Having been in the Labor Party for many years you get to meet and talk with a number of characters. Some are larger than life. Many of them have strong opinions and it is not unusual to have those views expressed in forceful, dare I say fruity language.
A few years ago The Greens sought to pass in the NSW Legislative Council the Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Equality in Education and Employment) Bill. In summary, if successful, the legislation would have removed certain religion exemption provisions from the state's anti-discrimination act. True to form The Greens dishonestly referred to the exemption provisions as loopholes. Nothing could be further from the truth. The provisions had been deliberately and consciously placed into the legislation by the Parliament. The provisions specifically gave faith-based educators the right to determine who worked in their schools, without being exposed to claims of certain discrimination.
I remember at the time when I told one of my Labor colleagues about what The Greens were proposing he responded in his usual frank language, "Maaate don't worry, the bill won't pass. We have told The Greens to go get f@#ked."
Indeed many other colleagues who I engaged with on the matter provided equally reassuring comments. The comments had two key themes – the bill was nothing but the usual try-on by The Greens and secondly it was not going anywhere; it was a dead duck. The only ones that would be supporting the bill would be The Greens. As predicted, The Greens bill hit the wall.
Now fast forward just a few years to 2017. In the lead up to the ALP NSW branch conference held in July an agenda item was submitted that sought to amend state platform to incorporate a new provision that would read:
"NSW Labor in government will remove exemptions in the NSWAnti-Discrimination Act 1977 for private and religious educational institutions to deny employment of staff or admission of students on the basis of their age, religion, marital status, race and sexuality."
While it was made known to the proponents seeking the platform amendment that it was not acceptable, and was at odds with the party's position of respecting the religious beliefs and convictions of not just hundreds of thousands but millions of citizens in New South Wales, those agitating on the issue threaten to take the issue onto the floor of the conference and debate it. Indeed some even threatened to call for a division thus bringing about an open and public split on the matter.
While those arguing for the amendment pressed their positon right throughout the first day of the conference and into the morning of the second, in the end the proposal was not debated. Instead, what was agreed to by the conference was an amended motion that, in general terms, commits Labor in government to reviewing the state's anti-discrimination act.
A close shave, get out of jail, back from the brink call it what you like. The reality was that around a third of the conference delegates were prepared to vote for the removal of the exemption provisions placed in the anti-discrimination legislation for independent and Catholic schools.
The tail end of 2017 saw the Commonwealth Parliament consumed by the debate about whether the Marriage Act should be amended to enable those with same-sex attractions to marry. In the end the amendments to the Marriage Act passed by significant margins in both the House of Representatives and Senate.
What was more surprising though was the manner in which the major political parties, Labor, Liberal and the Nationals effectively postponed consideration of the issue of the knock-on implications for religious freedom and conscience rights arising from de-gendering the Marriage Act.
To assuage the concerns of some members from his own party and the Nationals, the Prime Minister threw them a concession in the form of a review into religious freedom in Australia by an Expert Panel chaired by the retired federal MP and Attorney General in the Howard government, the Hon. Philip Ruddock. The Expert Panel has sought and received submissions from what is expected to be a large number of individuals, churches and other interested parties. The Expert Panel has also been conducting hearings and other consultation around the country. It will be submitting its findings to the Prime Minister by 31st March.
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