Subjects: Religious Discrimination Bill, state vaccine mandates, Pauline Hanson attendance of Parliament, Canberra protests
TOM CONNELL: I was joined a short time ago by the Liberal Senator and Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General. I’ve began by asking her what the government’s proposal would actually mean for gay students, whether they would be at risk of expulsion, or not being able to be enrolled in a school.
AMANDA STOKER: We are really intent on making sure kids don’t face discrimination in their schooling and that includes dealing with the part of Section 38 (3) of the Sex Discrimination Act that deals with expulsion.
TOM CONNELL: Okay, and would that be enrolment as well? Or just expulsion?
AMANDA STOKER: Well, we’re consulting. The commitment that we’ve made is in relation to expulsion.
TOM CONNELL: Okay. So, there’d be a possibility of a student’s sexuality meaning they couldn’t get enrolled at a school, or you’re still weighing that up?
AMANDA STOKER: Look, I think it’s important that we put this in a practical context. There’s a whole range of different schools in our community, they cater to all different needs and all different beliefs. Parents and schools are going to be best placed to work together to find ways to accommodate the needs of students, whatever their needs may be – sexuality or otherwise. And, as far as we can, governments should respect that. Now we want to make sure that we eliminate unfair discrimination, but we don’t want to interfere with the ability of parents and schools to be able to freely contract-
TOM CONNELL: Yeah-
AMANDA STOKER: -because they know-
TOM CONNELL: -and a lot of the time, it does happen. But there can be other examples and the legal framework that you set still matters. That’s your part of the job so, so on the sexuality, you’re unsure about enrolment, whether or not enrolment could be refused based on sexuality?
AMANDA STOKER: The basis on which we have proceeded so far is that we would deal with the situation of expulsion and the-
TOM CONNELL: Okay.
AMANDA STOKER: -reason that’s important is because that’s a disruption to an existing schooling journey for that child-
TOM CONNELL: So, does that mean enrolments are left up to the school? Is that what you’re saying?
AMANDA STOKER: Well, it means that we need to work in a much more real way. These prescriptive, far away debates don’t actually reflect the reality of how schools approach these things.
TOM CONNELL: But we’re talking about the legal framework you’re setting up.
AMANDA STOKER: Yeah. I know.
TOM CONNELL: So we still just need to know whether or not, what you’re going to do on the enrolment side of things? Is that up in the air?
AMANDA STOKER: Well, it’s not, look, it’s something we’re prepared to consult with, particularly given the events of the last week. We aren’t close off anything. But let’s take a step back here. If we go too far, particularly and taken amendments like that what was proposed by Ms Sharkie in the House, and was supported by Labor, and the Greens, and the Independents, and a handful of Liberals. The consequences are not just to make sure that a person on the basis of gender identity and sexuality does not experience discrimination, the effect of that amendment would be to make it impossible for schools to be able to manage the behaviour of students, to be able to provide consequences for action for behaviours that go contrary-
TOM CONNELL: -I know that you’ve said they were poorly drafted changes-
AMANDA STOKER: But this is really significant. Those changes would have made single sex schools basically non-viable from here on, unable to protect, for instance, girls in contact sport from injury, unable to provide practical workarounds for people in gender transition-
TOM CONNELL: -I know, I know that Bill’s not your intention. What about transitioning students though? So, same question for them in terms of what schools can do. Will they not be able to expel a transgender student?
AMANDA STOKER: The reason we referred this to the Australian Law Reform Commission for design in light of the Religious Discrimination Bill that was to emerge from the Senate, is because this stuff is so complex.
TOM CONNELL: -So that-
AMANDA STOKER: -and it requires careful design. We accept the objective, and we don’t want to see transgender young people find themselves in situations where they’re not being treated fairly and kindly and inclusively, but at the same time we can’t, in our efforts to accommodate that group, make all of the religious schools that cater to hundreds of thousands of families unable to operate according to their function. So are we try to thread that needle, we need to work with the Australian Law Reform Commission to carefully design that-
TOM CONNELL: Okay, so you’ve got an intention and you’ll see what comes out of that. Just finally, do you envisage that you could be treating single sex schools differently to coed schools, when these changes are eventually made?
AMANDA STOKER: Look, probably not. Although of course we’ll work with the Australian Law Reform Commission’s expertise on that design and the reason is, for instance, that all of the risks that might arise in relation to say, the safety of girls’ sport, in circumstances where you might have biological males presenting as females in a single sex girls’ school, all of those issues still arise in a coed school too. It’s just that there are additional dimensions to take into account in single sex schools.
TOM CONNELL: Okay, you noted on Twitter One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson turned out to protest here but hasn’t had a great record at Parliament of attending Parliament. Has she been missing Parliament when she should not have been?
AMANDA STOKER: Look, I’ve seen Senator Hanson appear via videolink from time to time and of course, that is a measure that’s available for people who are unable to be in Canberra to do their duties. But there is a real question to be answered, I think, when you are well and able to come down to Canberra for a protest but you aren’t well and able enough or haven’t provided an explanation as to why you can’t be here for your Parliamentary duties.
TOM CONNELL: So she hasn’t provided an explanation, is that the problem?
AMANDA STOKER: Not that I’ve seen and it’s-
TOM CONNELL: Have you checked that?
AMANDA STOKER: I have, although not in the last 24 hours-
TOM CONNELL: Okay.
AMANDA STOKER: -So, it’s, I think, really important that we say to people like Senator Hanson and those who might think it is in their interests to spend time their campaigning, rather than doing their Parliamentary duties, that ultimately, what you’re campaigning for is to do those duties in the Australian Parliament. So, show up and do them.
TOM CONNELL: The issue itself, this protest, the government has been stressing the last couple of days – in particular, the PM – there are only mandates for aged care, that you’re responsible for. What about as federal departments though, we’re talking about quite a few thousands of workers and they could set a bit of a trend? The federal government has let them set mandates for their offices.
AMANDA STOKER: My perspective, and I’ve been consistent on this throughout the pandemic, is that mandates are only really justifiable in high-risk environments. That’s consistent with the advice of say, the Fair Work Commission, and it’s consistent with common sense because, while vaccination is the smart thing to do, and it’s the right thing to do for individuals and for your personal and family health, ultimately decisions about what medicines go into your body should be for the individual.
TOM CONNELL: So, just on that then, if you had your way there wouldn’t be mandates for office workers, for someone just wanting to go to a café or a pub?
AMANDA STOKER: Well, we know these things are in the hands of the Premiers. If I were the Premier of Queensland, I wouldn’t have imposed mandates. I think mandates are deeply illiberal. That said, we should be doing everything we can to help individuals understand these vaccines are safe, that they are smart, that they are sensible, and that it’s part of the way they can help us all move into a life where we can freely associate again in our community in the way that we like to.
TOM CONNELL: What’s your message to the protesters that are here in Canberra at the moment?
AMANDA STOKER: We understand you. We are sympathetic at least tot hose of you who come at it from those really very normal perspectives about just wanting to be able to go about your work, while taking sensible precautions-
TOM CONNELL: When you say ‘those of you’, there are some pretty fringe elements too?
AMANDA STOKER: That’s right, there’s some ratbags in there and I don’t pretend to understand what makes them tick.
TOM CONNELL: Okay.
AMANDA STOKER: But there are handfuls of good people in that crowd and to the extent that those people are struggling with something for which they are not getting the flexibility and practicality in state government mandate enforcement that they need, I’m sympathetic. And I’m prepared to keep holding the feet of the state governments to the fire.
TOM CONNELL: Amanda Stoker, thanks for your time today.
Authorised by Senator The Hon Amanda Stoker, Liberal National Party, Queensland