Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021 Second Reading

Ms BATH (Eastern Victoria) (14:04): I am pleased to rise this afternoon to make a contribution on the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021. In doing so I want to speak to some of the key things that I have concerns about, and many of my constituents who have contacted me over probably the past two months have had their concerns as well. I thank Dr Bach for doing a lot of the legwork in terms of his shadow portfolio in this instance.


The Bill amends the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 by altering the limitations of exceptions. It limits the exceptions in relation to employment for religious bodies and educational institutions. It limits the exceptions in relation to the provision of government-funded goods and services by religious bodies. It limits the exceptions that apply in the course of establishing, directing, controlling or administering educational institutions that are conducted, as the Bill states, ‘in accordance with religious doctrines, beliefs or principles’. And it also removes the general exception on religious grounds in respect of discrimination by individuals.


One of the key sticking points is this tripartite test, so a three-pronged test, in terms of discrimination by religious bodies and schools and when we look at the employment of their staff. This can occur when there is an inherent requirement of that position and when an individual cannot meet that inherent requirement because of religious beliefs or activity, and the discrimination is reasonable and appropriate in the circumstances. Now, this test is fundamentally highly challenging. The window of achievement is so narrow as to be non-existent in practical application in many of our school systems in the private sector and the religious school sector. The Bill restricts the ability of religious schools to discriminate on the basis of religion and in the administration of the school in terms of setting student codes of conduct unless it is reasonable and proportionate.


If I just relate to some of my own experience, when I left university, for various family reasons I headed back to Gippsland, and I was looking for employment. I would have been more than happy to go into the state system. There were not any jobs in the area that I was looking, fairly close to my parents at a time when my father was seriously unwell, so I applied for two jobs. One was in the Catholic sector at the local Catholic school and one was in another Christian school. I did not get the job in the Christian school because my view of Christianity was not as fundamental as the school ethos required. And so be it. I was more than happy, understanding that, not to have that role, not to have that job. I was discriminated against positively in their case because I did not fit the bill.


I also applied to the local Catholic school to teach maths and science. The Principal there was named Ed Carmody. If you wanted to see someone who was the epitome of a good Christian but also a sensational bloke and a great leader, that was Ed. I know he passed away a few years ago, and he was absolutely loved and cherished in the community and by his family. He was faith based but was very, very human centred. I think he was a shining example, and still is, of how we should conduct education in the religious sector and the faith-based sector. I stayed there for a short time. Noting that my role was in the maths and science sector, I did not teach any of the specialist religious education et cetera other than a brief prayer, I think, at the end of the day.


The current definition of the test raises a serious issue regarding the employment of staff that do not share the religious belief of that school or body. We have heard from stakeholders that many schools will declare that a religious belief is an inherent requirement for employment in many teaching positions, as I have just said, and those that can be construed as having a pastoral care role. However, if the school, using its discretion, as Ed Carmody did back a long time ago—and today we see many, many needs—hires a teacher that does not share the same religious belief of the school, then indeed this test will be compromised. The school will no longer be said to have an inherent requirement for any like teaching role and the school will no longer then be able to preference applications based on its own religion. So it nullifies that inherent requirement of the position and, again, makes it very difficult for schools—and regional schools often find it challenging to get staff, whether it be in the state school system or in the private sector or the faith-based sector.


The department representatives in the briefing gave an assurance that it would be on a case-by-case basis that they would consider this particular clause, and it would vary in accordance with the nature of the position. But I think many people struggle to see how that could come to fruition and how it would not create a large number of litigations in our court system. So it is setting up for litigations and taking away that ability for schools to be able to hire on that faith basis.


Everybody deserves the respect to be a human being first. We hold the right to love and to be loved in return. We hold the right to choose who to love, and sometimes people choose us. It is just a beautiful thing, but it needs to happen across the board without discrimination. I am really committed to that as a position.


The Andrews government has brought this Bill before the house today following allegations that teachers and staff were being terminated from religious schools on the basis of their sexuality or identity. The Attorney-General in her statement of compatibility said:


… the current … scope of the religious exceptions go further than is reasonably necessary to protect the right to freedom of religion and belief.


And I am quoting her:


The current exceptions allow religious educational institutions, including schools, to discriminate against students who are LGBTIQ+, female, or unmarried parents. This overrides … protections in the EO Act— the Equal Opportunity Act— preventing schools from discriminating in the admission of students, expulsion and other denial of benefits.


However, we have seen the commonwealth government recently introduce the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 and with that comments from the Labor opposition in the federal sphere. Federal parliamentary Labor has actually backed new powers to enshrine religious freedoms. The Leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese, has backed the right of church groups and faith schools to discriminate. I am quoting from an Age article most recently, which says:


… he knew of no example where a gay or lesbian teacher had been sacked for their sexuality in a Catholic school.


I certainly hope that is the case, as that is unacceptable if that is to be the case. One of the things that faith communities do is bring people together. They bring that sense of belonging and identity through a common shared faith and view of the world. That is why religions can play an important role and why they need to be respected. I concur with Mr Albanese certainly on this occasion. There are probably not many when I do, but we are on a unity ticket there.


This Bill suggests these concerns by narrowing or removing the exemptions for religious bodies and educational institutions, limiting their right to discriminate when making employment decisions and providing government-funded goods and services, as I have said earlier. The Bill also restricts the ability of religious bodies to discriminate in terms of their funding and their services—what they are doing and how they are producing that. A good example would be a charitable institution. Again I refer to the Attorney-General and quote her second-reading speech:


The government acknowledges that it is not aware of discrimination by religious providers in the provision of government funded goods and services.


And she goes on. In effect this is concerning, because at the moment the government is looking to fix a problem that does not need fixing, to fix a problem that does not exist, rather than focusing on resourcing and, most importantly, actioning those that do. I see that many of our charities in our regions do the most amazing job, and they do not ask as someone comes in the door for help what their background is, what their religion is or what their socio-economic standing is. They just help people as their core belief and as their core tenet. And they do so in a very non-judgemental way, and I think that is really important. We have seen, I am sure we have all seen, examples in own electorates of this. One in mine is certainly St Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army. We see that time and time again.


Through recent times we have in our region of Eastern Victoria Region seen floods, we have seen fires, we have seen COVID lockdowns, we have seen stresses in our region and we have seen people struggling just to put food in the cupboard, and that is where many of our charities do a fantastic job.

One local example is St Michael’s Parish in Traralgon and Mick’s Kitchen, which provide both hampers and fresh meals for those in need. I extend my thanks to all of our volunteers in the charity organisations. Whether they are religious or not religious, they do a fantastic job, and there are many examples in our local community neighbourhood centres that do very similar work. They welcome, they share and they provide.


Like others in his house, I have had thousands of emails from constituents who are deeply concerned about the Bill. Most recently I had a number of people—it looks like a pro forma email—in support of it. I thank all of them for sharing their views. I have got one that probably typifies some of the concerns that people have. This is from a resident of Gippsland South, Mr Dowthwaite. He said:


I am disappointed, though hardly surprised, to hear the Andrews government is at it again.

He goes on to say:


Is it not appropriate that any organisation, including religious schools, have the freedom to employ staff that are ambassadors for their organisation’s values?


And he said:


Religious schools—including Christian, Muslim, Jewish—merely wish to have the same freedoms of employing staff that apply to political parties.


I take that on board.


I have also had—I will speak to this before I finish—an email signed by a number of religious organisations with that exact same conversation:


Could your political party operate in Victoria under such legislation?


It is signed by a variety of people, and I thank them for sharing that.


The incompatible nature of this Bill is evidenced in the EO act, where section 27 speaks to:

An employer may discriminate on the basis of political belief or activity in the offering of employment to another person as a ministerial adviser, member of staff of a political party …

We can positively discriminate as MPs with our political beliefs in our electorate offices or with our ministerial staff, but schools cannot. This is where the inequity of the situation comes in.


I would like to put on record my thanks to Dr Bach for doing the legwork in this and thank many of the people that have either written to me or I have communicated with or my staff have communicated with, as we have also had many phone calls in relation to this legislation. There have been many people that we have been involved with. My colleague Dr Bach has moved a reasoned amendment. I endorse and support that reasoned amendment, and I ask the house to do so also. Notwithstanding that, The Nationals will oppose the Bill before the house today.