If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. After nearly three years and two widely unpopular drafts, the government wants to have another crack at passing religious discrimination laws once flagged by Prime Minister Scott Morrison as a top priority.
Attorney-General Michaelia Cash told The Australian religious discrimination laws would be back on the table before the end of the year, although we still don’t have a draft. That was interesting news to the opposition, who found out about Cash’s plans through media reports. Crikey understands Labor is yet to be approached by Cash on any new proposals for the bill.
The attorney-general has had time to meet with conservative religious groups, who are pushing hard for laws that would give them free rein to discriminate against people who don’t align with their faith (read: LGBTIQ employees). But any bill cooked up by the churches could go the way of the last two drafts — scrapped after alienating human rights groups, the crossbench, and swathes of the Coalition’s own traditional support base.
A brief history of religious discrimination
Devout Pentecostal Scott Morrison named religious freedom protections as one of his first priorities after becoming prime minister. The government’s first attempt to get laws passed, in the aftermath of the Israel Folau affair, produced a hot mess of a bill.
The faithful were given more protection than any other group in Australia, giving them almost unfettered ability to make discriminatory statements. Human rights and LGBTIQ groups were worried it could legitimise discriminatory, homophobic behaviour and undermine efforts towards workplace inclusivity. Even the Institute of Public Affairs hated it for blurring the distinction between church and state.
But the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) and religious groups hated it for other reasons — it didn’t give them enough ability to fire people without “Christian sexual ethic”. A second crack suffered a similar fate — both business groups and the unions agreed it would damage workplace harmony. The ACL once again said it didn’t go far enough. Then-attorney-general Christian Porter promised more consultations, before the pandemic happened.
It turned out trying to thread the needle in a way that satisfied the Christian hard right, business and human rights groups, and moderates within the Coalition’s broad church, wasn’t easy.
Why is the bill back?
With an election imminent, and the government uninterested in legislating much, pushing for a highly divisive bill culture war-adjacent bill seems a strange choice. But the government has been pushed hard by the religious right — as Crikey reported yesterday, the ACL has been lobbying MPs and is keen to make a play at the next election. Cash has met with another conservative Christian group, Freedom for Faith.
Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General Amanda Stoker, one of Parliament’s most outspoken Christian soldiers, said in March she’d had a number of meetings and teleconferences with interested parties about religious discrimination laws. Asked to provide details on notice, she didn’t identify any meetings held since taking on the portfolio last December.
On the bill itself, all we know so far is it’ll differ from Porter’s two failed proposals. Labor have heard nothing.
Meanwhile, Greens LGBTIQ spokesperson Janet Rice told Crikey the previous two drafts were a “Trojan Horse for hate”, and suggested Cash’s latest model wouldn’t be very different.
“This bill isn’t about religious freedom,” she said. “It’s about groups like the ACL, and the extreme far-right MPs of Morrison’s party, trying to push their fearmongering ‘culture war’ agenda to rile up their base and discriminate against LGBTIQ+ people, women and people with disabilities.”
Porter’s first two cracks at religious discrimination led to the law being stuck in the “too hard” basket. If Cash releases a draft that makes the ACL happy, it’ll likely go the same way.