If short term reactions are any guide it seems that many of those who submitted to the Ruddock review into religious protections might have some cause for regret. While it is early days, it is likely to throw a timely spotlight on religious school enrolment and employment discrimination. Such discrimination already applies unevenly across Australia, but an emerging question might be why it should exist at all.
The essence of the review’s recommendations was reported in the SMH on Wednesday October 10th. According to the report it seems that the review has dismissed the notion that religious freedom in Australia is in “imminent peril”. The suggestion instead is to make changes to federal anti-discrimination laws to give religious schools some guarantee of the right to turn away gay students and teachers.
It suggests that the review panel thought that streamlining existing practice might placate the dogs of (religious) war.
But early reactions indicate that the door is opening to a wider debate about enrolment and employment discrimination. The horses are already running, albeit in different directions. Within hours Liberal minister Alex Hawke said that such discrimination was absolutely acceptable: “in Australia you have choice of schooling”. Scott Morrison stressed that the review’s key finding wasn’t a change and that what was reported were just proposals. Both Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek rejected expanding any such discrimination.
As the SMH reported, Mr Morrison was asked: “So you’re comfortable with a school expelling a student because they are gay or lesbian?” The Prime Minister replied: “It is existing law.”
It’s almost as if last year’s plebiscite didn’t happen and that regardless, other discrimination against the LBGTI community can remain enshrined in legislation and even expanded. The reality is that events over the last 12 months have exposed longstanding discrimination (on the basis of sexual orientation) by many religious schools as an unwanted anachronism.
Widening the discriminatory powers of religious schools raises a host of questions. There will be a big debate: in the coming weeks those that sought greater discrimination may well be reminded how important it is to be careful what you wish for.
Even without any expansion, the existing framework of discrimination is now questionable for another reason. They date back to an era when private schools were indeed substantially private and the idea of excessive government regulation was not on many agendas. But now, most religious schools are funded, by governments, at levels close to the government funding of public schools. In financial terms most religious schools are effectively government schools.
So how is it appropriate that governments allow discrimination in some of its funded schools? Why should some schools be permitted, on the public purse, to cultivate their preferred ‘environment and ethos’ by excluding even more of those they don’t want?
Apologists for expanding discrimination will parade the usual comments about the desirability of school choice. But even just confirming existing discrimination would further mock the already farcical state of school choice, Australian style.
It has only been available to those who can pay the money, pass a test or push the right buttons. Now we have a whole LGBTI community, otherwise strongly supported in last year’s plebiscite, who won’t and shouldn’t accept discrimination by taxpayer-funded private (?) schools.
They can have a wedding, they can even have a wedding cake, but when it comes to one-third of Australia’s schools they needn’t even bother applying.
Chris Bonnor is co-author with Jane Caro of What makes a Good School.