Federal Labor is sending mixed messages about the Morrison Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill, writes Brian Greig.
Labor must stop sitting on the fence. For months last year, it has said it will not comment on the Religious Discrimination Bill until it is tabled.
Then it was tabled. Now Labor says it will not comment until two parliamentary committees report on the Bill.
That will be February 4 this year, just days before the next election.
For more than four years the “religious freedom” movement has been running wild in Australia. It’s the result of a backlash to marriage equality from those who opposed it. Labor failed to engage.
On key principles such as whether or not publicly funded faith schools should be allowed to discriminate against LGBTIQ+ students and staff, Labor has not taken a clear position.
And what about publicly funded services provided by faith organisations, including age care, hospitals, charities welfare and housing – does Labor think they should be entitled to discriminate against LGBTIQ+ staff? Silence.
What about the fact that the Bill overrides the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act to the particular detriment of people with a disability? More silence.
Three years ago, then Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek told The Guardian:
“I see a ‘real problem’ with how the government’s proposed religious discrimination law overrides state legislation… the inclusion of a specific clause that overrides Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act would be difficult for the opposition to support.”
So is Labor going to vote against it? We don’t need a committee’s report to confirm this.
Plibersek also said:
“Labor will not be giving support to any proposals that see discrimination being allowed against other members of the community. No one should be discriminated against on the basis of their religion, but greater protections for people – from religious discrimination – should not result in fewer protections for any other group in our society.”
Great! So does this mean Labor will oppose the Bill? It strips away existing protections.
We don’t need a committee to confirm this. It’s printed in the Bill.
So why the silence?
Now we have New South Wales Senator Keneally, Labor’s Deputy Leader in the Senate, sending mixed messages about where Labor stands.
On December 6, Senator Keneally appeared in a webinar with the anti-LGBTI group Family Voice Australia, in which she expressed support for every school to require all staff to “live out and profess” its values.
Keneally said she believed a religious school “has a right not to hire teachers of another faith” and can “make decisions based on hiring those who can uphold those values”.
What Keneally didn’t say, was whether or not “upholding values” includes the right to faith schools to discriminate against LGBTIQ+ employees, by refusing to hire them and sacking them without recourse.
This is what the religious right demand and the Religious Discrimination Bill expressly allows for it. It even overrides laws in those states that have outlawed this discrimination.
Both Opposition Leader Albanese and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have said (belatedly), that no students should be expelled and no teachers sacked if they are LGBTIQ+.
But both have been silent on the question of enrolment and recruitment, leaving open the door for religious schools to block LGBTIQ+ students and staff from applying in the first instance.
So, which is it Labor?
Do you support LGBTIQ+ students and staff in publicly funded, faith based schools and services or not?
Waiting on a parliamentary committee to look at these questions will solve nothing, because the problem here is internal to Labor, not external to the community.
On December 8, Keneally was expressing her concern to the Sydney Morning Herald that the Religious Discrimination Bill will become “a political football.”
Keneally said the debate was at risk of being derailed by politics and sought to reassure religious voters Labor had learned the lessons of the 2019 election, which saw it lose support in religious communities.
Wrong, Senator, it’s already a political football.
The government is using the Religious Discrimination Bill to wedge Labor in western Sydney. In particular, those seats that voted against marriage equality in 2017.
Labor should be reaching out to these communities with messages like, “Marriage equality didn’t make the sky fall in”.
They should explain that the Morrison Government has bungled the push for genuine religious discrimination legislation by playing political games.
It should have started that outreach three years ago instead of curling up into a ball.
But it’s not too late for it to abandon its short-sighted, small-target strategy and actually educate voters.
The real tragedy here is that Labor has not learned the lessons from 2004.
In the final sitting days before that election, Prime Minister John Howard introduced a Bill to ban gay marriage.
This panicked Labor, wedging it politically. It played small-target.
It rushed to support the Bill, even shutting down a committee enquiry into the legislation and gagging debate in the Senate.
Labor believed that supporting religious conservatives would help it win.
However it lost and lived to regret that decision for another 13 years.
The exact same politics is playing out once again, but there is still time for Labor to turn this around.
Brian Greig OAM is a former Democrats Senator. He was in parliament when Labor voted to ban marriage equality.
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