Religious freedom bill pushed back to next year

Higgins MP Katie Allen says the changes to protect gay students are much needed. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Higgins MP Katie Allen says the changes to protect gay students are much needed. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

A vote on the Morrison government's contentious religious discrimination bill has been pushed into next year, raising the prospect that the legislation won't pass before next year's election.

The bill was debated only briefly as parliament sat for the final time this year on Thursday, amid confusion over whether a deal had been struck to deliver long-promised protections for gay students.

Although Mr Morrison insists the changes will act as a "shield not a sword" for people of faith, equality groups, the Greens and some Liberals fear it could open the door to discrimination against groups including LGBTIQ people.

The legislation is set to return for a vote after two separate parliamentary inquiries hand down their findings in early February.

Labor and most crossbenchers were set to resist any government attempt to bring on a vote in the lower house on Thursday - and they could have been backed by at least one Liberal MP.

Leichhardt MP Warren Entsch is among the moderate Liberals who wanted extra time to consider the bill, in particular a provision which would override state anti-discrimination laws to provide protection for people who made statements aligned with their faith.

Mr Entsch told The Canberra Times that he personally didn't believe the legislation was necessary, but he understood it was important for others and simply wanted it to be properly scrutinized.

Now that a vote had been pushed back until parliament's return on February 8, Mr Entsch said he was "very comfortable" with the process.

Liberal MP Warren Entsch doesn't believe the religious discrimination bill is necessary. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Liberal MP Warren Entsch doesn't believe the religious discrimination bill is necessary. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

But Mr Entsch has cast doubt over a deal which four of his moderate Liberal colleagues claim has been struck with Attorney-General Michaelia Cash in exchange for supporting the bill.

Katie Allen, Dave Sharma, Angie Bell and Fiona Martin went public on Wednesday to confirm they were now willing to back the contentious bill, after Senator Cash reportedly agreed to remove a section in a separate act which allows religious schools to discriminate against gay students - including expelling or suspending them.

Mr Morrison had pledged to amend the Sex Discrimination Act back in 2018, but the promised change has been tied up in a review which isn't due to report back until 2023.

Dr Allen, who represents the seat of Higgins in Melbourne, earlier on Thursday told The Canberra Times she was delighted that the exemption would be removed.

"The changes will see much needed protections for LGBTIQA+ students in faith-based schools," she said.

"It will also provide important protections for students who become pregnant. This is an important step in ensuring Australia is the fair and tolerant country we all wish it to be."

News of an agreement provoked a backlash from Christian Schools Australia on Thursday morning, who accused the government on trading away human rights in "shady backroom deals". The Australian Christian Lobby said it would drop its support for the bill if the exemption for faith-based schools was axed.

Responding to media reports about the deal, Mr Entsch said: "Nothing could be further from the truth".

"They certainly didn't talk to me. It's is speculation, which is unhelpful and it's untrue," he said.

Speaking during the brief debate on Thursday, Labor's legal affairs spokesman, Mark Dreyfus, reaffirmed that that the opposition supported for the principle of federal religious discrimination laws but would consult with the community and consider the findings of the parliamentary inquiries before settling on a final position.

Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content:

This story Religious freedom bill pushed back to next year first appeared on The Canberra Times.