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Inquiry into religious discrimination bill should not consider other exemptions, chair says

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Nationals MP Anne Webster says amendments that allow schools to discriminate based on sexuality should be dealt with separately

The religious discrimination bill inquiry should not consider exemptions that allow schools to discriminate against teachers and students for their sexuality, the chair, Anne Webster, has said.

The Nationals MP said the inquiry is “specifically about religious discrimination” and that discrimination on other grounds should be dealt with separately, even if stakeholders use the inquiry to raise concerns about LGBT teachers and students.

Related: Coalition’s religious discrimination bill: are protections for minorities being sacrificed for faith?

The comments, made to Guardian Australia on Monday, rebuff an attempt by Liberal moderate MPs and Labor to use the inquiry to consider religious exemptions to the Sex Discrimination Act.

Scott Morrison and Michaelia Cash have referred those exemptions to the Australian Law Reform Commission and refuse to consider amendments alongside the religious discrimination bill, despite Morrison telling reporters on Thursday he opposes schools sacking gay teachers or expelling gay students.

Equality advocates have warned that the positive right for educational institutions to discriminate on the basis of religious ethos contained in the bill will exacerbate existing exemptions that allow them to discriminate against staff and students.

At the final sitting week of the year, it is still unclear whether the bill will come to a vote in the lower house. Liberal MP Warren Entsch has warned he will vote against until an inquiry has reported, and Labor’s position is still unclear.

On Friday Morrison and Cash moved to neutralise calls for a joint select committee to consider the bill by referring it instead to the joint human rights committee to report back by 4 February.

The Liberal senator, Andrew Bragg, told the Guardian the inquiry would show that “we can fix it in one go” by dealing with religious exemptions alongside the bill.

The joint human rights committee chair, Nationals MP Anne Webster, said “I’m sure people will raise that but we’re not looking at that until after the religious discrimination bill”.

“Once we have completed our processes, the other [discrimination acts] can be looked at,” she said.

“What the prime minister and attorney general have said is correct – the religious discrimination bill is a shield not a weapon.

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“My advice is that the bill needs to be considered on its merit: not the Sex Discrimination Act, not the Disability Discrimination Act, the inquiry is specifically about religious discrimination.”

“I’m sure that it will be a challenge to keep the subject [religious discrimination] the subject [of the inquiry].”

Webster said that the religious exemptions to other discrimination laws and their use could be reviewed in more appropriate forums, including court cases about alleged discrimination.

Related: Wedding cakes, tweets and gay teachers: how will the religious discrimination bill actually work?

The comments set up a stoush with Labor, which agrees with Liberal moderates that the inquiry should consider both issues together and is still negotiating behind closed doors for a better forum to inquire into the bill, such as a joint select committee.

The deputy chair, Labor MP Graham Perrett, told Guardian Australia “of course” the issue of discrimination against gay teachers and students should be considered by the inquiry. “It should consider all of the implications that might flow from Mr Morrison’s legislation.”

At the start of the final sitting week of the year it is still unclear whether the religious discrimination bill will be voted on in the lower house.

Although some interpreted reference to the joint human rights committee as an indication MPs would not be expected to vote on it until after the February reporting date, the government could yet push for it to go through the lower house with Labor support.

Equality Australia chief executive, Anna Brown, told reporters in Canberra it would be an act of “bad faith” by the government to seek a vote before the committee reported back and called on parties to allow proper scrutiny of the bill by opposing such a move.

On Sunday the Liberal MP, Warren Entsch, told The Australian he would not vote for the bill until after the inquiry reported.

“We need to look at it closely. We have only had a very short opportunity to look at it and I want it to go through the process,” Entsch reportedly told The Australian.

“When you introduce legislation and try to push it through five minutes before midnight and say ‘everything is OK, trust me’, I have been around the place long enough to know that that is a recipe for all sorts of problems.”

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