A public hearing into the federal government’s controversial anti-discrimination legislation saw LGBTI rights advocates and Christian charities state their grievances with the bill in NSW last week.
The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, chaired by Labor Senator Trish Crossin and Liberal Senator Gary Humphries at state Parliament House last Thursday, also saw testimony from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander bodies, legal experts and civil liberties groups
Speakers faced questions from eight federal Senators including the Shadow Attorney-General George Brandis, openly gay Labor Senator Louise Pratt and Greens Senator Penny Wright.
Representatives from the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby (GLRL) and Organisation Intersex International Australia (OII), who pushed for the removal of religious exemptions and a recognition of intersex people in the legislation, met with a frosty reception from Liberal senators.
Liberal Senator Scott Ryan said the removal of the exemptions, which allow religious bodies to discriminate in their hiring practices, could lead to a “slippery slope” ending in regulating what Christian schools teach their students. Ryan asked GLRL co-convenor Dr Justin Koonin if he would “be back in five years” to that end.
Koonin said Ryan’s inquiry detracted from the debate.
“We were there to focus on issues that have a demonstrable effect on LGBTI people now, not worry about some hypothetical in 20 or 30 years time,” he said.
OII Australia president Gina Wilson said that while overall OII was satisfied with the hearing, the views of some senators were cause for concern.
“I was somewhat surprised at the energy devoted to religious exemptions. Senator Brandis said that their removal might lead teachers to ‘proselytise’ their beliefs in the classroom, which ignores that teachers are bound to teach the curriculum,” Wilson said.
Brandis took exception to Wilson’s claim that discriminating against intersex people for their physical or biological characteristics was no different to discriminating on the basis of skin colour. During the speaking time given to the LGBTI representatives Brandis repeatedly left the room for long periods.
Representatives of Christian aged-care provider Hammondcare expressed their opposition to changes that would compel nursing homes to accept elderly LGBTI people and couples, but when questioned said they would not refuse Commonwealth funding if the law passed.
In its original submission to the inquiry, Hammondcare argued the changes “may force some faith-based providers to decline Commonwealth subsidies” or “withdraw from the sector altogether”.
The Committee will report its findings in February.