PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) — In my contribution on the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016 I am not trying to speak to Mr Finn, Dr Carling-Jenkins or Mrs Peulich, because they look to a constituency of deeply religious voters for their support and they will happily work up a rage in that constituency with false descriptions about this bill to help their re-election.
Let us be clear to all of those deeply religious organisations: you can still discriminate under this bill. The Australian Sex Party would like to see all religious exemptions removed from the Equal Opportunity Act 2010, but this bill does not do that. It does not even come close. This bill says that if a religious institution wants to discriminate against an employee or a prospective employee, they just have to show why that discrimination is necessary. I point to Ms Bath’s example of a person not being a creationist and that not being an acceptable attribute at the school at which she was being interviewed for a job. That is exactly what this bill allows for. It allows for an inherent requirements test. The inherent requirements test does not force religious bodies and schools to employ people with those so-called attributes if they conflict with their religious beliefs. What the test does is require organisations that want to discriminate to demonstrate the necessary connection between their religious beliefs and the need to discriminate.
The church, religious institutions, a lot of the emails I have received and certainly members of the opposition in their contributions today have talked about tolerance, fairness and choice. We hear that message from many religious institutions. They say it is one of love and of welcome to all. So I would have thought that having the right to discriminate against people would be against their religion. Some religious organisations agree with me on that position, and I certainly heard from a number of people and teachers in religious schools who do not feel that this discrimination is necessary. They support this bill.
If we jump over this minor inconvenience of love, welcome, tolerance and fairness and look at the supposed justifications for the need to discriminate, apparently this is all about freedom of religion and about this bill breaching people’s freedom of religion. In fact the CEO of Christian Schools Australia, Stephen O’Doherty, said in a recent press release:
… this bill … crosses the line that should not be crossed — where the state directly restricts the free exercise of religion.
I am sorry; that is not correct. If you want to discriminate, at least you should have a good reason to. I think the whole of our society would support that contention: if you want to discriminate against someone, have a good reason to discriminate against them. What is the problem with telling us why you want to discriminate?
In December 2010 the Peel Hotel in Collingwood, a well-known gay venue, sought an exemption to enable it to refuse or restrict entry where it believed on reasonable grounds that unrestricted entry to the club would adversely affect the safety or comfort of those in the venue. The hotel had to argue why that right to discriminate was needed. The reason was very logical: hotels and clubs have a responsibility to protect their patrons. If you have a bunch of people seeking entry into a club shouting homophobic messages or hate speech, you want to be able to refuse them entry. But the Peel Hotel had to take that to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal and show why it was necessary.
Dr Carling-Jenkins forgot that very important point when she quoted the following in her contribution to this debate:
A gay men’s club, set up to preserve a minority culture, can refuse to have members who aren’t gay men. And they don’t have to justify their decision …
That is just not true. The Peel Hotel did have to justify its position, and that argument was accepted, as it would be if religious schools were so certain that discrimination was necessary. They should not have any fear about putting it to the test. Tell us why being gay affects your ability to teach maths. Tell us why a single mother cannot be a school principal. I fully accept that there are some schools for which that does not work because they have a very strict moral code regarding how they operate. I accept that the inherent attributes test, if used in this circumstance, may preclude a single mother from teaching at certain schools in Victoria. But let us go through the test. Let us ask that question.
We have been hearing from a lot of people that it is a breach of freedom of religion. The hundreds of form emails that I have received and that I am sure many other members have received have been hyperventilating about this, but the sky has not fallen in in the states where similar legislation already exists. I quite often feel that for too long the church and a lot of religious organisations have held this expectation of privilege and that somehow they should be treated differently from all other organisations in our society. Their opposition to this bill reflects that desire to continue to hold some certain privilege in our community. What they are seeking is the right to discriminate with impunity against people in our community — that is, to be able to discriminate against anyone in our community and to not have to say why.
Opponents of this bill misrepresent this legislation as their freedom being attacked, simply because we are asking them to comply with the normal anti-discrimination standards that apply to the rest of the community. I have even heard people from the opposition celebrate the Equal Opportunity Act but ask for an exemption to it and expect some privilege whereby the Equal Opportunity Act is great for most people but others are more special.
Why do religions think they sit outside the wider community? Religious organisations are part of our community. Why does the church think it should be shielded from any criticism but also think it can pontificate on the apparent moral wrongs of the rest of society? Maybe this is where we should look deeper into this. Why is it that religious schools want to stay so homogeneous? We are talking about discrimination and the supposed justification for discrimination. I think maybe religious organisations are worried about the scrutiny they will come under. After all, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard testimony from hundreds of victims of sexual abuse in religious schools and also heard how the perpetrators had been shielded by a culture that thinks the schools are not accountable to society. These organisations’ opposition to being part of the Equal Opportunity Bill is just another example of them feeling that they should not be accountable like the rest of us are.
Last month the counsel assisting the federal royal commission requested that adverse findings be made against John Lewis, a former headmaster of the prestigious Geelong Grammar School. Mr Lewis was aware of sexual abuse allegations made against a teacher, Jonathan Harvey, in 1982, 1986 and 1991. But despite that knowledge, he still allowed Jonathan Harvey unsupervised access to students at the boarding school. Jonathan Harvey was subsequently jailed for abusing a student at Geelong Grammar.
Despite such despicable acts, people still have the gall to stand up in this chamber to argue that asking for transparency in religious organisations is an affront to religious freedom. An article on News.com published weeks ago speaks of ‘creepy’ Father Peter Searson, who stole $40 000 from parish finances, killed and tortured animals in front of children, got children to touch his penis, loitered around children’s toilets and was the fifth child-molesting priest sent by the Catholic Church to Doveton, where he had access to Holy Family Primary School right next to the church. These are not isolated incidents. They show a culture of protectionism where the privileged place in society that churches have cultivated is abused and used for abuse. The protectionist culture goes to the heart of why we need transparency. Institutions need to be held to account. Nowhere is transparency and accountability — —
Ms Crozier — How is this bill going to prevent this from happening?
Ms PATTEN — I will take up the interjection, Ms Crozier. This is about discrimination. This is about creating a sense of privilege. It is about changing the culture of these institutions, Ms Crozier. Nowhere are transparency and accountability more needed than when taxpayer funds are used. Religious schools take the most high handed of approaches, though, saying, ‘We want government funding, and we want to have the protection of the law that no-one else has. Any views in dissent must be quashed as unwarranted attacks on freedom’.
The many emails and submissions that so many of us in this chamber have received have routinely misunderstood and misrepresented this bill, as we have heard in this chamber today. I respect my colleagues, and I assume that they know that the examples they have given have nothing to do with this bill. This bill is around tax-funded organisations being allowed to discriminate in a way in which no-one else is allowed to discriminate. The reason why religious institutions should not be able to discriminate is simple. Religious entities are paid millions of dollars to provide a range of services: palliative care, retirement housing, homelessness services, drug rehabilitation services, youth services and family violence services — and the list goes on. Think of all the vulnerable people and how their lives are at the mercy of religious organisations and their views.
Ms Crozier — They are not all bad.
Ms PATTEN — I agree with Ms Crozier; they are not all bad. In fact the vast majority of people who work in these organisations are wonderful and would never discriminate against someone on these grounds, so why do they need the right to discriminate without justifying it? That is what this is about. All we are asking for is that you justify why you feel the need to discriminate against someone.
Victorian employees should not be blindly discriminated against based on different religious beliefs, the absence of religious belief, their gender or their sexual orientation. The sky will not fall in, religious schools will still be standing and, if they really want to discriminate, that is fine, but just tell us why. Just tell us why you want to discriminate and demonstrate why you need to discriminate. The Sex Party would be very supportive of measures that went further than this bill. This is the most modest of changes that in no way encroaches on freedom of religion, as our opponents would believe, and I support the bill.