The coalition government’s religious freedom laws have passed the first legislative hurdle after Labor secured changes before backing the bill in the lower house.
The religious discrimination bill passed in the early hours of Thursday morning by 90 votes to six, following a mammoth debate in the House of Representatives which heard objections by Liberal moderates and amendment proposals by independent MPs.
But in a blow to the federal government, the opposition and crossbench was ultimately successful in amending a controversial clause of the Sex Discrimination Act allowing religious schools to discriminate on grounds including sexuality and gender identity.
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The amendments will prohibit vilification of and discrimination against children based on sexuality and gender identity.
Labor Leader Anthony Albanese said a major issue had been addressed.
“And that is a very, very good thing,” he told the Nine Network on Thursday morning.
“We’re claiming credit for the amendments that were carried. We fought very hard.”
Mr Albanese said Labor wants further amendments to the bill and “we will pursue those in the Senate.”
Liberal MPs Trent Zimmerman, Bridget Archer, Fiona Martin, Katie Allen and Dave Sharma voted against the government to amend the bill, with the vote landing 65-59.
Mr Zimmerman had earlier said he would not stand by and make life for transgender people more difficult.
Labor also proposed amendments to ensure 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.
But the government did not agree.
“We support people’s right to practise their faith free from discrimination,” Mr Albanese said.
“But this should not remove protections that already exist to protect against other forms of discrimination.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison had on Wednesday he “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 that Labor agreed to, including that – other than the statement of belief clause – the bill will not override existing laws.
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.
With the statement of belief amendment vote tied at 62-62, Speaker Andrew Wallace’s intervention meant the vote was lost.
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 – did not match what the prime minister had said it was about.
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said the government does not condone vilification or hate speech but Labor’s anti-vilification proposal was “complex” and required careful consideration to balance competing rights.
He said the proposed provisions would create further inconsistencies and confusion between Commonwealth, state and territory laws.
The coalition party room 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”.
Equality Australia, which represents LGBTIQ+ Australians, called on the Senate to now do its job.
“The responsibility now sits with the Senate to ensure the Religious Discrimination Bill does not take us backwards and to ensure that the amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act that protect students are passed,” CEO Anna Brown said on Thursday.
© AAP 2022