Like many others, NSWCCL scrambled to make a submission to the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department on the Religious Discrimination Exposure Draft Bill 2019 in early October. The Department says it received around 6000 submissions – of which it has to date only published c100.
The Government had wanted to have the Bill brought before this sitting of Parliament. But following very soon after a joint letter from most church leaders indicating their strong opposition to the Bill, the Attorney General has now indicated the Government will release an amended version of the Bill before the end of the year but postpone Parliamentary consideration of the issue until next year.
We oppose the Bill because, although it has elements we support, its overall impact would be to privilege religious rights over other human rights and protections against discrimination. This is a fundamental problem in the Bill.
It was perverse for the Government to act on religious discrimination as a separate issue rather than waiting for the Australian Law Reform Commissions to report on its current inquiry into the Framework of Religious Exemptions in Anti-Discrimination Legislation – which the Government had directed them to undertake. This pre-emption of the ALRC report is especially alarming in that the Government amended the terms of reference to exclude any consideration of this Bill and its impact and interrelationship with existing anti-discrimination laws
The ALRC should confine its inquiry to issues not resolved by that Bill, and should confine any amendment recommendations to legislation other than the Religious Discrimination Bill….
Where to now
We must await the amended Bill to see what changes the Government had in mind - at least until the joint letter from church leaders. But one thing seems clear: the church leaders’ opposition to the Bill is the antithesis to our concerns. They want far more protection for religious freedom including even greater exemptions from anti-discrimination laws than the current Bill provides.
It seems it was an ‘unloved’ Bill. While we are not privy to the full text of the church leaders’ letter or the vast bulk of the submissions - c5900 not public! - it would appear that a huge divide may well be opening up on this issue.
Michael Kirby has warned that this ‘unbalanced’ law will lead to a rise in both religious intolerance and anti-religious hostility threatening secularism in Australia.
Many of us in CCL share this fear. If the churches do indeed push hard for the right to religious freedom to be privileged over other human rights we are in for a difficult and likely very unpleasant and divisive debate next year.
It has never been so urgent to lift the campaign for an integrated charter of human rights for Australia. This will not be easy, but it will be a more constructive pathway towards defining and protecting properly balanced rights than proceeding to deal with the right to religious freedom in isolation.
This will clearly be a major priority for us and many other civil society groups in 2020.
- Dr Lesley Lynch, Co-convenor Civil and Human Rights Action Group