Dreyfus and Cash clash puts religious schools laws on hold

David Speers, host of ABC Insiders, reported that a meeting between Shadow Attorney-General Michaelia Cash (the only opposition member to have seen the Labor package of proposed changes to the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) and a proposed Religious Discrimination Act) and Mark Dreyfus, the Attorney-General had a meeting last Wednesday. And it went badly.

That possibly is the reason Cash pulled out of a webcast set up by the Australian Jewish Association, the very conservative group that was also being promoted through Christian networks.

According to Speers, there will be no new laws in this term of government, no change to the SDA, and no new Religious Discrimination Act.

Religious schools want to retain the right to select their own staff, currently protected by exemptions in the SDA. Labor says if they remove that exemption, they will make up for it with a new Religious Discrimination Act.

Cash has briefed Christian school lobby groups that the main protection offered is a limited right to appoint staff from a faith background. However, as the school advocates point out, this does not mean schools can ensure staff support the doctrines of a religion that runs a school. 

Alistair MacPherson, Associated Christian Schools Executive Director: Public Policy & Advocacy, summarized the new proposals at a recent town hall event for Christian schools: “Firstly, they limit the school’s ability to actively choose or to prefer a person of the living faith when it hires staff.

“Secondly, they control what aspects of traditional Christian teaching may be shared with students. So while we believe that faith is for the whole of life, teachers may no longer be free to share these traditional teachings of faith in every part of our lives. 

“These laws will then restrict a school being able to manage a staff member who says they hold the Christian faith of the school community but don’t live according to that faith in their personal life.”

This is accord with recommendations by the Australian Law Reform Commission: that the SDA exemptions be removed, and that the Fair Work Act be amended so that religious institutions would be able to prefer persons of faith in their hiring decisions. The ALRC recommended the new exemption be limited: it would only apply to hiring, it cannot be used to hold people back in promotion, or to fire people. 

Two possible scenarios

The Catholics are a key group for Albanese, who says he needs bipartisanship because he wants to avoid a culture war. That might explain a hard-line attitude evinced by Archbishop Antony Fisher of Sydney. According to The Weekend Australian, he said that one possibility is a Catholic school strike, like the 1962 Goulburn school closures that led to state aid for non-government schools. The Catholics are more crucial than the protestant low-fee Christian school movement which is regarded by some within the ALP as rusted on Coalition supporters, while the more numerous Catholic schools parent population are people Labor wants onside.

Another scenario put to The Other Cheek is that religious schools are running out of time. After the next election – which might be later this year – a Labor/Greens/Teals minority government might take a more progressive path, possibly simply removing those exemptions in the SDA with fewer balancing provisions. Under that scenario, religious instiutions would not be able to discriminate against sexual minorities.

Echoes of the Voice

The background to both scenarios is the result of the Voice referendum. The Voice campaign saw the power of culture war politics and division which Albanese has stated he does not want to see repeated. If any new laws about religious freedom and discrimination are to occur, Labor wants to do it without stirring up culture war-style division. The war in Gaza had made the politics of division based on Australian religious communities even more fraught than they were when the Morrison government spectacularly failed to pass their Religious Discrimination Act.

Morrison was unable to pass the laws the Christian low-fee Schools and the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) wanted with the issue of discrimination against transgender students the sticking point. The failure to settle for something less than perfect in their eyes has meant religious institutions failed to get most of what they wanted from a government with a PM in their corner.

The Albanese Government may be offering less than was possible under Morrison. But a minority Albanese government might offer less again. Alternatively, the Speers’ prediction of no action at all might hold even then.