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Thursday, 29 November 2018
Page: 9084

Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (17:07): Australia's schools should be no place for discrimination. The Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018 is a proud step forward in making Australia a nation of equality, a nation of fairness, a nation that accepts and celebrates differences and diversity in our nation. In 1984 Labor introduced the Sex Discrimination Act, and we strengthened those protections back in 2013 by including sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex characteristics. I note that religious exemptions have existed ever since 1984. But legislation must keep pace with community sentiment and expectations. This is why we must look at the place of religious exemptions in all our legislation and how they apply today. We've done this before. We've wound back religious exemptions before. Back in 2013, when we introduced LGBTI attributes, we also wound back religious exemptions that applied to faith based aged-care facilities because we didn't want LGBTI Australians in aged care to experience discrimination when all they wanted was appropriate care. The sky did not fall in, nor will it do so with this bill today.

As we know, the catalyst for this conversation and change in this legislation was the Ruddock review into religious freedoms, with over 15,000 submissions from lots of different sides of the debate. That report was handed to the government back in May. There was such a voracious public debate about those leaked recommendations that it sparked our Senate inquiry. It was that public discussion around religious exemptions that highlighted the fact that people were not aware of the extensive discrimination in our legislation. Indeed, much hurt was caused by recommendation 7: 'Religious schools should be able to discriminate in relation to students on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status.' The recommendation also talked about sex discrimination enabling religious schools to discriminate in the employment of staff. There was a massive community reaction to those statements, and the response to that community debate was that this nation's Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, promised to ensure that faith based schools would not discriminate against LGBTI students. He went so far as to say that these laws were not necessary in this day and age. Our Prime Minister said:

Our government does not support the expulsion of students from religious non-state schools on the basis of their sexuality. I also know this view is widely shared by religious schools and communities across the country.

I implore the government not to turn its back on these students for the sake of its own internal dysfunction and division. Please do not forget this commitment to those for whom you govern.

We haven't seen any movement from the Liberal Party to remove this discrimination against children. I'm pleased and proud that Senator Wong has introduced this bill today. We in the Senate inquiry confirmed that, overwhelmingly, faith based schools talked about not wanting to discriminate against lesbian and gay students. One of the principals from a Christian school gave us evidence that he felt that, once a school enrolled a student, it was making a commitment to that child forever. That's really comforting to me, because we know that the relationship a child has with their teachers and their school community is among the most significant and influential relationships they will have growing up. It is indeed unfortunate that some Australians and some Australian children have had to experience discrimination in schools prior to us arriving at this place in time where, hopefully, this parliament is prepared to do something about it.

Some of the stories that were submitted to the Senate inquiry were from Rainbow Families, and I thank them very much for their ongoing visibility and positive contributions to debates on behalf of LGBTI parents and children. One of the examples given was about a child at a private school:

I worry about the impact on my eldest son as he is in a private school that is currently supportive of us as queer parents and him a queer child. If the principle or school council changes it may not be the case.

Another story, from the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, highlighted the situation for teachers. May—not her real name—a lesbian woman, was employed by a Christian welfare agency for two years. Before that she was involved as a volunteer, and she attended church in connection with the welfare group. She said:

I was asked to resign due to my relationship with my partner. I was directly told they were concerned with my involvement with primary and secondary school aged children. I resigned and fell apart after having served that community for four years. The fall out also meant I had to leave my church community. All of this resulted in mental health challenges, isolation, loss of faith, friends, purpose … I can't express the devastating impact being asked to resign due to my sexuality had on my life. I lost everything—my vocation, faith, community—and had to rebuild myself from a very broken place.

We need to make sure that this kind of discrimination is removed and stopped. Labor supports the removal of discrimination against teachers. While we note that this bill does not address the issue of discrimination against teachers and staff by religious schools, Labor is committed to removing exemptions which relate to LGBTI staff at religious schools. Our leader, Mr Shorten, has made that commitment to the Australian people.

We do believe that it's important to balance all rights in our nation, which means working with communities to protect religious freedom too. Isn't it ironic that, in our nation, religious freedom is largely protected by these exemptions—exemptions that give you a right to discriminate against someone else but do not give you protection in your own right. It is extraordinary that that is the state of the laws in our nation.

So we do believe that we must stop discrimination against teachers, but we know that protecting students is something that this place can do today, because the rights of our young people shouldn't have to be balanced against complicated other rights. All our children deserve our protection. The right to practice religion and to teach religious doctrines is, indeed, important to many Australians, but I know, from talking to people from Christian schools, that they don't feel as though the right to practice their religion should come at the expensive cost of discrimination against others.

This is really quite simple in nature, and it is, frankly, beyond me why some on the hard right in the coalition have sought to complicate this debate in this way. I state again that, in their evidence before our committee, faith based schools didn't consider that they wanted to be places of discrimination. They overwhelmingly said they did not want to discriminate against LGBTI students or pregnant students or to discriminate on any other attribute in the Sex Discrimination Act.

It is simple, but it means a lot. I'll tell you what it means to young people. Colin Pettit, who is our wonderful children's commissioner in Western Australia, engaged with young Western Australians, and one told him this:

Having the religious exemptions in place gives a message that LGBT people are second class citizens. It makes people feel like a freak—it tells a kid they're an outsider and don't belong there.

Another said:

Where I live, the only school that offered ATAR subjects was the religious school, so you had to go there if you wanted to go on to university. … if you were excluded there, you couldn't go on and continue your education and achieve your goals.

So let's be clear: this bill does not affect the rights of faith based schools to impose reasonable conditions, requirements or practices on students in accordance with the school's religious tenets, beliefs, doctrines or teachings.

I highlight that, while it would be great to have enough time to balance rights in relation to school ethos and teachers, it is important that, while we have the opportunity, we get this job done for students. I highlight that the issues for teachers are very real. Mr Odgers from the Independent Education Union made an excellent contribution to the inquiry, and he said this:

All staff and students in schools deserve safe workplaces and learning environments. Staff and students shouldn't be discriminated against on the basis of their private expression of their sexuality. In our view, faith based schools have both the capacity and resilience to continue to operate in the absence of discrimination exemptions.

Let me be very clear about the evidence that Mr Odgers gave. This is the union that represents independent schools. They are the industry body, if you like, that represents the staff in such a fantastic diversity of schools. The last thing that union wants to see is things that undermine that diversity. Everyone might as well be in state education if that's the case. The Independent Education Union understands very well the importance of school ethos and the individual culture and diversity of the teachers and the schools. They are very clear about the fact that ethos and upholding ethos can be separated from direct discrimination against people who happen to have a particular attribute covered in the Sex Discrimination Act.

So it is time in this chamber today to really ask ourselves what kind of nation we want to be and what kind of schools we want our children to go to. They should be places of equality, participation, inclusion and fairness. If you're bullied or discriminated against at school, it impacts on your education. The stories that I've heard over many, many, years, including from people in my own family, have highlighted to me how homophobic bullying and discrimination has caused young people to leave school and not finish their education.

Finally, in closing my remarks today, I want to remind this place about the nature of the debate we were having. The postal survey was a very hard time for a great many LGBTI Australians. I certainly felt that way about it myself. When this place debates these issues, you need to remember that there are young people who might be gay, lesbian or trans and are at school, in a state school or a religious school, and haven't yet told anyone about who they are or what they are struggling with in terms of their sexuality or gender. Equally, there will be a girl at a religious school who has found out today that she is pregnant and has to work out how to tell that school and work out with that school community whether she has a right to continue her education. So please, I implore you, consider the needs of the most vulnerable in our society, the needs of all the students in our nation's schools, be they religious or not.