Subjects: Citipointe Christian College, Religious Discrimination Bill, text messages
PATRICIA KARVELAS: As the Prime Minister looks to deliver an election promise on religious protections, he’s angered some of the law’s supporters by suggesting he’ll also scrap the right of schools to expel LGBTIQ students. Amanda Stoker is the Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General and she joins us on Breakfast. Welcome. Welcome to the programme. I think we’re having some trouble with the line to Amanda Stoker, we’ll try and resolve that. But we are of course talking to her about the Religious Discrimination Laws, which the government promised to deliver but also, at the same time, another promise in relation to LGBTIQ students. Amanda Stoker’s back, welcome.
AMANDA STOKER: Good morning, how are you, Patricia?
PATRICIA KARVELAS: I’m good. Has the government broken a commitment to religious groups, as they’re arguing?
AMANDA STOKER: The government has done everything it can, and continues to do all it can, to keep an important promise that was made to religious communities prior to the last election. And that was that we would legislate for there to be meaning protections for their right to speak and live, according to their deeply-held and genuinely held religious beliefs – that’s what the Bill that is before the Parliament does. And that’s what we’ll be debating on and voting on next week.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yeah, that’s not the question though. The question is in relation to the protection for LGBTIQ students, and trying to take out the provision where they can be expelled, they say they feel let down, that it was meant to be delayed. That looks like it’s not to be delayed – why?
AMANDA STOKER: I don’t think that’s necessarily reflecting the reality of what’s happened here. I mean, we committed as a government – gosh – a long time ago, around the time of the Wentworth by-election –
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yes.
AMANDA STOKER: -that we would act to ensure that no gay child would face expulsion purely on the basis of their sexuality. We believe that. And we plan to deliver that, and that reflects the consultation and conversations we’ve had from all the different stakeholder groups in our community. There’s no surprises there. And so, really, the only question here is about the mechanics of how that’s implemented, because it has always been out position that we would take steps to make sure that wasn’t something that gay kids faced.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. Let’s go to the mechanics because the mechanics are key here. Can you clarify the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday? Will the government introduce changes to the Sex Discrimination Act next week to repeal the section allowing religious schools to discriminate against LGBTIQ students?
AMANDA STOKER: There’s certainly a group of people in our community who are pushing for that and I can understand their enthusiasm for seeing that done quickly. The reason, I would suggest, the original plan to make sure that we legislate the Religious Discrimination Act first and then change Section 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act, which is the provision that was inserted by Mark Dreyfus under Labor to empower the kinds of behaviours we’re trying to correct here, that provision shouldn’t be changed unless we know the final form of the Religious Discrimination Act-
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, that-
AMANDA STOKER: -It’s important that the two integrate well because if you change one without knowing the final form of the Religious Discrimination Act that emerges from the Senate, you could end up actually creating problems rather than solutions-
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Assistant Minister, Amanda Stoker, that is not what the Prime Minister said yesterday.
AMANDA STOKER: I understand that the Prime Minister is looking for ways that those things can be done at the same time and I understand that, and so that’s why I say to you that was our original plan and we’re looking at the mechanics of how that can be compressed-
PATRICIA KARVELAS: -He didn’t, with respect, he didn’t just say he was just looking at it. He said, in an interview yesterday, that he, it was going to happen at the same time. What’s the plan here?
AMANDA STOKER: Well, we are looking at options for ways that we can make sure that the protection we sought for good policy that was originally to be delivered by doing the Section 38 changes after the enactment of a Religious Discrimination Act, we’re looking to see ways that we can try and compress that timeline and we’re looking to, I guess, options for dealing with that closer to the time that the Religious Discrimination Act is passed but we don’t want to accidentally or inadvertently cause harm to any of the important stakeholders in this space-
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay-
AMANDA STOKER: By doing policy that is based on, you know, the issues of the day, rather than the important work that is done in the long term.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: What do you mean the issues of the day? What issues of the day?
AMANDA STOKER: Well, for instance, there’s been discussion about Citipointe College and the like that has brought this to light in Brisbane, and I know that’s meant people have talked about this a lot this week. Ultimately-
PATRICIA KARVELAS: -Hasn’t it just demonstrated that if it can happen under the current laws, people are fearful it will get worse under your religious discrimination legislation?
AMANDA STOKER: Well, I think what it shows you is that the Religious Discrimination Bill actually has nothing to do with this issue and nobody should fear it because, to the extent that there are problems that people see in our community, they are not the product of the Religious Discrimination Bill and-
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, so-
AMANDA STOKER: It is really important that in these issues, the important and deeply-held, the really significant perspectives of everyone – from all the different parts of this debate – need to be balanced and brought together rather than being dealt with in a combative way.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yeah, I’m still confused though because originally, your government insisted the best avenue for addressing the potential repeal of the Sex Discrimination Act exemption was through a 12 month review process of the Australian Law Reform Commission. What happens to that review now and when you say a truncated or you know, closer process, what kind of timeframe is it? Before the election?
AMANDA STOKER: Well, we’re working through those options and I’m, I know the Prime Minister’s keen to, particularly based on his comments yesterday, keen to do this quickly and keen to make sure that those in our community that are concerned about this can be-
PATRICIA KARVELAS: How quickly? Before the election, Minister?
AMANDA STOKER: Well, that is something that the Prime Minister would very much like to see. We’re working through the practicalities of that; we want to make sure that-
PATRICIA KARVELAS: What are the impediments?
AMANDA STOKER: Well, I’ve just explained them. We need to make sure that whatever emerges from the Senate is going to integrate well with whatever changes might be made to Section 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act, which is the provision under which the matters of the last week, and Citipointe College and the like, have arisen. That integration is important, and it’s important that as the Religious Discrimination Act goes to the Senate – where it is quite likely to face a number of proposals for amendment – that, if those amendments succeed, we don’t find ourselves in a position where the effect of those amendments doesn’t integrate well with what is proposed for Section 38. If the two don’t fit well together, we risk creating an uncertain environment in which schools operate and –
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, why-
AMANDA STOKER: -and we need a clear environment in which LGBTI families are-
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Why wouldn’t you just repeal, Minister, why wouldn’t you just repeal Section 38 entirely? Are you prepared to fully repeal that section, which allows discrimination for these students?
AMANDA STOKER: We are prepared to legislate to ensure that no gay child faces expulsion on the basis of their sexuality.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, wouldn’t you repeal the entire section?
AMANDA STOKER: Well, the section does a lot of other things too. The section doesn’t just deal with that issue. The section deals with a range of different attributes and a range of different behaviours. Now, it’s very important we don’t inadvertently take more tools out of the box that is available to schools to be able to manage their affairs in accordance with their beliefs, and to maintain standards of behaviour within their community that reflect what the parents of that environment want to see. It’s -if you just take our Section 38 carte blanche, without having regard to all of the other things that provision does, you could have a bunch of unintended consequences and we don’t want to see that.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: What happens to that review then? The Australian Law Reform Commission review, if the Prime Minister wants to bring it forward?
AMANDA STOKER: If the Prime Minister wants to bring it forward, it’s possible for a government to change the terms of that, or it’s possible for a government to say that it’s no longer needed because certain steps have been taken by the Parliament in the time-
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. So you might cancel it or ask for it to be brought forward?
AMANDA STOKER: Well, let’s go one step at a time. At the moment, we’re designing ways to make sure that the Prime Minister’s – and indeed, our entire Party’s – commitment to make sure that no gay child faces this threat, is a promise – a promise we made a long time ago and a promise we intend to keep – we want to make sure that’s met. But it also needs to be the case that that well-established principle-
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, you’ve said that, sorry. I don’t mean to be rude, but you’ve said that. I just want to nail down the timing because it does matter. Will gay kids be protected before the election?
AMANDA STOKER: Look, that’s our expectation but we are working through the different ways that it is possible to do that and we are not going to compromise on getting the policy right-
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But you won’t promise to get it done before the election?
AMANDA STOKER: Well, quite frankly, it’s not my decision alone. It’s a team effort. And we’re working through the ways that we can make that happen. We are trying to make it happen and I expect we will make it happen but I’m not going to sign it in blood for you, Patricia. But the important thing here is that, while we’ve got to make sure we’re doing the right thing by these kids, we also acknowledge that religious schools are the education choice for thousands of Australian families. They have a right to exercise their genuinely -held religious beliefs, even if it might offend some others in our community. And the reason they are prepared to put their kids in environments like religious schools, whether they be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and a range of others, is because the tenets of that faith are important to that family, or-
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay.
AMANDA STOKER: -or they want the school culture that comes from it. We don’t want to inadvertently stop the ability to do that.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: I want to ask, a major study of the health of transgender people in Australia last year found that 43 per cent of those surveyed had attempted suicide. That’s a staggering and shocking figure, Minister. The researchers said that only, the only way to change this is to reduce discrimination to provide more mental health support. Do you accept that allowing discrimination on the basis of gender is a key factor behind those rates of self-harm?
AMANDA STOKER: I think that there’s a lot of studies that have shocking figures in relation to people who are transgender. I share the concern for the wellbeing of people in that situation. There’s also other information of that kind that says things like, you know, many of the medical procedures that we provide to try and help transgender people feel much more mentally healthy aren’t actually providing the improvements in health and wellbeing that are-
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But a school, for instance, asks for gender conforming, right. If you’re a trans kid, that has an incredible impact on your mental health. Do you agree with that?
AMANDA STOKER: Look, I agree that a trans kid is facing a whole lot of social and personal challenges and they need support – I also think that there are lots of different styles of school in our community and there are lots of schools that will support and encourage and give that child what they need. The real question is, do you really want to, you know, as a parent, send your trans kid to a school that has really very traditional – and disclosed, up front – beliefs on this subject? This is a matter for parent choice and it’s a matter for parents doing the right thing by their kids. And it is important that we maintain a whole range of different options in our education system so that the different needs of all those families can be met.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Amanda Stoker, the government is distracted by the anonymous cabinet minister who called the Prime Minister a psycho and a fraud. Should the person out themselves to avoid further the distraction?
AMANDA STOKER: Look, I think the media has been distracted by it but the government hasn’t been. We’ve been hard at work on the issues we’ve just been discussing.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Is- does that sound to you like it’s somebody in the cabinet? Should they be telling us who they are?
AMANDA STOKER: Look, I don’t- if those words are as they have been reported – because, of course, I haven’t seen the messages myself – I would say that doesn’t accord with my experience. And they should hold themselves accountable. But ultimately, people’s opinions can be what they are. Let’s just get on with the job. That’s what we’re trying to do as a government. And I’m certainly not anywhere near as distracted as the media is on what- you know, circumstances where we haven’t seen the text, should be more properly considered gossip.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: I don’t feel at all distracted. Thank you so much for joining us.
AMANDA STOKER: Thank you, Patricia.