Coalition shelves bills on religious discrimination and federal Icac

As parliament adjourns, deal to protect gay students from discrimination in religious schools threatens conservative support

Parliament has adjourned for the year, with a whimper and not a bang, after the Morrison government shelved its controversial religious discrimination and national integrity commission bills.

In a last-minute bid to win support for the religious discrimination bill, the Morrison government agreed to the demand of four Liberal moderates to protect gay students from discrimination in religious schools – a deal that now threatens conservative support for the legislation.

The government is now split between religious groups, including the Australian Christian Lobby and Christian Schools Australia, threatening to withdraw their support over the deal. And a trio of its own MPs are still refusing to give support until an inquiry has reported back and possible further amendments are made.

The House of Representatives adjourned on Thursday without a vote on the bill, which now faces two concurrent inquiries over summer, reporting back by 4 February, after the major parties unexpectedly agreed to an additional Senate inquiry on Thursday.

Parliament resumes on 8 February. With an election to come as early as March and just 10 sitting days locked in before August, it is unclear whether the religious discrimination bill, protections for LGBT students or a national integrity commission – all promises from before the 2019 election – will be legislated.

Despite winning support from some Liberals who had previously expressed reservations on religious freedom, the government is yet to persuade MPs Warren Entsch, Trent Zimmerman and Bridget Archer to support its own legislation.

Labor has reserved its position until an inquiry is complete and had support from crossbench MPs to delay a vote, a threat which dissuaded the Morrison government from attempting to force one.

On Thursday, Christian Schools Australia rejected the “appalling” deal struck by Dave Sharma, Katie Allen, Angie Bell and Fiona Martin to protect LGBT students by removing religious schools’ exemption to the Sex Discrimination Act.

CSA director of public policy, Mark Spencer, said the Australian Law Reform Commission should continue its review of discrimination laws – due to report next year – because reform is “not as simple” as removing one religious exemption.

Spencer warned of unintended consequences, arguing the change would prevent schools setting “behavioural expectations” and teaching a biblical view of sexual activity such as a prohibition on sex before marriage, or that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

Spencer told Guardian Australia if the Sex Discrimination Act changes are “part of the same package” as the religious discrimination bills, then Christian Schools Australia would no longer support it.

The Australian Christian Lobby national director of politics, Wendy Francis, said the exemption “protects the teaching and daily operation of faith-based schools” and talk of removing it “in exchange for some MPs’ support for the religious discrimination bill, is extremely unhelpful”.

“Government policy is not made by backroom deals on a separate piece of legislation … without consultation with stakeholders, in particular the faith-based schools, about the implications of that,” she said.

“The Australian Christian Lobby will withdraw its support for the religious discrimination bill package, if it includes the removal of [the] section.”

The shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, told the lower house it was “clearly inappropriate” for Scott Morrison to push the bill through before the joint human rights committee began hearings into what is a “complex area of law”.

Dreyfus said it was “simply wrong” for the Coalition to accuse Labor of delay given it had failed to introduce a bill for three years and had rebuffed offers to work on a bipartisan basis as recently as June, when Michaelia Cash became attorney general.

The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, took aim at the Morrison government over its delay on the national integrity commission, reiterating Labor’s pledge for an anti-corruption body “with teeth” able to start its own investigations and inquiry into matters before its establishment.

It's been more than 1000 days since Scott Morrison promised a national integrity commission. Today could be the last day of Parliament before the next election – and he still hasn't delivered one. It's time to restore integrity to politics.

— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) December 2, 2021

The deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, told the lower house the religious discrimination bill had to take into account “the breadth of views in the Australian community and that it is worthy of bipartisan support”.

“It finally provides Australians with protections against religious discrimination at a federal level that are long overdue – and I’m pleased to support this bill,” he said.

Earlier, the Coalition, Labor and Greens combined in the Senate to send the religious discrimination bill to a legal and constitutional affairs legislation committee inquiry.


Paul Karp

The GuardianTramp

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