Senate debates

Thursday, 18 October 2018


Discrimination Free Schools Bill 2018; Second Reading

5:01 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Discrimination Free Schools Bill 2018. Last year the Australian parliament finally moved to catch up with views that the people we were representing had held for well over a decade—that no two people should be denied, purely on the basis of their sexuality, the right to marry the person they love. Today this legislation challenges senators in this place to not repeat that mistake of delaying action and baulking at legislative change that reflects the expectations and hopes of the Australian community. This parliament again has the chance to walk with the Australian people on their march towards equality instead of racing to catch up a decade later as the parliament did with marriage equality. In doing so, we would take the next step in the legislative journey that I'm proud to say began in my home state in 1975 when South Australia became the first state to decriminalise homosexuality. It is sobering to think it was another two decades before Tasmania became the last state to remove this blight from our laws. Thankfully, criminalising the love of two consenting adults is unthinkable in any state or territory.

Over that same period we have seen governments, both state and federal, slowly and piece by piece strip away the laws which kept in place the more covert discrimination against gay and lesbian Australians. In 1984 the Hawke government introduced laws to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexuality. Many years later, in 2008, the Rudd Labor government amended over 80 pieces of legislation to remove discrimination against LGBTIQ couples. State and territory parliaments have continued to remove discrimination from their laws in order to ensure the equal treatment of LGBTIQ couples, to ensure equality in parenting laws and to remove criminal convictions resulting from unjust laws which criminalised homosexuality. It has not been a smooth path, and there have been setbacks along the way. As I noted last year during the marriage equality debate, in 2004—almost four decades after the US Supreme Court struck down laws which, on the basis of race, outlawed certain marriages—our Australian parliament was legislating to discriminate against loving couples on the basis of sexuality. It was a sad moment in the history of this parliament.

For me, Labor's support for the Howard government's amendment to the Marriage Act meant I was required to vote for discrimination against myself and the people whom I love. The reason I joined the Labor Party is that it is the party of equality and that it has such a proud history of removing discrimination and of extending equality. I knew then that, whilst the party may have disappointed many in 2004, eventually justice and equality would prevail, and so it did when in 2011 we achieved a change in the Labor Party's platform to support legislating for marriage equality. Just as it seems unthinkable that we would ever again criminalise homosexuality, it is now untenable that we would ever again prevent people, on the basis of their sexuality, from marrying each other.

So too are the Australian people now declaring it untenable that discrimination against students and teachers continues to be legal even if it can be justified on religious grounds. It is time to remove this remaining piece of legislative discrimination. Labor approaches this debate knowing that Australia is a tolerant nation and an accepting nation. Discrimination against LGBTIQ Australians has no place in our national laws. We approach this debate knowing that same tolerance and acceptance includes recognising the right of those of faith to live by their traditions and their beliefs.

Unfortunately, for purely political purposes, this government has decided to deny Australians the right to a mature debate on how best to balance freedom of religion with the right of all Australians to live free from discrimination. The government continues to refuse to share the report of the Religious Freedom Review expert panel with Australians and with its representatives. The report, promised by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during the parliamentary debate on the bill to legislate marriage equality, was actually delivered to this government in May. It appears to have sat on Mr Turnbull's desk for months. We're not sure on who else's desk it sat. It has now sat on Mr Morrison's desk for months. To sit on this report and deny Australians a mature and informed debate really does show contempt for the people we are supposed to be representing.

This government is seeking to hide this report solely because it is so divided that it fears the impact this report will have on the voters of Wentworth. And for what purpose? Many religious education institutions have made it clear that they do not and will not use the exemptions which are removed by this bill. They have made clear their abhorrence at the idea that they would ever seek to shame or punish a precious child in their care at a most vulnerable point in their lives. Yet when leaks to the media prompted reports that the government wished to extend the right of religious organisations to discriminate against students and teachers, the Prime Minister's numbers man, Mr Alex Hawke, couldn't wait to jump on Sky News and declare his joy at such recommendations. At the suggestion that his government would legislate to enable a 14-year-old child to be kicked out of school just at the point in their life when they would be crying out for support, when asked whether religious schools should be able to discriminate against LGBTIQ students and teachers, Mr Hawke said: 'Absolutely. I don't think it's controversial.' Well, I invite senators to pause and think about that for one moment. Fortunately for LGBTIQ Australians, and for all Australians who believe Australia to be a nation that values fairness and equality, the overwhelming majority of Australians disagree with Mr Hawke.

The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Government in this place insist the report was unfair and this was never their intention. To that I say two things. Tell that to Mr Alex Hawke, who delighted in the prospect of laws that would enable a child to be kicked out of school for being gay. If what Mr Morrison and Mr Cormann are saying is true, they really only have themselves to blame, because it is this government that buried the report for five months, it is this government that is not allowing the Australian people to know what it is in it and it is this government that is not allowing the community to have a mature and balanced debate on this important issue.

Labor does respect the Australian people. We will treat this legislation in the mature way it deserves. We will treat this legislation in the mature way the Australian community deserves. Regrettably, they have been denied such an approach by the government. We respect the right of parents to send children to the school of their choice and to have their children educated in accordance with their religious convictions. We respect that many parents choose religious schools because they want their children to be grounded in the identity and mission of a particular faith. We also respect that religious schools, and parents of students, are entitled to require employees to act in their roles in ways that uphold the ethos and values of that faith, and that this requirement may be taken into account when a person is first employed and in the course of their employment.

But we also respect that, in 2018, the overwhelming majority of Australians believe that exemptions from discrimination for gender identity, sexual orientation and relationship status are no longer acceptable. We therefore approach this legislation on the following basis: that discrimination on the basis of someone's attributes—whether that be gender, gender identity or sexuality—is categorically unacceptable, and what freedom of religion means is that teachers in religious schools should carry out their duties in the way that upholds the ethos and values of the faith.

As we did on marriage equality and as we have sought to achieve with this legislation, we call on the government to work with Labor and with all senators in this place to achieve a just and fair outcome, one that unites this parliament and unites the nation. A good start would be to release the Religious Freedom Review: report of the Expert Panel. This government commissioned the report and it should be willing to allow a mature, informed and balanced discussion. Labor firmly believes it is possible to protect religious freedom and to protect people from discrimination and to do this in a way that respects the rights of students, teachers, parents and the long tradition in this country of devoted and dedicated religious educators. As the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shorten, said earlier this week:

These laws are no longer appropriate, if indeed they ever were appropriate. It's time our laws reflected the values we teach our children.

5:10 pm

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

I rise to speak on the Greens sex discrimination amendment bill, the Discrimination Free Schools Bill 2018, and I do so very proudly. This is the reason I joined the Greens. We do not accept discriminating against people on any basis. We will not accept and allow discrimination on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status, marital or relationship status, pregnancy or breastfeeding. The current act eliminates these discriminations as far as possible in areas of work, accommodation, education, the provision of goods and services, facilities, the disposal of land, the activities of clubs and the administration of Commonwealth laws and programs. But when it comes to religious education institutions, the law exempts them so they can discriminate against teachers, staff, students and their families. How is this even acceptable in 2018? That's why our bill removes these unfair and highly discriminatory exemptions that allow religious educational institutions to discriminate based on sexual orientation, gender identification, marital status or pregnancy for both staff and students. I have to say a heartfelt thankyou to my colleague Senator Rice and her staff for the work they have done to bring this bill to debate in the Senate.

After the leaking of parts of the Ruddock review into religious freedoms, we found out the review will recommend that religious schools' ability to legally discriminate against LGBTIQ students and teachers in federal law will be reaffirmed and entrenched. Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison then promised to ensure protections for students against discrimination, but we have not yet seen hide nor hair of that bill. The cynic in me thinks that, yet again, this is a political ploy to try and hold on to Wentworth. As soon as the election is done and dusted, we won't hear much from them on this issue. Even in this political move, principle played very little part. If it had, we would have heard something from them on removing discrimination against teachers and staff in religious schools as well. It seems also that even the Labor Party can't fully make up their minds on whether religious schools should continue to discriminate against LGBTIQ teachers. They started off saying no. Then they said they want to have conversations. Then they said they want to see the submissions made to the review to understand why some schools want discrimination against LGBTIQ teachers to continue. Now it seems that they have joined us here in the real world.

Discrimination in schools is just plain wrong. It is bigotry, plain and simple. The idea that religious schools can do this, with billions of dollars in public money, is even more utterly offensive. We are a society committed to equality and acceptance. No school should be allowed to discriminate. Any school or organisation that chooses to accept public funding must also accept the secular values that come with it, or not a cent of public money should go to them. These views are horrifically out of step with community values, let alone basic decency. So don't tell us that this is complicated. This is pretty straightforward. It's an issue of justice, it's an issue of fairness, it's an issue of equality and it's an issue of respect. That is why it is so important that we are debating this bill today. The community needs to know that we stand with them, that we will stand up for basic rights of human dignity and respect and that all people are equal, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Let me be absolutely clear about another thing: no religious school, whether they're Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or any other religion, should be allowed to discriminate. The laws that allowed them to do this—brought in by the Labor Party, with the support of the Liberals—need to be consigned to the history books. Australians are asking for this. The people are speaking with one voice on this. Nearly 80 per cent of respondents to a Galaxy poll are against exemptions for religious schools in LGBTIQ antidiscrimination law. For too long religious schools have been allowed exemptions from the rules that the rest of society actually follows. The Greens' bill would answer the overwhelming demand for this.

The government has indicated that it will bring a bill to remove the exemptions for students only. Of course, if it ever happens, it will be a huge thing for our LGBTIQ young people and their families, who at the moment receive the very public message that they are not accepted. Many will feel that they have to live their teenage years in silence and hide their identity for fear of being expelled. But what about the teachers? On what possible basis could we agree that it is okay to be fired or to be refused a job simply for who you are? The very existence of the right to discriminate is certainly enough to harm the students' mental health and sense of belonging in a society that is already hostile for young LGBTIQ people.

Laws that allow discrimination against teachers mean they're forced to live double lives and constantly worry about the risk of losing their job if they are outed. Look no further than the story of the Western Australian relief teacher, Craig Campbell, who was fired last year after the Baptist school he was teaching at found out he was gay. State laws made that perfectly legal. Around the world, the picture is pretty horrifying. Earlier this year, a primary school teacher in the US was fired after daring to post wedding pictures with her wife online. Time and time again, the government has capitulated to the interests of private and religious schools, handing them enormous amounts of public funding and entertaining their wish to discriminate. Let's show some leadership for once. Our schools should be places where social inequality and social injustice is actually undone, where all students are accepted and where staff are able to teach as themselves and instil in their students an appreciation for all people.

It is incredibly saddening that in 2018 we're still defending the most basic rights to nondiscrimination instead of putting our focus on how we include desperately needed acceptance and celebration of diversity in the curriculum of all schools in Australia. We must fight this backwards push with all our might and stand with students and teachers to remove all existing exemptions that allow religious schools to discriminate. I commend the bill to the house.

5:18 pm

Photo of Kristina KeneallyKristina Keneally (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take part in the debate on the Discrimination Free Schools Bill 2018 that is before the Senate. I do so being mindful that this is an issue that goes to some very basic questions about who we are as human beings and how we understand, recognise, respect and accord human dignity to one another. I also do so while acknowledging that we are at this point and in this debate in the Senate and, indeed, in Australia as a result of a review into religious freedom instituted by the former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. While I may have a cynical view about why that review was instituted—in regard to the political debate at the time in relation to marriage equality and a desire for the then Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, to placate concerns raised by some in his party room regarding religious freedom—I do acknowledge that the question of religious freedom in a secular, liberal democracy is one that is fundamental to our body politic. We need to consistently balance the rights of people to freedom of religion and freedom of association alongside the rights of people to be treated equally and without discrimination.

I will get to the intent of the legislation, but I'd like to spend a few minutes reflecting on how we got to this point. As I mentioned, this debate has arisen as a result of the religious freedom review instituted by Malcolm Turnbull in November 2017. Mr Turnbull appointed an expert panel, chaired by the Hon. Philip Ruddock, a former minister in the Howard government, that included some eminent Australians: Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission; the Hon. Dr Annabelle Bennett AO SC, President of the Anti-Discrimination Board; Father Frank Brennan SJ AO, CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia; and Dr Nicholas Aroney, professor of constitutional law at the University of Queensland. This panel conducted public consultation over a seven-week period during February and March of 2018. These consultations were held in Canberra, Perth, Sydney, Western Sydney, Hobart, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Darwin, and the panel received more than 15,500 submissions in that period. That would suggest to me that questions about religious freedom are ones that are important to Australians and ones that many Australians choose to engage with. The panel announced they'd completed the report, and delivered it to Mr Turnbull, in his capacity as Prime Minister, on 18 May 2018.

It has been some 153 days—five months—that the government has had this report and, unfortunately, they have not released it for public consideration. Given the considerable public interest and involvement in it, given the time and intellectual capacity contributed to it by the eminent Australians on the panel, it is disappointing to say the least that we have not yet been able to see the report. In fact, we heard this week in the House of Representatives from the current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, who served as Treasurer in the Turnbull government, that he first saw the report not long after he became Prime Minister. This is a man who was the Treasurer of the government. He is a person who has a professed and publicly stated interest in religion and religious freedom, and he had not even seen the report, according to his own advice to the parliament.

The Turnbull government had sat on this report since May. They clearly hadn't shown it to the cabinet; cabinet has not been deliberating on this report since May. Quite frankly, the government has been hiding it from its own ministers and from public consultation and consideration. I do think this is disrespectful. That the panel itself is not able to comment on the report until it is released continues the disrespect, and, according to the panel's website, that release is a matter for the Prime Minister.

Nonetheless, someone has selectively released portions of this report. Someone has put portions of this report into the public realm, through the media, and, as a result of that, that's where we are today. We now have portions of this report, and those portions that we have for public consumption make clear that the report highlighted to Australians that within our antidiscrimination legislation we still have these exemptions not just for staff and teachers but for students. I would say that many Australians and many legislators would have been aware of the exemptions as they relate to staff. I'm not sure that many Australians would have been aware of the exemptions as they relate to students.

Here we have, though, the government playing politics in the lead-up to the Wentworth by-election. They have their political reasons for keeping this report secret. However, as a result of the report, there are policy discussions that are now happening in good faith in the community and, putting all of this politicking aside, we may yet get a good policy outcome, at least on this portion of the report.

The legislation that has been introduced in the Senate, the Discrimination Free Schools Bill, is, I acknowledge, a good first step. It is a good first step in achieving an end that Labor, the Greens, some of the crossbench and Liberal senators who have participated in this debate have made clear they all want to accomplish—that is, the removal of an exemption in our antidiscrimination law as it applies to students in religiously affiliated schools. As I said, this legislation is a good first step. However, I believe the legislation can be improved in certain ways. It is not just about making clear that discrimination against students and staff because of who they are or who they love is no longer lawful. I would also like to see this legislation assert an affirmative position in law relating to the ability of religious schools to exercise freedom of religion and freedom of association.

The Discrimination Free Schools Bill would amend the Sex Discrimination Act and the Fair Work Act. The effect of these amendments would be to remove these exemptions in antidiscrimination laws for both students and staff that have applied to religiously affiliated schools. The intent of these exemptions when they were introduced was to uphold the ability of faith based schools to maintain the ethos and the mission of that faith and that school. In 2018, it is clear that these exemptions from discrimination for both students and staff on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation and relationship status are out of step with community expectations and are no longer the best way to safeguard the mission and identity of religious schools. Even without the release in full of the Ruddock report, the selected portions that have been leaked have prompted a public reaction and a policy response from various political parties.

Labor has made clear that it supports removing the exemptions to antidiscrimination legislation both for students and in the hiring of staff and teachers at religious schools. As I said, the government has made clear that it supports removing such exemptions for students. However, government senators who have spoken in this debate confirm that they do not support the exemption relating to staff and teachers, and that does, at this time, make it very difficult for such legislation to pass the parliament.

Labor supports the intent of the Discrimination Free Schools Bill insofar as it supports the removal of such exemptions that allow schools to discriminate against children and staff on the basis of sexuality, gender identity, marital status or pregnancy. But Labor is currently reviewing the specifics of the particular amendments as they are drafted in the Discrimination Free Schools Bill for unintended consequences and sufficiency, and I do flag that we may yet have more to say in the course of this debate, in any future committee stage or in the face of future government legislation in the Senate. However, as I said in my opening remarks, I believe, and Labor believes, that this legislation can be improved. It can be improved by providing for a positive, affirmative position that recognises the ability of religiously affiliated schools to uphold the value and ethos of those schools and to set rules within the school that require staff to act in ways in their roles that uphold the value and the ethos and to not undermine the mission and the identity of those schools and that faith. I'd like to speak to this in a bit more detail in the time remaining.

I acknowledge the contribution of Senator Wong as well as that of Senator Pratt, both of whom have spoken before me. I agree quite strongly with the descriptions they have given of the need to remove discrimination for LGBTIQ people and to ensure that in Australia we no longer have in law the ability to discriminate against people on the basis of their identity. We are tolerant. We are accepting. We are able to recognise that all of our citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation or relationship status, are fellow human beings, and accord them the dignity and rights that entails. However, we also recognise that our community, country, people and nation—some of us with faith; some without—are and always have been multicultural and multireligious. The right of our churches and churchgoers to live by their traditions and beliefs is also part of our national identity. Balancing these two things is fundamentally important in a democracy. We know that many people have strong views in this debate about how we should balance freedom of religion and the right of all Australians to live free of discrimination. In that regard it would be incredibly helpful if the government released the Ruddock review.

As someone who has been educated in the Catholic education system from year 1 all the way through to a master's degree, as the daughter of a Catholic schoolteacher and as someone who worked as a Catholic primary schoolteacher myself, I understand very well the role of religious education and why families choose it for their children, but, as a legislator for nearly ten years in the New South Wales state parliament and as a former Premier of that state, I also understand our responsibility as legislators to get the balance right, upholding religious freedom while ensuring we are not enacting discriminatory practices within our legislation. We on this side of the Senate very much respect the right of parents to send children to the school of their choice. I understand that firmly. It is a choice my husband and I have made for our own children. Like many parents who have chosen religious education, I have done it because I want my children to be grounded in their Catholic faith. I want them educated in the ethos and the social justice traditions of my church.

I know that my children and other children who are in religiously affiliated schools do not just receive that ethos, mission and identity in a religious or a scripture class; they receive it from the moment they step on the school grounds through to the moment that they leave, whether it be in student leadership, extracurricular activities, sporting activities, other parts of the curriculum, the library, the cafeteria, the gymnasium or the interactions they have with the staff and teachers. The mission and identity of a religious school is not just in the classroom; it is part of the culture, behaviours and activities that take place within that institution. When it comes to employment, we know that the parents who send their children to those schools expect the teachers and staff to support that ethos, to live out that mission and identity and to not act in ways that undermine that mission. The reality is that staff who work in those schools understand this too, and that's why there are very few examples where faith based schools making employment decisions have needed to rely on the identity based exemptions in discrimination law. While every employer is entitled to require employees act and perform their duties in accordance with the stated mission and practices of the organisation, in the absence of such exemptions in our antidiscrimination law it is necessary to ensure religious schools are positively entitled to teach and operate in accordance with their faith and mission.

Labor proposes that we have an affirmative position for religious schools that upholds their exercise of religious freedom and freedom of association. Our approach to legislation on this issue would remove exemptions on the basis of sexuality, gender identity or relationship status. But we would also like to see in legislation a recognition that religious schools are entitled to require their employees to act in their roles in ways that uphold the ethos and values of that faith and that that requirement may be taken into account when a person is first employed and in the course of their employment.

As we have done previously, we do call on the government to come to the table and work with us and with the crossbench to find a suitable way forward. It's disappointing to hear the Liberal senators who have participated in this debate so far reject that call when it comes to the employment of staff and teachers. It is also disappointing that the review into religious freedom has not been released by the government. In many ways, we are left without the guidance that that review might provide to inform this debate. But the public reaction to the parts that have been selectively leaked to the media makes it clear that the public is impatient. They expect us to deliver on removing discrimination. While the government, unfortunately, may choose to play a waiting game until they can get past Saturday's by-election in Wentworth, the public does not have the patience for such political trickery. Religious freedom is not something that should be played with as a political game. Unfortunately—cynically, I would have to say—the government has chosen to do so.

This does go to the heart of who we are as human beings and the heart of who we are as a nation. We are people who come into this place bringing all of our experiences, and I believe we're also people with a spiritual dimension. I acknowledge that our first people, our first Australians, have a deeply spiritual connection to our land. While I do not believe everyone needs to have a faith in order to practise that spiritual dimension, many people choose to do so. Our challenge as legislators is to work out how to balance their rights and abilities to exercise that faith, and to raise and to educate their children in that faith, with ensuring that we are removing discriminatory practices in laws and discriminatory practices against our citizens that are no longer in keeping with community expectations.

I'm pleased that this legislation and this move are taking place in the Senate and that we are having this debate. I would like to think it can continue to be considered in these respectful terms. I look forward to a point in time when we are able to say to all Australians that there is no discrimination in law and to all our Australians of faith that we recognise their right to a freedom of religion.

5:38 pm

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

I will be brief, because I expressed my view on this appalling situation earlier in the week. I want to go on record in support of the Discrimination Free Schools Bill 2018, which is a bill to ban discrimination by independent schools against any pupil on the grounds of their sexual orientation. Back on Monday, my motion to strip discriminatory schools of any government funding or charity tax concessions was, sadly, voted down in this very chamber. I suspect that the government and the opposition feared a Catholic school backlash, even though the Catholic Church has not threatened, so far as I know, to expel any child or sack any teacher solely because of their sexual orientation.

I said back then that the very worst part of this whole debacle was that some kids all over this country had to sit nervously over last weekend, considering the prospect that they would be thrown out of their school for simply being who they are. This was after parts of the Ruddock report were selectively leaked to The Sydney Morning Herald. A week later, I can sadly say, their fears have not come close to being allayed by this government. It is hard enough being a kid these days. There is bullying on the internet, bullying and teasing at school and the pressures of growing up, et cetera. There is all of that, without having politicians in this place debating whether or not they are deserving of an education at an institution of their choosing and/or their parents' choosing.

When I tried to get the Senate to acknowledge that it's not just gay kids, but also kids who are struggling with their gender identity, who face discrimination under the existing law, Senator Leyonhjelm would not even let me amend my motion or put it to a vote. To make it worse, he sarcastically quoted back at me, 'Shame, shame, shame'. Well, in my view, the only people who should be ashamed of themselves are those senators and members who virtually told Australian kids this week: 'We might not think you're normal enough to continue attending your own school. First, we'll have a think about it, and we'll debate it. We'll take weeks to do it, maybe even months. In the meantime, keep doing your best to learn, keep going to class, but maybe you have to hide who you are while you are at it.'

We had almost three months of this same sort of thing during the same-sex marriage debate and the so-called plebiscite. But, sadly, it doesn't seem that the government has learned very much along the way. On Senator Leyonhjelm, he wouldn't even let me put the question of whether kids who are gay or transgender deserve to be educated at the institution where they may have attended for years, where they have made friends and maybe where their siblings attend. He gagged me on even putting that question to the Senate. Personally—a little side note—it is good news to me that Senator Leyonhjelm has decided that he wants to be a big frog in a small puddle and plans to leave in February to contest the New South Wales state election, but that's a different story.

Another glaring aspect of this debate—if you can call it that—is the right of religious schools to discriminate against teachers, as Senator Keneally raised, on the basis of their sexual orientation. I reiterate what I said earlier in the week: I believe that schools should not receive one cent of taxpayers' money if they commit themselves to such archaic, disgusting criteria when choosing the people whose only qualifications should be the knowledge that they will impart to their students. Religious schools receive charity tax status because they provide 'a public benefit'. You wonder what public benefit the society reaps from excluding kids or qualified teachers. As someone succinctly pointed out: they are there to teach maths, not gay maths. I do accept—and also following up on Senator Keneally—that an independent school, a faith-based school, is entitled to expect that its teachers will follow the church's ethos, to use the Labor Party's current buzzword. A teacher proselytising against school standards or church beliefs could be terminated, but that would not be because they were heterosexual or homosexual but because they were not following the dictum or ethos of the organisation.

Finally, going back to a hypothetical that I raised here on Monday and raised again in encouraging talks with the Prime Minister today: if I were a person of faith—and I'm not—and I had three teenage kids, two straight and one possibly gay or unsure of their sexuality, could two of my kids go to the school of our choice and the third one not? How the hell do you explain to a possibly troubled and insecure child that that is the law? That is why I say this bill must pass.

5:43 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Families and Communities) Share this | | Hansard source

I am glad that we are debating the Discrimination Free Schools Bill 2018. The path to this debate here in the Senate has been less than ideal. Mr Morrison's government seems determined to continue to treat the LGBTIQ community with tremendous disrespect. They have jumped first one way and then the other on questions of basic human rights for this community. The LGBTIQ community deserves more than merely to be an object in this government's culture wars and to have material concealed from them and, indeed, the broader community, in the pursuit of a by-election outcome in Wentworth.

The marriage survey proved that Australians are significantly more tolerant and accepting than this government and the coalition party room: 61.6 per cent of the community voted yes to allow people to marry the people that they love. I'd observe that that signals more than tolerance, more than acceptance. It signals an embrace of this community and its choices and unqualified support for equality. Still, every day, thanks to this government, Australians had to live through a nationwide survey on their right to marry who they love.

Now those same Australians have to sit through another conversation about whether people like them ought to be kicked out of schools, because the government have dragged their heels on releasing the Ruddock review and refuse to do so even now to enable an informed and reasoned debate. Just like the marriage equality debate, this is an argument being pushed by the conservative fringes of politics despite the overwhelming public opinion which does not support these old-fashioned views. Turning children away from schools because of their sexual orientation or gender identity is inconsistent with our values as a nation in 2018. Polling shows that 82 per cent opposed the discrimination law exemptions that allow schools to expel gay and lesbian students. There is a reason why the public view of these exemptions is so overwhelmingly in opposition. Parents and, indeed, all decent people baulk at the prospect of hurting a child. They baulk at the prospect of exiling them for being just who they are. Schools are supposed to be safe, nurturing places where our kids can grow and thrive, and it is unthinkable that they would be allowed to treat a child in this way.

We need to do more than deal with issues associated with children; we need to support the right of teachers to do the job that they love without being discriminated against on the basis of who they love. Teachers have the right to be safe and supported just like any Australian in the workplace. Again, in the public polling there is an indication that 79 per cent of Australians oppose schools' ability to sack teachers if they marry a person of the same sex. I don't believe that schools are considering using this power. Indeed, I have not heard of any schools that have asserted that they wish to do so. But the existence of that threat must weigh heavily on the minds of decent and dedicated teachers. I actually think Australians were shocked to find out that schools even had this power to begin with. Continuing to uphold this historic and outdated exemption only maintains a gap between what the public believe and our present laws.

I recognise how important, strong and genuinely held religious convictions are to the lives of millions of Australians. These Australians should have the freedom to worship and practice their faith without unreasonable impositions or burdens—and they do. It's one of the great success stories in Australia. People of all faiths practice their religion side by side without conflict and without penalty. But, like all rights and freedoms in our society, freedom of religion is not absolute. It must be balanced when it comes into tension with the rights and freedoms held by others, and this includes in our schools.

I am confident in our ability as a society to find this balance. We can do this. We've done it before. Like many nations, Australians suffered from sectarian tensions in our earlier history and it is to the great credit of those before us that we have largely put those sectarian tensions behind us. We navigated the social adjustments that came from the changing status of women and, as our population has changed, we have accommodated different faiths from all around the world. Our society is capable of balancing the rights and wishes of different groups with compassion, understanding and generosity. The debate about this bill and our progress towards reform is the next chapter in that tradition. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.