Elements within federal Labor are seeking a bipartisan approach with the Morrison government on the Religious Discrimination Bill.
Senator Deborah O’Neill, a devout Catholic who has been campaigning for Labor to boost its appeal with voters from faith communities, used Senate Estimates last week to push for bipartisanship.
In an exchange with Senator Amanda Stoker, who said the Religious Discrimination Bill had become a “more pressing” priority for the government, Senator O’Neill expressed her eagerness for both major parties to work together on bringing legislation to the parliament.
Labor has not announced whether it would support the Religious Discrimination Bill in its current form, which has been described by the #DontDivideUs campaign – backed by the Rationalist Society of Australia, plus other pro-secular groups – as providing a sword, instead of a shield, for religious groups.
A belief formed among sections of the party after its 2019 election loss that it had to do more to win the support of religious voters.
However, soon-to-be-published research by the Rationalist Society of Australia shows there is no ‘religious vote’ and the views of people of faith on policy issues differ greatly from those of church leadership and religious lobby groups.
Senator Stoker told the Estimates hearing that she was hopeful for a bipartisan approach in helping to bring the bill to parliament for debate.
“It is an important issue that goes to the fundamental rights of Australians to be able to think as they wish and live according to their own beliefs, and I think that’s something that deserves some bipartisan outreach,” she said.
Senator O’Neill responded: “We look forward to seeing that happen in the near term, I hope.”
Since the election defeat, Senator O’Neill has made it her mission to reunite the party with the faithful.
At times, however, she has used alarming language to describe a struggle between religious and non-religious forces in society. In October 2019, she told the media that an “ascendancy of language around secularity” was creating division and trying to silence the perspectives of people of faith. Earlier this year, she wrote in the Catholic Weekly that a divide was “emerging between Australians of faith and Australians of no faith” and raising the prospect of “battles” and “impending casualties”.
At the Estimates hearing, Senator Stoker revealed that she had already been working closely with Senator O’Neill behind the scenes.
“You and I quite often discuss this and try to find ways in which we can work together to make sure that we get a result that meets the needs of all Australians, religious or not,” said Senator Stoker.
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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