The Five and the Furious

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Five rogue Liberal MPs have “blindsided” Prime Minister Scott Morrison by voting with Labor on the Religious Discrimination Bill. Photo: AAP, Lukas Coch
Five rogue Liberal MPs have “blindsided” Prime Minister Scott Morrison by voting with Labor on the Religious Discrimination Bill. Photo: AAP, Lukas Coch

Pain for PM as rogue Liberals split to sink Religious Discrimination Bill

Five rogue Liberal MPs have “blindsided” Prime Minister Scott Morrison by voting with Labor on the Religious Discrimination Bill, resulting in the bill being pulled and likely killed altogether prior to the federal election.

Bridget Archer, Trent Zimmerman, Katie Allen, Dave Sharma and Fiona Martin crossed the floor during a marathon all-night debate on 9 February, mounting the most devastating Parliamentary revolt in four decades.

The MPs voted to amend their own government’s bill to entirely remove section 38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act, which gives religious educational institutions an exemption from discrimination laws on matters of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or pregnancy, based on the tenets of its faith.

“People of faith should not be discriminated against because of their beliefs, nor should children be put in harm’s way because of who they are.”

The amendment came in response to Morrison’s last-minute pledge to ban discrimination against students on the grounds of sexual orientation, which was seen as insufficient because transgender students would be left out.

Martin, a former child psychologist who was Morrison’s “captain’s pick” for the inner-west Sydney seat of Reid at the 2019 election, was the lynchpin of the rebellion against the bill. Zimmerman and Archer had indicated from the start that they would oppose the bill unamended, while Martin reportedly had given little indication she would cross the floor.

By siding with Zimmerman and Archer, Martin prompted Sharma and Allen to add their votes to the push against their own government.

Trent Zimmerman MP Nth Sydney, Bridget Archer MP Bass, Tasmania, and Katie Allen MP Higgins, Victoria.
Trent Zimmerman MP for North Sydney, Bridget Archer, MP for Bass, Tasmania, and Fiona Martin, MP for Reid.

The Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, said following the vote that the Prime Minister had been “misled” and that “the government doesn’t go into a vote like that unless there’s been assurances given”.

Following the shelving of the bill, Martin said her decision to cross the floor was motivated by her clinical practice, treating LGBTI children.

“People of faith should not be discriminated against because of their beliefs, nor should children be put in harm’s way because of who they are,” she said.

“Like so many of my peers, I went through that long period of struggling with my sexuality, where I lived in fear of discovery … I feel thrilled about the whole process. Our democracy does work.”

The 2016 Census recorded Reid’s Catholic population at almost 27%. Martin, who is of Greek ancestry, was educated at Catholic schools and has regularly attended Catholic services in her electorate since she hit the campaign trail in 2019.

Zimmerman said he voted against his government to avoid making life harder for gay students.

“Like so many of my peers, I went through that long period of struggling with my sexuality, where I lived in fear of discovery,” he said. Allen, who appeared on the ABC’s Q&A program following the vote, said, “I feel thrilled about the whole process. Our democracy does work.”

Dave Sharma MP Wentworth, NSW, and Fiona Martin MP Reid, NSW.
Katie Allen, MP for Higgins, Dave Sharma, MP for Wentworth.

Archer claimed “privileged” proponents of the bill were telling children “they are other and less than equal in this country”.

Sharma said people should not be “vilified on account of attributes over which they have no choice”.

While the bill passed the House of Representatives, it was pulled from the Senate after Attorney-General Michaelia Cash received advice from the Australian Government Solicitor saying the amendments could have unintended consequences.

“Our politicians clearly understand how important this bill is in stopping the attack on the intrinsic rights of religious organisations in Australia.”

The Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, has been a consistent moderate supporter of the bill on behalf of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. In brief comments published after the bill was shelved he described the situation as “a little bit tragic”.

Archbishop Julian Porteous, of Hobart, told The Examiner that “Our politicians clearly understand how important this bill is in stopping the attack on the intrinsic rights of religious organisations in Australia”.

“I look forward to seeing the bill introduced to parliament in the future,” he said.