ABC Afternoon Briefing – Religious Discrimination Bill, Ukraine



Subjects: religious discrimination bill, Ukraine

GREG JENNETT, HOST: There’s a bit to get through with our political panel. So joining us is Sydney Liberal MP, Dave Sharma and Labor’s Peter Khalil from Melbourne Both are in the studio here with us in Canberra. Welcome to both of you. Peter, I might go to you first, because your side had a caucus meeting from which comes a four-page media release from the Shadow Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus. Give us the bottom line for those who don’t follow the twists and turns. Labor’s position is try and move amendments, briefly encapsulate their purpose and then what happens after that?

PETER KHALIL, MEMBER FOR WILLS: Thanks Greg. Look, we don’t support the bill, certainly in its current form. I don’t support the bill in its current form, it has a lot of problems. So we’re going to be moving amendments to address those issues, particularly around discrimination for, not just for gay students but transgender students in schools. We’re going to be moving amendments around vilification, you know if you’re walking down the street wearing a hijab as a Muslim woman or the yarmulke and you get abuse hurled at you, that’s not being covered by this bill. Amendments around in-home care, that you cannot discriminate against people, even if the provider has a religious organisation; and a couple of others, particularly Clause 12, the statement of belief and that’s a real problem because it cuts across state and territory anti-discrimination laws. So we’ll be putting those amendments up. I just want to make this point though. I have great respect for the Office of the Prime Minister, but Scott Morrison has and is weaponising this bill for political purposes. This should be done in a bipartisan manner because it should be about the interest of all Australians.

JENNETT:  So you feel like your party’s being wedged, and to some degree.

KHALIL: Oh, everyone knows that.

JENNETT:  And to some degree it has been. When you look at the contribution of Stephen Jones, passionate though it was, this is hurting him to come to what your party is now suggesting should be a unified keep them in the tent position. Is that possible?

KHALIL: Absolutely I think it’s possible. Our job as lawmakers is to ensure that we get the best possible laws on the books, and in this case, we can actually have discrimination laws or antidiscrimination laws that don’t impinge on another group. When you give protections to tone group, they shouldn’t impinge on another group. We have the wit and the wherewithal to get there.

JENNETT:  Alright so do you move these in expectation that the numbers are conceivably there. First of all, and then one follow up to that.


JENNETT:  You actually think they are in both chambers, but particularly the lower house, which would be unheard of and most uncommon for the government to lose control of its own legislation.

KHALIL:  I’m in the lower house. We have down this before. We did pass the Medevac laws before the last election from opposition. But this is really a question for our other guest, Dave Sharma


KHALIL: Because I want my Liberal colleagues on the other side who have good conscience on this matter, who have been on the public record to support these amendments because that’s what they’ve been talking about.

JENNETT: Alright, not excluding Dave Sharma, but the last one to you. If, and you have to contemplate this when you go into a set of amendments like this, if Labor is unsuccessful, cannot get these amendments up, what do you think should happen?

KHALIL: We will be pushing hard to get these amendments up in the House, and also then the Senate. I hope we don’t have to do it in the Senate.

JENNETT: And if you don’t, is there a case for Labor to try to kill this bill, win government, and fix it all, in what you would describe is a proper and comprehensive manner in government.

KHALIL: Greg, we’re dealing with people’s lives here, and I think you know we can talk the politics and all the inside belt weight stuff. You heard Stephen’s speech. The effect on families with their kids. This is too important to play politics with. We want to do the right, I believe that there should be anti-discrimination laws to protect people’s religious and faith beliefs, but they shouldn’t come at the expense of other people, and we need to get that right. So we will do whatever is necessary to get the good laws through.

JENNETT: But just to be clear, Labor’s actually stated position, as much as we can tell from this statement, is that if you are unsuccessful, you would come back from to this in government. That’s the position?

KHALIL: We’re committed to actually changing this law and getting it right.

JENNETT: So, there’s no kill the bill option available from Labor at the moment?

KHALIL: We’re basically saying we’re going to put the amendments up in the house, hope that Dave and others of his colleagues vote for it. If they don’t we’ll take it to the Senate and have that debate in the Senate.

JENNETT: Believe me Dave Sharma, this is not a Peter Khalil interview. We’re here to talk to both of you.

KHALIL: You’d think I was in government Dave.

JENNETT: Sure, so let’s turn naturally to Dave Sharma because you’ve expressed your own reservations. We’re already played those a number of times from you contribution to the house. Have you developed your position in reserving your right to vote in other ways on this? Have you developed your position further since you spoke on it this morning?

DAVE SHARMA, MEMBER FOR WENTWORTH: Well look, I haven’t yet seen Labor’s amendments and I am keen to see those. I have made my concerns known about this bill. While supporting the broad thrust that I do support, I think most people in the parliament do, Peter included, the idea that people, just as they’re protected against discrimination because of their sex or their disability or their age, should also be protected because of their religion. I support that. But there are parts of the bill that I worry about and there are parts of previous legislation, legislation that’s already on the statute books, particularly the sex discrimination act, which I think should be addressed at the same time as this bill.

JENNETT: I think we got the gist of that from a piece we extracted from your speech last night, but now it is, to use Peter’s word, “weaponised”, because there’s an alternative set of proposals from Labor, which as you review your position, you are entitled as a backbencher to go over and support. From what you understand of it, would you? Does it align with your values?

SHARMA: Having not seen the amendments I certainly wouldn’t make a commitment on them and like with every piece of legislation I will study it quite closely. But I am also very conscious that I’m a member of the Liberal Party, I was elected as part of the Liberal Party, and I was elected on a platform of supporting a Religious Discrimination Bill. So, I’m not going to give you a straight answer here today Greg about you know, what exactly I’m going to do. But I have got concerns, I’ve expressed those privately and in public in Parliament as well. I would like to find a way to make sure those concerns are addressed.

JENNETT: Just to unpack the language that’s sometimes used by backbenchers, especially in the Liberal Party. Reserving your right, is the phrase that’s used, to do what exactly, just to narrow that down a little?

SHARMA: Well I haven’t used that phrase, I know others have.

JENNETT: Others have.

SHARMA: I’ve just said, you know, when it comes to a vote, that’s when people will know my decision, and that’s all I’m saying on this which is the same for any piece of legislation. I do like to see the debate. If there are amendments offered, you consider amendments on their merits as well. I would just say, I don’t know if I agree with the characterisation that this debate has been weaponised. Yes, its contentious. Yes, people have views about this, but I think that’s only healthy and right in a parliament that represents a diverse section of society; represents the full diversity of Australia.

JENNETT: Well let’s go back to you Peter. I know people will say that transgender is really complex, and it has to be worked through more slowly. But what guides you on this personally, either through experience you had with schools who may have sought to have transgender students expelled? Or is it a principle that you might have that says no-one gets left behind, when we’re changing laws this, let’s do it for all?

KHALIL: My starting principle as a lawmaker Greg, is that there should be freedom of religion and freedom from religion. It’s an important principle in a secular democracy and when it comes to discrimination against gay students or trans students, there needs to be consistency there. When I say it was weaponised, the Prime Minister politicised this. He then created another wedge within a wedge by saying well we’re going to protect gay kids but we’re not going to protect trans kids. I mean come on, I mean you need to be consistent about that, and equality before the law is equality before the law regardless of your characteristics.

JENNETT: But would you be happy to see that fixed now? Because that’s not the position that Labor seems to be articulating in this statement.

KHALIL: We’re going to putting up amendments to make sure that trans students as well as gay students are protected in the same way. It’s an important principle. The second part you asked about – schools. There are not many schools that actually are going out of their way to expel students. I mean it’s just, the evidence is not there. Even Xavier College just today, a Christian school, a Catholic school, supported and affirmed the right of a student who transitioned their gender. So you know, it’s the Prime Minister looking for a problem to make a big deal out of when its actually not there. Searching for something to make politics out of.

JENNETT: Weaponised, Dave Sharma, to the extent that there are clearly divisions within both party ranks here, Coalition and Labor. But just on the transgender issue, you have a preponderance of private and independent schools in your electorate in particular. What do you understand to be the practice of any, or many, of those? How do they practically tolerate transition in schools you are familiar with?

SHARMA: In my own experience of schools in my electorate – single sex, religiously based schools in the electorate – they do have children who are coming to terms with identity issues, or transitioning and generally speaking, as far as I’m aware they have accommodated those children in a hospitable and warm and supportive environment, which I think is what should happen.

JENNETT: Does the make it less pressing for the Parliament to remove expulsion options in this legislation if it is being practically dealt with and accommodated?

SHARMA: I would say, and some people do make this argument if it is not happening in practice than they should have no problem with us changing the laws, and I think laws provide an important normative role as much as any, they set the standard about what society expects and what sort of behaviour is tolerated, and certainly whilst my own personal experience, my own electorate, has not revealed these sorts of cases there have been plenty that have come out that I’m aware of where transgender students and, Stephen Jones spoke about in the Parliament yesterday, a colleague of mine Andrew Lamming has spoken about it, where students struggling with gender identity issues or are transitioning have been forced to leave schools, perhaps they haven’t been expelled, but they have been harassed or intimidated or bullied out of there because they’ve been subject to discrimination.

JENNETT: Can we flick the switch because I know you both like to think deeply on international relations, we have got Marise Payne, the Foreign Minister going to a Quad meeting in Melbourne with foreign ministers and so much rumbling around on Ukraine at the moment. She won’t specify what sanctions Australia might be ready to press go on. Are you satisfied, Peter, that our involvement these days in AUKUS doesn’t tie us into doing more on a patch of dirt like Ukraine that we might not otherwise have done before we joined this larger grouping?

KHALIL: That’s an interesting question because I think it is more the fact that we have a relationship with NATO and with allies in Europe as well as other Western countries with respect to our support for Ukraine. We welcome the Government ‘s support around the cyber security space.

JENNETT: and sanctions, if the Government want to go there?

KHALIL: I would certainly, I’m a backbencher but I would certainly be thinking that that should be put on the table because the fact is that Russia’s actions, and if they do invade – they haven’t invaded yet – but if they do, this is really about many of these authoritarian regimes, these liberal regimes, moving and pressuring democracies, sometimes small countries that are democracies like Ukraine,

JENNETT: And it’s beholden on democracy like Australia to join shoulder to shoulder?

KHALIL: I think we need to work together to push back on those countries that are autocratic and authoritarian who are trying to interfere in our systems and push us around, but also smaller countries that are democracies, we need to support them. That’s why I supported the democracy movement in Myanmar, the Hong Kong democracy protesters and so many other examples around the world. This is happening globally. There is a contest at the moment between democracies around the world and autocratic regimes which are becoming more and more aggressive and coercive in their actions.

JENNETT: Well Dave, as you see Marise Payne sharing the stage with the Lithuanian Foreign Minister today, soon with Tony Blinken and others in the Quad grouping, what is your assessment of what and when Australia should be doing more on Ukraine in particular?

SHARMA: Well, I think Ukraine does matter to us. It is not in our strategic theatre, if you like, but as Peter was making the point, the John Donne quote, no country is an island, no person is an island entirely unto itself and what happens in Ukraine, effectively what Russia is trying to do is to recreate a sphere of influence and exercise a veto over the foreign policy decisions and strategic autonomy of another countries. They say Ukraine should not be allowed to become an EU candidate country. If we allow a principle like that to become established in international relations, we’re soon going to find people asserting that principle in our own neighbourhood and in our own region about countries like Myanmar, countries like Cambodia and countries like Laos and that is not in Australia’s national interest, so this is why Ukraine matters to us. It’s not going to have a direct security impact upon us but in terms of the rules-based order, the thing that we cherish and uphold and talk so much about, making sure that Ukraine retains its sovereignty and freedom of action is incredibly important.

JENNETT: Alright, well we’ll keep an eye on Marise Payne’s conversations there at the Quad and will no doubt be talking more about Taiwan and where the limits of Australia’s interests might lie. Dave Sharma and Peter Khalil, thanks for coming in on a day when both of have found yourself at the centre of robust discussions.