Media Statement: Introduction of the Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Vilification) Bill 2023 – What on earth is driving this nonsense?

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties (NSWCCL) supports a comprehensive review of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act. Anti-discrimination law reform is long overdue and necessary. NSWCCL is not opposed, in principle, to reforms that protect people from vilification for their religious expression or affiliation, however, the Bill does more than this and fails to address other necessary issues.

NSWCCL insists that the Anti-Discrimination Act should protect individuals from vilification but not institutions and not beliefs, which are just ideas which must be freely contestable. The government’s Bill may effectively prohibit vilification or severe ridicule of beliefs or views themselves, or of institutions or organisations, and not merely the vilification or severe ridicule of persons because they belong to a religious group. The Bill, therefore, unacceptably impedes freedom of expression, legitimate criticism and debate.

The Anti-Discrimination Act is in dire need of holistic reform. Successive amendments have made it unwieldy and difficult to understand. Such reform should follow consideration by the NSW Law Reform Commission and with input from stakeholder groups, of how the Act can be modernised to better achieve its aims considering current community standards and expectations. Any question of incorporating protection for religious based discrimination can only properly be considered as part of that wider reform process.

Comments from Josh Pallas, President, NSWCCL

“The NSW Council for Civil Liberties opposes the Bill in its current form. The Bill cannot be fixed with amendments. The only prudent way to facilitate such far reaching reform is through a referral of the whole Anti-Discrimination Act to the NSW Law Reform Commission. There is widespread community support for a complete review, the Attorney General should just get on with it.”

“The uncertainty surrounding the implications of this Bill and the impact it could have on other fundamental rights, coupled with the fact that there is an urgent need for review of the Anti-Discrimination Act overall, makes it inappropriate for the NSW Government to move before a complete review of the Act is conducted by the NSW Law Reform Commission, as promised in the 2023 election campaign.”

“The Council is particularly concerned that the Bill could create a situation in which severe ridicule or vilification of institutions such as, for example, the Catholic Church, Hillsong, the Church of Scientology or the Anglican Church may be taken to constitute severe ridicule or vilification of persons who belong to those organisations, and thus made unlawful.”

“A well-functioning democracy depends on robust debate and criticism as a means of promoting institutional accountability. This necessarily includes criticism of religious institutions and beliefs. Religious beliefs are often discriminatory in nature, and the right to call them out must be preserved.”

“There is no question that public interest in civil rights issues has spiked in recent years. Yet due to structural problems with the current Act, the very people it intends to help would struggle to understand their rights and protections without the assistance of someone with specific legal training in anti-discrimination law. Others within the community, trans people, people with intersex variations and sex workers also receive limited protections under NSW anti-discrimination law. Where is the protection for them? Why should religious organisations receive protection before them?”

“At the end of the day we want an Anti-Discrimination Act that does not discriminate. To move on one aspect of anti-discrimination law, without moving on other areas where the Act is deficient, the Government is sending the wrong message to the community about whose rights and interests are privileged over others.”