PM open to changes in discrimination draft

By Mark Brolly

October 7 2019Prime Minister Scott Morrison reiterated on his recent US trip that the Government is willing to consider changes to its religious discrimination bill before it goes to Parliament, after the release of draft legislation by Attorney-General Christian Porter on 29 August.

Mr Morrison, responding to a question in Chicago on 23 September about how confident he was about the passage of the legislation and avoiding divisions in his own party over the issue, said he had been very appreciative about “the very mature way” his colleagues had worked together to fashion a draft Bill, which was the starting point for consultations outside the Government, “and I think that’s going really well”.

“And we’ve been, I think, quite patient as we’ve sought to take this Bill forward, and we will keep doing that and we’ll listen very carefully in consultations that we are having,” Mr Morrison said. “And if there are further amendments that are necessary before the Bill is introduced into Parliament then we will make those judgments, as a Cabinet.

“I have said from the outset on the Religious Discrimination Act that I want this to be a process that is actually bringing people together, not forcing them apart. I think there is a broad level of agreement here and I think we are achieving that. I am encouraged particularly, whether it is the role that the Attorney-General has played or others, to keep this agenda very much in the mainstream of the Australian community.”

Mr Porter released the draft Bill and associated Bills during a speech at the Great Synagogue in Sydney on 29 August. He said the draft Bill, which followed the review by a panel led by former Liberal Cabinet minister Philip Ruddock of Australia’s legal protections for religious freedom after the 2017 national postal survey that led to the enactment of same-sex marriage, would form the basis of extensive consultation and he expected a final draft Bill to be presented to Parliament this month.

“The Bill would make it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of religious belief or activity in key areas of public life,” Mr Porter said. “The Bill does not create a positive right to freedom of religion.”

Sydney’s Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies welcomed the draft legislation, but said more work was needed on the detail of the Bill. “We welcome the Attorney-General’s clear statement that greater protections are needed for people of faith, or of none, concerning freedom of speech, conscience and belief,” he  said. “Other attributes such as sex and race are protected, it is only logical that faith be among those.”

Although there had been a media concentration on the case of sacked Australian rugby union star Israel Folau, Dr Davies said the issues were much wider. “We want MPs of all parties to understand the framework of faith by which religious organisations operate in all areas of society from care ministries to health and education.

“We are disappointed that there doesn’t yet seem to be a comprehensive approach which includes both the draft legislation just released and the work of the ALRC (Australian Law Reform Commission) examining the patchwork of existing legislation. There needs to be deep consultation on both areas as soon as possible.”

Archbishop Davies said the Diocese of Sydney was committed to engaging in the consultation process which Mr Porter has set in place.

“I hope the Federal Opposition will support, in the spirit of bipartisanship, an outcome which strengthens social cohesion and freedom of speech, conscience and belief in Australia.”

The new Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, Dr Mark Short, said in his Presidential Address to his diocesan synod on 6 September that there was a social good in allowing a diversity of groups, religious and not, the freedom to engage, express and promulgate their foundational traditions and their particular vision of human flourishing.

“I affirm (former Archbishop of Canterbury) Rowan Williams’ vision of a procedural secularism – where diverse traditions engage in the public sphere, with the state as a neutral mediator – over against a programmatic secularism – where the state seeks to confine such traditions to the private sphere,” he said.

“Second, we need to recognise that the flipside of free speech is responsible speech. Christians of all people should be aware of the capacity of ill-spoken words to wound and to harm. Of course, we may disagree over what constitutes an ill-spoken word. We may differ on the extent to which we expect the state and the courts to make this judgement. But none of us can escape our accountability before the One to whom all hearts are open and from whom no secrets are hidden.

“Third, in my charge I have advocated a vision for our engagement with the world that combines fresh waterholes at the centre with low or no fences at the edges. This is particularly the case for our schools and Anglicare, where we have wonderful opportunities to welcome students, staff, employees and volunteers from many backgrounds, to work, study and serve alongside them so they may in their own time and own way come to know something of the Lord at the heart of our common life. I do recognise that other religious bodies and organisations may choose to do things differently and I am wary of supporting a particular legislative agenda purely on the basis it suits ‘us’ but not ‘them’.”

Mr Porter said on releasing the draft Bill that Australia had a strong anti-discrimination framework with specific protections for people against discrimination on the basis of their age, sex, race and disability.

“This draft Bill released today extends those protections to provide protection for people against discrimination on the basis of their religion or religious belief, or lack thereof,” he said.

He expected legislation to be introduced this month and considered by both the House and Senate before the end of the calendar year, allowing time for a Senate inquiry.

The ALRC inquiry into religious exemptions to other discrimination laws across Australia was continuing and a report was due next year.

“What the Bill I am releasing today aims to deliver was rightly described by Anglican Public Affairs Commission chairwoman, Carolyn Tan, recently as being a ‘shield’ against discrimination, and not a ‘sword’,” Mr Porter said. “... The laws will protect people from being discriminated against, but will not give them a licence to discriminate against other people, or engage in harassing or vilifying speech.”

Submissions on the draft legislation were to close on 2 October.