Unpacking The Shitshow That Was The Last 24 Hours In Australian Politics

The debate over the Religious Discrimination Bill has seen Olympic-level backflipping, fury from the LGBTIQ community, and calls to just scrap the whole thing entirely. Here's what's going on.

religious discrimination bill

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Well folks, it has well and truly been A Week in politics, which is to be expected as the upcoming federal election gets closer with each passing day.

But at this point, it’s borderline impossible to actually keep up with what the hell is going on, so let’s recap the last 24-or-so hours in politics, which has somehow managed to make the start of the week look like a cake-walk.

Between Scott Morrison’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week last week, the not insignificant chance that Peter Dutton could challenge his leadership and prompt another leadership spill, and the powerful National Press Club address from Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame yesterday, it truly feels like politics is just going full balls to the wall at the moment.

But the major issue on the cards this week is the highly criticised Religious Discrimination Bill — which notably excludes trans students from being awarded the same protections given to gay children.

So, let’s recap the last 24 hours of political bullshit.

We Thought Labor Would Oppose The Bill, We Were — Sadly — Wrong

Labor MP Stephen Jones delivered a powerful address to Parliament, urging both sides of government to come together to ensure the highly-debated bill goes far enough to protect all kids (including trans children). The speech quickly went viral — we published an article on it — with the community praising Jones for standing up for the rights of not only his own kids, but everyone else too.

When we woke up on Wednesday morning, Labor’s position on the controversial bill was not yet known, but Jones’ speech gave everyone a little hope that maybe, just maybe, the Opposition would oppose such a discriminatory piece of legislation.

But in an Olympic-level backflip, Jones later announced that Labor’s approach was — essentially — we’ll let the bill pass and if we win the May election we’ll start to fight for trans kids rights.

While Labor noted that it will continue to fight for the amendments in the Senate, where it has more of a chance of achieving some success, people were quick to criticise the Opposition for hedging their bets on potentially winning the election.

As Jacqui Lambie put it: “what happens if you don’t win??”

It’s worth noting here that Junkee reached out to Anthony Albanese, Tanya Plibersek, and a number of other Labor MPs across the education and mental health portfolios asking if the party would commit to protecting trans kids after Albanese asserted on Tuesday that the PM’s job is to protect the most vulnerable Australians.

Despite multiple attempts, none of the MPs contacted would comment on the matter.

Albanese’s Speech

After a fiery Question Time, the debate on the Religious Discrimination Bill kicked off at around 5:30pm with Albanese giving a speech in which he called the bill “flawed.”

“The idea there has to be a conflict between the rights of children, and people with disabilities who would be potentially hurt from this bill and people of faith who would be protected is a false dichotomy — we surely should be able to do both. Enhancing protections against discrimination without increasing discrimination against others,” said Albanese.

“This bill seeks to pit those groups against each other, I seek to defend all of them. We need shields from this legislation, not swords.”

Albanese noted that he supports the protection of religious freedom but doesn’t “support doing it at the expense of increasing discrimination against others.”

At this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking Labor would just oppose the bill.

So, Uhh, What Exactly Is Labor’s Stance

It’s all a bit confusing because Labor fundamentally supports the idea of trans students being protected, but ultimately confirmed they would vote in favour of the bill anyway. So what exactly is their stance here?

Labor’s demands include amending the Sex Discrimination Act in order to not only protect students on the grounds of their sexuality, but also their gender identity.

While the Morrison Government has already noted that the Australian Law Reform Commission is reviewing changes to the Sex Discrimination Act, this could take at least 12 months before trans students are — maybe — protected.

Another major amendment Labor is fighting for aims to make it clearer that the statement of belief clause does not override state-based legislation on hate speech and discrimination. So basically, protecting vulnerable Australians from having to cop hate or discrimination under the guise of it being a genuinely held religious belief.

Labor is also attempting to stop discrimination in aged care.

However, on Wednesday, Labor agreed to support the bill — even if its amendments weren’t successful — in the hope of fighting for them in the Senate, where the government doesn’t have a majority.

Liberal MPs Crossed The Floor

After hours of debate that didn’t conclude until the early hours of Thursday morning, five Liberal MPs crossed the floor to vote with Labor in support of the amendment to protect trans children.

Openly gay Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman gave an emotional speech while waving a rainbow flag, in which he asserted it “has been one of the most difficult weeks of [his] time in Parliament.”

“I want to indicate I will be making the difficult decision to part with my party on some of the amendments before the chamber tonight,” said Zimmerman. “It’s an opportunity I cannot let go pass. I couldn’t live with myself if I did not seek to address those issues.”

In an emotional speech, Zimmerman frankly stated that he couldn’t morally vote for anything that makes trans lives harder than they already are. “I cannot stand by and do anything that makes their situation more difficult, which sends anything other than a message from this parliament, which most receive in their schools but sadly some don’t, that we want to embrace you, we want to love you, we want to support you, we want to nurture you,” he said.

Prior to the vote, Albanese again tried to convince the Liberals to support the amendments in the House, rather than waiting for it to go to the Senate.

“No child should be discriminated against. Overwhelmingly, Australians of faith would agree with this too,” said Albanese. “Australian families are going to wake up in a few hours and look on with sadness and anger if this does not occur.”

But just after 4am on Thursday, the bill passed through the House of Representatives with Labor’s support. Again, it must be stressed that they’ll continue to fight it in the Senate today.

Ultimately, Zimmerman, Bridget Archer, Fiona Martin, Katie Allen and David Sharma voted to repeal the Sex Discrimination Act, with the bill passing with a vote of 65-59.

What Actually Changed?

So far, a change has been made regarding the Sex Discrimination Act. The SDA included an exemption to allow religious schools to exclude staff on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, relationship status and/or pregnancy “in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion”.

The Morrison Government was happy to remove the sexual orientation clause, but not the gender identity bit.

Now, the entire exemption has been scrapped.

However, Labor wasn’t so successful in its changes to the actual Religious Discrimination Bill, with the “statements of belief” clause — the controversial part that allowed “moderate” religious beliefs to be free from being deemed discriminatory, provided they aren’t malicious, threatening, harassing or vilifying.

Bridget Archer still crossed the floor for this, but ultimately, Labor didn’t have the numbers to make the change.

So What Happens Now?

The Morrison Government will now talk to stakeholders about what to do next before the bill is voted on in the Senate.

Assistant Attorney-General Amanda Stoker said the amendments are “not what the government designed”. “It’s not what we thought had got the balance right. That’s why we are going to talk to them all today,” said Stoker.

Considering the Australian Christian Lobby is now calling for the bill to be scrapped entirely due to its belief that it has “completely undermined” the purpose of the legislation, this could be an interesting day of conversation.

“[The exemptions] have enabled faith-based schools to teach their religion and conduct their schools according to their faith values,” ACL director Wendy Francis told the ABC. “The loss of this protection would outweigh any benefits that could be obtained by the religious discrimination bill.

“With the amendments so damaging to religious freedom, the government should immediately withdraw the bills.”

Meanwhile, Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus remains confident Labor will be able to get its amendments over the line in the Senate. “I am not saying anything other than that we are going to insist on these amendments, and we are confident that they will succeed,” Dreyfus told the ABC.

At this point, the Morrison Government has a few options. It can: take the bill to the Senate and see what happens, take it back to the House of Representatives to again fight for the original proposal, or just scrap the bill entirely.

However, we are unlikely to see the bill even make it to the Senate during this government term after the Senate decided not to debate it on Thursday afternoon.

Due to budget estimates hearings chewing up all but two sitting days left of the year (one of which being budget day), it’s not likely this bill will pass during Morrison’s current term — making it yet another promise Morrison failed to deliver on.

Lavender Baj is Junkee’s senior reporter across news, politics, and finance. Follow her on Twitter.