Mystery surrounds Morrison’s deal on Religious Discrimination bill

The senate inquiry into the government’s Religious Discrimination bill has kicked off with it’s first day of hearings in Canberra, and Labor Senator Deborah O’Neill was asking witnesses if they knew what had happened to Scott Morrison’s deal to protect LGBTIQA+ students.

While the bill was being debated during the final sitting days of the 2021 parliamentary calendar there were reports that Prime Minister Scott Morrison had negotiated with concerned Liberal MPs who were concerned that changes to the Sex Discrimination Act – which allow religious based schools to discriminate against LGBTIQA+ students and teachers – would not be looked until 12 months after the passage of the Religious Discrimination bill.

In December it was reported that Prime Minister Scott Morrison had promised to fast track changes to the Religious Discrimination Act to gain the support of MPs Angie Bell, Dave Sharma, Katie Allen and Fiona Martin. Later during a online event with conservative group Family Voice Australia, Attorney General Michaelia Cash appeared to infer the deal was no longer happening and the two year wait for action on the Sex Discrimination Act was bat on the agenda.

Last week the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights finished up three days of hearings on the bill. On Thursday the senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee commenced public hearings over the bill.

The process saw many of the same politicians and witnesses sparring over the bill. At one point Greens Senator Janet Rice commented that she could no longer remember who she had questioned over the bill in the previous sessions, while Senator O’Neill clashed with committee chair Sarah Henderson on several occasions.

In a heated session Labor’s Senator Deborah O’Neill asked Daniel Flynn from the Australian Christian Lobby if he had any knowledge about what happened to the reported deal. The ACL had publicly stated that they would withdraw their support for the bill if changes were made to the Sex Discrimination Act.

“Somebody’s not telling the truth.” Senator O’Neill said. “Either Mr. Morrison isn’t telling the truth to the public or people aren’t.”

The committee’s chair Senator Henderson interjected and asked for Senator O’Neill’s microphone to be turned off before suspending the proceedings and cutting the live feed of proceedings. After a short time intermission the hearing continued with Senator Henderson issuing a warning to committee members that could not reflect on the behavior of other members of parliament, and asked Senator O’Neill to rephrase her question.

Flynn said the Australian Christian Lobby has not been giving any information on the reported deal by the government, and while they had raised concern about the reports their letters to the government had gone unanswered. Flynn said he was aware that the Attorney General had made statements to Family Voice that suggested the deal was not occurring.

Responding to Greens Senator Janet Rice, Flynn said the concern about the government updating the Sex Discrimination Act had been abated, but if the government took action on the issue the ACL would withdraw support for the Religious Discrimination bill.

“This is not something that should be sorted out in a sort of five minute corridor meeting, it’s to provide protection for students in schools, it’s a very complex matter and agree to withdraw or delete that section simply with no consultation will open up schools and students to unforeseen risks.” Daniel Flynn said.

“So basically you would refer to retain Section 38iii which allows schools to discriminate against, to fire teachers, to expel students on the basis of their sexuality and gender identity, you’d prefer to keep that.” Senator Rice said, asking Flynn if he had to choose between allowing amendments to the Sex Discrimination act and progressing the Religious Discrimination act.

Flynn responded saying the two pieces of legislation were separate processes and there were a lot of difficult processes involved, but argued the Religious Discrimination bill would not cause any disadvantage for gay students.

“No, because  the schools have already got the right to discriminate against them.” Senator Rice responded, adding “and you want to keep that right, and basically…in order to support this bill it’s keep the right to discriminate against same sex attracted and gender diverse students.”

Flynn said he rejected Senator Rice’s characterisation of the situation, and said conflating the issues causes confusion. The ACL’s Deputy Director said he would not frame the ACL’s position in the same manner that Senator Rice had.

Graeme Watson


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