School Discrimination

House of Representatives, Matters of Public Importance

Watch Matt's Speech here

Mr KEOGH (Burt) (16:05): When it comes to discrimination, this government's been nothing but own goals. It railed against marriage equality, beginning fights with itself before and after, eventually requiring a divisive and conclusive plebiscite to decide the matter. Then the government called the Ruddock review on religious freedom, and after 15,000 submissions a report was delivered to government in May of this year—a report that the government has refused to release and which has now been leaked against the government. What have they got to hide? Why don't they think the voters of Wentworth, let alone the rest of Australia, deserve to see it? The Liberals must release the Ruddock review immediately and respond to its recommendations. That will inform a proper discussion of religious freedom.

Despite all of this, we are pleased that the Prime Minister has accepted Labor's call to remove existing laws that could allow religious schools to discriminate against schoolchildren because of who they are. It is wholly unfair to discriminate against students because of their sexual orientation and gender identity, just as it would be unfair to discriminate against them based on race, skin colour, height or the colour of their eyes. All aspects of our schools must be about the best interests of those students.

But Labor is also disappointed at the refusal of the government to work with Labor on removing the exemptions as they apply to teachers. We hope that the government will reconsider its response to this as well as the matter that it debated in the Senate yesterday. Clearly, the government at this stage should start seeking advice from some other sources, so I suggest they bear in mind the classical view of the always erudite Dead Kennedys about what Nazi punks should do!

We respect the right of religious schools to run their schools in line with their beliefs. Despite what those opposite try to say about us on this side of the House, we also respect the right of parents to send children to the schools of their choice and to have their children educated in accordance with their religious convictions. These rights are not inconsistent with our position on discrimination. We also understand that the mission of a religious school is delivered not just in a religious education class but also through the culture of the school via religious services, sporting activities, community service, student leadership and the many areas of the education curriculum. In fact, removing these discrimination exemptions actually buttresses the freedom of thought, conscience and religion as well as the liberty of parents to ensure the religious and moral education of the children in conformity with their own conviction. Resolving this will make clear the basis for actions concerning enrolment, hiring, discipline and termination as well as stop some gross overstepping.

When it comes to employment, we understand that religious schools and parents of students expect that teachers and staff support the ethos, values and principles of the particular faith of that school and not act in a way to undermine the school's mission. That's no different from saying that all schools are entitled to have rules that govern the conduct of staff—all staff, not just teachers—in the way in which they relate to students and in the way in which they go about their work at the school. Just as all employers are entitled to require employees to act and perform their duties in accordance with the stated policies and mission of their organisation, religious schools have the right to conduct their schools in accordance with the tenets of their faith. This is actually broader than the issue of gender identity. The reality also is that staff who choose to work in these religious schools understand this too.

But our LGBTIQ students and their teachers don't deserve to live in fear that they may be kicked out of a school merely because of who they are. Our schools should be a place of learning, safety and flourishing fun for all. In 21st-century Australia, exemptions from discrimination law are no longer appropriate, nor are they the best way to safeguard the mission and identity of religious schools. That is a discussion that should be ongoing. The government's amendments must not stop at students—they must include the abolition of exemptions as they apply to teachers and other staff—and the government should work with Labor to ensure that this is done in a holistic, workable and acceptable way to the Australian community that affirms the ability of religious schools to operate consistently with their mission.