The government’s bid to legislate this year to protect LGBT students
from discrimination at religious schools has failed because of an
impasse over the detail.
After weeks of negotiation and tactical manoeuvring between the
government and Labor, Scott Morrison on Wednesday produced his own
bill and suggested both sides give their parliamentarians a conscience
“It’s disappointing that we have been unable to reach agreement
between the parties, but I’m prepared to give it one more go,” he
But this was immediately and strongly rejected by Labor.
Neither government nor opposition on Wednesday night saw any chance of
further movement before parliament rises on Thursday.
It is not clear how the matter will proceed next year, or whether it
will be rolled into the government’s reaction to the religious freedom
report, to be released soon.
The existing right to discriminate – which has been in the law since
2013 – became an issue after a leak from the Ruddock religious freedom
report before the Wentworth byelection.
Morrison responded with a promise to legislate quickly to remove the provision.
But negotiations with Labor bogged down when the government insisted
protections should be included in the new legislation to ensure the
right of religious schools to teach their faith and to impose school
rules which reflect that faith. One example the government gives is a
school’s right to require pupils to attend chapel.
Labor said that schools would still be able to exclude students on
The opposition moved its own bill in the Senate, which simply removed
the existing exemption from the Sex Discrimination Act.
On Tuesday Bill Shorten said in a letter to Morrison that parliament
should not rise until the matter was resolved so students “can go into
the school holidays knowing that when they return to school next year,
there will be no basis for their ongoing discrimination”.
But on Wednesday morning the Labor bill was put on hold by agreement between government and opposition, because a mutually-acceptable outcome could not be reached.
Soon after, Morrison called a news conference, producing a bill and
proposing an alternative route to deal with it. The bill
… removed the ability to discriminate against students based on
gender or sexual orientation, relationship status or pregnancy;
… said that in deciding whether a school rule was “reasonable”, the
Human Rights Commission and courts should take into account the
school’s religious nature and whether the school considered the best
interests of the child;
… provided that nothing in the Act prevented a religious school
teaching in accordance with its religious beliefs.
“If the Labor Party and Bill Shorten are prepared to back this Bill,
we will vote for it today and we will get this done”, Morrison said.
As a fallback he proposed both sides give their members a conscience vote, saying that in those circumstances he would introduce the bill as a private member.
Shorten immediately accused Morrison of seeking to “weaponise this dispute”.
He said Labor’s legal advice was that the government’s proposed change
“has the potential to permit discrimination against students in
schools both direct and indirect.”
Shorten said he understood religious schools had “legitimate
anxieties”, which Labor respected. He also understood that “there is
an overwhelming desire to remove discrimination against children”.
“The Parliament hasn’t come across a mechanism which seems to get that
balance right,” Shorten said.
“There is no set of circumstances where this Parliament should be
voting to replace one set of laws permitting discrimination against
children with another set of laws permitting discrimination against
In a mutual blame game, Attorney-General Christian Porter said: “Labor
is not prepared to accept the common sense principle that religious
schools should be able to impose reasonable school rules evenly on all
of their students.
“And worst of all Bill Shorten will not agree to the common sense
process of allowing a conscience vote of all members to allow these
common sense changes to happen right now.”
Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.