MPs hit back at call to ditch religious discrimination bill

14 Feb MPs hit back at call to ditch religious discrimination bill

Judith Ireland – The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 14 February 2020

Coalition MPs and church leaders have dismissed a call for the government’s religious discrimination bill to be scrapped, with the chair of the committee set to review it warning “we should not let perfect be the enemy of the good”.

Senior Liberal backbencher Concetta Fierravanti-Wells this week said the Morrison government should ditch the controversial bill in favour of a new anti-discrimination framework because it was too “flawed” and religious leaders continued to raise “serious concerns”.

But several government MPs dismissed Senator Fierravanti-Wells’ idea on Thursday, saying a consolidated framework of all anti-discrimination laws was “unrealistic” and “risky”.

Victorian Liberal and free speech advocate James Paterson said he was “completely opposed to abandoning an almost complete religious freedom process in favour of a wildly ambitious and risky project to consolidate all anti-discrimination law”.

Senator Paterson, who sits on the government’s backbench committee that will look at the bill before it is taken to the Coalition party room, added it would take “years” to get a national anti-discrimination law framework and “the final product is almost certain to be inferior”.

Queensland senator Amanda Stoker, who chairs the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee that will examine the bill once it is introduced to Parliament, agreed a consolidation project was “unrealistic” and a “long way off”.

The former barrister, who spoke of freedom of religion in her first speech to Parliament, added: “If we want to level the playing field in discrimination law for people of faith, then we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good”.

“The freedom of a person to think, speak and act in accordance with their religious belief is meaningfully protected by the current form of the bill, and will help stop them being bullied into silence in the manner experienced in recent times,” she said.

She stressed “every single human should be treated with tolerance and respect – that includes religious people and the LGBTIQ+ people who least like the bill”.

Liberal MP Tim Wilson, a former human rights commissioner, pointed to the Gillard government’s failed bid to overhaul anti-discrimination law in 2013.

“After years of work, Labor’s attempt to consolidate all anti-discrimination laws collapsed under the weight of its own complexity and its attempt to advance a culture of censorship over offensive speech,” Mr Wilson said.

A second draft of the religious discrimination bill was released just before Christmas after wide-ranging criticism from community, business and religious groups – with some saying the first bill gave religious Australians too many protections and others wanting more.

A coalition of religious leaders, who threatened in November to withdraw their support for the bill unless greater freedoms were granted for Australians of faith, recently wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison in response to the second draft.

Sources close to the group say the letter suggests further refinements to the bill but does not contemplate abandoning the process.

On Thursday, Bishop Michael Stead from the Sydney Anglican Diocese said there had been “significant improvements” between the first and second drafts.

“I think that suggests we should keep going with the process,” he said, while noting issues remained, such as the need for more clarity around the definition of a “religious body” that would qualify for protections.

The Uniting Church in Australia has been highly critical of the bill, warning it gives churches too many rights over vulnerable groups, such as LGBTIQ people and Australians with disability.

But its president, Dr Deidre Palmer, said the Uniting Church wanted to keep “constructively” engaging with the government on the bill. “This is still a live conversation for us to have,” she said.

Public submissions on the second draft of the bill closed at the end of January. Attorney-General Christian Porter has said “sensible” issues have been raised in the thousands of submissions received. He is planning another “brief” round of consultations before the bill comes to Parliament.

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