The Australian: Secular Australians ‘need to be heard’ on religion bill

This article appeared in The Australian on 25 November 2019.

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by Geoff Chambers, Federal Political Correspondent

National Secular Lobby ambassadors Julian Burnside and Jane Caro have accused Christian Porter of giving preferential treatment to faith-based groups, ahead of the government’s religious discrimination bill being tabled in parliament next week.

Joining a National Secular Lobby assault on government consultation over its religious freedoms overhaul, Mr Burnside and Ms Caro said secular Australians should have their voices heard.

Mr Burnside, a prominent QC who ran for the Greens against Josh Frydenberg at this year’s election, said “our constitutional system is based on separation of church and state”.

The lobby will raise concerns on Monday that the government had favoured “Christianity and ­religious interest groups”, saying Freedom for Faith was promoting its access to the Prime Minister and Mr Porter.

“The idea that an explicitly ­religious group (Freedom For Faith, the “Christian legal think tank”) has had special access to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Attorney-General Christian Porter, in connection with the ­religious discrimination bill, suggests that our system is not operating the way it was designed,” Mr Burnside said. “Presumably even Morrison and Porter do not want to see Australia become a religious autocracy.”

Caro described as outrageous that “secular Australians and those with no religious faith have not been equally consulted by our PM about the proposed bill”.

“These are the very people whose freedom is likely to be negatively affected if those with faith are given special and privileged protections under the law,” the author said. “If the PM governs for all of us, as he claims, then he needs to listen to all of us.”

In his speech at the National Press Club last week, Mr Porter said that since releasing the draft religious discrimination bill on August 29, he had personally consulted in “two-hour sessions with over 90 different stakeholders”.

A spokesman for Mr Porter said the draft bill had been the “subject of extensive consultation with people expressing a variety of views”. He said there had been ­extensive consultation with “secular groups, religious groups of a very broad variety of faiths, atheists, LGBTIQ groups, human rights groups, unions and they ­included the Rationalist Society of Australia”.

“The roundtables were by invitation but essentially any group which wanted to attend got an ­invitation. NSL were not in the primary list but equally the NSL never reached out for further discussion after putting in a written submission and if they’d expressed any interest in attending one of the consultation sessions we would have accommodated,” the spokesman said.

Mr Porter’s spokesman said the Senate process would “inevitably include an inquiry on the bill, which will provide all stakeholders a chance to express their views”.

Lobby president Peter Monk said religious groups were consistently handed “special treatment”.

Mr Monk said Mr Morrison and Mr Porter should “explain their cosy relationship ‘behind closed doors’ with groups such as Freedom for Faith and assure the public that faith-based groups are not getting any special treatment”.

“This bill is simply faith-based legislation to appease religious conservatives still enraged by same-sex marriage. Yet 78 per cent of citizens want the separation of church and state,” Mr Monk said.

“This bill purports to protect non-believers but it provides ­exemptions and privileges only for faith-based institutions.

These are the very groups most likely to discriminate against those of other faiths, or no faith at all.”

Freedom for Faith executive director Michael Kellahan declined to comment.