Senator Statements Discrimination and Religious School Freedoms

Senator Statements Discrimination and Religious School Freedoms

I rise to speak about the amendments the government has proposed in this chamber to the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018, because in all of the political huffing and puffing on this issue I still think there are very few people who actually understand them.

I'd like to start with two important propositions. The first is that no student should be discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality alone. That is something on which all sides of this chamber agree; it's not in contest. So everyone can stop grandstanding about how good they're going to be to vulnerable students. That change is going to happen, and that's despite the fact that no student has ever been expelled from a religious school for being gay. So let's start by taking that inflammatory matter well and truly off the table.

The second proposition is this: it is a right fundamental to being a free person in a free society that we're all entitled to freedom of religion, because, at its core, it's about freedom of thought and freedom of association. It is utterly non-negotiable in a free society.

I support the government's amendments to the bill because they ensure that no student will be discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality alone in a way that sensibly balances the rights of schools that are religious to operate according to the tenets of the faith for which they were established. It is utterly extraordinary, for example, that a simple amendment stating that it is not unlawful to teach the doctrines of a religion in good faith is so abhorrent to Labor. They reject it outright. So all can see that this is simple, commonsense stuff.

Let me read out amendment KQ149, and I'll do it word for word:

(1) Nothing in this Act renders it unlawful to engage in teaching activity if that activity:

(a) is in good faith in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed; and

(b) is done by, or with the authority of, an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with those doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings.

That's it. It's simple stuff. It should be uncontroversial, particularly in the context of schools giving up the exemptions they had in the past—and, yet, Labor will not have it. They resist the most simple, basic protection of the right to teach a faith in a school chosen by parents because it offers a faith based education. This exposes the real agenda here. It is to gut religious schools of their religious foundations. That's an assault on freedom that should disturb all Australians, no matter what their political views are. Labor shouldn't be able to get away with what they're doing here, paying lip service to the importance of religious schools while refusing to accept that they deserve the simple right to teach what they have believed for centuries—demanding that religious doctrine bow down and be overridden by the desire to ensure that no-one could suffer detriment simply by hearing it.

Let me make it very clear: no-one in this country has to be religious. No parent needs to send their child to a religious school. There are plenty of religion-free zones in our public schools and in many independent schools. If that's what you as a student want or if that's what you as a parent want, it is available to you. But don't take religion away from those who do want it, for those who do believe with every fibre of their being.

Here is another amendment that should also be unobjectionable—KQ147. It would stop the amendment to section 37 proposed by Labor, and here's why. That provision is a massive overreach. It attempts to apply discrimination law well beyond the schoolyard. It wants to apply it inside a synagogue, in the pulpit, in the sermon, in the mosque and in the seminary. It represents an aggressive move to regulate the content of religion, and it is damning to freedom of thought, speech and faith because of it.

Finally, there's amendment KQ148, in which the government would insert a section 7E to the act. This is an important amendment to understand because it actually provides considerable protection to students struggling with gender or sexuality. It provides that when considering the defence of reasonableness to indirect discrimination it will be relevant to take into account whether the condition, requirement or practice imposed by the educational institution is one that's imposed in accordance with the tenets of the faith and—here's the kicker; here's the important bit—'in accordance with a publicly available policy'. The reason this helps students is that it is up-front and clear as crystal. Before anyone enrols in a religious school, before anyone is in doubt, before anyone is in conflict, the school must, if it wants to rely on this section, be very clear about how it will handle these issues. This transparency is a protection for students, but it also gives necessary certainty for schools. It also, very importantly, provides that schools must have regard to the best interests of the child in a customised, personalised way.

None of these amendments are extreme. All are simple, balanced and fair to all students, whatever their views and wherever they are at in their lives. The resistance to these amendments and the political grandstanding is proof of the extreme Left's aggressive agenda. That agenda is borne out when we see that they will not even contemplate these amendments. I think that's a very sad thing for freedom in this country.