Photo: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas
PRIME MINISTER: Thanks for coming together everyone, I’m joined by the Attorney General. Several months ago I said that I wanted to deal with the issue of discrimination against children in schools and I do. I’ve been seeking to do just that ever since I said that. In dealing with that issue, when I wrote to the Leader of the Opposition just over a month ago, I said I wanted to do it in a bipartisan way. I said I didn't want this to become a political football, which meant we needed to work through some very sensitive issues and there are very sensitive issues that surround this discussion. There is the very real issue of discrimination, against anyone, but particularly children. There are also the very real and principled and conscience issues that relate to issues of religious freedom. That religions can be religious, that they can teach their own faith, that religious schools can be religious schools.
So we have been seeking to address that. I put forward amendments through the Attorney, who met with his counterpart, they were rejected. So we put another set of amendments when the Parliament was last sitting and we heard nothing back from the Labor Party, until last week when the Shadow Attorney-General appeared in the media. That was disappointing, as you've heard me say, because I was hopeful we would be able to reach a resolution and deal with it in a bipartisan way which, as I said, I think would send the appropriate message; that we all agree that there should be no discrimination against children.
Remember the fact that there can be, is a result of the laws that the Labor Party introduced when they were in government. They put these laws in place and so the amendments that would be needed would be to Labor's laws, that allow such discrimination.
It's disappointing that we have been unable to reach agreement between the parties, but I'm prepared to give it one more go. Yesterday, I wrote, again, to the Leader of the Opposition and put forward a proposal that did three things; the complete removal of the ability to discriminate against students based on gender or sexual orientation or relationship status or pregnancy. Secondly, a clarification that in deciding whether a school rule - a reasonable school rule, that's reasonable - the Human Rights Commission and courts should take into account the religious nature of the school and whether the school considered the best interests of the child. And three, a clarification that nothing in the Act prevents a religious school teaching in accordance with their own religious beliefs. That is an amendment - that third one - that was actually supported as a second reading amendment by the Labor Party in the Senate.
These should be uncontentious principles; the removal of discrimination and the upholding of religious freedom.
I'm prepared to move that Bill in the House today, that Bill, which does those three things. It would require a 76 vote majority. I'll suspend standing orders to bring that vote on. If the Labor Party and Bill Shorten are prepared to back this Bill, we will vote for it today and we will get this done. They're the three things it does.
Now, so far, the Labor Party have not been prepared to agree to those three principles together. If they can't agree to do that, I'll make him another offer; I'm prepared to have this dealt with as a conscience issue in my Party. If he's prepared to do the same thing, then where the parties have been unable to agree, let's take the parties out of it Bill. Let's let the elected members of the House of Representatives just decide. I'll move this Bill as the member for Cook, not as the Prime Minister and I'll participate in the debate, just like anyone else and I'll vote my conscience in that debate.
But I actually think there's a better way first. This is a good Bill, it actually does what I think Australians would expect us to do; look after kids for who they are, but also ensure that in this country, religious freedom still means something.
So I hope that they will accept that offer and at the very least that if they're not prepared to accept this Bill as a Party, that they should let their Members decide. Because I know, you all know, that there are Members of the Labor Party who would happily support these principles. Their leader should let them decide it, in the same way that I as the leader of the Liberal Party am prepared to let my party decide it; individually, as conscience voting members.
Now, the Attorney is here to take any questions that you have on the process that he's been engaged in or on the specific details of this Bill. But I just say, I meant it when I said it. I want to resolve this, but it's got to be done reasonably and fairly. It's got to take into account all the serious issues that are there and I think that's a pretty fair statement of them. I think we should just get on with it.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister does your position on having a conscience vote here as a principle, extend to other areas of religious freedom, discrimination? Is this the approach you would like to take?
PRIME MINISTER: I take these matters one at a time, David. On this issue that we have in this Bill, what could be more a matter of conscience than this? I mean really, I think that's fair enough. I think the parties could decide it, but if they can't, then let's just let every Member of the House, every Member of the House vote their conscience?
JOURNALIST: But doesn’t the same principle of conscience apply to teachers and staff in schools, as it does to children? Children grow up to be teachers and staff.
PRIME MINISTER: This is a Bill. If it's a conscience Bill, this can go into the House and people can vote their conscience, its very simple. I said I would deal with the issue of children in schools, that's what I said I would deal with, that was the commitment I made. That's what I'm following through on.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you said before that there are Members of the Labor Party that you believe would support this proposition in a conscience vote. Is the corollary of that there are Members of the Government who may not support the Government's position?
PRIME MINISTER: If there's a conscience vote, it's a conscience vote and I'm happy for that to be the case. But I'm offering it as a bipartisan deal, on a conscience vote. I think Members should vote their conscience on this. I don't think that they should, on something as fundamental as what someone believes as a matter of religious faith, that that should be whipped against them, against their will.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, do you still intend to respond to the Ruddock review with a proposal for a Religious Discrimination Act by the end of the year? Further to David Speers’ question, are you setting a precedent for a Religious Discrimination Act to be a conscience vote in the Parliament as well?
PRIME MINISTER: No, I don't think I am and our response to the Ruddock report will be done before the end of the year.
JOURNALIST: There have been some complaints Prime Minister, from Labor, that moves by the Centre Alliance could actually make this more -
PRIME MINISTER: Sorry, I couldn't quite hear you over the noise.
JOURNALIST: We've heard from Labor this morning that moves by the Centre Alliance could actually see some of these religious discriminations wound up and actually be more draconian. Have you seen that, is it something you're concerned about?
PRIME MINISTER: Well I'm interested in this Bill, that's the Bill I'm putting forward. That's the Bill that I’m supporting, that's what I'm proposing. It solves the problem and I propose we get on with it. One at a time.
JOURNALIST: On the third step of that Bill I think you said nothing stops schools teaching in accordance with their faith. Can you give us an example of what it would allow, that third leg and what it would prevent?
PRIME MINISTER: Well all religions have their teachings, they’re based on their religious texts and they should be able to teach those texts in accordance with established religion. That's all it means.
JOURNALIST: Can you spell it out, what sort of practices for example?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, come along to Church with me on Sunday and you'll be able to hear.
Or go to the mosque on a Friday night or go to the synagogue on a Saturday, go to the Buddhist temple, go wherever you like. People, you know, they're allowed to teach their religious texts. They're allowed to teach their religious faith and why would we want to curtail that in a free country like Australia? Why would you want to do that?
JOURNALIST: Does that override the other two elements of this latest version, a third provision for the ability to teach in accordance with faith? Does that override the other measures to deal with discrimination?
PRIME MINISTER: On discrimination, discrimination is against a person for who they are, taking an action - and Christian might want to comment on this - on who they are. No Australian frankly, because of their sexual identity or their sexuality, their faith, their race, their ethnicity, should be discriminated against - that's my view - because of who they are. But it's not unreasonable that if you go along to a synagogue or a temple, or you go to a church or a mosque, that someone would actually teach what that religion teaches.
JOURNALIST: It’s where those two rights come into conflict Prime Minister.
PRIME MINISTER: I don't see how they do, I don't see how they do. Because take, for example, a reasonable rule in a school which says you go to chapel on Tuesday morning. That applies to the child whether they are gay or not gay. It has no bearing on their identity or their sexuality whatsoever, it's a general rule which is applied equally to everybody, it doesn't discriminate.
JOURNALIST: How about if they’re teaching that it’s not okay to be gay?
PRIME MINISTER: They would have to establish how they’re linking that to their religious teaching, I mean the religion I follow teaches love.
JOURNALIST: Do you accept that some religions do want to teach that?
PRIME MINISTER: These would be matters - and Christian may want to comment - that sets a reasonable test that would be established here in the law. Those decisions would be handed to courts to determine these issues, which I think is reasonable and I think is fair. I mean we have the rule of law in this country and it should prevail both in the courts and in the Parliament.
JOURNALIST: But it's your Bill, you're a legislator. You've got it there, it's got "Bill" written on it and your name. So what's your view?
PRIME MINISTER: On what?
JOURNALIST: Well, should any religion be able to teach in their schools, that it's not alright to be gay?
PRIME MINISTER: My understanding of my faith and other religious teachings goes to people's behaviour, not who they are -
JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] that it's not okay to live a gay life, is that right then, to have a gay relationship?
PRIME MINISTER: No, look these are matters would be dealt with by courts in specific circumstances so I'm not getting drawn into that debate. As they are now, these issues are settled in courts and Christian may want to elaborate and comment.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, isn’t this the point, you'd be aware of what it says in Leviticus, so certainly there are provisions in the Bible which do talk about relations between men and other men -
PRIME MINISTER: There’s two testaments, not just one. Religious teaching takes into account all of those and the overwhelming message of the religion that I follow is one of love and I believe love and peace is the underlying principle of all religions. That's why they've had such a positive role in the development of civil society over centuries. But Christian may want to comment on the specifics.
THE HON CHRISTIAN PORTER MP, ATTORNEY GENERAL: The three changes are very simple. They work together in concert. The third of them that you’ve focused on is a clarification that nothing in the Act would prevent a religious school teaching in accordance with their own religious beliefs.
The first point I’d make that that is an amendment that Labor has already agreed to. They have already agreed to that amendment. It is, in actual fact, a status quo amendment. Religions all across Australia teach in their congregations, in their churches, in their synagogues, obviously in accordance with those religious beliefs. Those beliefs vary quite markedly from religion to religion, from church to church and from place to place.
At the moment, the state of the law is that if someone believes they've been unfairly treated or there's some speech that should be unlawful or that there's some discrimination complaints being able to be made, all this does is clarify that status quo, given there is a very significant rebalancing in the Act that's going on by the removal entirely of section 38.3 which is the first part of this bill, which would be complete removal of any ability to discriminate against any student based on their gender, their sexual orientation, their relationship status or pregnancy.
So the third of these changes is a status quo change which the Labor Party have already agreed to by adoption of the amendment at the second reading stage.
JOURNALIST: But isn't the point of legislating here trying to clear up whether it's okay for a religious school to teach that it's not okay to be gay?
PRIME MINISTER: Let me give you a less controversial example okay? In some churches according to some religious faiths, they believe in Tithing. They actually believe that you would tithe a percentage of your income to support the church you go to. Now in other Christian churches, they don't teach that. It should be okay to teach those sorts of things in your school, if that's the religious practice of your school. People might say, well, you're discriminating against people who don't want to do that. Well, no. I don't think so. It's a common religious teaching that can find its’ root in a religious text and it's reasonable for it to be taught.
So, look, I've got to go and do the Prime Minister's Literary Awards, but let me just finish where I started today; I want to get this sorted, I believe we can. This is a very simple Bill that will achieve it. I would be happy to introduce it with the support of the Labor Party today, to suspend standing orders and get on with it.
If they're not prepared to support this Bill, fair enough, that's been their position until now. Let's just have a conscience vote for everybody and let's just get it decided so we can all go back home at the end of the sitting period having this matter determined once and for all.
JOURNALIST: PM, just [inaudible] we've now gone from “who can be in schools”, to “the teaching of religions” that we’re on a collision course between the secular world and the religious world and this is part of that slope?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, what better way to resolve such a tension than let every single Member of this House of Representatives vote their conscience and sort it out?
Thanks very much.