Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (14:18): I am just so pleased and it is such a pleasure to rise to speak to the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021. I have to say I feel like we are all on the same page. I mean, everyone is saying, ‘No, we love everyone! We don’t want to discriminate against anyone. We don’t discriminate against anyone. Everything is fine’. In that case, what is the problem? Why maintain this exception if we do not need it, as I hear from people who for some almost undisclosed reason are opposing this bill? We are all talking about love, we are all talking about equality, we are all talking about fairness and freedom, and yet people are opposing this bill.
Just as an aside, before I speak to the bill, in my lunch hour I went to the opening of a powder room. This was a delightful thing to do in my lunchtime—
Mr Ondarchie interjected.
Ms PATTEN: Yes, Mr Ondarchie, it was the opening of a powder room. It was at a club, the Kelvin Club, which was the first club to accept women as members, and that was 26 years ago almost to the day.
This powder room actually had significance in that club because there had never been a female toilet in the Kelvin Club until 26 years ago when they first accepted female members. That was because they could discriminate against women, and many clubs still do this. It shows the changing nature of our society that it would seem absolutely daft that you would have a club without a women’s bathroom, because they had no women coming to that club. Twenty-six years ago they changed that, and this is also an important change. This bill narrows that outdated carve-out that actually does cause harm.
I note that many people were saying it does not. Well, it does. It does cause harm. It causes real harm, particularly to our LGBTIQ+ community and particularly to women and to girls. As we have heard from everyone in this chamber, for or against this bill, every person deserves fair and respectful treatment when they go to school and work and when they are seeking support services. These carve-outs as they stand today allow faith-based schools and organisations to discriminate against people on the grounds of their sex, their sexual orientation, their gender identity, their marital status and their parental status. Really? In 2021 we want the right to do that? I was surprised that anyone would oppose this. I thought that we would have been home by now, because it just seems bizarre in 2021 that people would want that right.
I have been listening to Mr Finn, Mr Ondarchie, Ms Bath all talking about respect and agreement. In fact at one point I think some of the previous speakers were saying, ‘There’s no problem. We don’t use it anyway, so why should we change it?’. Well, why have it? Why have a carve-out that says that some people are less worthy than others? Because that is what this carve-out does. This carve-out says that it is acceptable and that these people—these others—do not have the same rights. ‘They do not have the same freedoms as I do’. In fact, ‘I should have this innate freedom to discriminate against them. I should. It is my belief, it is my freedom, and I should be allowed to discriminate against people’.
Well, no. Actually, no. In fact it goes both ways. We have protection from discrimination on the grounds of religion, and this bill enshrines that as well. Our equal opportunity bill enshrines that. This bill will limit religious exceptions under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010, and it reintroduces that inherent requirement. I would say this is extremely sensible. This is extremely balanced. Currently the Equal Opportunity Act has broad exceptions permitting religious bodies to discriminate on the basis, as I said, of religious belief, sex, sexual orientation et cetera. This bill will narrow—not actually close—the ability to discriminate. It will just narrow how you can discriminate and how you can treat others differently.
It will narrow the ability of religious bodies and schools to discriminate in employment. It also narrows the exceptions for religious bodies that are state government funded. Let us remember, this is talking about government-funded organisations who want to have an exception from the Equal Opportunity Act. They are happy to accept the taxpayers money, but they would like to refuse services and they would like to refuse employment for some taxpayers. I find it quite extraordinary that anyone would want to defend that right.
I know that we have all received many emails asking us to support this or asking us to oppose this. I have received many from religious organisations saying, ‘I don’t know why—we’ve never used it. Why would we have this? We don’t need this exception. In fact we don’t think it’s right. In fact we don’t think it’s Christian. We do not think it’s fair and it’s not what our doctrines, what our beliefs, say. Our beliefs say “treat everyone equally”, our beliefs say “treat everyone kindly”, “treat everyone with respect” so why would we want this exception to treat some people without that same respect?’. But apparently we do.
Well, I do not. I want that to change, and so does the Brotherhood of St Laurence. They are a magnificent organisation. They wrote to the Attorney-General, and I was fortunate to be cc’ed in. The acting executive director, Dr Lucia Boxelaar, said:
We strongly support this bill. This bill ensures that religious freedoms that allow people to practice their faith are balanced with the rights of all people. We therefore urge all members of Parliament to support the proposed reforms to the Equal Opportunity Act.
Well said. Why would we have an equal opportunity act that actually carves people out, that says that some people are more equal than others, some people should have more freedom than others? When I have been listening—and I have been listening to the contributions from everyone today—I keep nodding my head and saying, ‘Yes, I totally agree with you. Love is love. We should be allowed to love anyone. We should not discriminate’. So why are you defending this right to discriminate?
Let us be clear: this is not, as Mr Finn might say, about closing schools, about banning religion, about the end of religion as we know it. This bill finds a balance, and it is a balance that I am reluctantly comfortable with. Religious bodies will still be able to discriminate on the basis of religious belief in schools, workplaces and service delivery as long as it is reasonable and proportionate. Why would you want anything else? Why would you want anything more than being allowed to discriminate on the grounds that it is reasonable and proportionate, and in the case of employment, that it is an inherent part of the job? Religious bodies will still be exempt from discrimination laws when training, educating, ordaining or appointing religious leaders or members or when selecting or appointing people to participate in religious observance or practice. Now, that seems incredibly balanced. That seems to be finding a balance.
I do not think this bill is perfect. But this is the last day of sitting, so I am not going to try and change this bill now because that would delay the passage of this very important piece of legislation. But the Human Rights Law Centre, Dr Luke Beck, Equality Australia and many others have said that this bill could be strengthened by ensuring that students cannot be discriminated against on the basis of religion after admission to a school. It could also be improved by removing the distinction between government and non-government-funded services, and that is actually quite a key point in this—this exemption still applies if you are not government funded. Religious organisations, religious charities, still have the right to discriminate and be bigoted and treat other people less equally if they are doing it on their own dollar—their own tax-free dollar that is, the dollar that they do not have to pay tax on.
As I say, there could be improvements, but today is not the day for that. I certainly support Dr Ratnam’s amendments, but I would like to take on the motto that so many of us have had to, probably the motto that I probably say most days in this job: don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. And this is good.
Fiona Patten MP
Leader of Reason
Member for Northern Metropolitan
Second reading speech 3/12/21