The Morrison government appears to be discriminating against non-religious Australians by excluding them from the consultation process as part of re-drafting the Religious Discrimination Bill, says the Rationalist Society of Australia.
While the Attorney-General Michaelia Cash and her staff have been holding meetings with a number of religious groups throughout the year, the RSA understands that non-religious and pro-secular groups have been largely ignored.
When questioned by Greens Senator Janet Rice at Senate estimates on Tuesday night, the Attorney-General said she had been consulting “far and wide” with community stakeholders on the third draft of the bill.
However, the Attorney-General did not provide any detail of whom the government had been meeting with.
“I’ve been negotiating with stakeholders across the board. I would take on notice whether or not they want their names provided… With all due respect to them, some actually don’t want their name provided,” she said.
Despite being asked multiple times at Senate Estimates hearings throughout the year, the Attorney-General has not provided details of whom the government has been holding meetings with about the bill.
In seeking to prohibit “discrimination on the ground of religious belief or activity in key areas of public life”, the proposed bill is intended to also capture beliefs defined by reference to a lack of religious belief, such as atheism and agnosticism.
Yet, the RSA has not received a response to our request in early June for a meeting with the Attorney-General. Plus, a number of other non-religious and pro-secular groups have confirmed that they have not been consulted on the bill, while one organisation said it had secured a phone call with an advisor.
Christian lobbyists have, however, detailed their extensive access to government decision-makers.
In an interview on Christian radio last Monday – which has since been removed from the internet – Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) head Martyn Iles said that, in recent weeks, his group had been part of a coalition of faith leaders “negotiating very closely with the Attorney-General and with the Prime Minister’s office.”
In June, the ACL, in an email to its supporters, said it had joined the Catholic Bishops Conference, Presbyterian Church of Australia and Sydney Anglican Diocese in meeting “dozens” of government leaders and advisers. Also, it was reported that the Attorney-General held meetings with Christian legal think tank Freedom for Faith.
In the interview with Vision Christian Radio last week, Iles boasted that he had been successful in having the controversial ‘Folau clause’ re-inserted into the bill to protect statements of belief made in the name of religion.
At the Senate Estimates hearing on Tuesday, however, the Attorney-General rejected that claim: “That will be a decision for cabinet, and I can’t pre-empt a decision of cabinet.”
RSA president Meredith Doig said she was concerned that the views of Australia’s fastest-growing section of society, the non-religious, were being ignored in the drafting of the revised bill.
“By excluding us from this process and providing privileged access to religious leaders and lobbyists, it appears that the government is discriminating against non-religious people on religious grounds,” she said.
“We welcome the inclusion of the absence of religious belief as part of the protected attribute, but without stronger protections for freedom from religion this bill will end up being, in effect, a sword to attack the increasing number of Australians who are non-religious and who live their lives in ways some religionists object to.
“The Morrison government should treat non-religious Australians with equal respect.”
Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman
Photo by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Flickr, CC)