ABC NEWS MATTER OF FACT
SUBJECTS: ALP Early Education Policy, Religious Freedom, Energy Policy
STAN GRANT, HOST: The Federal Labor Party has placed education at the centre of its re-election campaign with the announcement today that it will provide access to free or subsidised pre-school for children as young as three, if they win government. To discuss that and religious freedom laws, I was joined earlier by the Liberal’s Andrew Hastie and Labor’s Peter Khalil. Andrew Hastie, Peter Khalil, nice to have you both on the program. Peter, I’ll start with you because this is Labor’s idea, 15 extra hours a week subsidised early childhood education, is that necessary?
PETER KHALIL MP, FEDERAL LABOR MEMBER FOR WILLS: Oh, absolutely Stan. This is a fantastic announcement by Labor, we’re talking about around seven hundred thousand children that will get access to early education that otherwise wouldn’t. You say “why is it important? Is it necessary?” Early education has been shown in the scientific evidence, the metrics, to be critically important for the development of young minds. It’s not babysitting, it’s not childcare. We’re talking about a critically important stage of the development of young minds as they go through their education journey and this announcement is one of the biggest investments in early education, in education generally, that Australia’s ever seen. It’s one that is really commendable and really important for hundreds of thousands of young people, young kids and their parents across Australia.
GRANT: Andrew, we know in other parts of the world, particularly Asia, that the school age starts very young and you know, three and four is not unusual. Is this putting Australia into line with what other countries are doing? It’s a catch up, would you agree with that?
ANDREW HASTIE, FEDERAL LIBERAL MEMBER FOR CANNING: Good evening Stan, good evening Peter, look, I’m open minded about it, I’d like to see the costings, I’d like to see it tied to specific outcomes. Suffice to say, I’ve got a three year old, and he loves the company of other kids, he’s quick to learn, so I guess, let’s see the details before I commit. I know the government, as I understand it, is open minded about this as well.
GRANT: Look, we’ve just been discussing with Michael Kirby the question of Religious Freedom, and I’ll stay with you on this, Andrew. You have the Ruddock Report, it hasn’t been released but the Prime Minister has been on the front foot saying that there is a need to legislate for religious freedom. Are religious freedoms under attack in Australia?
HASTIE: I think what we’ve seen over the past few years, some examples of Australians of faith who have been taken before anti-discrimination tribunals for expressing a traditional position of orthodoxy, for example, on marriage. Archbishop Porteous in Tasmania had a complaint made against him for circulating a document or a pamphlet that made the case for classical Christian marriage. I think that’s unacceptable. So, when we talk about protecting religious freedom, what we’re talking about the ability of people of faith, not just Christians, but everyone represented in Australia, to be able to practice their faith, to talk about it and to express their convictions in their daily lives without fear of discrimination, either from government or in the workplace.
GRANT: Peter, you are, as I understand, the first Coptic Christian to be elected to Federal Parliament in Australia, is that a view you would share as well? Do you feel as if your faith is under threat in Australia, that you’re not able to express that publicly in the way you may choose?
KHALIL: Well Stan, I have my own personal faith, like millions of Australians, people who are religious and people who don’t believe. The fact is Australia is a secular society. My view is that – and I subscribe to the principle of freedom of religion and freedom from religion – we need to maintain the very important principle of separation of religion and state. That means that people have the freedom to worship but people may not want to worship and should be free to do so as well. It’s a secular society and the other important principle is equality before the law, regardless of one’s gender, one’s sexuality, one’s ethnicity, one’s race. This is a fundamentally important principle for a secular democracy, a liberal democracy like Australia. Now this report, this Ruddock review has been out since May. We have not seen it. I think Australians deserve or should know what’s in that report, know what the Government is planning and yet it’s been what now? Five, six months since the report has been handed down? They should release that. If there is evidence around impingements on freedom of religion, we should see that. Of course, Labor will look at all that evidence and make whatever reforms are necessary. I should say this lastly – we have very good discrimination laws in Australia. We would be very, very averse to weakening those discrimination laws unless there is very, very strong evidence and I don’t think they need to be weakened.
GRANT: Andrew, the question of why the Government is sitting on the Ruddock report – why can’t it be just released? It’s been completed for some time now.
HASTIE: That’s a good question, and I’m sure it’ll come out in due course. I just want to pick up what Peter was saying, and that is that people should be able to practice their religious faith and people should be able to be atheists or of no religion. I absolutely affirm that. The question is whether the state or other organisations should be able to coerce people for having a view that they disagree with and I think that is what we’re trying to protect here. I want to protect people’s freedom of speech and freedom of thought, whether they’re religious or not. That’s really important. As we look at the Census data from 2016, we see numbers of Christians in Australia actually are shrinking. So, this isn’t just a problem for protecting those of the Christian faith, it’s protecting people of all faiths in Australia and mainly from coercion by government.
GRANT: This is the question, I suppose, Peter – you raised that, the fact that we are a secular nation, we have a separation of church and state, we don’t have a national religion – although the majority of people in Australia with faith are Christians – but there is a tension there – and I raised this with Michael Kirby – between secularism and faith and when those things intersect, where does the law sit? If someone – this has been used as an example – the baker who doesn’t want to bake a cake for a same-sex marriage – or a school that doesn’t want to hire someone who doesn’t reflect the faith valueless of a particular religious school – celebrating Christmas publicly, which the Prime Minister has talked about – these things – where is the protection for the full expression of those things in a secular society?
KHALIL: Well, you raised some very important philosophical issues. This is the great thing about this program; we can deep-dive into some of these issues. The point about the secular state and the separation of religion and state is I that it actually protects people of faith as well. Because what it does is it allows people of faith to worship freely without being impinged upon by the state and I think likewise the reciprocation of that by people of faith is that they accept that they can’t impinge upon other people’s rights, whether they be minorities or others, within the state and force their views on them. When we’re talking about discrimination laws, we have things like the Sex Discrimination Act, there are already exemptions in there that protect people of faith or have exemptions in there for religious institutions and so on – so, they already exist. I’m not sure what Andrew is talking about with respect to – maybe he’s seen the Ruddock report, I haven’t – if there is evidence – if there is specific evidence…
HASTIE: What I’m talking about Peter is that current law protects attributes of sexuality, race and the like but we don’t actually protect religious attributes. I think as Australia increasingly becomes more secular, we need to protect people of all persuasions, all creeds, all faiths…
KHALIL: But, there is a freedom of religion…
HASTIE: That’s what we’re trying to achieve with religious freedom.
KHALIL: There is a principle of freedom of religion, this is something that is part of our liberal democracy, there’s freedom of religion and freedom from religion, the way the system works.
GRANT: If we look at that, Andrew…
HASTIE: No-one is trying to trying legislate religion. People are trying to legislate space for people to practise their faith without an anti-discrimination tribunal coming after them for expressing a view at work which for 2,000 years has been considered an orthodox Christian position.
GRANT: Are the projections not enough? Section 116 of the constitution that does protect religious freedom – the various discrimination laws that we have – are they not adequate and what may need to change if, in fact, they’re not doing the job?
HASTIE: Last year we moved a number of amendments to the Marriage Act, which didn’t get up, but certainly it captured the things that I think some of the Ruddock report will deal with, and that is protection for charities, for schools. For example, parents should be able to send their kids to religious school and count on it being religious in accordance with the faith tradition they seek to practice. These are the sorts of things we’re trying to achieve. At the moment they’re not protected under current anti-discrimination law.
KHALIL: I don’t know if that is exactly accurate, Andrew. Because, as Stan mentioned, there’s a constitutional protection of freedom of religion under section 116. There are protections for religious institutions.
HASTIE: It doesn’t prescribe any religion, that’s the point of that.
KHALIL: Within legislation that exists, including the Sex Discrimination Act and other legislation that exists. There are protections that are in place. These are important fundamental principles of a liberal democracy. What we’re talking about when this butts up against the issue around the rights of others, other minorities, which don’t accord with that religious space. Now, my view on that is, if there is evidence that that is occurring in a widespread way, let’s see the evidence of that. We have not had access to the Ruddock report which is supposed to dive into this. Release it, let’s have a look at it, Labor is prepared to look at those issues but on a philosophical point I think there are many, many protections that are existent in the system and as a secular state the importance of equality before the law, regardless of one’s religion, one’s faith, one’s sexuality, gender or race is a fundamentally important principle of our liberal democracy and one that I will defend.
GRANT: For the answers we will have to await the Ruddock report. I want to finish on something again, you’ve taken a strong view on in the past, Andrew, and that is the question of energy policy, the question of climate change. There’s been a really strong criticism of the Government coming from Laurence Tubiana, who is of course an economist from France, one of the architects of the Paris Accord, who says that what Australia is doing is anti-science, and that Australia is not going to meet its commitments. What do you say to that criticism?
HASTIE: Well, I hope he levelled it at China and India, and the US. The US and China together comprise about 43% of the world’s total emissions. We comprise about 1.2%. I think Prime Minister Scott Morrison is looking after the Australian people. We’re looking after workers, looking after industry, we’re looking after working families and seniors trying to get power prices down. That’s our number one priority. As the Prime Minister has said on a number of occasions, given the uptake of renewable energy into our national energy market over the last decade, we’re actually on target to meet the Paris target of 26-28% of 2005 emissions. It’s a cheap slur from a guy in France who, you know, whatever, thanks for coming.
GRANT: I have 30 seconds but I think I know what your response is going to be Peter but you can have it anyway.
KHALIL: Look, if they wanted energy prices to go down, they would have, the Coalition wouldn’t have burnt through four different policies on climate change, the National Energy Guarantee was killed, and the Emissions Trading Scheme was killed, Intensity Scheme was killed, the Clean Energy Target was killed. Business is crying out for certainty. That’s what would have provided a lowering of energy prices and investment in renewables which are cheaper than fossil fuels. Look, the other thing is – the last point I’ll make is that Scott Morrison can’t just wave a magic wand and say we’re going to meet our commitments in a canter, that’s proven to be not true. We’ve seen the figures hidden away, set out on the Friday before the AFL and NRL grand finals where we’ve actually increased carbon pollution by 1.3%. So, it is not true to say that they’re going to meet it in a canter. Labor has a commitment actually of 45% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. We have a responsibility to make sure that for our children and our grandchildren we have a world that is safe and the climate is safe for them.
GRANT: Just quickly, Andrew, I think you need to make a quick response to that.
HASTIE: I suppose you will ban the $58 billion’ worth of coal exports that we do every year as well.
GRANT: Okay, on that note we will have to leave it, we won’t even get into the football because I know you’re both on opposite sides, we’ve got a Collingwood supporter and someone from Perth. So, you do have the last laugh!
HASTIE: Go the Eagles.
KHALIL: I’m still crying, Andrew, congratulations. We were robbed.
GRANT: (Laughs) Talk to you next time. Thank you.