RELIGIOUS DISCRIMINATION BILL

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Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker.

On Tuesday morning, I attended St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church at Kingston. That is something that takes place, a service, before every parliamentary year.

And as Leader of the Labor Party, I gave a reading. Corinthians 4-8.

It says this.

Love suffers long and is kind. Love does not envy. Love does not parade itself, is not puffed up, does not behave rudely, does not seek its own. Is not provoked and thinks no evil, does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth. Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.

To me, the best of people of faith in this diverse multicultural nation, Australia, is about love.

Love of our humanity, in all its diversity.

Straight people. Gay people. People of diverse gender identity. Men, women. People of different ethnicity, people of different faiths.

What this debate should have been about is about enhancing national unity, is about bringing people together.

And a next step in an acknowledgement that this great nation’s greatest strength is our diversity, is our common humanity.

But this flawed bill, unfortunately, does not do that.

Can I say that from my perspective, we come at this from a complex issue, but with guiding principles which are clear.

We support people’s right to practise their faith free from discrimination, consistent with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

But this should not remove protections that already exist to protect against other forms of discrimination.

The idea that there has to be a conflict between the people, such as children and people with disabilities, who potentially will be really hurt by the flaws in this bill, and members of minority faiths in particular, who will be protected by this bill, is a false dichotomy.

We surely should be able to do both. To enhance protections against discrimination without enhancing discrimination against others.

And that was always the objective, of all of the groups of faith who I have met with, both formally and informally, over what has been a process of years.

And yet, we have after four years a process that began in 2018, a circumstance whereby the Opposition has been given 24 hours to consider the complexity of what is being advanced.

Let alone the fact that state and territory governments that will be impacted by this haven’t been consulted at all.

People of faith and people in the general community have not been consulted properly either.

This bill wants to pit those groups against each other.

I want to defend all of them.

We need shields from discrimination, not swords for discrimination.

That’s the fundamental principle that I bring to this debate.

It is a principle that I hold dear.

In my first speech, back in 1996, I said this. I emphasised that there was not equality of opportunity across gender, sexual preference and ethnicity.

I moved a private members bill in my first term in Parliament, about superannuation entitlements or same-sex couples.

That was part of a debated and broaden about how we get equality, that I fundamentally agree with people regardless of their sexuality.

I went on to say cultural diversity and respect can lead to a more peaceful, equitable and fulfilling life for all.

They are values for which I have stood up. They are values for which I have argued for. They are values which I have fought for.

Doctor Martin Luther King declared the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

And that is true.

In 1996, it was a different world.

The idea that this parliament could, with just a few exceptions, vote for marriage equality, is something that wouldn’t have been conceived of back at that time.

But what we do as we mature as a nation is that we have, as a nation, at our core value, we have support and respect for each other.

And the idea of having legislation that removes discrimination on the basis of faith is an important one.

It is an important one.

It is an important one because the truth is that some people have said to me, ‘Why do you need any of this debate?’

Well, the truth is, that as a Roman Catholic who went to Saint Joseph’s Camperdown and then St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, schools where a lot of the values that I have were entrenched as part of who I am, I can say I have not been discriminated against at any stage.

But I tell you what.

I know women have been spat out in the street because they were wearing a hijab.

I know Sikhs you have been denied employment.

I know people who have had their house attacked because they had a shrine at the front of it.

And adding to the issue of the other forms of discrimination that we say are not acceptable, people not to be discriminated against on the basis of their faith is an important principle.

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And it is one that I support.

But I don’t support doing it at the expense of increasing discrimination against others.

This should have been a unifying moment.

The Prime Minister wrote to me on the 1 December.

In that, he said, late at night, it must be said, dropped around my office at about 7:30pm on the Wednesday sitting night.

He said this.

He sought to put the passage of the bill through the next day. And he said, ‘to assist with this process and in keeping with my second reading speech where I stated there is no place in our education system for any form of discrimination against a student on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity, the Government will be move an amendment to remove the provision of the Sex Discrimination Act, which was included in 2013, which limited the protections provided under the act for these and other matters’.

This legislation doesn’t do that.

It just doesn’t.

He invited me to meet that night.

I wrote back saying that we wanted the consideration of the committee processes.

But I said, ‘As you are aware, protection against religious discrimination should be a uniting and not dividing moment for the nation. Faith leaders have expressed to you and me, their strong desire for the Parliament to consider legislation that prevents religious discrimination in a non-partisan manner. I remain willing, as always, to discuss this important matter in person’.

You know how much discussion I’ve had with the Prime Minister since I put in writing to him that?

Nothing.

Not a phone call, not a meeting, nothing whatsoever.

And at the conclusion of my speech, I will seek leave the table that correspondence.

This legislation is flawed.

But we want to fix it.

We will be moving amendments in the House of Representatives.

If that is not successful here, we won’t stand in the way of the Senate considering the legislation. But we will move the amendments in the Senate.

And we expect in either chamber, we hope they are carried here, but if not, we expect they will be carried in the Senate, and we will insist on them.

We will insist on them because this legislation needs to be improved.

We know that if it doesn’t, then this legislation is simply not good enough.

Our amendments will go to a number of issues. And I might need an extension of time.

Clause 12. Statements of Belief.

Labor agrees that the mere expression of a non-malicious statement of belief should not contravene any Australian law. And we stand with people of faith on that front.

We are ready to work with the Government on a better way of achieving what the Government claims this provision is intended to achieve, which is to provide reassurance to people of faith.

But a law that says, on its face, that one group of Australians should be allowed to discriminate against other Australians is not the way to do it.

It’s offensive, frankly, to people of faith.

The Prime Minister says that he wants to bring this bill together.

Well, if that is what he wants, he will support Labor’s amendment to clarify the Statements of Belief clause of this bill.

The second issue is that of anti-vilification.

I can’t see how any debate about religious discrimination in Australia can ignore the fact that during the term of this Parliament, an Australian man brutally murdered 51 Muslim worshippers in two Christchurch mosques.

Nor should the troubling rise of Islamophobic, anti-Hindu, anti-Semitic and other race based incidents of threats and violence on our shores.

This debate should also be providing greater protection against vilification and incitement to hatred of vines based on a person’s religion or religious belief.

Labor will move an amendment to ensure we enact an anti-vilification clause.

And it should receive support for it.

Because where the Government’s bill does not even prohibit vilification of people on the basis of religious belief, religious dress or religious activity, that is a flaw.

This is despite the Prime Minister’s claim in this chamber that the bill draws a clear line against harassment, vilification or intimidation of anyone.

It does not do that.

The bill, as it stands, will not protect a Muslim woman in my electorate being abused in the street for being Muslim, or a Hindu man who is vilified for his religious beliefs.

This amendment should also be uncontroversial.

That is why this bill, without that, doesn’t even measure up to the premise of its own title.

That’s why this anti-vilification amendment is essential.

We have heard a lot about changes to the Sex Discrimination Act throughout this debate.

And this is the further amendment that we will move.

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Now, what we have been left with is an amendment by the Government that barely amends the Sex Discrimination Act and leaves many young people exposed to discrimination, totally at odds with what was promised in writing by the Prime Minister.

For the young Australians grappling with their sexual identity, it can be an extraordinarily difficult time.

This Parliament shouldn’t be making it harder for them.

We should be protecting them.

I would be pretty confident that, overwhelmingly, Australians of faith would agree with this too.

That is why we will move a simple amendment to delete section 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act in full to remove discrimination against all children, whether they are gay or lesbian, whether they are by sexual, whether they are transgender.

Just recognising that all children should have a right to be who they are, and that there are consequences for not having that.

The truth is that most religious schools don’t expel or discriminate against their students because of who they are. And they never want to anyway.

At St Mary’s Cathedral, in my class, there were three openly gay students, one of whom went on to be a very famous drag queen in Sydney.

And my best teacher at St Mary’s Cathedral, the person who inspired me to be an economist and do an economics degree, and inspired many others, like Paul Cleary, who would be known to many in this chamber, was a gay teacher.

He was fantastic. And he made a difference to my life and a difference to so many other lives at St Mary’s Cathedral.

The truth is that this amendment will strengthen the legislation as well.

Now, Labor supports removing discrimination against teachers while recognising the right of religious schools to give preference to hiring school staff of their own faith.

That’s just common-sense.

But because these two rights interact in a complex way, we believe this issue cannot be rammed through the Parliament and will need to be carefully considered by the Australian Law Reform Commission and it something that Labor will do in Government.

Can I conclude and thank the House for the opportunity?

Today, this Parliament has the opportunity to again bend the arc of change towards justice.

Justice for those who wish to pursue their religious convictions without harming others. And justice for those who simply want to be themselves.

These principles are worth fighting for.

We heard it here last night, my great friend, the Member for Whitlam.

He spoke of the tragic death of his 15-year-old nephew, a young person loved by family but struggling against discrimination in the broader community.

Stephen also spoke of love of his son who he worries will not have the opportunity to grow up in Australia where he is simply allowed to be himself without being the subject of hatred or discrimination.

That is not too much to ask for our kids.

I’ve also been moved by the recent comments by the Member for Maribyrnong, who notes that many people with disability suffer discrimination of some people of faith who cruelly attribute their disability to the will of God.

I will stand up to the rights of people to practise their religion.

But I won’t support anyone who uses their religion as an excuse to be cruel and to deny the rights of others who just happen to be different.

We have an opportunity here to make a real difference.

A real difference.

An opportunity to bend the arc of progress.

An opportunity to protect the right of Australians to practise their faith.

An opportunity to fix this flawed legislation so that it sets the right balance between rights and responsibilities, conviction and compassion, love of divinity and love for each other.

As I said, our greatest strength, certainly as Australians, has always been our capacity to come together.

We have this opportunity as a Parliament.

We haven’t been difficult on this legislation.

We are putting out a hand.

It should be shaken by the other side.

This is an opportunity to advance unity of this nation, not to pit people against each other.

This bill, as it stands right now, if it is not amended by either the House or the Senate, will only succeed in driving us apart.

Ours is a wonderful country.

But there is an even better Australia almost within our grasp.

This bill, in its present form, will push it further out of reach.

That is not our instinct as a people.

It is not who we are.

Let’s put aside divisiveness and this pointless, petty partisanship.

This is a moment for leadership.

This is an opportunity for the Prime Minister to show some.

It’s an opportunity for unity of purpose.

We must change this bill.

All Australians deserve nothing less.