This is not a religious freedom bill, it's a licence to hate

If the Morrison government has its way, Australia’s anti-discrimination laws will take their greatest hit since they began to be enacted almost half a century ago. In that time, anti-discrimination and hate speech laws have made Australia a fairer and more inclusive society.

They have levelled the playing field and provided a fair go for people traditionally disadvantaged by prejudice and stigma. Our system of anti-discrimination protections is one of this nation’s greatest modern achievements.

Now, at the behest of religious leaders who feel their power and privilege slipping away, the federal government wants to punch holes in all these laws.

The bill released on Thursday by Attorney-General Christian Porter will roll back existing protections in a number of ways.

It prevents large companies from contributing to a culture of inclusion by amending the Fair Work Act to allow employees to publicly express whatever religious prejudice they feel like, short of harassment and incitement to violence. This is the government’s response to Israel Folau’s sacking by Rugby Australia.

But it goes further than Folau because it also allows employers to publicly voice whatever nasty religious opinion they have against an employee.

Hate speech seems to be a bugbear for this government because it wants to roll back existing protections across the board. It wants to amend the Commonwealth race, sex, age and disability discrimination acts to allow humiliating, intimidating and insulting language in the name of religion.

Let’s be clear here, this is not just about removing protections for LGBTI people; it is also about allowing abuse that is currently prohibited against racial minorities, old people and people with disability.

The same applies at a state level: the Porter bill explicitly overrides a provision of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act, for example, that defends the state’s citizens against humiliating, intimidating and insulting language. Tasmania is selected for special treatment because its hate speech laws are the strongest and most comprehensive.

In 2017, the Tasmania Parliament upheld these laws, in no small part because the bulk of complaints under them are from people with disability.

The faith-leaders who failed to get Tasmanians to allow verbal abuse against vulnerable people in the name of religion are now looking to Canberra to do their dirty work.

The Porter bill reaches its tentacles into areas beyond hate speech. For example, in the area of health care the bill allows some doctors, nurses and other health practitioners to refuse to provide their services on the basis of their religious belief.

Most people will assume this applies to abortion or euthanasia, but it could also see paediatricians refusing to vaccinate the baby of a single mother or gynaecologists refusing to see married lesbian couples.

Each of these retrograde provisions is irksome, but what makes them particularly objectionable is that the Porter bill has such a wide definition of religious belief that it allows the voicing of any old prejudice and resentment.

Worse still, this new license to hate will be weaponised by the appointment of a Religious Freedom Commissioner.

The Ruddock Review into religious freedom found such a commissioner was not necessary because there was no real threat to religious freedom in Australia. However, to please its conservative religious base, the government will spend an estimated $1.5 million a year to send a Religious Freedom Commissioner out looking for trouble.

The Porter bill isn’t about religious freedom. It is about giving special legal privileges to prejudice.

It’s about importing the American culture war that seeks to take rights away from LGBTI people and many other minorities in the name of “religious freedom”.

It’s true that die-hard fans of this kind of “religious freedom” didn’t get what they most wanted from Porter – the entrenchment of an unlimited right to religious freedom into Australian law.

But they have got something almost as good – the legitimisation of their belief that expressing a religious view or holding a religious belief is more important than other people’s right to be free from hate and discrimination.

The bill will be welcomed by the minority of Australians who resent social progress, and who are fearful of same-sex marriages, ethnic diversity, religious pluralism or transgender teenagers.

But I believe most Australians value the fairness and inclusion that discrimination laws have brought us, and reject the American culture war that some Australian religious leaders want to bring to our shores.

I believe this not least because polls show about 65 per cent of Australians do not believe discrimination should be allowed in the name of religion.

It is now the job of anti-discrimination advocates to mobilise this majority in defence of the fundamental Australian value of a fair go for all.

https://www.smh.com.au/national/this-is-not-a-religious-freedom-bill-it-...