Speech on the Religious Freedom Review

10.45am | October 18, 2018

This is the third time that the government has refused to release the report of the religious freedom review. It's extraordinary. Why is the government afraid to release a report that was commissioned by a coalition government in response to pressure internally from members of the coalition party room and was written by a former minister of a coalition government. It is a coalition document. It is a coalition report. It heads, presumably, in a coalition political direction. Why is it that they are so scared to show the Australian public what it is that they are politically interested in and what it is that they politically believe in? There is just one word, and that word is Wentworth. The by-election in Wentworth has this crowd jumping around like a bunch of kangaroos on the road—they don't know which direction to go in. I'll tell you what, it's pretty dangerous for everybody else involved, because they are creating chaos in all aspects of government decision-making, and that has real consequences for our circumstances domestically and our circumstances internationally. They are presently driven by a primal electoral fear about what is going on in Wentworth. Wentworth, of course, registered one of the highest levels of support for marriage equality during the plebiscite. They are terrified, and they should be. They are terrified by what might happen to their electoral prospects if a proper public debate is able to take place about the contents of that review.

I'll tell you what scares them more. It's the reaction of their party room because, if parts of their party room were given the opportunity to discuss the content of this debate, we'd see even more of the ugliness that they are desperately trying to keep from public view in the lead-up to this by-election. It's been pretty ugly over the last couple of days because this is a government whose senators happily walked in here and sat over there on the affirmative side and voted en masse to say, 'It's okay to be white.' I'm pretty certain they've also got more than a few members who wouldn't be happy to say, 'It's okay to be gay.' That's the problem. That's the debate they are trying to avoid. But the problem is you can't avoid it forever, and this political tactic in the lead-up to the by-election isn't working.

The grounds on which they claim the document needs to be maintained as a confidential document are farcical. A detailed discussion about this document and about recommendations in this document appeared on the front page of the Fairfax papers weeks ago. The recommendations of the Ruddock report have been leaked in full and, if you google them, you can find them. The political consequences, the social consequences, the consequences for children and the consequences for the LGBTIQ community have been debated on the front page of the papers for days, and I can tell you that they're being debated on the ground in Wentworth as well. The Liberal candidate in Wentworth has been forced to comment on the recommendations which were leaked and published in the Fairfax papers. The Prime Minister gave his views on the recommendations last week, and then two days later he gave a different set of views on the recommendations. This is an absolute farce and it makes a mockery of all of the conventions about open government and proper community involvement in the decisions of the parliament and, indeed, the community's ability to contribute to the decisions of cabinet.

Why does the government insist on this debate proceeding publicly in the absence of the actual report from the religious freedom review? I tell you that it is in line with the secrecy that has permeated this review from its very beginnings. It's a review that the government wanted to conduct in the shadows, so initially they refused to release any of the submissions. There were no published transcripts, minutes or even a communique on the consultations that were undertaken by the committee. Earlier this year, I tried to FOI some of the documentation produced by the committee secretariat. That was knocked back. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that this is because the far Right in the coalition party room want to be able to deliver to some of their stakeholders in secret, far from the public eye, and that's just not sustainable. It's not sustainable at all.

Why is it that we're even having the review? You can't forget this. This was a concession that was demanded by the far Right of the Liberal Party as a consolation prize for having been so roundly defeated and so roundly rejected by the Australian public during the plebiscite. There has never been any clearly articulated threat to religious freedom identified by any of the proponents of this review. And, when pressed on it, the Prime Minister could only say, 'Just because things haven't been a problem in the past doesn't mean they won't be a problem in the future.' This is a solution looking for a problem to solve. But there are actually problems right here and right now, in the present, like the right of children to go to a school of their choice and to be supported at a school of their choice irrespective of their sexuality and the right of teachers to do the job that they love without being discriminated against on the basis of who they love.

The Morrison government seems determined to continue the tradition of the Abbott government and the Turnbull government by treating the LGBTI community with the most unbelievable cynicism. We believe that the LGBTIQ community deserves more than to be an object in the government's culture wars. We believe that they deserve support and philosophical consistency, not an opportunistic bounding around, kangaroo style, in the face of this election or that election, or this poll or that poll. There are everyday Australians who, thanks to this government, had to live through a nationwide survey on their right to marry who they love, and now those same Australians have to sit through another conversation about whether people like them ought to be kicked out of their schools. This is 2018. The very least that this government could do is release the report that it commissioned.

Delivered in the Senate on October 17, 2018