Prime Minister Tony Abbott will put a stop to a plan that would ban women with facial coverings from sitting in Parliament’s main public galleries.
The move comes after Speaker Bronwyn Bishop and Senate President Stephen Parry sought advice from security agencies about screening policies in relation to garments that hide identity.
It is understood that Mr Abbott will tell Ms Bishop and Mr Parry that “common sense should prevail” when it comes to public access to Parliament House.
Debate about burqas or niqabs has raged over the past week with several politicians, including Liberals Cory Bernardi and George Christensen and Palmer United Party senator Jacqui Lambie, calling for it to be banned from Parliament House.
Senator Bernardi said the Islamic religious attire is “identity-concealing garb” and should be banned on security grounds, along with balaclavas and motorbike helmets.
Mr Abbott said on Wednesday he found burqas confronting and wished they weren’t worn.
He remains committed to people being asked to show their faces if they are in secure areas of the building.
While the Parliamentary ban is being referred to as the “burqa ban”, the burqa is a less common form of attire in Australia than the niqab.
Earlier on Thursday, the Department of Parliamentary Services announced: “Persons with facial coverings entering the galleries of the House of Representatives and Senate will be seated in the enclosed galleries.
“This will ensure that persons with facial coverings can continue to enter the chamber galleries without needing to be identifiable.”
The enclosed galleries are usually used by visiting school children.
The proposed move was met with widespread condemnation, with some critics labelling it as “religious apartheid”.
Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, a former head of free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs and a Liberal Party member, said the decision was “ill-considered” and would “segregate people on the basis of what they’re wearing”.
“I think [it] is utterly unjustified and is based on no real evidence or reason when people have already gone through security checkpoints and have already been cleared by security,” he told Sky News.
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie likened the rule to “religious apartheid” and said it was “deeply wrong”.
Muslim Women’s Association chief executive Maha Abdo said a ban on burkas would make some women afraid to leave their homes.
“We are pushing them back into their homes, we’re pushing them away from society that we want them to be part of,” she said.
She said attacks against women wearing Islamic clothing in Australia were increasing and that the decisions of Muslim women around their dress should be respected.
“If it is, what they’re saying, a security threat, explain to us what it is and I’m sure we can work together on that.”
Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane welcomed the Prime Minister’s intervention.
No one should be treated like a second-class citizen, not least in their own parliament
— Tim Soutphommasane (@timsout) October 2, 2014
“I saw no good reason to be putting Muslim women in burkas or niqabs in a designated glassed area,” he said.
“People were genuinely worried that this was going to set a dangerous precedent.
“Once you set off a particular part of public space and say that is where people of a certain background should sit, it can only be a matter of time before others start suggesting that perhaps we should consider parts of our buses or trains, our cafes or restaurants to be set aside for people with a certain background as well.
“That would be a dangerous development.”
Security guards will require visitors to show photo ID and anyone with a face covering will have to take it off to allow their identity to be verified.
A full review of Parliament House pass policy is underway.
– with AAP/ABC