ABC RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly
Subject: Religious Discrimination Bill
FRAN KELLY: As you can hear from that, the Prime Minister's got trouble on a few fronts. And at home, here in the Parliament, he's being squeezed from both sides by his own MPs over the Religious Discrimination Bill, which he personally will introduce into the Parliament today. Conservative liberals are urging the Prime Minister not to water down the proposed laws, while moderates are pushing for more protections for gay and lesbian teachers and students. The Attorney General, Michaelia Cash, was still unavailable to speak with us, but the deputy Attorney General, Amanda Stoker, joins me now. Amanda Stoker, thanks very much for joining us.
AMANDA STOKER: Good morning. Thanks for having me on the program.
FRAN KELLY: It's- the bill is dense; people are still getting across it. But a lot of the focus, and I know the focus in the discussion in your party room, is on how gay teachers and students will fair under this legislation. The Attorney General has conceded that under the current law, teachers can be sacked because of their sexual discrimination- sexual orientation. That's under the Sex Discrimination Law. Will it still be the case under their Religious Discrimination Bill?
AMANDA STOKER: The Religious Discrimination Bill covers slightly different territory. It provides that it is unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of religious belief or activity – or indeed someone's non-belief – in areas like employment, education, provision of goods and services. But what the government has committed to do is to meet the commitment it made some time ago to work through with the Australian Law Reform Commission a way forward that involves removing, particularly in relation to students, those provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act that create that risk. Noting that, overwhelmingly, when you talk to faith-based schools of all different kinds of backgrounds, they're all saying they don't want to do this to students and teachers. Overwhelming, they like to include and support pastorally people from their...
FRAN KELLY: Overwhelmingly they might, but there is evidence that some schools do, and teachers have been sacked for their sexuality, and that students have been kicked out too.
AMANDA STOKER: Look, I'm not going to split hairs over that. The government...
FRAN KELLY: That's not splitting hairs, that's the whole point of this argument that's happening within your party room. I mean, your colleague Fiona Martin, who's a psychologist, works with kids and teenagers, is saying the Sex Discrimination Act should be amended now to stop it happening. Why not get it done now rather than wait for a review for another year? The Prime Minister made this promise at a by-election in Wentworth in 2018. That's- you know, we're heading up to a third election since then.
AMANDA STOKER: Look, we've made the commitment, both to bring in the Religious Discrimination Act and to deal with those provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act. It's important we do them well and that we do them in a way that brings people with us. And so that's exactly what we're doing. We also took the Religious Discrimination Bill to an election, as you'll recall. We've had an elaborate consultation process, and it's ready to go.
But the matters for which colleagues and different parts of the community are seeking change around the Sex Discrimination Act remain on the table, and they remain matters that we are committed to pursue.
FRAN KELLY: Okay.
AMANDA STOKER: They're just to be done in two different pieces, and they are in different Acts, that makes sense. But the commitment is clear; we need to make sure that people from a religious perspective – or indeed a right not to believe perspective – don't face discrimination. And it's very important that in doing so, we make it clear that we are not permitting or authorising or empowering discrimination on the basis of any other protected attribute. It's worth thinking of this bill not as a sword to use against others, but a shield to use to protect from discrimination.
FRAN KELLY: Okay. Let's just go to nail this down again. Because under this bill, and the Attorney-General made this clear again yesterday, Catholic schools will be able to discriminate to the extent that they can hire only Catholic teachers; Muslim schools, Muslim teachers; Jewish schools, only Jewish teachers. For many people I think that's not contentious. But the question that some are asking is: under this new bill, the Statement of Beliefs, can a Christian school sack a Christian teacher because she's gay? Because that happens now. Will that be still allowable under your bill? Under the- you know, can they have a mission, which is required under this bill, that makes it clear that the school will not allow gay teachers?
AMANDA STOKER: Well, let's think about how this works in practice. If a teacher applies to work at a school – whether it's Christian, or Islamic, or whether it's Jewish, or any other – and they apply to work at a school that's got a clearly stated policy, and that policy...
FRAN KELLY: Yes. But can- that's what I'm asking you. Can that policy say, we don't employ gay teachers? I mean, if this Christian school is looking at the employment of a Christian teacher, and that Christian teacher happens to be gay, can that disqualify them from employment? Is that allowed under this bill?
AMANDA STOKER: Look, I think that is something that would depend a great deal on upon what that school is prepared to be up front with the community about.
FRAN KELLY: Hang on.
AMANDA STOKER: Now, I'd suggest there'd be very few schools that want to be in a position where they've got to say to the community that this is what we believe, and we're not going to hire people unless they subscribe to a version of beliefs that is very, very strict on that front.
FRAN KELLY: Okay.
AMANDA STOKER: But, let's also be clear, if people-
FRAN KELLY: But that would not be illegal, to have that mission statement that says we don't accept homosexuality and therefore we will not hire homosexual staff? That wouldn't be illegal under this Statement of Beliefs?
AMANDA STOKER: Look, that's conflating a few different things – that's not Statement of Belief.
FRAN KELLY: Oh, beg your pardon.
AMANDA STOKER: Statement of Belief is the ability of a person to politely and respectfully, and without inciting violence, state what they believe to others, without fear that they will be dragged before a tribunal accused of having discriminated for stating their genuinely held, good faith, religious belief. That's what statement of belief is. The matter in relation to schools is a bit different. I think, as a matter of principle, it should be the case that a school who can show that they have a belief set that is justified from the core of their religious beliefs, that they are prepared to make public and plain, and that they are prepared to be upfront about with people who apply to work in a place, should be able to require that people act consistently with it. Now for many people, they'll look at that and go, 'well, you know, that's pretty intense, that may not be somewhere I want to work'. Other people will say, 'that's a way I think, and that's the way that I want to believe'. But if we look at the big picture here, what these schools do is provide education in an environment, in a school culture, that is shaped by the fact of the way that religious belief is implemented across that school community.
FRAN KELLY: Okay.
AMANDA STOKER: And if you take away the ability of a school to be able to deliver a community that's based on that, then you might as well just have public schools across the board...
FRAN KELLY: Okay.
AMANDA STOKER: Because parents and teachers and students won't be getting anything different from the private school sector.
FRAN KELLY: Can I just ask you very briefly – we're out of time, but we just heard from Clive Palmer. He's done a preference swap with Campbell Newman, who will slug it out with you for a Queensland Senate seat. Could this alliance be the end of your career in Parliament?
AMANDA STOKER: Look, I'm not worried about that. I'm worried about delivering for the sensible and reasonable concerns of Queenslanders. And so, I get on with the job, I'm not counting numbers.
FRAN KELLY: Amanda Stoker, thank you very much for joining us.
AMANDA STOKER: Thanks very much Fran.