The deadline for the government to address discrimination against LGBTI students at religious schools has passed after talks over legislation broke down yesterday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said earlier this month that addressing the anti-discrimination exemptions were a priority for parliament in this sitting period, which ended yesterday, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.
“The Labor Party has not finalised its position and requires more time to consider the latest draft and, in reflecting the co-operative approach so far to this issue, we will not introduce a bill until Labor has had further time to consider the drafting with a view to coming to a bipartisan position,” Attorney-General Christian Porter said.
“To that end, the government will continue to consult with the opposition with a view to having an agreed bill that can be introduced in the final sitting fortnight of the year.”
The SMH later reported on the draft of the bill sent to Labor, indicating that a plan to allow “indirect discrimination” was the cause of the breakdown in talks.
The delay only extends an already prolonged and exhausting debate, which may now force the government to deal with the issue as part of its broader response to the religious freedom review due by the end of the year.
The draft bill makes provision for decisions made to protect “the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed” and in instances where the school “had regard to the best interests of the student”.
Porter said the provision would “allow some reasonable ability for schools and religious schools to keep order and rules in their school”.
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus hit back, saying that “the government has stuffed this up” and that Labor did not have enough time to discuss the added proposal.
“If the government presents legislation that simply removes the current exemption allowing discrimination against students, Labor would vote for it today,” he said.
The Human Rights Law Centre’s Anna Brown said that all the government needed to do was strike out the section of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 which makes allowance for the exemption.
“The Government should table the bill so we can properly explore any risks or problems with the proposed drafting and make sure all students are protected in school,” she said.
“The test for indirect discrimination is already very broad and allows a school to defend a claim when their conduct is reasonable in the circumstances.
“These provisions are unnecessary and need to be carefully considered for risks or unintended consequences.
“It’s worrying to see the best interests of the child are not the “primary consideration”, for example, which is out of step with Phillip Ruddock’s recommendations.”
Conservative MPs are reportedly frustrated with being left out of the discussion on the bill, with Concetta Fierravanti-Wells – who stepped down from cabinet citing the “same-sex marriage debate” – calling for the full Ruddock report to be released.
“I and others stressed during the same-sex marriage debate that freedom of religion issues had to be considered as part of the debate then. Instead, the issue was referred to a committee and now we find ourselves reopening these complexities,” she said.
The government’s rush applies only to discrimination against students, with the issue of LGBTI teachers’ being placed at risk of discrimination in religious schools left to be part of the government’s broader Ruddock review response.
“Once again LGBTIQ+ people are being held to ransom by the hard right of the Liberal party,” said Greens LGBTIQ+ spokesperson Janet Rice.
“Scott Morrison himself said last week that removing discrimination in schools is ‘such a simple amendment’ that ‘we should use the next fortnight to ensure this matter is addressed.’
“The only complexity now is because of the internal politics of the Liberal party and the hard right that control the Liberal party room.
“The Greens have a bill before the Senate that is already being debated and would remove all discrimination in schools against both LGBTIQ+ staff and students,” she said.