Monica Doumit: What will it take to finally get action

More Yes-Ministerish than Yes Minister. With an election looming next year, the Ruddock Review appears too hot to handle. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
More Yes-Ministerish than Yes Minister. With an election looming next year, the Ruddock Review appears too hot to handle. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Absent a miracle, including the miracle of our politicians acquiring either a backbone or some common sense (or both), the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs will tomorrow table a report relating to religious freedom.

Specifically, the Committee will consider whether faith-based schools should retain the freedom to preference for employment or enrolment both staff and students who share the faith of the school, and do not contradict it by their words or conduct.

It will also make recommendations about whether faith-based schools should be forced to accept ideas of gender fluidity, and adjust their enrolment, uniform, bathroom and sex education policies accordingly.

In recent weeks, I’ve devoted a column each to the discussion of staff and students, and so I will not rehash those ideas here. Instead, I want to talk briefly about the ridiculousness of the situation in which people of faith now find themselves.

The Committee that will report on Monday was only given the matter on 13 November. The Senate has given the Committee two weeks to report back on the exemptions for faith-based educational institutions that allow them to “discriminate” against students, teachers and staff, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and other attributes covered by the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

Two weeks in which to call for and receive submissions, review them, hold public hearings and write and finalise the final report. Yep, that should do it.

The short amount of time given to this inquiry is an insult to religious leaders and to the many parents who make significant sacrifices in order to send their kids to faith-based schools, because they prioritise education in a Christian environment over other things.

Looking at the timeline for this process, it’s hard to imagine that those tasked with drafting the report and recommendations would wait until all submissions were received and public hearings held before writing it: they simply wouldn’t have the time. Instead, the two-week timeframe suggests that the Senate wants only to give the veneer of consultation on this matter, and to use this poor excuse for an inquiry as political cover to ram through changes to the Sex Discrimination Act before they get too busy with Christmas parties.

It’s not only an insult to religious leaders and parents of kids in faith-based schools; it’s an insult to our intelligence as well.

What’s more, this is the sixth inquiry into religious freedom to have occurred in the past three years.

The other five inquiries all came to the same conclusion: that the right to religious freedom is not adequately protected in this country. The most recent of the inquiries has been the Expert Panel on Religious Freedom, ie the “Ruddock Review,” which was called around this time last year. The Ruddock Review took six months and received more than 16,000 submissions, many of which were from people who sacrificed at least part of their Christmas breaks to raise their concerns.

Even at that time, the lack of political willpower to do anything meaningful to protect religious freedoms was obvious. As Mr Ruddock told a group of legal academics and others gathered at the University of Notre Dame’s Broadway campus, he expected that Parliament would tell him that they were not looking for “what can be done to have the best possible human rights protection anywhere in the world.” At least he was honest about it.

And so far, Mr Ruddock’s predictions have been correct. There have been no legislative changes made in response to his inquiry or the several that occurred before it, because the political courage just hasn’t been there.

Indeed, Mr Ruddock’s report still hasn’t been released, and it is now more than six months since it was handed to the government.

There’s always a by-election or leadership challenge or general election looming and, unfortunately, advocating for real religious freedom isn’t seen as a big vote winner.

But that’s where we come in.

Starting on Monday, when this latest report into religious freedom will be tabled in the Senate, there will be renewed debate about religious freedom, particularly as it relates to faith-based schools. It would be a good time for all of us – and especially those with children or grandchildren in Catholic schools – to remind our MPs and Senators that we want them to let Catholic schools be Catholic, and not have education bureaucrats or anti-discrimination commissioners tell us who we should hire and what we should teach in our schools.

Tempting as it is, we can’t stop at lamenting the lack of courage being displayed in our parliament. We have to give them some. Email or write to your MP – now.

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