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KERRYN PHELPS: Religious Discrimination Bill a ham-fisted display of bigotry

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The controversy over the Religious Discrimination Bill has further exposed Scott Morrison's lack of humanity (Image by Dan Jensen)

It has taken some time for me to process how I felt after the past week in Australian politics. 

I am mostly angry. 

It was a particularly tough week for transgender and gender diverse people and their families with the farce that was the coalition Government’s ham-fisted attempt at a Religious Discrimination Bill

What a travesty. 

What a debacle.

Yet again, the LGBTQI community, particularly transgender children and adults, have been made to suffer for the bigotry of a small number of individuals and organisations hell-bent on making their lives even more difficult.

In my first speech to Parliament back in 2018, I spoke about the human experience of politics. Government policies impact people’s lives positively or adversely. 

Human-centred government policy starts with the question: “How will this decision impact the quality of life of the people this policy affects?”  

There was no more poignant illustration of the potential impact of this Bill on the quality of life of the people it would affect than MP Stephen Jones’ heart-wrenching speech about his nephew and his son.

Religious vilification can and does happen. A simple change to anti-discrimination legislation could address that and there may well need to be some future changes to protect religious expression that does not impinge on the rights of others. But this Bill should never have been presented to Parliament in that form without far more careful consideration of the consequences — intended and unintended.

The progress of the debate was like a very slow-moving game of chess. Only in this game of chess, the pawns were the people most likely to be harmed by the legislation proposed personally by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and backed by the majority of the Liberal-National Coalition.

We need to look back at the origin of this Bill. 

It was meant as a consolation prize, an appeasement offering to a few conservative religious groups who were annoyed that their “Vote NO to Marriage Equality” campaign failed and the legislation was passed back in December 2017.

The intention of the Religious Discrimination Bill was to enable religious schools and other organisations to be able to discriminate against LGBTQI students, teachers and other employees with impunity. There would also be potential for LGBTQI people, unwed mothers, divorcees, people living with a disability and others employed by or interacting with religious organisations to be harmed by this dangerous legislation.

In his speech, Greens leader Adam Bandt called the Bill “a Trojan Horse for hate”

The Australian Christian Lobby revealed its intention when their spokesperson said:

“Taking away protections for Christian schools is a price too high to pay for the passage of the Religious Discrimination Bill. The amendments voted on by Labor, Independents and these Liberal MPs unnecessarily interfere with the operation of faith-based schools. The loss of this protection would outweigh any benefits that could be obtained by the Religious Discrimination Bill.”

Outweigh. Any. Benefits. Let that sink in for a moment. Genuinely protecting an individual’s right to religious expression or protecting religions from victimisation was never the main game. 

Let me be perfectly clear. The “protection” they are talking about is for “faith-based” schools to be protected against any consequences of discriminating against LGBTQI students and teachers.

An amendment to specifically protect gay and transgender students was proposed by crossbench MP Rebekha Sharkie and supported by Labor as well as five Government MPs who did the decent thing and crossed the floor. 

It is significant that this amendment was proposed by Ms Sharkie. I have repeatedly made the point that a strong crossbench of socially progressive Independents is the hope of the future for Australian politics, including rejecting or improving bad legislation.

The so-called “statement of faith” part of the Bill was a particular concern.

Rebekha Sharkie told Parliament:

“This effectively will create, I believe, open mic night for some organisations and perhaps some people of faith to say and do whatever they like no matter how hurtful, no matter how discriminatory. It is an incredibly powerful clause that allows such a statement of faith to override existing federal, state and territory laws.”

The amendment on that did not succeed because of the five Liberal MPs, only Bridget Archer crossed the floor.

Anyhow, Labor looked set to dig their heels in on other amendments, but the House sent the Bill through to the Senate for further debate. It was a bold move, but it had the desired effect.

The Senate is where it all came apart for Scott Morrison and the religious Right. They wanted the Bill to pass in its entirety. The Senate was not going to let that happen, so the Bill was not able to achieve its thinly veiled aim — to allow religion to be used as an excuse to discriminate against gay and transgender children and adults.

The Bill was withdrawn. 

We could talk about all of the pressing issues Parliament should have been dealing with this week — an integrity commission, management of the COVID pandemic, historic levels of government debt, climate change, aged care, political donation reform.

But no, precious time was taken up by a disingenuous Bill that should never have seen the light of day in the form that was presented to Parliament, forcing Labor to play that risky game of chess with real people’s lives. 

In the end, it was checkmate. 

So, big relief. 

For now.

Politics should aim to enhance lives, not the opposite. Thank you to all of the advocates who have worked so hard to protect that principle.

Let’s return to the concept of human-centred government policy.

Ultimately, the best way forward would be for Australia to put the work into developing a universal bill of rights so that every individual is able to live with dignity, mutual respect and freedom from discrimination.

Professor Kerryn Phelps AM is an IA columnist, general practitioner, advisory board member and conjoint professor at NICM Health Research Institute, a Climate 200 advisory panel member, a member of OzSAGE and a former Sydney Deputy Lord Mayor. You can follow her on Twitter @drkerrynphelps.

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