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Last year the Australian Parliament finally moved to catch up with views the people we were representing had held for well over a decade – that no two people should be denied the right to marry the person they loved purely on the basis of their sexuality.
Today, this legislation challenges Senators in this place to not repeat that mistake, to not repeat that mistake of delaying action, to not repeat that mistake by baulking at legislative change that reflects the expectations and hopes of the Australian community.
This Parliament has the chance to walk with the Australian people on their march towards equality instead of racing to catch up a decade later – as the Parliament did with Marriage Equality.
In doing so we would take the next step in the legislative journey I’m proud to say began in my home state in 1975 when South Australia became the first state to decriminalise homosexuality.
It’s sobering to think that it was another two decades before Tasmania became the last state to remove this blight from our laws. Thankfully, criminalising the love of two consenting adults is now unthinkable in any state or territory.
Over that same period we have seen governments, both state and federal, slowly and piece by piece, strip away the laws which kept in place the more covert discrimination against gay and lesbian Australians.
In 1984 the Hawke Government introduced laws preventing discrimination on the basis of sexuality.
In 2008, many years later, the Rudd Labor Government amended over 80 pieces of legislation to remove discrimination against LGBTIQ couples.
State and Territory Parliaments have continued to remove discrimination from their laws, to ensure the equal treatment of LGBTIQ couples, to ensure equality in parenting laws, and to remove criminal convictions resulting from unjust laws which criminalised homosexuality.
It has not been a smooth path, and there have been setbacks along the way.
As I noted last year during the marriage equality debate, in 2004, almost four decades after the US Supreme Court struck down laws outlawing marriage on the basis of race, our Australian Parliament was legislating to discriminate against loving couples on the basis of sexuality.
It was a sad moment in the history of this Parliament and, for me, Labor’s support for the Howard Government’s amendment to the Marriage Act meant I was required to vote for discrimination against myself and the people who I love.
But the reason I joined Labor Party is because it is the party of equality, because we have such a proud history of removing discrimination and of extending equality.
I knew then that while the party may have disappointed many in 2004 that eventually justice and equality would prevail. And it did, when in 2011, we achieved a change in the Labor Party platform to support legislating for Marriage Equality.
Now just as it as would seem unthinkable that we would ever again criminalise homosexuality, it is now untenable we would ever again prevent people from marrying each other on the basis of their sexuality.
And so too are the Australian people now declaring it is untenable that discrimination against students and teachers continue to be legal, provided it can be justified on religious grounds.
It’s time to remove this remaining piece of legislated discrimination.
Labor approaches this debate knowing that Australia is a tolerant and accepting nation.
That discrimination against LGBTIQ Australians has no place in our national laws.
And we approach this debate knowing that same tolerance and acceptance includes recognising the right of those of faith to live by their traditions and beliefs.
Unfortunately, for purely political purposes, this Government has decided to deny Australians the right to a mature debate on how best to balance freedom of religion with the right of all Australians to live free from discrimination.
The Government continues to refuse to share the report of the Religious Freedom Review Expert Panel with Australians and with its representatives.
The report, promised by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during the Parliamentary debate on the Bill to legislate Marriage Equality, was delivered to the Government in May.
It appears to have sat on Mr Turnbull’s desk for months. We are not sure on who else’s desk it has sat.
And it has now sat on Prime Minister Morrison’s desk for months.
To sit on this report, and to deny Australians a mature and informed debate, shows utter contempt for the people we are supposed to be representing.
This Government is seeking to hide this report, solely because this Government is so divided it fears the impact this report will have on voters Wentworth.
And for what purpose?
Many religious education institutions have made clear that they do not and will not use the exemptions which are removed by this Bill.
They have made clear their abhorrence at the idea they would ever seek to shame or punish a precious child in their care at a most vulnerable point in their lives.
And yet, when leaks to the media prompted reports that the Government wished to extend the right of religious organisations to discriminate against students and teachers, the Prime Minister’s numbers man, Mr Alex Hawke, couldn’t wait to jump on Sky News and to declare his joy at such recommendations.
At the suggestions his Government would legislate to enable a 14 year old child to be kicked out of a school just at the point in their lives when they would be crying out for support.
When asked whether religious schools should be able to discriminate against LGBTIQ students and teachers, Minister Hawke said:
“Absolutely, absolutely. I don’t think it’s controversial.”
I invite Senators to pause and think about that for one moment.
Fortunately for LGBTIQ Australians, and all Australians who believe Australia to be a nation that values fairness and equality – the overwhelming majority of Australians disagree with Mr Hawke.
Now, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Government in this place insist that report was unfair and this was never their intention.
Well, to that I say two things.
Tell that to Mr Alex Hawke, who delighted in the prospect of laws that would enable a child to be kicked out of school for being gay.
And secondly if what Prime Minister Morrison and Minister Cormann are saying is true, they really only have themselves to blame.
For it this Government which buried this report for five months and it this Government which is not allowing the Australian people to know what is in it. And it is this Government that is not allowing the community to have a mature and balanced debate on this important issue.
Well Labor does respect the Australian people and we will treat this legislation in the mature way it deserves. We will treat this legislation in the mature way the Australian community deserves. Regrettably they have bene denied such an approach by this Government
We respect the right of parents to send children to the school of their choice and to have their children educated in accordance with their religious convictions.
We respect that many parents choose religious schools because they want their children to be grounded in the identity and mission of a particular religious faith.
We also respect that religious schools and parents of students are entitled to require employees to act in their roles in ways that uphold the ethos and values of that faith, and that this requirement may be taken into account when a person is first employed and in the course of their employment.
But we also respect in 2018 that the overwhelming majority of Australians believe that exemptions from discrimination for gender identity, sexual orientation and relationship status are no longer acceptable.
So we therefore approach this legislation on the following basis – that discrimination on the basis of someone’s attributes – whether that be gender, gender identity or sexuality – is categorically unacceptable and what freedom of religion means is that teachers in religious schools should carry out their duties in a way that upholds the ethos and values of that faith.
As we did on Marriage Equality, and as we have sought to achieve on this legislation, we call on the Government to work with Labor and all with Senators in this place to achieve a just and fair outcome. One that unites this Parliament, and unites the nation.
And a good start would be to release the Report of the Religious Freedom Expert Panel.
This Government commissioned the report – it should be willing to allow a mature, informed, and balanced debate.
Labor firmly believe it is possible to protect religious freedom and to protect people from discrimination and to do this in a way that respects the rights of students, teachers, parents and the long tradition in this country of devoted and dedicated religious educators.
As Leader of the Opposition Mr Shorten said earlier this week:
“These laws are no longer appropriate, if indeed they ever were appropriate. It’s time our laws reflected the values we teach our children.”
Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.