Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall opposes the Religious Discrimination Bill

9 February 2022

Ms STEGGALL (Warringah) (19:07): It's hard not to feel quite dejected today to have to stand here and debate this legislation after listening to the most amazing speeches at the National Press Club by Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame, where they raised attention and called for action on really serious issues—domestic violence, protecting women and children, protecting girls and boys from sexual abuse—issues that really need urgent attention and debate in this place. But instead we're here to debate a highly divisive bill. I'm very sad to say to the people of Warringah that the ultimate outcome will be a political outcome. This will not be an outcome that is in the best interests of Australia, of people of faith or, in particular, of vulnerable groups. This is legislation to score political points. Ultimately I think it will be a role by the opposition to safeguard political points. But it will not be, ultimately, an outcome that is in the best interests of Australians and vulnerable Australians, and it certainly won't be up to the lofty standards of so many words that have been said in this place. I should say upfront that I absolutely respect people of faith. I have members in my family for whom, I know, it is the cornerstone of their lives. But you simply can't have protections for faith overriding other protections. One person's right does not override another person's right to safety.

I rise to speak to the package of legislation that has collectively come to be known as the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021. For those who may not have been following closely, it includes the associated Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021 and the Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2021. At its core, it is not up for debate. The fact that we should have protection against discrimination on the basis of religious grounds is sound. There is no debate that this is sensible and is something that should exist.

This bill creates the office of the Religious Discrimination Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission, and it would have been so good if this bill could have stopped there! But, unfortunately, it goes on to sanction discrimination on the basis of religions. It provides that religious institutions, and there is a very broad definition of 'religious institutions'—this is not limited to simply the church or a faith based institution; it's a very broad definition—can discriminate against others where others' views or identities do not align with the institutions' religious beliefs and practices. I have had many people come and talk to me about the right to the ethos of religious teachings and the right to convey that, but there is always a stumbling block of why, then, should that right give you a right to discriminate against others and put other people, including more vulnerable people, at risk?

There's no issue about protection from discrimination. All Australians should have protection against discrimination. Of course it would be wrong for a retailer to refuse to serve someone based on their religious beliefs or practices, or for a landlord to refuse to rent a property to a family due to their religion. But the problem is this bill is not about that. It goes so far beyond that. It permits institutions to discriminate against others, especially where there is a conflict with other antidiscrimination legislations. And we have to remember that to get those antidiscrimination legislations has been a battle. They are hard fought for and won, even the small gains, when it comes to the Sex Discrimination Act, the Racial Discrimination Act, the Disability Discrimination Act. What this bill will do is specifically override state and territory discrimination legislation, and that is wrong. We should be seeking to increase protections, not decrease protections.

I acknowledge this version of the bill has been watered down since it was first released for consultation in 2019. We would all know about the removal of the Folau clause, which prohibited someone from being fired for expressing a statement of belief. That has been removed from the current legislation, so employers are still able to set the standard of conduct expected of employees inside and outside their workplace. It also removes the provisions which allowed for health professionals to refuse treatment on the basis of religious belief. I thought it was just gobsmacking that it was in there in the first place, but that goes to show just how far the intent behind this legislation was prepared to go. This legislation still goes so far beyond being a shield in relation to the right to pursue and express your religious faith. It is weaponising religious faith. It is a sword. It is legalising the right to discriminate. Ultimately, it risks the persecution of so many who are more vulnerable.

When this bill comes into force—if it does—as the most recently passed discrimination law it will be deemed as taking precedence over other discrimination acts where they come into conflict. I have no doubt this override is deliberate and codified. And, in the view of many of my constituents, it elevates the right to discriminate based on religious belief or faith, which is ultimately a choice, above the inherent physical attributes protected by other discrimination legislation—such as disability, sex and race—which are not a choice.

I have a variety of concerns with the current draft of the bill, as have so many speakers and as do so many in our community. In the hearings of the two committees that considered it, so many witnesses said there are grave issues with this bill. A key part is part 2 of the bill, section 7, and the broad definition of a 'religious body'. I've had to explain this to many people who have come to talk to me about this, telling me why, because they were people of faith, this bill was so important. And then they're surprised when they hear just how far the reach is, because section 7 includes many services and needs based institutions such as schools, hospitals, aged-care facilities, disability-care facilities, homelessness services, food banks and many others.

Sections 9 to 11 provide for the ability to hire and fire people in accordance with a publicly stated policy grounded in religious belief. This means that a homelessness organisation or a food bank organisation supported by a faith would have the right to fire the gardener or the cleaners if they were of a different faith, if they were in a same-sex relationship or if they did anything that went against the ethos of the religious organisation.

Section 12, which is very controversial, affords the right to make a statement of belief which, as long as it is in accordance with your religious beliefs, can be offensive and demeaning to the person receiving or subject to the statement. Basically it's a free pass to be offensive, hurtful and demeaning to other people.

I have concerns with these sections because they impact on a variety of groups in society. We know that these are groups that already suffer from types of discrimination. This bill will legalise that right to persecute them and gives individuals and institutions a sword to continue and amplify that discrimination. Women and LGBTQI, disability and even some religious groups, such as the Hindu council, have spoken out about the impact that this bill will have on their lives.

In Warringah we have an increasingly diverse community. Each year I host a youth ambassadors dialogue with all the school captains of the schools in my area. They're invited to come and meet regularly and discuss with me and other school captains their concerns. Each year, especially last year, gender and sexual identity for young people is a top issue. This is something that weighs on their minds, and we know it interrelates with mental health issues. We know we are facing an epidemic of mental health issues. We should be very, very wary of doing anything that could possibly exacerbate what is already a very dire situation. But, instead of focusing on that, we are focusing on a way to make it more divisive and more difficult for some of those young people. Many of the students have expressed to me concerns around a lack of proper education and lack of acceptance around sexual identity and gender, especially in faith based schools and institutions.

Of the 13 schools that take part in the Warringah Youth Ambassadors Program, six are faith based. Across Australia, 30 per cent of schools are faith based or religiously affiliated, and 94 per cent of independent schools are faith based or religiously affiliated. Sex discrimination is already an issue in the school environment. We know LGBTQI students regularly hear or witness discriminatory practices. Ninety per cent of students report hearing homophobic comments at school. Thirty per cent of LGBTQI students say they have experienced or witnessed physical harassment. This bill doesn't improve that situation. In fact, it may well make it much worse, codifying a protection for people to make those comments under the guise of a statement of belief.

We've heard many moving stories and personal reflections in this place in the last two days. I would like to thank and acknowledge the member for Whitlam for his contribution and express my condolences. The member for Bass's very brave speech expressed so well everything that I think is wrong with this legislation. Some of my constituents have contacted me with similar fears for their children. One constituent told me the story of her child who went through three schools before they found one where they felt comfortable and supported. She wrote to me: 'Adolescent kids don't often tell their parents everything, or at least not right away. It took a few days for my non-binary child to reveal what their religious instructor shared in class. Whilst Christians are an accepting lot, God does not approve of homosexuality. This wasn't the first time they experienced homophobia. At 11 years old they lost their best friend when his Christian parents heard a rumour my child might be gay.' I thank that parent for sharing their story with me, to shine a light on the devastating ripple effects that we are discussing in this place. The issue of sexual identity and gender identity in Australia is one that needs to be more deeply understood, and education systems need to be enhanced to increase understanding. We should not be codifying the right for 30 per cent of schools to discriminate against a growing proportion of our children.

Like the LGBTQ community, disability groups are rightly concerned about the statement of belief in the bill. People with disability are often subjected to unwelcome and uninvited statements of religious belief that demean disability as being a result of sin, possession or karma. Those kinds of comments are disgusting. People have been told things like, 'Your disability is a punishment from God for your parents' sins,' and 'You can be healed by prayer,' or 'You deserve to suffer for your disability for what you have done in a previous life.' These are quotes that have been put to me. It's revolting to think that people express that. It's offensive. In the words of the 2022 Australian of the Year, people with disability fight every day to prove they can do whatever they want to do. They don't need your thoughts and prayers. They just need you to treat them with respect. It's something this bill does not do.

There has been much debate about the impact of this bill on women. Women who have children out of wedlock, have had an abortion, have had IVF or live in de facto relationships feel and are worried they will be discriminated against in employment opportunities. This is important because women overwhelmingly work in service based institutions that are very often religiously affiliated. Women have fought hard for equal rights for years now but really haven't yet achieved it in practice. For these rights to now even be legally superseded by religious belief is just not okay. It's a step backwards and it's unacceptable.

I've listened to many in this place talk about how much those rights mean. Yet I have little hope that, when the time comes to vote, more than a few members will actually stand up for their beliefs. Most will follow the politically convenient line and vote for this legislation. They will use the excuses of upcoming elections and possible wedges, and, on this side of the House, they will fail to ultimately stand up for the beliefs that they prosaically describe to their electorates. We have to—and should be able to—do so much better. I think there is a duty and a responsibility in this place to actually make for a better future, not one that is more destructive. So I oppose this legislation.

Debate adjourned.