Following an emotional 11-hour debate, the Morrison government’s religious discrimination bill has passed its first legislative hurdle.
Labor agreed to back the laws in the lower house while pushing for changes, before the bill passed 90-6 just before 4am Thursday.
Liberal MPs Trent Zimmerman, Bridget Archer, Fiona Martin, Katie Allen and David Sharma all crossed the floor in support of Labor’s amendment.
The legislation is a package of three bills that seek to prohibit discrimination on the basis of a person’s religious views or beliefs in education, employment or business.
But the focus of the proposed legislation has instead been on the potential clash between the exercise of religious freedom and individual liberties, particularly those of children at independent schools to be free from discrimination on the basis of their gender or sexuality.
“I cannot stand by and do anything that makes their lives more difficult,” said Sydney MP Trent Zimmerman, who was visibly emotional as he waved a rainbow flag.
He said said he could not support any reform which “sends anything other than a message from this parliament, which most receive in their schools but sadly some don’t, that we want to embrace you, we want to love you, we want to support you, we want to nurture you”.
Labor had sought amendments including prohibiting vilification of, and discrimination against, children based on sexuality and gender identity.
Other proposed opposition amendments clarified a key pillar of the laws – a “statement of belief” clause designed by the government to shield people expressing religious beliefs even if they’re offensive – did not override existing discrimination protections.
The government did not agree to any of Labor’s proposed amendments.
“We support people’s right to practise their faith free from discrimination,” Labor leader Anthony Albanese said.
“But this should not remove protections that already exist to protect against other forms of discrimination.”
In the final speech of the night Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he had “earnestly hoped” the bill would unite the parliament.
“Let me be very clear tonight – with the bill and the position taken by the government – that we reach out with nothing other than love, care, compassion and support to every child regardless of their sexual orientation or their gender identity,” he said.
The government made some small amendments which Labor agreed to, including that – other than the statement of belief clause – the bill will not override existing laws.
But moderate Liberals Mr Zimmerman and Ms Archer voted with Labor because the government would not agree to amend the bill to clarify the statement of belief clause.
Ms Archer also voted with Labor after the government did not amend the bill to outlaw vilification of people of faith.
Labor frontbencher Tony Burke questioned what the debate had been about if the government did not want legal protection against people being harassed, intimidated, threatened or vilified because of their faith.
He said the bill – without the amendment to prohibit vilification – does not match what the prime minister has said the bill is about.
The coalition partyroom earlier this week agreed to amendments to add a clause to the Sex Discrimination Act prohibiting the expulsion of students because of their sexuality.
But it refused to extend the same protections to transgender children.
Liberal MP Angie Bell, who previously had problems with the bill, backed the legislation in the end because it represented a “net gain for gay rights”.
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham wanted to see action to protect transgender students, but said it was complex and would have to wait.
“When it comes to the issue of gender identity, then on that front, there are other complex interplays when you’re dealing with, for example, same-sex schools and what rights they have,” he told the ABC.
Mr Morrison said the Australian Law Reform Commission would look at broader changes to s38 of the Sex Discrimination Act within six months of the bill becoming law.
Mr Albanese vowed Labor will insist its amendments are agreed to in the Senate.
Not just Liberal moderates concerned about reforms
More conservative members of the Coalition worried the spirit of the legislation was being watered down to an extent that it did little to protect the expression of religious conviction, which was coming at the expense of rights protections.
One of the party’s most influential religious conservatives, NSW premier and Catholic Dominic Perrotet had suggested on Wednesday that the bill was not likely to achieve its stated aims.
“I don’t believe legislation in this space is necessary,” he said.
“It can end up creating more problems than it’s attempting to solve.”
Labor’s own position on the issue was similarly fraught with significant concern within the caucus that if they had simply voted down, rather than amended, the bill they would face the prospect of a negative campaign aimed at religious voters.
A perception that Labor was not sensitive to the needs of religious communities was one of the key lessons for several MPs from the opposition’s loss at the 2019 election.
Mr Albanese was clear to note that the party opposed religious discrimination (another key point included in its amendments was a ban on vilification of people for their religious views).
“[But] I don’t support doing it at the expense of increasing discrimination against others,” Mr Albanese said.