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Australia’s Religious Discrimination Bill Is About Attacking Workers’ Rights

The Australian government has introduced a new “religious freedom” bill that enshrines the right of employers to hire, fire, and discriminate on the basis of anything those employers deem to be not in keeping with their faith.

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison speaks at a press conference in Canberra, Australia. (Rohan Thomson / Getty Images)

Last week, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison finally introduced his Religious Discrimination Bill to parliament. The proposed legislation — nicknamed the “religious freedom bill” — aims to enshrine the rights of religious employers to hire, fire, and discriminate on the basis of anything they deem to be not in keeping with their faith. This could include sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status, gender identity, or literally anything these employers list publicly as contrary to their creed.

With the tabling of the bill, Morrison has fulfilled his promise to the religious right, which is permanently vengeful and out for blood after its humiliating defeat in the 2017 same-sex marriage plebiscite. These wealthy employers control an enormous and growing share of Australia’s education, health, and social work industries. And they are positively gleeful at the prospect of being free to fire gay teachers, refuse medical care to trans people or people with HIV, and turn LGBT youth away from charities.

But these new “freedoms” will not be an active tool of repression against LGBT people only. Millions of Australian workers might soon have this dark disciplinary cloud looming over them. Any sensible person would think twice about speaking up about a workplace issue, challenging a manager, or insisting on their current rights under a union agreement if their employer could fire them on the spot on the basis of some unrelated pretext like having had sex before marriage.

Morrison’s War With Reality

In the Mad Hatter’s tea party that is the Australian Federal Parliament, everything is what it isn’t. Morrison’s speech promoting his bill described an Australia where the truly persecuted are employers seeking the right to discriminate with impunity. According to Morrison it is not gay conversion camps, or stay-closeted-under-penalty-of-termination policies that compel and censor. It is rather anyone against these practices “who seeks to marginalize and coerce and silence people of faith.” Right-wing commentators such as Peta Credlin have echoed this topsy-turvy motif. Existing antidiscrimination legislation, she opines, is actually an attack on the religious: “laws meant as shields are now used as swords.”

And yet Morrison’s own Expert Panel into Religious Freedom — created to dredge up some evidence for all this — concluded that religious freedom in Australia is “not in imminent peril.” Indeed, existing Federal exemptions mean many religious employers already have the right to fire and expel LGBT teachers and students.

A Pernicious Premier?

Scott Morrison, Peta Credlin, and the right-wing hyena pack have honed in on Labor premier Daniel Andrews’s Victoria as evidence of the need for this new legislation. The Australian’s Greg Sheridan argued last week that “anti-religious legislation — particularly in Victoria — is becoming so pernicious that there is now a strong case for some sort of legislative shield.”

This is largely in response to proposed Victorian legislation that would remove existing exemptions for religious employers to discriminate against LGBT people. But it also refers to some other policies of Andrews’s government — such as antidiscrimination legislation in terms of adoption and the banning of forced gay conversion programs. Given UN experts have said the latter practice amounts to torture, such changes are hardly radical.

Daniel Andrews’s fairly moderate progressive populism — designed to undercut the Greens in several inner city electoral seats — is not the runaway train it’s made out to be. It’s taken his government seven years to introduce the new antidiscrimination legislation. Though there aren’t any reliable statistics, recent media reports suggest that many teachers have been disciplined, discriminated against, and fired during this period. So why the delay?

The Labor Party is heavily factionalized. One of its most vicious factions is a right-wing socially conservative Catholic group — who control a giant cash cow in the form of a rotten yellow union called the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA). Former senator Jacinta Collins, a member of this faction, left the Victorian Upper House in 2019 to become director of the National Catholic Education Commission. She publicly attacked her own party’s new legislation from this high-profile role last week, and disgustingly argued that when teachers claim to have been discriminated against on the basis of sexuality, “it’s actually about something else such as exposure of pornography in class.”

This noxious faction has held the deputy premier role in Victoria since 2014, is exceedingly out of touch with popular opinion, and excels at bureaucratically stymying progress at both a state and federal level. Their leader once warned of civilizational collapse should same-sex marriage come to pass — and they’ve just seized four more Victorian state seats in a stability deal between the warring factions.

In short, a progressive rainbow paradise the Victorian Labor Party is not. But the Morrison and Andrews governments seem to have settled into a sort of Donald Trump–Gretchen Whitmer dynamic, trading accusations of “cancel culture” and “pandering to extremists” to look tough and chase electoral gains.

Victims-in-Waiting

The trade unions representing the majority of affected workers have correctly pointed out that the legislation is actually about reducing our rights at work, despite the misleading framing around individual freedom of speech. Despite these unions being nominally independent, the Labor Party maintains an iron grip on both the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation and the Independent Education Union. And the federal Labor Party has pathetically pledged in-principle support for the government’s legislation, keen to avoid a fight it worries will alienate religious voters in areas like Western Sydney.

In the lead up to Morrison introducing the Religious Discrimination Bill there was much speculation that the entire debacle was meaningless posturing. Some argued it was set up to fail, having been introduced too late in the parliamentary term. Peta Credlin guessed that “this whole debate will turn out be more about striking an election pose than making a difference before polling day.” With the bill set to go before a Senate inquiry over summer, it is unclear whether it will pass before the next federal election — which could be as early as February 2022.

And so once again millions of workers now wait patiently to see how their careers and livelihoods will be affected by the greed and game-playing of a handful of religious bosses, factional bigwigs, and parliamentary buffoons. They do bear a striking resemblance to Alice, buffeted by others’ madness and only able to declare, “How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual…”