Senate debates

Monday, 15 October 2018


Suspension of Standing Orders

10:39 am

Photo of Derryn HinchDerryn Hinch (Victoria, Derryn Hinch's Justice Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Pursuant to contingent notice, I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent Senator Hinch from moving a motion relating to the consideration of a matter, namely a motion relating to discrimination by independent schools.

I do not want to take up 30 minutes of private senators' time—Senator Leyonhjelm's time—this morning. We all know where we stand on this issue over the last few days. I'd rather talk about cannabis, which he wants to talk about. Can you confirm that leave is denied?

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Hinch, you just moved to suspend the standing orders, so you now have five minutes to have your say.

Photo of Derryn HinchDerryn Hinch (Victoria, Derryn Hinch's Justice Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. I am appalled by what has happened in the past week in this country. I applaud the government and the opposition for what they are planning to do about changing some of the discrepancies in the sexual discrimination laws around independent schools. But what angered me is that, for 48 hours last week, the government, the opposition and, for a minute there, even the Greens sat back when the moral duty of this country, of this government and of this parliament was to defend children. We had a situation where the Prime Minister of this country stood there and kept saying, 'The existing laws, the existing laws, the existing laws.'

The fact is: we had Mr Hawke getting up and saying that independent schools were entitled to expel children and ban children because of their sexual orientation—that was a disgrace—and that teachers should not be allowed to teach because of their sexual proclivities. It was just a lack of common decency. I thought to myself: I'm an atheist, but what if I were a churchgoing person or a person of faith who had three children and one of my children—a teenager—had doubts about their feelings or sexual orientation? Two of my children would be able to go to an independent school, but the third one wouldn't. Maybe at 14 or 15 that child, having been refused permission to go to the school, then goes out and hangs himself or herself, as has happened in this country so many times in recent years.

The fact that taxpayers' money is going to fund these schools is wrong. That is why I believe the government should work with the states and territories to achieve consistency in antidiscrimination laws, should—and I believe this passionately—withhold federal funding from any school which engages in discrimination against teachers or students on the basis of their sexual orientation and should deny or must deny charity tax concessions to any organisation or commission responsible for a school that engages in such discrimination.

This is 2018. From what I read and heard last week, it is like we're going back to the 1950s. What made it even more personal and more hard for me is that I spent eight hours listening to horror stories as the chair of the redress committee into sexual abuse of institutionalised children in this country, and then to get home and read, when parts of the Ruddock report were released in The Sydney Morning Herald, all this stuff about the fact that there are still schools that can differentiate against children was just disgusting. They didn't seem to mind having paedophile teachers in their schools for decades—that was seen to be fine; they were there for decades—and yet now they discriminate against teachers who may be of a different sexuality than I am or students who may be feeling that way. I just think it's a disgraceful thing.

I'm glad that territories are going to get involved—I hope they're going to get involved—and that the government and the opposition are going to get involved. Some of the senators coming up to speak will, I believe, gut and destroy my motion today. If you do, look hard and long at yourselves, because we're looking after kids here. I ask a question I asked for 40 years as a journalist: who's looking after the children? I ask that because, right now, in this building and in this government, we are not looking after the children.

10:43 am

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

The government were prepared to give leave to Senator Hinch to have this motion and the various amendments that have been foreshadowed dealt with by the Senate swiftly, but we're not prepared to support a suspension motion to disrupt the orderly processes of the Senate. There are appropriate, more efficient avenues available to deal with the proposed motion.

Let me talk to the substantive issue and refer the Senate to a statement that was issued by the Prime Minister on Saturday. As the Prime Minister indicated, this past week there have been numerous misrepresentations of proposals by the Ruddock review in relation to laws regarding discrimination against children attending religious schools. Contrary to what has been reported, the Ruddock review proposes to strengthen the protections against discrimination for students. The Ruddock review actually proposes restrictions to the laws introduced by the previous Labor government which gave religious schools greater ability to expel students when the school considered that that was necessary according to the doctrines of the religion in question. Incidentally, may I pause here to note that the schools themselves have indicated that they don't need, don't want and have not used this particular power contained in Labor's legislation. This misreporting has created unnecessary confusion and anxiety for parents and students alike.

To address this issue, the Prime Minister has been taking action to ensure amendments are introduced as soon as practicable to make it clear that no student of a non-state school should be expelled on the basis of their sexuality. We believe that this view is, indeed, shared across the parliament, and we should use this upcoming sitting fortnight to ensure this matter is addressed appropriately. It is to this end that the Prime Minister asked the Attorney-General to prepare amendments and consult with the opposition. He will write to the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, to invite him to work with the government on a bipartisan basis to provide certainty in this area. The Prime Minister also made clear again that our government does not support expulsion of students on the basis of sexuality from religious non-state schools. As the Prime Minister noted, this is a view which is widely shared by religious schools and communities across the country.

In relation to the Ruddock review more broadly, the government will continue to work through our response through the normal deliberative processes of cabinet. As the Senate would be aware, the cabinet commissioned the Ruddock review. The government received the Ruddock review in May and the Attorney-General, as the responsible minister, has been working through a process which ultimately will lead to the consideration of relevant recommendations by the cabinet. These are sensitive matters and, as I indicated over the weekend, they are matters on which good Australians can have a diversity of genuinely and sincerely held views. It is important that we consider these issues through a proper process to ensure that we achieve an appropriately balanced position. So, on that basis, the government will not be supporting the suspension of standing orders and we will not be supporting the motion.

10:47 am

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor has consistently made it clear that we support religious freedom. We welcomed the Turnbull government's decision to establish a review into religious freedom, and we've always said we are open to meaningful discussions about whether religious freedom needs better and further protections. We know that there are many strong views in the current debate about how to best balance freedom of religion with the right of all Australians to live free from discrimination. We respect these views and would have welcomed a proper mature debate about the issue, which the religious freedoms review was meant to facilitate. It's unfortunate, therefore, that the government has chosen to hide the review for the last five months and to deny the Australian people that opportunity.

As a result, in the last week, there have been repeated leaks from the Morrison government that have suggested that the review recommends changes to anti-discrimination legislation that would make it easier for religious schools to deny enrolment or expel children and to sack teachers or deny them employment on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. I know this has been distressing for many young gay people and their families.

The public outcry that has ensued makes clear that these exemptions, even as they currently exist in a minority of jurisdictions, are out of step with the views and beliefs of most Australians. While it is clear that the exemptions are used rarely—if at all—they are anachronistic and deny dignity to children. This view is widely shared even amongst those organisations that could potentially make use of the exemptions. As Catholic Schools NSW, which represent 595 Catholic schools and their 255,000 students have recently said:

Nothing in the Bible or in Catholic teaching can be used to justify prejudicial or discriminatory attitudes and behaviours.

… … …

We did not seek concessions to discriminate against students or teachers based on their sexuality, gender identity or relationship status.

It is Labor's view that we can remove discrimination and protect religious freedoms at the same time. That is why the Leader of the Opposition wrote to the Prime Minister last week to offer Labor's support and assistance in passing a bill to amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to remove the exemptions that currently allow religious schools to discriminate against children on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Today we extend that offer to include the removal of the exemption which would allow teachers or other staff to be sacked or refused employment because of sexual orientation. Put simply, people should not be discriminated against because of their sexuality. Of course, we respect the rights of religious organisations to run their schools in line with their beliefs and their doctrines, and we will be talking further with schools to ensure that they are able to teach their students according to their religious beliefs while not discriminating against students or staff. People employed in those schools must of course respect those beliefs and traditions as they carry out their roles, but Australia is a modern, fair and tolerant nation, and legislated discrimination should not be allowed to stand.

We can do these two things now and we can do them quickly. We do not agree that public funding should be threatened for institutions that don't comply. Kids do not deserve to pay the price. We should make it the law so that there is no doubt that discrimination based on sexuality is not acceptable. If there are other issues that relate to religious freedoms that need to be addressed, Labor is up for that too, but the government needs to release the report. It is simply absurd that this debate is occurring without the report having been released. What is the government hiding? I urge it to release the report so that all Australians can have their say.

10:51 am

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The Greens will be supporting this motion. We'll be supporting this motion not just because it's about children, as Senator Hinch has indicated, but because everyone—every student, every child, every teacher, every educator—should be treated fairly and not be subject to discrimination in Australia. We came together a year ago as a nation to decide collectively that we no longer want to see discrimination in marriage. The Australian community made that point as loudly as they possibly could. They voted for equality, not for more discrimination. Today we read, in recent opinion polls, that Australians are appalled at the prospect of schools being able to expel a child simply because they are coming to terms with their sexuality or gender identity, or indeed that a teacher or educator could lose their job because they happen to be in a same-sex relationship.

We heard, through the debate around the marriage equality plebiscite, how damaging it was to those young people coming to terms with their sexuality, learning about who they are, struggling with it, being confused by it and yet getting messages from the leaders of this country that, somehow, how they feel makes them second-class citizens in this country. This debate continues, through the Ruddock review into religious freedoms, where the views of young people coming to terms with their sexuality and gender identity are once again under the microscope, being challenged. They are being told that, somehow, a school should have the right to expel a student simply for being attracted to someone of the opposite gender or for being somebody who is coming to terms with their own gender identity.

Imagine you are a teacher at a religious school, knowing that you don't have the same protections as your fellow teachers and that, simply because of the relationship that you're in, your job could be on the line. Senator Cormann says that most schools don't want the power to discriminate. Well, that misses the point. To be frank, I don't care whether religious schools want this power or not. They shouldn't have it. There are no circumstances under which a secular society like Australia's should allow religious institutions, schools, the freedom to discriminate against students and teachers.

We Greens have a very proud record on this. In my home state of Victoria several years ago, the Greens moved to abolish this area of discrimination in Victorian law. What happened? The Liberal Party and the Labor Party voted against it, so that now in Victoria you can continue to discriminate on the basis of someone's sexuality or gender identity. It needs to be prevented, in law, across the country. That's why the Greens will be supporting this motion, although we note that Labor's amendment appears to exclude gender identity. We hope that's an oversight, and we'll be seeking to amend the motion when it comes before the chamber.

Of course, the Ruddock review should be released publicly so that we can know what's in it, what the recommendations that have been proposed are and what the rationale is for those recommendations. When we asked the Senate to order the production of that document, Senator Cormann said he wouldn't do it because it was the subject of cabinet deliberations. And then last week we heard from the Prime Minister, who said: 'Actually, cabinet hasn't seen it. It's not before the cabinet and therefore we can't release it publicly.' Which one is it? Who's lying, who's misleading the parliament? Again, we stress this point: we've heard over the last few days the Labor Party and the coalition finally agreeing to what the Greens have been saying for many, many years—that is, no student should be expelled because of who they are. Well, we now call on both sides of politics to end discrimination in law not just for students but for teachers and educators as well.

10:56 am

Photo of David LeyonhjelmDavid Leyonhjelm (NSW, Liberal Democratic Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This debate is not about discrimination; it's about procedure. We can deal with matters such as this—discrimination in schools—in motions in the normal way. A better way to deal with an issue like this would be an MPI. But we don't have to deal with it on a Monday morning as a suspension motion that is eating into other time.

When any other party, any other senator in this place, wants to introduce a subject like this into the debate, they follow procedure. The government, Labor, the Greens, the Conservatives, One Nation, myself as the Liberal Democrats, Katter's Australia Party, the United Australia Party and Centre Alliance: we all put a motion on notice and then we deal with it the next day. One senator in this place doesn't think that applies to him. That senator is Senator Hinch. What he does is tweet, 'I'm going to move on Monday for a motion to withdraw funding from schools if they discriminate.' When I pointed out to him in a follow-up tweet that he couldn't do that, that he had to lodge it on Monday and consider it on Tuesday, what was his response? He moves a motion to suspend on Monday morning just so that he can live up to what he said he was going to do in the tweet. That's all he's going to do. It is posturing; it is virtue signalling; it is blowing hard. The only thing missing from it so far is, 'Shame, shame, shame'.

I say: do not support this suspension motion. Allow the matter to be dealt with, preferably as an MPI, so that it can be debated. Lodge it today so that it can be considered tomorrow, like everybody else in this place does. But Senator Hinch apparently doesn't think this applies to him.

10:58 am

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

We will not be supporting the suspension of standing orders for the reasons that Senator Leyonhjelm has indicated—that is, there are procedures to do this and we do need to respect the normal order of business in this chamber. However, if the suspension is successful, or indeed if it's brought on tomorrow, we will be supporting the motion as amended by Labor.

I want to go to the issue of cabinet in confidence. Obviously we've been denied access to this document. It's subject to an order of production. Minister Cormann has stood here, and indeed written to the chamber, stating that this document can't be released 'because it's a deliberation of cabinet'. Now, I respect the idea that deliberations of cabinet are in fact sacred and they should be withheld for good reasons, solidarity of cabinet reasons, but we're not asking for any record of the deliberations. We're asking for a report that was prepared by Mr Ruddock. It is not a cabinet submission, it is not a record of cabinet and it is not a decision of cabinet. And those three document types are the only ones that you can claim cabinet in confidence over. What the government is doing here is using an aroma of cabinet to actually hide or try and keep from the Senate a report which is not a cabinet submission.

And indeed they perhaps have done themselves a disfavour by having a partial report released or, at least, having elements of the report released. We don't know whether the whole document says something that is contrary to the leaked material. So it's a bit of an own goal for the coalition. I might also ask: if the coalition really believes this is a document that is subject to cabinet protection, why have you not called in the AFP to find out who has, in fact, leaked this information? You certainly were quick to do so in the au pair cases, so why not in this instance, if you really do believe that this is a cabinet document?

As to the more important topic of this motion, the Centre Alliance's position is very clear. All teaching appointments should be based on merit. Sexuality has no part to play. Conduct, of course, can be a determinant in any sacking, but, provided unacceptable conduct is spelt out and people understand what that is, it can be dealt with accordingly. Once again, that's the reason why we will support the motion with the foreshadowed amendments from Labor. I might also make it very clear that Centre Alliance also supports religious freedom, insofar as that freedom is not inconsistent with national laws or with broad community expectations.

11:02 am

Photo of Tim StorerTim Storer (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I just want to put on the record that I will not be supporting the suspension motion for the reasons outlined by Senator Leyonhjelm. But, certainly, if the suspension motion is passed, I will be supporting the amendments made by Senator Farrell to Senator Hinch's motion. It's very important that a strong message is sent to the Australian community that this parliament is rejecting the discriminatory position outlined in the Ruddock review, and that, reflecting the comments made in terms of same-sex marriage and other bullying initiatives, exclusion and discrimination based on sexuality or otherwise in any workplace are not acceptable. There should certainly be immediately the release of the full Ruddock review, which seems very much required, and we should certainly be looking at repealing the Sex Discrimination Act provisions which are allowing religious schools to sack staff or expel students on the basis of their sexuality.

11:03 am

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The Greens are supporting the suspension of standing orders because it is important and urgent that we move to put on the record the complete rejection of discrimination against any LGBTI students and also staff—any staff, not just teachers—and, in fact, removing discrimination against all LGBTI people. We are supporting the suspension. I note that we have got Senator Hinch's motion and we have got various foreshadowed amendments to that motion. We are supporting these motions, but, again, they do not go far enough as they are currently worded. They don't include gender-diverse people, and we know that the discrimination against transgender and gender-diverse students and staff is extreme. In fact, during the marriage equality debate, the prejudice and the attacks on trans people just because of being trans showed that that level of discrimination, prejudice and stigma against trans people is still there. Also, these motions, as worded, don't apply to removing discrimination against all staff in all ways. They talk about not sacking staff, but how about hiring of staff? How about refusing promotions of staff? There are a whole range of other things that need to be addressed. We will be giving notice today for the introduction of a bill to amend the Sex Discrimination Act, which would remove all discrimination against LGBTI people associated with schools. Kids have to flourish, but so do all staff. It would make sure there's no discrimination against rainbow families, where you have two mums or two dads. We know at the moment there is discrimination in schools against those families. In short, we'll be supporting this, but we need to go much further to ensure all LGBTI people are celebrated and not discriminated against.

11:05 am

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Last week I thought I'd woken up in the 1950s. The Ruddock review into religious freedom recommended that the ability for religious schools to legally discriminate against LGBTQI students and teachers be entrenched in federal law. We already know the horrific consequences that such laws have for people in our community. Young people in all schools are receiving the very public message that they are not accepted. LGBTQI students feel they have to live their teenage years in silence and hide their identity for fear of being expelled. For teachers, laws that allow discrimination mean they're forced to live double lives and constantly worry about the risk of losing their job if they are outed. We seriously have to ask the question—and this is what the motion proposes—whether schools which discriminate on any basis should get a single cent of public money. We know there should be no discrimination, full stop, against students, teachers, parents or staff. If any school or organisation chooses to accept public funding, they must also accept the secular values of our society and what the community wants. Our schools should be places where social inequality is undone, not entrenched, where all students are accepted and where staff are able to teach as themselves and instil an appreciation of all people in their students.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is the motion to suspend standing orders be agreed to.