Politics

The “Religious Freedom” Review Is Actually About Entrenching Discrimination, Participant Says

Here's what's happening inside the government's secret hearings.

An LGBTIQ+ activist who spoke in private hearings before the federal government’s review into religious freedom says she faced a “hostile” environment, and fears the inquiry is designed solely to widen discrimination in Australia.

The Guardian yesterday reported the inquiry, which was set up after marriage equality was successfully legislated last year, had begun holding private hearings, and would not be making recordings or transcripts of the hearings available to the public. The inquiry is being chaired by former Howard government attorney-general, Philip Ruddock.

Critics of the inquiry have said it is merely an effort by moderate Liberals, led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, to placate government conservatives who lost the marriage equality debate.

Activists fear it will be used as a backdoor to enshrine wider discrimination in law, such as allowing businesses to refuse to serve gay couples, or to allow wider discrimination in government funded services such as education and aged care.

Review Designed To “Entrench” Discrimination

A member of the ACT government’s LGBTIQ Ministerial Advisory Council, Suzanne Eastwood, told Junkee those fears appear to be well-founded after she was questioned in a private hearing on Monday.

“I didn’t feel like they were looking for answers about how to reduce discrimination,” she said.  “It was more about how to prop up and justify discrimination. There was no question that any type of discrimination would be reduced. It was more along the lines of, ‘how will discrimination be even more entrenched than it is now?’”

“I was quite concerned by the tone of the questions, and I felt that we were being asked to posit, ‘under what circumstances would we allow discrimination? What would be reasonable?”

Eastwood said much of the questioning focused on gay men in particular, and the notion that homosexuality was a lifestyle that could be “promoted” to children.

Eastwood said she found the line of questioning “hostile”, and fears that the inquiry will be used to allow wider discrimination against not only LGBTIQ+ people, but also anyone who is divorced, living in a de facto relationship, or has had a child outside of wedlock.

“I found it quite alarming. I was quite concerned by the tone of the questions, and I felt that we were being asked to posit, ‘under what circumstances would we allow discrimination? What would be reasonable?… [and] ‘How can [discrimination] become completely entrenched?’”

Long time marriage equality campaigner Rodney Croome called on Malcolm Turnbull to intervene to ensure the enquiry remains impartial, and to appoint a member of the LGBTIQ+ community to the panel.

The current panel consists of Ruddock, who introduced legislation specifically outlawing same-sex marriage in 2004, the Australian Human Rights Commission President Rosalind Croucher, Catholic priest Father Frank Brennan, and Bond University Chancellor Annabelle Bennett.

“The Inquiry can’t expect its findings to be taken seriously if it continues to operate secretly, without transparency, and under allegations of bias,” Croome said.

“This inquiry has really made me realise that the ability of the right to claw back whatever tiny forward steps people make is alive and well.”

It’s currently legal for religious bodies and service providers to discriminate in several sectors, including aged care, education, and charity work. Eastwood fears provisions that already allow for discrimination by religious bodies will be widened as a result of the inquiry.

“I think it’s not something that we expected to come out of a really positive response from the Australian community to the Equality Campaign,” she said. “And I think the awareness that it affects not just LGBT communities, but the woman and the man next door who are re-married, or their daughter who gets pregnant when she’s not married, and who can never work in a service provided by a religious organisation.”

“I don’t think people are aware of the implications of this as the religious providers are growing, and there’s less and less money and work in the not-for-profit sector that’s provided by non-religious organisations.”

LGBTIQ+ People Urged To Make Submissions

A spokesperson for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet denied to Junkee that the line of questioning had been “hostile”, while confirming that recordings or transcripts of the private hearings will not be made available.

“The Expert Panel is meeting with a wide range of stakeholders representing different perspectives on issues associated with religious freedom. Rather than holding open public meetings, the panel has chosen to hold meetings with individual stakeholders or small groups to give people an opportunity to share their views openly and honestly with the panel in a respectful and safe environment.”

“Consultations with stakeholders have been both productive and respectful, and have provided a valuable opportunity to engage constructively with a range of individuals and groups.”

Eastwood is urging Australians — particularly if they have been divorced, are a single parent, live in a de facto relationship, or are a member of the queer community —  to make a written submission to the inquiry before the February 14 deadline.

“I don’t see how me being a lesbian affects my ability to work as a professional in the field that I’m qualified in. The idea that I could not be employed, and my children could not be employed if they happen to be divorced or gay, I find quite frightening,” she said.

“This inquiry has really made me realise that the ability of the right to claw back whatever tiny forward steps people make is alive and well. It’s really important that people actually put in submissions to this inquiry that talk about their personal experiences.”

Rob Stott is the Managing Editor of Junkee. Follow him @Rob_Stott.