Senate debates

Monday, 3 December 2018

Bills

Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018; Second Reading

12:13 pm

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | Hansard source

And perhaps at the outset, to assist Senator Macdonald here, I should explain that this is an opposition bill rather than a Greens bill. This bill deals with, as indicated in its title, removing discrimination against students, and does not deal with the issues associated with staff as covered by the Sex Discrimination Act. The reason for that, as I'll come to it, is because this process has been an absolute shambles. But what we are doing here is holding the Prime Minister to account, the Prime Minister who said we would see the Ruddock review within weeks back in May and the Prime Minister who said we would deal with the issues around discrimination and students this year. That is what we're dealing with now—the issues around discrimination and students.

I think it behoves the chamber to reflect on what a shambles this overall process has been, which adds to the growing list of matters that this government has completely messed up. Talk about confusion, talk about rushed consultation and rushed processes, talk about changed positions and confusing rhetoric: if we in this parliament are confused, then what can the Australian community possibly make of this shambles? We know the Australian community are keenly interested in this issue, the issue of religious freedom and the issue of discrimination against children in schools. We know this because of the substantial number of submissions to the Ruddock inquiry and to the Senate committee inquiry. Despite that, the Australian government has snubbed the Australian people, rushing through a committee process that did not need to be rushed and, not surprisingly, here we are now.

I will give one example of how confused people are about the processes occurring before this parliament. A senior member of a religious community said to me that the Senate committee asked them for further information, but it reported before it was even possible to receive such. So that everyone can be clear, that was because of the time frame this government and the Australian Greens put on that inquiry. I've made these points previously in a discussion on a matter of public interest and I've made the comments I'm making now in the discussion on the Greens bill, but I should reiterate the rush here was of the government's own making. But, even worse than that, in the absence of Senator Macdonald they colluded with the Greens to create a farcical time frame that could only lead us to where we are now. Whether they were creating subterfuge to do nothing, who knows? The motivations of this government are very hard to understand.

Let's look at the government's bona fides on this issue, because close examination shows how dishonest and insincere they have been from the very beginning. Firstly, we have the Prime Minister today accusing Labor of acting in bad faith. Who would have thought any responsible government or governing party of the day would act in this way? It is outrageous. At this point, a brief history lesson is required. It was in mid-November last year, in the midst of the parliamentary debate about same-sex marriage, that we started discussions around the important issues of religious freedom. It was then that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull kicked the can down the road. On establishing a positive right to religious freedom he kicked the can down the road and took with him whatever numbers there might have been from the government side to support amendments, and we had to wait longer to address those issues. Announcing that Mr Ruddock would head an expert panel and conduct an inquiry had the result that government senators lost sufficient support for their amendments. So nothing happened way back then, and it was not other senators' doing that generated this. It was that of the government of the day and the Prime Minister of the day.

So then we had the much publicised Ruddock review, with its panel of experts, its public hearings up and down the country and its more than 15,500 submissions received. So where is that? Where is the campaign to establish a positive right for religious freedom? It's stuck with that Ruddock review, because what the Ruddock review did was fix an immediate problem for the Prime Minister of the day. For Malcolm Turnbull, it peeled government senators off amendments that might have been successful at that point, and it has stagnated ever since.

A report on SBS News on 18 May—the day that the Ruddock report was handed down to the government—stated:

The Prime Minister's office confirmed it may be 'weeks' before the Ruddock review is released to the public, giving the government time to consider its response.

That was 'weeks' back in May. Clearly, the government is getting its weeks and months confused, because we've now been waiting more than six months. And, just so anyone listening understands, six months is a standard time for government to respond to parliamentary committee reports. This has been longer than that six months.

It's under a cloud of vagueness and lack of clear evidence and information that Labor has called for a Senate inquiry to look closely at religious freedom to inform a way forward to address competing demands. But, again, the government showed its sleight of hand by colluding with the Greens to have a short reporting date, meaning that the committee was rushed in its effort to carefully scrutinise the Greens bill and other proposals and give adequate time to stakeholders to articulate and argue their positions.

I'd like to speak briefly about stakeholders in this debate, particularly Christian schools and communities. It's not surprising that stakeholders would have preferred that the debate were conducted in a more consultative and collaborative environment. In fact, stakeholders were hoping there might even be a bipartisan approach on an amended bill that could pass through parliament—as were we. Labor also hoped that this might be possible, but not with a government that is so is deceitful in its approach to dealing with such sensitive matters.

Moving now to Labor's position on the amendments that are before us, our position is as follows: with amendment KQ149, I foreshadow a second reading amendment that will cover those issues. I think it should now have been circulated in the chamber. With respect to government amendment KQ148, Labor believes it's already covered off these issues in the explanatory memorandum. In relation to other outstanding matters concerning students, Labor's position is that these issues can be dealt with in the further discussions and consultations to be had in relation to dealing with teachers, as well as in terms of developing a positive statement in response to the Ruddock review.

And this is the difference here. This is where Labor is not posturing, like those on the other side. The Labor Party has a longstanding commitment, very clear in our platform and subject to further discussion at our next national conference, supporting religious freedom and creating positive rights in that respect. That's the difference between this side and the other. Our bona fides are established here. What religious communities hear from the other side is somewhat very confusing, contrived posturing rather than substantive proposals.

I should say on that note, in relation to the amendments, that it's also important to indicate Labor has legal advice that says section 7B covers off on the concerns in amendments KQ148 and KQ149. But to give extra reassurance, we're putting our position in the explanatory memorandum of this bill and we're also moving this second reading amendment. We don't need to put clumsy provisions into an act where they sit uncomfortably and create the same types of problems in terms of public regard that exemptions do, as we've seen in the case of the leaking of the Ruddock review and the exemptions with respect to students.

Labor knows that most schools—religious, non-religious, government and non-government—have the best interests of their students front and centre. We know this. We have an established policy position to protect religious freedom and we're getting very impatient waiting for this government to get its act together in this regard.

So much uncertainty has lingered and grown since the parliament passed the same-sex legislation. This government lacks any bona fides on this important matter. This culminated today with the comments by the Prime Minister accusing Labor of bad faith. Again, this is an outrageous, disgraceful comment—irresponsible for a Prime Minister of the day. We cannot have confidence with the government proceeding with these issues. The public concern around the leaking of the Ruddock review recommendations and the government's failure to respond to calls for that report to be released in relation to religious freedom bring us to where we are now.

We believe that our amendments, and our statements in the explanatory memorandum, respond to much of what the religious community has raised in relation to moving forward, with regards to students. We are open to addressing any outstanding matters as we move forward with other matters around discrimination, but, most importantly, the Labor Party is keen to progress the issues around a positive affirmation of religious freedom. We will not wait for this confused, distracted government for that to happen. I move the amendment standing in my name on sheet 8606:

At the end of the motion, add "but the Senate is of the opinion that nothing in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 renders it unlawful to engage in teaching activity if that activity:

(a) is in good faith in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed; and

(b) is done by, or with the authority of, an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with those doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings."

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