Religious Discrimination Bill under discussion in Federal Parliament

West Australian Liberal MP Ian Goodenough told the House of Representatives in Canberra today he had been “subjected to personal attacks by the media for being a Christian over several years”.

Speaking during the second reading debate on the Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021 and the Human Rights Legislation Amendment bill of 2021, the lifelong Christian said such attacks had also been directed at some of his supporters and colleagues.

“Political opponents have questioned the right of people of faith to participate in the political process and used slurs to denigrate mainstream Christian beliefs by referring to my supporters and me as being part of a cult,” said the Singapore-born MP, who is a member of Globalheart Church in Joondalup.

“This is why a religious discrimination bill is required, to give lawful protection to people of faith to participate in society. In the current debate on religious freedom, it is important that we are respectful and tolerant of the religious beliefs of all Australians. The legislation before us may well be more accurately described as promoting religious harmony, as opposed to religious freedom.”

Opposing the bill, the ALP’s Graham Perrett criticised the government for not consulting with state and territory governments over the final form of the contentious legislative package.

He said Clause 11 was designed explicitly to override state and territory legislation, specifically recent laws made in Victoria and Tasmania, which was “extraordinary,” he said.

“The Morrison government made an election commitment in 2019 to work with the opposition cross bench and stakeholders, in a spirit of bipartisanship, to introduce legislation into the parliament that enjoys broad cross-party support, yet they failed to consult,” he said.

“Good legislation comes from listening. Good legislation comes from patiently working through the issues, not making a promise four years ago, and then rushing in at five minutes to midnight. Good legislation does not divide the community.”

Independent Tasmanian MP, Andrew Wilkie, moved an amendment that the bill be defeated on the basis that it would have a greater negative impact on Tasmania than any other state or territory, because Tasmanian anti-discrimination legislation was currently the best in the country.

The bill will create a new Religious Discrimination Act, and also amend s38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act – which would still leave schools with a legal basis to discriminate against students on the basis of gender identity.

However, significant divisions were still reportedly being aired among the Coalition members this afternoon, with the main point of conflict being the decision to protect gay students from expulsion from Christian schools but not transgender students. The continued discussion means the government was forced to delay plans to push the bills through the lower house today.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying a move to strip church schools of the ability to discriminate against transgender students would raise complications over bathrooms and uniform requirements, and risk eroding the ethos of single-sex religious schools.

Meanwhile, Labor frontbencher Tony Burke would not be drawn on whether the Opposition would accept the exclusion of transgender students from the scope of the amendments, telling ABC radio it would determine its position once it had seen the final version of the bill.

This afternoon Freedom for Faith called on the Labor Party to support the bills with no further amendments.

Debate on the bills has now resumed.