Senator the Hon Michaelia Cash

Shadow Attorney-General

Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations

Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate

Senator for Western Australia


The West Australian

16 April 2024

The Albanese Government’s farcical handling of its proposed changes to religious discrimination laws has rolled on for almost a month.

Faith groups remain either confused because they’ve been left in the dark or unable to publicly discuss the controversial legislation.

By keeping this proposed legislation a secret, the Government is hampering the consultation process and making it difficult for all stakeholders, including families who send their children to faith-based schools, to get an understanding of the issues involved.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has provided the proposed legislation to myself on the condition I do not release it publicly.

Some faith groups have been given the opportunity to view limited parts of the legislation, or to undertake a limited “page-turn” of the Government’s proposals, subject to time constraints and strict obligations that they do not discuss or distribute the proposed changes.

Others have not been included in the Government’s so-called consultation process and have looked to the Coalition to bring them up to date.

This is just a part of the whole farce — the Opposition being asked by stakeholders to brief them on Government legislation that will affect them deeply.

All interested parties should have the opportunity to consider the legislation and consider how it affects them.

This is not a political point. It is common sense. Detail matters. We are talking about using the law to change the way religious schools and religious bodies operate.

Attorney-General Dreyfus should immediately release the draft legislation for everyone to see.

I have made it very clear that the Coalition’s guiding principle is that any legislative package brought forward must be one that takes religious people forwards, not backwards.

In discussions with religious schools and faith leaders there are key issues that are being raised over and again.

They have told us that the ability to maintain the ethos and values of religious schools is under constant attack from State and Territory governments.

Hundreds of thousands of Australian families choose to educate their children in faith-based schools. Those families do so, at least in part, because of the values of the school community, and their choices ought to be respected.

But it seems like this is not the case at State and Territory level. Under Queensland law, it may soon be unlawful for a Catholic school to express a preference for employing Catholics, let alone ensure that teacher conduct aligns with the school’s religious ethos.

What does this do to a school that is trying to build a community based on shared religious values, and to ensure that teachers model these values for students?

It is c understandable why faith leaders across the board have identified protection from State and Territory attacks as a key issue.

Another key issue is whether the law could be used to force religious leaders to change the way they explain their beliefs in places of worship.

Could a priest be sued for the way they explain church doctrines from the pulpit?

A third issue that keeps coming up is to what extent can a school ensure staff conduct and behaviours adhere to the school’s ethos and mission?

This is an important issue for faith-based schools. Part of the Government’s package would involve changes to existing protections in the Sex Discrimination Act. Faith leaders and religious schools are very concerned that these changes would strip away a school’s ability to manage staff behaviour, even if the school is acting in good faith to preserve a school’s religious mission and ethos.

A fourth issue that has been raised by faith leaders is a question about religious bodies corporate.

They have raised very good questions about the potential for bizarre and unintended outcomes. If a faith-based community outreach group is protected from discrimination as an unincorporated association, should it lose that protection if it decides to incorporate?

A fifth issue is the way that all these risks are magnified by the Government’s Costs Protection Bill, which is currently before the Senate.

This Bill would mean that in almost all cases schools would have to pay significant legal costs when cases are brought against them.

For these schools, every dollar that is spent fighting cases in court is a dollar not spent educating a child. Schools want to educate, not litigate.

Significant parts of this legislative package are new and have never previously been scrutinised by a parliamentary inquiry.

Parliament has never scrutinised the combined effect of a Religious Discrimination Bill coupled with changes to the Sex Discrimination Act.

There are significant questions whether proposed changes, read together, would allow schools to build a community of faith.

An inquiry into this Bill makes sense for three reasons.

First, it is just good process. Second, it picks up errors and unintended drafting consequences.

And third, it allows Australians to have their say on the legislation that will become law in this country. It does not need to be a drawn-out affair. From the feedback I’ve been getting from religious leaders and organisations the Government still has a lot of work to do before this Bill will receive their support.

The Prime Minister has been all over the place in relation to this Bill, firstly telling his Labor caucus he would not move on religious discrimination legislation without bipartisan support from the Coalition, then telling them that he would do a deal with the Australian Greens if he needed to, all while refusing to release the legislation so that people can see how the changes might affect them. Notwithstanding their shambolic handling of the issue, we will work in good faith to try to ensure that any package put before the Parliament is one that takes Australians of faith forwards, and not backwards.