BILLS – Religious Discrimination Bill 2021, Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021, Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 – Second Reading
Thank you to all who have written in to me on this issue, both in support of and in opposition to this bill, the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021. Overwhelmingly, the correspondence received by my office has been in favour of the bill, and perhaps, from my electorate, that is not surprising. What was very clear in the correspondence we received was a level of passion on both sides, clearly articulating concerns that exist, needs that need to be filled and the desire, across the board, for certainty.
My area is often described as a strongly conservative place. I think of the German Lutherans and later the Irish Catholics who settled in the Toowoomba region and had a significant impact on the way of life that continues to this day and can be felt very much. Toowoomba is a place where people feel free to make expressions of faith in confidence that they’ll be met in a spirit of good faith and respect. Having lived all around Australia, I appreciate very much that this is not universal. It is something that Toowoomba should be very proud of. In fact, I would argue that the region’s approach to religious expression is one of the reasons we’ve been so successful as a haven for recently arrived refugees—something we’re very proud of—many of whom come to these shores with very strongly held religious beliefs and who, in some very sad cases, as in that of the Yazidi community, were persecuted for holding those beliefs before coming here. I’m very glad they feel proud to come to Toowoomba and feel at ease in expressing their religious beliefs. I’m very proud that we are a refugee welcome zone.
Toowoomba’s brand of conservatism is not an act of resistance to change but rather a desire to continue Western civilisation’s momentum through small and regular steps towards the righteous and the good. That balance we seek, of progress and stability, of freedom and security, was well displayed in the communications I received. Once again, I thank all of those in my community who reached out. I spoke to many this morning, preceding this speech, thanking them for taking that time.
I believe this bill does seek compromise. I believe this very fully. While not everyone who wrote in to me will get what they want, what they will get is an improvement upon what is.
I’d offer a personal reflection as part of my contribution: I wasn’t a churchgoer. I seldom make an expression of my beliefs at all. Neither right nor wrong, good nor bad, I was raised to see religion as an intensely personal matter. I’m not sure this view will prove, in the long term, compatible with political life, but, for now, it’s how I’ve lived. I’ve lived largely free of personal experience of discrimination on the basis of my beliefs, and I would guess this is the experience of most Australians. But, for now, my contribution comes from my role as a parent, overseeing with as much care as I can the growth and education of my own children. I obviously didn’t attend a religious school, but two of my three children have benefited from Catholic education, attending the same school as their mother, St Saviour’s College in Toowoomba. It was there I had my first experience of the sense of religious community and family continuity.
It’s with a view towards the impacts on educational institutions that I’ll address the bill. I think it’s appropriate I do so, as the member for Groom. We are something of an educational hub. We have 28 independent schools. About a quarter of the schools in our region are faith-based. We have people come to Toowoomba from all across western Queensland and northern New South Wales. We are even lucky enough to be able to host a couple of flights of people from Arnhem Land every year, who come down and board in our educational facilities. My wife and I chose Catholic education, as many parents do each year, right around Australia, not just because of the high quality of educational outcomes delivered but for that somewhat intangible element that religious education provides. It’s not just the words that are read out to the kids. It’s not the historical facts or fables that hopefully help our kids to become better and more just and compassionate versions of themselves. In fact, I think of one constituent, a good friend, who told me the story of taking the time as a parent to find the right school for his kid, as a Catholic. He went to all of the Catholic schools in the region and eventually settled on the local state school, as it was the best fit for his child. I think this understanding of what a school offers, what its beliefs are and how they will come out to play in the act, indeed, is what’s important to parents. It’s not in the words spoken but rather in the deeds practised that the full value of education is revealed. As a parent, I look for that ability to apply those teachings in one’s life as a demonstration of a good education. This is, for me, an issue of practice and habit rather than one of instruction, and these are the freedoms I believe this bill seeks to protect.
We here in Australia enjoy many freedoms—freedom of thought, freedom of association, expression of belief—and this bill seeks to enshrine in law something of each one of these. In this place, much work has been done to prevent discrimination on the basis of race, sex and ability, and it’s right that that work has been done. I have lived in countries where that work has not been done, where there are no protections afforded to the vulnerable in the community, where systemic discrimination denies equality of opportunity. During my time in Saudi Arabia, I lived amongst a people whose potential could not ever be met, not because of any fault in themselves but because, by design of government, they were restricted and limited in their freedoms. It may perhaps be an extreme example, but it is one I make to highlight the advantages of addressing discrimination and what that brings to the nation. It is within the context of this broader framework of anti-discrimination that I believe this bill is best appraised. I would encourage the House to view the bill as a welcome addition to the suite of existing legislation that is of so much credit to this nation.
It would be wrong at this point to ignore the events of recent days—the debate sparked by the actions of Citipointe Christian College. It is right that the college has expressed regret for their actions following what was very clearly a declaration of community expectations. I know that the leaders of the religious schools in my area that I’ve spoken to share this view. This episode, however, raises two points that I believe both speak to why this bill is needed. Firstly, there exists a void in our legislative framework when it comes to religion and religious expression, and it’s a void—a pothole, perhaps—in a high-traffic area. Every year, parents, much like Louise and I, engage with religious schools on the basis of certain understandings. We enter into these agreements well informed as to the school’s offer, and, in many cases, the school goes to some effort to understand the needs and commitment of the parents. This is, in the view of a humble engineer, a simple market transaction, an understanding between two bodies. However, as the Citipointe case reveals, there is a lack of certainty as to what legislative protections are in place.
As mentioned, most parents enter into this agreement with their eyes wide open, and so they should. They have certain expectations as to the words and, most importantly, the deeds in the religious instruction that they sign up for. I think this leads to the second point, which others have addressed, and that is how religious freedoms relate to other freedoms that we in this place have worked to achieve. How do we ensure that we don’t create a hierarchy of freedoms that privilege one over the other in a way that is contrary to our social expectations? I very much welcome the recommendation to review the Sex Discrimination Act to ensure that religious freedoms do not enable discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. I think this is a perfectly sensible approach to bringing together a raft of different protections. I would see this as a positive step, and one that acknowledges that we have much to do. We have much work in front of us and we shouldn’t shy away from that.
With respect to those who’ve spoken against the bills on the basis of the problems that are created when we look at religious discrimination in light of other areas we’ve already covered—as I mentioned, discrimination on the basis of sexuality, race or disability—I would argue that this is not a challenge that should prevent us from taking a step forward. Rather, it’s something we should see as a challenge that we must inevitably overcome, and it’s a challenge I very much believe we can overcome. It’s clear, when taking a broader view, that we are going through a period of change in our society and we have yet to find the balance. Perhaps we’ll always be going through periods of change, and so we should—that’s how we bend Western civilisation ever more in the arc towards a better place. We have to find that balance wherein both word and deed religious institutions can engage with confidence and comfortably make expressions of their beliefs.
This is the outcome that I would seek to focus the debate on to ensure that we as a society can continue to benefit from the contributions that religious organisations have made to our society. When a parent picks up their kids from school and asks them what they learned that day, there should be no surprises, and that statement cuts both ways. It has taken us a long time to get to where we are today in regard to sexual discrimination. We’re certainly not perfect; we’re not yet at an end point. But we are better and we are continuing to get better. That is what working to enshrine freedoms does: it improves us. This legislation is not the silver bullet that the previous speaker sought, but rather a step that must be followed by many others as we continue down the path to a better, more just and more compassionate world.
I thank the House for the respectful way in which they’ve conducted this debate. I think being able to have these conversations very much reflects the spirit of this bill. While some contributions have focused on the extreme implications of this legislation—and it’s important to acknowledge those; those unintended consequences should be unacceptable to a diligent House—I would like to end my contribution by noting that in the majority of instances this legislation is enshrining the everyday. This is how we are. I would argue that freedom of religion has long been a core value of Australian society and today it’s thankfully largely respected. Again, I would say that goes both ways with the freedom of religion to express our religious beliefs or our non-religious beliefs. But as we’ve moved to legislate other core values, I’m glad to see us doing so in this legislation. I commend the bills to the House.
To view speech on Hansard go to: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Hansard/Hansard_Display?bid=chamber/hansardr/25465/&sid=0059