The assistant attorney general, Amanda Stoker, has muddied the waters about whether LGBTQ+ students will be protected at the same time as the religious discrimination bill potentially passes federal parliament.
Stoker said on Friday the Sex Discrimination Act “shouldn’t be changed unless we know the final form of the religious discrimination bill”, prompting the prime minister, Scott Morrison, to reassert his pledge that amendments to protect LGBTQ+ students would be contained in the same set of bills.
Stoker’s intervention comes ahead of the release of two inquiry reports.
Stakeholders think Labor will join the Coalition in joint reports for both, calling for the religious discrimination bills to be considered for passage through parliament, although Labor will also express concerns about hiring and firing powers and the contentious statements of belief clause.
The government is still struggling to secure the support of three key Liberal backbenchers for the bills ahead of next week’s crucial parliamentary sitting.
On Thursday, Scott Morrison announced the government would introduce an amendment that would prevent students being expelled from school for their sexuality or gender, to be included in the religious discrimination package.
The move, which infuriated conservative Christian groups, fulfils a deal with four Liberal MPs – Angie Bell, Katie Allen, Dave Sharma and Fiona Martin – made in December in return for their support for the religious bill.
But on Friday, Stoker told ABC radio that although the prime minister wanted to do both at the same time, the government was still “looking for ways” to legislate the promise.
Stoker said she was concerned that the amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act must “integrate well” with the religious bills.
Removing the exemption to the SDA that enables schools to expel LGBTQ+ students without knowing the final form of the religious bill, which might face amendment in the Senate, could create “unintended consequences”, she said.
These include preventing schools “maintaining standards of behaviour within their community”.
Stoker said although the government wants to do “the right thing by these kids” it also acknowledged “the fact that religious schools are the education choice for thousands of Australian families” and did not want to stop their ability to set their own ethos.
The comments raise the prospect that although LGBT students could be protected from expulsion for their gender or sexuality, schools will retain the right to punish students for advocacy of beliefs that conflict with the school on those topics.
Asked whether rates of self-harm among trans people were attributable to discrimination against them, Stoker acknowledged the “shocking figures in relation to people who are transgender”.
Stoker then blamed “many of the medical procedures that we provide to try to help transgender people feel much more mentally healthy”, suggesting that they “aren’t actually providing the improvements in health and wellbeing”.
In Melbourne today, Morrison said it was his intention to legislate the protections at the same time, and asked if that would be before the election, he replied “yes”.
Despite the LGBT students deal the remaining trio of holdouts – Bridget Archer, Warren Entsch and Trent Zimmerman – indicated the amendment would not be sufficient for their support.
Archer told Guardian Australia the amendment was a “positive step forward” but it “doesn’t shift my position at all” because the concern over LGBT students “is only a fraction of the issue with the bill”.
Archer said she was concerned with the “explicit override of Tasmanian anti-discrimination laws”, as the religious bill explicitly overrides its laws banning speech that “offends, insults, or humiliates” people based on other protected attributes.
“I agree there should be freedom from discrimination on any attribute including religion, sexuality, or parenting status.
“For me – it’s the statement of belief that is problematic in that regard – it goes beyond freedom from discrimination and extends to entrenching religious privilege.”
“I value our gold standard anti-discrimination laws … I’m not prepared to stand by and see them eroded, the Tasmanian government doesn’t want to see them eroded.”
Archer said her objections would be “very hard to overcome” unless the bill was stripped back to an “orthodox discrimination bill” that simply prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion.
Entsch said negotiations were “a work in progress” that he would not conduct through the media, adding: “I’m at the stage of my political career where I’m more concerned with outcomes than reputation.”
Zimmerman, who has previously called for discrimination against LGBT teachers to also be banned, confirmed he has reserved his position, at least until he sees the committee inquiry reports.
Labor MP Josh Burns told Guardian Australia it would “be helpful if the government would reveal if it is planning on amending the bill”.
Burns noted the “conflicting public statements” between attorney general, Michaelia Cash, who said in December that amending the Sex Discrimination Act to protect LGBT students would wait for 12 months and a further review, and the prime minister on Thursday who appeared to commit to an amendment in the religious discrimination package itself.
Burns, a member of the joint human rights committee that considered the bill, said he had “no idea” which was the government’s position.
The government has listed the religious discrimination bills on the Senate program for Wednesday, suggesting they could try to pass them in the lower house on Tuesday, but Labor is increasingly confident that with the Coalition split on its own side the bills may not be forced to a vote.
Labor caucus resolved in November that it would reserve its final position until after the inquiries were completed.
If the government forced a vote Labor would “not oppose” the bill in the house, while making clear “the need for the government to deliver on its three-year-old commitment to protect LGBT students from discrimination”, caucus resolved.
Labor will not resolve its position until it sees the final version of the bill, meaning the shadow ministry and caucus meetings on Monday may not even consider it, because Morrison’s flagged amendments are still yet to be tabled.
Although in-principle support for the bill does not commit Labor to vote for it, it has caused consternation among some LGBT activists who wanted the opposition to take a harder line, including to require the amendments to protect LGBT students be tabled first.