A Labor senator has accused the Morrison government of a ‘cover-up’ for failing to disclose details of the groups it has been consulting with on the development of the new Religious Discrimination Bill since late last year.
In a Senate Estimates hearing last week, Senator Deborah O’Neill – who supports the government’s intention to legislate for expanded religious freedoms – questioned why the government had not provided full responses to her previous questions that were ‘taken on notice’.
At Estimates in late March, Senator Amanda Stoker, in her role as an assistant to the Attorney General, promised to provide on notice the details of who she and former Attorney General Christian Porter had been consulting with.
Senator O’Neill wanted to know who the government had been consulting with since Senator Stoker stepped into the assistant’s role in October.
In March this year, Senator Stoker said she had held “a number of meetings… and teleconferences” with “people who wish to be heard on this matter”.
“There are just too many for me to be able to recount dates and times at this point in time,” she said.
In mid May, the Attorney General’s Department responded to the questions on notice by saying that two rounds of public submissions had been undertaken on the first two drafts of the legislation.
However, those consultation periods occurred well before Senator Stoker began in her new role – a point that Senator O’Neill made clear at last week’s Estimates hearing, where Michaelia Cash took questions on the Religious Discrimination Bill for the first time as the new Attorney General.
Senator Cash suggested there was some confusion on what Senator O’Neill’s original questions had been compared to the answers provided, but promised to take on notice the details of Senator Stoker’s meetings.
“There’s no confusion; there’s a cover-up. There’s a big difference,” said Senator O’Neill.
“I want to know who she met with and when she met with them, because, on the face of it, with this response it looks to me like Senator Stoker misled this committee.”
Senator Cash told the Estimates hearing that the government was continuing consultations on the third draft of the bill.
Earlier this year, a government backbencher revealed that a ‘compromise bill’ had been developed and was ready to be introduced to the parliament.
But Senator Cash said the process of bringing the bill to the parliament could not be rushed.
“We continue to work through the submissions. There has been a lot of feedback provided. It is important that we strike the right balance,” she said.
“We need to bring to the parliament a bill that appropriately meets the needs of Australia’s communities. This process cannot be rushed. There are differing opinions, as you well know. You have an opinion on one side of the debate. There are people with opinions on the other side of the debate.”
The Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) supports a law protecting people from discrimination on the ground of religious belief or non-belief, but opposes giving religious people a licence to discriminate against others.
The RSA has joined with a number of other pro-secular community groups in supporting the #DontDivideUs campaign against the Religious Discrimination Bill. You can support the campaign here.
Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman