Labor to push for amendments to Religious Discrimination Bill in Senate

Labor’s caucus this morning resolved to pass the Religious Discrimination Bill through the House of Representatives but would “insist” on amendments in the Senate, according to Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, as debate continued in the House of Representatives this morning.

After Prime Minister Scott Morrison succeeded in gaining majority support for the Religious Discrimination Bill in the Coalition party room yesterday, Labor held a lengthy meeting to resolve its position on the bill. Afterwards, Dreyfus said Labor would seek four key changes, including a ban on discrimination against students on the basis of sexuality and gender identity.

The other amendments would scale back the scope of the controversial statement of beliefs provision in Clause 12, which has sparked concern about potential harm, along with changes to ban religious vilification and clarify that in-home aged care service providers cannot discriminate on the basis of religion.

The move to protect gay and transgender students will involve an amendment to repeal s38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act, which gives religious schools a legal exemption to discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy.

Yesterday evening, Labor’s Stephen Jones galvanised the House with a passionate speech urging the Prime Minister to consider the plight of parents of gay and transgender students who were discriminated against for having the courage to “swim against the tide”.

“Last week my family said goodbye to my nephew Ollie, he was just 15 when he took his own life,” Jones revealed.

“He was a beautiful, creative, courageous, young man. He was loved and accepted by his parents, by his family, by his friends and community. His mum and dad are in anguish. We all are. He was gay, he was uncertain about his gender and he struggled with his mental health, but now he’s gone and we’re no longer going to be able to love and support him on his journey through life. Clearly, the love and acceptance of his family and friends were not enough.”

Jones said his 14-year-old son was also a “beautiful, creative, intelligent” person who designs his own clothes and “moves seamlessly between the wardrobes of men and women.”

“He wears heels that give me vertigo and has more handbags than his sister,” said Jones. “He has more courage than any other boy of his age that I’ve ever met. He swims against the tide. I love and support him unconditionally.”

While Jones said he is proud of his son, he says he worries himself sick every time he leaves the house because “I know that the love and protection that he enjoys with his mother and his friends and his family is very different to the reception that he may receive in the outside world. Could this be the day when we receive the call that says something has happened, that he has been attacked for just being who he is?

“Earlier today, the Prime Minister said we should exercise our power in this place with love. I know the cynic in all of us could easily giggle at that phrase and dismiss it as a political line.

“But I don’t, I agree. I’m asking the Prime Minister to reflect on those words. As we consider the bill, I ask the prime minister and every other member in this place to put themselves in the shoes of the parents, or the heels of their kids as they step out in public.”

Also yesterday, Liberal moderate Bridget Archer indicated she would cross the floor to vote against the bill.

“While I’m very pleased to see that there’s an amendment that seeks to protect gay students, I’m horrified to say that it doesn’t extend to children who identify as transgender, more than horrified. I’m utterly distressed by this exclusion,” she said.

“So I can’t begin to think how the children, themselves, or their parents feel. What message are we sending after so much progress over the past few years? How did we get back to a place where those of us who hold such privilege in this house can ignore the harm that we might place on children by telling them that they are other, and less than in this country and do not deserve the rights and protections afforded to others?

“I can’t wrap my head around this, and I fear that it may risk lives. I implore everyone here to think about the long-term consequences that this will have. Can anyone really tell me they that are emotionally, mentally, physically distressed to the point of self-harm because there’s a trans student in their class in their church or in their workplace?

“I find it incredibly hard to believe that this would be the case; however, for a trans child, the impact of this legislation, which leaves them open to bullying, exclusion sacking or expulsion could well lead to higher rates of self-harm and poor mental health. Why on earth would we want to inflict that upon anyone? In 2022 I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation.

“If the government wants to come back with a bill that protects people from religious discrimination without these other consequences, then I would be supportive. But in its current form, I cannot support this.”

Calling himself a believer, Labor’s Matt Thistlethwaite said he believed the bill did not reflect the values of the Bible. He was particularly opposed to the provisions of Clause 12, which protect declarations of genuinely held faith.

“For many Australians, the core principles of the Bible, which are repeated in every chapter and every verse, are love, respect, compassion, and equality – they are the core principles of the Bible and religious teaching that I base my faith,” he said.

“And I could not in good conscience understand why a clause is included in this bill that could be used to undermine those principles of religion should be allowed, and in doing so detracts from and undermines the core principle of the law that’s outlined in clauses 1-10 to protect people to ensure they are freely able to practise their religion and express their beliefs.”

Debate will resume later today with a vote expected by tomorrow.