Religious Discrimination Bill 2021

It is extraordinary that at 11:43 on a Wednesday evening we are discussing this bill when we are literally in the middle of an aged-care crisis. The Prime Minister has had four years to bring this bill to the parliament after having promised it for the election. That is four years during which he could have had a faith summit and brought together faith leaders from around the country in the spirit that he promised but has not delivered on—a bipartisan spirit. He could have brought the Labor Party, perhaps the Greens, people from all parties and creeds and colours, into a faith summit and had a really unifying moment for this country. Instead, we have a bill before the House that has been rushed through within 24 hours on the eve of an election. It's just an absolutely disgraceful, disrespectful way to treat people of faith and the parliament.

One of the most sacred duties of us in this place is to protect children, and this bill fails that duty. Expert after expert tells us that this bill, if left unamended, will hurt children. We know that young gay people attempt suicide at five times the rate of other young people. For transgender young people, the rate is an extraordinary 15 times higher. Legislation that compounds and heightens this risk is not legislation that should pass this parliament. Labor is seeking to amend the bill before the House. We do hope enough members of the government remain awake and that the crossbench support our amendments so that an amended bill can be put to the Senate. If Labor's amendments fail here, we will allow this bill to proceed to the Senate where we will seek to secure support for our amendments from crossbench and individual senators, and we will insist on those amendments.

Let's make it very, very clear: Labor supports religious freedom; that is uncontested. Most on this side do not wear their faith like a fancy coat. I know many Labor MPs and senators who are people of deep religious faith. Others, like me, are lapsed. I was born and raised a Catholic. In my teens and early 20s I had an experience as a young evangelical, and for many years I was an atheist. But in more recent years I've come to question my place in the universe, and I've come to the conclusion in my 50s that maybe I don't know everything and maybe the universe is more mysterious than I thought it was. Atheism's not for me; I'm still questioning my place. Spirituality and faith are deeply personal things. Of course, there are on this side, and I dare say on the other side, some fervent atheists as well.

It's worth reflecting that Labor governments across Australia have a proud history and strong records when it comes to protecting people of faith against discrimination. Wayne Goss, as Queensland Premier back in 1991, legislated religious freedom. In WA, the Labor government did it in 1984. A Labor government did the same in the ACT in 1991. A CLP government in the Northern Territory did it in 1982. Jim Bacon's Labor government in Tasmania amended Tasmania's discrimination laws similarly in 1999. Labor has a proud record of protecting people of faith and protecting religious freedom. These go to the core Labor values of fairness and equality. As I say, we don't often wear it on our sleeves. It's not always obvious, but we do and have always respected people of faith and the role that they play in society.

Australia is and should be a place that welcomes people of all colours, identities and creeds. People of all colours, identities and creeds should be free to be who they are, free of harassment, free of discrimination and free of intolerance. The intersection of spirituality and secularism is a busy juncture, but surely what drives us should be the notion that people should be free to be who they are and be free to worship or not. It can be argued that a Catholic school should be able to preference a Catholic teacher. But what happens if a Catholic teacher happens to also be gay or divorced or have a child out of wedlock? They're not mutually exclusive. You can be Catholic and be those things. To what extent should an employer be able to intrude on an employee's life based not just on their religion but on other aspects of their life? Some of them are out of that person's control. Of course, religious institutions are not just churches and schools. Increasingly, they are aged-care centres, disability service providers, hospitals, housing providers and employment service providers. Many of them are government funded, replacing government services almost totally in some regions.

Traditionally, government has tried to stay arm's length from matters of religion, and I think this is desirable. Faith is a deeply personal thing and it deserves and is entitled to protection. I wholeheartedly support the principle of protecting religious beliefs and protecting people from religious vilification, which Labor's amendments seek to do. Women in hijabs or habits should be protected, as should men wearing yarmulkes or turbans. We can't have this debate without mentioning the fact that 51 Muslim worshippers in two Christchurch mosques were brutally murdered by an Australian terrorist simply because they were Muslims. It was a religious, hate based crime. That has to be stated as part of this debate because that should never happen. Any laws that deal with religious freedom or religious antivilification should always remember that. People of faith deserve the right to practice their faith in peace and in safety. But people should also be protected from religion. People with disabilities should not have to endure being told that they can't walk because they are sinful. Women who work should not have to put up where being told that God wants them to stay at home. And people of one faith should not have to endure being told by adherents of another that they are unworthy of God's love.

Getting the balance right between freedom of expression and freedom from vilification is not easy, but to a large extent Tasmania has got it right for the past two decades. Our antidiscrimination laws in Tasmania work exceptionally well. They are an exemplar and should be a model for a national standard. Instead, this bill, it it's not amended, will effectively extinguish them, and that would be a grave error. If the Prime Minister had seriously wanted to advance this matter, he would have done so three years ago, holding that faith summit, bringing leaders together and seeking common purpose across this aisle. But he did not do that. He has brought on a significant bill in the dying hours of this parliament, and we know why: his preference is to wedge the Labor Party.

He would love to go to the election saying that Labor had blocked religious freedom. He wouldn't be out there telling the truth, saying that Labor does support religious freedom, but has issues with his bill. That would not suit his political purposes. He would distil his message down to, 'Labor blocked religious freedom.' He would go out with that message. Telling people of faith—new Australians who have made their home here having perhaps arrived from countries torn by conflict—that the alternative government doesn't support their right to freedom of worship would be a potent message because for people who have escaped conflict, religious freedom is not some abstract thing. In the homeland they have left it might literally have been a matter of life and death. Labor want to make it clear—and we are shouting this from the rooftops of this place—that we support religious freedom and we want people of faith to be free from discrimination. We want you to be able to practise your faith and worship in peace.

In my own electorate many people of faith do amazing work. They feed the poor, they provide emergency housing and alcohol and drug rehabilitation, they support women escaping domestic violence. Throughout the COVID pandemic they've been on the front line, providing volunteer services. These are people of deep faith who practise good works, mainly in the name of Christ—most people in my electorate are Christian—but they are often not the people we hear from in these debates. Instead we mainly hear from American-style lobbyists who are more interested in fostering division and hate and who seem obsessed by particular aspects of people's identities, as if such attributes put people at odds with being able to live a life of faith.

This bill simply does not get the balance right, and it requires amendment. I urge every member opposite, every member of the government who has expressed doubt and disquiet about the government's bill, to come into this chamber and vote for Labor's amendments. They will make this bill better and they will help young people. If this bill is amended and those amendments are passed in the Senate, it will be better for the country. That would then bring this parliament and, hopefully, the nation together. I urge the House to accept Labor's amendments.