Religious discrimination bill: moderate Liberals strike deal to protect gay students

·4 min read

The Morrison government has struck a deal with some moderate Liberal MPs to support its contentious religious discrimination bill, agreeing to make immediate changes to protect gay students from discrimination in religious schools.

But the proposed amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act, which were negotiated between Queensland MP Angie Bell and the attorney general, Michaelia Cash, may not be enough to win over all moderate MPs and see the bill pass through the lower house this week.

Liberal MP Warren Entsch has said he would not vote for the bill if the government forced a vote before a promised parliamentary inquiry was complete. The positions of north Sydney MP Trent Zimmerman and Bass MP Bridget Archer were also not clear.

However, Bell, along with Wentworth MP Dave Sharma, Higgins MP Katie Allen and Reid MP Fiona Martin, have all agreed to support the religious discrimination bill in the House of Representatives as a result of the concessions finalised on Wednesday.

Related: Inquiry into religious discrimination bill should not consider other exemptions, chair says

Under the change agreed to by Cash, the government will introduce consequential amendments to remove section 38.3 of the separate Sex Discrimination Act which allows religious schools to discriminate against another person on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy.

Bell, who is the member for the Queensland seat of Moncrieff, said she had argued for the change as she had “a duty of care to the children of my electors, in this case students who identify as part of a minority group”.

“No child should be rejected or be made to feel ashamed on these grounds by an educational institution. In Australia, every child has the right to access quality education so they can prepare for the real world,” Bell said on Wednesday.

“As the necessary amendments have been made to strengthen the rights of children in religious schools, I support the prime minister and the attorney general with passage of the religious discrimination bill and will vote in its favour.”

Sharma said that while he still had concerns about elements of the religious discrimination bill, particularly the statement of belief clauses, he would not block it in the lower house.

“Preventing the ability of religious schools to discriminate against students and teachers on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity remains of fundamental importance to me,” Sharma said.

“This amendment goes some way to addressing this concern, but further measures are needed and I will continue to push for these.”

Allen said she was pleased with the changes and believed “the right balance has been found.”

“The newly agreed amendments to the sex discrimination act to protect LGBTIQA+ children in schools is welcomed,” Higgins said. “This is a significant win for the safety of children in schools.”

Martin said the changes would address the “unintended consequences” of passing the bill without making amendments to the religious exemption clauses in the Sex Discrimination Act.

“Representing an electorate with a range of religious and culturally and linguistically diverse communities, I am supportive of the purpose and need for this Bill,” Martin said.

“However, most Australians would agree that religious exemptions that allow LGBTIQ+ children to be expelled is unacceptable and runs counter to our nation’s value of a ‘fair go’.”

Securing the support of the four moderates will not guarantee the government passage of the bill through the house, with others still reserving their right to cross the floor.

Labor is attempting to sidestep the religious discrimination stoush by reserving its position on the Morrison government bill until after a committee inquiry, but may wave it through the lower house if the government forces a vote.

On Friday, Morrison referred the bill to a joint human rights committee inquiry reporting on 4 February, despite previously calling for a Senate-only inquiry with no input from MPs.

Labor argues that having backed down from that position it would be highly unusual for the government to attempt to force a vote in the House of Representatives before the committee reports, and is seeking to enlist support from Liberal moderates to prevent it happening.

The Labor caucus agreed to reserve its final position until after an inquiry; pursue “procedural measures” to delay a vote; but, if forced, to “not oppose” the bill in the lower house.

Entsch told Guardian Australia he welcomed the change, but would not comment on whether it had changed his position.

“Of course any positive advancement is fantastic, but if I am going to deal with it I want to get an outcome and I don’t want to be chest-beating,” Entsch said.

If Entsch, Zimmerman and Archer are still prepared to cross the floor to vote against the bill passing the lower house, the government will be reliant on the votes of the crossbench or Labor to pass the bill this week.

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