A contentious bill to protect Australians from religious discrimination has passed the lower house of federal parliament after five Liberal MPs crossed the floor to support sticking-point amendments during a marathon overnight session which concluded just before 5 a.m. on Feb. 10.
Liberal MPs Bridget Archer, Trent Zimmerman, Fiona Martin, Dave Sharma, and Katie Allen crossed the floor to vote with Labor and the crossbench on amendments to the bill which they feared would permit discrimination against gay and transgender students by religious schools if not changed.
To win support for the bill, the government had agreed to amend the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) to prevent schools from excluding gay and lesbian students but did not extend to transgender students, prompting the five Liberal MPs to cross the floor.
The future of the bill is uncertain with Labor intending to pursue other amendments that were voted down in the House of Representatives when it is taken up in the Senate.
Although it was thought the bill would move to the upper house on the same day it passed in the lower house, a motion required to give approval for the bills to be debated so soon after they were introduced for consideration failed to go through the Senate on Feb. 10.
While a further motion could be moved later in the day, this is thought unlikely—Feb. 10 was the last day the Senate will sit before the federal budget in late March.
Meanwhile, the amendments needed to secure the bill’s passage through the lower house were a “price too high to pay,” according to Wendy Francis, the director of politics at the Australian Christian Lobby, who said it will take away protections for Christian schools that operate according to their faith.
“With the amendments so damaging to religious freedom, the government should immediately withdraw the bills,” she said.
The Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 seeks to protect people from being discriminated against on the basis of their religion or religious activity and provides a mechanism for remedy under the Religious Discrimination Act or the Fair Work Act.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said Labor would wait to see how the Liberal-National coalition government pursues the bill in the Senate when debate resumes.
“Their actions after the major amendment was carried were quite extraordinary,” he told the Nine Network on Thursday. “It isn’t too often that governments lose votes on the floor of the House of Representatives, but I’ve never seen before a government lose votes against a bill they introduced themselves.”
Labor also sought an amendment to the controversial statements of belief clause in the bill, but the bill was deadlocked at 62-62, despite two Liberal MPs crossing the floor.
The deadlock was broken by Speaker Andrew Wallace, who voted with the government.
One of the Liberals who crossed the floor, Trent Zimmerman, who is openly gay, told parliament the bill provided the opportunity to address what he saw as “permitted” discrimination against gay and transgender students by religious schools under the SDA as it stands.
“At the moment the SDA allows schools to discriminate based on all those characteristics I mentioned before. Of course, the reality is it’s uncommon for that to happen,” Zimmerman said.
He noted that in reality it had been “uncommon” that LGBTQI+ students were discriminated against, until Citipointe Christian School attempted to assert its rights under the law just two weeks ago.
“I think of the wonderful schools in my electorate; I’ve spoken to many of the school principals just this week and all of them strive to provide a supporting environment to students based on their sexuality or gender, including those that are transgender or going through the transition.
“But there are still some, and we’ve seen this us in recent weeks, that would purport, in the name of their religion, to discriminate in what I think is quite a heinous way,” he said.
Zimmerman told ABC Radio he decided to vote against the government because supporting the amendments would “be a bad signal to send to the transgender community.”
Labor is confident the shot-down amendments would pass the Senate once the debate moves to the upper house. However, he did not say what the party would do if the amendments do not get enough support.
Meanwhile, Tasmania’s Sen. Jacqui Lambie, an independent, has described the bill as a “waste,” saying there were other issues parliament could have been addressing.
“There’s a lot of things we could have been talking about—ICAC, political donation, aged care, getting the reforms through as quickly as possible,” Lambie told Nine’s Today program.
She accused Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is Christian, of being “selfish” and working for “his own ambition.”
Meanwhile, Superannuation Minister Jane Hume said despite members of the government crossing the floor, the coalition wanted to get the balance right on the legislation.
“We don’t want to see any children expelled from school ever on the basis of their sexual identity,” she told the ABC. “But at the same time, we want to make sure we respect the rights of parents to choose to send their children to a school that’s a single-sex school.”
The bill had been referred to the Australian Law Reform Commission to be examined.
LGBTQI+ advocacy group Equality Australia has now called for the Senate to approve amendments preventing existing anti-discrimination laws from being overridden.
AAP contributed to this report.