ABC Religion and Ethics originally published this piece, where a member of our team, Rita Jabri Markwell, argued that while the protections provided by the Religious Discrimination Bill should pass Parliament, the “Christchurch amendment” must be carried with it.
The Bill’s debate dominated media headlines, but following the publication of this piece, the Government took it off the agenda. Federal Labor responded by promising to introduce legislation should it succeed in the upcoming election.
You can read the piece, which appeared on the ABC Religion & Ethics website, below.
In my work as an advocate, I have supported fellow Australian Muslims who have experienced the profound humiliation of discrimination. I have witnessed firsthand the lingering ways it demeans and debilitates a person — especially where there is no legal recourse available to them. It is one thing to be told by those responsible that it’s “no big deal”, but for the law to say it is nothing is quite different.
For that reason, I have concerns about any attempts to “override” discrimination law, including in the Religious Discrimination Bill as it currently stands. But the Bill should not be scrapped, as its opponents argue.
Religious discrimination cases are not what many people imagine. They rarely involve high-profile rugby players or high-ranking clergy. Instead, one encounters stories of people who were already vulnerable: a refugee who survived war and state violence, only then to confront bullying in her workplace; a single mother; an insecure worker; someone who is struggling to survive with their family overseas.
Opposition to the Religious Discrimination Bill has been well organised and ferocious — including on the part of many who work in social justice, human rights, and culturally diverse organisations. How can we, as Muslim community advocates who labour at the frontlines of the struggle against Islamophobia and racism, have confidence in organisations that claim to understand and accept the dangers of religious discrimination but have no stake in passing the legislation? Whose only mode is to tear down, not build up? If the Bill disappears, so will the advocates, and the affected communities will be left to bear the brunt of the harm.
I contend that every effort must be made to repair and pass the Religious Discrimination Bill. A good place to start is with an issue that goes to the heart of religious freedom. In its current form, the Bill prohibits people of faith from vilifying others but offers no shield in return.
Earlier this week, the Australian Muslim Advocacy Network (AMAN) and the Australian National Imams Council (ANIC) approached members of the federal government, opposition, and cross-benches again with the wording for an amendment, now known as the “Christchurch amendment”. The amendment would fill a gap in the Bill by banning the incitement of hatred against persons on the ground of their religious belief or activity.
The Christchurch amendment:
- mirrored the threshold used by the government in the proposed legislation, which draws the line at inciting hatred, harassing, threatening, and intimidating;
- included exceptions and safeguards for freedom of expression drawn from existing state law;
- squarely focused on preventing the endangerment of people, and therefore proposes a higher threshold than that in section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act; and
- distinguished between criticism or slander of religion and the vilification of people — hence, it cannot operate in a manner akin to past blasphemy laws.
We chose that name (the “Christchurch amendment”) in the hope that doing so would explain its purpose clearly, and without the pages of evidence we have submitted to various inquiries.
Australia has never seriously reckoned with the fact that the seeds of the atrocity committed against Muslim worshippers in Christchurch were cultivated on Australian soil, in movements that routinely dehumanise and demean religious minorities.
The Christchurch amendment could be a rallying point, a call for unity in the hands of a confident and courageous political leader. There are, after all, few examples that are as compelling and persuasive as the Christchurch massacre to help explain the sanctity of religious freedom to non-religious people — in this case, the simple ability to bow down and pray in a place of worship without fear of being shot.
Along with other advocates from the Australian Muslim community, I have tried to remind those participating either in the debate over the Religious Discrimination Bill or in its development, that research had already sounded the alarm over the prevalence of online hate groups in Australia the year before Brenton Tarrant murdered 51 worshippers in Christchurch. We have born witness to the hate crimes committed outside our mosques and against our people, including a 38-week pregnant fellow Lebanese Muslim woman in Sydney. We have drawn attention to two reports prepared by the Scanlon Foundation which revealed exceptionally high levels of distrust towards Australian Muslims compared to other faiths, and to a comprehensive report released by Australia’s peak human rights body on the trauma experienced by the Australian Muslim community in the aftermath of Christchurch. More than 160 organisations involved with the Australian Muslim community banded together to request vilification protections in the first and second consultations of the Religious Discrimination Bill. Not once did legislators consider the merits of our proposed amendments, until today.
Federal Labor has announced it would insist on amendments in the Senate, including an amendment that gives effect to our Christchurch amendment. Now the fate of the amendment, and the Bill, rests in the hands of the Senate.
It is disappointing that government members voted against Labor’s amendment in the House of Representatives. During the all-night debate, 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 said it was about: “I want people of faith and people of no faith to be able to live out their chosen beliefs and to safely navigate the contour of their lives as they see fit”. Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said Labor’s proposal was “complex” and required careful consideration to balance competing rights. He attempted to distract from a glaring double standard that comes at the expense of people of faith. The fact is, the Bill already articulates the standard. It should apply both ways for the sake of consistency and fairness.
In the Senate resides more hope. Although some opponents of the Bill want it completely scrapped, Labor has opted wisely for repair by the amendment route. This is very difficult legislation and unfortunately there will always be a struggle to balance powerful and competing human rights. Some might say that the greatest errors were made a long time ago when Australia didn’t go down the road of legislating a federal Charter of Human Rights, and consolidated anti-discrimination legislation, which would allow a more holistic process.
What most opponents of the Religious Discrimination Bill miss is the sheer significance of the fact that the Bill is currently before parliament. This represents the first real attempt we have seen to provide essential protections in many years. Some communities need those protections urgently. The Bill’s protections must pass parliament, but to show the Australian electorate that this Bill is true to its spirit, the Christchurch amendment must be carried with it.