Labor policy platform sends mixed signals on religious schools’ exemptions

Si Gladman / 24 March 2021

In speeches to parliament in late 2018, federal Labor members appeared just as surprised and angered as the public upon realising that religious schools could, through exemptions to anti-discrimination laws, expel students for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Senators Penny Wong, Kristina Keneally and Jenny McAllister all said it was time for the exemptions to go.

Despite taking such a strident stance to protect LGBT students – which had followed a public outcry in the media after the leaked Ruddock Review recommended religious schools maintain such powers – questions remain about Labor’s commitment to the policy position.

In the lead-up to Labor’s Special Platform Conference on 30-31 March, alterations made to the wording of a key paragraph of the party’s policy platform raise the prospect that an Albanese government would permit some schools to discriminate against LGTBIQ students in enrolment practices.

In the Consultation Draft released last year, paragraph 31 in the section on ‘Equal rights for LGBTIQ Australians’ pledged that Labor would ensure “schools are welcoming and supportive environments for all students and teachers, regardless of their gender identity and sexuality”. But in the Final Draft, the same section removed reference to “regardless of their gender identity and sexuality”.

The same section of the Consultation Draft also said Labor would “support programs that promote understanding, tolerance and respect for every student”. However, the corresponding sentence in the Final Draft refers to “initiatives” instead of “programs” and finishes with the qualifier “as selected by schools” (emphasis added).

Elsewhere, the Final Draft promises to “strengthen laws and expand initiatives against discrimination” on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Rationalist Society of Australia is urging Labor to use the policy conference to make clear to voters its position on exemptions for religious schools.

In 2018, the public outcry drew cross-party support for an end to discriminatory treatment of LGBTIQ students, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison promising to act with urgency before the end of that year and with Labor and The Greens introducing separate bills.  

Since then, however, the Morrison government has referred the issue to the Australian Law Reform Commission for review and has twice delayed the body’s reporting deadline. 

As it currently stands, the reporting deadline is set for 12 months from the date that the Religious Discrimination Bill passes the parliament. But that legislation is yet to be tabled after two exposure drafts were roundly criticised by legal experts, religious groups, human rights bodies and a wide range of community organisations, including the Rationalist Society.

As analyst Alastair Lawrie has noted, the new timetable could mean the government’s original 2018 promise to remove religious exemptions may not take effect until 2024, assuming the government were re-elected at the upcoming election. 

With the federal election now on the horizon, the ALP has an opportunity to make an unequivocal statement on religious exemptions for schools. At the Rationalist Society, we think Labor would be wise to take that opportunity at next week’s conference.

Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au.

All the more reason.