I’m proud to rise to speak on this Greens bill, the Discrimination Free Schools Bill, which would remove exemptions from our federal anti-discrimination laws that currently allow religious schools to expel lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or gender-diverse students and to fire LGBT teachers and staff members simply because of who they are. The Greens have been fighting for years to end these exemptions. They were written into our anti-discrimination laws by the Labor Party and have persisted for far too long. These exemptions must be removed.
Imagine being a student at a religious school and knowing that, if you come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gender-diverse or non-binary, you risk being expelled. Imagine the extra stress and burden that that places on you at a time when you’re already feeling particularly vulnerable. The majority of Australians have been unaware of these discriminatory exemptions, but for LGBT+ people working at religious schools, many of them have gone to work each day knowing that, should they come out or let slip something that they shouldn’t, or somehow have their sexuality or their gender identity discovered, they risk being fired and losing their job—just because of who they are. These exemptions have a devastating impact on people’s lives.
Over the past week, so many people have come forward sharing their stories. We’ve heard how some teachers and staff members have been forced back into the closet as soon as they’ve been offered a job.
We’ve heard how they’ve feared holding their partner’s hand in public in case they bump into a colleague or a student who could out them, which would see them lose their job and their livelihood. We also know that LGBT+ people already suffer worse mental health than their heterosexual and cisgendered peers, because of the stress of things like these exemptions, which mean they could be expelled from their school or fired from their workplace.
Rainbow Families Victoria have collected stories of LGBT+ families whose lives are being affected by our current discriminatory laws and have shared them with members and senators. A future stepmother of five children, who’s engaged to her same-sex partner, spoke out this week saying:
I teach at a conservative Catholic primary school. I am constantly afraid that someone will find out and that I will lose my job. I am the main income earner and my employment is incredibly important. I worry that I will lose my job. I worry that my employer won’t give me a good reference if she finds out. This could affect my future employment opportunities. I feel like a criminal and I have done nothing wrong.
For others, these discriminatory exemptions have prevented them from applying for their dream jobs. Tim Hoffmann in my home state of Victoria shared his story with The Age earlier this week:
I have a Masters in Theology and want to teach in religious schools. However, I will never apply. I have absolutely no chance as, though I’m Christian, I am an openly gay man.
It was almost a year ago that the marriage equality postal survey results came in showing that the majority of Australians supported ending the discrimination in our marriage laws and making marriage equality a reality. It was a hard-fought and, for many queer Australians, personally difficult win but it confirmed what we had known for years—that Australian people have opened their hearts and truly embraced their LGBTIQ+ family members, friends and colleagues. For years now the majority of Australians have stood side-by-side with LGBTIQ members of our community in our fight for equality and against discrimination, and on this issue it is no different. A Fairfax poll released this week showed that an overwhelming majority, 74 per cent, of Australians oppose this discrimination. I am so heartened and unsurprised that the vast majority of Australians do not support this legalised discrimination against LGBT Australians.
Our parliament must support the people we represent and fix up these discriminatory laws. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ordered the Ruddock religious freedom review last year as parliament moved to legislate for marriage equality. It was said that he did this as a sop to the right-wing hate-filled conservatives who continue to fight against equality until the very end, but it now seems the Ruddock review has not quite turned out the way they thought. It’s only through the review’s recommendations being leaked that the Australian people have been alerted to these discriminatory exemptions that have sat within our antidiscrimination laws for many years.
This Saturday, voters in the seat of Wentworth will be going to the polls to elect their new representative to replace former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Despite the Liberals comfortably winning this seat in 2016 there is a very real chance the Liberals will lose Wentworth this Saturday, because the people of Wentworth are shocked by what this Liberal government has done—its devastating inaction on climate change, its ongoing torture of people seeking asylum and its interference with and funding cuts to the ABC. In the Liberals’ desperation to cling on in Wentworth we’ve seen them release some shocking policies in the lead-up to this Saturday, yet we are still to see Prime Minister Scott Morrison release the full report of the Ruddock review, because the Liberals are afraid of drawing more attention to their awful policies towards LGBTIQ people. Ruddock is a former Liberal government minister after all. His review quite reasonably can be seen as a reflection of where this government is currently at with regard to allowing and entrenching discrimination.
We have now heard both Labor and the Liberals speak up big over the last week about how we need to make sure that LGBT students are not discriminated against. I was pleased to hear from Minister Cormann that he is now going to move quickly to amend legislation to stop the discrimination against LGBT students. It has been wonderful to see this backflip in the Liberals’ position. It has also been wonderful to see the Labor Party come out to say that their position now is to end discrimination against students and to end discrimination against teachers and other staff. But it has only been because of the intense community pressure that both the Labor and the Liberal parties have changed their positions over the last fortnight.
So, us bringing on this debate today is a very important opportunity. It’s an opportunity to get the government and the Labor opposition on the record about ending this discrimination before the pressure comes off after the vote in Wentworth on Saturday. We heard Minister Cormann say that, yes, he was happy. The government are going to move to end discrimination against students. But when it comes to teachers and other staff, he is silent. Despite the impact that this discrimination is having on teachers and staff at schools, the government remain silent. One can only presume that their intention is to continue to prosecute the case for allowing those discriminations to continue on in our antidiscrimination laws, to allow the continuation of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teachers and other staff.
We’ve got the Wentworth by-election coming up, and it’s important that the voters of Wentworth know, because they overwhelmingly voted for equality and against discrimination in the marriage equality postal survey last year. Wentworth delivered an 81 per cent yes vote in the postal survey last year. So they deserve to know. Through this debate, they are able to hear where Labor and the Liberals stand before Wentworth goes to the polls this Saturday.
I’m really proud of the bill that we are debating today. It would remove exemptions not just for students at religious schools but for all teachers and staff members as well. And it would not just work to protect students, teachers and staff members on the basis of their sexuality and their sexual orientation but also on their gender identity. Trans and gender diverse people have hardly been mentioned in the public debate over the last fortnight. We must ensure that trans and gender diverse students cannot be expelled because of their gender identity and that trans and gender diverse teachers and other staff members aren’t able to be fired.
Yesterday Prime Minister Morrison said, and I quote: ‘We must act right now. We can deal with this once and for all.’ Well, Mr Prime Minister, you have an opportunity to act right now and remove this unfair discrimination once and for all. To do act now and particularly once and for all means we’ve got to remove discrimination against students but also against teachers and other staff. We need to do it now. Labor and Liberal must turn their words into action and vote for this bill, vote for our Greens bill, to protect students, teachers and other staff members from being expelled or fired by religious schools just because of who they are. So I call on both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to work with us in good faith and support this Greens bill today—no ifs, no buts. Together, we can end this unfair discrimination once and for all.