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Coalition will consider changes to religious discrimination bill after Senate inquiry, Michaelia Cash says

Attorney general says she wants to ‘kill off’ suggestions further regulations could be used to protect gay conversion practices

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash in the Senate chamber at Parliament House in Canberra
Attorney general Michaelia Cash says Coalition’s controversial bill strikes right balance between ‘religious discrimination and intersecting human rights’. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP
Attorney general Michaelia Cash says Coalition’s controversial bill strikes right balance between ‘religious discrimination and intersecting human rights’. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

The attorney general, Michaelia Cash, has left open the possibility of making further changes to the proposed religious discrimination act, as she defends the controversial statement of belief clause facing widespread criticism, including from moderate Liberals.

Cash, who presented the revised religious discrimination bill to the Coalition party room on Tuesday, also rejected claims from equality advocates that the new laws could be used to overturn state bans on gay conversion practices, saying any regulations made under the bill could be disallowed by the Senate.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, will introduce the bill to the House of Representatives on Thursday, but it will not be debated or voted on until next week. Once it reaches the Senate the draft legislation will go to a committee inquiry.

Cash said the government would be prepared to consider any recommendations made through the Senate process, but insisted the bill was a good balance between “religious discrimination and intersecting human rights”.

“It will go to a Senate committee, and a Senate committee in the normal course of events will then conduct a review into the bill and report back early next year with recommendations, if any, and then we’ll be able to debate the bill early next year in the Senate,” Cash told Guardian Australia.

“The government would consider any recommendations made by the committee at that time.”

But Cash said there was a “misunderstanding” about the effect of the statement of belief clause, which would override state anti-discrimination laws and which has been singled out by LGBTQ+ groups and moderate Liberals as being of particular concern.

She said that the clause would only protect statements made “in good faith”, and not conduct. She rejected suggestions the clause would protect a boss writing in an employee’s book that her lesbianism was sinful – an example that has been put forward by Equality Australia – because this statement would not have been made in “good faith”.

“All the statement of belief clause does is provide that the making of a statement of belief in and of itself, if it is made in good faith, the statement itself would not be discrimination under any Australian anti-discrimination law,” Cash said.

“The minute you move into conduct, that is entirely different.”

Cash said she wanted to “kill off” any suggestion that the power to make further regulations to prescribe other state and territory laws could be used to protect gay conversion practices, which have been outlawed in some states.

“We have no intention of doing that, that is just wrong,” Cash said.

She said that new laws would only be included by regulation if they “impinged upon the ability to express genuine and sincerely held religious views and non religious views”.

“It would be a disallowable instrument, and if the minister adds something by regulation, the Senate can say no, and we do not control the numbers in the Senate.”

Cash said she believed the changes made to the bill after six months of consultation had “simplified and clarified” the legislation, and she was hopeful of securing bipartisan support as a result.

“I believe they do strike a balance between religious discrimination and intersecting human rights and I would hope that would be enough for me to get bipartisan support in relation to the bill.”

After months of consultations on the legislation, Cash removed the controversial Folau clause and dumped provisions that would have allowed conscientious objection for health professionals.

But equality advocates are still concerned the bill could water down protections for other minority groups, with particular concern about the bill’s statement of belief clause that protects religious statements from breaching state and territory anti-discrimination laws.

Equality Australia says, for example, the proposed law would protect someone telling an HIV-positive patient that the disease was a “punishment from God”, or expressing their belief that homosexuality is a sin.

Moderate Liberal MPs are also concerned about these provisions. In the Coalition party room on Tuesday, Morrison said the legislation would be referred to a Senate committee inquiry to allow these concerns to be ventilated, and potentially see the legislation amended.

Tasmanian Liberal MP Bridget Archer said she had a “lot of problems” with the bill overriding Tasmanian anti-discrimination laws.

“The uncertainty at the prospect is already causing some anxiety for LGBTI teachers in religious schools,” she said.

“Tasmania’s anti-discrimination law works really, really well, and it has an educative function, this [bill] would create a more adversarial system for pursuing a complaint.”

North Sydney Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman said on Wednesday he was continuing to raise his concerns over the potential for the bill to override state laws with the attorney general.

“What I am concerned about as a broader principle, is the fact that a bill like this does give primacy to statements of belief founded in religious belief, over other beliefs that are personally held,” he told the ABC.

The Liberal senator, Andrew Bragg, said the government needed to fix the sex discrimination act to protect gay teachers from being sacked “at the same time” as the religious discrimination bill was being considered, rather than wait for a review conducted by the Australian Law Reform Commission in 12 months’ time.

“Too many Australian teachers are being sacked for being gay, and I do think that the existing exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act are not fit for purpose,” Bragg said.

Labor is yet to declare whether they support the legislation, but on Tuesday Anthony Albanese indicated the opposition could seek amendments.

The party wants the bill examined by a joint select committee rather than a Senate inquiry, which would allow both MPs and senators an opportunity to properly examine the bill.

“I’m of the view that people should be allowed to, of course, practice their faith. That should be respected. That’s my starting point,” Albanese said.

“That, of course, shouldn’t be at the expense of discriminating on the basis of other people’s characteristics.”

The bill also faces a tide of opposition at the state level, with the Victorian Labor government and both sides of Tasmanian politics rejecting elements that override state laws on educational institutions’ hiring and statements of belief.

On Wednesday the Victorian attorney general, Jaclyn Symes, told reporters she was “disappointed” and would “very firmly oppose” any attempt to override Victorian anti-discrimination laws.

Symes is awaiting advice on the bill but did not rule out a high court challenge in the event it passed.

The Tasmanian premier, Peter Gutwein, has said the government doesn’t want its discrimination laws “weakened” and had conveyed this to the commonwealth.

The Tasmanian shadow attorney general, Ella Haddad, told parliament on Wednesday the federal bill is “a fundamental states’ rights issues”.

“Our act is the strongest, in Tasmania, Tasmanians have more to lose under this federal bill than any other state,” she said.