The comments made by Justice Stephen Rothman reported in this week’s edition of the Catholic Weekly raises serious questions about whether the inquiry he is leading is simply moving towards a pre-determined outcome.
Justice Rothman was appointed as a part-time commissioner for the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) in November 2022 and is heading up its inquiry into religious educational institutions and anti-discrimination laws.
The consultation paper for the inquiry, released at the end of January, proposed such dramatic changes to employment and teaching that it would have made religious schools almost indistinguishable from state schools.
One of the ALRC’s proposals was that schools would no longer be able to preference teachers of the same faith for employment unless they were for senior leadership roles or to teach religious education. Additionally, while a school could require a religious education teacher to teach religious doctrine, the school could not prevent them from teaching ‘alternate’ views.
Yet proposals like this instance, which are littered throughout the consultation paper, would have the effect of undermining the nature and ethos of religious schools.
Given the gravity of the proposals, religious leaders from across the country united in one voice to raise their concerns about whether a process based on such flawed proposals could be trusted to yield a fair result. It was a significant intervention, not only because it united Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Adventists, Jews, Muslims and more, but the signatories to the letter likely represented close to 90 per cent of all religious schools in the country.
Two organisations which did not sign the letter, Christian Schools Australia and the Australian Association of Christian Schools, wrote separately to Justice Rothman to advise him that they would not participate in the process at all because they had no confidence in it. Collectively, those organisations represent schools that educate around 150,000 students.
“After all, what hope do the 2000 or more people who completed the inquiry survey and the 150 or more who took the time to make written submissions have that their voices will be heard if the united voice of Australia’s most prominent religious leaders has ‘very little impact’?”
One would think that if you were heading up an inquiry into religious schools and you received letters like that, you would stop dead in your tracks.
“[The letter] had very little impact upon my thinking,” Justice Rothman told the Catholic Weekly.
That response is shocking.
If a consensus position of ‘no confidence in the process’ came from the overwhelming majority of those running religious schools but does not affect the thinking of the person charged with running an inquiry into those schools, why have the inquiry at all? Why give the veneer of consultation if those who will be most affected will be ignored? Why open up the inquiry process for public submissions? After all, what hope do the 2000 or more people who completed the inquiry survey and the 150 or more who took the time to make written submissions have that their voices will be heard if the united voice of Australia’s most prominent religious leaders has ‘very little impact’? Why not just save everyone the time and effort?
After all, there is a precedent for ignoring public submissions on matters of religious freedom.
Consider the review conducted by the Expert Panel on Religious Freedom, commonly known as the Ruddock Review, which occurred after the legalisation of same-sex marriage. That review received more than 15,000 submissions from the public and offered recommendations that would protect the nature and ethos of religious schools now threatened by the ALRC inquiry. Those recommendations – leaked to the media at the politically inconvenient time of the Wentworth byelection – were never implemented. The 15,000—plus submissions became redundant, and more and more inquiries commissioned until the ‘correct’ recommendations would be made.
What is the lesson for us in all of this?
The submissions to the ALRC inquiry are now closed and its final report is due to the Attorney-General on 21 April this year.
It may seem that there is nothing we can do to make our voices heard in the interim, but this is not the case. Whatever the ALRC recommends, the decision on whether or not to act on its recommendations will come from federal parliament. So, if you haven’t done so already, contact your local, federal member of parliament and tell them that you want religious schools to be protected. Also reach out to the Minister for Education, Jason Clare ([email protected]) and let him know the same. Let’s join our voices to those of our bishops, and perhaps they won’t be dismissed as easily next time around.