19 March 2024

Subjects: The Prime Minister’s disingenuous act to politicise the Religious Discrimination Bill.



Australians had confirmed to them today that there’s no chance of the Prime Minister living up to his promise of delivering a $275 cut to people’s power bills. As we know, under this Government, every decision that they’ve made has made it harder for Australian families. That’s why we’re in a per capita recession under this Government, and it’s getting harder for families. No sense the Prime Minister going into Question Time suggesting, or the Treasurer suggesting that ‘everything’s done, Australians should be grateful for what this Government’s done for them’.

Australians at the moment can’t afford to pay their power bills, they can’t afford to pay their mortgage, they can’t afford to pay every bill that continues to go up and up – including their grocery bill under this Government. So, I think the Prime Minister has a lot of work to do here to undo the mess that he has created, and I think we should be very clear about that.

Now, I’ve had two conversations with the Prime Minister in relation to the Religious Discrimination Bill issue. I haven’t made publicly available the detail of those conversations because I understood that they were conversations in confidence and in private. I had a conversation a couple of weeks ago with the Prime Minister, where he raised the issue of religious discrimination, aged care, and another issue. He raised the issue with me again, on the flight yesterday from Canberra to the funeral for Jack Fitzgibbon. David Littleproud was in that meeting, as well as Richard Marles – the four of us. The Prime Minister during the course of that conversation – and as I’ve pointed out to you before I’ve got a good relationship with the Prime Minister, I’ve never breached any confidence that he has put in me and I’ve never breached a private conversation – but during the course of that conversation, as we now know, because it was released to the Caucus this morning, that the Prime Minister made it clear that he wasn’t going to support the religious discrimination proposals put forward by the Government, unless there was a bipartisan position and also, that the Prime Minister wouldn’t support any committee process around this issue, which is quite remarkable in itself.

I didn’t give any commitment to the Prime Minister. I said we hadn’t seen the report, we hadn’t seen the bill, and we would have a discussion internally as to what our position would be. That’s essentially the essence of the conversation. So there was no, ‘if you do this, or if you don’t do that’. It was a cordial conversation, but that’s the essence of it.

A couple of points here: firstly, you’ll remember before the election the Prime Minister promised these religious leaders that they would, as a Government, if elected, bring in rules and law changes that went to the issues that were being raised by the religious leaders in our country. The Prime Minister gave them that commitment, he gave them his word. He said – I don’t know if he said these exact words, but he may have said that ‘my word is my bond’ to those people. We now know that the Prime Minister is trying to find a way out of proceeding with these issues because he’s clearly got a problem with the left wing of his Party.

Now, what he wants to do is to be able to say, ‘oh look, we gave it every good shot, but we just couldn’t do anything on the Religious Discrimination Bills, because we couldn’t get bipartisan position from the Coalition’. That’s the setup here. Okay?

So firstly, it goes to his character because essentially it’s how he treated the Indigenous leaders over the Voice, and the character of the Prime Minister here is completely and utterly in question. How can he say to the religious leaders of our country – as he did to the Indigenous leaders – that he would stand up and that he would fight for their issue on their behalf. He says that before the election, and then he does the complete opposite after.

In relation to the Voice, he’s out there saying, ‘well look, this is just a gentle, respectful request that’s been made of me, and I’m the messenger, and I want to convey this to the Australian people and see how they go’. He’s now saying, ‘oh well, actually, what I said before the election to the religious leaders, is not going to count for anything, and here we are post the election, I’m not going to proceed or argue my position, or my corner, or what I believe in, or what I promised, or what I gave my word to before the election, because the Liberal Party wants to have an inquiry’ – which is the normal conduct in the Senate for a bill, particularly if there’s contentious issues related to it, and ‘we won’t support it unless there’s a bipartisan position’.

The Prime Minister gave me no document, he put no position, and he outlined a couple of elements of what they were talking about in relation to Section 38, but beyond that, nothing. Okay? So, I just think this talks to the character of our Prime Minister, who has been dishonest with Indigenous leaders, was dishonest with Australians during the course of the Voice debate, and certainly has been dishonest now with religious leaders.

I don’t know whether he’s expressly said to them that the Labor Party will only proceed with the changes if there is a bipartisan position. I don’t know whether through the last couple of months of negotiations between Mark Dreyfus and the religious leaders of our country, whether he has provided that advice that the Labor Party would only proceed if there was a bipartisan position. I don’t think you can take the Prime Minister at his word.

He promised before the election – I’ll finish on this point – he promised before the election that families would be better off, that they’d get a $275 reduction in their power prices. This guy is not believable, his word is worth nothing, and yet he wants to be the Prime Minister of our country who is to be trusted by everyone. You can’t take him at face value, and I think he’s demonstrated that again today.

I’ll ask Michaelia to say a few words, and then I’m happy to take some questions.


Thank you very much Peter. Again, this is a Prime Minister who made all sorts of promises prior to the election, and yet once elected, is shirking responsibility. The latest demonstration of this is what we’ve learned today from a Caucus leak, whereby he said he will now not be proceeding – and I quote with his ‘religious discrimination laws’, if he doesn’t get bipartisan support from the Opposition. Well, I’d say to Mr Albanese in the first instance, we have not seen the ALRC Report, we have not seen your draft Religious Discrimination Legislation, we have not seen the amendments you propose to make to the Sex Discrimination Act. So, on what basis does the Prime Minister want the Opposition’s bipartisan support, given we don’t know what he’s talking about?

Mr Albanese also said prior to the election, and in fact, he was incredibly vocal about how transparent his Government would be, but also in relation to religious discrimination, how he would consult widely and openly, and bring religious leaders with him. Well, guess what? I have consulted with religious leaders across the board. In fact, I’ve just come from a meeting with over 25 religious leaders and Mr Albanese’s talk about consultation, they are not true. Many religious leaders have now been shut out of the consultations. Those that are being consulted with have been forced to sign confidentiality agreements; in other words, people of faith have been gagged by the Albanese Government from talking about what the proposals are.

If Mr Albanese is a Prime Minister who lives by his word, he should be confident in his legislation. He should be confident that his consultation has resulted in legislation that is acceptable to religious leaders, but in particular, educational institutions across Australia. Yet it would appear that that confidence is now misplaced. And so what does he do? He says, ‘I can’t proceed without the bipartisan support of the Coalition’. Well, Mr Albanese needs to start acting like a Prime Minister, because as Peter said, his word now is hardly his bond.

We haven’t seen the ALRC Report, we haven’t seen the draft Religious Discrimination Bill, and we have not seen the changes to the Sex Discrimination Act. From my consultations, my wide consultations with those affected by these changes, the majority of them haven’t either.

What is worse is, Mr Albanese has also indicated that even if he brings forward these bills, he wants them passed through the Parliament without an inquiry. Well, in the first instance, as anybody who is involved in the legislative process would know, and in particular with legislation as complicated as this, that’s just bad process. Again, if Mr Albanese, as the Prime Minister, is confident that his Attorney-General has consulted widely and has actually got legislation that reflects the views of the religious communities, then table that legislation, own it, allow an inquiry into it, and then we go from there. But at this point in time, Mr Albanese, once again, as the Prime Minister of this country, is merely shirking his responsibilities and is just using the Opposition as an excuse.


Mr Dutton, have you been told by some of your MPs that they can’t support the removal of Section 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act? And does that therefore mean the Coalition couldn’t support the Government’s changes?


Well, we don’t know what the Government’s proposing at the moment. I mean there is no bill and there is no report that’s been released. So we’ll take our position once we know what the Government is proposing.


Are there any non starters?


Again, until we know what is before us, and why the Government wants to try and ram this through without consultation, without a committee process, without even having a document on the table, I think shows how disingenuous the Prime Minister is. So, I think people will make their positions known when we see the detail from what the Government’s proposing.


If there isn’t an inquiry, if an inquiry doesn’t take place, is there any prospect at all of bipartisanship on this legislation?


Well again, I mean what sort of Government is being run here by a Prime Minister who doesn’t want to stand up for his own position.

The Prime Minister looked the religious leaders in the eye before the election, and he said that he would bring this legislation to the Parliament. They’ve conducted the report, neither are publicly available. He’s got this gag order on Archbishops and Priests and others who are involved in the process, Imams and others, and won’t release any of the detail.

Now, is the expectation what, that Parties, including ours or the Greens or others, sign up to something sight unseen? I just don’t think the Prime Minister here is doing anything other than looking for an excuse not to proceed, and that’s what should be called out.


[inaudible] breached any confidentiality about meeting with the Prime Minister – given that the details were leaked out by Labor – are you saying the Prime Minister has breached that confidentiality?


Well, he disclosed the conversation to the Caucus this morning. That’s something for him to answer.


If this is the end of the process from this Government, will you go to the election promising a Religious Discrimination Bill?


Well David, you’re 10 steps down the track. So, let’s have a look at what’s before us and let’s ask the Prime Minister – I mean does he stick to his Government’s commitment? Or to his commitment personally that he made to the Australian people and to religious leaders? There will be people of Christian faith who voted for this Prime Minister based on what he said before the election, and now it turns out this Prime Minister’s worthless word is not just to the Indigenous leaders, but also to the religious leaders.

I mean how can the Prime Minister look the Australian public in the eye and ask them to believe him again on topics that are important to them? I just don’t think he can.


If Mr Albanese is saying that he wants to press ahead with this with bipartisanship, is seeking or putting a pre-eminence on bipartisanship a bad thing for our politics?


Why did he drop it out to the Caucus this morning? Was that a genuine display of a Prime Minister who wanted bipartisanship? No. It was a partisan attempt to try and quash the whole process. That’s what he’s after…


Does this eliminate any possibility of bipartisanship now?


Ultimately, the Prime Minister went to the election with a promise that’s now turned into a lie. He went to the election – as Michaelia pointed out before – promising to be open, transparent, inclusive, bring people together in a process. He’s not done that. He’s looking for a way to crash this before the legislation has already been released. Okay? That’s what’s happening here. So, he’s trying to find an out on a topic that he doesn’t want to go anywhere near, and he’s walking both sides of the street, as this Prime Minister does. I just don’t think anyone can trust the word of this Prime Minister.


Mr Dutton, do you believe that the religious freedom laws should be changed, given that the Coalition did previously go to an election itself suggesting there would be changes?


Well Dennis, we’ve had a consistent position in relation to this issue for some time, but the Government’s now in office, and the Government has draft legislation, which is a secret. They haven’t released it to us. We don’t know whether they’ve given it to some of the religious leaders and not others. We don’t know why they’ve been forced to sign a gag order. So, the task now is, and the onus now is on the Prime Minister to release what it is they’re proposing. There may be some elements that we can support, others that we can’t, but we don’t have any of the detail, the report is not due to be released until Thursday, and the Prime Minister is in there this morning in his Caucus briefing, giving an excuse as to why the Government won’t proceed. The legislation is not even on the table yet, negotiations haven’t begun, and does the Prime Minister stand for anything?

I mean, if he wants to argue to the religious leaders that he’ll deliver on his election promise, well, he should talk to the Indigenous leaders of our country who felt betrayed and let down by his performance over the Voice, because it’s history repeating itself.

This Prime Minister stands up for people and issues, right until he doesn’t, and that’s exactly what’s happened here. Does the Prime Minister have a belief in what he said? And is he willing to argue the case? Well, obviously not. But what he wants to be able to do is to walk out of this process and say, ‘oh, I gave it every good effort, but unfortunately, the Coalition didn’t support it on a bipartisan basis, therefore, I’m running away from it, I’m not arguing for it, it’s not our policy’. Find a recent precedent for me with a Prime Minister that conducts himself like that. I’d find it hard to find a recent example.


On the point of principle, do you believe that a religious school should be able to dismiss a teacher who doesn’t share their religious faith? Or is gay, for instance?


David, we’ll make our comments in relation to these matters when we see the legislation…


But on the point of principle.


…And once we’ve seen the legislation, what the Government’s proposing, we’ll make our announcement in relation to that. I think what’s important, and what the focus is of today, is that the Prime Minister has yet again broken his faith…


You shouldn’t need to see the law before you know your position on that. That’s just the principle.


Just tell me the legislation, tell me the text of the section you’re referring to.


But should you be able to dismiss a teacher in that circumstance?


But in what circumstances? I mean, we don’t have any of that detail. It’s a reasonable question at the right time, but now is not the right time because we don’t have the legislation, quite deliberately.

I mean, the legislation has been kept from us, and this is like on aged care and other issues where we’ve said, ‘look, we’re happy to work with the Government’. There’s been no consultation, no meaningful engagement. The Government drops out a policy and then says the Opposition needs to support it.

I would have thought that if you were genuine about having long term reform, you would have the conversation – at least to the credit of Bill Shorten, he came to see me about the NDIS, and we were able to work with the Government to support the Minister and the Government in what they were proposing by way of reform with the Chief Ministers and Premiers. That has not happened here. It’s not how Anthony Albanese has conducted himself, it’s not how the Minister for Aged Care has conducted herself, and all we’re saying is that the Prime Minister should release the detail.

Thank you, thank you very much.