The Politics    Thursday, February 10, 2022

Discrimination was the point

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time in the House of Representatives today. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time in the House of Representatives today. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

The backers of the religious discrimination bill won’t support it if it means not being free to discriminate against trans kids

The federal government and the right-wing groups that were demanding a religious discrimination bill have thrown a massive tantrum over amendments made overnight to protect transgender students, and the bill is now shelved altogether. With the Australian Christian Lobby calling for it to be pulled and Liberal senator Andrew Bragg (a key vote) indicating he would back further changes, the government resolved not to put the supposedly all-important, top-priority bill to the Senate today, and will instead push for a Senate inquiry, all but confirming it won’t be dealt with this side of the election. The excuses the government has offered today are bizarre, running from claims that the amendments could have “unintended consequences” that might harm students, to the claim the result would offer more protection to trans kids than to cisgender kids (this didn’t seem to matter when we were providing extra rights to religious groups over others). It’s hard to swallow the fact that Labor was going to be slammed for being “anti-faith” and “anti-multiculturalism” by elements of the media if the party didn’t support the bill in a form it didn’t like, and that the Coalition probably won’t be criticised for pulling out of it (what else is new). But one thing is absolutely clear from the government’s pathetic withdrawal today: discrimination was the point. With that in mind, Labor, the crossbench and the moderate Liberals must push through with the Sex Discrimination Act amendments, which are not part of the main bill, and which now have majority support.

It’s long been noted that this “religious freedom” bill (as it was originally known) seemed much more focused on the freedom to discriminate than on freedom from discrimination. The fact that the government has now pulled out based on these protective changes, despite repeatedly saying this bill couldn’t possibly wait, confirms this was the true focus all along. Speaking to media this morning, Assistant Attorney-General Amanda Stoker said the government was “checking in with all of the stakeholder groups” (read: seeing what the ACL wanted) and still deciding what to do next. But she gave the game away by saying she didn’t want to see the bill doing “anything less” than it should. Senator Jane Hume implied the government was going to actively try to undo the amendments. It wasn’t long before the ACL publicly called for the government to withdraw the bill, arguing that “taking away protections for Christian schools” (also known as protecting the rights of trans students) “is a price too high to pay for the passage of the Religious Discrimination Bill”. So much for religious freedom.

Last night’s all-night sitting of the House – which as human rights lawyer Kieran Pender notes came in the same week we’re acknowledging a review that found that “long and irregular hours of work” were a significant risk factor for harassment – seems to have generally been reported as a “win” for Labor, and I will hand it to them: they have outplayed Scott Morrison here. It remains disappointing, however, that Labor voted to pass the legislation when it could have passed the amendments and then opposed the bill on principle (as independent MP Rebekha Sharkie, whose amendment actually got up, did) for the same Morrison-binding outcome. In speech after speech last night, Labor MPs slammed the bill, implying that to pass it without amendments would be disastrous (shadow minister for the NDIS Bill Shorten’s comments, on the harm that the “statement of belief” clause could do to the disability community, are particularly worth a watch). But Labor then helped pass the bill without all of those amendments in place, thus betraying vulnerable communities for reasons that seem to basically come down to not wanting to get wedged. It also remains unclear what Labor was going to do about the flawed bill if it didn’t get all its amendments through, although we can be relieved the risk paid off.

It’s certainly been painted as a win for the moderate Liberals who crossed the floor, with the five defectors receiving glowing write-ups for their efforts. They all deserve praise, but it’s worth remembering that only Bridget Archer and Trent Zimmerman (who delivered another unmissable speech) voted to amend the “statement of belief” clause (and in fact refused to vote for the bill in the end). Fiona Martin, Dave Sharma and Katie Allen did not, despite the latter two having expressed reservations about the clause. No matter. With the bill stopped, Sharma and Allen can return to their electorates, under threat from independent and Labor candidates, boasting about “righting historic wrongs”, as Sharma has already begun doing. Perhaps the five defectors would like to finish off the job by following through with those changes to the Sex Discrimination Act, to ensure those overdue protections for trans students go ahead.

But as commentators rush to gush over Labor’s clever outmanoeuvring of Morrison, it’s sad to reflect on the fact that MPs were forced to engage in this horrific game at all. This has been a waste of time and energy when that time could have been spent dealing with the real issues of the country, and it’s one that has caused unnecessary pain to some of the most vulnerable people in the community, with their rights yet again treated as being up for debated, all so that Morrison could try to score political points. It was a game Morrison chose to create, turning the religious discrimination bill into a wedge by refusing to properly engage with Labor, and treating trans kids as a political football. It’s a game he has ultimately lost.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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