Parliament must reduce discrimination, not increase it - Speech, House of Representatives


In 1964 a man called Michael delivered a sermon in Ivanhoe Methodist Church. He was a young, bookish bloke, a runner, who had just returned from Borneo. In the congregation was a woman who was training to be a teacher, Barbara. She had just returned from Papua New Guinea, and so they got chatting. He offered to drive her home. She lived almost within sight of the church and said, 'Yes, a lift home would be lovely.' And so my parents fell in love. I literally wouldn't be standing here today were it not for the Ivanhoe Methodist Church. One of my role models is my grandfather Keith Leigh, a Methodist minister who tragically died in 1970, doing a fundraising run up Mount Wellington in Hobart to raise money for overseas aid.

And one of the things I've loved since becoming a federal member of parliament is engaging with the many faith communities here in the ACT. We've got the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture—the other ACCC, you might say. There's the Sikh temple and Sikh groups who, through Turbans 4 Australia, distributed meals to people under lockdown. It was one of the great examples of the Sikh community's willingness to give back to the community. The Hindu Temple and Cultural Centre, in Florey, has a great following in the local community. Gungahlin Mosque has many parishioners and regularly serves food and welcomes people in. Through its open day, it welcomes Muslims and non-Muslims alike to the mosque. Kippax Uniting Church distribute a huge number of hampers every year, to the extent that I once quipped with them that they're really a large social service organisation with a small faith community attached to the side. The Baha'i community, the Buddhist community, the Canberra Quakers, the Anglicans, the Catholics, the Pentecostals and the evangelicals all help to form a rich tapestry of the Canberra community. They strengthen community through their volunteering and their donations.

As the shadow Attorney-General has pointed out, it is already unlawful under the antidiscrimination laws in most states and territories for individuals to be discriminated against on the basis of their religious beliefs or practices. Labor's principles as we approach this bill are threefold. As the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights makes clear, religious organisations and people of faith should have the right to act in accordance with the doctrines, beliefs and teachings of their traditions and faith. We support the extension of the Commonwealth's antidiscrimination framework to ensure Australians are not discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or activities. And we want to ensure that, consistent with the international covenant, any extension of the Commonwealth's antidiscrimination framework does not remove protections that already exist in the law to protect Australians from other forms of discrimination.

But this bill has come awfully late in the parliamentary term. The Prime Minister promised in December 2018 that a religious discrimination bill would be passed before the 2019 election. He broke that promise. He didn't even introduce it in 2020 or early 2021. He waited until the end of 2021, until the very end of the parliamentary sitting year, as we are heading now rapidly to an election, to introduce this bill. That has meant that, over the 71 days between the introduction of the bill and the bringing down of their committee reports, parliamentary committees have had to work furiously with stakeholders. That 71-day period included 12 religious holidays, and for most people was a period of school holidays. I acknowledge the hard work that the members for Moreton and Macnamara and Senators Ciccone, O'Neill and Pratt, who have worked through this period in order to scrutinise this bill.

The challenge that has been noted by many submitters is that, by overriding state and territory antidiscrimination law, there is a concern that people who are bringing antidiscrimination cases might not be able to do it or would face a more complicated or expensive process. Labor senators have noted that there isn't an antivilification provision in the Religious Discrimination Bill, despite the fact that, as I mentioned, religious discrimination is on the rise.

A number of concerns have been raised in relation to clause 12, including the concern that it elevates religious speech above other human rights while undermining existing protections that may override existing federal, state and territory antidiscrimination laws; concerns the provision may be unconstitutional; concerns that it provides the minister with the power to prescribe other laws to be overridden; and concerns that discrimination complaints relating, in whole or part, to a statement of belief under state antidiscrimination laws will face a much more complicated and expensive process as a result of this provision.

The Prime Minister, three years ago, promised that he would change the law to protect kids. There is widespread support for this in the parliament, and it is beyond me why the Prime Minister has not done that, has not made the change.

This is an issue which has been raised with me by a number of constituents. Mary Davis of Palmerston wrote to me: 'My daughter was incorrectly identified as being male at birth. She was educated at a wonderful co-educational Christian school in Canberra. After years of feeling that her assigned gender was at odds with her real gender, with the mental and psychological struggles that came with that, she eventually came out as female in year 12. Her school embraced her for who she was and celebrated with her who she would become. She readily tells people that her school kept her alive during the difficult years of her adolescence through their caring and acceptance.' But Ms Davis goes on to say, 'I know of many other transgender children who have not been as lucky as my daughter in their school lives.' She is concerned that those children may be subject to discrimination.

Kathy, another constituent, who has asked me not to use her surname, has written to me about her then 12-year-old child who told her father and Kathy that she 'doesn't think she's a girl', and that she was questioning whether she was trans or gender nonbinary. Kathy writes: 'This didn't come entirely as a shock. We discussed her feelings as a family. My daughter told us that she was still happy for us to call her "she" and that she was comfortable in her skin, which we were very relieved about. She now wears boys clothing and she doesn't talk about her thinking. When we check in with her, she's still fine and still feeling the same way. She's one of the most caring, deep-thinking, intelligent and compassionate children I've met. It's a pleasure to be her parent and it's a joy to have her in our family.' Kathy says that her child attends a Catholic school and that she's confided her thoughts and feelings to her friends at school, and they're totally accepting of her. But, again, as with Mary Davis, Kathy is concerned that children in other schools may face discrimination and that children who are not as comfortable in their identities may be subject to a backlash. She is concerned that this bill might make discrimination worse.

A powerful article posted online by Rachel Cunneen goes on to talk about Nick, Rachel's transgender child, who faced significant challenges in transition and received support from the principal of the school. But, as Rachel Cunneen writes, 'I became aware of parents and teachers who could no longer meet my gaze.' It is concerns of that kind that make it important that we support transgender children who are making that journey and that we don't worsen discrimination in this process.

It is a strong Labor legacy to enact antidiscrimination laws. We look back proudly at the work of the Racial Discrimination Act under the Whitlam government and the Sex Discrimination Act under the Hawke government. There were those on the other side of the House who voted against the Sex Discrimination Act at the time. Labor were unified in our support for those reforms, and we are supportive of further measures to reduce discrimination. But it is our concern that this bill not worsen discrimination and that it not put vulnerable Australians in a position in which they might be subject to expulsion, to being vilified and to feeling that their mental health issues are being worsened.

We know that the prevalence of mental health problems is significantly higher among LGBT+ members of our community. We know that the journeys that a child faces coming out or struggling with a different gender identity are difficult journeys. They are difficult conversations. We want to make sure that those children receive the love and support that they deserve from their entire community.

In closing, I thank the many people of faith and the people not of faith who have taken the opportunity to speak to me about this bill. It is important that we as a parliament make a decision on this bill that we can look back on in years to come and feel that we expanded on the work of the Sex Discrimination Act and the Racial Discrimination Act. But there is a greater tension at play in this bill than there was with those bills. It is absolutely vital, particularly as the parliament looks at the clauses surrounding a statement of belief, that a compromise is crafted which reduces discrimination in Australia and does not increase it.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.



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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.