The Religious Discrimination Bill has become a widespread topic of discussion recently amid questions raised over the extent to which protections for religious freedoms should impact upon individual rights. The bill, which focused on protecting Australians from discrimination on the basis of religious belief or activity, has been shelved indefinitely by the Coalition. It sought to protect individuals from discrimination on the basis of their religion, as well as to make it legal for religious bodies to act in accordance with their faith, excluding circumstances where this may violate the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. This occurred after an amendment to the proposed bill was passed in the House of Representatives by Labor, backbenchers, and five Liberal MPs, removing Section 38 (3) of the act, which stated that religious schools could discriminate against students and staff on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, or pregnancy. This meant that religious groups would be able to discriminate in reasonable accordance with their faith, except where it would violate the Sex Discrimination Act or any other Commonwealth laws, meaning that they could not discriminate on the basis of sexuality or gender identity. The bill, which was passed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday the 9th of February, was pulled by the government before it could come to a debate in the Senate the next day. This means that the legislation is unlikely to come to the Senate before the election in May.
But why would the Coalition pull a bill that they worked so hard to pass from even being debated in the Senate? This is likely due to pressure from conservative politicians and Christian lobby groups, who feel that the purpose of the Religious Discrimination Bill has been undermined by amendments made to it, protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals from being discriminated against by religious organisations. Scott Morrison himself shared his disappointment with the amendment made specifically protecting LGBTQ+ individuals, as well as the bill’s eventual abandonment. He stated that the Religious Discrimination Bill had been “undermined by those who would seek to undermine the very religious institutions upon which so much of Christian community depends”.
The original proposed bill, and its eventual pulling from debate in the Senate by the Coalition, has arguably been influenced significantly by right-wing and religious populism. Populism refers to a political rhetoric which appeals to ordinary people by pushing the idea that their interests are in some way being undermined by the prevailing influence of a group or ideology in society. By establishing a perceived dichotomy between the interests of “the people” and groups or ideologies seen as “other” to the people, populists are able to capture the support of those who feel undermined by the current political establishment. There has been a significant rise in the mainstream use of populist political tactics since former US president Donald Trump’s successful run for presidency in 2016. His popularity grew considerably due to a campaign which established groups such as immigrants as well as mainstream progressive ideologies, as “other” to a white conservative voter base and promised that political decisions would be made in the interests of this group.
This raises questions over the Coalition’s motives for the introduction of the Religious Discrimination Bill, especially with an upcoming election. The introduction of the bill appears to be an appeal to a religious voter base, and feeds into a populist strategy which paints the progressive ideologies being pushed by the opposition as threatening to religious Australians’ way of life. This is important given that according to the 2016 census, 61% of Australians identify as religious in some form. This statistic supports the Coalition’s arguably populist approach, as by bringing questions of faith into the political arena, they are able to establish a clear “them” vs “us” mentality. In turn, this encourages voters to see religious freedoms as a partisan issue, establishing progressivism and the Labor Party as the “other”. The use of this strategy by the Coalition meant that when Labor’s amendment passed extending the bill to protect LGBTQ+ individuals from discrimination by religious bodies, the bill no longer fulfilled its purpose to the Coalition as a populist appeal to religious and conservative Australians. This is particularly evident in the withdrawal of support of the bill by Christian lobby groups following the amendment, such as the Australian Christian Lobby, who, while originally backing the proposed legislation, demanded that Scott Morrison withdraw the bill after the amendment was made. In reference to the struck-out section of the Sex Discrimination Act which allowed religious schools to discriminate based on gender identity and sexual orientation, the Australian Christian Lobby issued a statement asserting that “these protections have enabled faith-based schools to teach their religion and conduct their schools according to their faith values. The loss of this protection would outweigh any benefits that could be obtained by the Religious Discrimination Bill”. Support for the bill was also withdrawn by the Christian Schools Association, who raised concerns about the effect of protections made for transgender staff and students, thus further corroborating the possibility of populist intentions behind the bill.
Following pushback from religious organisations and lobbyists, the Coalition was left with no choice but to abandon the bill, as amendments made to it protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals ensured it no longer appealed to the religious and conservative voter base of the Coalition in the lead up to the federal election. The introduction of progressive reforms and protections for the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals may have been deemed “threatening” to the interests of the Coalition’s voter base. Through attempted reforms such as the Religious Discrimination Bill, it is increasingly evident that the Coalition is relying upon the populist tactics that have become so prevalent in a post-Trump western political era, in order to mobilise conservative voters against an opposition and ideology they have construed as “the enemy”.
- Abs.gov.au. 2022. Census reveals Australia’s religious diversity on World Religion Day. [online] Available at: <https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/mediareleasesbyReleaseDate/8497F7A8E7DB5BEFCA25821800203DA4?OpenDocument> [Accessed 3 March 2022].
- Butler, J., 2022. What’s happened to the religious discrimination bill – and where to next?. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/feb/10/whats-happened-to-the-religious-discrimination-bill-and-where-to-next> [Accessed 3 March 2022].
- Evans, J., 2022. Government shelves religious freedom bill indefinitely, leaving election promise hanging in uncertainty. [online] Abc.net.au. Available at: <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-02-10/government-consults-religious-groups-discrimination-bill/100818568> [Accessed 3 March 2022].
- Grattan, M., 2022. Morrison draws on Bible story to explain refusal to compromise on religious discrimination package. [online] The Conversation. Available at: <https://theconversation.com/morrison-draws-on-bible-story-to-explain-refusal-to-compromise-on-religious-discrimination-package-177043> [Accessed 3 March 2022].
- Martin, S. and Karp, P., 2022. Coalition shelves religious discrimination bill after Christian lobby says changes do ‘more harm than good’. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/10/coalition-shelves-religious-discrimination-bill-after-christian-lobby-says-changes-do-more-harm-than-good> [Accessed 3 March 2022].
- Thomas, S., 2022. Kill The Religious Discrimination Bill, Fumes Christian Lobby – Star Observer. [online] Star Observer. Available at: <https://www.starobserver.com.au/news/kill-the-religious-discrimination-bill-fumes-christian-lobby/209858> [Accessed 3 March 2022].