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Monday, 2 December 2002
Page: 6879

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (6:21 PM) —I do not think that anyone in this chamber has a problem with the discussion, the debate or the principle of conscientious objection. What we are debating is whether or not, if you agree with that principle, this improves the legislation—that is, is this the appropriate place in which to put a reference to a conscientious objection? I belong to a party that believes strongly in conscience votes and conscientious objection, and we have registered that in a range of Commonwealth debates. One example concerns the issue of universal membership of student organisations and whether or not there should be conscientious objections. But we have also acknowledged that, whether or not you do that through disallowable instruments, through guidelines or through the actual legislation, it is a debate that needs exploration.

I do not know if the Minister for Health and Ageing can provide us with some of the precedents in relation to such an issue, bearing in mind that the broader issue of conscientious objection, including the issue of victimisation, is complex. I am not quite sure whether this amendment to the legislation will necessarily address some of the legislative and even constitutional issues that have to be dealt with in relation to employees and their employers. Presumably industrial law will also be involved, as well as—as I understand it—constitutional powers in relation to the regulation of the individual.

With respect to the chamber, I do not think this debate is about whether or not people are standing up for the right to conscientious objection. I think it is about determining whether or not this is the right place and whether or not the guidelines are the appropriate way to deal with this very important and complex issue. I suspect that they are. Having said that, is this amendment in its current form the appropriate one to deal with the complexity of the issue? I suspect it is not. But that is not to say that other senators in this chamber have a problem with the principle, and I would hate to think that it is a reflection on them if they do not support the wording of this amendment.

I acknowledge Senator Harradine's point—and it is a good point—that whether people support or oppose the legislation does not prevent us from viewing each amendment on its merits and voting for amendments that actually value-add or improve this bill. I think anyone who has been a part of this debate would recognise that there is absolutely no predictability about anything in it. Without meaning to reflect on a vote of the chamber, the vote before lunchtime proved this. That will certainly go down as the most memorable vote for me in the last seven years. It goes to show that people are thinking about these issues, that we do have differences of opinion and that they do not necessarily relate to whether or not we simply support the legislation in its entirety.

I do support this principle but I am unconvinced that this amendment will address all those issues. If we do perhaps decide as a chamber that changes should be made to the law or that the guidelines are not sufficient, then we should actually take some time to ensure that the amendment is the right one. Then I suspect we should possibly have an inquiry to deal with a whole bunch of other laws that relate to conscientious objection and broader issues of discrimination, because I certainly have a list of issues that I would like to see included in federal legislation.

If the minister has any information which she can provide to the chamber in relation to the constitutional impact of the bill or to perceived problems in addition to those that she has outlined, I would like to hear it. If this is inadequate notice, I acknowledge that, but I will put on record my personal views in relation to this debate.