The Sydney Morning Herald
FEBRUARY 12, 2020
A senior Coalition backbencher has called for the controversial religious discrimination bill to be scrapped because it is too "flawed", saying it should be replaced with a new, single framework for all anti-discrimination laws.
The appeal from NSW Liberal Concetta Fierravanti-Wells comes as Attorney-General Christian Porter says "sensible" issues have been raised about the second draft of the bill and he will undertake yet another round of consultations with community and religious groups before introducing it to Parliament.
Senator Fierravanti-Wells, who has been a vocal critic of the Morrison government's religious discrimination plans, told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age a different approach was needed due to continued concerns from religious Australians about the proposed bill.
"I have come to the conclusion that no bill is better than this flawed bill," she said.
The NSW senator said religious leaders and stakeholders "across the faith spectrum continue to raise serious concerns".
"It is now clear that given the complexities of the issues, a national approach is required to ensure consistency and applicability of legislation across Australia. This would see a consolidation of all discrimination law, including protection of religious freedom."
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 Australians of faith too many protections, and others saying it gave too little.
It also followed a high-level intervention in November from a coalition of religious leaders who threatened to withdraw their support for the bill unless greater freedoms were granted for Australians of faith.
While many of the major faith groups say the second bill is an improvement – and they have not called for a new process – they still have concerns. For example, the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference objects to the bill's different levels of protection for religious employees, depending on the size of the company they work for.
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry said there remained an "unfortunate lack of clarity" over whether Jewish hospitals and nursing homes could still preference people of their own faith when admitting patients or choosing board members.
The Christian Schools Association wants all religious activity not involving a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment to be protected, while the Australian Christian Alliance says the current bill does not provide enough protection for individuals or organisations.
Meanwhile, lawyers, nurses and community organisations are among those to raise serious concerns about what the bill will mean for vulnerable groups. Equality Australia chief executive Anna Brown said the bill "entrenches double standards and has the potential to harm women, LGBTIQ+ people, people with disability, as well as people of faith".
Senator Fierravanti-Wells, who is from the conservative wing of the Liberal Party, has long been pushing for sweeping freedoms for religious Australians. She has warned against a minimalist bill that "merely substitutes religious discrimination for sex discrimination or racial discrimination".
On Wednesday Senator Fierravanti-Wells acknowledged that while a national framework on anti-discrimination law would require "considerable work" and negotiation with the states, it was a better approach.
"[It is a] more long-term solution to ensure proper equality of rights and conformity to international obligations," she said.
Labor tried to merge and streamline the existing sex, racial, disability and age discrimination acts when it was last in government, with the support of the Law Council of Australia. But the process proved too complicated and was put on ice before the 2013 election.
In response to Senator Fierravanti-Wells' proposal, Mr Porter said: "My door is always open to my parliamentary colleagues to discuss any issues regarding the legislation."
But he added: "It is worth noting, though, that consolidation of Commonwealth anti-discrimination legislation was a Labor policy that was adopted and abandoned because of a resounding lack of public support and opposition from the Liberal Party."
Submissions on the second draft of the bill closed at the end of January. Mr Porter said there had been "sensible issues raised around the effectiveness of drafting", pointing to the example of Jewish-aged care homes and hospitals.
He said he would do another brief round of consultations before the bill was put before Parliament.
"I expect a bill could be introduced in the not too distant future," he said.
By Judith Porter