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3AW Drive with Tom Elliot

Senator the Hon Michaelia Cash


Subjects: Religious Discrimination Bill

TOM ELLIOT: All right, the Religious Discrimination Bill, our next guest is the Federal Attorney-General Michaelia Cash. Good afternoon.

MINISTER CASH: Good afternoon Tom, and good afternoon to your listeners.

TOM ELLIOT: Okay, why do we need this bill? What are we trying to achieve here?

MINISTER CASH: Okay, so Australia is a culturally and religiously diverse nation and in fact, we actually have over 14 million Australians who hold a religious belief. Despite that, many Australians experience discrimination on the basis of their religious beliefs every day. Good examples are a Christian should not be discriminated against because they wear a crucifix around the neck, a Muslim employee who keeps a prayer rug in the bottom drawer of their desk at work, they should not be discriminated against. Your viewers would probably know, we have a Sex Discrimination Act, we have a Disability Discrimination Act, we have an Age Discrimination Act and the Race Discrimination Act. However, there is no standalone legislation to protect people of faith against discrimination. That is what this bill will do. We will change that.

TOM ELLIOT: Okay. But obviously, where the rubber hits the road is where it gets a bit awkward. So for example, I mentioned Israel Folau before now, several years ago, you know, he went on social media and said that certain classes of people including fornicators, and idolaters, and gay people would go to hell unless they repented. And he was sacked from playing rugby union in Australia. Now, will this bill, if it passes, will this stop a future Israel Folau from being sacked?

MINISTER CASH: Well, the Israel Folau case was actually a contractual arrangement between Rugby Australia and Israel Folau. They came to arrangement whereby that matter was settled. What this bill does is say, in one of the clauses, you can actually make, as a person of faith, a statement of belief in good faith and that won't be discrimination under any Australian law. The reason it's not discrimination is because you're not acting on it. It literally is just a mere statement of belief. But what it also says is this, it draws a very clear line against harassment, against vilification, against intimidation and against threatening anybody. If you step into that territory, you are not covered by the bill.

TOM ELLIOT: Okay. But I mean, look, I don't want to spend all his time just talking about Israel Folau. But I mean, the thing is, he was simply quoting directly from the Bible, and to be honest no one seems to worry about, you know, fornicators and idolaters going to hell, it was only gay people going to hell, but he did lose his job. The point is, I mean, I'm not religious. But if someone wants to stand there and preach from the Bible, and there's some pretty nasty bits in the Bible, I mean, does this bill protect them or does it not?

MINISTER CASH: Well, it depends on the circumstances in which they make that statement of belief. If it is a genuine statement made in good faith, it would not be discrimination. But that does not mean you may not fall foul of an employer code of conduct. This is merely in relation to the statement of belief itself being made in good faith. If the statement’s malicious, if you're intending to threaten, intimidate, harass or vilify, you don't get the protection.

TOM ELLIOT: What about the issue with religious schools? Now, Australia is unusual because we have a large proportion of people go to a private school, again, between thirty-five and forty percent, depending on what state you look at, and a lot of private schools, not all, but a lot are religious and they all get, you know, government funding to a greater or lesser degree, and not many other countries have a situation like this. But I mean, what happens, for example, can a Catholic school that's perhaps at the more conservative end of the spectrum, can it put out an ad for a teacher and say, only Catholics can apply?

MINISTER CASH: Okay, so what this bill does is like other discrimination laws in Australia, so the example I'll give you, what's the Sex Discrimination law? There are already exemptions, long standing exemptions. Both sides of politics agree with these long standing exemptions for religious bodies, that because of their uniqueness, so that they're able to engage in conduct consistent with their religious beliefs they are able to preference people who shared their religious beliefs over someone who does not. For example, as you rightly put it, a Catholic school, a Jewish school or Islamic schools, they will be able to preference a person who shares their religious beliefs over someone who does not, but they will need to do this in accordance with a publicly available policy and that publicly available policy, it is going to have to set out how they intend to rely on this particular exemption, the fact that they are of a certain faith and that they will be giving preference in relation to that faith.

TOM ELLIOT: What if they hire a teacher who says yes, I'm a practising Catholic, and that's fine. And the teachers, they're teaching math and he wakes up one day and says, oh my God, I've been living a lie, I'm actually a gay man. And now I want to announce to the world that I want to live a gay lifestyle. Can that person be sacked by a Catholic school because they are no longer practising a strictly Catholic lifestyle?

MINISTER CASH: Okay, so this bill only deals with religion and the attribute of religious belief or activity. What you've referred to is exceptions that are already in place in the Sex Discrimination Act for religious bodies, and they obviously include religious schools. Those exemptions are not affected in any way. What section 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act already does is permit religious schools to discriminate in connection with employment, so choosing someone on the basis of the person's sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc, those exceptions are already there. This bill is about religion, and religiosity and preferencing on the basis of religion.

TOM ELLIOT: Well, funny, I mean, I'm an atheist, not militant, but I am one. Can I get on the radio and say that all religion is utter nonsense and be protected? Or would I fall foul of perhaps this bill?

MINISTER CASH: Well again, you raise a good point. This is not just about protecting people who have a faith, those protections also extend to people who do not have faith. You will get the same types of protections against discrimination as a person of faith gets. Again, in relation to the statement of belief, you can already say that on radio, you can already get on radio and you and I can have a robust debate. Just say though, we were in the workplace, or in the provision of goods or services, and we were having our debates on religion and you said to me, Michaelia, there is no God therefore, there is no heaven and you're not going to heaven. As long as you were making a statement of belief in good faith, and you then didn't act on that in a detrimental way to me, you're just freely expressing your statements of belief. If you were being malicious to me, on the other hand, or you're looking to threaten, intimidate, harass or vilify me, that's entirely different.

TOM ELLIOT: How would you react if I said you probably weren't going to heaven?

MINISTER CASH: As a Catholic, I would say, I respectfully disagree with you. But I would respectfully disagree with you and I say, well you know, I'm a Catholic, I actually believe in the concept of heaven and hell. But I understand that's your faith and you don't, I do believe that you can have robust conversation. In fact, I think it's actually healthy to have robust conversation as long as it's in good faith, and you are not malicious and you are not seeking, you know, to threaten, intimidate, harass or vilify a person. If you're seeking to do that, completely inappropriate.

TOM ELLIOT: There wouldn't be that many politicians that end up in heaven, though, would there?

MINISTER CASH: (Laughing) I was waiting for you to say that.

TOM ELLIOT: Thank you for your time, Michaelia Cash. Attorney General of Australia. Well, religious bodies are saying the bill doesn't go far enough, LGBTQI lobby groups saying it goes too far. Apparently the Labor Party with a few minor amendments is going to support it, so that probably suggests it hits the mark.