Discussions about religious freedom in Australia should aim to unite the nation rather than divide it, guests at the Australian Catholic University’s sixth Parliamentary Interfaith Breakfast have heard.
Over 160 guests, including around 50 faith leaders and 50 parliamentarians, gathered for the Parliamentary Interfaith Breakfast at the National Press Club in Canberra on 24 November 2022, after a two year hiatus due to the pandemic.
Attorney general Mark Dreyfus gave a speech at the 6th interfaith breakfast event where he spoke about the government’s plan for a religious discrimination bill.
I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet this morning, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, and pay my respects to elders past and present. I extend that respect to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people here today.
And I reiterate the Government’s commitment to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full – beginning with a referendum to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in the Australian Constitution during this term of Parliament.
When over 90% of Australians voted YES in 1967, campaigners like Pastor Doug Nicholls were instrumental in the success of that referendum. I have no doubt that faith leaders, including many in this room, will play an essential role in persuading our fellow Australians to vote YES to enshrining a Voice in the Constitution.
So, it is heartening to see so many supporters of the Uluru Statement and the referendum on the Voice in this room today, including signatories to the joint resolution signed by representatives from the Anglican Church, Catholic Bishops Conference, National Imams Council, the Sangha Association, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the Hindu Council, the National Council of Churches, the Sikh Council and the Uniting Church in May 2022. That joint resolution called on Australia’s political leaders to take bipartisan action to hold a referendum to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in the Constitution.
It is a privilege to be here representing the Prime Minister, and I thank the Australian Catholic University for having me.
I would like to acknowledge the many esteemed guests that we have in the room this morning, including representatives of many faiths and the Chancellor and other executives of the ACU.
Today we meet in Canberra but many of us have come here from across Australia.
There are many things I could speak to you about today, but I would like to focus on something that I know will be on the minds of many in this room today.
As everyone in this room knows, faith – and, specifically, the freedom to hold and to practice one’s faith free from discrimination – has been on the national political agenda in recent years.
The previous government got as far as introducing a Religious Discrimination Bill into the Federal Parliament – before abandoning it on the eve of the last federal election after it had passed through the House of Representatives with bipartisan support.
As I said in my second reading speech on the former government’s Religious Discrimination Bill, the idea that it should be unlawful to discriminate against someone in employment, in the provision of services or in other areas of public life on the basis of a person’s religious belief or activity is not, or at least should not be, controversial.
It is already unlawful under the anti-discrimination laws in most states and territories for individuals to be discriminated against on the basis of their religious beliefs or practices – and freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief is a fundamental human right.
In Opposition, the Australian Labor Party was guided by a number of simple but fundamental principles.
First, as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights makes clear, religious organisations and people of faith have the right to act in accordance with the doctrines, beliefs or teachings of their traditions and faith.
Second, my colleagues and I support the extension of the federal anti-discrimination framework to ensure Australians cannot be discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or practises.
And, third, consistent with the International Covenant, any extension of the federal anti-discrimination framework should not remove protections that already exist in the law to protect Australians from other forms of discrimination.
These simple principles will continue to guide us as we work towards implementing the Albanese Government’s commitments to extending anti-discrimination protections to more Australians, including to people of faith and to staff and students in religious schools. As each of you will be aware, those commitments are to:
- prevent discrimination against people of faith, including anti-vilification provisions;
- act to protect all students from discrimination on any grounds; and,
- protect teachers and other staff from discrimination at work, while maintaining the right of religious schools to preference people of their faith in the selection of staff.
On 4 November, the Government took the first crucial step to implementing these commitments when I asked the Australian Law Reform Commission to conduct an inquiry into the exemptions for religious educational institutions in the Sex Discrimination Act and a number of related issues.
The ALRC will provide its advice to Government by 21 April 2023.
I was pleased to announce that Justice Stephen Rothman AM of the New South Wales Supreme Court will lead this inquiry as a part-time member of the ALRC. Justice Rothman is an eminent lawyer with a longstanding involvement in the Jewish education sector. I consider him to be ideally placed to lead this inquiry.
It is not news to anyone in this room that the debate about the previous government’s Religious Discrimination Bill was divisive. In my opinion, it was unnecessarily divisive.
There are many reasons for this but I am not here this morning to rake over coals.
It is my strong belief that these are matters that should be above party politics. And it is my hope that the new leader of the Liberal Party, Peter Dutton – whose presence here this morning I would like to acknowledge – and the new Shadow Attorney-General, Julian Leeser, will work constructively with the Government to extend the federal anti-discrimination framework in a way that brings Australians together.
As the expert panel led by Phillip Ruddock recognised, designing legal rules to protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion without unjustifiably burdening other rights is an immensely difficult and delicate task. The expert panel described it as “a many-sided discussion”.
To the extent possible, the Government will seek to encourage a “many-sided discussion” that is respectful, constructive, accepting and unifying, and recognises the wealth and value of Australia’s diversity.
Many contributions to that discussion will come from within the Labor Caucus, which is more reflective of the diversity of Australia than ever before.
The Caucus is made up of people who are Christian, who are Jewish, who are Muslim – people from a range of other faiths, and others who are not adherents of any religion at all. There are a record number of First Nations members of Caucus. There are Caucus members who went to university, and others who didn’t – people who were born in Australia, and many who weren’t. There are a record number of women in the caucus and the Cabinet. There are people from the LGBTIQ community. There are single parents, working parents – big families and small.
The Albanese Government sees this diversity as a strength. Different perspectives are to be welcomed as we search for common ground – rather than exploited for the purposes of sewing division.
I think everyone in this room, and Australians across the country, have had enough of the division – and will embrace a more constructive and respectful path forward.
Religious Diversity in Australia
I have the great honour of representing the diverse electorate of Isaacs in Melbourne’s south-east. The suburbs in my electorate provide a vivid example of our success as a multicultural society. Dandenong South, Mentone, Mordialloc, South Keysborough – and many others. These places are now home to people from over 180 countries, including adherents of just about every religion in the world.
The religious diversity I see in my own community of Isaacs is to be found in electorates across Victoria and across our nation. That religious diversity is intrinsic to our successful multiculturalism and our success as a nation.
For many Australians, religion forms a central part of their personal identity and value system, and it helps guide how they want to raise their families. The central themes of law and justice in both Jewish religious and secular traditions have great meaning for me and have helped to shape my worldview.
This Government will always stand for a genuinely inclusive society in which everyone belongs and everyone can fully participate.
It was a pleasure to address you all this morning. Thank you again to the Australian Catholic University for hosting this inter-faith breakfast – it really is terrific to see so many people here this morning from a range of faith groups.
It has been a privilege to address you on behalf of the Prime Minister.
There are millions of Australians represented by leaders in this room today. Whether it’s climate, secure work, anti-discrimination law, education, access to affordable healthcare, access to justice – there is so much we can achieve by working together.
Many in this room are, of course, approaching a busy season! To those of you who are beginning the advent season this weekend, I hope your pews are full after years of separation during this special time. To those of you who, like me, will be observing the holiday of Chanukah, I wish you a Happy Chanukah.
And to all of you, I look forward to your counsel and good will as we move into a new year.