Faith in fairness

Why the IEU opposes the Religious Discrimination Bill

We join our voice to the chorus across Australian society calling for the government to scrap this legislation as it stands

The Federal Government released a second draft of its proposed religious discrimination bill over the summer, following widespread criticism from faith leaders, advocacy groups, peak industrial bodies and legal experts. Public submissions on the second draft closed in January, with the bill still yet to be introduced to Federal Parliament.

Attorney-General Christian Porter’s 11 marked changes to the second draft of the bill were intended to overhaul and address the many concerns raised in the first round of submissions. However, it has done little by way of rebalancing the scales.

The union takes a strong stand

The IEUA, the federal organisation of the IEU representing more than 75,000 members, has met with relevant parties, including the leader of the opposition, and made submissions to the Attorney-General’s office in December last year expressing deep concern with the bill in its current form. The IEUA argued that the draft law is flawed, unnecessary and an affront to people of faith working in faith-based workplaces.

We support legislation adding religion as a protected attribute to federal anti-discrimination legislation. Such legislation is necessary to prevent discrimination and is consistent with the promotion of individual freedom, equality and fairness. It also assists Australia in meeting its long-held international obligations, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), namely, to enact legislation that both gives effect to and enforces rights recognised by the Covenant.

At its core, and as outlined in a submission by the Australian Discrimination Law Experts Group (ADLEG), the bill is flawed as it “privileges and prioritises religious belief and activity over other protected attributes, and overrides existing protections for women, LGBTQIA+ people, and other impacted groups. In doing so, it grants positive rights to individuals to harm others through ‘sword’-like provisions”. This is distinct from the ‘shield-like’ protections that apply to all other anti-discrimination legislation for protected attributes such as race, sex, disability and age.

IEUA calls for consistent approach

Our submission also strongly supports the ACTU’s submission on behalf of affiliate unions, particularly as they address the need for a comprehensive and consistent approach to anti-discrimination legislation. We agree with the ACTU that:

“It does not make sense to introduce new protections against discrimination on the grounds of religion without first reviewing the adequacy and effectiveness of existing protections.”

Exemptions are already provided for faith-based schools and institutions in all Commonwealth and state anti-discrimination legislation, and exemptions in the proposed bill are couched in the same or similar terms. The majority of employers in faith-based schools in Australia inform us they do not need and never utilise provisions in legislation enabling them to discriminate against their employees, instead relying on express and implied terms in contracts of employment and in associated policy to ensure that employees meet their duty of fidelity.

The minority of employers in faith-based schools who do discriminate against their employees, however, could be even more emboldened to do so under the extremely broad protections of this bill. This is of particular concern to the IEU, with members still receiving warnings, losing salary and/or positions of leadership, being suspended from their employment and being dismissed solely for reasons directly associated with and attributable to their sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy.

Protect the safety and wellbeing of staff

Beyond the relationship between employer and employee in a faith-based school, which as explained above is already subject to exemptions within this and other discrimination legislation, this proposed bill presents implications for protecting the safety and wellbeing of staff with regards to interactions between colleagues.

Clause 42(1)(a) of the Bill provides that ‘statements of belief’ cannot be the subject of any discrimination claim under any Australian discrimination laws, whether at federal, state, or territory level. This would effectively override states’ and territories’ ability to pass laws that reflect their own values and principles and the needs of their communities.

The Bill requires only that a ‘statement of belief’ be made ‘in good faith’ and that a person ‘could reasonably consider’ it to be in accordance with religious beliefs for it to be protected, unless the statement is malicious or vilifies others. We believe that the limitations placed on ‘statements of belief’ are wholly insufficient – a statement need not be malicious, vilify or incite hatred or violence to be deeply and/or deliberately insulting and offensive.

We join our voice to the chorus across Australian society calling for the government to scrap this legislation as it stands and to await the finalisation of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Inquiry into the Framework of Religious Exemptions in Anti-Discrimination Legislation.

Angus Hoy