SPEECH - Religious Discrimination Bill

10 February 2022

I know it is 20 to one, almost. I have immensely enjoyed listening to the many contributions of my colleagues on this debate this evening, and I really appreciate not only the considered nature of the way in which the debate has been conducted but also the thoughtful contributions of all of my colleagues. Indeed, like many on this side of the House, I am probably beyond disappointed that this Prime Minister has chosen not to use this opportunity to unify our nation, our people, our universal human rights and our multicultural and interfaith communities. Rather, he has let this nation down again by showing a profound lack of leadership. It is indeed more than disappointing. The Prime Minister's insistence on pursuing a deeply part of that approach instead of working collaboratively with Labor, the crossbench and our communities really speaks volumes about his motives. And it didn't have to be this way. But this Prime Minister, having done nothing to honour his promise of some four years ago to deliver on a religious discrimination bill, is now seeking to rush through flawed legislation in what may well be the final sitting days of this 46th Parliament. It's shameful to see this bill being politicised and used as a wedge. The offence is not so much that he wants to wedge Labor, but the fact that he wants to wedge our communities, the communities that we represent—people of different cultures and ethnicities, people of diverse gender identity, people of different faiths—is truly appalling.

Labor supports the right of people to practice their faith free from discrimination. This is consistent with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Australia is a party to the ICCPR, and this principle and the protections that it affords should be incorporated in our domestic law. But, to Labor, this should never be at the expense of protections that already exist to protect others against other forms of discrimination.

I'm not the first in this parliament tonight to note that pitting people against one another, leaving some to feel anxious and vulnerable about their place, their belonging, their rights and their protections, is not leadership. That's not bringing people together. That is not what this Prime Minister promised this nation. But that is indeed what this bill in its current form does. This Prime Minister, this coalition government, should not be asking us to pit children against people with disability and those who are potentially hurt by the flaws in this bill. We shouldn't be pitting those people against members of minority faiths, for example, who will be protected by this bill. What a diabolical proposition to be putting to the Australian parliament. And of course it doesn't have to be that way.

I want to acknowledge the great distress that this has caused so many people in my community. I know that my office has been inundated with phone calls and emails—at least 250 at my last count—from a whole range of people in my community: parents of transgender children, survivors of gay conversion therapy, teachers, and people who have been great leaders both in our faith groups and in our community organisations. I want to congratulate the Anglican Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Peter Stuart, on his reflections today which really challenged the need for this bill and really drew a line under the hurt and the distress that this was causing so many people in our communities, which is a truly offensive product of this debate and this Prime Minister's insistence on prosecuting a rushed and flawed piece of legislation in this parliament.

As I said, this legislation is terribly flawed, and we should be fixing it. That's why Labor will be moving a series of amendments to enhance protections from discrimination without enhancing discrimination against others. We're moving amendments in the House, and, if we are not successful here, we will pursue these amendments in the Senate. We will take the fight back up to the Senate. I hope, however, that Labor's amendments will be carried here in the House. That would be the most sensible approach. But I know from experience that what makes good sense doesn't always carry the day in this House. If we are unsuccessful in the House, we expect they will be carried in the Senate and we will insist on them. We will insist on them because this legislation desperately needs to be improved. As a member for Griffith reminded us in the House early this evening, that's the process we followed in order to deliver the medevac bill that passed in early 2019. That bill enabled the transfer of critically sick refugees and people seeking asylum that were held in offshore detention centres to be transferred to Australia for urgent medical attention. So I don't think we should underestimate the capacity of this parliament to improve legislation, to do our jobs as lawmakers.

Our amendments are going to go to several issues—and I know it is very late, or very early in the morning depending on which way you look at this—like the clause 12 statements of belief, which is causing so much distress. It's certainly true that non-malicious statements of belief should not contravene any Australian law, 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 and it is clearly inconsistent with international human rights law. The Prime Minister should support Labor's amendments to clarify the statements of belief clause in this bill.

The second issue is that of antivilification. I want to pay tribute to so many people, but especially the member for Cowan, who spoke earlier this evening of her own experiences as a Muslim woman and those of her family, which highlighted the need for religious discrimination protections to pass. Likewise, the member for Cowan pressed the case of an antivilification clause to be included in this bill, as have many of my colleagues this evening. As the Leader of the Opposition argued, it would be ludicrous for any debate about religious discrimination in Australia to ignore the fact that during the term of this very parliament an Australian man brutally murdered 51 Muslim worshippers in two Christchurch mosques. Nor should we ignore the disturbing rise of Islamophobia, anti-Hindu or anti-Semitic or other race-based incidents of threats and violence on our shores.

This debate should also be providing greater protection against vilification and incitement of hate based on a person's religion or religious belief. Labor will be moving amendments as well to ensure that we enact an antivilification clause. It should receive the support of each and every member in this House. Who could argue against an antivilification clause?

Despite the Prime Minister's claim in this chamber that this bill draws a clear line against harassment, vilification or intimidation of anyone, it does not and we should not be fooled. The bill as it stands will not protect a Muslim woman being abused for wearing a hijab or a Hindu man who is vilified for his religious beliefs. That is why the antivilification amendment that Labor is putting is essential. This amendment should be uncontroversial.

Finally, we have heard a lot of discussion about their changes to the Sex Discrimination Act throughout this debate. This is the further amendment that Labor will move. What we have been left with is an amendment by the government in this current bill 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. I know from the phone calls and emails that I have received just how challenging that is for so many Australians right now. This parliament should not be making it harder for them. We should be protecting them, and that's why Labor will move a simple amendment to delete section 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act in full to remove discrimination against all children, wherever they are, whatever school they attend, where they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender diverse, intersex or queer and questioning, because every child deserves to be protected and safe, and to feel protected, safe and loved just by virtue of who they are.

I'll always stand up for the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised in our community, and I know my Labor colleagues join me in that endeavour. I will not stop fighting, regardless of what happens to these amendments, because we have a collective responsibility to work towards the eradication of all forms of discrimination in our society, wherever we see them.