Why the Prime Minister gives priority to religious freedom laws over an integrity commission

Action against religious discrimination has its origins in Malcolm Turnbull’s gesture to the Conservatives who lost in the vote on equality between marriage. It has persecuted the government ever since, with previous repetitions of the legislation being unacceptable to various stakeholders.

Legislation that has not yet been released has been significantly diluted.

Legislation that has not yet been released has been significantly diluted.

In the last days of Christian Porter’s Advocate General, the bill probably seemed dead. There is no obvious need for it, and conservative and small liberal critics have, for various reasons, been concerned about unintended consequences.

But Morrison has revived the pressure, the perpetrators have been briefed, and a bill is due for the joint party meeting next week.

Legislation that has not yet been released has been significantly diluted.

Following the firing of rugby player Israel Folau for his biblical attacks on homosexuals, adulterers, drunkards, liars and others, the earlier version would have restricted the right of large corporations to take such actions. This has now been dropped. Like a provision that would have allowed doctors to refuse to provide services because of their religion.

Israel Folau.

Israel Folau.Credit:Getty

The bill will preserve and strengthen the right of religious schools, when hired, to prefer staff who are in line with their religious beliefs and principles.

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For Morrison, making this legislation is about fulfilling an election promise. But he would also see it as a possible wedge against Labor.

Although this issue for many voters would neither be here nor there, it could be a different story in Western Sydney with its ethnic community.

Labor’s Chris Bowen, who holds McMahon’s western seat in Sydney, warned after his last election his party “how often it has been raised with me that believers no longer feel that progressive politics cares about them”.

Labor is also under pressure from the National Catholic Education Commission, whose executive director is former ALP senator Jacinta Collins.

Jacinta Collins in 2013.

Jacinta Collins in 2013.Credit:Penny Bradfield

Collins would like to see the federal bill through on a bipartisan basis before Christmas. The Commission wants the federal law (which will override state laws) in place quickly because of its concern about proposed changes to the Victorian Gender Equality Act, which it says “could slow down the ability of Catholic schools to act in accordance with their ethos”.

Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge, who also refers to the Victorian move, says the goal is to get the bill through this year.

Labor does not commit to the bill without seeing it, but Albanese will be extremely eager to avoid a wedge.

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For its part, the government’s challenge is to avoid getting stuck. Both moderates and conservatives in their own ranks have had trouble with the legislation and must be reassured.

The government had consistently said it intended to introduce the Integrity Commission bill before Christmas until a red flag went up when Cash evaded at the Senate’s discretion last month. Asked by Labor, “are we going to see the legislation this year?”, Cash said, “it will be a decision for the Cabinet”.

On Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Employment Minister Stuart Robert left the timing in doubt in interviews on Sky. If the introduction is delayed, the government will provide ammunition for the opposition and other critics.

When it comes down to it, the legislation will be under fire from many who will argue that despite the changes the government has made to its original model, it is not going far enough. Its fate would be problematic.

A bill that is already in the Folketing that the government will do everything to have dealt with before Christmas would require people to present ID when they vote. Although the Christmas schedule is not crucial if the election is not until May, the government will not take chances. In any case, the Australian Electoral Commission would probably want plenty of leeway to sort out the practicalities of such a change.

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This bill is highly controversial, with Labor claiming it would deter votes from vulnerable people – including some in indigenous communities and the homeless.

Labor will oppose the bill, which would therefore need cross-cutting support to get through. The situation is further complicated by a few rebel coalition senators, Gerard Rennick and Alex Antic, who are threatening to withhold their vote on government legislation due to a dispute over vaccine mandates and Pauline Hanson’s threat to disrupt the same issue.

For the Morrison Government, Parliament is more often to endure than to be enjoyed. Parliament usually plays better for the opposition. The Prime Minister will be relieved when he can get out of the place and back in his highly trained uniform.

Michelle Grattan is a professor at the University of Canberra. This article was first published on The conversation.

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