In 2023, the Australian government is due to report to the Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) about how we’re going at ending discrimination against women and girls in Australia.
Australia’s last appearance before the Committee was a bit torrid by UN standards, with the Government delegation grilled about conditions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and female refugees. Oh, and the fact that our report was a couple of years late. Oops.
Imagine how excited the next delegation is going to be to go before the Committee in 2023 and report that Australia has actually removed some protections against discrimination for women since the last report. I pity the poor public servant who has to head that delegation.
The cause of the problem is the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021. This Bill is supposed to be providing protection for vulnerable people who face discrimination because of their religious beliefs, which sounds like an excellent idea. After all, it’s been 40 years since we signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which sets out the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, so it might be a good idea for us to finally grant that right to people in Australia.
Under the ICCPR, people have an absolute right to believe what they want to, and a more limited right to express that belief out in the world. Your right to manifest your belief can be limited if your religious speech or practices would affect the community’s safety or security or would impact on the rights of others.
Unfortunately, the Bill turns this on its head, by protecting religious speech, even if it results in discrimination against people on the basis of their gender, sexuality, marital status, age, disability or race. A statement which today is unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act, will be perfectly acceptable under this Bill, as long as the person says that it is their ‘religious belief’ and doesn’t threaten, harass, intimidate or vilify. Blandly expressed but deeply damaging statements like ‘women weren’t designed by God to be leaders’ or ‘homosexuality is a sin’ or ‘people with disability are being punished by God’ will be protected, even if they’re being made in a workplace or a school.
One of the other problems with the Bill is that it undermines the entire concept of individual human rights firstly by setting up a hierarchy of rights and secondly by effectively giving human rights to companies, as well as to humans. Read this convoluted Bill carefully enough, and it becomes clear that the entities emerging with the least restricted rights are certain religious service providers (aged care, schools, childcare, hospitals etc), which are permitted to discriminate against anyone in the course of employment if the discrimination produces a result which is consistent with their stated beliefs.
At the next step down are individuals holding religious beliefs, who are protected against direct and indirect discrimination provided they express their views politely and don’t advocate actual harm to anyone. ‘Religion’ is not defined and religious belief is essentially defined as ‘something someone genuinely believes is a religious belief’, which is both circular and almost impossible to disprove.
At the bottom of the heap are people who are the target of those beliefs, such as the woman who would like to apply for a leadership role in her workplace but who has a manager who says that women should be subservient to men. The man who is afraid to put a photo of his husband on his desk because his co-worker expresses the view that homosexuality is a sin. And most worryingly, the woman who has just left her violent husband, but whose landlord (who holds a key to the flat) believes that marriage is for life and men have rights to their wives.
The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion was drafted for inclusion in the ICCPR in the immediate aftermath of the atrocities of the holocaust. Even in that critical historical period, with the appalling effects of mass religious persecution at the forefront of everyone’s minds, the drafters accepted that the freedom to manifest beliefs would have to have some boundaries. Building a safe and respectful multicultural society starts with a recognition that everyone has needs and rights and that those needs and rights must be balanced in a mature and empathic way.
We need a better Bill – one which allows us to consider the relative damage caused to individuals and to balance competing rights in a fair manner. Winding back critical protections for women, girls and other vulnerable people is not the answer.