Religious Discrimination Bill debated all night, passes in lower house

What happened in last night’s marathon sitting

The Morrison government has passed the Religious Discrimination Bill in the House of Representatives, after a marathon, all-night sitting. It passed just before 5am and will now head to the Senate.

The main bill received a third reading at 4am. It passed with the support of Labor MPs after the  Labor caucus agreed yesterday to fight for amendments to the bill, but not prevent its progress to the upper house.

Five Liberal MPs – Bridget Archer, Trent Zimmerman, Katie Allen, Fiona Martin and Dave Sharma – crossed the floor to help Labor and the crossbench add more protections for LGBTQIA+ students. A Labor source has reportedly described this as a “crushing win”.

The bill is expected to go to the upper house as early as today, with a Senate standoff forecasted as both sides fight for crossbench support.

It is expected that Labor will add further amendments to the law, including an anti-vilification provision and restraining the bill’s current power to override state and territory anti-discrimination law.

The Coalition is reportedly gearing up to fight Labor’s amendments in the upper house. It needs the support of three crossbench Senators to succeed in getting the bill passed.

Just before 1am, Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for the bill to pass, saying he “earnestly hoped” the bill would “unite this place” and receive bipartisan support.

Noting the concerns raised by moderate Liberal MPs about LGBTQIA+ students, Morrison said the government’s amendment to the bill would protect gay students from being expelled. Protections for transgender students would be addressed in six months following a review by the Australian Law Reform Commission, he said.

The PM also announced that the government would establish a new parliamentary committee for youth mental health.

However, Morrison’s attempts to allay the concerns of his moderate colleagues were ultimately unsuccessful.

Instead, five Liberal MPs crossed the floor to support independent MP Rebekah Sharkie who proposed a counter amendment to the Human Rights Legislation Amendment.

Sharkie’s amendment sought to repeal s38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act that allows religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy. The vote was carried by a margin of 65 to 57 votes.

Earlier, Labor proposed an amendment that removed the RDB’s power to override state and federal anti-discrimination laws, yet maintained protections for religious comments provided they are not malicious, threatening, harassing or vilifying. Labor’s proposed amendments to the statements of belief clause was defeated when the speaker, Andrew Wallace, used his casting vote to break a 62-all tie.

Further amendments to ban vilification on the grounds of religion and discrimination in the provision of in-home aged care services were also defeated. The bill, in its current form, allows in-home aged care service providers to refuse services to people based on religion.

From 5pm to 1am, Labor gathered support for changes to the bill.

Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and other Labor MPs voiced broad support for the legislation provided it was amended to ensure existing protections against other forms of discrimination were not removed.

“This legislation is flawed but we want to fix it,” Albanese told the House.

Labor had agreed at an earlier caucus meeting to push for amendments to protect transgender children, water down Clause 12 which deals with the right to make statements of faith, prevent the act from overriding state and territory anti-discrimination laws and include an anti-vilification provision.

As the marathon debate continued, MPs quoted scripture, revealed their own faith and faith backgrounds, and described the work of religious communities and schools in their electorates. Many described acts of abuse experienced by people of faith in their electorates, particularly those who wear religious garb, and the need for a Religious Discrimination Act.

Labor politicians said they supported the rights of every person to practise their faith free from discrimination, as consistent with the International covenant on civil and political rights to which Australia is a signatory. But, they stressed, existing protections against other forms of discrimination must not be removed in the process.

“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 minority faiths in particular, who will be protected by this bill, is a false dichotomy,” Albanese said.

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

“This bill wants to pit [faith] groups against each other. I want to defend all of them,” the Labor leader added.

“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.”

Albanese and other Labor MPs criticised Morrison for what they described as rushing through a substantial bill as a political wedge in the run-up to an election. MPs said Morrison had not undertaken adequate consultation with states, territories, people of faith and community groups.

“In my experience, religious people don’t want to discriminate against other people” – Clare O’Neil MP

Several Labor MPs expressed concern that the debate on the Bill had been divisive and did not reflect the views of faith leaders in their electorates.

“A lot of the debate that’s had about religion in society, goes immediately to the extremes,” said Clare O’Neil, Member for Hotham.

“In my experience, religious people don’t want to discriminate against other people. They don’t want to make statements of belief that would offend … that’s not a goal or an objective or a desire of anyone who I know who’s religious.”

“They talked to me as faith leaders about the difficulties that they have where certain sort of fringe groups or extremist offshoots of their own religion are presented as kind of the mainstream.”

One of the evening’s most passionate speeches was by Shayne Neumann, ALP Member for Blair. Neumann drew on the Bible’s book of James’ chapter 2: faith without works is dead.

Describing himself as “not a fundamentalist nor a Pentecostal”, he said he was a member of a Baptist church.

“Last Sunday, I did my personal devotions, I went to church, I had what the Catholics would call Eucharist, ” Neumann said. He said he had not encountered any obstacles to practising his faith.

“But there are people in this country who have suffered and continue to suffer on a regular basis discrimination, vilification, hostility for their faith that should not happen in a pluralistic, multicultural … multi-faith society like Australia, and they should be protected.”

“The concept of a religious discrimination bill is a worthy one and should be. But you cannot elevate someone’s rights and diminish others, and that’s simply not good enough.”

Neumann spoke of the great contribution people of faith have had in the development of Australia. He recommended Meredith Lake’s “brilliant book”, The Bible in Australia.

Neumann, like many of his Labor colleagues, expressed their disgust over Citipointe College’s contract controversy last week. He said LGBTQIA+ children must be protected from discrimination by the bill.