Labor senator Deborah O’Neill has accused the Coalition of botching religious freedom reform while profiting from faith-based communities’ fears about Labor. With Coalition MPs calling for greater protection for religious freedom in the 46th parliament, Labor MPs are debating whether to embrace the idea as a means to reconnect with religious voters or reject it as a form of divisive identity politics.
The election victory has emboldened Coalition backbenchers Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Barnaby Joyce to call for a new law to grant positive rights of religious expression, beyond the official government policy of introducing a right not to be discriminated against based on religion.
While the Labor MP Chris Hayes suggested religious freedom “deserves proper attention” – and Labor will need to rethink the issue – O’Neill said Labor already supports religious freedom and MP Maria Vamvakinou warned against endorsing a Religious Freedom Act.
O’Neill said religion “was a factor, among quite a few others” in Labor’s loss despite the fact the party “absolutely takes religion very seriously”.
“There isn’t a binary approach to religious freedom, no one party has a purchase on that issue,” she said.
O’Neill said Labor MPs were targeted with misinformation claiming that “Labor politicians don’t have a conscience vote” on issues including abortion and euthanasia.
“They were mischievous in the extreme and exploitative … [used] to convey this image that Labor doesn’t accept religious views, which is erroneous and divisive.”
O’Neill said despite Labor pushing to remove exemptions which allow religious schools to discriminate against LGBT staff and students, it accepted they should be able to set rules consistent with their doctrines.
But Labor “didn’t have the purchase and didn’t have the trust” to correct “incorrect information” about its position as characterised by “a small group of Christian schools”, she said.
O’Neill accused the Coalition of dragging out the religious freedom debate by failing to legislate in the last parliament. “They raised expectations, they opened this space up for uncertainty and then exploited it to their advantage despite their own failure to deliver.”
O’Neill said the parliament should be able to balance the right to religion with the right to non-discrimination but said the debate should “advance slowly” without parliamentarians seeking to “make mischief” or “exploit fractures for political gain in any shape or form”.
Hayes told Guardian Australia that religious freedom “did feed into some of decisions electors would’ve made in western Sydney”.
Hayes said the issue “deserves proper attention”, criticising the Coalition for sitting on the Ruddock religious freedom review for eight months.
Hayes holds the seat of Fowler, where Labor suffered a 3% two-party preferred swing at the 2019 election, a constituency with one of the highest rates of regular religious attendance. Some 65% of people in the electorate voted against marriage equality in the postal survey.
“Religious freedom, particularly as it relates to faith-based education, aged care, healthcare, is certainly an issue which deserves proper attention,” he said.
“My perspective would be that religious protections are state by state and there is no over-arching aspects of it.
“People want to talk about religious liberty instead of a statute-based protection or haphazard state by state rules.”
But the member for Calwell, Maria Vamvakinou, warned Labor against using a proposed Religious Freedom Act as the means to engage faith communities, adding it is not “the only way”.
“That ignores what I think are the more important areas of concern to those communities,” she said, citing settlement services and multicultural policies as greater priorities to religious and ethnic minorities.
Vamvakinou argued that there is increased “activism” along religious lines, but said she is opposed to “defining people through a religious vote and then trying to win it”.
“I don’t like having to define Australians first and foremost as Muslims and Christians.
“I don’t want people to be set against each other on the basis of faith – political parties of the right have done that … but that’s not the Australian identity.”
Labor senator Helen Polley said that political parties “need to embrace diverse opinions and people of faith and not force people out of parties for having differing views”.
Before the election the Coalition promised a bill to prohibit discrimination based on a person’s religion, protected in the same way as attributes such as sex and age, including the creation of a religious freedom commissioner to oversee complaints.
On Thursday, Porter was asked about calls for greater protection of Israel Folau – who said homosexuals go to hell – and the religious freedom issue. In reply, he warned that public commentary was in danger of “conflating two very different ideas”.
“The question as to whether or not what we would intend to do in a religious discrimination bill would prevent that sort of contract, would depend on all of the terms of those particular individual types of contracts,” Porter told 6PR radio.
“But what I would say is that we’re not necessarily in the business in government of trying to prevent individuals privately contracting the terms of their employment in a fair and balanced and reasonable way with their employer in a range of circumstances.”
“We would define an attribute which is religious adherence and expression, and then put into that act a range of circumstances where it would become unlawful for people to discriminate against a person based on that attribute.”
The Australian Law Reform Commission has also been tasked with examining five Ruddock review recommendations relating to discrimination against LGBT staff and students of religious schools.
Published in The Guardian Australia June 1, 2019.