Member for Isaacs

Religious Discrimination Bill 2021

02 December 2021

Freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief is a fundamental human right and Labor supports the extension of the federal anti-discrimination framework to ensure that Australians are not discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or activities, just as Commonwealth law currently prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, disability, race, sex, gender identity, sex characteristics, and sexual orientation.








2 December 2021

The idea that it should be unlawful to discriminate against someone in employment, the provision of services, or in other areas of public life on the basis of a person's religious belief or activity is not, or at least should not, be controversial. Indeed, it is already unlawful under the anti-discrimination laws in most states and territories for individuals to be discriminated against on the basis of their religious beliefs, or practices.

Freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief is a fundamental human right and Labor supports the extension of the federal anti-discrimination framework to ensure that Australians are not discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or activities, just as Commonwealth law currently prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, disability, race, sex, gender identity, sex characteristics, and sexual orientation.

The provisions of these bills are complex, particularly when it comes to their interaction with other anti-discrimination laws, including state anti-discrimination laws. Many of the bills' opponents have already raised concerns about the kind of comments these bills could allow people to say or do. And many of the supporters of these bills have been just as quick to refute many of those arguments.

Even the Prime Minister and the Assistant Attorney-General cannot agree on how the Religious Discrimination Bill would work in practice, with each offering different and contradictory views about the way in which particular provisions would operate. If the Prime Minister cannot even agree with his own ministers about the effect of aspects of these bills, it is clearly inappropriate for the Prime Minister to bring these bills on for a vote in the House today, a few days after he introduced them, and before a Parliamentary committee has had an opportunity to even commence its public consultations on them.

This is a complex area of law and Labor will not adopt a final position until a Parliamentary committee has looked at these bills and we have consulted widely with the Australian community. Because we want to get this right. We want a respectful debate, and we want that debate informed by what we, in this Parliament, hear from our communities, what we hear from the communities that we represent.

We've shown this week in the debate about Maeve's Law, the bill dealing with mitochondrial donation and the ethical issues that that raises, that we can debate and respect each other's views. It was very much Parliament at its best and I know that many on the other side of the chamber hold the view that I've just expressed about both the capacity of this Parliament to have a respectful debate and the need for a respectful debate on these bills.

It has been disappointing to hear the Attorney-General characterise that sensible, responsible position of waiting for a Parliamentary inquiry to report, which is of course consistent with the usual practice in relation to the vast majority of complex bills introduced to this Parliament, as some kind of delaying tactic. This is the same Attorney-General who has also flagged publicly that she and the Government are open to making amendments to these bills if the Parliamentary committee recommends that course.

Let's be quite clear about the history of the bills that are now before the Parliament. In December 2018, three years ago, the Prime Minister committed to introducing a Religious Discrimination Bill in early 2019 in order that it could be passed before the 2019 election. He didn't and he didn't even introduce it in early 2020 or even in early 2021.

In December 2018, some three years ago, the Prime Minister committed to working with Labor and the crossbench in, and I quote, "the spirit of bipartisanship". The Prime Minister said that his Government "will endeavour to introduce legislation into the Parliament that enjoys broad cross-party support". In the intervening three years, regrettably, the Prime Minister did not honour this commitment. He and his Government have not worked with Labor on this legislation.

In June of this year I wrote directly to Senator Cash as the new Attorney-General to ask her to work with Labor on these bills. She has not. So, for the Government to introduce these complex bills in the second last sitting week of the year, almost three years after the Prime Minister promised to do it, and then to accuse Labor of delay, because we expect the bill to go through the usual process of Parliamentary scrutiny, is simply wrong.

The debate in this Parliament on the issues of religious freedom and non-discrimination needs to be an occasion for bringing people together. As I've already made clear, Labor's approach to these bills will be guided by a number of simple but fundamental principles, including the following.

First, as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights makes clear, religious organisations and people of faith have the right to act in accordance with the doctrines, beliefs, or teachings of their traditions and faith.

Second, Labor supports the extension of the federal anti-discrimination framework to ensure that Australians are not discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or activities.

And third, consistent with the International Covenant, any extension of the federal anti-discrimination framework should not remove protections that already exist in the law to protect Australians from other forms of discrimination.

I could add that we also need to ensure the provisions of the bill work as intended and I expect the Parliamentary committee looking at these bills will pay careful regard to the any unintended consequences over the course of the important inquiry that it is about to undertake.

If I could offer, from a personal perspective, that every member of this House has a responsibility to ensure that the laws we pass here work for the benefit of the communities we represent and for the wider benefit of the nation. I was elected to this Parliament in 2007 and in my first speech I spoke about how honoured I was to be representing the people of the diverse electorate of Isaacs, that I'm very proud to represent to this day, in South East Melbourne.

My electorate, taking in suburbs such as Dandenong South, Mentone, Mordialloc and Keysborough provides a vivid example of our success as a multicultural society. These places have absorbed immigrants from around the world and are now a vibrant home to people from 182 countries, including representatives from just about every religion in the world.

That religious diversity of the Isaacs community includes:

  • The Sikh Temple in Perry Road;
  • The Dhamma Sarana Temple, which is managed by the Buddhist Sri Lankan Association of Victoria and which has developed relationships with other Buddhist Temples in Melbourne, including those of Cambodian, Laotian, Burmese and Thai communities;
  • The Turkish Islamic & Cultural Centre in Keysborough;
  • Christian Churches representing communities from across that faith including Catholic, Anglican, Uniting Church, Baptist and Assemblies of God; and
  • The Moorabbin Hebrew congregation who are busy with the Chanukkah celebrations this festival week.

The religious diversity I see in my own community of Isaacs is, of course, to be found in electorates across our nation and that religious diversity is intrinsic to our successful multiculturalism and our success as a nation. Because for many Australians religion forms a central part, if not the core part, of their personal identity and value system and it helps guide how they want to raise their families.

For me, personally, the values of Judaism are very important. In particular, the central themes of law and justice in both Jewish religious and secular traditions have great meaning for me. It was Moses who charged the Jewish people with the command, "justice, justice, you shall pursue" from Deuteronomy. And the pursuit of justice has been an ongoing challenge and a call to action for me in my previous career, and in my work in this place.

Judaism is also an inseparable part of my family history. My father and his parents were forced to flee from Nazi Germany for the simple reason that they were Jews. My father managed to escape Nazi Germany before World War Two erupted arriving in Australia with his brother in July 1939. My father's parents, my grandparents, arrived later, some three months after the war started in a somewhat miraculous escape from Germany. My great grandparents did not escape, they perished in the Holocaust.

That family history, as well as the much broader historical tapestry of the Jewish people who've lived for some 2000 years as the guests of other nations, has helped to shape my worldview and it continues to inform my work as a Member of this Parliament. It is a history, personal and cultural that ensures that I have undying gratitude to this nation and to its generous people for taking in my father, his brother and my grandparents in their time of desperate need.

And it is a history that makes me appreciative of the wonderful diversity of this nation, and the need to continually protect that diversity and have the need to uphold and where possible to strengthen the fundamental human rights in which that diversity flourishes.

In my first speech, I said

Tolerance lies at the heart of our Australian multiculturalism. It is a vital democratic value. Tolerance of others, tolerance of different cultural and religious values and tolerance of different political positions produces inclusiveness, and not division. It enables harmonious communities and peaceful political debate. By and large migrants to our country leave behind them hold hatreds, and prejudices when they arrive, they acquire Australia's understated style of tolerance of difference.

The idea of tolerance is undoubtedly important. But as I've said before, I think we can often do better than merely tolerating our differences.

I think we can learn to embrace the fact of those differences as a wonderful boon to be appreciated for all that it offers us. Rather than seeing difference merely as a burden that must be tolerated.

I feel that it is in the open-hearted acceptance and genuine appreciation of difference, rather than the mere tolerance of it, that the foundations of a truly multicultural and diverse society must rest. Because from this position we will not just tolerate those from other cultures and religions, but we will actively welcome and appreciate them.

It is because of the need to foster acceptance and appreciation that I've always championed the importance of our nation's anti-discrimination framework and it is why I have always worked to find the right balance between ensuring rights are protected, while at the same time ensuring that those rights do not lead to discrimination.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Australia has been a party for two generations now makes the importance of this difficult balance clear.

Article 18 (1) one of the ICCPR states:

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

And Article 18 (3) of the Covenant states:

Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law, and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

It is on that last point, the need to ensure that freedoms do not compromise "the fundamental rights and freedoms of others" that so much turns.

Acknowledging the complexity of getting the balance right is not a "delaying" tactic. It is a statement of the obvious. As the expert panel led by Philip Ruddock recognised, designing legal rules to protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion without unjustifiably burdening other rights is an immensely difficult and delicate task. The expert panel, aptly described it as a "many sided discussion".

Some contributions to these many-sided discussions have already referred to matters that are not addressed in these bills directly. For example, as everyone in this place knows, almost three years ago, the Prime Minister, in fact, a little over three years ago, the Prime Minister promised that he would update the laws to protect LGBT students "as soon as possible". Those were the Prime Minister's words "as soon as possible". He hasn't done that as part of this package of bills and just a few days ago, the Prime Minister said that he would not do anything on this issue for at least another year. He said he needed to hear from the Australian Law Reform Commission before taking any action. But now, according to reports this morning, the Prime Minister has changed his mind and has now agreed to move an amendment to these bills to ensure that students cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity. We will wait to see what, if anything, the Prime Minister is proposing to do on that front. And on that issue, as with these bills, we stand ready to work across the Parliament.

As I've said to Senator Cash, Labor has been seeking to encourage a bipartisan approach to all of these issues so that, to the extent possible, we have a discussion that is respectful, constructive, accepting, and unifying, and which recognises the wealth and value of Australia's diversity. That does not mean that everyone will agree on the outcome but such an approach should mean that everyone's view is respected and listened to.

I await the report of the Parliamentary inquiry, as I'm sure do all of my colleagues in this Parliament, I await the report of the Parliamentary inquiry into these bills.