Tuesday, 28 November 2017
Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017; In Committee
My intent there was not to raise a howl of protest but to note the fact we have tried in good faith to put forward amendments, but there have been many times—exemplified by the objections that have been raised, which have indicated that some people have clearly not read the amendments, understood their intent or listened to the explanations—that the votes have continued to retain the starting position. If in this chamber of all places we can't actually engage in sensible dialogue, listen to each other and have reasoned arguments then I do fear for the future of where this might go.
The last amendment addresses an issue that we touched on before, religious organisations. Much of the protection that people have talked about in this debate that goes to religious organisations rides on the fact that they are recognised as a religious body. We have seen that there have been interventions, for example, by courts, tribunals or other bodies that have made determinations about whether or not people are in fact a religious body.
If I go to the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, which was proclaimed by the General Assembly of the UN in resolution 36/55, the declaration provides that 'the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief' includes the freedom to 'establish and maintain appropriate charitable or humanitarian institutions'. The ability of those institutions to control the appointment of their staff and leaders is important if they're going to maintain their faith based character.
What we've seen in Australia is the action of courts—I mentioned in the debate on the last group of amendments the actions of the Court of Appeal in Victoria in the Cobaw case, where they inserted themselves between the body and the members of the body to decide what those members did or didn't believe. It's not the role of courts to determine what a religious body does or doesn't believe so they can determine whether or not they have the protections that being a recognised religious body would bring.
Also, despite what the UN says under international law about the right of religious bodies to create charitable bodies, we've seen the national charities commission intervene. In Queensland, the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal said that the St Vincent de Paul Society was not a religious body. I think that defies common sense. Anyone who knows Vinnies knows that they do the charitable work they do because of their faith. They reach out with compassion to help people. But that decision of a tribunal removes the status of being a religious body and therefore removes all the protections that people have been saying in this place will flow to a religious body. So the purpose of these amendments is not some abstract link to a foreign law; it's linked to very real examples here—what happened with the courts in Cobaw and what happened to St Vincent de Paul in Queensland, where they were determined to not be a religious body, which then directly impacts on their ability to employ people and ensure, for example, that the president of Vinnies is a Catholic, which maintains consistency with their faith and their approach. It directly goes to the protections that people have talked about here for those who wish to hold their religious view of marriage.
So these amendments shouldn't be controversial. They relate to real cases in Australian law. They protect the charities and provide certainty to charities around whether or not they will be regarded as religious bodies. As I say, these are drawn from the international guidance that says religious bodies can establish an organisation for charitable purposes but they are religious by nature. We're just seeking the certainty for those bodies in law. I commend these amendments to the Senate.