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Thursday, 4 December 1986
Page: 3430

Senator GARETH EVANS (Minister for Resources and Energy)(10.04) —in reply-I thank honourable senators for their general support for the Sex Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill, particularly Senator Powell who indicated no reservations in her affection for the legislation. As for Senator Peter Baume's foreshadowed amendments and that of Senator Walters, I think they can best be dealt with in the Committee stage. I indicate that the Government will not seek to deny leave to Senator Walters to bring forward her amendment, on the understanding that we can keep the debate reasonably brisk.

As for Senator Harradine's contribution, I hope that it was not simply a warm up for a further half hour speech when he comes to move his motion to suspend standing orders. I think that we can deal with this matter in a short way or a long way. The short way is to make the point that the proposed amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act of which Senator Harradine has given notice are not relevant to the subject of this Bill, which is concerned with amendments to other legislation to ensure the consistency of that other legislation with the Sex Discrimination Act. The proposed amendments would, of course, create new exemptions to the Sex Discrimination Act-the parent Act, as it were. They would have the effect, as we have already seen, of reopening debate on the Sex Discrimination Act itself. I would suggest to honourable senators that this is really not an appropriate opportunity to do that.

The longer way of dealing with Senator Harradine's amendments is to tackle the arguments head on. I really would be very happy to do that at some appropriate time and place because the nature of conscientious objection and the distinguishing characteristics of a conscientious belief as distinct from a mere whim or fancy or intuition is a fascinating subject for discussion. It is a subject which has fascinated me in the past. I have actually written a pamphlet about it in the context of industrial relations, raising and trying to deal with a number of issues that Senator Harradine raised tonight. I sent out to the Parliamentary Library for a copy of that during Senator Harradine's speech to discover that it is in the index but it is missing from the shelf. I hope that that is an indication that Senator Harradine has been endeavouring to glean some nourishment from it but, from the content of his speech, I suspect that is simply not true.

This is a difficult issue to debate quickly, but the point I would try to make is this: It is not enough simply to assert that a conscientious belief deserving respect and legislative acknowledgment is a deeply held conviction formed in good faith, which were the essential characteristics that Senator Harradine described.

Senator Harradine —That is not so. You were not listening.

Senator GARETH EVANS —Oh, dear.

Senator Harradine —You read it tomorrow morning, my friend.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I will do my best. They seemed to me to be the essential characteristics that Senator Harradine was describing.

Senator Harradine —I thought you had some intellectual honesty.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I am doing my best. Obviously the point can be made that one person's deeply held conviction, formed in good faith, may be another person's prejudice, at least in terms of the way in which that behaviour manifests itself. It is not enough simply to assert that deeply held convictions, formed in good faith, of which one approves-for example, a conviction that martial status is a crucial and legitimate discriminating characteristic-are to be distinguished from deeply held convictions of which one does not approve. It is not enough to try to assert characteristic descriptions of bigotry in terms of the arbitrariness of the preferences involved, which was one of Senator Harradine's tests. A second one of his tests, as I noted it down, was the contrariness of the conviction to the common good. Non-detachment, I think, was a third characteristic, as I noted it, that he described of an essentially bigoted belief. All those things can be true of a belief that Senator Harradine would describe as conscientious. Let me give an example of what I am talking about. Take a Dutch Reformed Church Afrikaner in South Africa who has a deeply held belief, formed in good faith, a deeply held conviction about the inequality of man and the way in which it is appropriate to behave towards people. There are many people in that sort of environment whom one could properly describe as having a conscientious belief to that effect. It is not enough simply to assert--

Senator Harradine —You are intellectually dishonest.

Senator GARETH EVANS —It is not enough to assert, and it is rather vulgar to be abusive about it in the context of this debate, that discrimination based upon beliefs of that kind-skin colour and so on-are irrational or arbitrary. They appear so to me and they appear so to Senator Harradine but they do not necessarily appear to the people concerned.

Senator Harradine —I have given the basis for the rejection of that.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I know that Senator Harradine tried to do that but in my judgment he did not succeed. It would take many more hours than we have at our disposal in order to seek to establish that and I am quite sure that, at the end of the day, however powerful my arguments, Senator Harradine would remain as utterly unpersuaded of their veracity and validity as he is at the moment. So, it is an essentially fruitless exercise to try to conduct a debate of this kind. It is difficult to attribute objectivity to conscientious beliefs. It is very difficult to distinguish rational and defensible conscientious beliefs from irrational and indefensible beliefs which are nonetheless just as genuinely and firmly held. As a result, it is extremely dangerous to go down the track of allowing a claim of conscientious belief to exculpate one from the kind of obligations that are imposed by this kind of law.

There are many other obligations imposed by many other kinds of laws-military service is clearly one example where we can reasonably be a little more relaxed in terms of the conscientious convictions, the sincerity of which we recognise, and the force of which we are prepared to acknowledge and give credibility and legitimacy to. There are plenty of contexts in which this can be so. But when one is talking about public behaviour that affects other persons in terms of rights to accommodation, rights to goods and services, rights to education and all the other things that this legislation is concerned with, it is simply not possible to pick and choose between categories of claimed conscientious belief by reference to the kind of criteria that Senator Harradine would wish to place upon us. Bearing in mind the time and the fact that this is an argument which will no doubt be canvassed on other more appropriate occasions, I simply indicate to the Senate that I do not believe there is any rational basis, at least in the present context of this legislative debate, on which we should accept Senator Harradine's amendments tonight. Accordingly I urge the Senate to vote for the Bill in its present form, and reject the various amendments which we will, nonetheless, debate on their merits in a moment.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

(Quorum formed)

Bill read a second time.