Penny Wong’s feelings were written on her face. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP
Penny Wong’s feelings were written on her face. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Government squibbed on protecting gay kids

THERE was nothing divine about Coalition Senator Mathias Cormann conspiring on Monday, with the obviously joke-named Centre Alliance duo Stirling Griff and Rex Patrick, to scupper a Bill aimed at closing a legislative loop hole that allows religious schools to exclude students because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

This is because the rationale behind Cormann's strategy stuck out like ... oh dear, what's that saying about dogs' something or other? Ah, yes, that's right, stuck out like dog-eared pages in an expensive bible.

The aim was to stop the Bill's passage through the Senate so that the same legislation introduced in the Lower House couldn't be debated there, where the Coalition's hard-right, proselytisers would have immediately rushed out of their caves to wave their hands in the air and speak loudly (possibly in tongues) against it.

It could have been yet another terrifying, moderate voter-alienating look for the Coalition. Or I suppose you could believe the explanation of Cormann - Malcolm Turnbull's former BFF - that the Coalition wanted to "refine" the amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act.

Either way, we end the parliamentary year without that important anti-discriminatory protection for young people in place, which law could have been immediately built on in the New Year with other amending legislation aimed at preventing non-secular schools from discriminating against gay staff and others, as well.

Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong exploded at Minister for Finance Mathias Cormann after he successfully blocked a bill amendment aimed at protecting gay students from discrimination. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP
Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong exploded at Minister for Finance Mathias Cormann after he successfully blocked a bill amendment aimed at protecting gay students from discrimination. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP

All this brouhaha has its roots in the leaking of the recommendations of the Ruddock "Religious Freedom Review" - commissioned by backstabbed PM Turnbull to appease the abovementioned proselytisers galled by the outcome of the same-sex marriage referendum - which provided some shock value to the more progressive among us, even though we were expecting nothing less from the Rev Ruddock.

In recommendation numbers 5 and 7, the report says the Commonwealth should amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 "to provide that religious schools can discriminate in relation to the employment of staff and the engagement of contractors, on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status ..." and so they can also "discriminate in relation to students on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status ... " provided the discrimination is founded in the precepts of the religion and details of the "policy" are publicly available.

But it probably came as a surprise to many of us when it was spelled out, during all the to-do, that exemptions allowing religious schools to discriminate already lurk in the Act. Section 38 provides for "educational institutions established for religious purposes" to discriminate against staff (subsection 1), contractors (subsection 2) and students (subsection 3). It was this latter exemption the Bill in the Senate this week sought to extinguish. Oh, and you wouldn't want to be a singleton teacher and fall pregnant because the existing legislation paves the way for you to be out on your ear for that too.

Now, a couple of weeks ago I copped a bit of flak, but also quite a bit of support, for suggesting exclusive, fee-charging private schools were un-Australian for undermining our claimed pride in and commitment to egalitarianism by entrenching educational inequality and fuelling social division.

Philip Ruddock’s leaked report recommended leaving in place legislation allowing religiously affiliated schools to discriminate against gay staff and students. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP
Philip Ruddock’s leaked report recommended leaving in place legislation allowing religiously affiliated schools to discriminate against gay staff and students. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP

What I didn't talk about then but surely the time's now ripe, was that the majority of these non-government schools, which educate 34.4 per cent of Australian kids, are affiliated with a religion - about 94 per cent of the total 2805 private schools around the country which, in 2017, had a total of about 1.3 million kids enrolled.

These religion affiliated schools are mainly Catholic but also Anglican and other Christian - including Adventist, Baptist, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist etc - Jewish, Islamic and so on.

And these schools which have long been allowed to practice the abovementioned discrimination if it is "in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed" so as to "avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of the religion or creed", gobble up billions channelled to them annually by the Federal Government.

The 2018-19 Budget papers for the Education and Training portfolio say nearly $12 billion will go to non-government schools this financial year (remembering that only 6 per cent are not religion affiliated), with that expenditure estimated to rise to $13.8 billion by 2021-22.

Well, absolve my sins and call me a virgin. Because what about the "susceptibilities" of LGBTI (and pregnant/single parent) staff, contractors and students? And what about the "susceptibilities" of the 30 per cent of Australians who ticked "no religion" at the last Census? Bearing in mind both groups will include taxpayers (some long-term and high paying) whose "susceptibilities" risk being offended by their hard-earned tax dollars going to religious schools which have a free ticket to practice and thereby promote discrimination that is otherwise unlawful in our society. Mine certainly are.

Just riddle me this: how can our supposedly enlightened society and our supposedly secular democracy function if there exists different sets of rules for different groups - in this case the religious and the non-religious? And if the rights of one group are elevated above another other? And if the "precepts" of all religions are to be accommodated?

Surely the elevation of religious freedom creates a slippery slope to greater social division when we should be seeking greater cohesion.

And the last place in which social division should be practised or tolerated is in our schools.

Margaret Wenham is the opinion editor of The Courier-Mail.



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