MPs and churches reject Fierravanti-Wells' call to scrap 'flawed' religious discrimination bill

Paul Karp
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Coalition MPs and conservative religious leaders have rejected a call by senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells to scrap the government’s religious discrimination bill and aim instead for a consolidation of all discrimination laws.

Bishop Michael Stead, the chair of the Sydney Anglican diocese’s religious freedom reference group, the Liberal senator James Paterson and Liberal MP Tim Wilson all rejected that approach on Thursday, urging the Coalition to continue to refine the current bill.

Submissions on the attorney general Christian Porter’s bill closed on 31 January, with the second draft earning qualified praise from conservative religious groups and condemnation from human rights and medical bodies.

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Fierravanti-Wells, a conservative critic of the bill who has long advocated for a religious freedom bill to grant new positive rights rather than merely protection from discrimination, has told the Sydney Morning Herald that “no bill is better than this flawed bill”.

“It is now clear that given the complexities of the issues, a national approach is required to ensure consistency and applicability of legislation across Australia,” she reportedly said.

“This would see a consolidation of all discrimination law, including protection of religious freedom.”

Stead said that while he could “understand senator Fierravanti-Wells’ frustration, I don’t share the position she has taken”.

“Good progress has been made on the bill, there have already been significant changes and the attorney general has signalled further sensible changes,” he told Guardian Australia. “We should stay the course.”

“I don’t think it’s so flawed at this point in time that we should abandon it and walk away. It’s getting pretty close.”

Paterson – who led the charge for a more conservative bill to legislate same-sex marriage with greater protection for religious freedom – said the government was “approaching the finishing line of a painstaking and exhaustive process on religious freedom”.

“To walk away now for a radical consolidation project that has failed in the past would be extremely unwise,” he told Guardian Australia.

“I fought [the former Labor attorney general] Nicola Roxon’s attempt to do so because it threatened the freedoms of all Australians.

“Our focus should be on making the current draft bill as strong as possible and getting it through the parliament.”

Tim Wilson, a self-styled modern Liberal, said Labor’s earlier attempt to consolidate discrimination law had “collapsed under the weight of its own complexity and its attempt to advance a culture of censorship over offensive speech”.

“Anti-discrimination laws are about what ought not happen.

“When we try to codify what should happen, that collapse would be even faster than previous attempts.”

The Sydney Anglican submission to the second round of consultation said the new draft is a “significant improvement” on the first draft, but still called for nine further amendments.

Stead said “it would be nice to see further improvements” and the Sydney Anglican church would determine its final position on the bill when it is introduced to parliament.

Stead nominated concern about the definition of a religious body as the most serious outstanding issue, arguing the current clause was “very clumsy” because it contained several exclusions and exemptions.

The Sydney Anglican submission proposes that a “religious body” should be defined as “a body which has the purpose of advancing religion”, regardless of whether it is a charity or not.

Stead said this was a “more ideologically satisfying way” to legislate which religious bodies were still able to preference staff of the same religion in accordance with the doctrines of their faith.

Stead said the definition would “still be limited to non-profit entities” so commercial service providers, such as Christian cake bakers, “wouldn’t be protected”.

Stead rejected criticisms of the bill by the Australian Human Rights Commission and LGBTI rights groups, claiming that examples used to criticise provisions protecting religious speech were “so extreme as to be laughable”.

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“The kind of right to be a bigot cited in some submissions is not the reason why religious communities are asking for these protections.

“We want them to ensure religious people are not going to lose their job, be excluded from courses or professional bodies merely because of expressing religious beliefs.

“There are precedents for these kinds of things – they are well grounded.”

In January, Porter told Guardian Australia he will make “very minor” changes before the bill is introduced to parliament and promised the government is “not going to be obstinate about suggested changes” as it seeks support from Labor and the crossbench to pass it.

The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, told the Labor caucus in November that “we support freedom of religion but we don’t support increasing discrimination in other areas”.

Before the second draft was released, Labor’s health spokesman, Chris Bowen, described the bill as “friendless”, both strong signs the opposition is unlikely to support it.