Religious Discrimination Bill Ai Group submission to Federal Parliamentary Inquiry

The national employer Association Ai Group today released its submission on the Religious Discrimination Bill which has been presented to the Federal Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. Ai Group Head of Workplace Relations Policy, Stephen Smith, is appearing at the Committee’s hearings today.

Ai Group Chief Executive Innes Willox said: “Ai Group supports the right to freedom of religion, including the right not to be religious. Businesses manage a combination of multi-faith and non-religious workforces while striving to ensure their operations are viable, productive, competitive and harmonious.

“For employers and employees, the Religious Discrimination Bill is an improvement on the two earlier exposure drafts. We acknowledge that the Government has sought to address a range of concerns raised by numerous stakeholders, including Ai Group.

“Ai Group’s primary concern with the earlier exposure drafts was in relation to the combined operation of the statement of belief provisions and the restrictions on employer conduct rules.

“The earlier versions of the Bill would have:

  • Unfairly restricted the legitimate and necessary operating policies and procedures of businesses, including in circumstances where such policies were needed to manage obligations under current employment laws;
  • Likely reduced tolerance for religious diversity in workplaces by protecting a broad range of statements of belief about religion and/or other religions, including statements that caused offence; and
  • Likely resulted in increased workplace grievances that were unable to be resolved by employers, but which nonetheless would impact employers’ businesses.

“Accordingly, we welcome the current Bill’s removal of the employer conduct rule restrictions that were attached to the Bill’s statement of belief provisions in the exposure drafts.

“We have identified an essential amendment to the defences included in the Bill to ensure that employers are able to address any inappropriate workplace conduct engaged in on the basis of an employee’s religious belief and activity.

“The current defences do not appropriately align with the apparent policy intent that the Bill should not restrict the application of employer conduct rules where employee conduct is unreasonable.

“Division 4 in the Bill provides a range of exemptions and exceptions to conduct that would otherwise be considered by the Bill to be unlawful discrimination. These exemptions are important because they establish parameters around the expression of a religious belief and engagement in religious activity in various settings of public life, including employment.

“It is essential that a religious activity at work can be subject to the relevant remedial action an employer may be required to take, or reasonably wish to take, to prevent harm to others and the employer’s business.

“In our view, the current exceptions and exemptions in the Bill are inadequate for employers who are trying to create a productive and harmonious workplace by accommodating employees holding a diverse range of religious and non-religious beliefs.

“Consistent with the apparent policy intent that employers are able to maintain appropriate standards of conduct in the workplace, section 39 in the Bill should be amended to enable employers to take reasonable management action to deal with unreasonable religious activity in the workplace. An appropriate amendment is included in our submission to the inquiry.

“If this amendment is made, the Bill would provide a more balanced and workable set of reforms,” Mr Willox said.

Ai Group’s submission is available at this link.

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