Labor says religious discrimination bill should not come at a cost to other Australians

Labor’s leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, has said the party’s “principal position” on the religious discrimination bill is that it should not reduce protections for other Australians.

The opposition has so far been reluctant to criticise the government’s revised religious discrimination bill, wary of being drawn into a fight with the Coalition on the hot-button issue which has divided MPs on both sides of politics.

While saying Labor had not yet made a decision on how it would handle the bill, Wong said protecting people against religious discrimination should not come at the expense of other minority groups.

“Labor supports protection against religious discrimination, and that protection should not come at the cost of reducing protections for other forms of discrimination,” Wong told the ABC on Wednesday.

“I think our principal position has been that this right – the right to practice your faith freely, which is a human right – should not be protected through the reduction of protections that other Australians have against forms of discrimination.

“We will work through the bill, but our principal position is the view I hold – a shield not a sword.”

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, used the same expression in the joint Coalition party room on Tuesday, after the government sought to land a compromise between conservatives and moderates on the polarising legislation.

Following months of consultations, the attorney general, Michaelia Cash, on Tuesday presented MPs with a revised bill – the third since 2019 – which removed the controversial Folau clause and dumped provisions that would have allowed conscientious objection for health professionals.

But equality advocates are still concerned the bill could water down protections for other minority groups, taking aim at the bill’s statement of belief clause that protects religious statements from breaching state and territory anti-discrimination laws.

Moderate Liberal MPs are also concerned about these provisions, but have been assured the legislation’s referral to a Senate committee inquiry will allow these concerns to be ventilated, and potentially see the legislation amended.

Wong also criticised the Morrison government for taking so long to bring the legislation to Parliament and said he had shown no inclination to work in a bipartisan way on the “sensitive and complex” issue.

“That’s not Scott Morrison’s way – he doesn’t want to bring people together, he always wants division,” Wong said.

North Sydney Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman said he was continuing to raise his concerns over the potential for the bill to override state laws with the attorney general.

“I have expressed concerns about statement of beliefs, not because I think that there’s anything wrong with people being able to make a statement about their religious beliefs, obviously, that’s part of our free society,” Zimmerman told the ABC.

“But what I am concerned about as a broader principle, is the fact that a bill like this does give primacy to statements of belief founded in religious belief, over other beliefs that are personally held.”

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The assistant treasurer, Michael Sukkar, a conservative Victorian, said he believed the legislation was now “reasonable and balanced” and the government needed to ensure that people of faith were protected from discrimination.

“We’ve got to protect them and there are millions of Australians who deserve that protection.”

Morrison will introduce the bill to the House of Assembly on Thursday, but it is not expected to be debated and voted on until next week.

A senate inquiry is then expected to take place during the summer break.

The progress of the bill will depend on the timing of the election. A May election would allow the legislation to be debated and voted on next year, while a March election would see the bill stall in the Senate.


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