respect them as a broader part of our community. They instead have been caught up in the Morrison government's mishandling and in a debate that is making vulnerable young people feel judged and excluded. People of faith deserve better than a poorly drafted bill rushed through a committee process because we have a Prime Minister more focused on political wedges and on an election than on genuinely supporting rights. Young people and members of our LGBTIQ+ community deserve so much better than this bill rushed through in the dying days of this parliament. We should not be pitting sections of our community against each other. This unamended bill does that, and it is not worthy of becoming law.

I say again thank you to all the members of my community and the members of communities more broadly who have raised their concerns with this bill with me. I hope tonight I have gone some way to showing you that your views have been heard and they've been aired in this parliament as part of this debate. I again acknowledge how difficult and damaging this debate is and continues to be for some people, particularly for young people in our community. I don't believe that our national parliament is a place that should be making young people feel marginalised and, again, I'm very sorry that the way this debate has operated has led to that happening.

I very much hope that Labor's amendments being moved tonight are supported. I won't go through them all, because many of my colleagues have and will continue to do so. They are worthy amendments and they deserve the support of this place. We can't take away the division that has already been caused by the Morrison government's terrible handling of this bill. But by supporting Labor's amendments tonight, we can make it clear that the future for our country and for our communities is not one of discrimination and division. I urge all members of this House to take that into consideration as we move through this evening.

9:25 pm

Photo of Bob KatterBob Katter (Kennedy, Katter's Australian Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021.

I really find this place extraordinary. I must have got an extremely good education, because I was taught in history a whole lot of things that, clearly, the previous speaker was not taught. I urge people in this place to read history books and to know what they're talking about. She said that people are being discriminated against in this bill and about discrimination. Discrimination? There's a bloke who quoted verbatim from a book called the New Testament; it's a book that has been sacred for 2,000 years. People have died because they believed that we should love our neighbours and do good even to people who hate them; we should do good to them. That's the essence of the Christian message.

He quoted from that book, but he's been vilified for it by people who are super aggressive and who are determined to impose their ideas upon the rest of us. I think we all know who I'm talking about: the head of one of the biggest corporations in Australia. To this government's shame, they haven't got rid of him for using his own personal beliefs to persecute an outstanding Australian in the form of Israel Folau.

As a Christian, I have no illusions that we're being persecuted—no illusions about it. If the previous member is talking about persecution than I know who's being persecuted and it sure isn't the LBQTABC or whatever they like to call themselves. It isn't that mob, it's the Christians. Let me be very specific, because we don't make statements without backing them up. The leader of the biggest Christian church in Australia was Peter Hollingworth, and he was hacked to death. The only reason they didn't go on to put him in jail, like they did to Pell, was because destroying him as the Governor-General of Australia and as the head of the Anglican Church was probably good enough.

Then they moved onto the second-biggest Christian denomination: Pell. Eighty-one people gave evidence that Pell was over here at point A and one person gave evidence that he was over here at point B, doing something bad: 81 to one. But the previous speaker was praising the government of Victoria! If ever we've seen an example of fascism in Australia, we've seen it in Victoria! And in Queensland. I'm checking up on where these people come from, because they're not Australians. No Australian would ever do those sorts of things. They persecuted a pretty naive young man because of his religious beliefs, when he was quoting from a book that's been around for 2,000 years and which a third of the world's population believes is their pathway to a better life—and which tells them they have to love even their enemies and do good to others. Is there something wrong with that principle? But for quoting from that book, whether you agree with the quote or whether you don't, this man was punished in the most terrible manner. His job was taken away from him and his future was taken away from him. The money he was looking forward to in retirement was taken away from him because he quoted from this book.

As a Christian, I'm just a little bit sick and tired of being pushed around by people who have as much knowledge of history as I have of water supply on Mars. I'll be very specific: we have the angelic tribes of Islamic extremists—nice people!

The statue of Tamerlane, in Tashkent, has him on a horse with his sword out, saying, 'The sword of Islam.' He killed one-fifth of the world's population—one-fifth of the world's population—in the name of God. It was the same god that Christians worship, that Jewish people worship and that other people worship as well. I quote the great leader in Russia who called off the Cold War, which is now, very sadly, being switched back on: Gorbachev. His first statement to the world was: 'The important thing for us all to remember is that, when we go on our knees at night to pray, we all pray to the same god.' I thought, 'This man is one of the greatest men of the last 200 or 300 years. This man is truly one of the great men.' Every kid in my 12th-grade matriculation class at school had their transistor on, listening to John F Kennedy, a great warrior and an outstanding soldier. Of course, Khrushchev was another great warrior and a great soldier. He was never going to back off—a tough little peasant, he was never going to back off. When you listened to Kennedy, he wasn't going to back off, either. We were terrified. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I looked over at a bloke called Eddie Anderson; he was as white as a sheet. I looked over at another classmate; his face was red and he just kept shaking his head. We were terrified. Now we're back in that situation again.

Who brought down communism, the worst scourge the world has ever seen? We now know that Mao Zedong was responsible for the death of 48 million people—there's no question about that . There is no question that Stalin was responsible for the death of 28 million people. If you can't add up, that's—how much is that?—70-odd million people. These two monsters, and the monster of communism, caused the death of all these people. Well, who brought communism down? Was it Lech Walesa and his mentor, the Pope of Rome? Was it the Christian right-wingers under Huey Long, like in that wonderful movie about how that little group of American Christians brought the communist empire down? Who abolished slavery? We Christians abolished slavery. Nobody else; we Christians abolished slavery. We abolished communism. Who led the civil rights movement in America? Martin Luther King—Reverend Martin Luther King. If you want to look, in no matter which direction you look, the new age dawned with the Medici family. You might say, 'Oh, well, they tortured Galileo.' Galileo was on the Medici payroll. The Medicis were the popes for almost all of that century. He was on the Pope's family's payroll—he lived in their palace. The enemies of the Renaissance, of freedom and of thought weren't going to attack the Medicis, but they took on Galileo, obliquely.

As to this idea that the crusaders went over and murdered everybody—well, just hold on a moment. The Middle East was the cradle of Christianity. The whole of the Middle East was Christian, and I quote a famous historian and commentator, in 1363. He said: 'I was very surprised to realise that in Jerusalem the town was still predominantly Christian, as was all of Palestine'. Of course it was. That's where Christianity came from. Well, they were being persecuted and murdered out of existence, again and again and again. So the crusaders went there to protect them—and, quite frankly, the peace in that 200-year period was probably unprecedented in Middle Eastern history. Now, they weren't nice guys; they were tough guys. I'm not going to say that they were good Christians; I'm just going to say that Christians were being murdered and someone stood up to protect them. Those great heroes went over there to protect them and were outnumbered 100 to one almost continuously throughout that period.

The forces of expansionist Islam—there are a lot of good people in Islam; we all know that. Saladin is made out to be a goody-goody because he didn't murder everyone in Jerusalem, like the Crusaders did. Well, that's pretty historically true, actually. Why didn't he murder them all? Because he ransomed off all the rich ones and turned the rest into slaves. It was a pretty bad idea to kill them all. It was pretty dumb of the Crusaders, when they could have been smart.

Now, they were taking 50,000 Christian slaves a year. In the harem in Turkey, the Ottomans did not speech Turkish; they spoke Serbo-Croat. There were Christian women in the harem. If you disbelieve me—the two greatest figures of the middle ages, Suleiman the Magnificent and Peter the Great were very romantic. They had great love affairs. Each was very much in love with his wife—his beloved, for the sake of a better word—Suleiman the Magnificent with his, and Peter the Great with Catherine. Both those women were Christian slaves—freed in the case of Peter the Great's wife and captured in the case of Suleiman the Magnificent's. There was no doubt that both men were deeply in love with their wives, but both of them were Christian slaves. In what the Encyclopaedia Britannica says is arguably the most important battle in human history, the battle for Malta, Suleiman the Magnificent and 250,000 men tried to take Malta off the Knights Hospitaller of St. John. They stood their ground. Their leader was Jean Parisot de la Valette, and he'd been a galley slave. What may be the most important battle in human history, according to the encyclopedia, was fought by a man who'd been a galley slave!

So Peter the Great's wife was a slave, Suleiman the Magnificent's wife was a slave and Jean Parisot de la Valette was a slave. You can get a picture of what was taking place. We Christians were being persecuted on a massive scale. We're not new to persecution. Our blessed Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, was murdered in the most terrible manner humanly possible, so we're not new to persecution. But, when I see the leader of the biggest Christian church hacked to pieces in the public arena—we know by whom; we know who was doing it—and the leader of the second biggest Christian denomination thrown in jail—81 people said he was there; one person said he wasn't. And she's talking about the government of Victoria. They will go down in history as having maybe the least respect for human rights in the country's history. No wonder the Eureka Stockade took place in Victoria! That spirit is not dead in we Australians, I can tell you.

To pick on a very outstanding young Australian because he quoted from the gospels—shame, shame, shame! She's talking about a bill of rights. Well, there's an instrument called the Magna Carta, and it was written by Stephen Langton, the archbishop and chief primate of the Christian church of England, who showed great courage in risking his life in enforcing that document. At that point, the evils of monarchy were undermined, never ever to really recover. We saw the last throes of those evils in World War I, with a lot of inbred monarchs in Europe getting carried away with their own egos: 'Oh, Cousin Willy is a naughty boy' and 'We've got a bigger navy than they've got.' Well, Cousin Willy caused a fair amount of trouble. About 30 million people died because of Cousin Willy and his cousin, Nicky, over in Russia there. They had big egos, so we had to have a war. That had been going on for I don't know how long. If you go through human history and you start with the Roman Empire, it was Christianised. You move on to the period of the Vikings. They were Christianised. You move on to the period of the Muslim takeover of Europe—all of Portugal, all of Spain, most of Italy, all of the Balkans—all taken over by them. Not Genghis Khan but his descendants were Muslim, and they occupied Moscow. They were ruling—and, look, crusaders may not have been angels, but I can absolutely assure you, the rule of the Ottomans was no picnic, particularly if you were a Christian; that was for certain. But people stood up with great courage against oppression, and that's part of the Christian belief system. So when I hear people like the last speaker— (Time expired)

9:40 pm

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Cooper, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Health and Ageing) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the Religious Discrimination Bill 2022 and related legislation. I'd like to thank my colleagues who have spoken before me for their contributions to this debate, in particular the member for Whitlam, who shared such a personal, tragic story about his nephew and a very beautiful story about his own son. The member for Whitlam shared a lovely TikTok with us, a TikTok that his son posted showing how proud he was of his dad, with a message to all of his own community, saying, 'There are people here who are fighting for us kids.' The member's son's message was clear: 'Don't despair,' he said, 'there are good people here who are fighting for kids to be themselves, to be safe in their own skins.' And that is true; very, very true. We are here, absolutely fighting for them.

I know there are people who have, I think, incorrectly interpreted our strategy with this bill, so let me be clear from the outset. I do not support this bill. Labor does not support this bill as it stands. The government has, at the last minute, created a wedge pitting some faith communities against other faith communities and pitting some faith communities against our LGBTI communities. It is a wedge that is weaponising antidiscrimination legislation in the most appalling way. Labor is proposing important amendments that will break that wedge and help bring communities together, addressing concerns of people of faith without driving a sword into the hearts of others. If our amendments are not passed, Labor will support the bill going into the Senate where there is a good chance the bill will be amended with our important changes.

I stand here as a representative of an incredibly diverse community. I have one of the largest mosques in Melbourne, in Cooper, and a fabulously vibrant Muslim community. I represent people of many faiths with different belief systems and from different cultures, and we thrive in Cooper. I want them to feel free from discrimination. I want them to be happy and accepted. But this bill actually does not promise that. It does not protect them, for example, because it has no anti-vilification measures. That is something we will fix.

I also have many proud members of the LGBTI community in my electorate. I have one of the largest lesbian communities in Melbourne, so many wonderful rainbow families and proud gay men. I also proudly have a fabulous trans clinic and health centre just up the road from my office in Bell Street, doing amazingly good work. They're all quite rightly wary of what this bill means for them and they're scared of what this means for LGBTI kids. I share their fears. I think of the gender-diverse kids who I've met within this job and in my personal life, and I wonder whether the Prime Minister and those opposite have met with the kids this bill fails to protect when they were considering this legislation. I wonder if they think about these kids when they hear stories like the member for Whitlam's. Not only has this government failed to protect them but they've actively carved them out of protections. They've actively, politically, disgracefully weaponised them—children—in the debate on this bill. Their behaviour in all of this, I think, has been disgusting. It has haunted me. They who are supporting this bill as it is should be ashamed.

I grew up in a large Irish Catholic family. I completely understand the importance of having the freedom to practise your religion and to express your religious views. My grandmother, an old Irish Catholic lady, told us the same stories over and over again of the troubles she faced finding a job as a young woman as a result of her culture and religion. She used to tell us there was only one department store hiring Catholics in Melbourne. I even remember the name of it, although it doesn't exist now; we heard the story so often. She used to tell us it was Foy & Gibson. For many Irish Catholic young women, employment options were scarce back at the turn of the century. Add to that religious discrimination—it must have been terrible.

As a young nurse and unmarried, I fell pregnant with twins. At the time, I was nursing at a Catholic hospital run by nuns. I was absolutely terrified that I would be fired. I knew I could be viewed as sinful, or even unworthy of having a job there. So terrified was I that I brought my mum with me to meet with the head nun, a fearsome nun, to plead my case to be allowed to stay. And I have a lovely young son-in-law, a smart Jewish man who is a teacher in a Catholic school. Under these laws it could be legal for him to never be promoted, no matter how good a teacher he is, on the basis of his faith. I have a very young and much-loved family member who is currently transitioning their gender at 14 years of age, facing all the trauma and prejudice that brings with it.

What does this bill do for them and all those situations? Will it actually mean that all these discriminatory experiences will be swept away? No, it will not. It actually enshrines the ability for schools to discriminate against teachers. It could allow a faith based hospital to sack a pregnant single woman. It allows people to tell young kids on the street, in the workplace or at school that, based on their faith, they are living a sin, that their true self is evil and wrong. Surely this is not the best we can do in parliament, as a parliament. Surely Australians—all Australians—can ask for better than what this bill provides.

It's worth remembering that this is a debate on what is supposed to be anti-discrimination law, a part of the law that all of us in this chamber should approach carefully, with serious consideration. In fact, it's a great privilege that we are able to come into this place with the power to make laws that can end discrimination—think of the sex, racial, disability and age discrimination acts. What power these great pillars of anti-discrimination laws have had in this country—the great change they created, how vital they have been to our progress towards creating a more equal, fairer society. The power of these laws and of this chamber in creating those laws should not be lost on any of us. This should weigh heavily upon us. I know it does me.

So, to see this government weaponise and politicise discrimination in this way has been utterly offensive—to see them weaponise sexuality, gender identity and faith. It is a last-ditch, desperate attempt at political traction from a government that simply doesn't know how to govern. They've had years to get this right, yet they failed to consult properly with key stakeholders, with those of us on this side of the House and even with their own members. As Ian Thorpe said yesterday, this is a bill with no friends. It's failed to please faith groups, it's failed to please LGBTI groups and it's failed to please human rights groups, and the disability sector has been completely forgotten. So we find ourselves, in one of the last sitting weeks of this parliamentary term, debating an anti-discrimination bill that is better known in the community for the discrimination it enshrines rather than the discrimination it prevents. We've said all along that we're happy to engage on this, because we on this side of the House understand how strongly people of faith feel about it and that they do indeed need protections. We could have made this right. We could have helped get the balance right. But the government didn't work with us.

Yesterday we heard the Hindu Council speak at a press conference about the fears Hindu Australians have for their jobs. They're afraid that, under this legislation, they could be sacked or excluded from work for being practising followers of their faith. We heard from the ACTU that this bill in its current form undermines decades of work by unions, their members and Labor governments who have brought into place enterprise bargaining agreements and workplace codes which protect workers from discrimination in the workplace, including discrimination on the basis of religion. This is legislation which has the potential to walk back all that terrific progress that we have made. Of course, we've all heard the story of Citipointe in Queensland, where they had a contract forcing prospective students and their families to denounce LGBTI communities. Are these the kind of statements that this government is looking to protect with this bill? Really?

It is with this section of the bill, clause 12, that deals with statements of belief that we have particular concern, as many of my colleagues have iterated here. This clause makes it legal to express a statement of belief even if it would be considered discriminatory under Australian antidiscrimination law. This inherently privileges the right to express one's religious belief above the rights of others to live their lives free of discrimination, whether that's on the basis of sexuality, gender, age, race, disability or another characteristic covered by law. This is wrong. Not only is it wrong; it is in conflict with human rights law and it's likely to be unconstitutional. But, most of all, it drives hate and division where we need love, embracement, acceptance and protection. This is, to put it simply, the most broken part of this bill, and one which law reform and human rights groups have taken particular issue with and which we will fix.

The previous clause in the bill, clause 11, is also problematic. It allows for state and territory laws to be overridden with respect to employment decisions. This is not limited to hiring; it includes promotions and levels of pay. This will effectively mean that one teacher who is of a certain faith and a teacher who is of another faith could legally have their respective pays determined based purely on those respective faiths. This doesn't sit well with me. It doesn't sit well with many people, I'm sure. And this is leaving to one side the fact that, again, this clause is likely to be unconstitutional.

In considering these bills, we in Labor used three key principles to determine whether we could support them. Firstly, we recognise that people of faith must have a clear right to act in accordance with their beliefs, subject to limitations on the grounds of public safety, order, health, morals and the rights and freedoms of others. This is outlined clearly in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Secondly, Labor supports the extension of the federal antidiscrimination framework to ensure Australians are not discriminated against because of their religious beliefs. But, finally and crucially, extending the protection of the antidiscrimination network to religion should not come at the cost of the protections that already exist in the law for other characteristics, such as gender, race, age, sexuality and so on. These principles are important. They make it clear that our party is committed to protecting the rights of people of faith, but that, importantly, this commitment is equally held to the rights of people protected by existing antidiscrimination law. As I've said throughout my remarks here today, antidiscrimination law is a very important yet sensitive area of the law, and providing its protection to one section of society cannot—cannot—come at the expense of another.

It's with these principles in mind that Labor is seeking to amend this bill. Firstly, we will move to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to ensure that students cannot be discriminated against for their sexuality or gender identity. This is vital. The government actively carved gender diverse kids out of protections, and Labor is making sure these kids cannot be discriminated against. Secondly, we will move to amend clause 12 of the Religious Discrimination Bill to ensure that statements of belief are not protected if they contravene existing antidiscrimination law. Thirdly, we will be looking at ways to protect teachers from discrimination. Fourthly, by moving amendments that prohibit religious vilification we will make sure that the bill does actually protect people of faith, making it illegal to do things like yelling abuse out of a car window at a woman in a hijab or to a group of worshippers leaving a synagogue. This is a glaring omission from the current bill which makes you question what on earth the government's intent actually was.

Labor will also be moving amendments to ensure that in-home aged-care service providers are not able to discriminate on the basis of religion and importantly there will be protections for people with disability. These are sensible amendments moved in good faith. They are amendments that would fix the significant errors and omissions in the bill and go a long way to ensuring the bill is inclusive and not divisive. I would like to conclude with the remarks made today by the Leader of the Opposition, the member for Grayndler. He said:

This is an opportunity to advance unity of this nation, not to pit people against each other. This bill as it stands right now, if it is not amended by either the House or the Senate, will only succeed in driving us apart. Ours is a wonderful country, but there is an even better Australia almost within our grasp. This bill in its present form will push it further out of reach. That is not our instinct as a people. It is not who we are. Let's put aside divisiveness and this pointless, petty partisanship. This is a moment for leadership; this is an opportunity for the Prime Minister to show some. It's an opportunity for unity of purpose. We must change this bill.

(Time expired.)

9:56 pm

Photo of Libby CokerLibby Coker (Corangamite, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to thank all those colleagues who've spoken before me, including the member for Cooper who spoke with such passion on this significant issue. The Religious Discrimination Bill should ensure that all Australians, regardless of their religion, gender, sexuality, cultural identity, marital status or disability, are free from discrimination. But, as it stands, this bill does not do this, and that is why Labor will fight to amend this bill in this House and in the Senate. We will propose a set of amendments to address the deeply held concerns of so many Australians, many of whom live in my electorate of Corangamite. I have listened to their heartfelt pleas—pleas which have come from people of faith, community leaders and parents of vulnerable children. They worry and I worry that this bill in its current form will undermine our nation's cohesion and drive a wedge between people of faith and people of the LGBTIQA community.

This bill has the potential to cause great anxiety in many people who fear persecution and vilification because of who they are. This is not acceptable. I want to make it clear that I do not support this bill, and Labor does not support this bill as it stands. I want to thank everyone in my electorate who's reached out to me and shared their thoughts and experiences about their children and members of their families. Your stories are very moving, and I will be responding to each of you. Your stories matter.

It is interesting to note that some in my community who are cynical of government believe the Prime Minister is weaponising this legislation and seeking to whip up a culture war to distract Australians from the many failings of his government: its failure to lead through the pandemic, its failure to protect people in aged care, its failure to legislate a federal anticorruption body and now its failure to bring the nation together and ensure we are all free from discrimination. I tend to agree with them. The Prime Minister is now rushing through this legislation, three long years after he promised to do so and on the eve of a federal election. On 18 December 2018 the Prime Minister announced that his government would enact a religious discrimination act and appoint a religious freedom commissioner before the 2019 election. But, as we've come to expect from this government, this is yet another broken promise in a very long list of broken promises and announcements.

Freedom of thought, conscience and religious belief are fundamental human rights, and I wholly support the extension of the federal antidiscrimination framework to ensure Australians are not discriminated against because of their religious beliefs. People from many different religious groups live in my electorate, and I have had the pleasure of meeting with them to celebrate special religious festivals and occasions. Many people of faith in my electorate have stepped up during the pandemic to provide food relief to those experiencing hardship and help to bring their communities together during very tough times. They have amazing compassion. Religion provides solace, faith, comfort and a sense of belonging, and it's central to many people's lives. People of faith have the right to act in accordance with the doctrines, beliefs or teachings of their tradition and faith. That's why it's so important that we continue to protect the rights of people of faith to practice their religion free of discrimination.

But it is equally important that this antidiscrimination framework extends to everyone regardless of age, ability, race, sex, gender, identity, sex characteristics and sexual orientation. I strongly urge the Morrison government to accept Labor's amendments, which ensure that state and territory antidiscrimination laws are not overridden. In the process of protecting people of faith from discrimination we cannot diminish the rights and freedoms of others. That's why Labor's amendments will change the law in four key areas: to prohibit religious vilification; prohibit discrimination against children on the grounds of sexuality and gender identity; make it clear that in-home aged-service providers cannot discriminate on the basis of religion in the provision of aged-care services; and make it clear that the statement of belief provision does not remove or diminish any existing protections against discrimination.

These amendments will go a long way to giving comfort and protections against discrimination for constituents like Merrin Wake and her son, Jay, who live in Torquay in my electorate. Merrin spoke on ABC radio this morning about her son, who is transgender. Merrin said earlier today: 'The discussion around this legislation has created fear and anxiety for trans kids and their families. When I dropped my son, Jay, at school this morning I felt fearful for him. This is the most scared I have felt since our journey began.' Parents of trans kids are getting tired of having to educate and fight every day for basic rights that other children enjoy and take for granted. Trans kids and their parents should not be burdened with being educators. Our government needs to step up and legislate protection for trans kids. The legislation in its current form will cause harm to vulnerable members of our community. She went on to say: 'Jay is in year 8 at a local secondary college, where he is loved and supported. He also has an abundance of love and support from his family, yet even for him this debate about whether trans kids should be protected from discrimination is extremely distressing. He knows only too well that too many trans kids do not have the love and support he has.'

Amy is another of many hundreds of constituents who have written to me. She's an Anglesea mother of two beautiful children. When her youngest child was born, she was assigned male gender. As soon as she could talk, she let her parents know that they had got it wrong and she was in fact a girl. This little girl is now five years old, loving life at kindergarten and has a bunch of beautiful friends and family who love her to bits. Amy wrote these eloquent words to me: 'Libby, I am writing to you today because I know in my heart that my beautiful daughter is perfect, completely and utterly perfect, just the way she is. I live in dread of the day she realises there are people in the world who believe she is anything less than that. We are so lucky to be surrounded by a community filled with love and hope and strength. With them in our corner, I know that my little girl will be okay. But not every LGBTIQA child has the same support she does. I'm asking you to stand up for them and reject this bill. These words have affected me greatly. When I read this through earlier, I must admit it brought me to tears. I am amazed by the compassion, generosity and open-mindedness of my communities.

It is inconceivable that the federal government is trying to ram through this legislation just prior to an election without proper consultation. The Law Council of Australia supports this view. It holds grave concerns about the bill as it stands. I quote from the council's statement:

Clause 12 makes lawful 'statements of belief' which would otherwise be unlawful, by overriding all federal, state and territory discrimination laws. This privileges manifestation of religious belief over other human rights, including the right to equality and non-discrimination, and is contrary to international human rights law.

We must not privilege one group over another. In its current form, this bill would cause pain and hurt, and this is absolutely unacceptable. If we do not pass these laws with our amendments in parliament, our government—a Labor government—will make sure that all people are not discriminated against.

We must protect religious freedom, and at the same time we must protect all people from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. We must not put any Australian in a position of worsening discrimination, and we know the mental health problems are significantly higher in the LGBTIQ+ community. We must protect them and ensure all children receive the love, acceptance and support they deserve.

I call on the Morrison government to accept Labor's amendments, not only to ensure protection for people of faith, but also to ensure that no teacher, child or any person is discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, relationship, marital status or pregnancy. To move forward, to be a cohesive, caring and tolerant nation, we need real leadership from this government now. If not, the people will decide the Morrison government's fate at the next election.

10:06 pm

Photo of Alicia PayneAlicia Payne (Canberra, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This should be a unifying moment for this nation as we discuss a bill to ensure that people are not discriminated against for their religious beliefs and practices. But it is not that moment. This bill, the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021, is not that bill. This has been an awful debate. So many in this parliament are really struggling with this, and our communities that we represent are as well. Every single member of this House would support the right of people to practise their religions without discrimination. That is not debatable. I am so proud that living in this country, Australia, we have such a diversity of religions and that we do have, to a great extent, religious freedom in this country. This is a debate that we could have worked on together as a community and as a nation.

From day one of this debate, Labor has reached out to this Prime Minister to work together on this, for this to be something that we could all be proud of. As our leader, the member for Grayndler, outlined in his speech earlier today, those offers to the Prime Minister have been rejected. They have not worked with us on this, and what we have ended up with is a bill that should not be supported. It should not be supported in this House, and Labor is moving some amendments to fix this bill so that we will not have some rights, and discrimination against some people, prioritised over protecting others from discrimination.

This should be a unifying moment, but this has been led by a Prime Minister who seeks to divide Australians, and it is absolutely shameful. It is absolutely shameful that in this debate the very things that make us who we are—our faith, our gender, our sexuality and even our culture—have been used to pit Australians against other Australians in a debate that is incredibly damaging, in a debate that people should not have had to endure again.

The people of Canberra do not want this bill. They have made that very clear, and I want to thank the hundreds and hundreds of people who have contacted me about this with their emails and their phone calls. Particularly in the last week or so, as it became clear that this was going to be rammed through this parliament in its dying days, but also over the last three years, I have talked a lot with my engaged, passionate and progressive community about. It is something that I have talked very much about with our shadow Attorney-General and others in this caucus as well. I know that people on the other side of the House have engaged with us as well, in spite of the Prime Minister's push to ram through something that does not solve the problems that such a bill should be looking to solve but, in fact, creates others.

I want to say to people in our LGBTIQ+ community: you should not have had to endure this debate yet again. To young trans Australians: you deserve so much better than this from your parliament. To anyone who feels upset by the debate that we have again been subjected to in this country: you deserve so much better from this parliament. To people of faith who want genuine laws to protect you from discrimination: you deserve better than this. All Australians deserve better than this.

In the dying days of this parliament, there are literally about seven days left of sitting before an election. We are not debating urgent legislation to address the crisis in aged care this government allowed to happen on their watch—more than 600 older Australians dying since Christmas. We're not debating that. We are not debating measures to help people who have lost their jobs or their businesses because of COVID. We are not debating the federal integrity commission this government promised over three years ago—another thing we want to work with them on but they don't actually want to do. We're not doing anything about poverty. We're not talking about implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart and giving First Nations Australians the voice to this parliament I so deeply hoped, along with so many people here, that this parliament would deliver. We're not debating those things. We are tearing ourselves apart over a bill that doesn't actually serve the needs of anyone who wants to be protected from discrimination in this country in a debate that has been so damaging for so many in our community. Again, to the people contacting me: I hear you and I see you and I will keep fighting against these things. I am so sorry that this is what we are doing here tonight.

We do not support the bill as it stands and will move amendments. These amendments do four key things, very important things, to improve this. They prohibit religious vilification, which the original bill doesn't do. The original bill does nothing to protect a Muslim woman being yelled at in the street or other examples like that, so it does make you question the real point of what the government is trying to do with this original bill. The amendments will prohibit discrimination against children on the grounds of sexuality and gender identity; they will make it clear that in-home aged-care service providers cannot discriminate on the basis of religion in the provision of aged-care services; and they make it clear that the statement of belief provision does not remove or diminish any existing protections against discrimination.

As I said, the people of Canberra have spoken out against this bill, including our Chief Minister, who has called on the parliament to oppose this bill. In my electorate of Canberra, we are already protected by the ACT's nation-leading Human Rights Act. This Human Rights Act includes statutory protections for the right to freedom of religion. The act guarantees the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of choice, and the freedom to demonstrate that religion or belief in worship observance, practice and teaching. Significantly, the Human Rights Act finely balances these religious protections against the rights of all citizens, ensuring no impact on other human rights and freedoms. This is the balance lacking in this bill. Without Labor's amendments, the government's bill will undermine those rights and protections already enjoyed by my constituents in Canberra and all people in the ACT. It will undermine our human rights. This bill is a disgrace and, as it stands, should not be supported.

In its submission to the Senate inquiry into this bill, the ACT government welcomed further protections on the grounds of a person's religious belief but recommended several amendments, including to allow it to operate concurrently with state and territory based protections already enjoyed by Australians. These hard-won protections should not be taken away.

The other night my friend and colleague the member for Whitlam gave a very powerful speech, in which he shared the story of his 15-year-old gay nephew, who tragically took his own life, and also the story of his own transgender son and the challenges that he faces in our community. I want to thank him for that speech. I'd encourage anyone who hasn't yet read or watched that speech to do so. It really brings to light how important it is that we protect people, particularly young people, in these laws. But they also should be spared from the damage of these debates. We know that the LGBTI community have—shockingly, unacceptably—much higher rates of suicide than other Australians. LGBTIQ+ young people aged 16 to 17 are almost five times more likely to have attempted suicide in their lifetime compared to the general population. Transgender people aged 14 to 25 are 15 times more likely to have attempted suicide.

The member for Whitlam talked about his nephew and his son swimming against the tide. I think so many of us take for granted that we have not had to swim against the tide just to be who we are. I think we can underestimate the damage caused to people who have to constantly fight and constantly debate for their right to be who they are. It's so incredibly damaging to people.

Having a Prime Minister like this and a government like this, who want to weaponise these things and divide Australians, is part of the reason that this continues. So many people who are gay who are very dear to me have, at some point over the years, shared with me just how challenging it has been for them. They have had to endure absolutely tragic things that people should never have to endure, just for being who they are.

People's faith is part of who they are, and people of faith don't want this. One of the really key points of most religions—and the most important part, the overarching message, of my Christian faith—is: love thy neighbour. That's common to most religions. 'Love thy neighbour, who is made perfect exactly as they are.' I think that is the guiding principle we should be seeking here. As a nation, if we saw more of that and had respect for each other, we wouldn't be having these discussions.

With the time I've got left, I want to share the story of one Canberran, my constituent Hugo Walker, who I have talked to a lot about this bill. He has done a wonderful submission, which you can find online, and I urge you to read it. I'll just read a shorter version, which is a letter that he wrote to the Prime Minister. He says:

Dear Sir,

…   …   …

Like you, I am a Christian.

Like you, I greatly value the freedoms I have in Australia to go to church, read the Bible and share my faith.

Unlike you, I am gay. Unlike you, I am a survivor of the cruel and damaging process known as Gay Conversion Therapy. nlike you, I believe, as a Christian, that God welcomes me as I am. God does not require me to change my sexual orientation to be a Christian. Nor is God planning to cast me into some mythical Lake of Fire simply because I am gay.

I am very concerned that your government seems very keen to rush an ill-considered bill through parliament to 'protect' religious freedoms even though such freedoms are not under threat.

Further, I am concerned at the haste. Last year, your government referred such matters to the Australian Law Reform Commission. Why can't you at least wait for their report?

As a gay man who is also a Christian, I have, sadly, been treated with astonishing cruelty by some Christians. People with whom I had been friends for decades now shun me. I have been called a fraud, a pervert, an unrepentant sodomite and the spawn of Satan by people who are supposedly my brothers and sisters in Christ.

I would be happy to meet with you and the Attorney-General …

And it goes on.

The guts that it takes to share that story, the guts that it has taken Hugo just to be who he is, is something that so many of us can't understand. We need to realise the damage this does to people. We need to stop having these debates. We need to stop weaponising these deep things that make us who we are. We will look back on this debate and think, 'How antiquated.' It is time we grew up as a nation. Why do we care who people love, what they do, what they believe? Let's work together to bring people together for a more inclusive Australia where everyone is free from discrimination, not only some.

10:21 pm

Photo of Anika WellsAnika Wells (Lilley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief is a fundamental human right. The idea that it should be unlawful to discriminate against someone in employment, in the provision of services or in other areas of public life on the basis of their religious belief or activity is not, or at least should not be, controversial. It is already unlawful under the antidiscrimination laws in most states and territories for individuals to be discriminated against on the basis of their religious beliefs or practices. For us from Queensland, it has been that way since Wayne Goss introduced these laws in 1991, more than 30 years ago. Today, less than one per cent of the cases that come to our Human Rights Commissioner in Queensland are cases of religious discrimination.

Most liberal democracies passed their religious discrimination laws decades ago. In Queensland, we passed ours 30 years ago. In navigating those reforms, those states and those countries rarely experienced controversy, bitter community division or nasty public debate. Yet, for more than three years now, our parliament has been tied in knots over this. The public debate over this bill has lacked nuance. It has lacked much-needed nuance and, dare I say, tenderness for the people most affected by this debate who are looking on. Instead, it has been polarising. It has forced everyone coming at it from all perspectives to feel that they need to justify their own identity. That is on the man in the top job, the person who wants this bill. We have a prime minister who wants this bill to divide us, not to unite us. This Prime Minister seeks only to wedge, not to bring people together. He seeks only another era of power for himself, not an era of tolerance, acceptance and understanding for all Australians.

A little over three years ago, the Prime Minister promised that he would update the laws to protect LGBT students as soon as possible. Those were the Prime Minister's words, 'as soon as possible'. In three years, he has not done it. There are nine sitting days left of this parliament. In this latest draft that he has managed, even the Prime Minister and the Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General cannot agree on how this form of the Religious Discrimination Bill would work in practice, with each offering different, contradictory views about the way in which particular provisions would operate. If the Prime Minister cannot even agree with his own ministers on the effective aspects of these bills, it is awful. It is simply awful that he is content for the rest of us, the rest of the country, to be divided and pitted against one another now, at his behest, in this national debate, at this late hour, all in the name of a political win for himself. Good legislation comes from listening. Good legislation comes from patiently working through the issues. Good legislation does not divide the community.

I have been carefully reading all of the correspondence coming into my office and platforms about this issue. I am conscious of the harm that this debate is having on vulnerable people watching on. I choose my focus and arguments carefully so as to not make that damage any worse. One particular letter that I felt captured the essence of what is wrong with this bill in its current form was this one, and I thank this particular constituent for sharing her story with us: 'I am a mother, wife and health worker. I also happen to be married to a woman for the last 15 years. We have two boys who are handfuls, cheeky, caring and wonderful. We have a large number of same-sex families living in the 4017 and our community are supportive. Last year we started applying for private high schools for our oldest child. When interviews were released last year my son was the only child in his school and greater community that applied that was not offered an interview at the large school. Instead we were waitlisted. At the second school we were offered an interview. We were again waitlisted. Again he was the only child not offered a spot. It is hurtful to be kept out of spaces deemed only worthy for some. My children will face many hurdles through life. My fear is that this bill will give the ruling majority the power to diminish my children's light to ensure that they must grow smaller or deny who they are or where they come from.' What government weaponises an issue like this one?

A lot of constituents have asked me to kill the bill, and I understand that, but we cannot do that. The government has the numbers in the House. It is what makes them the government and we cannot change that until election day. So now, and ultimately, my duty is to my constituents—all 110,000 of them. They're part of a national story that's a lot more interesting, diverse and vibrant than the narrowcasting Australian story that this Prime Minister seeks to rule over. I want our community to be a place where those two 4017 school kids are not discriminated against because of whom their mothers choose to love. I want our community to be a place where a Muslim woman walking down Hanford Road in a hijab will not get spat on and a group of Sikh men practicing their religion along Lemke Road will not fear for their safety. I will fight to protect them all. Tonight we are fighting for laws that protect them all. We are moving amendments to protect them all and if we lose we will keep fighting in the Senate to protect them all.

This bill needs substantial amendments and tonight we are fighting for those amendments to protect LGBTQ+ students from discrimination by religious schools on the grounds of sexuality or gender; to amend the statements of belief clause to preserve existing rights against discrimination, including preventing it overriding the state laws; to ban vilification on the grounds of religion and to prohibit discrimination in the provision of in-home aged-care services. Those are the amendments that I will be voting for. I urge the crossbench and those moderate Liberals who have pledged to do the same to come together with us now, to work together like our constituents are asking us to and to display a unity of purpose that can substantially improve this bill and protect our children's light. Ultimately a law cannot create the kind of tolerant community that most Australians seek. That is a role for a leader and for leadership. I urge everyone watching on tonight to remember that this is how this Prime Minister has chosen to wield his leadership and to remember that on election day. I thank the House.

10:29 pm

Photo of Madeleine KingMadeleine King (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

Religious freedom is something that is important to many Australians, including myself. Freedom from discrimination in any form is important to us all. It is what we expect, but unfortunately discrimination still persists angrily throughout our community. It is difficult to underestimate the harm that religious intolerance and sectarian division can cause. In my mother's house there is an old upright piano. The piano was a gift from my great uncle Pip to my father. Our family story goes that Uncle Pip bought the piano for us as a token of his regret and deep sadness that my father's father had been disinherited and disconnected from his family and its modest English wealth because he—my grandfather George Harvie Morris—married my grandmother Ellen Higgins. Ellen Higgins was a Roman Catholic, and she was Irish. Ellen's decision to marry an Englishman caused her to pay a price, and she barely saw her Irish family ever again. So my dad and his sister grew up English Catholics, disconnected from both their Irish and English families, with only their faith to bind them together.

I married a Protestant, but, thankfully, times have moved on. We have become more tolerant, and I was able to marry Jamie in the Catholic chapel not far from my mum's home, where that piano still stands. The remarkable thing is that sectarian divisions between Catholics and Protestants exist within our living memory. This is a multigenerational, deeply historical conflict between parts of the same religion of Christianity. This conflict caused long-lasting prejudice and discrimination based on faith.

My community of Brand in Western Australia is host to a number of religious communities, including the Hindu temple in Mandogalup; the longstanding Catholic community, including the convents of the Sisters of St John of God in Shoalwater, down the road from my home, and the Sisters of St Joseph in Safety Bay, where I was married; a strong, growing Filipino Catholic community in Rockingham; as well as Baptists, Anglicans, evangelicals, Pentecostals, the Salvation Army, Sikhs, Muslims, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses and, of course, those with no faith at all. I pay tribute to those communities of faith and the work they do to support each other in the wider community in accordance with their doctrine and practice.

Freedoms of religion have been hard fought and hard won, and it's worth us reflecting on the much longer context of the free practice of faith and the persecution of those who are different. Labor believes all Australians have the right to live their lives free of discrimination. We believe that religious organisations and people of faith have the right to act in accordance with the doctrines, beliefs or teachings of their traditions and faith. We don't want to see anyone treated unfairly, whether it's because of their gender, disability, sexuality, age or marital status or because they are pregnant, and we do not believe anyone should be discriminated against because of their religious beliefs.

Questions of religious freedoms were behind the Crusades, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Huguenot refugees fleeing France for Britain and the pogroms and persecutions which changed the course of history. The practice of religion led to the Hundred Years War, which itself ended with the Westphalian settlement, often marked as the creation of the idea of the modern nation-state. Persons of faith seeking to practise their faith without persecution led to British colonies in America and the creation of modern Israel. Religion still divides Ireland. And that's just Europe. We still see in the news, with some regularity, tensions around religion in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. We are not the first, nor will we be the last, to debate the boundaries we draw around freedoms that we all support—not by a long shot.

But here we are today as representatives of our community, attempting to articulate a national position that balances the freedoms those of faith should enjoy to practise their faith with the freedom and rights of other groups, including vulnerable and marginalised groups and individuals. We are fortunate in Australia that we did not inherit from Britain a state church. Indeed, our Constitution prohibits the Commonwealth enforcing any religion on its citizens. This has long been read as an implied right to freedom of religion in Australia, however vague. It has been interesting to note the nuanced and textured response of different faith groups to this bill. Some have welcomed it. Some have criticised it. Some mainstream Christian denominations and other faith groups have opposed it entirely. The fact is that conscious freedoms like freedom of religion exist to protect individuals, particularly those at greater risk of persecution from the tyranny of the majority. We must bear that in mind as we consider the question before the House today.

The Prime Minister was meant to do this years ago. He said he'd consult widely with lawmakers and faith communities and that he wanted this process and outcome to be bipartisan. That would have been a great idea if he had actually done it. He has had 3½ years as Prime Minister, and he's left it to the last dying days of this government and this parliament. People would be forgiven for thinking that the timing is deliberate, a cynical attempt at striking a blow in the culture wars on the eve of an election. Some may wonder if the Prime Minister is exercising good faith by this timing. I think this behaviour is emblematic of the entire government's behaviour.

We've already seen the Prime Minister late to the party in so many ways over the last term of government. He promised a federal integrity commission, which he's failed to deliver. He failed to deliver vaccinations in an orderly and timely manner for Australians. He had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to support workers during the height of lockdowns in 2020, and even this summer he dragged his heels in responding to the challenges that omicron presented. It is still hard to get rapid antigen tests and N95 masks. In relation to rapid antigen tests, he actually made the problem worse by competing with pharmacies in bulk-purchasing the same imports. And people of all faiths struggle to find paracetamol on supermarket shelves. As they worry about when they can get their kids vaccinated and whether they should visit their elderly grandparents without access to a rapid antigen test, they may be wondering why the government is focused on religious discrimination this week of all weeks.

Instead of coming into this parliament, on one of the three sitting weeks before the election, to address the serious challenges we are facing in the midst of the global pandemic, the Prime Minister has brought up this bill again for debate because he didn't do his homework on time. At a time when Australians want leadership and unity from their government, we have a Prime Minister who is using his final weeks in this parliament on the government benches to play the politics of division, pitting faith groups against each other, putting the people of Australia that suffer discrimination in competing positions. He is sewing hatred and fear, making children's ability to live without persecution the political issue of the week, or perhaps the issue of the election. And to achieve what—to sandbag some seats? The Prime Minister has taken the Prayer of St Francis and reversed it. Where there was joy he is sowing sadness, and where there was hope he is sowing despair. I strongly support religious freedom, but this bill, and everything that's gone with it, is a wasted opportunity from a tired, desperate and angry government that has given up on actually governing.

To conclude, I want to confirm that I support the amendments Labor is moving in the House. I hope they are supported so that freedom from religious discrimination does not cause greater discrimination to other vulnerable people in this country. I thank the House.

10:37 pm

Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Cities and Urban Infrastructure) Share this | | Hansard source

The purpose of antidiscrimination law is to secure a society that is equal, to recognise that there are unacceptable prejudices and other structural barriers that prevent everyone from participating economically and socially, and to set standards of conduct that address these. For me, fighting discrimination in all of its forms is a large part of my reason to be here in this place. It has been a large part of my life's work as an adult—as a lawyer, before I came here, and in all the other involvements I have had.

I want to be clear that I am concerned that gaps remain, as we conduct this debate right now, in Australia's antidiscrimination law legal architecture, which presently does enable discriminatory treatment on the basis of some religious beliefs and activity. I see that in the diverse communities that I'm privileged to represent. I see that in my role as Labor's shadow minister for multicultural affairs. I see people treated differently and wrongly by reason of their faith. I think particularly of members of the Islamic community but also of Hindus and Sikhs, members of Christian groups, and Jewish Australians.

I'm further concerned, though, that the legislation which has been presented to the House does not address these concerns. It doesn't fill these gaps, including the most obvious of gaps, which perhaps really demonstrates the appalling cynicism of this government and its leader. There's nothing in the bills that have been presented by the government which deals with religious vilification. There's nothing which addresses the harms that are being done, despite the overwhelming body of evidence. It has been often reflected, by me and many others, that we are seeing a very troubling increase in racism at the moment. But it isn't just racism that we're seeing; it's hatred based on faith. We're seeing a rising tide of xenophobia and anti-Semitism, amongst other things. These are things that should be addressed by a genuine attempt to deal with religious discrimination in our society. Of course, this is happening while the legislation before us raises other questions of discrimination.

Yesterday the Prime Minister spoke, misleadingly and wrongly, of this legislation being unifying. This is far from the case because of its substance and also because of the process through which it has been advanced. Removing discrimination from our statute books should be unifying. I think the speech of Anthony Albanese, the Leader of the Labor Party, made that powerfully clear earlier today. But this package of bills has always been a cynical exercise much more than an attempt to reach any unity. It's an exercise in promoting division.

Australians should have been brought together to discuss the principles that should inform legislation of this type, to reach agreement on these and then have regard to how this agreement should be enacted. As other Labor speakers have noted, it should have included respectful conversations with other jurisdictions which deal with this—the states and the territories, whose laws would be overridden in important respects should the bills before the House be passed in an unamended form. Strangely enough, this was recognised by the Prime Minister, who spoke some time ago about the need for this to be progressed cooperatively. He recognised this but then completely ignored it cynically, as again was demonstrated by the exchange of letters between him and the Leader of the Labor Party referred to today, because he's always interested in division and never interested in bringing Australians together.

As I prepared my remarks I was yet to see the significant amendments that had been foreshadowed. They took obviously a long time to get through the government room. The form of these amendments could well have determined the attitude of many members and probably senators to the bill. So, regardless of their views on the substance of this issue. I think all Australians would be horrified that debate on such significant legislation—legislation that goes to the fundamental rights and raises complex legal and potentially also constitutional questions—commenced without members knowing actually what position was being advanced by Australia's government. What a shameful and dangerous abdication of responsibility. Of course, there is a wider abdication of responsibility here too to those most affected by this debate on the legislation before us.

Many people, particularly young people and those who care for them, are anxious. It is very difficult to dispel the anxiety. Not for the first time under this government Australians are having their value and their innate dignity questioned by their own government. Australians are made by their own government to feel less than who they are, and that is utterly shameful. This should not and should never be the case, especially not where we are on the face of it, if you look at the titles of these bills, attempting to end discrimination, not exacerbate it. But that has been happening. It has been exacerbated and compounded by the rolling uncertainty of the process that has led us to this point.

I was recently contacted by distressed parents of trans children. I've been struggling to effectively address their concerns. I was here yesterday for the extraordinary contribution of my friend the member for Whitlam. If I were a person of faith I would say that I pray that others listen to the call that the member for Whitlam made—to think about what we should be doing in this debate and to think about what this is about. It's about people and their ability to be valued on their terms, not diminished by prejudice. That is what is at the core of this debate. This is no way to make a law and this is no way to treat people.

Yesterday in question time the Prime Minister sought to link support for multiculturalism in this great country to support for these bills. Those remarks were unworthy, irresponsible and wrong, particularly in two respects. Firstly, neither he nor any of us should presume to speak for the enormous diversity that is multicultural and multifaith Australia. Secondly, he should not mislead the parliament as to the views expressed by multicultural organisations on this matter. He should have regard to the submissions made to the parliamentary inquiries by a wide variety of groups and the powerful statements made by multicultural representative organisations that directly repudiate his offensive suggestion.

It's clear to me that this process falls well short of what Australians, and those Australians directly affected, should be entitled to expect from their national government and also that the legislation which is before us now, late at night, leaves our work unfinished when it comes to our collective task, as it should be, of removing discrimination from our statute books and advancing the rights of all Australians to go about their lives free from this ugly stain. So I want to be very clear. Whatever happens when the vote comes up today, and I am hopeful—and whatever happens when the vote comes up in the Senate, and I remain hopeful there too—I remain committed to this goal of working towards an Australia that is free from the stain of discrimination and to working collaboratively to making it a reality; recognising, I think, the key principle at the heart of this debate, which is that all people, not necessarily all views, are entitled to respect. All people are entitled to respect.

I really ask that members opposite think about this and that they think about the comments and the anguish that is being experienced in each and every one of our electorates right now. I see the member for Maribyrnong is here. I want to particularly acknowledge the concern that he has advanced on behalf of so many Australians with disability, and the potential and, I like to think, unintended consequences for those people of passing this bill in unintended forms.

I turn very briefly to the amendments which Labor is proposing—four of them: firstly, and for me most importantly, to make this bill worthy of its name and to deal with antivilification provisions which should have always been at the core here—I can't imagine how anyone would oppose that if they are interested in putting their name to a bill which speaks of ending religious discrimination; secondly, amending clause 12 in the bill, which is probably the most egregious element of it, to deal with provisions which presently would increase discrimination; thirdly, to deal with concerns that have been expressed around in-home care arrangements; and, fourthly, to delete section 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act.

To do this would be to advance the cause of antidiscrimination. To do this would be to take a step forward, a unifying step forward. It costs no-one anything. It would elevate the principles that have been spoken to by many on the other side of the House and would give so many Australians not only relief from anxiety but a sense that they really are respected for who they are. For those who are directly affected, and for those who care about them, it would take an enormous weight of anxiety off their backs and be a powerful symbol of the country we can be. This journey doesn't end here, whatever happens in this debate. It can't. We have more to do to build a society in which everyone is respected and everyone is equal.

I want to end by noting that my clear view remains—and this is borne out by history and it's borne out by the sad circumstances which lead to this bill coming before the House—that the path towards an enlarged Australian settlement, the path towards an Australia that's free of discrimination, will be lit by a Labor government. It's an Albanese Labor government that will finish this job, because there's work that needs to be done. I'm proud that my party, the party which has been at the forefront of every effort to end discrimination, is affirming today our longstanding commitment that we will legislate to end discrimination, including discrimination affecting people of faith. But, in particular, we will think about some of the people most affected by the ugliness that underpins this debate and we will act to protect all children and all teachers from discrimination on any grounds.

This is something that we should have had happen earlier. This is another broken promise made by a Prime Minister who always looks to divide, who always look to diminish Australians, who is only ever interested in cynical politicking and who is absolutely heedless of the awful human cost of his, frankly, disgusting cynicism.

10:22 am

Photo of Bill ShortenBill Shorten (Maribyrnong, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme) Share this | | Hansard source

It's now 10 minutes to 11.00 pm and there have been many speakers on the question of the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021. Sometimes in the life of a parliament, there are matters which are conducted which, regardless of who is in government or who is in opposition, would be conducted, and they're worthy matters. But, periodically and occasionally, there come matters which force all parliamentarians, on behalf of their constituents, to examine why it is they take the actions they do and why it is they will vote the way they do—perhaps to reach a little deeper into their own values and their own views to ask, 'What is in the national interest, what is in the interest of families and what is in the interest of Australians?

I believe, fundamentally, and I have believed this for my whole adult life, that this nation needs to find points of unity, points of commonality and points of agreement more than we do points of disagreement, points of division and points of fierce argument. This is an occasion where I believe that the parliament, whilst seeking the former, is achieving the latter: not more agreement, more unity and more commonality of purpose. I think this parliament is in danger, with this legislation, of making the wrong call and actually dividing the nation, not uniting the nation.

I don't think we need to give each other, no matter what one's political perspective, a big sermon on who is more morally pure or who is more virtuous. I believe that members of parliament, no matter what their background, their calling or their ideology, believe, by and large, in a free and respectful Australia, one where the rights of individuals and groups are respected. These are not universal rights to the point that someone can infringe upon someone else's rights but a point where someone should be able to practise their faith in a church, regardless of their religion, or, indeed, if they're a member of the LGBTQIA community, practise their life according to their values. I think parliamentarians would normally say that the nation should protect the rights of all Australians.

But what I am concerned about with this government legislation we are debating today and tonight, is that it seeks to legislate between competing rights of different groups. I think that is a mission or a task which is fraught with risk. My concern with the bill that the government presents, if it is not amended, is that it fails to contemplate—o, indeed, wilfully ignores—how this bill will affect the rights of Australians with disability. I worry that if this bill is not amended it will open the floodgates in relation to allowing people with disability to be insulted and vilified in the name of religion, which is not at all the function of faith.

Thankfully, that is less common today than it was in the past but, unfortunately, the following is not extinct: there are some people quoting some religious views which see disability as a result of divine intention, perhaps even the result of divine displeasure or a lack of faith on the part of the person with disability. There will be Australians driving on the roads tonight and listening to parliament, or there will be others who might read these words, who will say: 'Surely, that is an exaggeration? No-one in the name of a faith will vilify or denigrate, belittle or patronise a person with disability.' But, unfortunately, it does happen. This is certainly the informed view, a view I share, of the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, the national voice representing people with a lived experience of disability in Australia. AFDO, unarguably representing people with disability, has stated:

People with disability are often subjected to unwelcome & uninvited statements of religious belief that demean disability as the result of sin, possession, or karma. While these may seem extreme religious views and statements, they are views commonly expressed to people with disability and the Bill will legitimise these views as long as they are personally held beliefs of religious doctrine and are made in good faith.

Mr. Michael Small from Disability Voices Tasmania advised; 'Some documented examples of current abuse are direct statements to people with disability that their disability is a "punishment from God for their, or their parents', sins"; their disability can be "healed by prayer" or by "living virtuously" or that they "deserve to suffer from their disability for what they have done in a previous life". Our concerns are that these existing discriminatory practices will be furthered and protected by this current Bill'.

Along with AFDO and Michael Small from Disability Voices Tasmania, I've been contacted by many people with disability and those who love and care for them, who are concerned that this Morrison government have neglected to consider the potential effect of this bill upon them. People with disability have not raised theoretical debating points; they have told me of some of their experiences of discrimination and vilification, behaviour that will be allowed if this bill is passed.

I want to share these examples with the parliament and other Australians tonight. I have been told of a Tasmanian teacher with a disability who was told by a relief teacher in a staffroom that the reason she was in a wheelchair was that she had something to learn in this life. I have been informed of a young girl at school being told by a playmate that the reason she uses a wheelchair is that her mother and father don't believe in God. A third example involves a women with a visible disability on a tram. This is a disturbing story. She felt she was being stared at. She turned to see a woman on the tram openly staring at her. She got off the tram to do her shopping and she went into a bookshop. This other woman followed her off the tram and into the bookshop and approached her and told her that she could be healed. The woman wanted to pray with her. People with a visible disability have also been told they deserve to suffer their disability for what they did in a previous life. All of these comments and statements of belief would be authorised by this government's legislation.

Then there is Mary Henley-Collopy: she's a fantastic person and she lives in my electorate. These are her words:

I am one of the millions of Australians who live with a significant physical disability. I have three fingers emanating from both shoulders and foreshortened legs. We, as Australians with disability, are amongst the most vulnerable in the community. I wish I was exaggerating when I tell you that for every one of my 60 years of life I have been regularly approached by people – mostly when they first meet me – who have made comments such as, 'if you came to our church, you could be healed'.

These offensive, hurtful, and degrading statements imply I am not 'whole' and that I need to be 'repaired' to fit the norm. I work very hard to not absorb these comments and to remain content with who I am. But it is tiring to have to do so and some days I feel quite hurt by such comments.

I am completely gobsmacked that the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill is even being considered! I find it incomprehensible that this proposed bill will override all anti-discrimination legislation already in place at both Commonwealth and State levels!

I need to ask – are we not learning from the tragic stories that have thus far been told to the Disability Royal Commission into Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability? This proposed bill has already triggered my own emotional experiences of the historic, extensive and continuing abuse of my community of people with disability.

People with disability have raised with me their concerns that, while some of these examples could currently be the basis of a discrimination complaint, the proposed bill would protect such deeply hurtful comments as protected 'statements of belief'.

Now, I do not want my comments to be construed as a criticism more broadly of our nation's varied religious and faith communities. Indeed, many people with disability and those who love and care for them are people of faith, and many churches and faith groups were amongst the first to get involved in and continue to deliver disability services. I do not believe the hurtful views of disability reflect the mainstream or modern doctrine of most major faith groups, but, unfortunately, they still exist. Even those people of faith who express these hurtful views, whilst in my view are thoroughly misguided, are not necessarily acting maliciously but certainly ignorantly. They often speak out a genuine belief, with no deliberate bad intent. Some indeed may think that they are saving the person with a disability to whom they address. But these statements can be shattering for people with disability. They set back the progress of disability as part of the mainstream Australian experience. Such attitudes are patronising. They set people apart. They involve seeing people with disabilities as objects of pity or charity, receptacles of God's will, instead of fully rounded people in their own right. Such attitudes infect the day-to-day lives of people with disability.

People with disability are also concerned whether they can retain their current rights not to be discriminated against in employment service provision or access to accommodation. The government is explicitly authorising permitting statements of belief that will harm, hurt, vilify and discriminate against people with disabilities. By introducing clause 12 in this bill, it specifically authorises that statements of religious belief are no longer subject to the Disability Discrimination Act and comparable state instruments. There can be no other interpretation. I mean, what is really going on here? Can it really be the government's intent to remove protections against people with disability just so that other people can enjoy more protections?

We have a hyperpolitical Prime Minister who is not the Prime Minister for uniting Australia but the Prime Minister for dividing Australia. He cunningly pits different groups of Australians against each other for his own political advancement. It is my belief that even faith groups in this debate are being treated unfairly as a political football by our divider in chief. How on earth has the Prime Minister got the parliament and the nation to the point where the proposition is that one group can improve their rights but only at the expense of another group? According to the Prime Minister, people of faith, with their religious beliefs, can only have that if kids and people with disabilities lose some of their rights.

I want to be very clear: I have no doubt that discrimination against people of faith is real. The weeping sore on the history of the 20th century anti-Semitism is unfortunately not a thing of the history books, nor is Islamophobia, and neither is the sectarianism of casual jeering references to Christians and their faith. Discrimination against people faith is real, it is deplorable, and it has no place in Australian society. It is wrong.

But I fear, in the name of religious freedoms, gay kids at school and people with disabilities could feel the increasing sting of discrimination. This is wrong. How do government MPs explain to constituents that your faith can be protected, but your gay kids may not, and family members with disabilities can be subject to ignorant comments?

Trying to legislate against these competing rights is a fool's errand. I suspect that if the Prime Minister has his way with this legislation, it will be a lawyers picnic where the only real winners will be the people in the horse-hair wigs. I suspect it will be open lawfare, and there'll be unforeseen consequences, and not just for the values of those on our side of the aisle. How does it help people of faith and religious freedom, with values of love, compassion and dignity and moral justice, when other vulnerable groups lose protections or have their protections diminished?

The story of our Labor Party and the Labor movement, but also the story of the Australian parliament, the story of the Australian people, is about including more people, embracing more people, in the definition of fairness, broadening the circles of Australian democracy, extending our embrace to all people of all identities. It is ever-changing, ever-expanding. The moral values I grew up with 13 years of Catholic education were about extending compassion, not cutting children from it, not cutting vulnerable Australians from it. People of faith need their rights protected. But so do people with disabilities, so do people in the LBGTIQ+ community.

I fear that parliament is settling for a rushed, inferior piece of legislation. It's not what Mr Ruddock wanted. It's not what I think Mr Turnbull had in mind. It's not what people of faith seek. It's not what people with disabilities deserve. This parliament can do better than this legislation, and we will rue the day, if this legislation passes the Senate.

11:05 pm

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Communications and Cyber Security) Share this | | Hansard source

As a member of parliament I've always been open about the fact I am an atheist. Indeed, I've written before about the fact that my personal view is that I don't believe it's appropriate for each day's parliamentary sitting to begin with a prayer, and I don't participate in them myself. I say this as context for the fact that among the things that I am most proud of as a member of parliament are the faith communities in my electorate. I know that's a common experience for those in this House. I'm blessed with one of the most diverse electorates in the country, and those of us who live there in Melbourne's west—we love it. We don't worry about war on Christmas-style culture in my electorate; no-one goes around saying 'Happy holidays' to each other every December, instead of 'Merry Christmas,' because in our community we're used to celebrating everyone's special days with our mates. We're just as comfortable saying 'Happy Holi' or 'Ramadan Kareem' as we are saying 'Merry Christmas', as circumstances demand.

Respect for diversity of religious faith is a normal part of our experience in my community in Melbourne's west. And we are so much richer for it, because, while their source of faith might be diverse, their motive towards community service is universal. We tell our kids to, in a crisis, look for the helpers. Well, in my community all too often in a crisis the helpers are driven to go to the scene and help by their faith. Sikh Volunteers Australia have become famous Australia wide for their constant presence anywhere where there is a crisis in our community. Where there are members of our community in distress, you can bank on the Sikh volunteers being there in their famous high-viz vests, colourful turbans and smiling bearded faces. Across the Black Summer bushfires and the two years of the pandemic that followed, they have served well over 100,000 free meals from their trusty Free Food Van, taking the langar of the Gurudwara on the road to where it's needed most. Look for a crisis and you'll see them there. We're so proud of them.

Then you have the Australian Islamic Centre volunteers from the Newport mosque—an architectural icon of Melbourne's west that we are so proud of in its own right, a powerhouse community group. They don't just look out for people in our own backyard but go looking for fellow Australians in need everywhere. During the Black Summer bushfires, volunteers from the Newport mosque collected five semitrailer loads full of donations, drove them to Bairnsdale at three o'clock in the morning and, with the assistance of the MFB and the CFA, put on a breakfast sausage sizzle for exhausted firefighters. It was quite the logistical enterprise and it earned them international television coverage. I'm so proud to be their representative in this chamber.

We're also home to one of Australia's largest Buddhist temples in Melbourne's west, Quang Minh Temple. Their volunteers delivered $33,000 worth of donations to the CFA in Bairnsdale and the CFA District 11 Headquarters Brigade during the Back Summer bushfires. Senior Venerable Thich Phuoc Tan, the abbot of Quang Minh, is a model of ethical leadership in the country and someone I know all local political representatives in Melbourne's west draw guidance and inspiration from. He's a great bloke to spend time with.

Christian groups, too, are a wonderful source of charitable works in our communities, staffing food vans for the disadvantaged and providing essential support for the vulnerable, especially the significant asylum seeker community in Melbourne's west. The Westgate Baptist community shares its ministry and facilities with a growing congregation of Karen refugees from Myanmar and has for many years provided direct material support for refugees in the camps on the Thai-Myanmar border, as well as providing direct support for our refugees in our own community through the ministry of Westgate Refugee Support.

These people of faith in our community in Melbourne's west make our community a better place. They're the kinds of people of faith who make me embarrassed of the militant atheism of people like Richard Dawkins, who are so arrogant in their intellectual certainty that they can't recognise fundamental human decency when it's right there in front of their eyes. I would be furious if anyone discriminated against any of these people of faith in my community on the basis of their religion or religious practices.

I joined the Australian Labor Party because I believe in equality of opportunity, social and economic. Everyone should be entitled to live a life of equal human dignity, free from discrimination. Protecting people from this kind of discrimination is core to why I am in politics and the Labor cause. It's why Labor has been the architect of Australia's antidiscrimination law framework. It was Labor that enacted the Racial Discrimination Act in 1975, Labor that enacted the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984, Labor that enacted the Disability Discrimination Act in 1992 and Labor that provided bipartisan support for the enactment of the Age Discrimination Act in 2004. It's an antidiscrimination record that those of us on this side of the House are rightly proud of. The legal protection of freedom from discrimination on the basis of religious belief or activity deserves equal recognition in Australia's Commonwealth antidiscrimination framework.

Many constituents have written to me in recent days, urging me to oppose this bill on the grounds that Labor must defend its antidiscrimination legacy. It should be understood that Labor's antidiscrimination legacy includes a long record of legislative action to protect people of faith from discrimination. In Queensland in 1991, Wayne Goss made it unlawful for people of faith to be discriminated against on the grounds of religion, as did the ACT Labor government the same year. A Labor government had already passed equivalent laws in Western Australia. The Tasmanian Labor government introduced similar protections in 1999, and the great Steve Bracks passed the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act in Victoria in 2001. In 2009 the Rann South Australian government amended the Equal Opportunity Act to prevent discrimination on the grounds of a person's religious appearance or dress. Labor has always been the party of fairness and equality. We've put in place the vast bulk of this country's antidiscrimination laws, entrenching legal equality for people, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexuality or disability. It has been core to our values for half a century. These are the values that have guided our consideration of this bill.

The shadow Attorney-General has outlined the three principles that have guided our engagement with this bill: (1) religious organisations and people of faith having the right to act in accordance with the doctrines, beliefs or teachings of their traditions of faith; (2), consistent with decades of legislative action at the state level, support for the extension of the federal antidiscrimination framework to ensure Australians are not discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or practices; and, (3), consistent with an international covenant, ensuring any extension of the federal antidiscrimination framework does not remove protections that already exist in law to protect Australians from other forms of discrimination. It's pretty simple.

There's support throughout the Australian community and across the political spectrum to extend the current federal antidiscrimination framework to people of faith. The Prime Minister's bungling of a handful of contentious provisions that he has introduced in this bill shouldn't be allowed to detract from this. Unfortunately, though, the base, petty partisan instincts of this Prime Minister have caused the position of these people of faith in our community to be demeaned. Instead of seeing antidiscrimination laws as a shield to protect groups from unfair and unequal treatment, he set out to design this bill to give a sword to the tiny minority of people that want to attack other groups. Instead of celebrating the role of people of faith in our community, he sought to set other groups in our community against them; instead of uniting Australians, he set out to divide them—and all for that most base of political reasons: the pursuit of short-term political gain. He doesn't care about the long-term damage that this divisive approach will cause to our social cohesion—to the relationship between people of faith and other groups in our community, principally the LBGTIQ community, and to the individuals targeted in this legislation. He just wants to play politics because that's all he is capable of. He's a little man inflicting a narrow viewpoint on a nation that is far bigger, far greater, than he can even comprehend.

This Prime Minister has diminished the position of people of faith and their communities in our nation through his political games. When they and the nation needed a leader; what they got was a political schemer. After failing to live up to his word to deliver a religious antidiscrimination bill for the past three years, the Prime Minister is trying to ram through an extraordinarily complicated, unprecedented piece of legislation, in the shadow of an election. His motives are plain for all to see—as usual, dividing, not unifying; not leading but scheming.

The core part of this bill is uncontroversial: prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or activity in different areas of public life, including in the context of employment, education, access to premises and the provision of goods, services and accommodation facilities. But there are significant problems with this bill, particularly regarding the so-called 'statements of belief' clause and the provisions overriding existing state and territory antidiscrimination laws. The Prime Minister has ignored these problems. Indeed, despite them being identified by his own members, he has only introduced amendments in the last few days. When things got messy in the party room, they cobbled together a work-through solution. When he should have been working with everyone in this chamber, opposition and crossbench united, he worked with a small group in his party room.

That's why today Labor is moving substantial amendments to this bill—three sets of amendments. We'll move amendments in the House and the Senate and, if our amendments are successful in either the House or the Senate, we will insist on them. First, we'll be moving an amendment to delete the statements-of-belief clause and the provisions of the bill overriding state and territory antidiscrimination laws and qualifying conduct rules. The provisions have been described by a number of legal experts as procedurally unworkable and potentially unconstitutional—as the member for Maribyrnong said, a lawyer's picnic. More importantly, though, these are the sword provisions of the bill. These are the provisions that don't give people of faith a shield against unequal or unfair treatment but instead purport to set up unfair, unequal legal protections for people to infringe the rights of others. In this way they diminish existing protections against discrimination and vilification rather than expanding on them. Labor's amendments will remove this sword and ensure that people continue to be protected by existing anti-discrimination regimes.

Second, we'll be proposing an amendment to introduce an antivilification provision in this bill. In the second reading speech of this bill, the Prime Minister told this chamber:

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.

But there is nothing in Australian law or the bill before the House prohibiting religious vilification. We know this from the 18C debate. I saw the effects of this firsthand during the hearings for the government's social media and online safety select committee inquiry. I'll give one disturbing example of this that we heard during the hearings. The Australian Muslim Advocacy Network and its volunteers have been being trying to tackle Islamophobia targeting Australian Muslims on social media platforms. Its work is motivated in no small part by fear that the radicalisation engine that powered the Christchurch terrorist, an Australian who murdered 51 Kiwis nearly three years ago, has not been fronted by Australian society or government. As part of this work, over 18 months AMAN identified more than 100 hate artefacts, examples of dehumanising Islamophobic vilification posted by the former senator Fraser Anning to his Facebook page. Despite this, Facebook did not see this as breaching their policies to the extent that removal of his account was required. Social media appearing before this inquiry have been united in the need for a legal baseline for hate speech in our society, but it hasn't happened in Australia.

I asked Rita Jabri-Markwell, AMAN's representative, how it felt knowing that coming up on three years since Christchurch attack there was still no Commonwealth law preventing this kind of online religious vilification that radicalised the Christchurch terrorist. She responded:

It's made us feel really lonely. I don't know how else to describe it. It's kind of like you don't matter. But we just have to keep going. If another scenario like that happens, I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I knew that I hadn't tried everything. At the moment, we haven't acted.

We should act in this bill, and Labor's amendments will.

This is yet another example of the Prime Minister's actions not matching words and it is, I would add, a failure of this country to confront the conditions that allowed one of our own to be radicalised to the point of murdering 51 people of faith in another country.

The third set of amendments we will make to this bill ensure that in-home aged-care service providers cannot discriminate on the basis of religion in the provision of aged-care services, an inexplicable oversight in the bill.

Finally, Labor will move amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act to ensure that religious schools will be prohibited from discriminating against students of on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

During the same-sex marriage debate in the wake of the plebiscite result, I told this chamber:

The parliament and the public have so clearly rejected homophobia. The tiny minority of people who think that religion is like a toy plastic sheriff's badge to wave at other people rather than a source of personal moral reflection will be tutting their fingers at someone else soon enough. Indeed, it is clear from the way that the 'no' campaign desperately tried to make the marriage equality survey about anything other than marriage between LGBTIQ Australians that the reactionaries have already chosen their new target—trans kids.

And here we are. Australia this morning woke to news headlines that declared that the Prime Minister's deal with his own party room to ensure their support for this bill would protect the right of gay, lesbian and bi kids but would not protect trans kids from discrimination at the hands of their schools. From looking at these headlines, it looked like the Morrison government had deliberately chosen to use discrimination against trans kids as a political weapon in this debate. People of good faith will find the use of any children in this way to be utterly repulsive, let alone the most vulnerable children in our community. In the marriage equality debate, I implored conservative members of parliament not to make the same mistake, not to have the same failure of human empathy that they did for marriage equality again in the future when it came to trans kids.

Labor hasn't forgotten trans kids, and we'll be moving these amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act to ensure that they cannot be discriminated against at their most vulnerable. I say to those Liberals sitting opposite who are on the fence on this bill, reserving their position: 'Take this opportunity; support these amendments. This is your chance. We can still deliver legal protections for people of faith, defending them from discrimination, while also addressing the existing vulnerability to discrimination faced by Aussie kids just for being who they are. Support Labor's amendments, and we can achieve both of these objectives. Don't look back in future years wishing you took the opportunity while you had it.'

11:20 pm

Photo of Ms Catherine KingMs Catherine King (Ballarat, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

I too want to make a brief contribution to the religious discrimination bills before the House. I do not support discrimination in any form. It is absolutely abhorrent to me that people should be excluded from any social, economic or political life on the basis of their race, their disability, their marital or relationship status, their pregnancy, their sexuality, their gender identity or their religious beliefs. It is simply abhorrent. I didn't come into this place to enact laws that introduce new discriminations or entrench old ones that should be long gone from Australian statute books.

I want to acknowledge that this debate is causing deep harm amongst the LGBTIQA+ community. Once again, at no choosing of their own, they are finding their lives at the centre of a divisive political debate in the heart of this nation. I want to thank all of you who have contacted me and my office for your patience, for your wisdom, for your guidance and for your kindness as we from opposition make our way through what is a debate that is of the government's making.

I, like many, have listened very closely to the contribution of others and, as always, when this place steps up to properly debate, to listen to each other and to do our job—the one that we were elected to do—we can be extraordinary. We can unite the country, be inclusive, be leading and be inspiring. We can change the country for the better. I, like many in this debate, know that unity, that inclusion and, as my colleagues, the member for Whitlam and the Leader of the Opposition, so eloquently put it, operating truly based on love is not what has motivated the Prime Minister in deciding that this is the most pressing issue this place should be debating in the last few sitting days before an election. A Prime Minister who chooses to exercise his power to divide people, regardless of the harm it may cause, because he thinks there will be political advantage in it, diminishes the office of Prime Minister. It diminishes this parliament and it diminishes him.

Religious discrimination does exist in this country. We have a history of it here that's as old as our history itself. I am old enough to have experienced it myself as a child. I grew up Catholic. My mother married a non-Catholic. I distinctly recall, as a six-year-old in the suburbs south-east of Melbourne where I grew up—where we roamed the streets as kids in our AVJennings, brick-veneer houses, dodging in and out of them—that my best friend across the road was not Catholic. I didn't know that she wasn't—I didn't even know there was a divide about any of these things. But I distinctly remember, as a six-year-old, sitting in the loungeroom and hearing her grandmother—who was never very nice or very kind to me, but I just thought she was a bit cranky and old, and I didn't have a grandmother, so I didn't know how to relate to them—and I am now 55 and I remember hearing her succinctly saying, 'Why is that Catholic girl in our house?' I remember going home to my mum, and I felt there was something wrong with me. What had happened? Why did this woman think that this was okay to say? That's in my lived experience. I remember my sister, as a nurse, telling the story of nursing someone who had happened to live in the same street as my mum, and this woman saying to my sister, 'Oh, you're the daughter of that woman who married a non-Catholic.' So these debates about religion are not new in this country, and discrimination about religion, about the Catholics and Protestants, in particular, but about all religion, is not new.

There are two propositions here that ought not to be mutually exclusive. People should not be discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or activities. People of faith have the right to act in accordance with these beliefs and the teachings of that faith, which they deeply hold and are deeply part of their identity. Minority religious groups, in particular, in today's modern Australia need the protections offered by this bill. It is a progressive cause, but at the same time kids should not be facing discrimination in the very schools that have been entrusted to teach them, just because of who they are. Nor should their teachers face discrimination because of who they are.

While it has been a longstanding practice to allow religious schools to have a preference in hiring staff of their own faith, sacking a teacher or putting them under pressure to resign or to live in fear because of their sexuality or gender identity is wrong. Expelling a student, putting them in detention, alienating them from classmates, denying them opportunities to participate in school activities because of their gender identity or sexuality is wrong. It is simply anathema that, in 2022, we have to actually say that in this place and we're having a debate about it.

We as parliamentarians should be capable of enacting legislation that provides protections for religious expression without introducing or entrenching discrimination for other groups. That is what religious leaders have been calling for and it's what this bill fails to do. It is what the religion that I grew up with, my Catholic faith, tells us we should be doing. It is why I support the amendments to be moved by the shadow Attorney-General, which prohibit religious vilification, prohibit discrimination against children on the grounds of sexuality or gender identity, make it clear that in-home aged-care service providers cannot discriminate based on religion in the provision of aged-care services and make it clear that the statement of belief provision does not remove or diminish any existing protections against discrimination. We also want to remove discrimination against teaching staff and staff in schools, while recognising the right of religious schools to give preference to hiring school staff of their own faith and recognising that the complex interaction between these two rights needs the Law Reform Commission to quickly finish the work it was asked to do, stalled by this Prime Minister, and provide this parliament with recommendations as the best mechanism to do so.

I want these amendments to get up. But I am realistic, after 20 years in this place, to recognise that it will be, and it is, in the Senate that we will have the best chance to fight for them and to win. So I support that these amendments will be moved and heavily prosecuted both here and in the Senate, and, if they get up, we will be insisting upon them.

I know that there are some who would rather than we simply voted against this bill both in the House and in the Senate. I've seen the commentary on Twitter and I've seen the emails in my inbox and the calls that have come into my office today. It is not a view I support, and it's a view that is based on my 20 years of experience in this parliament. I do think there is merit in providing protections against religious discrimination, and it is a progressive cause. Having seen the terrible division spread by a few locals and exploited by alternative Right outsiders in the neighbouring seat of Bendigo over the construction of a mosque and the fear that that engendered in the Ballarat Muslim community, I don't need convincing that there needs to be protection, and protection for religious freedoms. But, as I said at the outset of this debate, that should not come at the cost of introducing or entrenching further discriminations.

If the numbers are here in the House to get these amendments through then that will be a pretty special thing. It will send a powerful signal to the LGBTIQA+ community that you are loved, that you are respected and that this parliament will protect you. It will also send a powerful signal to those of deep religious faith that you are also loved, that you are respected and that your values, views and faith will be protected.

What a powerful statement for this House to make to the Australian community—that this is something we can do together. And if we can't get these amendments through then let's let the Senate do the job. It is now over to the government and government members. They have a chance before them to unify the country. They have a chance to demonstrate yet again—as we did through the marriage equality bill, as hard and difficult as that was, and through so many other debates on difficult contentious issues that we have had in the 20 years that I have been here—what an extraordinary place this can be. Or, yet again, they can be on the wrong side of history when it comes to these issues. Hopefully they will be able to look back on a long career in this place and feel pride in what they have done.

All Australians should have the right to live their lives free of discrimination and to participate in every opportunity that this great country has to offer. This bill, as it stands, diminishes us as a nation and diminishes us as a people, and it should be amended. I commend the amendments that are to come to the House.

11:31 pm

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's known to colleagues in this place that I've announced I'll be retiring at the next election. The decision has caused me, as would not surprise anyone, to be somewhat reflective about my time in this place, particularly in the last few days. As I sit in this chamber and ponder how few opportunities remain to participate in debates here, I reflect on some quite amazing moments that I was privileged to experience in this chamber—moments where an outbreak of joy and unity and pride caused people to embrace each other in this chamber; you could almost feel the joy from around the country coming through the walls.

Those two particular occasions I remember are the National Apology to the Stolen Generations and the passage of the same-sex marriage legislation, and they epitomise how this place can be a beacon of hope and unity and progress across Australia. There were some who disagreed with those decisions, but, by and large, people felt that parliament and parliamentarians had reflected the best side of Australia and put legislation in place that encouraged all of us to be our better selves.

The antidiscrimination framework in this country is part of that story. From the earliest, we've had sex discrimination, we've had disability discrimination and we've had age discrimination. A number of parts of the framework of antidiscrimination legislation have been put in place, and they are, of course, consistent with our international obligations. This could have been another plank in that framework. Bringing a religious discrimination bill into this place could have been another moment of unity, joy and pride, as has happened in the past, but it isn't. It isn't because the bill before us is so flawed and counterproductive that it does exactly the opposite.

So why are we at this place with these bills before us? Well, a few years ago the Prime Minister made a commitment to bring religious discrimination bills before the parliament. Indeed, it was before the last election. Yet here we are, in the final sitting weeks of the parliament, in the lead-up to an election, and now we've got to urgently pass these bills. Why? If the Prime Minister says it's because he made a commitment before the last election and he feels he has to meet that before he goes to another election, well, do you know what? I would have rather had the National Integrity Commission Bill before this place. But this is what we're faced with.

What the bill does is not what it intends to do. I want to make it really clear. I know some people say there is no need for a religious discrimination bill. I do not agree with that. Many speakers have made the point that the fundamental importance of faith to people is such a significant part of who they are and their participation in our civil modern society, and their sense of safety and security and wellbeing, that it should be protected, and I agree with that.

I have to say that I'm not a person of faith. I am an atheist, but I have a very deep respect and determination to protect the rights of those who are people of faith to hold that faith and to practice that faith in ways that do not result in them being excluded from or discriminated against any full participation in our civil and economic life. That should not happen, and I will always stand up for opportunities to protect their rights in that way. So we should have a religious discrimination bill. It would be a good addition to the architecture of this nation. But you do that by offering protections to people, not by taking them off others. That's never what any form of any antidiscrimination legislation has been about.

What is so devastating and what has caused so much grief is that in this particular instance we are seeing the reality of very negative effects on people who are some of the most vulnerable in our community, in particular the effects on children—children who are gay, who are dealing with their sexuality, who are trying to understand it, or who are dealing with their gender identity. Nothing could describe that more powerfully than the words of my very good friend and colleague the member for Whitlam as he spoke in this debate about his family's grief at the loss of his nephew and as he spoke about his lovely son, Paddy. And I want to endorse the sentiments that he expressed.

How on earth did we get into a position, when we should be debating something that is about embracing, protecting and extending love and participation to people in our community, of dealing with impacts that are devastating? Once again our gay community, our transgender community, our people of a variety of gender identities and gender expression in our community are at the middle of a debate that is divisive and harmful. I really understand how they must feel and their despair at being dragged again into the middle of contention, when we should be saying, 'You are as welcome and as valued and as loved as everybody else in our society.' So I'm really, really frustrated with what the Prime Minister has done in the way that he has handled this bill and the way that he has handled debate, and with the promises that he's made that he's not delivering in this legislation. And I do believe that the amendments that are proposed to be put by the shadow Attorney-General are critically important and deserve to be supported, if the intention of these bills is really what is claimed and if the promises that the Prime Minister has made in the past about unifying people, bringing people together, working in a bipartisan way, protecting children, are to actually be delivered on.

The amendments that will be brought forward will prohibit religious vilification, which this bill does not do. One of the things I know from my own community is that there are people of faith who suffer vilification. The Islamic community in my area have raised this with me over years. This does happen, particularly to people of minority faiths and communities. The amendments will prohibit discrimination against children on the grounds of sexuality and gender identity. This must be done. They will make it clear that in-home aged-care service providers, not just residential providers, cannot discriminate on the basis of religion in the provision of aged-care services. And, very importantly, they will make it clear that the statement of belief provision does not remove or diminish any existing protections against discrimination.

I appreciate and I value the fact that members of the government have indicated their grave concerns and their interest in amendments such as those Labor has proposed. I know that's a difficult thing to do, I really do. But I want my last potential weeks in this place to actually be ones where this whole place can be proud of something that we've done. That is still possible. It can be achieved by supporting these amendments. I would ask that all members meet the spirit of these bills in the way they should have been presented, do the best we can and pass the amendments when they are put forward, and let's all have a moment again where we can take pride in what this chamber does.

11:42 am

Photo of Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is extraordinary that at 11:43 on a Wednesday evening we are discussing this bill when we are literally in the middle of an aged-care crisis. The Prime Minister has had four years to bring this bill to the parliament after having promised it for the election. That is four years during which he could have had a faith summit and brought together faith leaders from around the country in the spirit that he promised but has not delivered on—a bipartisan spirit. He could have brought the Labor Party, perhaps the Greens, people from all parties and creeds and colours, into a faith summit and had a really unifying moment for this country. Instead, we have a bill before the House that has been rushed through within 24 hours on the eve of an election. It's just an absolutely disgraceful, disrespectful way to treat people of faith and the parliament.

One of the most sacred duties of us in this place is to protect children, and this bill fails that duty. Expert after expert tells us that this bill, if left unamended, will hurt children. We know that young gay people attempt suicide at five times the rate of other young people. For transgender young people, the rate is an extraordinary 15 times higher. Legislation that compounds and heightens this risk is not legislation that should pass this parliament. Labor is seeking to amend the bill before the House. We do hope enough members of the government remain awake and that the crossbench support our amendments so that an amended bill can be put to the Senate. If Labor's amendments fail here, we will allow this bill to proceed to the Senate where we will seek to secure support for our amendments from crossbench and individual senators, and we will insist on those amendments.

Let's make it very, very clear: Labor supports religious freedom; that is uncontested. Most on this side do not wear their faith like a fancy coat. I know many Labor MPs and senators who are people of deep religious faith. Others, like me, are lapsed. I was born and raised a Catholic. In my teens and early 20s I had an experience as a young evangelical, and for many years I was an atheist. But in more recent years I've come to question my place in the universe, and I've come to the conclusion in my 50s that maybe I don't know everything and maybe the universe is more mysterious than I thought it was. Atheism's not for me; I'm still questioning my place. Spirituality and faith are deeply personal things. Of course, there are on this side, and I dare say on the other side, some fervent atheists as well.

It's worth reflecting that Labor governments across Australia have a proud history and strong records when it comes to protecting people of faith against discrimination. Wayne Goss, as Queensland Premier back in 1991, legislated religious freedom. In WA, the Labor government did it in 1984. A Labor government did the same in the ACT in 1991. A CLP government in the Northern Territory did it in 1982. Jim Bacon's Labor government in Tasmania amended Tasmania's discrimination laws similarly in 1999. Labor has a proud record of protecting people of faith and protecting religious freedom. These go to the core Labor values of fairness and equality. As I say, we don't often wear it on our sleeves. It's not always obvious, but we do and have always respected people of faith and the role that they play in society.

Australia is and should be a place that welcomes people of all colours, identities and creeds. People of all colours, identities and creeds should be free to be who they are, free of harassment, free of discrimination and free of intolerance. The intersection of spirituality and secularism is a busy juncture, but surely what drives us should be the notion that people should be free to be who they are and be free to worship or not. It can be argued that a Catholic school should be able to preference a Catholic teacher. But what happens if a Catholic teacher happens to also be gay or divorced or have a child out of wedlock? They're not mutually exclusive. You can be Catholic and be those things. To what extent should an employer be able to intrude on an employee's life based not just on their religion but on other aspects of their life? Some of them are out of that person's control. Of course, religious institutions are not just churches and schools. Increasingly, they are aged-care centres, disability service providers, hospitals, housing providers and employment service providers. Many of them are government funded, replacing government services almost totally in some regions.

Traditionally, government has tried to stay arm's length from matters of religion, and I think this is desirable. Faith is a deeply personal thing and it deserves and is entitled to protection. I wholeheartedly support the principle of protecting religious beliefs and protecting people from religious vilification, which Labor's amendments seek to do. Women in hijabs or habits should be protected, as should men wearing yarmulkes or turbans. We can't have this debate without mentioning the fact that 51 Muslim worshippers in two Christchurch mosques were brutally murdered by an Australian terrorist simply because they were Muslims. It was a religious, hate based crime. That has to be stated as part of this debate because that should never happen. Any laws that deal with religious freedom or religious antivilification should always remember that. People of faith deserve the right to practice their faith in peace and in safety. But people should also be protected from religion. People with disabilities should not have to endure being told that they can't walk because they are sinful. Women who work should not have to put up where being told that God wants them to stay at home. And people of one faith should not have to endure being told by adherents of another that they are unworthy of God's love.

Getting the balance right between freedom of expression and freedom from vilification is not easy, but to a large extent Tasmania has got it right for the past two decades. Our antidiscrimination laws in Tasmania work exceptionally well. They are an exemplar and should be a model for a national standard. Instead, this bill, it it's not amended, will effectively extinguish them, and that would be a grave error. If the Prime Minister had seriously wanted to advance this matter, he would have done so three years ago, holding that faith summit, bringing leaders together and seeking common purpose across this aisle. But he did not do that. He has brought on a significant bill in the dying hours of this parliament, and we know why: his preference is to wedge the Labor Party.

He would love to go to the election saying that Labor had blocked religious freedom. He wouldn't be out there telling the truth, saying that Labor does support religious freedom, but has issues with his bill. That would not suit his political purposes. He would distil his message down to, 'Labor blocked religious freedom.' He would go out with that message. Telling people of faith—new Australians who have made their home here having perhaps arrived from countries torn by conflict—that the alternative government doesn't support their right to freedom of worship would be a potent message because for people who have escaped conflict, religious freedom is not some abstract thing. In the homeland they have left it might literally have been a matter of life and death. Labor want to make it clear—and we are shouting this from the rooftops of this place—that we support religious freedom and we want people of faith to be free from discrimination. We want you to be able to practise your faith and worship in peace.

In my own electorate many people of faith do amazing work. They feed the poor, they provide emergency housing and alcohol and drug rehabilitation, they support women escaping domestic violence. Throughout the COVID pandemic they've been on the front line, providing volunteer services. These are people of deep faith who practise good works, mainly in the name of Christ—most people in my electorate are Christian—but they are often not the people we hear from in these debates. Instead we mainly hear from American-style lobbyists who are more interested in fostering division and hate and who seem obsessed by particular aspects of people's identities, as if such attributes put people at odds with being able to live a life of faith.

This bill simply does not get the balance right, and it requires amendment. I urge every member opposite, every member of the government who has expressed doubt and disquiet about the government's bill, to come into this chamber and vote for Labor's amendments. They will make this bill better and they will help young people. If this bill is amended and those amendments are passed in the Senate, it will be better for the country. That would then bring this parliament and, hopefully, the nation together. I urge the House to accept Labor's amendments.

11:53 pm

Photo of Fiona PhillipsFiona Phillips (Gilmore, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This Racial Discrimination Bill in its current form is one that I honestly wish were not before the parliament. In our society, everyone—absolutely everyone—should be able to live free from discrimination, including people of faith. I don't want to see anyone treated unfairly, whether it's because of their gender, disability, sexuality, age or marital status or because they are pregnant. Likewise, I do not believe anyone should be discriminated against because of their religious beliefs. The fact that these bills were brought to the parliament with next to no consultation in the dying days of this term is an indication in itself of the Prime Minister's desperation to tragically weaponise this issue and unnecessarily create division and harm.

I was raised as a Christian. I have had ministers and missionaries in my family going back many generations. I was taught to love everyone, regardless of who they are or their beliefs. This bill does not represent that. Over recent days, hearing more and more from my constituents on this issue, I stand here tonight sick to the stomach about this bill. I want to thank publicly the hundreds and hundreds of people who have taken the time to contact me—individuals; family members concerned about children and grandchildren; teachers; churches; organisations—and I want to assure you that your comments have been heard loud and clear.

I have grave concerns about some aspects of the bill, particularly in relation to students, teachers and the vulnerable, and the lack of antivilification provisions. I became an MP to stand up for vulnerable people, but what is before us, which the coalition government has presented, is not that. I can accept that freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief is a fundamental human right. I can also accept the extension of the federal antidiscrimination framework to ensure people are not discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or activities, just as Commonwealth law currently prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, disability, race, sex, gender identity, sex characteristics and sexual orientation. And I know that Labor governments across Australia have strong records when it comes to protecting people of faith against discrimination. But what I can't accept is this hasty bill. Even with the government's amendment, this bill has huge flaws and the potential to victimise some of our most vulnerable people—including our young people.

While I would dearly like to vote no to this bill, because it just doesn't pass the pub test, I'm not going to. I'm not going to allow the Prime Minister and the coalition to weaponise religious discrimination. I'm going to do what Labor and Labor governments do. We will make this legislation right so that it does not discriminate or allow religious vilification. We will strengthen and protect our most vulnerable. We owe people that. I wholeheartedly support Labor's amendments to fix this bill, including to prohibit religious vilification and to prohibit discrimination against children on the grounds of sexuality and gender identity. I support making it clear that in-home aged-care service providers cannot discriminate on the basis of religion in the provision of aged-care services, and making it clear that the statement of belief provision does not remove or diminish any existing protections against discrimination. We will move our amendments in the House and the Senate. If any of our amendments are successful in either the House or the Senate, we will insist on them.

Before the last election the Prime Minister promised to make it unlawful to discriminate against all students. He should deliver on that promise, and agreed to Labor's amendments. He also made an election commitment to work across the parliament, in the spirit of bipartisanship, to introduce a religious discrimination bill. He broke that promise and is now trying to rush through this bill. I remain hopeful that, either here in the House or in the Senate, Labor's amendments will get up because it's the right thing to do. But notwithstanding that, I affirm our commitment that in government we will legislate to prevent discrimination against people of faith and we will act to protect all children and teachers from discrimination. I ask members from across the political divide, in the spirit of bipartisanship and to protect our most vulnerable, please support Labor's amendments.

11:59 pm

Photo of Julian HillJulian Hill (Bruce, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will be brief—and mercifully so, given we're about to hit midnight and today is about to become tomorrow—but not so brief as to make those opposite happy. I half-prepared in my head over the last few days and made a few notes for a more comprehensive speech, but there's little that I can really add or need to add to the contributions already made by Labor members at this stage of the debate. In particular, I acknowledge my friend the member for Whitlam's speech last night. Stephen said everything that needs to be said and more, with the heart and the nuance that this debate deserves. I refer to and associate myself with his comments wholeheartedly and extend my love and my condolences to his family on the tragic loss of his nephew.

Given the hour and the amount of work still left to do, I'll simply now state my position for the record—there are three points. Firstly, I strongly support the extension of Australia's federal antidiscrimination law framework to ensure Australians are not discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or activities. Labor is the architect of this framework over decades, which currently prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, disability, race, sex, gender identity, sex characteristics and sexual orientation. It is only right, indeed overdue, that this framework be extended to matters of faith. The city of Greater Dandenong in my electorate—indeed, the bulk of my electorate—is the most culturally diverse city in the whole of Australia. People from over 150 countries and over 100 different faith traditions live harmoniously. The city of Casey is also hugely diverse. I am so proud to be a part of this community and to represent it here. My community is one of the most culturally and religiously diverse places in not just Australia but, indeed, the entire world. It is a shining example of what a community that embodies respect for difference and harmony looks like. For my community, the question is not whether people should be protected from discrimination on the basis of their faith; it's how we do that by law.

The second point I make is that I wholeheartedly endorse the three principles which guide Labor's consideration of these bills: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the extension of the federal antidiscrimination law framework, as I just outlined, and, in doing so, the protections which already exist in law against other forms of discrimination and which should not be weakened. As the two parliamentary inquiries, the submissions and the debate have clearly demonstrated, the government's bill falls short of these principles. Plus there is considerable uncertainty as to the constitutionality and the operation of the contentious provisions.

So the third point that I make, therefore, is that the bill must be amended to ensure we don't introduce new forms of discrimination, to remedy the government's errors and incompetence, and to address the glaring gap of vilification. This is an opportunity that this bill provides for us to deal with this issue.

I reached the conclusion that I've stated having listened carefully to everyone who's contacted me: people of faith and no faith in our community who want and deserve protection from discrimination on the basis of their faith or religious beliefs, and numerous others from every suburb in Bruce—I being but one—who do not want to be subject to discrimination on the basis of their sexuality, gender, disability, marital status and so on. It should not be beyond the wit of this parliament to extend antidiscrimination protections to faith groups while not undercutting the existing rights of Australians, and to legislate in a way that brings Australians together. As the Labor leader said so aptly, we have the opportunity tonight to bend the arc of change—'to bend the arc of history towards justice'.

The amendments that Labor foreshadowed today will address the bill's deficiencies; they will improve the bill; they'll fix the problems. I make four points. Firstly, they'll improve the statement of belief provisions to reassure people of faith without discriminating against other Australians and stop the Commonwealth's overreach and overriding of state protections. Secondly, they will protect all kids from discrimination—all kids, gay, straight, trans, whoever. All kids deserve our love and protection. Overwhelmingly, religious schools do not want to discriminate against kids for being who they are. Other speakers have gone into the stories of their electorates—I could do the same, but I will spare us the time—particularly of the Catholic schools locally who've embraced, loved and supported the kids who've come out and helped them reconcile with their families. That's the work of good schools every day, day in, day out, in this country. And Labor's amendment will strengthen this legislation and protect all kids. Thirdly, we will prohibit discrimination in the provision of aged- and disability-care services. Really—how difficult is that for the government to agree to? The providers are calling for us to do this. Yet the conservatives on the other side can't get their head around it. Fourthly, we will use this as an opportunity to ban vilification on the grounds of religion, to prevent people from threatening, intimidating, harassing or vilifying others on the basis of their faith. All of these improvements are important. We should all be able to agree on all of them.

The last deserves special comment for my community. The government's bill fails to protect people of faith from vilification—a glaring omission if we're serious about preventing discrimination against people of faith. We know—I know, in my community—that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are on the rise; the Sikh, the Hindu and other visible religious minority communities are targeted too. But, perversely—deliberately, perversely or incompetently; who knows, with this government?—the government's bill fails to deal with this urgent issue of vilification that is of greatest importance to many faith communities. Indeed, it's the No. 1 issue which so many faith communities ask the government to address, and they don't.

So Labor will push for these amendments, which I hope will pass this House. But, if they fail, of course we will not stand in the way of the Senate considering the amendments. That's how the parliament works. Frankly, we have a better chance of securing the outcome in the Senate, but I hope we can rise to the occasion and do the right thing here tonight. We will move the amendments here. We will move them there. We will insist on them here and there. This is the quickest and the proper way to resolve this. This is the best way to secure and strengthen the protections. So that is my position.

I'll make a final reflection in closing. Previous speakers have well outlined the government's failure in action and leadership—in particular, the Prime Minister's lack of grace and leadership; his failure to keep his word and promises that he has made. As the Labor leader said powerfully: this should have been a unifying moment for our nation. This should have been driven by love. That was always Labor's objective, and it should have happened three years ago, not in the dying days of this parliament, on borrowed time, with half the parliament given 24 hours notice of what the government is now proposing. The objective of the faith groups I have spoken to is to secure protection from discrimination—a shield, not a sword to discriminate against other Australians. Instead, the government's bill pits one group of Australians against another group of Australians against the next group of Australians and so on—against each other. Rather than uniting the nation, this bill is now dividing the nation. We can and must fix this here.

12:08 am

Photo of Michelle RowlandMichelle Rowland (Greenway, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

This bill is important, and, if the parliament can get it right, it's an opportunity to bring people together. Labor recognises that the freedom to have or adopt religion is absolute and cannot be limited. Labor believes all Australians have the right to live their lives free of discrimination. This is why Labor supports the extension of the federal antidiscrimination framework to ensure that Australians are not discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or activities. Moreover, as a person of faith and as a member of parliament, I believe in and support the right of all Australians to have and to manifest their religion and beliefs and the right of religious organisations to act in accordance with their doctrine, tenets, beliefs and teachings of faith. Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese-American poet who was raised in a Maronite Christian family, said: 'Faith is an oasis in the heart which will never be reached by the caravan of thinking. It connects us with a purpose that is higher than ourselves and, in doing so, anchors our conscience and actions in principles that existed before us and will endure after us.'

As parliament approaches matters of faith, religion, human rights and discrimination, great care must be exercised. I understand that some say this bill isn't necessary, including some people of faith who feel that religious freedoms are already well recognised and respected in Australia, but, to many people in the community I represent, this bill is important and is long overdue. I note that some people said the Sex Discrimination Bill wasn't necessary when it was introduced decades ago. Faith communities have waited years for this legislation and really have had to keep the faith that it actually would be introduced and passed, given the many delays and missed deadlines there have been under this government.

As many members of this place know well, the community of Western Sydney contains a rich tapestry of faith and cultures. My own electorate of Greenway is fortunate to be the home of—to mention but a few—St Clements Anglican Church in Lalor Park, the Gurdwara Sahib Sikh temple in Glenwood, the Shree Swaminarayan Hindu Temple in Blacktown, St Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Toongabbie, the Riverstone Baptist Church and beyond. And there's St Bernadette's in Lalor Park, where I was baptised and received my reconciliation and my first Holy Communion, and it was where I buried my mother.

These are neighbouring and valued institutions and places of worship, like the Baitul Huda Mosque, the Ahmadiyya mosque in Marsden Park. As we see so often, these organisations give generously to our community and they expect nothing in return, like the organisation comprised primarily of Sikh members, the Harman Foundation, which provides care for women and children fleeing domestic violence. Or there are the Ahmadiyya mosque and St Clements Anglican Church, who use their places of worship as pop-up vaccination hubs, and who do not judge anyone who needs their help.

Faith is also an enduring tether to community. It's a guarantee of opportunities to reunite for those important milestones and religious celebrations. Indeed, the word 'communion' is, by definition, a reference to unity—an opportunity to break bread together. As Luke said:

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me."

I'm speaking about this only a few months after the first Holy Communion of my first daughter, Octavia. Friends and families gathered to witness her and our entire family's commitment to God. We ate and danced, and Octavia was assured by the love and support of everyone around her. I recall looking around the room filled with friends, close and distant relatives alike, grateful that we were out of lockdown and feeling so privileged to have this occasion to gather, made possible by our shared faith.

I also commend our faith based groups for their collaborative efforts, bonding over similarities and becoming closer because of this. For instance, the Reverend Dr Patrick McInerney hosted an Iftar dinner for the interfaith community of Western Sydney. More than 50 guests attended, including representatives from the Baha'i, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh community members. In December, the Hindu Council of Australia and the Jewish Board of Deputies united to celebrate their respective festivals of light—Diwali and Hanukkah. These instances are a testament to our communities of faith and the importance of the religious expression within our community—one that is already strong and welcomed.

In late 2019, I took part in a gathering of some 500 people of faith at the Free2bme event in Blacktown, along with the former Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Nationals John Anderson. Mr Anderson and I spent two hours that evening engaging with people of faith. While there, I said that I believed the issue of religious discrimination and freedom is a bipartisan one that won't be decided along party lines. I encouraged people to contact their local members about their concerns and to sign a petition in order to help politicians take the matter seriously. The generosity and the respect shown that evening left an indelible impression on me. I'm so proud of the way in which my constituents and their faith based leaders have engaged in civil discussion about how to make our society a better and more inclusive place.

That is the spirit in which I have engaged, and in which I will continue to engage, in this important national conversation. I have participated in meetings on this issue and I have consulted widely, and I acknowledge that there are very different views in the electorate. This point was well made by Mike Tough from St Clements Anglican Church, who wrote to me about this diversity and also why people of faith want this bill. He said:

'I am committed to the idea of civilised pluralism. I understand there are people with very different views to mine and I support their right to express their views. But, as a religious person, I am finding that my views are becoming less and less welcome in the public square. Religious people have been sacked from their employment for expressing their religious beliefs or have had their employers pressured to sack them because of their religious affiliations. And concerted campaigns have been launched against religious organisations. In the past we haven't needed legislation to protect religious freedoms because religion was viewed positively in our society. But the growing hostility towards religious people is now making this legislation a necessity.'

As I outlined from the outset, Labor supports the extension of the federal antidiscrimination framework to ensure that Australians are not discriminated against because of their religious beliefs, just as Commonwealth law currently prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, disability, race, sex and gender identity. Australia is a party to seven core international human rights treaties. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief is contained in article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Such rights should be protected by law and, in accordance with article 18, subject only to such limitations as 'are necessary to protect public safety, order, health … or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others'.

Labor also supports the right of a religious school to give preference in employment, with a view to ensuring that the school is able to reasonably conduct itself consistently with its religious ethos. Therefore the question before the parliament is not whether Labor or Liberal members support the religious discrimination bills in principle, because certainly what we have seen through the committee process is that the majority do. The question is whether these bills, which the government has rushed into the parliament on the eve of an election, achieve their stated objective of protecting people of faith from discrimination while at the same time not diminishing the rights and freedoms of others.

I am disappointed with how the Prime Minister has conducted the process for developing this legislation. Leadership is about bringing people together, but that is not what the government's process has been designed to do. It has been rushed, it has been tricky and it has, regrettably, not been intended to foster consensus. In December 2018 the Prime Minister announced that the government would enact a religious freedom commissioner before the 2019 election. That didn't happen. The Prime Minister promised in 2018 that the government would, within a fortnight, legislate to ensure that children were protected from discrimination at school. This didn't happen. The Prime Minister then stated that his government would work with the opposition, the crossbench and key stakeholders in a spirit of bipartisanship to introduce a bill that enjoyed cross-party support. This didn't happen. Having broken each of these promises, the Prime Minister waited until the last minute before an election to introduce the draft legislation. The Leader of the Opposition wrote to the Prime Minister and offered a meeting, in good faith, to work through the issues at stake. It's my understanding that the Prime Minister didn't even respond to that offer. As late as the day before yesterday—the day the Prime Minister demanded that the laws be debated by this parliament—the Attorney-General was still frantically drafting amendments to fix some of the problems identified in this bill after it was tabled in November last year. Broken promises, rushed processes—the epitome of unprofessionalism. The people of Australia deserve better. Religious institutions and the many Australians of faith deserve better. That's why Labor engaged and consulted broadly with the community and engaged with the committee process.

That brings me to the content of the bill. When considering complex questions, it's important to have guiding principles, and we've been guided by three: 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 or teachings of their traditions of faith; support for the extension of the Commonwealth's antidiscrimination framework to ensure Australians are not discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or activities; and, consistent with the international covenant, ensuring any extension of the Commonwealth's antidiscrimination framework does not remove protections that already exist in the law to protect Australians from other forms of discrimination. Labor has sought to work through the bill carefully in the limited time available, with those principles in mind.

The core of the Religious Discrimination Bill is actually non-contentious. It prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or activity in different areas of public life, including in the context of employment, education, access to premises and the provision of goods, services and facilities. This is a good start. However, the bill introduced by the Prime Minister does not prohibit the vilification of people on the basis of religious belief, religious dress or religious activity. The bill will not protect a Muslim woman 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 the government has refused to consider an antivilification provision. A range of religious groups, for nearly two years, have argued that the bill should include this. If the Prime Minister means what he said in his own second reading speech—that people should not be vilified because of their beliefs—then it's important to ask: why doesn't the government's Religious Discrimination Bill prohibit the vilification of people because of their beliefs?

Why doesn't it?

But it is not just inaction on anti-vilification under this government. Since 2019, as part of my role as shadow minister for communications, I have repeatedly asked the minister for communications what he is doing to address hate speech online, and he's dodged answering the question, time and time again. My questions were in reference to the terrorist atrocity committed by an Australian citizen in Christchurch and the serious warnings about the rise of extremism and online hate speech in Australia. I asked the minister if he would ensure that Australians, including Australians of Muslim faith, are kept safe online by amending Australia's e-safety laws or by driving the adoption of an EU-style code of conduct for countering illegal hate speech online. As the Online Hate Prevention Institute has stated:

These is a significant gap of coverage in this area. Attributes such as race, religion … and others are used to target segments of the community. In the most serious cases, online hate against these groups involves incitement not only to hate but also to violence.

It also stated:

… a takedown power covering incitement to hate, against both individuals and groups, is urgently needed.

But, even on these deeply disturbing issues of online hate speech and vilification and the need to protect people of faith, Labor sees an opportunity to bring people together to progress a bill which enhances protections for people of faith without trading off the protection of others. In this spirit, Labor will seek to improve this bill and the related bills through amendments and, if unsuccessful, we will pursue this in government.

The amendments would seek to improve this bill and related bills in four key areas: to prohibit religious vilification, to remove discrimination against all children, to ensure in-home aged-care service providers cannot discriminate on the basis of religion and, finally, to make clearer that clause 12 does not diminish any existing protections against discrimination. And let me say clearly for the record: every person and every child in Australia deserves dignity and respect, and every Australian should have the opportunity to live their best life without being discriminated against.

Australia prides itself on being a successful multicultural nation. It's incumbent on our government and members of this parliament to work to get this bill right. The motto of the Catholic school I attended, Our Lady of Mercy College Parramatta, is Sub Tuum Praesidium, which means 'under your protection' and acknowledges the universal love and care of God. While Australia has a secular democracy and government, it is our duty as members to do that: to protect all Australians. And it is my privilege to have the opportunity with these bills, and with Labor's proposed amendments, to better protect my constituents of Greenway. It should not be beyond our capacity as elected representatives to improve and pass these bills in a way that builds consensus rather than division.

I urge the Prime Minister to stop seeking to divide the community and to stop playing politics. The reality is that Australia is a wonderful and diverse place, a country of both tolerance and a positive embrace of our differences. This bill should live up to those ideals, and it's important that we get it right.

12:23 am

Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I believe that protecting religious beliefs and protecting all Australians from all types of discrimination is something that we can all agree on. People of faith should be free from discrimination. I think we all wanted to see a just and fair balance of human rights in this bill, the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021, and some of this bill does contribute to that, but, unfortunately, this has not been achieved by these bills in totality. That is a real shame and is why we will be moving amendments here and, if necessary, in the Senate. We will do so because, if passed through the parliament without amendment, this bill and the related bills will remove access to rights and to justice that Territorians and other Australians have today and because, without amendment, this bill is discriminatory. So I rise today not only to provide some context from the Territory but also to express my deep disappointment with the spirit behind this bill and how it has been handled, and, finally, to express hope for a way forward.

Strengthening protections against religious discrimination is something that those opposite promised more than three years ago. They should have done it then. But, instead, the government have brought this bill on for debate in the final few sitting days of this parliament, despite it being so divisive. Just yesterday morning, many of us from all sides of this place gathered at the Greek Orthodox Church in Kingston for the annual ecumenical service that begins the parliamentary year. I'm co-chair of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, and last year I proposed moving to an Orthodox church for this year's service in acknowledgement of the diversity of voices within the Christian faith. The Greek Orthodox archbishop gave a fine sermon reflecting on St Paul's message about us humans being designed in God's image and how we should respect each other and love one another as such.

I'm a practising Catholic. I went to a Catholic primary school and I went to a Catholic college for a few years as well. I have particularly held onto St Paul's key message of hope, faith and love. These three have guided me in life. They have helped me to see the needs of others and to act to assist others. These words have also helped me in the hard times. I believe that being caring and considerate of others are sound values, and ones that my wife, Kate, and I are instilling in our kids, having had them instilled in us throughout our lives. I believe that the way this bill is being handled is an example of the opposite of caring and consideration of others. Rushing this bill through now, as a deliberate wedge just prior to an election, is creating division rather than building harmony and respect of others. And that is a shame.

Australia is an incredibly diverse country, one of the most diverse and multicultural countries on the planet. In the Territory, it is even more so, with so many ancient First Nations languages and cultures joining those from all over our planet. We welcome everyone, and we call on them to feel safe, to celebrate their cultures and traditions and to live their lives according to their beliefs provided that they do not discriminate against others: you do you, I'll do me and we'll all be happy. There are, of course, tensions. All of our lives touch the lives of others, and all of our rights intersect with the rights of others—the freedom of expression versus freedom against vilification, for example. But we should never in the name of opposing religious discrimination allow others to be discriminated against.

Many new Australians know what it is to be persecuted in their homelands for their beliefs. They, like all of us, just want a shot at living their lives in peace, practising their own beliefs. So it concerns me that the current legislation, while seeking to protect religious freedoms, would not, for example, prohibit the vilification of people on the basis of religious belief, dress or activity. For example, it won't protect the young Muslim woman who was discriminated against at a fast-food chain in Darwin last year. Religious organisations and people of faith have the right to act in accordance with the doctrines, beliefs or teachings of their traditions and faith.

Labor believes that any extension of the federal antidiscrimination framework must not remove protections that already exist in the law to protect Australians from other forms of discrimination. So we are also worried by a clause which could allow the federal legislation to override and weaken state and territory antidiscrimination laws. I thank Sally Sievers, the NT Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, for her advice on these issues.

This bill should be about more protections, not less. Some Christian churches have contacted me because they are very concerned that some of the provisions in this bill could embolden dangerous discrimination in the wider community. I understand why. In my experience of schools and other faith based institutions, I've seen that they haven't sought to discriminate but rather have sought to act as responsible managers of the culture and ethos in accordance with their faith. I want to acknowledge that. I want to acknowledge that more work will be done on this and that we support preferential employment.

But when it comes to schools it is concerning that the government think that trans children, who are some of the most vulnerable people in our community, don't deserve the same protections as other children. We know that rates of suicide and mental health for the trans community are horrifyingly high, including in my electorate and including for kids. We must protect these kids—all kids.

I believe that all of us are God's children. We should be doing everything in our power to protect all our fellow Australians from discrimination, as the government said they would. I thank all the people of faith and also those of no religious belief who shared their views on these important matters. I sincerely hope that our amendments are accepted in good faith and that a spirit of goodwill resides in this place that will prevent Australians from suffering from discrimination and make our country even greater, even fairer and more free. I thank the House.

12:31 am

Photo of Josh WilsonJosh Wilson (Fremantle, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I'm glad to make a contribution to the debate on the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 and related bills, which in their present form I am strongly opposed to. There's no question that the protection of fundamental freedoms and the fight against harmful discrimination are important causes. They deserve to be approached seriously, carefully and in the right spirit. That's not the case with these bills. We cannot have a rushed, badly-shaped, last-minute set of laws that puts Australia's core ethos—egalitarianism, social inclusion and social cohesion—at risk. We cannot have a set of changes that in reality enables discrimination and, more than that, a set of changes that will cause real immediate harm and anguish to LGBTQIA+ Australians and, more than that, a set of changes that will cause harm and anguish to vulnerable children. That's not acceptable, so these bills as they are are not acceptable.

Like most contributors to this debate, I've been contacted by hundreds of people in my community on this issue—by my constituents, relative strangers to me and my family and friends. Overwhelmingly those people contacted me to say: 'Don't do this. Don't allow a bad piece of law to amplify intolerance. Don't let this government turn the wheel back in the direction of prejudice. Don't enable discrimination. It might hurt my kids. It might hurt her, him or them.' These bills without considerable change will hurt young people. These bills will enable conduct that doesn't genuinely improve freedom of religious belief in any meaningful way and will absolutely impact on the wellbeing of people who already experience cruel and hurtful discrimination and who are already at risk. This side of the chamber are not going to stand for that. The Leader of the Opposition, in his deeply thoughtful and principled contribution to the debate earlier, said that we on this side will insist on considerable changes being made to these bills. Considerable changes must be made. We will insist on them.

As I've said, making laws in this area should be done with clarity and great care. It should be done consultatively, with an emphasis on collaboration and consensus because of course, above all, we want to maintain and encourage in the Australian community tolerance, unity and social cohesion. We want to build by example, even in this place, respect, empathy and love for one another. There are churches, mosques, temples, faith groups and faith based schools in my electorate that practise respect, empathy and love all the time. Those are not the qualities that animate these bills.

These bills have been sprung on the parliament at the very end of this parliamentary term. The committee process had to be rushed and conducted over the holiday period. The government itself had not settled on the final form of these bills before this week. The government itself still doesn't have a unified position on these bills.

Sadly, on this issue, as on almost every issue, the Morrison government's approach has been largely chaotic, self-serving and dysfunctional. It has made promises that it simply hasn't kept. The Leader of the Opposition detailed how the Prime Minister gave a commitment on the question of protecting children from discrimination on the basis of their sexuality or gender, yet these bills before us a break that commitment. We won't stand for that. Labor's leader, the member for Grayndler, had previously offered to work with the Prime Minister on a careful and sensible means of improving the protections for people of religious faith, especially for Sikhs, Muslims, members of the Baha'i Faith and others who commonly face discrimination. That work is important. But the government spurned that offer because it always prefers silly political games to proper policy reform and responsible government.

In this area we have to start by acknowledging that freedom for one person can involve discrimination against another—that one person's freedom can directly infringe on another person's freedom. People of faith know that. People of faith know that because it's people of faith who have been discriminated against for their religion mostly by people of other religions. That's the history of the world. That's the history of some of the worst inhumanity that mankind has ever managed to inflict on itself. So the question of protecting religious freedom is a delicate one. It is complicated. Of course it's worthwhile, but it has to be done carefully, and some of the deep flaws in these bills need to be fixed precisely, because they could and more than likely will enable discrimination and vilification in the Australian community. It's not hard to understand that, if we make changes in this area badly, it's not just possible but likely that intolerance will grow, that division will grow, that discrimination and vilification will increase, that freedom will actually be constrained and that vulnerable people will get hurt.

In relation to the freedom of religious belief and expression, I want to make the point that this has always included the right to hold no religious belief whatsoever. We should remember that some of the most harmful prejudice in history has been from people of religion towards people accused of having no religion—of being essentially regarded as godless, one way or another. That includes Indigenous peoples the world over, and it certainly has included the Indigenous peoples of Australia. I am not religious. I respect the right of people to follow and express their faith. At the same time, those who are not religious deserve the same respect in return.

Finally, there can't be any real debate about the fact that these bills are a terrible mess. They do not carefully and meaningfully improve the protection of religious freedom in Australia, and they may well increase religious intolerance and conflict. They will certainly enable discrimination, and they will cause harm in their present form. That is why it is only by making considerable changes that these bills can be made acceptable, and, through the parliamentary process in its entirety, we will insist on those changes. We will fight to change these unacceptable bills, and then we'll fight to give Australians the competent and caring government that they deserve.

12:38 am

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I know it is 20 to one, almost. I have immensely enjoyed listening to the many contributions of my colleagues on this debate this evening, and I really appreciate not only the considered nature of the way in which the debate has been conducted but also the thoughtful contributions of all of my colleagues. Indeed, like many on this side of the House, I am probably beyond disappointed that this Prime Minister has chosen not to use this opportunity to unify our nation, our people, our universal human rights and our multicultural and interfaith communities. Rather, he has let this nation down again by showing a profound lack of leadership. It is indeed more than disappointing. The Prime Minister's insistence on pursuing a deeply part of that approach instead of working collaboratively with Labor, the crossbench and our communities really speaks volumes about his motives. And it didn't have to be this way. But this Prime Minister, having done nothing to honour his promise of some four years ago to deliver on a religious discrimination bill, is now seeking to rush through flawed legislation in what may well be the final sitting days of this 46th Parliament. It's shameful to see this bill being politicised and used as a wedge. The offence is not so much that he wants to wedge Labor, but the fact that he wants to wedge our communities, the communities that we represent—people of different cultures and ethnicities, people of diverse gender identity, people of different faiths—is truly appalling.

Labor supports the right of people to practice their faith free from discrimination. This is consistent with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Australia is a party to the ICCPR, and this principle and the protections that it affords should be incorporated in our domestic law. But, to Labor, this should never be at the expense of protections that already exist to protect others against other forms of discrimination.

I'm not the first in this parliament tonight to note that pitting people against one another, leaving some to feel anxious and vulnerable about their place, their belonging, their rights and their protections, is not leadership. That's not bringing people together. That is not what this Prime Minister promised this nation. But that is indeed what this bill in its current form does. This Prime Minister, this coalition government, should not be asking us to pit children against people with disability and those who are potentially hurt by the flaws in this bill. We shouldn't be pitting those people against members of minority faiths, for example, who will be protected by this bill. What a diabolical proposition to be putting to the Australian parliament. And of course it doesn't have to be that way.

I want to acknowledge the great distress that this has caused so many people in my community. I know that my office has been inundated with phone calls and emails—at least 250 at my last count—from a whole range of people in my community: parents of transgender children, survivors of gay conversion therapy, teachers, and people who have been great leaders both in our faith groups and in our community organisations. I want to congratulate the Anglican Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Peter Stuart, on his reflections today which really challenged the need for this bill and really drew a line under the hurt and the distress that this was causing so many people in our communities, which is a truly offensive product of this debate and this Prime Minister's insistence on prosecuting a rushed and flawed piece of legislation in this parliament.

As I said, this legislation is terribly flawed, and we should be fixing it. That's why Labor will be moving a series of amendments to enhance protections from discrimination without enhancing discrimination against others. We're moving amendments in the House, and, if we are not successful here, we will pursue these amendments in the Senate. We will take the fight back up to the Senate. I hope, however, that Labor's amendments will be carried here in the House. That would be the most sensible approach. But I know from experience that what makes good sense doesn't always carry the day in this House. If we are unsuccessful in the House, we expect they will be carried in the Senate and we will insist on them. We will insist on them because this legislation desperately needs to be improved. As a member for Griffith reminded us in the House early this evening, that's the process we followed in order to deliver the medevac bill that passed in early 2019. That bill enabled the transfer of critically sick refugees and people seeking asylum that were held in offshore detention centres to be transferred to Australia for urgent medical attention. So I don't think we should underestimate the capacity of this parliament to improve legislation, to do our jobs as lawmakers.

Our amendments are going to go to several issues—and I know it is very late, or very early in the morning depending on which way you look at this—like the clause 12 statements of belief, which is causing so much distress. It's certainly true that non-malicious statements of belief should not contravene any Australian law, but a law that says on its face that one group of Australians should be allowed to discriminate against other Australians is not the way to do it. It's offensive and it is clearly inconsistent with international human rights law. The Prime Minister should support Labor's amendments to clarify the statements of belief clause in this bill.

The second issue is that of antivilification. I want to pay tribute to so many people, but especially the member for Cowan, who spoke earlier this evening of her own experiences as a Muslim woman and those of her family, which highlighted the need for religious discrimination protections to pass. Likewise, the member for Cowan pressed the case of an antivilification clause to be included in this bill, as have many of my colleagues this evening. As the Leader of the Opposition argued, it would be ludicrous for any debate about religious discrimination in Australia to ignore the fact that during the term of this very parliament an Australian man brutally murdered 51 Muslim worshippers in two Christchurch mosques. Nor should we ignore the disturbing rise of Islamophobia, anti-Hindu or anti-Semitic or other race-based incidents of threats and violence on our shores.

This debate should also be providing greater protection against vilification and incitement of hate based on a person's religion or religious belief. Labor will be moving amendments as well to ensure that we enact an antivilification clause. It should receive the support of each and every member in this House. Who could argue against an antivilification clause?

Despite the Prime Minister's claim in this chamber that this bill draws a clear line against harassment, vilification or intimidation of anyone, it does not and we should not be fooled. The bill as it stands will not protect a Muslim woman being abused for wearing a hijab or a Hindu man who is vilified for his religious beliefs. That is why the antivilification amendment that Labor is putting is essential. This amendment should be uncontroversial.

Finally, we have heard a lot of discussion about their changes to the Sex Discrimination Act throughout this debate. This is the further amendment that Labor will move. What we have been left with is an amendment by the government in this current bill that barely amends the Sex Discrimination Act and leaves many young people exposed to discrimination totally at odds with what was promised in writing by the Prime Minister.

For the young Australians grappling with their sexual identity it can be an extraordinarily difficult time. I know from the phone calls and emails that I have received just how challenging that is for so many Australians right now. This parliament should not be making it harder for them. We should be protecting them, and that's why Labor will move a simple amendment to delete section 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act in full to remove discrimination against all children, wherever they are, whatever school they attend, where they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender diverse, intersex or queer and questioning, because every child deserves to be protected and safe, and to feel protected, safe and loved just by virtue of who they are.

I'll always stand up for the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised in our community, and I know my Labor colleagues join me in that endeavour. I will not stop fighting, regardless of what happens to these amendments, because we have a collective responsibility to work towards the eradication of all forms of discrimination in our society, wherever we see them.

12:50 am

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

Can I thank members for their contribution to this very important debate in this place, on the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021. Can I thank them for the spirit and the manner and the good faith in which they have participated in this debate in such a respectful way. Can I thank members for the way they have been attentive to this debate. And in the many discussions that have been had in relation to these matters, can I thank them for their preparedness to contemplate situations some may not be familiar with, and that some may well be very familiar with. Can I thank them for their understanding. Most of all, can I thank them for their commitment to those most important, and that is the children we are raising in this country, and their best interests and welfare.

When I introduced this bill, I spoke of the freedoms in this country which so many around the world have come here to access. In so many places, simply as a result of what they believe, they have had to leave their homeland. They've seen Australia as a place where they can live out their lives in accordance with their beliefs, faith and culture in what is the most successful multicultural nation on Earth. I don't believe that's a debatable position. I don't think it's an arguable position. I think it is an absolute position. I think it is one of Australia's greatest boasts that we are the most successful multicultural, multifaith nation on Earth. The intent of this bill, as many have remarked, has been to reinforce that belief that so many Australians have had about this country before they even came here, when the idea of Australia was something they believed in and they came here to access. They are so thankful and grateful, and they are incredible Australians. This bill is to affirm the belief and trust that they have put in this country, to ensure that their children and generations to come will be able to access the freedoms that they came here to appreciate.

This is a bill that I earnestly hoped would unite this place. It is a bill that I had hoped we could achieve a bipartisan approach to, and we will see whether that is the case. The amendments that we will bring forward tonight as a government have been endorsed by both parliamentary committees that have considered this bill, and by both sides of politics. This was a request that this bill would not be determined in this place until those committees had reported back. Indeed that is what has happened, and I thank those committees of this House who have laboured over the summer period to enable their reports to be before us now as we consider these bills. I note that those committees have come back with the recommendations they have made endorsing, on a bipartisan basis, that this bill should be endorsed.

These amendments will ensure that the bill will operate as intended and that it will align in its approach with that taken in other federal antidiscrimination laws. We seek to add faith and belief to the many attributes that are rightly protected by the laws of this country. It also includes amendments to make it clear that businesses can fulfil their legal responsibilities and duties to ensure their workplaces are safe and free from harassment. These amendments recognise the passage of the bills remain central to remedying the weaknesses in our existing antidiscrimination legislation and to protecting the fundamental right to freedom of religion, conscience and belief.

Rightly, there has been a strong focus on the protections that are provided to students, and I thank the members for their contributions on this matter. We understand that parents, in making choices about their children's education, are looking for the religious ethos of their school communities to be respected, consistent with the choices that they have made as families and as parents about the manner in which their children will be educated. This is quite a fundamental right of parents in this country. But, at the same time, as I remarked in my speech in the second reading debate, it is the first responsibility always to protect our children.

Navigating adolescence is extremely difficult. In my generation that was true, but I must confess that I think these days it's even harder. Navigating adolescence is even more difficult for children working out their sexual orientation or gender identity. The member for Goldstein said in his first speech:

It was not until I was 18 that I chose to confront that fear. It was a fear that took an energetic 12-year-old and hollowed his confidence to eventually doubt his legitimate place in the world.

To doubt one's place in the world: no-one wants that for any child in this country. No-one wants that for any Australian. I want us to walk with our children, to stand with them as they face life and have every opportunity that you would hope for them to have as a parent. And these questions we do not face alone, and we do not want our children to face them alone either. That is what we yearn for as parents, as do, I have no doubt, the teachers of children, the school councils and school communities that nurture those children.

Many have spoken tonight from communities of faith. That faith may be different, but this is shared in common: faith, as it best walks with others, understands human frailties. It's empathetic, it's compassionate, it is built on love and it calls us to walk a mile in others' shoes. And that's a challenge for all of us. You know that at the heart of all faith is love.

We have heard concerns raised about the welfare of students—in particular, gay and transgender students. The concerns raised about discrimination against students relate to existing laws that were brought into and passed in this place in 2013. At the time, the then Labor government instituted amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act that permitted discrimination against gay students. Tonight, my government is committed to changing that law to ensure that children are not expelled because of their sexual orientation as gay kids by making amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act. Times have changed. These amendments recognise this, and so we are taking that step tonight.

During the course of this debate, the issue of transgender children and teachers has also been raised. There will be a time and place to address that as well, and that is why the government has asked the Australian Law Reform Commission to consider properly and in full consultation all the potential consequences of those changes—in particular, for children but also for all of those seeking to support them—to ensure that practices and processes are the best they can be, to consider other matters in relation to the Sex Discrimination Act and to make recommendations on amendments, including the specific example of transgender students in schools and teachers.

The Australian Law Reform Commission will undertake this analysis to ensure we protect Australians from discrimination as well as allow religious bodies to continue to maintain their religious ethos. That will be done not over a period of 12 months from the passing of this bill but over six months from the passing of the bill. That would be our instruction to the Law Reform Commission. In addition to that, the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission, under our government's policies, will be tabled in this parliament at the time of their presentation. That will ensure, and that will set the clock, on another debate to then take place about how we can best address these challenging, important issues about how we create a community of care that is best for our children.

Legal reforms on these questions will not, on their own, address this issue. Understanding, education, support, care and love in a school community, which is made up of families, teachers, school councils and school boards, who must wrestle with the issues of how to best provide support to children and their families in those situations—that is essential, and that is not in place at this time. But it would need to be, regardless of whatever recommendations come forward from the Law Reform Commission, because that is what will most help children, that is what will most help parents, that is what will most help those who sit on school boards and teachers and others involved in the care of children. To support that, the government will put in place a select committee of this House that we will recommend be chaired by the member for Higgins, supported by the member for Reid, who both have great clinical experience in addressing these issues.

Earlier today I spoke to Professor Pat McGorry about these issues and sought his counsel on these matters, and he confirmed that this is a very challenging issue and that there are so many who come to headspace, seeking the mental health support and counselling they need to work through these issues. I'll be tasking and seeking the support of headspace and clinical professionals in this area to be available to work with the member for Higgins. And I commend her and the member for Reid and the many other colleagues on this side of the House—the member for Wentworth, the member for Moncrieff, the member for Brisbane, the member for Leichhardt and so many others—who have been so outspoken. And I've already spoken about the member for Goldstein.

I will be seeking the support of organisations like headspace and so many who have experience, and working with religious school boards and non-religious school boards and the public sector to ensure we can get the best possible systems and best practice for how our school communities can best support children. That is the best way. No-one in this place wants to see a child in a situation of isolation or despair. Our government will support that with programs and other measures, and the funding needed, for Independent, Catholic and other religious schools to ensure that our children can get the best opportunities. We will be working with state governments to ensure these same practices are available in public schools as well. That time will come, and the work must be done.

But to engage in some simple change of law on those issues this evening and to pretend that that somehow addresses the very real, deep, complex and substantial challenges that are faced by children, families and communities in this situation would be to trivialise it. Let me be very clear: there is a message coming from this place tonight with the bill and the position taken by the government that we reach out with nothing other than love, care, compassion and support for every child, regardless of their sexual orientation or their gender identity, as I indeed set out in my second reading speech when I introduced this bill.

The Law Reform Commission, as I have said, will carefully consider changes to the Sex Discrimination Act on these matters. But, as one colleague has reminded me, those changes should follow the substantial policy discussion and the information, resources and tools that are necessary to deal with this issue. It should not occur in advance, but it should follow, it should support, it should reinforce and it should affirm the strong direction that is being taken.

This bill strengthens the sum of freedoms enjoyed by Australians. It seeks to protect Australians from those who seek to marginalise, coerce or silence people of faith or those with none. It recognises that our Australian family is bigger and broader than we can imagine. Even in the history of my own party, there was a time when it was unimaginable for Catholics, Jews and, indeed, Pentecostals to be in positions of leadership. But here we are: our party has got bigger, our country has got bigger, we've got bigger. But we need to become bigger still, and I believe tonight is another step in that important journey for our nation.

Our nation must be as open, safe and inviting for a Yazidi in a country town as it is for an atheist who might live in our inner-city suburbs. We must be as accepting in our laws of a Baha'i or a Buddhist or a Mormon, Hindu or Sikh as we are for a Christian, Muslim, agnostic or Jew.

We're expanding freedoms for all, and this bill fulfils the commitment that we took to the Australian people at the last election. It does not go beyond it, but it meets it, and I believe it is another important step in the great multicultural journey of this nation. I commend the bill to the House.

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Clark has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the amendment be disagreed to.

1:19 am

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that this bill be now read a second time.