Labor Says It’s Ready To Work With The Government On Religious Freedom Laws And Sorry, What?

"We do stand ready though, to work with the government on this."

Kristina Keneally

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Kristina Keneally has announced that the Labor Party is ready to work with the government on introducing religious freedom laws — you know, the religious freedom laws the government has been pushing to make a priority ever since Israel Folau faced consequences for saying LGBTIQ people are going to hell.

While we don’t have much detail on the legislation yet, Scott Morrison has suggested that Australia needs an anti-discrimination act protecting religious people, similar to existing laws that prevent discrimination on the basis of race or gender.

The Prime Minister has also described the proposed laws as protections for “religious freedom” more generally, though, which has raised concerns that the legislation may go further than simply protecting people from discrimination. When he was asked whether these religious freedom laws would, say, protect someone like Israel Folau from being fired for expressing a belief that LGBTIQ people will go to hell, Scott Morrison declined to answer.

Despite this concerning vagueness, Labor is apparently ready to work with the government on this issue. “We are willing to have discussions with the government and to work with the government on a religious discrimination, and religious freedom act,” Labor senator Kristina Keneally told the ABC’s Fran Kelly this morning.

“We are waiting to have those conversations. We do stand ready though to work with the government on this.”

“To what level, though?” Kelly responded, asking where Keneally and Labor stand on the question of whether religious schools should be able to fire or refuse to hire LGBTIQ employees.

“Well, Labor in fact in the last term of parliament put forward legislation that made clear that we do support the right of religious schools, to be able to require staff and teachers to act in ways that, in their professional capacity, uphold the values and the ethos of the institution, the religious faith, in which that school operates,” Keneally said.

“But this is an issue that is broader than that. What the government are talking about is an issue that goes to protecting religion in an affirmative way, as a freedom, and that is a conversation we are quite willing to have with the government.”

Given that we don’t know the detail of the religious freedom legislation in question, it’s hard to know exactly what kind of “protections” for religious freedom are on the table here. Still, it’s a little concerning for the LGBTIQ community to see both major parties apparently open to discussing “protections” that would allow discrimination against LGBTIQ Australians.

Keneally’s comments today follow a number of moves by the Labor party that appear to walk back support for the LGBTIQ community. Last month, Anthony Albanese scrapped the position of Shadow Assistant Minister for Equality (aka LGBTIQ rights), saying that he wanted his shadow ministry to reflect the positions that exist in the Morrison government, which has no LGBTIQ portfolio.

A few days ago, Albanese reportedly called for references to the acronym LGBTIQ to be reduced in the Labor Party’s policy platform, saying that the 300-page agenda was too large and needed to be streamlined.

In Parliament yesterday, Albanese disputed suggestions that he supported “watering down Labor’s commitment to LGBTIQ rights”. “As someone who in the first speech in parliament mentioned removing discrimination on the basis of sexuality and is a strong advocate for the rights of gay and lesbian people, that is not true; it did not happen,” he said.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see what kind of religious freedom legislation Labor ends up supporting — or not.