Senate debates

Thursday, 29 November 2018


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

4:24 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 Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018. Just a couple of weeks ago, we celebrated the first anniversary of the yes vote in the marriage equality postal survey. Australians, of course, voted overwhelmingly for marriage equality. Australians voted overwhelmingly for the removal of discrimination against LGBTIQ Australians. In doing so, the country sent a powerful message of inclusion and acceptance to LGBTIQ Australians. More importantly, Australians demonstrated that ours is a nation that remains committed to fairness and to equality. But it did reflect a sad fact: that this parliament and a number of its members and senators lagged decades behind the Australian people. For too long, the laws of our nation failed to reflect the values of the vast majority of Australians, and this bill before the chamber is another example of this parliament actually catching up with the Australian people.

Since its introduction in 1984, the Sex Discrimination Act has included exemptions for religious schools. In 2013, the Labor government protected the attributes of sexual orientation and gender identity—it extended protection before the law to ensure that Australians were able to gain protection against discrimination for sexual orientation and gender identity. The exemptions which pre-existed those amendments were applied to these newly protected attributes as consequential amendments to the expansion of protections.

In recent years, there has been growing concern in the community about the appropriateness and the relevance of these exemptions in relation to sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. There has been growing concern about whether or not they in fact reflect contemporary Australia. And of course the leaking of parts of the Religious Freedom Review expert panel report in October, and the public reaction to it, made it clear that the current law does not reflect the views of the vast majority of Australians.

The government continues to refuse to share the report of the Religious Freedom Review expert panel with Australians and with their representatives. It was a report promised by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during the parliamentary debate on the bill to legislate marriage equality. It was delivered to the government in May, and it appears to have sat on Mr Turnbull's desk for months. Of course, we're not quite sure on who else's desk it has sat. It has now sat on Prime Minister Morrison's desk for months.

To sit on this report and to deny Australians a mature and informed debate really does show contempt for the people we are supposed to be representing. The government is seeking to hide this report. Why? Because of its internal division. The sole and primary reason the government is hiding this report is that it is so divided it fears the impact this report will have on its own unity, or lack thereof.

The news that the Morrison government was actually considering legislative change to entrench discrimination against LGBTIQ students was shocking to a large number of Australians. Perhaps even more shocking was the realisation that many people had that laws around our nation already allowed for such discrimination. Labor and Bill Shorten committed to amending the law to remove the exemption allowing discrimination against LGBTIQ students. We welcomed the announcement by Prime Minister Morrison that his government, too, was committed to ensuring that amendments were introduced as soon as practicable. So, too, we welcomed the Prime Minister's commitment to use the October sitting fortnight to ensure that this matter was addressed. Together with the Greens and other crossbenchers, it did seem that the vast majority of the parliament was ready to update our laws to reflect the view of the vast majority of Australians.

But the Morrison government has not acted on their promise. What we continue to see, in so many areas of policy, so many areas of legislation, so many areas of government activity, is that we have, in this country, a government so chaotic, so divided and so dysfunctional it simply cannot govern. It's trashing good government. It is so divided and so dysfunctional, it can't even focus on keeping the Prime Minister's commitments—or maybe he just doesn't want to.

Well, if the government won't act, Labor will. Australians support this change. The parliament supports this change. And the Morrison government of course claimed that it supported this change. We can get this done before Christmas—just as we got marriage equality legislated before Christmas.

I want to note here that the overwhelming majority of religious schools have told a Senate committee which looked into this issue that they do not use these exemptions and they do not want them. Labor wants to be clear: nothing in this bill would compromise the ability of religious institutions to operate consistently with religious teaching, whether in the classroom or through the enforcement of school rules.

This bill does not, however, address the issue of discrimination against staff employed by religious schools. Given the short number of sitting days left between now and the election, we do have to prioritise—and children are our priority. Labor is committed to removing exemptions which relate to LGBTI staff at religious schools. That is a commitment Bill Shorten has made to the Australian people, and we in Labor will continue to work on making that change happen. We know there is broad support across parliament to deal with the issue of staff. We are dealing now with the issue of children. We accept that there are complexities in relation to the issues of teachers and staff, and we intend to continue to work with relevant stakeholders on this. However, we are not prepared to hold up the change for students while that work goes on.

Today, this Senate has an opportunity to take the next step towards equality for LGBTIQ Australians. We have the opportunity to not repeat that mistake of delaying action, to not repeat that mistake by baulking at legislative change that reflects the expectations and hopes of the Australian community. This parliament 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.

This Saturday is World AIDS Day. This morning I had the privilege of speaking at the parliamentary breakfast with various colleagues, but relevantly Senator Smith, who has been one of the co-conveners of the parliamentary friends group for some five years. It was a reminder of our nation's relative success in battling the scourge of HIV/ AIDS, and it was a reminder of the reason behind that success. We in Australia succeeded because we worked together. We succeeded because government, non-government agencies, civil society and the private sector worked together. But perhaps more importantly, we succeeded because we proceeded on the basis of inclusion, non-judgement and because we were prepared collectively to tackle prejudice and discrimination along the way.

That is what this bill is about. It is about tackling prejudice and discrimination. It is about making LGBTIQ students feel accepted and loved—something we want for all Australian students, for all our young people. It's time to ensure our laws ensure that happens in all our schools.