Greens MP for Newtown Jenny Leong spoke to Suzanne James about how bullying and toxic politics were used to suppress democratic outcomes in the ongoing NSW Religious Freedom debate.
Mark Latham, Pauline Hanson's One Nation (PHON) New South Wales party leader, introduced his Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020 in May 2020.
Latham and supporters, including the Parliamentary Friends of Religious Freedom formed by Bankstown MP Tania Mihailuk, are furious at the slow pace of the federal government’s long-promised Religious Freedom Bill.
The federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984, updated in 2012 under a Labor government, allows religious schools to discriminate against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status, pregnancy or “in good faith” to avoid harming religious sensitivities. The application of this “good faith” provision varies across states and territories.
The promise of a new draft federal bill came from a recommendation of the Religious Freedom Review, undertaken under the Malcolm Turnbull Coalition government, a consolation prize for intolerant MPs after their shock loss in the equal marriage debate.
The bill was supposed to have been tabled in March 2019, but negotiations stalled after the federal government released exposure drafts of the Religious Discrimination Bill 2019 (Commonwealth) for public consultation on August 29, 2019, and again on December 10.
Far-right MPs wanted an inquiry into Latham’s bill in an attempt to strong-arm the federal bill to take a broader reach.
Tapping in to partisan toxic discussion around racism, equal marriage, safe schools, chaplaincy funding, voluntary assisted dying and abortion, PHON got what it wanted. The NSW government established a Joint Select Committee Inquiry into PHON’s Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020 in June last year. It was tasked to examine the bill and report back to parliament.
Leong told Green Left it was standard practice for PHON to use prejudice to raise its profile. Leong joined the select committee to try and ensure a balanced debate.
“It’s PHON’s normal modus operandi ... to use any toxic subject or divisive public discourse it can latch onto to raise its visibility”, Leong said. Latham “will do anything for airtime”.
But PHON is not alone. Leong also criticised the “abject failure” of the Liberal-National Coalition and Labor to “stand up against conservative and hateful elements in their own parties who don’t believe issues of equality need to be taken seriously”.
“Some elements in the LNP [Liberal National Parties] pretend to care about equality while being in bed with One Nation”, Leong said. “Even John Howard stood up to them, but now their MPs just do deals for their own political gain.”
Leong said the select committee was stacked from the get go and the final report was hijacked by a flurry of last-minute amendments. She said witnesses had been bullied, key evidence suppressed or ignored, and the final vote was so compromised it should not have been tabled.
Calling for a division, Leong criticised the Senate Inquiry Report, telling MPs in May: “It was appalling to see One Nation, the member for Wagga Wagga [independent Joe McGirr] and members of the Liberal, National and Labor parties attempting to rewrite history by altering the evidence and removing analysis drafted carefully by secretariat staff.”
Leong said that inquiry members showed a complete disregard for committee processes, voting together as a block to exclude witnesses who opposed their views and removing references to evidence they did not agree with from the final report.
Numerous opposing voices from organisations, including the NSW Teachers Federation and the Gender Centre, were silenced by those claiming the high moral ground.
Meanwhile, federal Attorney-General Michaela Cash announced her intention in June to introduce a major rewrite of the Commonwealth Religious Freedom Bill by December.
NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman released his response to the NSW Joint Select Committee’s report on September 7, noting that the government would wait until the federal government had done that before finalising its bill. “This will allow the Government to closely consider the Commonwealth legislation to ensure that its interaction with NSW legislation can be fully understood and that constitutional inconsistency is avoided”, he said.
Leong has cautioned the NSW Attorney General not to support PHON’s bill as it could be construed as giving legitimacy to “extreme bigotry, hatred, xenophobia and transphobia spouted on a regular basis by One Nation representatives”.