Debate resumed in Parliament today over a Bill which people with disability are “deeply concerned” will allow for discrimination and demeaning comments against them in health care, education, employment and everyday life.
The Religious Discrimination Bill has been attracting attention over the last few months for the protections it encompasses, which opposers say will preference the rights of people expressing their beliefs over the rights of people which those beliefs might be discriminatory towards.
The Australian Federation of Disability Organisations (AFDO) and other advocacy groups have written a joint letter to Members of Parliament to urge them to vote against the Bill because of the harm it could cause for people with disability.
“We all support protection against discrimination on the ground of religion and of religious freedom as essential to any thriving democracy, but this must not be allowed at the expense of the rights and dignity of others,” the letter reads.
“...The Religious Discrimination Bill and its provisions permitting ‘statements of belief’ override the existing legal and policy protections for people with disability from humiliating, insulting, ridiculing and demeaning behaviour and gives licence to an increase in such behaviour towards people with disability, undermining our confidence and sense of worth as Australians.”
AFDO Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Ross Joyce explains that the disability organisations don’t believe the Religious Discrimination Bill is needed.
“There are already significant protections against religious discrimination with existing laws at Federal, State and Territory levels,” he says.
“This unnecessary Bill will override all existing legislation but in so doing, will allow for a ‘statement of faith’ to provide protection for those undertaking, what would currently be covered in existing law as discrimination against people with disability.”
The united organisations say people with disability often hear demeaning statements of religious belief that attribute their disability “as the result of sin, possession, or karma”, which will only become more common if the Religious Discrimination Bill passes and protects people expressing these views.
These harmful statements include examples like: disability is a “punishment from God for their, or their parents’, sins”, disability can be “healed by prayer” or by “living virtuously”, or that they “deserve to suffer from their disability for what they have done in a previous life”.
For people with disability who experience intersectional discrimination (which is discrimination faced by an individual over more than one characteristic), the organisations say the Religious Discrimination Bill could have even more of a negative impact.
“There are significant risks particularly for people with disability who have intersectional identities like those from communities that are LGBTQIA+, Cultural and Linguistically Diverse, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, who already face intersecting discrimination, along with women and girls with disability and children and young people with disability as they grow and form their own identity," the organisations say.
“We see discrimination of all people with disability being exacerbated and openly allowed by this Bill.”
Last week, two Senate Inquiry Committee reports on the Bill recommended it be passed, but only after a series of amendments.
The committees also both questioned the Constitutional legitimacy of the Bill to be able to override other anti-discrimination laws.
In Parliament today, some MPs debating the Bill cited these reports and concerns, while others spoke of the discriminatory experiences which people of faith themselves had experienced and the need for legislation to stop this form of discrimination.
Politicians including MP Dr Anne Webster - who is Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights which reported on the Bill - and MP Ian Goodenough, spoke in favour of the Bill for the positive impact it will have on supporting and protecting people of faith.
Dr Webster says the Commonwealth must step in to rectify the situation which Australia finds itself in - where there is anti-discrimination law for all other forms of discrimination except for discrimination based on religion.
“This legislation package seeks to fill a void in the Australian human rights framework,” she says.
“The need for such a framework has been well documented. People of faith and particularly of minority religions are being discriminated against…with no recourse under Commonwealth law.
“The primary purpose of this legislation is to protect ordinary people of faith from discrimination as they go about their daily lives.”
Mr Goodenough says religious freedom is also vital to cultural freedom and that institutions such as schools and aged care facilities should be able to make decisions that will uphold their religious values for the benefit of their communities.
However, Tasmanian MPs in particular have been vocally opposed to the Bill because of its potential to override Tasmania’s existing anti-discrimination laws, which are considered the strongest in the country.
Andrew Wilkie, the Member for Clark in Tasmania, moved to ditch the Bill completely.
“The Federal Government should be looking at Tasmania’s anti-discrimination laws as a model for national reform, but instead it is intent on watering down the strong protections that we have,” Mr Wilkie says.
“I can’t support the Bill in its current form because it doesn’t ensure that all Australians, and in particular Tasmanians, are protected from discrimination.”
Mr Wilkie says the Religious Discrimination Bill is “reckless and potentially dangerous”, particularly the section on statements of belief because it is “not subject to clear or well-defined limitations”.
The consultation process over the Bill was also rushed, according to Mr Wilkie, and the inquiry process was a “farce” in which the Parliamentary Committees “privileged certain voices of religion over others”.
He says only 14 percent of respondents who submitted to the consultation in opposition to the Bill were able to give evidence in person, while 53 percent of those who submitted in support of the Bill gave evidence.
Parliamentary debate on the Bill is expected to continue over this week.