The current bushfire crisis has exposed how out of line the Morrison government’s prioritising of the Religious Discrimination Bill actually is. It’s the legislation that’s purportedly necessary in order to protect those of faith in the community.
However, there isn’t any evidence that those the bill is supposed to protect – conservative Christians – are being discriminated against. Indeed, followers of the Christian Church hold a great deal of sway in Australia.
So much power do these forces have that former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull launched a religious freedoms inquiry just a week after marriage equality laws had been passed, so as to appease the religious right in his party.
And our current PM has been vocally representing the interests of conservative Christians on the national stage since he came to office. And this has led to his proposed religious freedoms legislation, which effectively undermines all anti-discrimination laws that came before it.
The religious privilege crusade
The release of the initial exposure draft of the Religious Discrimination Bill 2019, along with its accompanying legislation, was a shock. It was expected that the proposed laws would target the LGBTIQ community, however they actually allow for open slather bias against all minorities.
Not only are conservative Christian heterosexual white male voices pandered to in this country to the extent that they were gifted an immediate inquiry into whether equal marriage rights infringed upon their interests, but when they cried foul on this original bill, the PM sent it back.
And in a theatre of the absurd moment following this, Morrison, accompanied by “not particularly religious” attorney general Christian Porter, appeared before the nation on 10 December, during the fallout from the unprecedented fires, to deliver the bill’s second exposure draft.
The reinforced “bigots’ bill” contains eleven amendments, which include the allowance for entities solely engaged in commercial activities to be classed as religious charities and that facilities – such as hospitals, aged care and accommodation – can take faith into account when hiring employees.
In the wake of the release of the second draft religious freedoms bill, Community Action for Rainbow Rights (CARR) is holding the No Right to Discriminate protest at Sydney Town Hall at 1 pm on 8 February.
And with the furore that’s developed around Morrison’s leadership of late, CARR organisers are expecting a large turnout, as questions are further raised around why our country’s head is currently focused on passing a bill like this, when there are much bigger issues at hand.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to CARR spokesperson April Holcombe about the amendments that have been made to the bill, her thoughts on whether the current outrage aimed at the PM will filter into the religious freedoms debate, and what she thinks about Labor’s position on the bill.
Firstly, you’ve been demonstrating against the religious freedoms campaign since it started heating up post the passing of marriage equality laws. April, how do you sum up what this whole campaign by the government is about?
From day one of marriage equality succeeding in the tremendous way it did, people, like Scott Morrison, were already trying to make changes and force the pro-marriage equality side to concede to their bigotry.
Morrison wanted to alter aspects of the Marriage Act to enshrine bigoted conceptions of gender and sexuality, as being protected and legitimate. And since then, the talk has gone further.
The whole point is to try and push back against the widespread acceptance of LGBTI people that was demonstrated by the marriage equality victory. So, this is very much about the losers demanding a consolation prize. And we don’t accept that for a second.
The first draft of the Religious Discrimination Bill was released in August last year. Its scope was a lot wider than most were expecting.
What do you think about the government’s framing of the religious freedoms campaign as a form of anti-discrimination or protective measures?
We could always see through that. We knew what homophobes, like Scott Morrison and the Hillsong Church, were really after. But, it’s true that the bill itself was shocking even for us activists.
We thought that such a move would be so unpopular with the broader population that they’d try to couch it in more cautious language, and try and insist as much as possible that it really was just about adding religion to the categories of anti-discrimination.
Instead, what we really saw was people being given the positive right to discriminate in a whole range of areas.
In particular, the changes to healthcare were quite shocking for allowing pharmacists, doctors, nurses, and even optometrists the right to refuse almost any procedure, as well as trying to take away some of the options that we have today.
For example, if medical professionals refuse a service, they’re now compelled to refer the person onto someone else. But, this bill removes that provision.
Those are some of the most shocking things. We were expecting a lot of the other things that were in the legislation. And we were ready to fight before the bill even came out.
In the midst of the bushfire crisis, Morrison and Porter released the second exposure draft of the bill last month. The redrafting was in response to complaints from conservative bodies about the scope of the bill.
How would you compare the reach of the second draft compared with what came before it?
It’s obviously worse. And it is due to the fact that this whole thing has always been spearheaded by the right of the Liberal Party, as well as the right in society more generally.
So, for the bill to have any purpose at all, it would need to go hard or go home from their point of view.
There are more concessions made in the Israel Folau camp for the protection of bigots like him in public positions. It will be almost impossible to have any legal recourse against people like him for using their public platform to espouse bigotry.
There’s the reversal of all anti-discrimination laws in the states, including in Tasmania, where the laws are stronger than the federal legislation.
And there’s also the updating of words such as “seriously intimidate or vilify”, as if there’s some level of intimidation, vilification and harassment that should be acceptable and protected by law.
In your understanding, is the religious freedoms debate something that only we in Australia are experiencing or is this occurring elsewhere in the world?
This is happening all over the place. We see it in America with Donald Trump, where there’s the banning of transgender people in the military.
There’s also a push now from conservatives to repeal Roe versus Wade, which quite worryingly looks like it could go to the Supreme Court. And that court now has a majority of extreme conservatives.
So, their eyes are set on winding the clock back 50 years. The means that they’re doing that by is slightly different to here, but the motives are the same, which is to attack the gains that people have made over the last few decades via struggle and protest.
If you look to Europe, with the rise of the far-right – whether that be in France with Le Pen or in Hungary with Orbán or in Russia – we see massive attacks on gay, lesbian and transgender people.
In Hungary, they’ve shut down gender studies departments in universities and called them Marxist brainwashing. In France, the far-right have tried to organise demonstrations against the right of gay couples to adopt children. And in Russia, it’s more or less illegal to be openly gay.
So, this is part of the global ascendancy of the far-right, where they see issues of sexuality, gender, people’s freedoms and bodily autonomy as sites to attack and try and push people down to assert their power.
Whilst there are others behind the bill, this has very much been a pet project of the prime minister.
Do you think the current outcry against the way he and his government have been handling the bushfire crisis may have implications for this legislation?
We hope so. Basically, we want to pile it onto this guy, who has shown even more of his true colours over the last month.
Morrison’s been expressing what the whole political class feels, which is nothing about the devastation, the catastrophe and the loss of life, in terms of wildlife and nature, that’s going on as a direct result of climate change.
This guy would rather head off to Hawaii, but not before announcing this second bill, which is his project that he wants to see achieved, so he has at least that notch on his belt.
We really hope that the outrage against this guy – which is completely righteous and exciting to be a part of – leans into this issue as well.
We hope people realise – and we know some have – that it was outrageous to release this bill at a time like this when there are problems going on.
And, also the way this divide and rule project is his game. He’s trying to distract people with issues around gender and sexuality, with the hope that people will talk less about climate change.
We want to sack Scott Morrison for the bushfires. And we want to sack him for this. And we hope that the anger and momentum out there is enough, so this bill doesn’t stand a chance.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese has said his party will be consulting with LGBTIQ groups regarding the bill, and that he won’t support moves that erode people’s rights. What do you think about these statements from the opposition leader?
So far, the opposition have been pretty appalling on this issue. It’s consistent with their response in general to the Liberal Party, which is not to act like an opposition.
We can see that in their refusal to go hard against Morrison in a way that pretty much the whole population want them to around the bushfires. And it’s the same on this issue.
They basically came out in favour of it around the first bill. And they haven’t actually come out with a statement at all around the second bill.
Someone from the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby told me that they had met with Albanese recently and he said he had no opinion yet on the bill, which is a disgrace.
This bill couldn’t be clearer in being about giving people unlimited powers to discriminate. And he doesn’t have an opinion yet? That doesn’t gel with him not wanting to support anything that erodes people’s rights.
So, whether or not they end up opposing it, we can’t rely on them to be the vocal opposition to it. They may even go along with it, which is a disgrace.
So, it’s really down to ordinary people to get out there and fight it.
And lastly, April, CARR is holding the No Right to Discriminate demonstration against the bill on 8 February. What sort of turn out are you expecting? And what can those who show up expect on the day?
We’re expecting a fantastic turnout. We’ve had two other rallies last year around this issue. And both were very well attended.
But, we think this one will be much bigger than either of those, because of the way that this issue intersects with people’s fury at Scott Morrison in general. And also, because the bill is now so much worse.
We’ll be gathering at Sydney Town Hall at 1 pm. And those attending can expect speakers from different political organisations and groups who are affected by the bill. And that’s not just LGBTI people. It includes all women, religious minorities and people with disabilities.
We will be marching and taking over the streets. Like all of our LGBTI rallies, it will be a brilliant atmosphere. But, there will be more anger than usual. And that’s a very powerful and productive emotion.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.