BILLS - Religious Discrimination Bill 2021, Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021, Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 - Second Reading

BILLS - Religious Discrimination Bill 2021, Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021, Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 - Second Reading Main Image

I rise to speak on the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 and its associated amendments. I'm proud to stand before the House today and represent my vibrant and diverse community of Macarthur. It's an electorate of many cultures and many faiths. A significant proportion of our population has ancestry other than Anglo-Saxon, ranging from Indigenous to Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish—like myself—and Islamic. We have all the different variations of those religions, and I respect and understand that faith is of great importance. However, I am opposed to this bill in its current form. I am opposed to the way it was introduced and I am deeply opposed to the way that this completely incompetent government is managing it.

I know that faith helps to connect communities. It connects people to their culture and their ancestry. It provides principles by which people strive to uphold their moral compass through their day-to-day lives and those of their families. As I've said, my community is home to many faiths, and I think that's a very good thing. I've worked with all our faith communities, and I enjoy working with all our faith communities. Our people are, of course, as diverse as their beliefs. We are consequently a very accepting and tolerant community. I have never had any complaints made to me by my constituents about any difficulty in practising their religion.

Before I came into this place, I worked for almost 40 years in my community as a paediatrician. As a paediatrician, you learn to ask many questions of the people you see. Questions are important. They're important in working out what's wrong with a child, they're important in working out the implications of their particular illness and, in particular, they're important in working out family history. The one question I never asked was about someone's religion, because it wasn't important to me. That's one of the beauties of Australia—we live in a country where there is religious freedom and always has been.

My ancestors came here as convicts. One of my convict ancestors, Abraham Rheuben, who, like myself, was Jewish, came here as a convict and rose to become a very prominent businessman in Tasmania. He was one of the founders of the Hobart Synagogue, which is the longest-standing synagogue in Australia. I'm very proud of that history. It makes me part of what I am. But in coming to Australia as a Jewish convict, he was still able to practice his religion. When he got his ticket of leave, he was able to get a land grant from the Hobart community on which to build the synagogue. I think that demonstrates that Australia has had a long history of religious freedom, and it's important that that continues. It's very important to me that we have religious freedom.

What I will say is that, in spite of our many faiths in our community, I don't hear a great deal of concern about religious discrimination. It is not happening in my community. I admit that it may happen in some other communities, but it certainly isn't in my community. I work with our faith leaders, be it through our independent schools—and I went to an independent Christian school, as did my children—our religious charities, our organisations, our churches, our mosques or our temples, and I know that my local residents feel free to practice their religion without any encumbrance.

I love how accepting and tolerant our society is and I am worried that this poorly drafted, multiple-amended legislation is, No. 1, so complex that it makes it very difficult to understand; No. 2, has still not been completely outlined by the government in terms of what it will contain; and, No. 3, has had so much opposition that even those who originally supported the legislation, like the previous speaker, feel that the legislation itself is—these are his words—'deeply flawed'.

I have no tolerance for discrimination in any sense of the word. As a paediatrician I treat all people equally. But I am concerned that the coalition appear to manufacture this issue whenever it is politically convenient to them, like the last speaker has been doing and as he has been doing during the pandemic with vaccines and appropriate public health measures.

As I say, I represent a very diverse community, and religious discrimination is just not raised in my community. I am Jewish. I recognise that anti-Semitism does occur, but the present laws are adequate for managing that. What needs to happen is more commitment, more education and more support to make sure that the community is aware that discrimination can occur. To put a law in place that has been poorly thought through, that interferes with state laws, that has not really been defined by the government and that's been rushed through in the last few sitting days of this parliament is totally inappropriate on every level.

Of course we should stand against discrimination and we should take a stand and action to prevent it at all costs, but the government is not trying to do this. We only have to have a look at their track record, with the 18C amendment, to see that it's not the endgame that they're worried about. It's a tool they use to attempt to create the illusion of division and perpetual fear. I do not like the way political games are being played with people's faith. I find it abhorrent and I accuse the government of doing just that. Many people in our society who fled persecution before calling Australia home are having their own fears played out by this government, and that is inappropriate.

I am a staunch defender of our basic human rights, including our right to practice our religion free of impost. Freedom of thought, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion are fundamental human rights, and they are fundamental to Australians. Labor have previously expressed our support for an extension of our antidiscrimination framework to ensure that all these freedoms are further entrenched in our society. But I do not feel that this legislation has been adequately explained, adequately explored or, indeed, even adequately defined by a government that is trying to rush it through for its own pathetic political ends.

I find it very disappointing that this government looks at issues around discrimination with only a binary stance in a very complex world. They can never strike a balance and they can never see the implications of their rhetoric. The coalition consistently tries to pit people against one another in many ways. As an example, the previous speaker has been talking to and supporting the demonstrators who have been out the front of Parliament House this week, with their anti-public-health stance. He's stirring up fright and fear inappropriately, and he's doing the same with this legislation. We need to ensure that any extension of the federal antidiscrimination framework does not remove the protections that already exist in the law to protect Australians from other forms of discrimination. It shouldn't be such a difficult balance.

The coalition's track record on this is very poor. We shouldn't forget that the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, promised in December 2018 to appoint a religious discrimination commissioner before the 2019 election. Of course, it didn't happen, like most of the Prime Minister's promises. It's his propensity to play politics with this issue that is very disturbing. It's not a straightforward piece of legislation, by any means. Most of the provisions of the bill are clear and consistent with our existing antidiscrimination frameworks, but there are aspects of this legislation that are complex, have very unclear ramifications and are quite contentious. We have already seen this play out in Queensland. There are concerns expressed by some leaders in communities of faith that aspects of the government's legislation may even result in increased discrimination for minority faiths. It stands in direct conflict to the government's messaging on his legislation on this issue. The legislation is incredibly complex. And the government's speech is very, very confusing. It beggars the question of why the government are bringing forward this legislation at the eleventh hour before an election, without even sorting out their own responses.

I have spoken to many members of the coalition who are opposed to this legislation. They feel it's unclear and inappropriate at this time, and they don't feel they have been given enough time to review it. I myself would like to take the legislation to my faith leaders in my community and ask them what they think about it. We haven't been given time to do that. It is horrific that this parliament would consider introducing inappropriate, poorly thought out and perhaps even dangerous legislation without having it reviewed. I just don't see the need to bring it in at the eleventh hour. I think it's a political tool that's being used by the Prime Minister in particular, and some of his cohort, and I think the government's actions should be seen for what they are.

Again, I stress that I support people's freedom to practise their respective faiths, as I practise mine. But, to any who believe that the coalition is actually standing up for their fundamental rights, I urge you to closely look at the government's track record and its timing. The introduction of this legislation, promised to Australians before the 2019 election, comes on the eve of a federal election and almost three years after the Prime Minister promised that a religious discrimination bill would become law. There's no denying that. The Prime Minister consistently claims that he is above the Canberra bubble, that he doesn't engage in politics, despite being only a career politician, and his tactics with this legislation show just what a hypocrite he is and what a facade that is.

I stand against discrimination in all forms and wholeheartedly support people's rights to practise their religion and to live their lives as they see fit, as long as they don't harm others. I do not support pitting people against one another, as those opposite consistently attempt to do. As the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights makes clear, religious organisations and people of faith have the right to act in accordance with the doctrines, beliefs, and teachings of their traditions and faiths. Many people support our existing federal antidiscrimination framework to protect people of faith, and rightly so. It's an important point and we must not allow it to be obscured and subsumed by the controversy over a handful of contentious provisions in the government's poorly thought through Religious Discrimination Bill.

The government has designed this specifically to do this task, to bring on conflict. In spite of their failings, in spite of their track record and in spite of the Prime Minister's broken promises and empty platitudes, those opposite would have Australians believe that this legislation is taking their concerns seriously. The Prime Minister has broken so many promises on this issue throughout his career, such as promising to work with the opposition to introduce a religious discrimination bill—that has not happened; to establish a working group of attorneys-general from across the states and territories—that has not happened; to have an inquiry through the Australian Law Reform Commission—that has not happened. Each of these is a broken promise from this coalition that is absolutely desperate. And here we are, right before an election, with a complex bill, without adequate time to review and consult, and the government is seeking to score political points off it. Even the Prime Minister's own backbench can recognise what he's doing. A lot of them are talking big. I doubt they have the courage to act, but I really do think they need to think seriously about not supporting this bill. The Prime Minister is obsessed with political pointscoring. Even his Deputy Prime Minister says that. Australians deserve better from their leaders. They deserve better from us. They deserve to have us ensure that any laws that are put onto the statute books have been adequately reviewed and adequately defined. Those opposite do not want to debate this bill, and their last-minute amendments show that. I recognise that religious freedom is important to our society, and I thoroughly support it, but I think this bill is deeply flawed and should not be passed.