Friday, 3 December 2021

The PRESIDENT (Hon. N Elasmar) took the chair at 9.34 am and read the prayer.

Announcements

Acknowledgement of country

The PRESIDENT (09:35): On behalf of the Victorian state Parliament I acknowledge the Aboriginal peoples, the traditional custodians of this land which has served as a significant meeting place of the First People of Victoria. I acknowledge and pay respect to the elders of the Aboriginal nations in Victoria past, present and emerging and welcome any elders and members of the Aboriginal communities who may visit or participate in the events or proceedings of the Parliament.

Papers

Papers

Tabled by Clerk:

Interpretation of Legislation Act 1984—Notice pursuant to section 32(3) in relation to Statutory Rule No. 116 (Gazette No. S675, 30 November 2021).

Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission—2020 report on the Operation of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities (Ordered to be published).

Business of the house

Notices

Notices of motion given.

Adjournment

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (09:39): I move:

That the Council, at its rising, adjourn until Tuesday, 8 February 2022.

Motion agreed to.

Notices of motion

Ms TAYLOR (Southern Metropolitan) (09:40): I move:

That the consideration of notice of motion, government business, 683, be postponed until later this day.

Motion agreed to.

Committees

Pandemic Declaration Accountability and Oversight Committee

Membership

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (09:40): I move:

That contingent upon the coming into operation of the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Act 2021 and the making of a pandemic declaration in relation to SARS-CoV-2, Mr Bourman, Ms Crozier, Mr Erdogan and Ms Shing be members of the Pandemic Declaration Accountability and Oversight Committee.

I do not think I need to talk too much about this. I think everybody knows that the establishment of the committee was within the bill that we debated this week. It is an important oversight measure that has been supported by a lot of stakeholders and individuals and was the subject of a lot of conversation with in particular crossbench members of this chamber and crossbench members of the other chamber. They will have a bit of work to do, but I thank those members that have put their names forward.

Mr DAVIS (Southern Metropolitan—Leader of the Opposition) (09:41): Noting the motion is contingent on the passage, and I understand that, and the signing, which I think will happen today, of that bill, as I am informed, and noting that in effect it is now law—if not law yet, very close to—we will not oppose the motion itself, but we will seek to amend it. We note that up to 10 people can go on these sorts of joint committees and we would seek to make the simple addition of Mr Rich-Phillips. The proposed amendment might be circulated so people are clear, although it is a very straightforward addition. I move:

That after ‘Mr Erdogan’ insert ‘, Mr Rich-Phillips,’.

As I understand it, four people have been nominated from the lower house. The Leader of the Government has proposed four, and a fifth one from this chamber would be quite appropriate. That would make nine and still leave capacity for up to one further person on the committee. We think that would strengthen it. Mr Rich-Phillips has got significant experience and could make a difference to the scrutiny role of that committee.

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (09:43): The government will not be supporting Mr Davis’s amendment. Just a correction, Mr Davis: there are nine members on the committee already. You said there were eight. I would point out that despite the fact you have called this committee a Mickey Mouse committee, I think, you have put on your Shadow Minister for Health and Emma Kealy, whose position is—

A member: Mental health.

Ms SYMES: Your Shadow Minister for Mental Health and your longest serving MP, Kim Wells. Has he been here longer than you? I think that you have got adequate representation on this committee, and we will not be supporting your amendment today.

Mr BOURMAN (Eastern Victoria) (09:44): I will be very quick. I am thinking about this. Of course we had no notice, but that is obviously just what happens around here. I think given that the crossbench has more members than the opposition, if we were going to put an extra person on, it would be probably more appropriate for it to be Ms Maxwell.

Mr Davis: On a point of order, President, in the spirit of cooperation we would put a crossbench member on as well, because there is capacity.

House divided on amendment:

Ayes, 12
Bach, Dr Davis, Mr McArthur, Mrs
Bath, Ms Finn, Mr Ondarchie, Mr
Burnett-Wake, Ms Limbrick, Mr Quilty, Mr
Crozier, Ms Lovell, Ms Rich-Phillips, Mr
Noes, 24
Barton, Mr Leane, Mr Stitt, Ms
Bourman, Mr Maxwell, Ms Symes, Ms
Elasmar, Mr Meddick, Mr Tarlamis, Mr
Erdogan, Mr Melhem, Mr Taylor, Ms
Gepp, Mr Patten, Ms Terpstra, Ms
Grimley, Mr Pulford, Ms Tierney, Ms
Hayes, Mr Ratnam, Dr Vaghela, Ms
Kieu, Dr Shing, Ms Watt, Ms

Amendment negatived.

Motion agreed to.

Business of the house

Notices of motion

Ms TAYLOR (Southern Metropolitan) (09:52): I move:

That the consideration of notice of motion, government business, 691, be postponed until later this day.

Motion agreed to.

Bills

Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021

Second reading

Debate resumed on motion of Ms SYMES:

That the bill be now read a second time.

Dr BACH (Eastern Metropolitan) (09:53): The Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021 significantly and unreasonably curtails religious freedom. On that basis, the opposition parties will be opposing it. The main purpose of the bill is to amend the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 in order to limit the exceptions in relation to employment matters in respect of religious bodies, and that includes churches, many hospitals and other entities—charities, for example—and educational institutions that are or are to be conducted in accordance with religious doctrines, beliefs or principles. I will speak most today about the impact of this bill on religious schools. The bill does contain clauses and measures in those clauses that have an impact upon other religious institutions, but there is a particular focus in this bill upon faith-based schools. It also seeks to limit the exceptions in relation to the provision of government-funded goods and services by religious bodies; also to limit the exceptions that apply in the course of establishing, directing, controlling or administering educational institutions that are or are to be conducted in accordance with religious doctrines, beliefs or principles; and, finally, to remove the general exception on religious grounds in respect of discrimination by individuals.

On this side of the house we believe deeply in religious freedom. What this bill will do I am afraid is, in almost all cases regarding employment, strip away the freedom of religious schools to preference in matters of employment those who share the faith and values of that school. So on that basis we on this side of the house will oppose the bill.

The bill puts in place a new tripartite test that I will step through in some detail for the benefit of the house a little later. The impact of that test will be that in almost all cases—for teachers, others who work at faith-based schools—that school will not be able to preference those who share the faith of the school. This, in my view and in the view of Liberal and National parties, sets up a nonsense proposition.

As you are aware, before joining you in this chamber I was the head of a large girls school. Now, should this bill pass, as I fear it will, what it means is that the head of a large Christian school—and the school that I taught at was affiliated with the Anglican Church—will not be able to preference teachers, even senior leaders, who share the faith of the school. The head of an Islamic school will not be able to preference in matters of employment those who adhere to the Islamic faith. And so, should I—as many members of the house are aware, a practising Christian—seek to gain employment at an Islamic school, the leadership of that school could not preference a practising Muslim over me. That is a nonsense proposition.

Victorians, and in particular Victorian parents, are voting with their feet, increasingly choosing a faith-based education for their children. Again, I think that is something to be welcomed. We on this side of the house believe deeply, as I say, in religious freedom; we also believe deeply in choice in educational matters.

Now, in almost all cases schools will no longer be able to preference those who share their faith because of an incredibly stringent new tripartite test that I will step through now for the benefit of the house. This bill includes a test that will make it all but impossible, except in a tiny number of cases, for schools to preference those who share their faith when, to use the direct language of the bill:

conformity with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of the … religion is an inherent requirement of the position; and—

the individual—

… cannot meet that inherent requirement because of their religious belief or activity …

And in addition it introduces a new reasonableness and proportionality test.

Let me step through each of these elements of the test in turn, noting for the benefit of the house that each one of these three steps must be taken before a faith-based school can preference somebody who shares their values. First to the issue of inherent requirement. Labor speakers in the other house were incredibly disingenuous when they referred to people at schools like gardeners; at a briefing I received from the government there was reference to cleaning staff. And I suppose most people would agree, and I would agree, that should somebody seek employment at a faith-based school in a role of a gardener or the role of a cleaner, well okay, it might be going too far to apply a strict religious test to that person. However, all staff will be captured by this inherent requirement test. At the moment many faith-based organisations, many religious schools, are of the view that it should be an inherent requirement for all teaching staff, for example, to broadly share the faith and values of their school, and I for one find that unproblematic. It is a key reason why so many Victorians, especially from our growing multicultural communities, are choosing faith-based schools.

Here a problem arises, however. I know full well as a former teacher and a former school leader that faith-based schools regularly make pragmatic decisions to employ people, especially in hard to fill roles, who do not share the faith of their school. Language teachers are notoriously hard to find, and so many faith-based schools, for example, will employ a French teacher or a Mandarin teacher who does not share the faith of the school because quite rightly they would rather have somebody in front of that classroom than not.

But as soon as a school has made a pragmatic decision like that in the best interests of their students, the inherent requirement test has been punctured for all like staff members. The government, to its credit, has been very clear with me, and my legal advice on this point is very clear, as is my own personal view on this point: that as soon as a school makes a pragmatic decision of its own volition to employ somebody in a hard-to-fill role who does not share the faith of that school, then that school can never argue that like staff members—teaching staff, for example, in the example that I am using for the benefit of the house—have an inherent requirement to adhere to the faith or values of that school. So when I have pressed those who have provided me with legal advice, and indeed when I pressed the government at the very helpful briefing that the Attorney and her staff arranged for me, it became utterly apparent that only in two cases would it be clear that a school, in employment matters, could meet this inherent requirement test.

In the case of religious studies teachers, in all probability a faith-based school, should this legislation pass, will be able to argue that there is an inherent requirement for religious studies teachers to share the faith of the school—and sometimes, but not all the time, in the case of principals; not all the time. Again, the government has been very clear with me on this point. My legal advice is very clear on this point. It will not be clear that all faith-based schools will be able to argue there is an inherent requirement for even the principal to share their faith and values. Again, my view—our view on this side of the house—is that this sets up a nonsense proposition. An Islamic school, a Christian school, a school that is linked to a different church, a different faith, will no longer be able to say as a matter of course, ‘Well, we must have a principal who shares our faith’—a Jewish school, for example. Again, in my view that is a nonsense proposition.

Coming to the new reasonableness and proportionality test, again this is deeply problematic. The Attorney in her second-reading speech very helpfully used a series of examples, and she used an example regarding this new element—new compared to the legislation of 2016, new compared to the legislation of 2010. She talked about a teaching staff member who may be required as part of their role to carry out prayers or devotions at the start of the day. This is a very normal thing in faith-based schools, and one might presume that it is necessary for staff who carry out prayers and devotions to adhere to the faith of the school. However, the Attorney’s example was enlightening. Should a staff member—a classroom teacher in her example—not adhere to the faith or values of the school, to meet this new reasonableness and proportionality test the school must prove that there is no other staff member who could be brought into the classroom for the purpose of carrying out that prayer or devotion. Well, that test can never be met. I have worked at schools for many years. There are always other teachers around. There would always be somebody else who could be brought into the classroom to carry out a prayer or a devotion. So despite the deeply disingenuous commentary from members of the government in the other house, my legal advice is clear, my advice directly from the government is clear and my own view is clear—that this new tripartite test will almost never be able to be met, which means, to be clear, that should this bill pass, religious schools, faith-based schools, will in almost all cases nevermore be able to preference those people who share their own faith and share their values. That is the intention of this legislation. The government are clear about that—or at least have been clear about that with me—and I thank them for their clarity, despite the commentary from some members of the other place.

It is interesting to note that other institutions do have significant carve-outs and other entities do have significant carve-outs in order to employ those who share their values and beliefs. There are existing carve-outs—very significant carve-outs—for example, in section 27 of the Equal Opportunity Act that provide that politicians, for example, are able to discriminate in the employment of staff on the basis of their political belief. This is a relevant point, especially considering the fact that the employment practices of political parties are currently under the microscope, especially at IBAC. It is strange to hear members of the government in the other place speak so passionately about the abolition of carve-outs for religious schools when they are silent on the matter of the very significant and in my view legitimate carve-outs for political parties.

Now, there have been some recent very interesting comments from experts about the matter of religious freedom and about the hugely beneficial role that religious schools play in our society and that religious institutions and entities play more broadly in our society. One very informed source, I am advised, on Sky News recently said:

… no-one should be discriminated against for their religious beliefs or religious practices, it’s a basic human right …

And I think that is correct; it is a basic human right. That very informed source was the Honourable Tanya Plibersek, who currently is the federal Shadow Minister for Education.

I heard some other commentary which I think is worth referring to in this debate from another very informed source who himself was educated at a Catholic school. He said that he knew of no example where a gay or lesbian teacher had been sacked for their sexuality in a Catholic school. This informed source went on to say:

One of the things that faith communities do is they bring people together. They bring that sense of belonging and identity through common shared faith and view of the world. That is why religions can play an important role and that is why they need to be respected.

Fine comments by the leader of the federal Labor Party, the leader of the opposition federally, Mr Anthony Albanese.

So it has been interesting to note that the very sensible and constructive position of the federal Labor Party puts the state Labor Party here in Victoria at odds with them—deeply at odds with them. Indeed the Attorney has gone so far as to say, noting ongoing movements at a federal level, that she will ‘fight any attempts’ by the commonwealth government to put in place legislation that may override Victorian provisions. She has not ruled out fighting it all the way to the High Court. I confess I was surprised to read those comments attributable to the Attorney-General, because a few weeks ago now I wrote to the Attorney-General about my concerns regarding the constitutionality of these measures. I am sure members are aware that section 109 of the commonwealth constitution makes it plain that when state legislation is inconsistent with federal legislation, federal legislation takes precedence.

To once again give the Attorney credit, she responded very promptly to my letter. In my letter I noted the concern of several very senior legal sources that, should this bill pass, some sections of it, potentially the entire bill, when tested in court—and it will be tested in court—will be deemed to be inconsistent with the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. She responded to me to say that she had no such concerns. In my letter I explicitly asked if she had sought the advice of the Solicitor-General, and she made some understandable remarks about the fact that she does not need to advise me who she seeks information from. But it was interesting that my concerns about constitutionality and the concerns of several leading legal experts about constitutionality were dismissed by the government in such a peremptory manner but now those concerns are so significant that the Attorney may fight them all the way to the High Court.

This was not the key reason, however, why my friend Mr Battin in the other place moved a reasoned amendment seeking to take the bill out of Parliament. The key reason for that was the fact that the government’s consultation process was partial, skewed and, in some cases, based on incorrect information. As a result, I once again later on, for the benefit of the house and in particular for the information of my crossbench colleagues, will be moving a very simple reasoned amendment.

In particular, quite independent of one other, a significant number of faith-based organisations came to me to make the point that they were misinformed by the government during the consultation process that they would still have significant powers under their codes of conduct to continue to employ people in a preferential way—let us be clear, in a preferential way—who share their faith and share their values. That simply is not true. So I would urge other members to support the reasoned amendment that I will move later, because the matters that we are discussing in relation to this bill—religious freedom and, also of deep concern to us and of deep concern to all members, the rights and protections of members of Victoria’s LGBTIQA+ community—are not simple matters. When rights collide, well, that creates more complex and nuanced legal challenges than just about anything else we deal with in this place, and so my view is in keeping with the views expressed at some length by Mr Battin in the other place about the need to take this bill out of Parliament for a period of deep and genuine consultation, which quite frankly has not occurred to this point.

There are some other matters regarding this bill that I am keen to discuss. There is a particular measure contained in this bill regarding the provision of government-funded goods and services. Again I want to put on record my wholehearted agreement with Mr Albanese: overwhelmingly religious bodies in our society and church groups in our society do good. Whether it is through running hospitals, whether it is through charities—I had an outstanding meeting just the other day with Jesuit Social Services—whether it is in schooling or in so many other areas of life, religious entities and churches overwhelmingly do good. That is the stated position of the federal Labor Party; I share it and we share it on this side of the house wholeheartedly. So I was interested and most concerned to read this element of the bill regarding the provision of government-funded goods and services by religious entities and creating further restrictions so, again, people of a particular faith could not be preferenced in the provision of government-funded goods and services. Now, I was not aware that this was a significant problem, and on a close reading of the Attorney-General’s second-reading speech it seems the government is of the view that not only is this not a significant problem, it is not a problem at all. I will quote her, with your leave, President. In her second-reading speech she said:

The government acknowledges that it is not aware of discrimination by religious providers in the provision of government funded goods and services. And, religious service providers generally do not discriminate in how they provide privately funded secular services, such as welfare and housing …

And yet there is a restrictive clause in this bill making it clear that religious entities cannot discriminate, despite the fact that the Attorney says they never do. It is thus apparent that this is a rather gratuitous and transparent attack upon religious organisations, again noting my strong views that entirely concur with those of Mr Albanese—and indeed with those of the Attorney—that even when it comes to the provision of services that are funded privately, religious entities provide those services in a non-discriminatory way, I daresay entirely in keeping with their faith. This bill, as it currently stands, goes far too far in limiting religious freedom, in particular the freedom of religious schools.

I want to thank the many groups who reached out to me in order to give me their views throughout the necessarily short but nonetheless fulsome period of consultation. I put on record my thanks to the senior leadership of the Islamic Council of Victoria and the Australian Association of Christian Schools. I had an excellent and lengthy briefing from Equality Australia, and I put on record my thanks to them. The Catholic education office—I really cannot list everybody who reached out to me and provided me with very useful feedback. Yet before I take my leave and take my seat, I am keen just to address one or two of the allegations that were raised by members in the other place, indeed some that had been raised on social media by members of this place.

When rights are in conflict, that creates some of the most difficult and nuanced legal challenges that we ever have to face in this place. There are deep and real concerns felt by members of Victoria’s LGBTIQA+ community, and I have heard those concerns and I respect those concerns. On this side of the house we will always—always—seek to support measures that further enhance protections for members of Victoria’s LGBTIQA+ community. We do that based on an understanding of both the historic and ongoing ill-treatment that members of that community have faced. That is why of course we put in place Victoria’s first Equal Opportunity Act and we are currently debating an amendment to that act. That is why we, under the outstanding reforming Attorney-General Jan Wade, created specific protections for those who engaged in, to use the dated language of the time, lawful sexual practices. That is why we abolished Victoria’s disgraceful sodomy laws. That is why we have acted on so many occasions to seek to expand protections for members of Victoria’s LGBTIQA+ community.

The presentation by some members in the other place of this legislation as a simple matter is disingenuous, and it has proven to be disingenuous by the very measured and balanced commentary of senior federal members of the Labor Party, in particular Ms Plibersek and Mr Albanese. We believe deeply in the ongoing protections for members of the LGBTIQA+ community. We believe deeply in religious freedom. We believe deeply in choice in matters of education, and that is why we have taken the position that we have regarding this bill, because it strips away so much of the freedom that religious schools have in matters of employment, not just at the point of employment but in all matters regarding employment. I will, as I said before, and for the benefit of members who have recently come to the house, move a reasoned amendment in order to deal with some of the dreadful deficiencies in the government’s consultation process. I move:

That all the words after ‘That’ be omitted and replaced with the words ‘this house refuses to read this bill a second time until there has been more time to consult with affected stakeholders.’.

Ms WATT (Northern Metropolitan) (10:19): With your indulgence, President, can I just take a moment to acknowledge and thank the team here at Parliament for all that they have done for us this year, particularly this week. I did not get a chance to do that, and I just want to take a moment to thank them and all the team for—oh, my gosh—all the very, very many hours that they have put in to make this place run so very smoothly. I and I know others are so very grateful, so could you pass on my appreciation and thanks.

I will start my remarks now, and I must say that I am really proud to rise today to speak in support of the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021. I am so very proud to represent Melbourne’s northern suburbs, a diverse region with a thriving LGBTIQA+ community. Just this last week we saw the Melbourne Queer Film Festival in its 30th year in my electorate, and the Northern Metropolitan Region contains so many important services and institutions for the LGBTIQA+ community.

Just like when I spoke in support of this government banning conversion practices earlier this year, I know that this is an important reform that will resonate with and mean a lot to so very many in my electorate. This bill delivers on important election commitments made in both 2014 and 2018 to legislate protections for LGBTIQA+ Victorians from harmful discrimination.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the legislation that came to this chamber this week have definitely overshadowed this bill and other important work this government is doing in making sure that the LGBTIQA+ community here in Victoria are safe from harmful discrimination, but this bill is a genuinely and deeply important reform, and it is one that I have been looking forward to having the opportunity to contribute on. The Equal Opportunity Act 2010 currently protects against discrimination on the grounds of protected attributes such as sex, sexuality, gender identity, marital status and parental status in certain areas of life such as employment, education, the provision of goods and services, and accommodation. There are currently broad religious exceptions from these protections for religious bodies and religious schools which allow them to discriminate on the basis of a broad range of attributes, including religious belief, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, parental status and gender identity.

However, it really is clear that these exceptions are not working. We have seen in the media many, many times, including more recently, terrible stories of the discrimination that is going on in Victorian schools as we speak. There have been so many highlighted instances of teachers being discriminated against and even fired for simply loving who they want. Deb James, the general secretary of the Independent Education Union, said:

Many of our members have been subject to discrimination in the workplace, dismissed simply because of who they are or whom they love …

These outdated laws have robbed students of skilled teachers, who also make schools inclusive and welcoming spaces for LGBTIQ+ students.

Unfortunately these are problems that often stay hidden because staff at these schools are too scared and fearful to speak out for fear of losing their livelihoods. I can only imagine what it is to hide who you are and who you love in your community. I know stories of teachers who are scared to go out to restaurants, to go out to cafes, to be seen in public with the ones that they love. What a shame to live in a community where you live in fear of your livelihood being taken away because you simply want to enjoy a cafe meal with a loved one. But this has indeed happened. I want to share one quote from the Independent Education Union, which recently ran a survey of their members detailing the discrimination that they are experiencing in their workplaces. Here is this quote:

I have to keep my sexuality a secret as I fear I would be fired or targeted by leadership at my school. I understand they have a right to their faith, but it feels awful having to hide who I am. I’m scared that I might let it slip one day and change the relationship I have with my co-workers forever.

Or how about this other one:

In 2020, I worked at an independent school at which these topics would not be at all accepted in their beliefs and if you were to show any sign of being same-sex attracted as a student or staff member or even be a member of a union they’d find ways to get rid of you quickly or bully you out.

No-one deserves to be treated like that in their workplace—no-one. This is discrimination and harm being put on our hardworking teachers, discrimination at an institutional level aided and abetted by a lack of policy to stop it. It is far beyond time that we fix it.

But we do need to reflect on how this current lack of protection came to be. Previous protections that limited discrimination—the inherent requirement test introduced in 2010 by the Bracks-Brumby governments—were removed in 2011 by the coalition government, allowing religious organisations and schools to discriminate more broadly when hiring and firing staff. The Victorian government committed to reinstating the inherent requirement test as part of its 2014 election commitment and introduced legislation in 2016 to reinstate protections against discrimination, but that bill was opposed by the opposition and defeated in the Council. I think that really says it all. I think that it says—

Dr Bach interjected.

Ms WATT: Well, you can respectfully disagree, but what I am going to say to you is that this is a clear demonstration of what the Liberal Party think of equality in this state. I tuned in, in fact, to Joy FM, a marvellous radio station, a couple of months ago. I was really glad to hear the newly minted Leader of the Opposition in the other place say, ‘Nobody should be fired because of their sexuality’, and that he had no interest in playing politics on sexuality. So you can imagine my shock when the opposition backflipped and voted down the bill in the lower house. While the Liberals are busy doing doublespeak on equality this Labor government is doing the real reforms to make this state a better place for all. For Labor equality is not negotiable. Whether that can be said for every member in this place is certainly another question.

I do understand that there are concerns out there from religious communities and indeed religious organisations in Victoria, but can I say this: freedom of religion is not freedom to discriminate. But even so I am confident that this bill still keeps the existing protections in the Equal Opportunity Act that can be used by religious organisations. For example, the EO act provides broad exceptions for religious bodies in relation to their religious leaders and membership of and participation in religious practices. This bill does not affect these broad exceptions. In particular section 82(1) provides that the EO act prohibitions against discrimination do not apply at all to the ordination or appointment of priests, other ministers of religion or members of a religious order; the education or training of priests or other ministers of religion or people seeking to be ordained; or the selection or appointment of people to perform functions in relation to, or participate in, religious practice or observance.

The bill does not affect section 39 of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010, which allows schools who are wholly or mainly for students of a particular sex, race, religious belief, age or disability to exclude students who are not of that particular group. This provision allows religious schools to limit enrolments to students of the same religion as the school. This bill also does not change a general exception in section 26 of the EO act, which allows employers to limit employment to people of a particular sex where there is a genuine occupational requirement. This provision would allow single-sex religious schools to continue selecting teachers of the same sex as the students if that practice accords with the school’s religious doctrines, beliefs and principles.

There will be no impact on a religious organisation’s ability to hire someone with the same religion or for a religious school to teach religion or convey their religious beliefs or views to students. The ability to practice religion is indeed a right, but just as Victorians have the right to practise their religion, Victorians also have the right to be who they are without fear of harm or prejudice. While some have contacted me in opposition to this bill, far more have contacted me in profound support. I have been inundated with emails from constituents, particularly in my region, who not only support this bill but have told me about the impact this will have on their lives and their ability to be proud of their sexuality.

I am going to take a moment to particularly thank the Independent Education Union, who have engaged with me throughout on this bill and have been kind enough to provide me testimony from their members and allow me to really see firsthand the importance that this bill has for the members of the Independent Education Union across our state. My sincerest and most profound thanks go to Amy Spencer, a most passionate defender of workers at independent schools, my counsel during the preparation of my remarks and a mentor in my allyship with the LGBTIQA+ community. Thank you, Amy. It would be remiss of me not to say a general thankyou and give a shout-out to the Independent Education Union and of course their members and teachers right across our independent schools who have been working so incredibly hard throughout the pandemic these last couple of years. Teachers have done the most magnificent and fantastic job, and we are indeed so indebted to them. The IEU has provided me with some really strong stories and some powerful stories, stories that really showed me why this bill is so important. I know that they have been pushing for this reform for such a very long time, and I hope that its passage will be a win for their members across our most important and valued education sector.

Can I thank Equality Australia, who reached out to my office with some stories that were difficult to hear—really tough and difficult stories but ones that I needed to hear and indeed members of this place should hear as well. This bill will better protect LGBTIQA+ and other Victorians against discrimination, particularly in schools and in their workplaces. It makes clear that discrimination against LGBTIQA+ Victorians based on who they are and who they love is not acceptable.

I would like to turn my attention to how the bill will fix this and how the bill will protect these Victorians from discrimination, from harm and from prejudice. The bill narrows the current very broad exceptions from discrimination protection for religious bodies and schools in four ways. In relation to employment, religious schools and bodies will only be able to discriminate on the grounds of religious beliefs and not other protected attributes like sexuality, gender identity, marital status et cetera when conformity with religion is an inherent requirement of the job and the proposed discrimination is reasonable and proportionate in all circumstances.

Outside of employment—for example, in relation to students—religious schools will only be able to discriminate on the grounds of religious belief, not other protected attributes, where it is reasonable and proportionate in all circumstances. Religious bodies who provide Victorian government funded goods and services will only be able to discriminate in the provision of those services on the grounds of religious belief, not other protected attributes, where it is reasonable and proportionate in all circumstances. The provision allowing a religious individual to discriminate on the grounds of a broad range of protected attributes based on their religious beliefs will be repealed.

Under this bill religious schools and bodies will only be able to discriminate in employment in appropriate circumstances based on a person’s religious belief or activity. This bill includes a new test for employment by religious bodies and schools, which only allows discrimination if the following three elements are satisfied: conformity with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of the religion is an inherent requirement of the job; a person cannot meet the inherent requirements because of their religious belief or activity; and the discriminatory action proposed to be taken against the person is reasonable and proportionate based on the circumstances of the case.

This bill stops schools from being able to discriminate against students based on their sexuality or gender identity by narrowing the general exception for religious schools and other religious educational institutions so that, apart from in relation to employment, schools will only be able to discriminate on the grounds of religious beliefs where it is reasonable and proportionate in all of the circumstances.

This bill is so very important, and it is so very much needed. This bill is just one of the many reforms that this Labor government has implemented to make it clear that in this state equality is not negotiable, and I am indeed so very proud of that. I commend this bill to the house.

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (10:33): I rise to speak on the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021. Firstly, I would like to thank the hundreds of people who wrote to me sharing their views on this bill and raising concerns that their rights to religious expression are being eroded through legislation. We have been very conscious of this in our deliberation on this bill, and I think we need to continue to be very mindful of the importance of religion for many people for whom it may be the centre of their lives.

I know that some of the history of religious institutions has cast a very dark shadow, with reconciliation and redress of these harms being an ongoing and very important process. But in saying that, I pay tribute to the great work that many religious institutions bring to our society. They educate thousands of children in our state. They work and volunteer with some of the most vulnerable in our society. I consult with many of these organisations on justice issues, in particular in the space of early intervention and primary prevention, which is integral to improving community safety and individual wellbeing.

I know that many religious organisations are really concerned about how this legislation is going to restrict their religious freedoms. I know that so much of the work that schools and teachers do is done with enormous integrity and with a genuine intent to develop the intellectual, social and ethical skills of young people. I respect freedom and the right to freedom of expression. It is why I find I am really torn on legislation like this and seeking to find a balance between those freedoms. In saying thank you, I also extend this to the organisations and individuals that we engaged with on this bill. They presented a variety of perspectives and experiences, and this was very important for us in considering our position.

We are supporting this bill today. In some respects we think this bill will not change much, because so many of the people and organisations that we spoke with showed us how they respond to people’s sexuality or gender in a respectful, thoughtful way either because of or in spite of their personal views or organisational policies.

In finding a balance between freedoms, we do not think anyone should lose their job on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity. I know I do not have a lot of time to speak, so I want to very quickly touch on some amendments that I will be proposing to the Equal Opportunity Act 2010. They do not relate to the religious exceptions. Could we circulate those amendments?

Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party amendments circulated by Ms MAXWELL pursuant to standing orders.

Ms MAXWELL: In 2015 the then Minister for Emergency Services called for a review of fire services after concerns were raised relating to discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation of employees. A letter from the relevant department secretary went to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) and included draft terms of reference. Following this the commission entered into an agreement with the department. The review commenced in July 2016, but the report from this review was blocked in court proceedings.

The United Firefighters Union (UFU) challenged the legality of the review on the basis of section 151 of the Equal Opportunity Act. The Court of Appeal upheld this challenge and that report has never been publicly released. Regardless of your views about the union or fire services or the issues that may or may not have been explored in this review, it has exposed a gap in the Equal Opportunity Act that basically prevents the government or this Parliament from requesting VEOHRC to conduct a review. If revelations of entrenched sexual harassment or discrimination emerged about any public body in the future, without this change to the Equal Opportunity Act an organisation or a union could simply say no.

I commend Ambulance Victoria and the union for not stepping in and saying no to the review undertaken of their organisation. They stepped up and owned their issues, but we cannot guarantee the scenario that occurred with the UFU will not happen again. The interests of public transparency cannot allow that to happen again. The protection of workers, the entitlement to work free of discrimination, sexual harassment or bullying is too important. It is one of the reasons that VEOHRC exists. That is why we are bringing these amendments to the house, and I hope that in these interests and for public service workers that these amendments will have the support of this chamber and pass. I thank the house.

Ms CROZIER (Southern Metropolitan) (10:39): I rise to speak to the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021. As was highlighted by Dr Bach in his contribution in this debate, who outlined them very clearly, the opposition has concerns in relation to this bill. Dr Bach, I think, laid out very clearly and articulated extremely well the in-depth analysis that he has done of this bill. He has sought advice from not only the department but the Attorney-General’s office as well as legal experts in this area, and he raised some of those concerns regarding what we see as inherently wrong with this bill.

I take on board what Ms Maxwell has said, and I completely agree in relation to the issues around some people who have been discriminated against. I do not think anybody wants that. Nobody wants that based on their sexuality. It is none of our business, and I think in this day and age largely, very largely, it is extremely accepted. People are very accepting, and we should not have to be worried about those sorts of things.

Now, there are some circumstances, I take it—as Ms Watt has said, she has spoken to people with some very harrowing stories, and I cannot understand that because I do not know those particular stories. But I do think that we need to be somewhat pragmatic in what we are talking about here, because as Dr Bach highlighted, with those schools that have a religious-based faith, if parents want to have their children educated in a school that they share their beliefs with—whether it is any belief, whether it is Catholic, Anglican, Islamic, Buddhist, any religion that they feel affiliated with and share a strong sense of faith with—then that is their choice. And on this side of the house we believe in freedom of choice, freedom of religion and freedom for parents to be able to choose which school their children should be able to attend.

Personally I did go to a public school, a public primary school for the entire primary years, and attended the local high school, and then I went for the final four years of my schooling to an Anglican-based school. I am not particularly religious, but there is that underlying component in the school, and we had kids from multiple religions attend that school. It was not just based on everybody that was brought up an Anglican attending that school. There were a variety of children with a variety of backgrounds: whether they were Jewish or Catholic or other affiliations, they went to that school. But fundamentally that school was based on Christian values.

Dr Bach pointed out the issues arising around what this bill will do and how it will introduce a new tripartite test, and he explained and articulated during the debate how that test will never be able to be met. I think that is important. I think anyone listening to this debate should go back and listen to Dr Bach, somebody who has experience in this field as somebody who has been a principal in a faith-based school, who understands this very clearly. He gave the example of how schools have to take an approach if they need to get teachers—teachers around music or science or maths or some other area—that they need to be looking at that component of the education curriculum that is required for the children to be able to have access to those subjects. It is not always the case that those teachers have that same religion, so schools will take a pragmatic approach. I think that is really reasonable and sensible and a very clear example of exactly what arises when you cannot meet the test that he spoke about with principals and others speaking about anyone that may need to be hired in a church-based school.

I note that Dr Bach also spoke of, as I said, that discretion when they are using that to hire a teacher that does not share that school’s religion or that school’s religious basis, but there are concerns around how this would be also applied for those schools that will be captured by this bill—how they will be constricted in what they will be able to do.

Now, I also note that Dr Bach spoke about the briefings that he received from the department and that representatives from the department said that in some instances they would be assessed on a case-by-case basis. The department clarified that the inherent requirement test would be applicable to each individual teaching position or group of positions, such as humanities teachers or language teachers, which I have mentioned, to allow the flexibility of hiring. But the advice that Dr Bach has received, I understand, means that this component of the bill could be litigated in the courts.

Dr Bach: It certainly will be.

Ms CROZIER: ‘It certainly will be’ is the interjection from Dr Bach, and it is not going to help anyone if we are having these arguments in and out of the courts on these very issues.

There is so much in this bill and there is so much that needs to be said, but Dr Bach did point out many aspects, as I mentioned, about those people that he spoke with. I also note that he made reference to the federal Leader of the Opposition, the Honourable Anthony Albanese, who said that he has backed the rights of churches and faith schools to gain protection from discrimination, as reported in the Age only last week. He said, and I quote:

… he knew of no example where a gay or lesbian teacher had been sacked for their sexuality in a Catholic school.

Mr Albanese went on to say:

One of the things that faith communities do is they bring people together. They bring that sense of belonging and identity through common shared faith and view of the world. That is why religions can play an important role and that is why they need to be respected.

Dr Bach wholeheartedly agrees with Mr Albanese, as I think most reasonable people would. That is a very sensible and measured view. I am completely in agreement with it. Dr Bach is in agreement with it. I think most people would be in agreement with the comments of Mr Albanese. Dr Bach also highlighted comments from the federal Shadow Minister for Education, the Honourable Tanya Plibersek, who said:

Of course we support religious freedom in principle—no-one should be discriminated against for their religious beliefs or religious practices, it’s a basic human right …

Again, I agree with the federal shadow education minister. Any reasonable person, I think, would. When you have got a senior federal Labor shadow minister and the federal Leader of the Opposition at odds with what is going on here in Victoria, it does seem quite curious why the government is trying to put this bill through. Dr Bach has moved a reasoned amendment that I think is needed because there is such a varied view out there in the community.

Of course I, like Ms Maxwell and other MPs, have received a number of emails from people from both sides of the argument—some supporting this, and they have given their reasons, and I thank them for that, as well as those that are very strongly opposed to it. I also thank those people for putting their views. I also note that I have received letters from church leaders who have called for the retraction of this bill, and they have highlighted their reasons. They say in their letter to MPs that has been provided to the Premier, the Attorney-General, the Leader of the Opposition and Dr Bach, and also members of the federal government, that:

It is a vital part of church life and Christian schooling that parishioners and students have a faith environment that models Christian behaviour and ethics.

To that end, church and Christian school leaders have always been able to insist that staff model the Christian way of life.

The new Bill poses a serious threat to religious freedom and makes churches and Christian schools vulnerable to litigation and attacks.

That is exactly the point that Dr Bach was making. They go on to say that:

Fee-paying parents at Christian schools will lose their right to have their children educated according to their beliefs and modelled by all teachers and staff. Schools will no longer be able to provide an environment that is in line with their faith, as expected by parents.

I think it puts it under risk. It really clouds that ability for them to do so. Now, this letter is signed by hundreds. There are pages of signatures here, I do not know many pages. They go from page 3 to page 16, so 13 pages full of signatures from all manner of church leaders across this state who have highlighted their concerns. I understand the archbishop has written an open letter outlining their concerns. I think the government needs to really understand these views, and that is why more consultation needs to take place.

I do not know the extent of the government’s consultation—probably we will find that out in the committee stage—but I also note another letter that I received from the Catholic Women’s League. I am not a Catholic. As I said, I am an Anglican. I respect all manner of faiths, whether it is Catholic, Anglican, Islamic, Jewish or any other religious belief that Victorians have a right to practice in this state. In this letter they make the point that:

We object to and note the hypocrisy of the Victorian Labor Party who upholds the right to refuse to employ and to discriminate against those who do not believe in or promote their values, beliefs and policies when choosing who works in ALP roles and offices.

I do want to say again, in the final few moments that I have, that this is an important debate that we are having today but I do understand the concerns that so many have raised. I do believe that Dr Bach’s contribution to this debate, one, should be noticed, and people who are looking at this debate need to go back and see what Dr Bach has said because he has articulated the position and concerns of so many extremely well—from somebody who has been in a position, who understands this only so well. As a former leader in a faith-based school who has done tremendous work, his knowledge and expertise in this area are next to none. In fact I do not know that too many others in the Parliament would have the experience of Dr Bach, and I do believe that he can bring some credibility to the argument.

He also made a note about the leadership of the Liberal Party in many of these areas. It was the Hamer government that decriminalised homosexuality. Former Attorney-General Jan Wade, he mentioned. I note that my former colleague Clem Newton-Brown, under the Napthine government, started the process of expungement of convictions around homosexual crimes. That was then followed up by this government, and that was a good thing, but it was started under the Napthine government. To say that we do not have an interest in this or we do not care is simply wrong.

Dr Bach: It’s divisive politics.

Ms CROZIER: Yes. It is divisive politics, Dr Bach. It is unnecessary. It is actually ugly, and it is completely false when people say that we do not care. We do, and we have led the way over many years—for the past 40 years in fact—on many of these issues.

Let us be frank. This bill needs to have some more consultation because of the very real concerns that it raises, and I want to commend the efforts of Dr Bach in terms of what he has already spoken about and those people he has reached out to on behalf of the opposition. With those words I will conclude my contribution. Again I say this is an important piece of legislation we are debating today, but it does need to be seen in the context of the concerns of many, many people across the state who would like further consultation on this.

Mr MEDDICK (Western Victoria) (10:54): This bill, to the LGBTIQA+ community, to their families and to their friends and allies, is extremely important. It is important because not only does it make necessary corrections to the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 on sections that were removed by a previous government but it significantly narrows or removes the exceptions that currently allow religious bodies, related entities and schools to discriminate on the basis of religious belief, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, lawful sexual activity and marital and/or parental status.

I want to note that the same organisations, the same institutions and the same individuals complaining about their rights being eroded had no problem—no problem at all—denying the rights of others and were most vociferous in their attempts to deny those rights that they themselves enjoy, and they did so during the equal marriage campaign in a highly visible, highly divisive, highly disparaging and highly hurtful campaign. Shame on them. And it is particularly important right now in the current federal climate where we have a federal government hell-bent on seeking to wind back all the strides forward won as a result of same-sex marriage laws passing, whereby they will allow open discrimination and openly harmful and disparaging commentary to any LGBTIQA+ person either at school as a student or a teacher, or employed in any faith-owned and operated entity, as well as in any employment setting, by simply making a so-called ‘statement of faith’. I will not dignify that appalling move by listing the types of things that could be said and deemed exempt there. That has been out; that is all out in the community.

I want to outline a couple of examples now, real stories from people affected by the lack of protections that this bill seeks to address—the reasons these changes this bill brings are so necessary. Evie MacDonald is a 16-year-old transgender girl, and in 2020 Evie made her acting debut in the groundbreaking ABC children’s series First Day, which recently won an Emmy Award. Between 2011 and 2015 Evie attended a religious school on the Mornington Peninsula. In 2015 when she was 10 years old her teacher asked the class to divide into separate groups of girls and boys. When Evie said she wanted to go with the female students her teacher refused, told her she was a boy and physically dragged her into the group of male students. Also in the same year without her parents’ knowledge Evie was forced to attend seven sessions of chaplaincy counselling by the school, designed to prevent her affirming her gender as a girl. When Evie’s mother, Meagan, found out she was naturally, rightfully furious. Evie’s parents subsequently removed her from the school as soon as they could get a placement at another school. Under this legislation schools like Evie’s former school could no longer unfairly treat a student who comes out as trans or gay—not expel them, as has happened in other cases. I must add I think this bill could go further—by ensuring schools cannot impose discriminatory standards of dress on their students, for instance.

In another example, Sam Cairns worked for seven years at Flinders Christian Community College, a non-denominational Christian school. Sam was herself a graduate of this same school. When Sam came to terms with her sexuality she assumed that the school would no longer accept her being open about who she was, so rather than risking the hurt that outing herself and being fired would bring, she reluctantly resigned. In 2012 after she was finding it difficult to gain employment, the school, still not knowing her sexuality, hired Sam as a relief teacher and then on a short-term contract to teach computing studies, geography and history. On the very first day of her contract Sam was called into the vice-principal’s office and told to immediately pack her things and leave, as the school had been made aware of her choice of sexuality. Under this legislation Sam or any other teacher or employee could not be fired simply because of their sexuality or gender identity.

Sam and Evie’s stories are just a sample of what this legislation will correct. It is long overdue and most welcome. As I said, I think this bill could go further, and I will raise questions in the committee stage so that the answers may give insight to the many who contacted me looking for more. I commend this bill to the house.

Mr BARTON (Eastern Metropolitan) (11:01): I also rise to speak on the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021, which will strengthen Victoria’s anti-discrimination legislation. I will be supporting this bill today, and I do not think that is any surprise. Everyone is entitled to a safe and secure workplace free from discrimination. That extends to our education sector as well. No-one should be fired, expelled, denied services or treated unfairly because of their sexual orientation, their gender identity or their parental or marital status. The proposed amendments to the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 will better protect Victorian students, teachers, staff and people accessing services from discrimination by faith-based organisations. There will be some scope provided in the bill for discrimination if it meets a number of stringent requirements. This recognises that in specific circumstances there may be a requirement for a staff member of a certain faith. Currently there is a much broader scope for discrimination by faith-based schools, extending even to cleaners and gardeners. Every Victorian deserves to live, work and study with dignity and respect, no matter who they are and whom they love. This bill is a huge step forward in protecting individuals from discrimination. These reforms will make a huge difference to the daily life and the mental health and the wellbeing of LGBTQ+ Victorians who work and study in religious settings and those who access services from faith-based organisations.

An important aspect of this bill will be also protecting students from being discriminated against by their school. The bill prevents religious schools from discriminating in establishing, directing, controlling or administering their institution on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or parental or marital status. This will absolutely stop vulnerable children feeling outcast and isolated in their own school, which often they do not have a choice in attending. Schooling years are absolutely formative in young people’s lives. It is vital that Victorian kids feel safe and accepted at school. More than that, it is important that they see the staff members equally respected despite their differences. This will make all the difference in the upbringing of our next generation.

I support these reforms to ensure no more Victorians are sacked, expelled or treated unfairly by faith-based organisations simply because of their gender identity, their family circumstances or their sexual orientation. This is an important step forward in improving the safety and fairness of Victorian workplaces. I commend this bill to the house.

Mr DAVIS (Southern Metropolitan—Leader of the Opposition) (11:04): I am pleased to rise and make a contribution to this debate, but I do so from the position that this is another attempt by the government to damage religious freedom. Now, I am very clear here that these religious freedom rights and other rights have to be balanced. That is actually the essence of what this bill seeks to do, and we think it gets the balance wrong. We understand the concerns of some that excessive religious freedom, or a too-strong religious freedom focus, can lead to other rights being compromised, and it is inherently a balance, as we need to understand that all of these rights are balanced against each other.

There is a history to this. In 2010 the then Brumby government moved a bill very similar to this. We went to the election with a clear commitment to remove it, and we did. The Labor Party went to the election in 2014 with a commitment to bring a similar bill forward, and indeed they did bring that bill forward, which was defeated in the last Parliament. And now this bill has come forward again into the same terrain. It is not identical, but there are very strong similarities in the bill, as people will understand. There is also a federal layer to this, as people will be aware, and I know others have made commentary about the position of federal Labor being divergent from the position of state Labor on these points. I think it is important to understand there is divergence within the Labor Party, within the Liberal Party and within a range of different communities as to what the proper balance to be struck is.

But I do believe we need to treat religious freedom seriously. As I say, it needs to be balanced against other rights; none of these are absolute rights. In truth of course within a school, for example, or a religious institution there are a series of positions that are clearly, in my view, positions that ought to be able to be positions for which a faith community can choose people who have similar faith and perhaps specific skills within that faith. It would be absurd, for example, to demand that a preacher in a particular faith be a person who does not hold that faith; that would be absurd. And in the same way, a concurrent example that I could give is the ability of political members of Parliament to discriminate on a political basis against people who have different political views. You are not required to put into your office somebody who has a divergent political view. That is an accepted position. There are exemptions in the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 for that, so I am not required to have a communist in my office who has a completely divergent political view and a Labor Party person is not required to have someone who would have a conservative political view in their office, and I think that that makes entire sense. In the same way in a number of these areas faith communities have legitimate positions that they wish to reflect and prosecute. They need to do that within bounds, and I absolutely accept that none of these rights—none of them—are absolute; they all have to be balanced against other rights in the community.

I do believe, though, that we need to have a position where faith communities are able to exist and to reasonably, within bounds, promulgate their position through hiring policy and other arrangements. My colleague Dr Bach has gone through significant detail on this, but my purpose today is just to say that there are a number of principles here that I think we need to be focusing on. The truth is also that we do need to have reasonable protections for people who, perhaps through sexuality or other characteristics, need reasonable protection. So those are the balances that need to be struck so that we can both protect individuals to the maximum reasonable extent and at the same time understand that faith communities have a particular zone.

In a Liberal democracy we can understand that there are faith communities with whom we disagree and perhaps even vehemently disagree. There are faith communities that I have strong objection to, but in a Liberal democracy you need to have some zone where people can express and put forward their faith and views. So these are the balances that have to be struck. No-one should pretend that these are easy. I do not pretend that these balances are easy and straightforward in being struck. But I do think that where people have religious views, for example, if they want to send their children to a religious school, the right of that religious community and school to have a fair level of control about who is employed and the circumstances in which they are employed is reasonable. My children go to an Anglican school and a Methodist school, and I would indicate that I think one of those schools, the Anglican school, has actually been pretty good in imparting what I would call reasonable views on Christian values. I would say that the other school is a magnificent school but has been less successful in imparting some of those views.

Again, this is a balance. People actually do want some continuity and tradition with values. They want some continuity and tradition flowing through with our Christian links and past. I am one of those people. I am also very able to say that within our community there are people who have quite different views and different values—different religious values, quite divergent from the ones that I hold. It is interesting that the individualistic idea that is at the core of human rights is in its essence developed through Christian traditions, and I think that this is an important point to understand. The idea of the individual, the invention of the individual, is an important historical, philosophical and in part religious concept. I think that the idea of individual rights in this way comes straight through that trajectory of Christian values, the values that come from, frankly, the monotheistic traditions of the Middle East, as it would have once been called—Judaism but particularly Christianity—developing that very strong individualistic tradition, treating every person as an important person, an entity in themselves, and straight through to the Kantian tradition and philosophical ideas about the categorical imperative and so forth. I think these are very, very important in the development of the ideas of human rights, the ideas of the zone of an individual and the ideas that are behind the need to protect individuals in general.

To some extent, if I can put it this way, once upon a time—and pick a period historically but not that long ago—our country and many Western countries were overwhelmingly Christian and had a much deeper and sharper collective understanding of rights and understandings of how people should behave and be treated. Now we are a much more diverse community. That is a strong feature of our community, and I strongly support that. But it does mean that within our community there are different views and views that are somewhat divergent from the traditional Christian views that are the foundation of many of the ideas on which we base our jurisprudence, indeed base our parliamentary tradition and base our ideas of voting, our ideas of the common law and so forth.

So the task for us as a community is to strike that balance, to realise that we have got to accept and praise and embrace the strength of having the diversity. But that does mean according a zone. It does mean according an area of activity to different traditions and different groups. Some of those, as I say, have views that I would vehemently disagree with. The task in a liberal democracy like ours, a diverse liberal democracy, is to find a way to accommodate those diversities and the tensions that are inherent in those positions and at the same time protect individuals. And no-one should believe that this is an easy task. No-one should believe that this is a task that any liberal democracy has an absolute or final answer to. This is an evolving task, and it will evolve over time going into the future.

As Dr Bach pointed out, our party has a proud tradition of advancing individual rights. My predecessor in this chamber, Haddon Storey, was the Attorney-General who decriminalised homosexuality. I was very proud to be part of the government that brought through the expungement legislation, section 21A. I could go on with a long list, but all of those examples are of expanding the zone and protections around individuals, allowing people’s conscience to come to the fore and reducing state intervention in the activities of individuals. Those are all important steps that we have taken. My colleague also talked about the focus of another colleague, Jan Wade, and her work in advancing human rights through this Parliament as well. So there are many contributions that have been made.

I think the decision of the Baillieu-Napthine governments to take some of those steps was important, but there are new tasks and new areas that we need to look at as we go forward. But I do think as we proceed to expand the protections around individuals we have at the same time got to work out how we accord communities and faith traditions and others an appropriate and fair zone in which they can have their traditions and their religious beliefs expressed. The importance of schools and hospitals in those religious traditions is great. The importance of the contribution of many of the great Christian groups in health care, their significant role in health care, needs to be recognised, and again there are zones there that need to be protected from the state pushing in and trying to impose a particular set of views which are divergent.

Again, it is all about a balance of what can be struck reasonably in a broad liberal democracy. Each community might strike some different balance, and that is where I think the role of states is very important, because we might not all strike exactly the same balance. I am very happy to put on record that I am not always a fan of overarching federal views on some of these matters. Sometimes states have different traditions and states will seek to strike a different balance than some of our various federal colleagues in these areas. The current federal laws, I should say, I largely support. In conclusion, that balance has not been struck in this legislation, and it is for that reason the opposition will oppose it.

Dr RATNAM (Northern Metropolitan) (11:20): I am really pleased to speak in support of the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021. I want to start by acknowledging the work of the many organisations who have contributed to the changes in this bill, including the Victorian Pride Lobby, Equality Australia, Minus18 and Thorne Harbour Health. The religious exemptions in the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 have long been a wrong that has needed to be righted. I would also like to acknowledge the work of my Greens colleges Sue Pennicuik and Sam Hibbins, who have been advocating in Parliament for these laws to be changed over many years, including by introducing our own version of the legislation we are debating today.

There is no doubt that this bill is a win for the LGBTIQ community and the many people who have fought for an end to discrimination against members of their community. It is a good week to be debating this bill, as the federal government has once again decided to intervene in this area of law and introduce its own piece of legislation related to religious discrimination. It seems like their bill is more about allowing discrimination to take place in religious schools than preventing it, by introducing broad exemptions to allow people of faith to discriminate against other people on the basis of their own religious belief. The federal bill would allow a religious school to tell their trans students that they are going to hell or an unmarried parent that they are evil for having a child out of wedlock. It is effectively a licence for more hate speech. Given that that legislation would override the bill we are debating today, it is clearly a blatant attempt by the federal government to prioritise religious expression over the rights and the wellbeing of our LGBTIQ community.

Our equal opportunity laws are designed to protect Victorians from discrimination and harassment. These laws reflect now-established community norms that people should not be discriminated against in employment or in accessing services on the basis of a range of characteristics—race, sex, sexuality, gender identity et cetera—except that when the laws were introduced significant carve-outs were allowed. Notably, religious organisations were able to keep themselves separate from these otherwise established community expectations. It was wrong then and it is wrong now. For example, a religious school can fire a teacher for being a single parent, a person with a same-sex partner can be turned away from accessing housing services or a food bank, an unmarried parent could be prevented from seeking refuge in a family violence shelter and trans kids can be excluded from school activities, forced into harmful counselling against their will or expelled simply for being themselves. For teachers and students at religious schools these exemptions mean they are constantly at risk of being targeted and treated poorly because of who they are. It means many feel unsafe at work, school or university, having to choose between accessing education or services and being their true selves.

I would like to acknowledge at this point that the majority of religious organisations are not exercising these discriminatory exemptions. They are accepting of all members of our community and do not exclude people on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity, and they do not refuse to assist sole parents, divorcees or queer people. In fact many religious organisations provide vital community services to all in our communities regardless of whether they share the same faiths or beliefs or not. In the past year we have seen the amazing kindness and generosity of Sikh Volunteers Australia in providing meals for those isolating during the pandemic. We know that organisations such as Uniting actively support the LGBITQ community, staff and service users as well as this legislation, and there are many other examples of religious organisations who practice their beliefs in an inclusive way. But we are not here to change the laws because of these organisations. We are here to prevent those who would seek to discriminate from having a legal basis to do so. When LGBTIQ people are already enduring higher rates of bullying, harassment and violence than other Victorians we should be doing everything to prevent this from occurring, not opening the door for even more harm.

I know that most of us in this chamber know that allowing this kind of discrimination does not reflect the values of modern Victoria. Everyone should feel safe at school or at work and be treated with respect when accessing services or attending classes. While we understand that there can be tension between equal opportunity protections and freedom of religion, it is obvious that 10 years after these laws were enacted the act has got the balance wrong. This bill is finally closing this significant gap in our anti-discrimination laws and removing the ability for religious schools to discriminate on the basis of people’s sexuality, gender identity, sex, lawful sexual activity, marital status and parental status. This change will also extend to religious organisations who receive government funding; for example, organisations like Uniting or the Salvation Army, who run a range of really important services and community programs.

It also removes a broad exemption that allows any individual to discriminate against another on the basis of religion, an exemption that no other state in Australia has. The bill retains the ability for faith-based institutions to discriminate on religious grounds when hiring but introduces a more objective test so that it can only be done where religion is a really key part of the job and where the discrimination is reasonable and proportionate. It means that religious schools can still hire people of faith in appropriate roles—for example, as religious education teachers or principals. However, the bill does have a few loopholes remaining. We have heard from Equality Australia and the Victorian Pride Lobby that this bill presents an opportunity to strengthen our equal opportunity laws even further and really lead the country in anti-discrimination protections, which is why, on behalf of the Greens, we will be seeking amendments to this bill. I am happy for those amendments to be circulated now.

Greens amendments circulated by Dr RATNAM pursuant to standing orders.

Dr RATNAM: In brief, my amendments seek three changes: firstly, to remove the distinction between government-funded and non-government-funded services and prohibit religious bodies from discriminating against their service and facility users on the basis of any protected attribute except for religious belief and activity and sex; secondly, ensuring that the exemption allowing schools to set standards of dress et cetera are further limited by having those standards meet broad community expectations rather than allowing school communities to potentially undermine the new protections and set their own discriminatory standards; and finally, the ability for religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of religious belief is limited to the time of enrolment. This is consistent with similar laws in Tasmania.

I will speak in more detail about these amendments in the committee, but they are about improving protections against discrimination in the act, particularly for LGBTIQ students, and in the spirit of this bill, about closing ongoing loopholes within the bill that allow the discrimination to occur despite the intentions of the act. I commend this bill to the house.

Mr FINN (Western Metropolitan) (11:28): In rising to speak on the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021, I want to commend Dr Bach in particular on his contribution to this debate today, and I want to compliment him on his contribution in the short time that he has been Shadow Attorney-General. I think he has grabbed the nettle very firmly. He is doing a very, very good job indeed, and I think his coverage of this legislation is a very good example of that.

In thanking and congratulating Dr Bach, I would also like to thank the many hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people who contacted me on both sides of this debate. My view, particularly over recent times, is that community input is exceedingly important. What we have seen over recent times is that many, many thousands of Victorians have taken the opportunity and they have used their right to contact their local MPs expressing a view on legislation that we had before this house, and I think that is a very good thing.

I know that there is a petition against this legislation that currently stands at over 6000 signatures, and that is from both the Islamic and Jewish communities, so it is great to see that they are getting involved in our democratic process. I think that is something we can all be excited about at a time when perhaps there is not a great deal of reason to be excited about much else. But it is great to see people getting involved.

I cannot help but mention the irony of this government’s putting forward of legislation against discrimination this week. When the Andrews government has actually mandated discrimination in the state, they then tell us it is so bad that we have to legislate against it elsewhere. If we could get some consistency from this government, it would be very, very handy indeed, because at the moment there is none. It makes no sense; they make no sense. You cannot be saying discrimination is great in one instance but discrimination over here is appalling. It is against various sections of the community. That is just not on.

I want to make it very clear—I want to put it on the record—I support equality. I very strongly support equality. I believe that every human being has equal value and should be respected by the law, irrespective of where they come from, who they are, what their sexuality may be, whatever they may be. If they are law-abiding citizens, then they should have equality before the law. They should have equality in our society. I believe that human rights are important. They are vitally important. In fact without rights we are somewhat less than human, and that is something that I have had a firm view on for quite some time. Of course one of those rights, and a very basic right at that, is the right to freedom of religion. It is a right that we have had as human beings probably since the beginning of time. Today we need to respect it as much as we have ever, and that is not necessarily happening. This legislation is a fine example of the lack of respect for the freedom of religion.

We have heard today about discrimination in religious schools on the basis of sexuality in particular, and I have got to ask the questions. Where? Who? I am sure that if this sort of discrimination was going on in whichever school—whether they be Anglican schools, Catholic schools or whatever—we would all know about it. Any amount of money at all I would put down that we would all know about it, because there is a very organised lobby group, a very professional lobby group, and they know how to do their job. They do it exceedingly well, and if this was going on, we would all know about it. So why are we debating this bill today, when it seems to me there is no real reason to debate this bill today? The church schools are exhibiting tolerance. As I say, where are these people who have been sacked? Where are these kids who have been expelled? Where are they? I am sure we would know about it if this was happening. I have got no doubt about that at all.

The fact of the matter is that there is a war on people of faith, not just in Australia but indeed throughout the Western world. And I suppose you have got to include China and some places like that, but that is also a war of a different kind against people of faith. Quite frankly I have had enough. I have always been taught to turn the other cheek. That is what the good Lord told us, and I am happy to follow that. But there comes a time when the cheek gets very sore from being whacked—both sides in fact have been whacked rather severely—and you have got to say something. You have got to do something, and on this occasion I am going to do that.

This war on faith-based education in particular has been going on for a very, very long time. I remember as a very young child at a Catholic school in country Victoria not having any funding at all from the government. There was no support from the government, and indeed our school was regarded as somewhat of a second-rate school because they did not have the facilities that the state school up the road had. They did not have the grounds that the state school up the road had, and this was largely as a result of campaigning by a group known as DOGS, the Australian Council for the Defence of Government Schools. They campaigned long and hard, and very early on successfully, against taxpayer funds going to non-government schools. Of course, the fact that parents who send their kids to non-government schools are taxpayers did not seem to worry them too much at all. They campaigned long and hard against any form of government funding for non-government schools, in particular Catholic schools. There was a fair degree of bigotry involved. The fact of the matter is that the leader of this group was somebody who is probably a name that is known to us all, the late Joan Kirner. She spent a long, long time ensuring that Catholic schools in particular were treated as second-class entities in the education system.

It staggers me that here we are, all these years later—many, many years later—and we have got the same attitude from the same sort of people: that religious schools have no place, that religious schools should be treated as second-class entities. Well, I say they should not. I say that we should stand up for the rights of parents and children who go to these religious schools. Everybody has the right to choose where they send their children. In fact if I had my way, I would go as far as having a choice, an ultimate choice, of governments paying at various schools of parents where they wanted to send their kids. I think it is basically very, very important.

A belief in God should not mean someone is somehow less than human, and it should not mean that there should be some sort of subsequent diminution of human rights. But that seems to be the attitude of a good number of people—and I am sure, Acting President Patten, you will know who I am talking about in this regard. The hatred directed toward people of faith has to stop. And there is hatred; there is persecution indeed of people in this society, in Melbourne, in Victoria. This persecution, this hatred, based purely on the fact that they have a belief in God, has to stop.

Now, we know, and as has been pointed out by Dr Bach—who I mentioned put in an exceptional contribution earlier, and I congratulate him on that again—the religions of Australia put in an enormous effort. They are punching way above their weight in contributing to the social good of the community. Hospitals, schools, hospices, immigration services, homeless centres—you name it—and churches, various churches, whether they be Christian or otherwise, are able to be seen to be contributing very much for the benefit of the community. Could we imagine what would happen to our health system in this state if we were to close St Vincent’s Hospital, if we were to close the Mercy hospital, if we were to close the Epworth? What would happen to our public health system? It would disintegrate on the spot. If we were to close every Catholic school—as Joan Kirner wanted to do all those years ago—in this state, what would happen? What would happen to the public education system? Again, it would disintegrate on the spot. Let us be serious here. Let us give people the respect that they deserve. Faith-based organisations, churches—call them what you will—contribute enormously to the state, and they deserve to be respected, not just sort of a little bit here and a little bit there but generally they should be respected for the contribution that they make.

We know that multiculturalism is a very big part of society in this state. We are very proud of that, and that is in my view a very good thing. And a very important part of multiculturalism is freedom of religion. I know for me, in the western suburbs, I would spend—well, I used to before lockdowns 4, 5, 6 and 7; oh no, we have not got to 7, that is coming—a great deal of time going out visiting churches, visiting mosques, visiting temples and visiting various religious festivals around the place. That is part of the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in the west. It is a vital part of who they are and what they do. You cannot have multiculturalism, you cannot have a healthy multicultural society, without respect for freedom of religion. Take that away and you take away multiculturalism. You cannot have it both ways, and on this occasion it seems the government is attempting to do that.

I know that there is a conflict of ideals, but what I ask is that each side respect the other. I do not think that is an unreasonable thing. We have seen people over recent years who think that just because you have a different view you must be bad, just because you have a different view you must be destroyed. They will go after you. They will chase you into your home. They will chase you into your job. They will chase you everywhere. This is a nonsense; it has to stop. The churches have as much right and people of faith have as much right to be respected and to have their rights respected as anybody else in the community. It is a basic sort of thing—just a respect, a common decency, that we would all expect ourselves. So I say to the entire community, as my daughter would say, and as she has said to me many times: take a chill pill. Before we start declaring war on each other, let us show the sort of respect that we would want shown to us.

This bill, sadly, is another attack on religious freedom. The time has come, and I implore religious leaders throughout the state to get involved. Do not wake up when it is too late. Get involved and stand up for your rights, for the rights of your faith and for the rights of the people in your congregations. You have a duty to do that, and I say that most sincerely. You have a duty to do that. I will be opposing this bill, and I urge other members to do likewise.

Mr LIMBRICK (South Eastern Metropolitan) (11:43): This is quite a short bill but it is also a very complicated bill as it attempts to balance competing rights, concerns and values. On the one side we have gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people with a deep concern about being discriminated against in their workplace, their school or other places for simply being who they are. But then we have faith-based schools and communities with deeply held spiritual and moral values that they want to live in line with and raise their children in line with. These are challenging questions of competing values and rights that are not easy to balance. Then there is the question of the role of government and if and where it is appropriate for the elected government of the day to declare some of these rights and values more important than others and impose this view on people through legislation.

Before I speak on how we came to a position on this bill, I would like to thank the thousands of people that have contacted me to share their views. There were many emails, both urging me to support and to oppose this legislation. While the bill makes only some small changes, I think this is indicative of the fact that these small changes touch on areas at the core of people’s identities: who they are, what they believe and what gives their lives meaning. I would also like to thank Equality Australia, the Australian Christian Lobby, the Australian Association of Christian Schools, Christian Schools Australia and representatives of the Muslim and Jewish faith communities who met with me for sharing their views on this legislation.

When we first considered this bill, we thought that we would likely support it. While we support the right for people to live and teach in line with their religious beliefs, discriminating in areas utilising taxpayer funds creates a more complicated question. If they were funded completely independently, then it would be a much easier question. However, parents that want to send their kids to a faith-based school are also taxpayers. The Liberal Democrats believe in a more decentralised education sector and believe in choice and the power of the market to meet the needs of people.

It is in the area of education employment that this bill is most contentious, and this is the area that we received the most correspondence about. The stakeholders that we met with were broadly in agreement that it should be very clear and transparent during the hiring process that it was an expectation that staff should uphold the religious and moral values of the school. We agree. It would be unreasonable for someone to be hired where this expectation was not clearly explained and then have their employment terminated for not meeting the requirements that were not clearly explained.

Much of the concern with this bill surrounds the inherent requirement test. Is adherence to the faith of the school an inherent requirement of the role? The stakeholders from faith communities and representatives from faith-based schools that we met with held the view that this legislation fundamentally misunderstands the nature of these faith-based schools and the motivation of parents that want their children educated in line with their faith.

The way that the inherent requirement test is structured suggests that only teachers that are specifically teaching religion would have an inherent requirement to be adherents of the faith. Why would it be necessary to be a Christian or a Muslim when your primary role is teaching trigonometry and calculus? This misunderstands the nature of the school community. There are camps, excursions and a whole range of activities that extend simply beyond teaching maths. It really is an education community rather than simply an education facility, and in the case of faith-based schools it is a faith-based education community.

Indeed one of the Jewish community representatives that we spoke with said that the idea of employing people in their schools was around them being able to live and model the values of their culture and religion to act as an example for the students of that school, and that disrupting that would provide a contradiction to the students of that school.

Is it so strange for an employer to have a stringent code of conduct? For my own staff, their code of conduct is 16 pages long, and when hiring them I have the ability to discriminate based on political beliefs. Across the public service there are a range of rules that cover their behaviour, including outside the workplace and in commenting on social media. As long as faith-based schools clearly explain and consistently enforce the requirements of any role, they should not be interfered with by the state.

Could there have been improvements on the status quo? Yes, but as with much of the legislation that this government brings to this place, they raise an important issue or an area that needs reform and take it too far. The last two years has shown us how this government, when presented options for balance or nuance, has a tendency to steamroll opposition and smash through their view of the world.

Ms Watt seemed to suggest that LGBTQI people were frequently being fired for simply living their lives, as if this was some kind of terrible discrimination that was happening every week. But the stakeholders that we met with on both sides suggested that it was actually quite rare that that situation came up. The stakeholders that we met with suggested that it was far more common that issues related to adultery caused problems with the employees than people being sacked for being LGBTQI+. Whether you agree that this is a reasonable imposition on somebody’s personal life, if the expectations are clearly explained in the hiring process it at least demonstrates that codes of conduct are being applied fairly and consistently in a way that respects consent.

While the Liberal Democrats certainly agree that LGBTQI people, or any other person for that matter, should not be discriminated against in their day-to-day life or generally in their employment, what about other rights that can be balanced against that in the situation that we are debating here? I will refer to some international and state human rights instruments. There is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, particularly point 4 of article 18, which states, and I quote:

The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

Also article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, and I quote:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Also our own Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 states, in section 14(1)(b), and I quote:

… the freedom to demonstrate his or her religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching, either individually or as part of a community, in public or in private.

Also in section 19(1) on cultural rights:

All persons with a particular cultural, religious, racial or linguistic background must not be denied the right, in community with other persons of that background, to enjoy his or her culture, to declare and practise his or her religion and to use his or her language.

So the question here is not just how to protect one set of rights against an attack or infringement on those rights but how to balance these rights.

There are aspects of this bill that I am supportive of or at least very sympathetic to. Faith-based organisations should not be able to discriminate in the provision of taxpayer-funded services, but as Dr Bach stated in his contribution, this does not really seem to happen very often. I am also sympathetic to students, as they are not in the same position as adults when signing an employment contract, which calls into question the issue of consent.

The likely outcome of this bill in relation to employment in faith-based schools is simply more box ticking and bureaucracy to protect against future litigation. While recognising the complex emotions and deeply held beliefs on either side of this debate, it once again goes just a bit too far, and the Liberal Democrats cannot support it.

Mr ONDARCHIE (Northern Metropolitan) (11:51): Thank you for the opportunity to rise today to speak on the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021. The main purposes of this act as presented to us today are:

… to amend the Equal Opportunity Act 2010—

(a) to limit the exceptions in relation to employment matters in respect of—

(i) religious bodies; and

(ii) educational institutions that are, or are to be, conducted in accordance with religious doctrines, beliefs or principles; and

(b) to limit the exceptions in relation to the provision of government funded goods and services by religious bodies; and

(c) to limit the exceptions that apply in the course of establishing, directing, controlling or administering educational institutions that are, or are to be, conducted in accordance with religious doctrines, beliefs or principles; and

(d) to remove the general exception on religious grounds in respect of discrimination by individuals.

I speak with some experience on this. I am absolutely, totally, 100 per cent against discrimination of any kind. I know about this because I have had to live a bit of it in my life: at school, in my general life in the community and as an MP I have been discriminated against because of my background, my religion and my not-too-shabby skin colour as well. I went through a period of my life as a student where at school kids called me ‘nigger boy’ right through school. In fact after I was elected I ran into a chap in Collins Street who came up and shook my hand and introduced himself to me and said, ‘I went to school with you’. I said, ‘Oh, did you?’. He said, ‘Yeah’. He said, ‘I didn’t really know your name at school until I saw it on the TV last night. I just always knew you as nigger boy or choco’. So I know something about this.

There is an assumption in this bill that faith-based organisations discriminate against people. Well, let me talk to you about that. I went to a faith-based school. My children went to a faith-based school. We went to those schools—I cannot naturally assume why my parents sent me there, but my kids went there because they shared our values and our beliefs. Our values and our beliefs were about tolerance, about acceptance, about inclusiveness and most importantly about care for all people. Through that faith-based organisation and the faith-based organisations that we seek to attend—in person, out of COVID—I can assure people that, generally speaking, faith-based organisations do not discriminate against other people. In fact my Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, was a man for all peoples.

What we did see quite obviously just over recent times in terms of faith-based organisations and their love for all peoples was how faith-based organisations in particular react during a crisis—bushfires, floods and now a pandemic. I had the honour, dare I say the privilege, of seeing multifaith multicultural communities in action during those times of crisis. The Sikhs, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Jewish community, the Muslims, the Christians—a wide range of multifaith multicultural organisations all worked together to support communities in times of crisis, doing emergency food preparation, providing care, putting vaccination hubs in place, providing transport services and caring for elderly and vulnerable people. They provided a wide range of things not based on anybody’s nationality, not based on anybody’s faith, not based on anybody’s sexual orientation, not based on anybody’s age, not based on anybody’s economic situation and not based on anybody’s marital, non-marital or family status—whatever that means. They just reached out to communities irrespective of their standing or position in life and helped them through a range of people. To see in one hall people of different faiths and cultural backgrounds standing together preparing emergency food relief parcels and preparing opportunities for care and support for people of any background, of any status and of any particular circumstance right through communities is a blessing to us all.

So to come to this place with an assumption that faith or multicultural-based organisations are discriminatory is the wrong assumption, because we have seen it for ourselves. These Victorians have been amazing—of many backgrounds—supporting others, caring for others and loving others irrespective of their own faith or beliefs. Can I tell you the Sikhs, the Hindus, the Christians, the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Jews and people of a variety of backgrounds did not care who they were delivering food packages to. They did not check if there was a crucifix on the front window to make sure they were delivering to the right people. It did not matter. What mattered most was that they were caring for and loving another human, without discrimination.

I put to you that there are some misfindings in this bill that make an assumption that faith-based organisations, multicultural-based organisations are automatically discriminatory against people. They generally speaking are not, and each of us in this place, had we been doing our job through this time of pandemic in reaching out to communities—and many, many of us did—would have witnessed that for themselves. The wonderful Sikh community with their bus, both in the northern suburbs and the southern suburbs going out to communities, and in the bushfires going out to Mallacoota, providing meals—they did not check if the people receiving emergency food parcels were Sikhs. They just handed them out with love and with care for all. And that is why there are some misfindings in this bill. That is why there are some bad assumptions in this bill about people of religious backgrounds.

It somewhat seems that there is a lack of appreciation about care for all by religious and multicultural groups and not a complete understanding about how much they reach out spiritually with faith and with kindness to other people. This bill has almost got an anti-faith attack about it. This is almost discrimination the other way, as if we are trying to get rid of faith, and that is not fine. That is not fair. The Labor Party in Victoria have some conflict on this because their federal colleagues say things like this: that opposition leader Anthony Albanese has ‘backed the right of churches’ and faith schools ‘to gain protection from discrimination’. It was reported in the Age that he said, and I quote:

… he knew of no example where a gay or lesbian teacher had been sacked for their sexuality in a Catholic school.

Mr Albanese went on to say, quote:

One of the things that faith communities do is they bring people together. They bring that sense of belonging and identity through common shared faith and view of the world. That is why religions can play an important role and that is why they need to be respected.

The Honourable Tanya Plibersek, the federal Shadow Minister for Education, has also said, and I quote:

Of course we support religious freedom in principle—no-one should be discriminated against for their religious beliefs or religious practices, it’s a basic human right.

Federal Labor are saying that, and I will have more to say after the break.

Business interrupted pursuant to sessional orders.

Questions without notice and ministers statements

Department of Justice and Community Safety

Mr DAVIS (Southern Metropolitan—Leader of the Opposition) (12:00): My question is to the Attorney-General. Attorney, I refer to the consultancy spending in the Department of Justice and Community Safety, the department where you are lead minister. Consultancy spending surged 482 per cent between 2019–20 and 2020–21. Wouldn’t the $11.07 million in consultancy spending have been better spent cutting the massive court backlogs?

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (12:01): I thank Mr Davis for his question. Obviously we do discuss court backlogs in the chamber quite a lot, and I have not shied away from indicating to this house that it is a significant challenge. Obviously we know that the courts were not immune to the impacts of the pandemic, but they have been phenomenal in working with government, with Courts Services Victoria, within their individual institutions and together to develop strategies, particularly in relation to digital enhancement, to enable people to participate in the justice system remotely. We have learned a lot of valuable lessons, and some of those practices will become more embedded and permanent whilst we have the return of face-to-face hearings. Juries are back, with some of the legislation that we passed recently to ensure the health and safety of all participants.

We have invested significantly in relation to this issue. There was $56.7 million for VCAT to predominantly deal with online pivoting; another $55.3 million for legal aid, Victoria Police, the Office of Public Prosecutions, corrections and victim services to ensure that they also play a role to assist with backlogs and assist with matters, helping clients and court participants deal with and settle matters before court; $40 million for the online Magistrates Court; and $34 million for bringing forward appointments for County Court judges. We have been working well, focused on these issues. Those initiatives were part of a $210 million funding boost, which was on top of $80 million previously invested.

It is an ongoing effort. We will continue to make the appropriate investments. As always, I am very happy to talk to anybody in the chamber about the operation of the courts and our committed efforts to ensuring that we get on top of backlogs and people have great access to justice in the state of Victoria.

Mr DAVIS (Southern Metropolitan—Leader of the Opposition) (12:03): Notably the Attorney hardly engaged with the fact of this massive increase in spending. The total increase across all departments was 38.8 per cent, a massive surge to $175 million in consultancy spending by the Andrews Labor government. But, Attorney, your department stands out for a terrible and wasteful prize, with the largest percentage increase of all departments. Why have the cost control mechanisms in your department failed so miserably to control ballooning and wasteful consultancy spending?

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (12:04): Mr Davis, there are important requirements of government to make sure that we get expert advice and expert assistance, because it is for the benefit of Victorians. In relation to the department of justice, I thank everybody who works for that department. The past two years have been incredibly difficult, and our public servants have really stepped up to ensure that they can continue supporting Victorians through really challenging times. There were a number of initiatives that were new to the department of justice in relation to managing hotel quarantine, for example, and the establishment of high-risk industry enforcement operations and the like, so it is not surprising that to protect Victorians and respond to COVID we had to ensure that we diverted resources to that endeavour.

Sexual assault data

Mr GRIMLEY (Western Victoria) (12:05): My question is for the Attorney-General. The Victorian Law Reform Commission’s (VLRC) recent report Improving the Justice System Response to Sexual Offences, which was tabled last sitting week, is very much welcomed. As I said in my statement on the report, we have previously suggested about half of the recommendations outlined. Some of these include stealthing—on which I had coincidently drafted an amendment to introduce last sitting week—public education, expanding victims rights, funding more multidisciplinary centres and funding for a victims legal service. It also recommended an online sexual assault reporting option in chapter 7, both through sexual assault support services such as centres against sexual assault and also through Victoria Police. Attorney, in a recent response to a question from me in this place about informal online reporting, you said, and I quote:

The government will be guided by the recommendations in the VLRC’s report to ensure that reporting options are informed by the needs of affected Victorians.

Attorney, given the VLRC report, will you implement an informal reporting option for sexual offences and under what time line?

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (12:06): I thank Mr Grimley for his question and his ongoing advocacy in this space. We are considering the recommendations of the groundbreaking report from the VLRC, including how we can improve pathways for the reporting of sexual assault. The VLRC was told that victim-survivors want to choose how they report and found that online reporting was one way that their options could be expanded. I am particularly interested in this particular recommendation. It is vital that victims have a safe and effective way to make reports. Consideration of reporting pathways will be a central component of the 10-year whole-of-government strategy for addressing sexual violence and harm, and I will have more to say about that strategy next year.

Mr GRIMLEY (Western Victoria) (12:07): I look forward to that. Recommendation 14 of the VLRC report says that government should:

identify key gaps in data, research and evaluation on the experiences of and responses to sexual violence and develop measures to address these gaps

It further states under this recommendation that the ‘modernisation of data systems for key agencies’ should be funded. Interestingly just over 12 months ago we all debated a motion I put forward about data collection for sexual assaults. It called on the government to create a database of victims’ experiences and complaints when pursuing sexual offending charges and asked the government to investigate our low rates of reporting and high rates of attrition. I said at the time, ‘You do not know what you cannot find’. Unfortunately our motion was not supported by the government and some members of the crossbench. Attorney, will the government now implement recommendation 14, which asks the government to identify gaps in sexual assault data and fund a modernised system for data collection?

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (12:08): I thank Mr Grimley for his question. I think it would be important just to restate that the reason the government did not support Mr Grimley’s motion was not based on the merits, but I think at the time I said that the government opposed the motion on the basis that the VLRC reference was ongoing and I certainly wanted to ensure that that work could continue without direct interference from me or prejudging the outcomes of that report. But you are correct that the VLRC did indeed highlight the importance of improving data collection, sharing and reporting. Again, similar to my previous response, it will be important to the whole-of-government strategy so that data collection can support and be consistent with the rest of the government’s work. There are a range of areas within government that are focused on this, and we want to make sure that that all marries up very well. I look forward to further discussions about these important issues in the chamber next year.

Ministers statements: veterans support

Mr LEANE (Eastern Metropolitan—Minister for Local Government, Minister for Suburban Development, Minister for Veterans) (12:09): Today I would like to provide an update on the latest organisations that have received grants through the Anzac Day Proceeds Fund and the Victoria Remembers grant program. These grants support a raft of new projects that will honour veterans’ service and help them live fulfilled civilian lives.

The Anzac Day Proceeds Fund supports a range of activities to boost veterans wellbeing. One of the latest recipients is an organisation called Guitars for Vets, which has received $16 500 to support its work providing music therapy to younger veterans experiencing stress and post-traumatic stress disorder, through guitar lessons. It is a great organisation, and it has actually got a fantastic CD out with a number of well-known veterans. It is a great CD. The Victoria Remembers grant program provides grants up to $30 000 for projects commemorating veterans’ service or educating Victorians about veterans’ contributions. Recipients of this grant include Melbourne Legacy, which has received $25 000 for its 90th anniversary commemoration for students to honour the sacrifices made by brave men and women who have served our country. Both programs were assessed by the Victorian Veterans Council, who do a great job. Can I take the opportunity to thank them for their work this year and thank them in advance for their work in coming years.

Veterans have made enormous sacrifices so all Australians can enjoy freedom and peace. That is why our government is supporting them and ensuring their contributions are appreciated long into the future. If I can double back to Melbourne Legacy, I cannot talk highly enough of Melbourne Legacy. I think we have got the best Legacy branch in the country, and they have been that for a long time. When I was a kid they looked after me, and I want to put on record my appreciation for that as well.

Department of Justice and Community Safety

Mr DAVIS (Southern Metropolitan—Leader of the Opposition) (12:11): My question is again to the Attorney-General. Attorney, the minutes of the board of management of the Department of Justice and Community Safety in possession of the opposition show that previously endorsed base review savings—cuts—were put on hold during COVID but have now been reactivated. Will you confirm that, whilst the consultancy spending in your department was blowing out, cuts through the secret base reviews were being implemented concurrently, and if so, will you detail the size of these cuts, cuts that the board of management minutes indicate could be up to 20 per cent in targeted areas?

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (12:12): Mr Davis, far from cutting services, the Victorian government with the budget last year is investing $700 million extra to strengthen justice, legal and court responses and to ensure Victorians have access to justice. Base and efficiency reviews are about making sure that government is running efficiently and effectively and ensuring that the community gets value for money. I certainly acknowledge that it is taxpayer funds that fund these agencies.

Streamlining administrative functions, improving procurement arrangements and increasing efficiency through innovative work practices are things that a responsible government should look at, and they are things that we intend to do. The government will continue to support the services that we have promised to, the commitments that we have made, and will continue to support our police and our courts and the other agencies that are within the department of justice, which includes the emergency services portfolio as well.

I think our record certainly speaks for itself. This is not about cutting services. As I said, last year’s budget and our commitment to base reviews have set a clear plan for financial sustainability. We have to be careful to make sure that measures are gradual and achievable in relation to the economic climate. It is not about reducing frontline services, which have grown significantly since we came to office. This is about measures looking at background efficiencies, and these are responsible actions that I think any government should undertake.

Mr DAVIS (Southern Metropolitan—Leader of the Opposition) (12:14): The same minutes, Attorney, in a detailed note concerning the 2020 legislative program, say that one key learning through the COVID process has been a recognition of how whole-of-justice coordination and advice could be improved. For example, the COVID legislation was a positive experience which allowed for greater central coordination and oversight of policy direction and reform priorities across DJCS. The remaining two years of the government’s term provide an opportunity for the department to build on what has worked well. Board of management discussed the six proposed strategies for improving the legislation program and oversight, including board of management having a more defined role in providing strategic input into and oversight of the legislative program. Attorney, aren’t these senior officials pulling your strings?

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (12:15): No.

Renewable energy

Mr BOURMAN (Eastern Victoria) (12:15): My question is for the minister representing the minister for energy, Minister Leane, and is in regard to hydro-electric energy. The benefits of hydro, other than the electricity, are the water storage and supply, recreation, flora and fauna benefits and the reduction and control of flooding events. In 2019 the government amended the Victorian Renewable Energy Act 2006 definition of ‘renewable energy’ to include hydro energy as a source of renewable energy. The most recently opened hydro plant, Bogong power station, was opened back in 2009—and I saw it might even be closed; I did not have time to check that. But anyway, I have been unable to find any future plans listed on any government website. With the onset of La Niña filling virtually all of our water storages beyond capacity, we should have been prepared for the new hydro dams to be ready to be filled during this period. My question is: what plans for future hydro dams does the government have in place, specifically for Eastern Victoria?

Mr LEANE (Eastern Metropolitan—Minister for Local Government, Minister for Suburban Development, Minister for Veterans) (12:16): I thank Mr Bourman for his question. This is a question for the minister for energy. I do not know, Mr Bourman, if I have told you I was actually an electrician. I could have a crack.

Members interjecting.

Mr LEANE: I never said I was a good one. But I will ensure that the question goes to the minister for energy and make sure that she responds to Mr Bourman within the time that is prescribed in the standing orders.

Mr BOURMAN (Eastern Victoria) (12:17): I thank the minister for his answer. I might give him a call if I need some work done at home. A recent study by ANU revealed that Victoria has 100 times more potential sites for hydro than needed to decarbonise the state electricity grid. Interestingly there is a high concentration of those in the eastern part of the state, close to many of the brown coal power stations. My question is: when is the government going to take renewable energy seriously and start planning for hydro-electricity?

Mr LEANE (Eastern Metropolitan—Minister for Local Government, Minister for Suburban Development, Minister for Veterans) (12:17): Of course that is a question for the minister for energy, and I will ensure that Mr Bourman’s supplementary question is passed on to the minister for energy and he gets a response as prescribed in the standing orders. I will also do Mr Bourman a deal: if my tool belt still fits me, I will come and do the work at his house.

Ministers statements: small business support

Ms PULFORD (Western Victoria—Minister for Employment, Minister for Innovation, Medical Research and the Digital Economy, Minister for Small Business, Minister for Resources) (12:18): I am very pleased to update the house on our government’s ongoing support for small businesses as we enter this exciting and optimistic recovery phase. The $12 million business recovery and resilience mentoring program has provided more than 9000 individual sessions for 3000 small businesses, including Mexican wrestling business Lucha Fantastica. This Melbourne-based Mexican wrestling and performance business is back in the ring and ready to take its operations to the next level—one of thousands of businesses that have benefited from the free statewide mentoring program. Lucha Fantastica owner Victor Diaz signed up for the program, which offers four 2-hour sessions with a professional business mentor, after public health restrictions forced a rethink of his operations. With support and strategic advice from his mentor, Jeff Webb, Mr Diaz explored a range of ways he could improve his business and broaden its offering, which has now expanded to include Mexican street food and drink, Mexican dancing and other entertainment.

This program is run in partnership with the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the program matches businesses from across the state with experienced mentors to provide independent advice on business goals, strategies and operations. Through the program, business owners work with their mentors to make informed decisions about the future of their business, including the development of business action plans, improving time management, identifying new opportunities and rethinking their marketing strategies. The government offers a number of other programs for businesses to work on their professional development, including the popular Upskill My Business program, which provides free practical workshops and training through some of Victoria’s top education providers.

With my remaining handful of seconds I would encourage all members, as they go about their Christmas shopping in the next little while and their end-of-year festivities, to prefer a local small business and to spend hard.

Ambulance Victoria

Ms CROZIER (Southern Metropolitan) (12:20): My question is to the Minister for Workplace Safety. Minister, I refer to the damning report by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission showing a toxic workplace culture at Ambulance Victoria. Minister, has WorkSafe undertaken an investigation of Ambulance Victoria?

Ms STITT (Western Metropolitan—Minister for Workplace Safety, Minister for Early Childhood) (12:20): I thank the member for her question regarding Ambulance Victoria, and I do note that the Minister for Health had quite a bit to say about this report in a statement earlier this week. Of course the government stands ready to act to ensure that the workplace culture at Ambulance Victoria is appropriate, that people are being treated with respect and that people have a much stronger avenue to be able to report issues that are unacceptable in any Victorian workplace. This was subject to a particular report on Ambulance Victoria, so I am not aware at this point in time, although I am happy to make inquiries for you, as to whether or not WorkSafe have been involved. I know there may have been individual cases, but I am happy to take that part of your question on notice and come back to you, Ms Crozier, on whether or not WorkSafe has investigated this matter.

Ms CROZIER (Southern Metropolitan) (12:22): Thank you, Minister, for that undertaking. I am wondering: if WorkSafe has not undertaken an investigation to date, will you insist, as you are entitled to, that WorkSafe investigate this dangerous workplace so that these damning findings are not covered up any further?

Ms STITT (Western Metropolitan—Minister for Workplace Safety, Minister for Early Childhood) (12:22): I thank Ms Crozier for her supplementary question. I know that the Minister for Health, on behalf of the government, has been very quick to accept the report and all the recommendations contained in the report. That work will be swiftly undertaken because our government is very serious about making sure that people in agencies and departments that the government is responsible for are working in workplaces that have appropriate culture in place and treat people with respect and that people who make complaints have their matters addressed. The government is very serious in relation to these matters. You would be aware of the work that the health minister and the Minister for Emergency Services in this place are undertaking with some of our other agencies in this regard and the work that I have been—

Ms Crozier: Will you insist?

Ms STITT: I am answering your question—undertaking with the sexual harassment task force.

Ministers statements: TAFE demonstration projects

Ms TIERNEY (Western Victoria—Minister for Training and Skills, Minister for Higher Education) (12:23): On the final sitting day of Parliament this year I am proud to rise to speak on the significant opportunities that have been created by the TAFE demonstration projects, which are delivering brilliant apprenticeship and training opportunities at the South West TAFE learning library hub, North East Link and now the new Footscray Hospital. A key component of these projects is the skills and jobs hubs to support local TAFE students to become part of these major projects and set the path for a great career.

Recently I was joined by Minister Stitt, Parliamentary Secretary Cesar Melhem and local member for Footscray Katie Hall to open the new Footscray Hospital jobs hub. The hub, managed by Apprenticeships Victoria, unites the Footscray Connectivity Centre, Plenary Health, Multiplex and the Victoria University Skills and Jobs Centre under one roof. The TAFE demonstration projects enable apprentices and trainees to earn and learn on some of the state’s most exciting Big Build projects and form part of the $33 million Big Build apprenticeships program, which is providing opportunities to Victorian apprentices and trainees each year over the next four years.

We are delivering high-quality training for the skilled workforce of the future, and I am proud that we are using the levers of government to create real opportunities on landmark projects that will benefit Victorians for generations to come, not to mention Footscray locals, many of whom have come from many different parts of the world. The hub will connect locals to great careers through $1.5 billion of the Big Build new Footscray Hospital project, a project that will employ more than 2000 people at peak of construction and will be built using more than 90 per cent of materials, services and equipment sourced by local businesses. This is one of three demonstration projects where we are connecting jobseekers to hands-on skills and training. This is an absolute foundation and purpose project. I am proud that we are using the levers of government to create real opportunities for great Victorians.

Electricity supply

Mr ONDARCHIE (Northern Metropolitan) (12:26): My question is to the Minister for Emergency Services. Minister, the Australian Energy Market Operator, AEMO, has stated that this summer poses a significant risk of severe storms as the La Niña weather pattern brings cooler weather. Since July Energy Safe Victoria has found over 850 non-compliant powerline spans that pose a significant risk to powerlines, particularly around vegetation and trees. Given the government are aware of this, what has Energy Management Victoria done to mitigate the risk?

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (12:26): Whilst the topic is an important topic, Mr Ondarchie, and I have a range of responsibilities and relationships with emergency management agencies, the question that you ask is a question for the minister for energy.

The PRESIDENT: Mr Ondarchie, the minister has already declared it is the minister for energy. Do you want to redirect your question?

Mr ONDARCHIE (Northern Metropolitan) (12:27): No. I will ask a supplementary, though. Minister, given that you have not accepted that Energy Management Victoria have a significant role in this and that is your responsibility, given the government clearing is behind schedule will you as the minister responsible for Energy Management Victoria—

Ms Symes: Energy Management Victoria is not my responsibility.

Mr ONDARCHIE: It is not?

Ms Symes: Who is Energy Management Victoria?

Mr ONDARCHIE: Emergency Management Victoria, I meant.

Ms Shing: Which agency are you talking about?

Mr ONDARCHIE: Emergency Management Victoria. Are we okay with that?

Members interjecting.

Mr ONDARCHIE: Well, we can have a dialogue or we can go through the Chair. It is up to you. Given Emergency Management Victoria is your responsibility and responsible for emergencies in Victoria, will you give a commitment that Victorians will not lose their power this summer because of the government’s failure to do their job?

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (12:28): Mr Ondarchie, I tried to help. I cannot help much more. That is not a matter for me. The Minister for energy is responsible for power supply issues in the state of Victoria.

COVID-19

Dr CUMMING (Western Metropolitan) (12:28): I wish everyone a merry Christmas and a happier next year. My question is for the Minister for Health in the other place. Last week the advisers from the minister’s office attended a meeting with my office regarding my concerns with the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021. At the meeting we asked if the health advice could be released at the time of announcing orders or directives. We were advised that this was not possible as advice could be given verbally and that time was needed to write up the advice. Can the minister advise how many times the health advice had been given verbally and not confirmed in writing before a directive or order was announced?

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (12:29): I thank Dr Cumming for her question. It covers many issues that we went through over many hours in recent days, but I will pass your query on to the Minister for Health.

Dr CUMMING (Western Metropolitan) (12:29): Thank you, Attorney. I look forward to the minister’s response. At that meeting my office expressed concern that the length of time proposed by the bill, from four to seven days, to release the health information was too long and again questioned if this could be shortened. The minister’s office advised that this was not possible as the legal ramifications needed to be considered prior to the release. This infers that currently the legal ramifications of the health advice are not being considered prior to using the advice to make directives or orders. Can the minister please advise why the legal ramifications of any health advice are not being considered prior to announcing health directives?

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (12:30): Dr Cumming, I am finding these questions a little triggering, but I will pass that on to the Minister for Health.

Ministers statements: kindergarten funding

Ms STITT (Western Metropolitan—Minister for Workplace Safety, Minister for Early Childhood) (12:30): I am delighted to announce that the Andrews Labor government is making sure more young children across the state can access and enjoy three-year-old kinder, with seven new projects as part of our Building Blocks capacity grants worth over $7.8 million. Kinder services in Coburg, Doreen, Maribyrnong, Murrumbeena, South Yarra, St Kilda East and Brighton will benefit from the funding to build new centres, renovate buildings and rooms, improve outdoor play areas and upgrade facilities, creating 239 extra funded kindergarten places. This is all about delivering on our commitment to provide three-year-old children with access to an additional year of funded kindergarten.

These Building Blocks grants support early childhood providers with new and existing infrastructure upgrades to create more kinder places and improve access to local early childhood services. As part of our massive $5 billion three-year-old kindergarten rollout we are investing $1.68 billion in the early childhood sector to build and expand kindergarten facilities across the state over this decade. We know how important the early years are. By improving and expanding the learning environments of our kinders we are making sure children right across the state can enjoy learning in modern, fit-for-purpose environments, giving them the very best start in life.

Written responses

The PRESIDENT (12:32): Regarding questions and answers today: Mr Bourman to the minister for energy, Mr Leane, two days, substantive and supplementary questions; Ms Crozier to Minister Stitt, one day, the substantive question; and Dr Cumming to health, Minister Symes, two days, question and supplementary.

Ms Crozier: On a point of order, President, thank you very much for that guidance regarding my substantive question, but I would indicate that I do not believe the minister properly answered my supplementary, which was: if it has not been undertaken, would she insist? There was lots of information that the minister provided, but she did not actually answer the question. Would you review that, could I ask?

The PRESIDENT: I am happy to review it.

Constituency questions

Northern Metropolitan Region

Mr ONDARCHIE (Northern Metropolitan) (12:33): (1573) My constituency question today is for the Minister for Roads and Road Safety. Cooper Street, Epping, servicing Pacific Epping, the Northern Hospital and the industrial area off Miller Street, is a nightmare. Cooper Street was again listed by the AAMI crash index as one of the worst locations for car crashes in Australia for accidents. Now, I did not need to do a survey about this, but I well know that as the population of Epping and Wollert grows the traffic is going to get more and more difficult to navigate. It is predicted that between 2020 and 2040 the population of Epping will increase by 52 per cent. In order to accommodate our increasing population and the subsequent increased volume of traffic, a solution at Cooper Street is urgently needed, because the present situation is simply intolerable. My question for the minister is: will the minister commit to investigating the traffic light sequencing at the intersection of Cooper Street and the entrance to the Northern Hospital and at the intersection of Miller Street and Cooper Street to provide a much safer passage for my locals in Epping to get home safety?

Western Victoria Region

Mr GRIMLEY (Western Victoria) (12:34): (1574) My question is to the Minister for Local Government. The Western Victoria electorate comprises 24 local councils, and I have had a great working relationship with each of them. Each of these councils delivers the ground services that make big differences to the places we live. Rural councils have become increasingly important to our smaller communities. The last decade has been quite tough on some of our smaller councils. Revenue is down, but roads and other council programs need extra funding to keep afloat. Bills such as the Windfall Gains Tax and State Taxation and Other Acts Further Amendment Bill 2021 are not making life any easier. Earlier this year I asked the minister to establish a stabilisation fund for our smaller councils. The answer I received was that the government had spent $50 million on public library projects and $6 million on finance and there was $8 million available in grants for rural councils to work together on collaborative projects. Although these projects are welcome, they do not address the core issue that small rural councils do not have access to finance to maintain and grow their councils. My question is: will the minister commit to ongoing funding to support regional and rural councils in Western Victoria through a stabilisation fund?

Western Metropolitan Region

Ms VAGHELA (Western Metropolitan) (12:35): (1575) My constituency question is directed to the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change and Minister for Solar Homes, the Honourable Lily D’Ambrosio. My question relates to the portfolio responsibilities of energy, environment and climate change. The Victorian government is providing a one-off $250 power saving bonus for people who are doing it tough. Eligible households include those receiving payments through the pension concession, Austudy, Abstudy or youth allowance programs or those who hold a Department of Veterans’ Affairs gold card. The community outreach partners, including the Brotherhood of St Laurence, the Consumer Policy Research Centre, Good Shepherd, Neighbourhood Houses Victoria, the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria, the Consumer Action Law Centre and State Trustees Limited, are supporting those who do not have a computer or who need help applying. This program closes on 31 January 2022. My question to the minister is: can the minister please provide me with an update on how the residents of the Western Metropolitan Region are being made aware of this important power saving initiative? I encourage everyone who is doing it tough to apply for this amazing support.

Western Metropolitan Region

Mr FINN (Western Metropolitan) (12:36): (1576) My constituency question is to the Minister for Transport Infrastructure, after I incorrectly addressed this question to the Minister for Roads and Road Safety thinking that Sunbury Road was in fact a road. But it is apparently transport infrastructure, so I will address it to the minister now. I am becoming more and more concerned by the day as developments move towards the duplication of some parts of Sunbury Road. I am deeply concerned that we are about to see a huge and monumental waste of money occur on this particular road. What the duplication will do is pick up one blockage and put it on another part of the road, and we are going to be spending millions of dollars to do that. I am asking the minister to reconsider this proposal and to ensure that it will not go ahead until such time as the Bulla bypass can be built.

Northern Victoria Region

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (12:37): (1577) My constituency question is to the Minister for Planning. The Victorian Planning Authority’s letter to the community regarding the Beveridge North West precinct structure plan and the Wallan quarry planning permit consultation states:

The panel found that a quarry should be planned for.

Therefore, the VPA’s changes to the plan and engagement with the community are limited to considering how (not if) the draft PSP and associated planning scheme amendment documents appropriately reflect the panel’s recommendations.

The issue for the community is not how the quarry is developed but whether it will be developed. The quarry did not appear in the future urban structure when it was exhibited in 2019, and the community were largely unaware that it was even a possibility. Given the strong community voice for no quarry in Wallan, how will the minister ensure that the community’s voice and concerns are appropriately considered and valued in this plan?

Western Victoria Region

Mrs McARTHUR (Western Victoria) (12:38): (1578) My question is for the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change and concerns Parks Victoria’s Greater Gariwerd Landscape: Draft Management Plan, which includes the ludicrous proposal to introduce dingoes into the Grampians, the heart of Victoria’s renowned wool industry. It is almost impossible to imagine the stupidity of this idea. In the rest of Australia tens of millions of dollars are being spent attempting to stop the damage that dingoes and wild dogs do, and yet in this wool-centred tourist area Parks Victoria and its tram tracks bound scientific advisers are seriously proposing deliberately introducing this threat. The idea was so ludicrous when it was first floated that locals did not seriously oppose it. They simply did not believe it was for real. Unfortunately they now know what the government is like, and more than 4000 people have signed this petition. So, Minister, will you come to meet the farmers and tourism enterprise operators that Parks Victoria’s proposal threatens?

Western Metropolitan Region

Dr CUMMING (Western Metropolitan) (12:39): (1579) My question is for the Minister for Emergency Services, from a resident in Werribee. Can the minister please explain why it has been mandated that CFA volunteers be vaccinated? Every summer thousands of volunteers drop whatever they are doing to attend a fire if called upon. But as some members are choosing not to be vaccinated, they cannot participate in this life-saving role, despite the fact that the role is mainly outdoors and socially distanced. Recently a farmer’s haystack caught alight. Unvaccinated volunteers, unable to use the local CFA truck, used their own fire units and machinery to attend the fire. Now, had it not been for these locals using their own equipment, the fire would have got out of control and more property would have been destroyed. Please, Minister, reconsider your actions and mandates.

Eastern Metropolitan Region

Dr BACH (Eastern Metropolitan) (12:40): (1580) My constituency question today is for the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Major Events, which is a first for me. Will the minister come to beautiful East Ivanhoe and meet with me and the president and the rest of the leadership group of the East Ivanhoe bowls club? I had the great privilege over the weekend of joining so many community members in East Ivanhoe for the bowls club’s open day. Members of this house will be aware that there is a mad plan from Greens members of the council—and Labor members—to shut down the club that has been there for 70 years, concrete the greens and kick the bowlers off. Now, I have made my views very plain here and elsewhere. I made my views plain once again to the many community members assembled at the open day that if I have anything to do with it the bowls club will be there for at least another 70 years. Now, there is a new mayor, and I took the opportunity to welcome her to her role—Cr Elizabeth Nealy. It was good to meet her, and she had some ticker showing up and speaking openly about the process. Now I would also like Minister Pakula to join me, to also seek to understand why it is so important to save this great club.

Northern Victoria Region

Mr QUILTY (Northern Victoria) (12:42): (1581) My constituency question is for the Minister for Health. Come 15 December, border residents will experience another episode of a tale of two cities. Residents in border communities tend to live their lives on both sides of the Murray River. We live work and play in our community, which is not limited by which side of the border we sleep at night. Prior to our border closure, residents say they never imagined our community divided, yet here we are again. We will be divided on our road map to recovery. In Wodonga the unvaccinated are not allowed to shop, play sport, go to the pub or attend events like weddings. Friends and families are split. Albury will soon be open to all, with rights returning come 15 December. The vaxxed and unvaxxed will be able to participate in society freely and without constant surveillance. The outcasts will again be able to work. Once again businesses on the Victorian side of the border will suffer. We can see it in action already. Minister, will you commit to lifting the vaccine mandates in Victorian border communities in line with New South Wales?

Northern Victoria Region

Ms LOVELL (Northern Victoria) (1582)

Incorporated pursuant to order of Council of 7 September:

My question is for the Minister for Disability, Ageing and Carers.

During the August COVID-19 outbreak in Greater Shepparton, Shepparton Foodshare took a lead role in coordinating food distribution to the thousands of locked down families, reinforcing its crucial role in helping the most vulnerable members of the community.

Unfortunately, Shepparton Foodshare have been served with a notice to vacate their current location by February 2022 and need funding to build their ‘forever home’. I raised this issue with the former minister in September, but he failed to respond.

Shepparton Foodshare plan to fund the $250 000 purchase of land and are seeking a further $950 000 from the state government to build a new fit-for-purpose facility. This new home will meet the operational requirements of Foodshare and allow for the capacity to expand in the future when required.

Will the minister provide a funding commitment of $950 000 to Shepparton Foodshare to construct a fit-for-purpose facility that will secure the future of the organisation?

Bills

Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021

Second reading

Debate resumed.

Mr ONDARCHIE (Northern Metropolitan) (12:43): When I was rudely interrupted by question time I was making the point that both the leader of the federal opposition, Anthony Albanese, and the Honourable Tanya Plibersek, the Shadow Minister for Education, were in fact supportive of the coalition’s position here in Victoria in relation to the bill that is before us today. These comments, made by Mr Albanese and Ms Plibersek, have put federal Labor squarely at odds with their Victorian counterparts. So state Labor are saying one thing and federal Labor are saying another thing. And if I could quote my colleague Mr Finn, who often says this, ‘Could they make up their mind?’.

What is really interesting, as the government look to prosecute their case for the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021, is that there is conflict between the federal groups and the state groups. Now, that is no surprise, because it would seem to me—and in fact it seems to others in this chamber, and it seemed over the last few days even Mr Somyurek thought—that Daniel Andrews decides everything just by himself with little consultation, clearly, with the community and, clearly, his federal counterparts as well.

Now, Mr Andrews may well think he is the most powerful Labor leader in the country, and that is probably why he thinks he does not need to consult with Mr Albanese or, dare I say, Ms Plibersek on anything, because he thinks he decides it all. So we are going to see, interestingly, how this plays out for the government when they are in conflict with the people who purport to be the alternate government in Canberra.

The tripartite test that comes as part of this bill talks about the inherent requirement provision, and it fails to recognise that people who provide pastoral care, particularly in faith-based organisations, could be doing anything but providing pastoral care. Now, I would expect, as I indicated earlier in my contribution, that if my children go to a faith-based school, then people who are able to provide that level of pastoral care in a faith context can do so. But there may be examples where the skills requirement of a particular teacher does not necessarily mean that they will have the faith-based thinking that comes with the school, and that is okay. The woodwork teacher might not necessarily be an active Christian in schools that my kids have gone to. That is okay. That does not necessarily mean they are being discriminated against. But I go to the point of, as part of the tripartite agreement, the issue around government-funded services. The clause of this bill that restricts religious bodies from discriminating in the provision of government-funded services is a preventative measure that by the government’s own admission is not responding to any real systemic issues. If I quote from the second-reading speech of the Attorney-General, it says this:

The government acknowledges that it is not aware of discrimination by religious providers in the provision of government funded goods and services. And, religious service providers generally do not discriminate in how they provide privately funded secular services, such as welfare and housing services. As such, the changes are not expected to have significant impacts for religious service providers. However, the changes have great symbolic importance and ensure government funding cannot be used in a discriminatory manner in the future.

If the Attorney-General is saying that, then there is clearly no requirement for this provision in the bill today.

This is a bill that I do not think supports multiculturalism. I do not think it recognises how broad we are as a community of different faiths, backgrounds and heritages in this state. We have consulted widely with the Islamic Council of Victoria, the Australian Association of Christian Schools, the Institute for Civil Society, the Christian schools association, Equality Victoria, the Catholic education office, the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne and many, many others, and I think, given my multicultural background, as the only multicultural member of the parliamentary Liberal Party, that I am well qualified to talk about this as well.

I say to you, President, and I say to this chamber that this bill is a complete overreach because it fails to recognise and fails to acknowledge that people of faith love all people and care for all people. Indeed after the tragedy in Christchurch I went the very next morning to the Broadmeadows mosque and sat with the local community, and they were not angry; they were forgiving. They were worried about people and how they cared for them, so I saw a whole heap of pastoral care for people not just at the mosque but for people in the local community irrespective of their faith and backgrounds. That is the statement that we are making today: that people of faith, generally speaking, are not discriminatory. In fact they are supportive of all people. I am reminded of my Lord and Saviour, who went to the lady by the well when he was being encouraged not to go, and if I can paraphrase what Jesus said, he said, ‘That’s exactly the people I should be going to’, and that is what faith-based organisations do. That is why this bill is a complete overreach, and I stand in opposition to it.

Mr QUILTY (Northern Victoria) (12:49): I will be brief. Anti-discrimination laws are difficult for libertarians. Some people have gone as far as to describe them as a hole in the philosophy. We support the rights of individuals to make their own decisions and we oppose the use of government coercion against individuals making decisions for themselves. As a pretty mediocre defender of rights said a few years ago, ‘People have a right to be bigots’, but that can lead to some ugly places. In communities where bigotry is widespread, being the subject of that bigotry can be very hard. Everyone’s minds turn to the American south and the civil rights struggles in the 1960s, but of course there are many, many examples of discrimination based on race or sexuality in Australian history as well. If there is a widespread and entrenched discrimination against a majority group, it becomes harder to defend the lack of intervention to change things.

It is not uncommon to see MPs celebrating their records as human rights champions. It is generally hypocritical. Often those same MPs publicly opposed those positions only a few years earlier. Governments rarely lead public opinion in these matters; they follow. They more commonly wait for activists and time to do their work for them, and only after a significant chunk of the population have already adopted these positions do they dart in, grab the flag and push their way to the front of the movement, waving the banner triumphantly. This is significant because we should be realistic about government motivation to enact anti-discrimination legislation. It is primarily to win votes, not to protect minorities. That may be a little cynical—no doubt there are always some true believers acting for what they believe to be the public good—but I maintain our major parties in Australia are made up predominantly of cynical, vote-chasing politicians, not true believers.

Let me set out what I believe: governments should never discriminate. Individuals and private organisations should be allowed to, but I have no problem with the use of social pressure to shame the bigots. You absolutely should not be forced to bake that cake at gunpoint, but you probably should just bake the damn cake anyway. If you do not, you are probably a bad person. It gets harder when we talk about organisations that take taxpayer money. Should they be allowed to discriminate against the people who contribute to funding them? Doesn’t government funding justify government action against bigots? There is a good case for it, but then, as governments grow, swallowing down more and more taxpayer money and extending tentacles into every aspect of society, there are less and less organisations that do not receive government funding. The libertarian solution here is to tax less and fund less and let private organisations make their own decisions.

It is significant that legislation like this was not proposed in the years when religious organisations were powerful within our society. In fact we saw the opposite: churches using their power to pass laws to enforce their morality on all of us. In those days I would have opposed the wowsers and the morality police in their attempts to control us, but that is not the society we live in today. The devout religious groups make up only a small minority in today’s Victoria, and perhaps they now need protection. We might be tempted to say that it serves them right, that the shoe is on the other foot and that they can swallow their own medicine. Ironically, however, I believe that many of those who in the past would have joined churches and advocated for enforcing religious morality now join activist groups and crusade to enforce their woke morality on everyone else—same moral fervour, same intolerance of their opposition.

Tolerance should extend to those who do not share our views. If a business does not want to serve you, why would you want to give them your money? Go somewhere that accepts you and send the bigots broke. Get your cake from someone who will celebrate with you. There is a large marketplace for religious views out there. If a church has an issue with someone’s sexuality, gender identity or some other characteristic, people should vote with their feet and move to a church that is more accepting. If a religious school rejects you for who you are, why would you want to work for them? Move on. Find somewhere better that likes you for you. I am more disturbed by the idea of schools ejecting students who have been there for years if they discover a sexuality or gender identity that does not fit. But even there it would seem best for the child involved to go somewhere they are accepted than to try and enforce the official, approved state philosophy on those that do not want it.

I see bills like this as an attempt to force all of society into a particular mould: the views held by the current moral enforcers. I believe it is overreach—intrusion of the state into areas that it should not intrude into—so I will oppose this on principle. Though let me put it on the record that I am not a fan of churches discriminating against people of a particular sexuality or gender identity. There are many views expressed in religious books that have been quietly swept under the carpet by believers in even the most conservative Christian churches.

I believe this form of discrimination could also be safely swept under the carpet with them, as many mainstream churches have done. But it is not my job to dictate other people’s beliefs. I will stand up for people’s rights to believe things I do not approve of and act in ways I do not like, and I encourage people to make their own opinions known to others with their dollars and their feet rather than with heavy-handed state legislation. I do not like philosophy enforced at the end of a gun, as ultimately all government laws are.

I cannot let this pass without a reference to this government’s discrimination against the unvaccinated, not for scientific or medical reasons but for political and individual goals. Some truly shameful acts have taken place under the mantle of the pandemic powers, and they continue apace and apparently will extend into next year. Perhaps this government should look first at what is stuck in its own eye before conducting its campaign against the thoughts of others.

Sitting suspended 12.56 pm until 2.04 pm.

Ms BATH (Eastern Victoria) (14:04): I am pleased to rise this afternoon to make a contribution on the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021. In doing so I want to speak to some of the key things that I have concerns about, and many of my constituents who have contacted me over probably the past two months have had their concerns as well. I thank Dr Bach for doing a lot of the legwork in terms of his shadow portfolio in this instance.

The bill amends the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 by altering the limitations of exceptions. It limits the exceptions in relation to employment for religious bodies and educational institutions. It limits the exceptions in relation to the provision of government-funded goods and services by religious bodies. It limits the exceptions that apply in the course of establishing, directing, controlling or administering educational institutions that are conducted, as the bill states, ‘in accordance with religious doctrines, beliefs or principles’. And it also removes the general exception on religious grounds in respect of discrimination by individuals.

One of the key sticking points is this tripartite test, so a three-pronged test, in terms of discrimination by religious bodies and schools and when we look at the employment of their staff. This can occur when there is an inherent requirement of that position and when an individual cannot meet that inherent requirement because of religious beliefs or activity, and the discrimination is reasonable and appropriate in the circumstances. Now, this test is fundamentally highly challenging. The window of achievement is so narrow as to be non-existent in practical application in many of our school systems in the private sector and the religious school sector. The bill restricts the ability of religious schools to discriminate on the basis of religion and in the administration of the school in terms of setting student codes of conduct unless it is reasonable and proportionate.

If I just relate to some of my own experience, when I left university, for various family reasons I headed back to Gippsland, and I was looking for employment. I would have been more than happy to go into the state system. There were not any jobs in the area where I was looking, fairly close to my parents at a time when my father was seriously unwell, so I applied for two jobs. One was in the Catholic sector at the local Catholic school and one was in another Christian school. I did not get the job in the Christian school because my view of Christianity was not as fundamental as the school ethos required. And so be it. I was more than happy, understanding that, not to have that role, not to have that job. I was discriminated against positively in their case because I did not fit the bill.

I also applied to the local Catholic school to teach maths and science. The principal there was named Ed Carmody. If you wanted to see someone who was the epitome of a good Christian but also a sensational bloke and a great leader, that was Ed. I know he passed away a few years ago, and he was absolutely loved and cherished in the community and by his family. He was faith based but was very, very human centred. I think he was a shining example, and still is, of how we should conduct education in the religious sector and the faith-based sector. I stayed there for a short time. Noting that my role was in the maths and science sector, I did not teach any of the specialist religious education et cetera other than a brief prayer, I think, at the end of the day.

The current definition of the test raises a serious issue regarding the employment of staff that do not share the religious belief of that school or body. We have heard from stakeholders that many schools will declare that a religious belief is an inherent requirement for employment in many teaching positions, as I have just said, and those that can be construed as having a pastoral care role. However, if the school, using its discretion, as Ed Carmody did back a long time ago—and today we see many, many needs—hires a teacher that does not share the same religious belief of the school, then indeed this test will be compromised. The school will no longer be said to have an inherent requirement for any like teaching role and the school will no longer then be able to preference applications based on its own religion. So it nullifies that inherent requirement of the position and, again, makes it very difficult for schools—and regional schools often find it challenging to get staff, whether it be in the state school system or in the private sector or the faith-based sector.

The department representatives in the briefing gave an assurance that it would be on a case-by-case basis that they would consider this particular clause, and it would vary in accordance with the nature of the position. But I think many people struggle to see how that could come to fruition and how it would not create a large number of litigations in our court system. So it is setting up for litigations and taking away that ability for schools to be able to hire on that faith basis.

Everybody deserves the respect to be a human being first. We hold the right to love and to be loved in return. We hold the right to choose who to love, and sometimes people choose us. It is just a beautiful thing, but it needs to happen across the board without discrimination. I am really committed to that as a position.

The Andrews government has brought this bill before the house today following allegations that teachers and staff were being terminated from religious schools on the basis of their sexuality or identity. The Attorney-General in her statement of compatibility said:

… the current … scope of the religious exceptions go further than is reasonably necessary to protect the right to freedom of religion and belief.

And I am quoting her:

The current exceptions allow religious educational institutions, including schools, to discriminate against students who are LGBTIQ+, female, or unmarried parents. This overrides … protections in the EO Act—

the Equal Opportunity Act—

preventing schools from discriminating in the admission of students, expulsion and other denial of benefits.

However, we have seen the commonwealth government recently introduce the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 and, with that, comments from the Labor opposition in the federal sphere. Federal parliamentary Labor has actually backed new powers to enshrine religious freedoms. The Leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese, has backed the right of church groups and faith schools to discriminate. I am quoting from an Age article most recently, which says:

… he knew of no example where a gay or lesbian teacher had been sacked for their sexuality in a Catholic school.

I certainly hope that is the case, as it would be unacceptable if it were the case. One of the things that faith communities do is bring people together. They bring that sense of belonging and identity through a common shared faith and view of the world. That is why religions can play an important role and why they need to be respected. I concur with Mr Albanese certainly on this occasion. There are probably not many times when I do, but we are on a unity ticket there.

This bill suggests these concerns by narrowing or removing the exemptions for religious bodies and educational institutions, limiting their right to discriminate when making employment decisions and providing government-funded goods and services, as I have said earlier. The bill also restricts the ability of religious bodies to discriminate in terms of their funding and their services—what they are doing and how they are producing that. A good example would be a charitable institution. Again I refer to the Attorney-General and quote her second-reading speech:

The government acknowledges that it is not aware of discrimination by religious providers in the provision of government funded goods and services.

And she goes on. In effect this is concerning, because at the moment the government is looking to fix a problem that does not need fixing, to fix a problem that does not exist, rather than focusing on resourcing and, most importantly, actioning those that do. I see that many of our charities in our regions do the most amazing job, and they do not ask as someone comes in the door for help what their background is, what their religion is or what their socio-economic standing is. They just help people as their core belief and as their core tenet. And they do so in a very non-judgemental way, and I think that is really important. We have seen, I am sure we have all seen, examples in own electorates of this. One in mine is certainly St Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army. We see that time and time again.

Through recent times we have in our region of Eastern Victoria Region seen floods, we have seen fires, we have seen COVID lockdowns, we have seen stresses in our region and we have seen people struggling just to put food in the cupboard, and that is where many of our charities do a fantastic job.

One local example is St Michael’s Parish in Traralgon and Mick’s Kitchen, which provide both hampers and fresh meals for those in need. I extend my thanks to all of our volunteers in the charity organisations. Whether they are religious or not religious, they do a fantastic job, and there are many examples in our local community neighbourhood centres that do very similar work. They welcome, they share and they provide.

Like others in his house, I have had thousands of emails from constituents who are deeply concerned about the bill. Most recently I had a number of people—it looks like a proforma email—in support of it. I thank all of them for sharing their views. I have got one that probably typifies some of the concerns that people have. This is from a resident of Gippsland South, Mr Dowthwaite. He said:

I am disappointed though hardly surprised to hear the Andres government is at it again.

He goes on to say:

It is not appropriate that any organisation, including religious schools, have the freedom to employ staff that are ambassadors for their organisation’s values?

And he said:

Religious schools—including Christian, Muslim, Jewish—merely wish to have the same freedoms of employing staff that apply to political parties.

I take that on board. I have also had—I will speak to this before I finish—an email signed by a number of religious organisations with that exact same conversation:

Could your political party operate in Victoria under such legislation?

It is signed by a variety of people, and I thank them for sharing that. The incompatible nature of this bill is evidenced in the EO act, where section 27 speaks to:

An employer may discriminate on the basis of political belief or activity in the offering of employment to another person as a ministerial adviser, member of staff of a political party …

We can positively discriminate as MPs with our political beliefs in our electorate offices or with our ministerial staff, but schools cannot. This is where the inequity of the situation comes in.

I would like to put on record my thanks to Dr Bach for doing the legwork in this and thank many of the people that have either written to me or I have communicated with or my staff have communicated with, as we have also had many phone calls in relation to this legislation. There have been many people that we have been involved with. My colleague Dr Bach has moved a reasoned amendment. I endorse and support that reasoned amendment, and I ask the house to do so also. Notwithstanding that, The Nationals will oppose the bill before the house today.

Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (14:18): I am just so pleased and it is such a pleasure to rise to speak to the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021. I have to say I feel like we are all on the same page. I mean, everyone is saying, ‘No, we love everyone! We don’t want to discriminate against anyone. We don’t discriminate against anyone. Everything is fine’. In that case, what is the problem? Why maintain this exception if we do not need it, as I hear from people who for some almost undisclosed reason are opposing this bill? We are all talking about love, we are all talking about equality, we are all talking about fairness and freedom, and yet people are opposing this bill.

Just as an aside, before I speak to the bill, in my lunch hour I went to the opening of a powder room. This was a delightful thing to do in my lunchtime—

Mr Ondarchie interjected.

Ms PATTEN: Yes, Mr Ondarchie, it was the opening of a powder room. It was at a club, the Kelvin Club, which was the first club to accept women as members, and that was 26 years ago almost to the day.

This powder room actually had significance in that club because there had never been a female toilet in the Kelvin Club until 26 years ago when they first accepted female members. That was because they could discriminate against women, and many clubs still do this. It shows the changing nature of our society that it would seem absolutely daft that you would have a club without a women’s bathroom, because they had no women coming to that club. Twenty-six years ago they changed that, and this is also an important change. This bill narrows that outdated carve-out that actually does cause harm.

I note that many people were saying it does not. Well, it does. It does cause harm. It causes real harm, particularly to our LGBTIQ+ community and particularly to women and to girls. As we have heard from everyone in this chamber, for or against this bill, every person deserves fair and respectful treatment when they go to school and work and when they are seeking support services. These carve-outs as they stand today allow faith-based schools and organisations to discriminate against people on the grounds of their sex, their sexual orientation, their gender identity, their marital status and their parental status. Really? In 2021 we want the right to do that? I was surprised that anyone would oppose this. I thought that we would have been home by now, because it just seems bizarre in 2021 that people would want that right.

I have been listening to Mr Finn, Mr Ondarchie and Ms Bath all talking about respect and agreement. In fact at one point I think some of the previous speakers were saying, ‘There’s no problem. We don’t use it anyway, so why should we change it?’. Well, why have it? Why have a carve-out that says that some people are less worthy than others? Because that is what this carve-out does. This carve-out says that it is acceptable and that these people—these others—do not have the same rights. ‘They do not have the same freedoms as I do’. In fact, ‘I should have this innate freedom to discriminate against them. I should. It is my belief, it is my freedom, and I should be allowed to discriminate against people’.

Well, no, actually. In fact it goes both ways. We have protection from discrimination on the grounds of religion, and this bill enshrines that as well. Our equal opportunity bill enshrines that. This bill will limit religious exceptions under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010, and it reintroduces that inherent requirement. I would say this is extremely sensible. This is extremely balanced. Currently the Equal Opportunity Act has broad exceptions permitting religious bodies to discriminate on the basis, as I said, of religious belief, sex, sexual orientation et cetera. This bill will narrow—not actually close—the ability to discriminate. It will just narrow how you can discriminate and how you can treat others differently.

It will narrow the ability of religious bodies and schools to discriminate in employment. It also narrows the exceptions for religious bodies that are state government funded. Let us remember, this is talking about government-funded organisations who want to have an exception from the Equal Opportunity Act. They are happy to accept the taxpayers money, but they would like to refuse services and they would like to refuse employment for some taxpayers. I find it quite extraordinary that anyone would want to defend that right.

I know that we have all received many emails asking us to support this or asking us to oppose this. I have received many from religious organisations saying, ‘I don’t know why—we’ve never used it. Why would we have this? We don’t need this exception. In fact we don’t think it’s right. In fact we don’t think it’s Christian. We do not think it’s fair and it’s not what our doctrines, what our beliefs, say. Our beliefs say “treat everyone equally”, our beliefs say “treat everyone kindly”, “treat everyone with respect” so why would we want this exception to treat some people without that same respect?’. But apparently we do.

Well, I do not. I want that to change, and so does the Brotherhood of St Laurence. They are a magnificent organisation. They wrote to the Attorney-General, and I was fortunate to be cc’d in. The acting executive director, Dr Lucia Boxelaar, said they ‘strongly support’ this bill:

This bill ensures that religious freedoms, that allow people to practice their faith, are balanced with the rights of all people.

We therefore urge all members of parliament to support the proposed reforms to the Equal Opportunity Act …

Well said. Why would we have an Equal Opportunity Act that actually carves people out, that says that some people are more equal than others, that some people should have more freedom than others? When I have been listening—and I have been listening to the contributions from everyone today—I keep nodding my head and saying, ‘Yes, I totally agree with you. Love is love. We should be allowed to love anyone. We should not discriminate’. So why are you defending this right to discriminate?

Let us be clear: this is not, as Mr Finn might say, about closing schools, about banning religion, about the end of religion as we know it. This bill finds a balance, and it is a balance that I am reluctantly comfortable with. Religious bodies will still be able to discriminate on the basis of religious belief in schools, workplaces and service delivery as long as it is reasonable and proportionate. Why would you want anything else? Why would you want anything more than being allowed to discriminate on the grounds that it is reasonable and proportionate, and in the case of employment, that it is an inherent part of the job? Religious bodies will still be exempt from discrimination laws when training, educating, ordaining or appointing religious leaders or members or when selecting or appointing people to participate in religious observance or practice. Now, that seems incredibly balanced. That seems to be finding a balance.

I do not think this bill is perfect. But this is the last day of sitting, so I am not going to try and change this bill now because that would delay the passage of this very important piece of legislation. But the Human Rights Law Centre, Dr Luke Beck, Equality Australia and many others have said that this bill could be strengthened by ensuring that students cannot be discriminated against on the basis of religion after admission to a school. It could also be improved by removing the distinction between government and non-government-funded services, and that is actually quite a key point in this—this exemption still applies if you are not government funded. Religious organisations, religious charities, still have the right to discriminate and be bigoted and treat other people less equally if they are doing it on their own dollar—their own tax-free dollar that is, the dollar that they do not have to pay tax on.

As I say, there could be improvements, but today is not the day for that. I certainly support Dr Ratnam’s amendments, but I would like to take on the motto that so many of us have had to, probably the motto that I probably say most days in this job: don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. And this is good.

I also think it is very important that we draw this line in the sand before we see the so-called religious freedom bill, the much-touted religious freedom bill, which is the freedom to be a bigot, the federal legislation that fortunately still has not seen the light of day. One wonders if it will. But our federal government currently is seeking to undermine these important values, rights and freedoms. The proposed federal bill takes away rights from people who are currently protected under anti-discrimination law. To think in 2021, in federation, that we would be overriding anti-discrimination legislation in our states, to think that we would be doing this—I find it a complete anathema. I hope it never sees the light of day, because that religious discrimination bill takes away existing anti-discrimination protections, including on the grounds of race, religion, sex, marital status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. Employees, students and people accessing goods and services may not be protected under our very own laws.

And the federal legislation not only overrides our legislation but redefines our legislation, and that is quite extraordinary—to think that a federal government would want to rewrite state legislation, legislation that has gone through a state Parliament. You know, this proposed federal law that may protect a boss, a colleague, a doctor, a taxidriver or another service provider who says to a colleague, student, customer or client, ‘Homosexuality is a sin. Disability is caused by the devil. Every child should have a mother and father who are married. God made only men and women. God made women to obey men. HIV is a punishment from God. People who do not believe in Jesus cannot get to heaven’ or ‘All people who believe in Jesus are idiots’. It goes both ways in the freedom of religion.

What sort of community do we want to live in where we find it acceptable to be horrible, to insult people, to denigrate people? That is not the society that I want to live in. That is not the reason that I am in this Parliament. It is actually about seeking equality. It is about seeking kindness for all and treating everyone equally, and that is what this bill does, because we really should not be having exceptions in discrimination legislation. This is about equal opportunity, and why would we exclude some people? Why would some people be more equal than others?

So I commend this bill. I am very certain and pleased that it will go through. I hope that the federal legislation does not go through. I hope that we never see the day where we allow federal governments to rewrite state legislation. I hope that if that was ever to occur, this state would fight that and this state would defend its right to make its legislation for our people, for our community. I am very pleased that this bill has made it to this house before the end of 2021, and I commend the bill.

Mrs McARTHUR (Western Victoria) (14:33): I am very pleased to follow Ms Patten in this debate, and I am so thrilled she has been to the opening of a powder room today. I think she will need to go to a lot more envelope openings to return to this house. I am sure it was a grand opening, Ms Patten. That is the club of course that will be exempt from land tax shortly because it does allow you to be there and it allows Mr Davis to be a member as well, while all women’s clubs will be subject to land tax. So let us not talk about discrimination here and let us not talk about inclusivity here. I am sure the powder room is fabulous, but how archaic for your club, Ms Patten, to be so out of date that it did not have a powder room until this time. It has been a long trip for the Kelvin Club, obviously. But let us get to this bill.

In rising to oppose the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021 I will largely be making a philosophical argument against the desirability of the bill, which is straightforwardly offensive to my political principles and, I believe, to those of most moderate and sensible people. It is an unjustified constraint on traditional and fundamental freedoms of belief and of association, freedoms which underpin the health of any diverse, pluralistic democratic society. I will begin, however, by looking at the context of the bill and some serious questions about its motivation, manner of introduction, timing and indeed necessity.

As we have heard from several speakers, there is real doubt about the scale of the problem this bill purports to address. Even in the small number of publicised cases which appear relevant closer examination reveals that matters are frequently not as straightforward as newspaper headlines and social media campaigns wish to portray them. Indeed readers of the Age last week will have noted the comments by a certain Mr Anthony Albanese. I do not know who he is. He is rather invisible really, Mr Anthony Albanese, but anyway he is an important man in the Labor Party, I understand, and he said he knew of no example where a gay or lesbian teacher had been sacked for their sexuality in a Catholic school. That came from the leader of the Labor Party federally, obviously a very eminent man in the Labor Party. He knows of no example. So if extreme cases make bad law, exaggerated and invented extreme cases make even worse law.

The vast majority of employers, religious or otherwise, who face difficult situations such as those publicised deal with them sensitively and humanely. This bill does not just demonstrate the government’s distaste for religion, it has a hefty dose of their typical, misguided distrust of employers too. On balance it is difficult to conclude that the significant restrictions this bill imposes are justified by a pressing need. It seems more likely that, as with other legislation considered by this Parliament, it owes its existence to an election pledge designed to satisfy interest groups within the Labor Party. Sadly our state’s religious communities, cultural diversity, parental choice and pupils’ education will be the poorer for it.

Certainly nothing in the consultation undertaken seems to reflect an honest effort by the government to sensitively address a genuine problem. The correspondence I have received and indeed the opposition’s discussions with religious groups involved make it clear that the protections promised in the dialogue have been stripped from the legislation we now have before us.

Finally, while I would not suggest this is a clinching argument, the huge volume of informed, frequently personally written contact I have received in opposition contrasts greatly with the small number of proforma encouragements to support the bill. Despite a recent flurry of carbon copy advocacy, the ratio is still 15 to 1 against. In short this invasive bill is unnecessary, disingenuously consulted on, ignores heartfelt community opinion and stubbornly presses on simply to deliver an electoral advantage to the Labor Party.

My last remarks on context relate to their inconsistency with the federal acts on religious freedom and their potential invalidity under section 109 of the commonwealth constitution. True to stubborn form, and despite the federal parliamentary Labor Party’s backing for the commonwealth government’s new religious discrimination bill, the Attorney-General has ‘vowed to fight any attempts by the federal government’ to prevent this bill taking effect. We know they want to characterise it as Canberra overriding state-based anti-discrimination laws. Others might simply see it as abiding by our constitution. Still, what is a national constitution when there are Labor interest groups to be satisfied at the next Victorian election?

Moving on, I would like to mention now my more fundamental politically principled objections to this bill, which would make it difficult for me to support it in any circumstances, let alone those we actually face. What we have here is an unwarranted attack on individual freedom, on the ability of religious groups to operate schools in their tradition and the right of hundreds of thousands of parents to send their children to schools which will give them the values-based education they choose. It is government overreach into one of the most fundamental aspects of life, and it is everything I came into politics to fight against. As I have always said, big government, big state, the nanny state, the whole concept of government controlling our lives, is abhorrent. I want government to get out of our lives. I want them out of our bedrooms, out of our churches, out of our kindergartens, out of our schools of choice and out of our businesses. I want individuals to be able to decide how they educate their children, what they do in their homes, how they live their lives and who they marry. That is the choice of individuals, and I do not want government involved. In fact when governments set out to solve problems they usually create more. This is a case in point.

Of course it is no surprise I am happy to defend freedom as a virtue in itself, and so I would defend the right of religious schools to operate and parents to choose them, whatever their merits, but the truth is the arguments in favour go beyond the philosophical to the practical. This is no accident, in my view. The excellence of these institutions actually results from the respect for tradition, diversity and creativity which freedom enables. The numbers speak for themselves. There are not many decisions which matter more than choosing schools for our children, and there is a reason why hundreds of thousands of parents in Victoria choose non-government schools—they value the choice they provide. One of the striking consequences of this bill is the effect it will have on the diverse, pluralist, multicultural society in Victoria the Labor Party claims to support. As ever, they say one thing—the feel-good sound bite—and do another.

I was honoured recently to be joined by Dr Bach in his capacity as Shadow Minister for Children and Students and my colleague in the lower house Shadow Minister for Education David Hodgett on a tour of Christian College Geelong. The college opened in the suburb of Highton in my electorate in 1980 with only 40 pupils. There are now more than 2300 students across five campuses. The school’s truly extraordinary success is less surprising when you meet the driving force behind it, Daryl Riddle, whose incredible combination of energy, drive, wisdom and reflection have made it what it is today, even including a farm they run and a cafe they run for children to have experiential learning. It was inspirational. Visiting the campuses, what was more apparent than anything else was the spirit and atmosphere of the school. It could not have been more apparent that education went far beyond subject-centred instruction in the classroom. It involved creating an atmosphere which imparts values and builds belief. Parents over school generations now have seen the results in their children, in their character and resilience as well as in their grades. That is why so many now choose the school—direct experience and word of mouth are manifest in the parental choices which make Christian College Geelong so terrifically well supported. What this government seems to fail to understand, but the success of this college underscores, is the very reason that so many parents now actively seek a values-based education is that so much of our society now aggressively dismisses, disrespects and simply ignores these same values.

For me perhaps the most extraordinary part of this bill is what it reveals about the Labor view of education. The tripartite test and the inherent requirement definitions show a fundamental misunderstanding of education and schools. A school is not the simple sum of every maths teacher plus every science teacher plus every geography teacher, the product of subject knowledge they impart in every individual lesson. This is a depressingly reductive view. If it were true, schools teaching the same curriculum would be largely identical, distinguished merely by the quality of the learning imparted in each subject, but we know that it does not reflect the reality of school life.

The character and culture of a school comes from its customs, traditions and values, from the personalities, interests and values of its teachers and its pupils, and often from its long history. This is what parents want. In the same way that we pass on our language to the next generation, we want cultures, beliefs and faiths to pass on to the next generation as well. It is fundamentally important in this regard to have teachers who live these values and who understand the culture. It is not simply about instruction of a subject. In seeking to remove discrimination we are quite literally removing choice. In so doing we will not improve schools, we will not improve pupils’ experiences and we will demonstrate a level of hypocrisy, given the political exemption so eloquently laid out today already, which does no credit to the Parliament.

So I urge you all to send a message in opposing this politically motivated, mistrustful, mean-spirited, reductive view of religious education and supporting the phenomenal work of our religious schools in Victoria. I of course will be supporting Dr Bach’s reasoned amendment when he moves it.

Dr CUMMING (Western Metropolitan) (14:46): I rise to speak on the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021. This bill is to remove the exceptions to the prohibition of discrimination for religious bodies, religious educational institutions and religious individuals in certain areas to better balance the right to equality with the right to freedom of religion. This is yet another attempt, it would seem, by this government to interfere in how Victorians run their lives and is an attack on religion. There appears to be a lack of understanding of what religion and faith is. It is not just the beliefs and rituals, it is about how you actually live your life and how you put those belief systems into practice.

I went to a Catholic school in Braybrook. I went to Christ the King and Chisholm College and I also went to St Monica’s in Footscray. In my high school years—I went to an all-girls school—we had openly known lesbians. Also one of my PE teachers was a lesbian, and we all knew that and were taught to respect their choices. That is what Catholics actually do. As for me, I had a wonderful experience in a Catholic school, where I was taught tolerance of others’ sexuality, and in my sexual education I was taught there are other ways that people are. I felt it was quite tolerant. That is how I was taught.

My children actually go to Catholic schools, and like many other parents I have sent my children to faith-based schools because I want them to have a religious upbringing and a code of morals that is part of that faith. At the same time, with any school, be it Catholic, Anglican, Jewish or Islamic, there are many parents who choose this within my area of Western Metropolitan Region. In my electorate we have Al-Taqwa College. On their website it says that it is a P–12 Islamic educational institute focusing on high-quality education for our students, balancing between the Australian curriculum and Islamic studies. You have to accept that the role of a teacher is not just teaching maths and science. The role involves many things, including being a counsellor and a role model, and to carry out that role teachers need to have a belief in that faith and to live their lives accordingly. Parents have the right to expect that when they chose a faith-based school for their children’s education their children will be educated in an environment that is consistent with the teachings of that particular faith. I have received thousands of emails, letters and phone calls from parents, schools, religious organisations and equal opportunity groups about this bill and their concerns.

An open letter from Victorian faith leaders to the Auditor-General sums up their concerns. I will read part of this letter:

Our faith communities work tirelessly across all sectors of society to support fellow Victorians from diverse backgrounds, believing we have much to offer the community in the services we provide. Our religious beliefs and values underpin every aspect of the work we do, especially in our care for the most vulnerable, our commitment to educating young people and our efforts to contribute to a more just and cohesive society.

Rather than allow religious bodies their natural right to operate in accordance with their beliefs, the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021 seeks to go well beyond what might be considered reasonable or healthy in a pluralist society. In introducing the legislation, the Victorian Government is seeking to dictate how faith communities should run their organisations. This gross overreach could see religious organisations being forced to violate their beliefs and values in managing employment matters.

For people of faith, religious beliefs shape all aspects of life. Parents that send their children to religious schools expect that the school’s environment faithfully represents the religious ethos in every respect including the conduct of all teachers and staff. With this Bill, the ability for schools to meet this legitimate expectation will be severely compromised because, in effect, the Bill erroneously disconnects religious belief from conduct that is consistent with this belief.

The Bill unfairly targets religious bodies and educational institutes. If passed, the legislation would impose restrictions on religious organisations that are not imposed upon other sectors of society, including Government bodies and political parties. If it is understood that it is advantageous for political parties and ministerial offices to hire staff who adhere to their beliefs and values, why is not the same standard being applied to religious organisations as well?

This is an unnecessary and unreasonable overreach of Government power and not appropriate in a tolerant and democratic society, where the rights of all people—including people of faith—should be respected.

We urge you and the Government to pause before pushing through such a drastic change that upsets the current balance which has proven to be fair and workable. We also urge the Government to conduct meaningful consultation with faith groups and other stakeholders which will be in the interest of all Victorians.

This letter is signed by the leaders of Anglican, Catholic, Churches of Christ, Hindu, Orthodox, Ukrainian Catholic, Jewish, Krishna Consciousness, Sikh, Russian Orthodox and Islamic faiths. I have to agree with them. We employ staff in our offices based on their belief systems. Members of Parliament sit in this house and are therefore employed on the basis of their belief systems. This bill is like saying that Mr Bourman, who supports duck hunting and pig shooting, should run for a seat under the Animal Justice Party—that while he shares certain values with Mr Meddick he does not share all of them but that does not matter. This is also wrong.

It is the wrong timing for this bill, bringing it to this house at this time, because there is a federal bill that has been introduced—a bill that is in conflict with this—and it has been referred to a joint human rights committee.

Now, the Attorney-General has stated that she would not rule out taking any action, including a High Court challenge, to defend state laws. I heard Dr Bach’s contribution at the start, and it concerns me, the letter exchange between the Attorney and him, as I know that my community would not like to see money wasted on a High Court challenge to debate and play politics with the federal Parliament at this time. There needs to be consistency and clear direction. The last things we need are extreme and expensive legal battles by the state in trying to override federal legislation, or an employer having to fight conflicting legislation. That is why I will move a reasoned amendment that we adjourn the debate until the federal bill has completed its passage. I ask for my reasoned amendment to be circulated, and I move:

That all the words after ‘That’ be omitted and replaced with the words ‘this bill be withdrawn until the completion of the passage of the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 in both houses of the Australian Parliament.’.

The legal advice that I have received from a leading employment lawyer is that, if this bill passes, it would only apply until such time as the federal bill passed. They also advised that any federal legislation would override any state legislation and that it is highly unlikely that a challenge would succeed in the High Court. That is why I moved the amendment—so the federal legislation is determined and any legislation introduced by this government can be consistent. I ask others in this house to support my reasoned amendment.

I have listened to the debate today. I know that Wear It Purple Day—and I am wearing purple today—is normally a day in August, which the government and others here have supported. When you Wear It Purple it celebrates our diverse LGBTIQA+ communities while recognising the discrimination that they actually continue to face on a daily basis. I wish to acknowledge that. We have come a long way in terms of a lot of people’s bias towards the greater LGBTIQA+ community, but obviously we can do more.

I am very lucky that I live in the western suburbs. We are a very inclusive, a very diverse and a very multicultural community. As others have commented many times before, we have many different religions within our community as well as different sexualities and identities. We are so lucky that even with all those different religions—when there are wars and people fighting around the world because of religious beliefs—here in the western suburbs of Melbourne, all of the religious faiths and groups actually get together, multifaith groups. They encourage tolerance and understanding of each other’s religions. They go around making sure that they have days where all of the different churches and mosques and other places of worship are open so communities can go from one to the other—you can go and understand Islam or the Hindus or Catholics or Anglicans. I feel very blessed in the western suburbs that we have that, but also that we have a beautiful way of celebrating the LGBTIQA+ community. We have many bars, many events. We also host sporting events for that community, and there are many examples of how local councils and the state government and the broader community come out and celebrate all of those tolerances, educating as well as celebrating the diversity of our communities.

I will be supporting my reasoned amendment because I would love to see what happens in the federal Parliament before I pass this bill, because I do not want to waste money on legal challenges in the future or as of now.

Mr RICH-PHILLIPS (South Eastern Metropolitan) (15:02): I am pleased to rise to make some remarks this afternoon on the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021. The Victorian Liberal Party has a proud tradition of supporting equal opportunity and opposing discrimination. It was a Victorian Liberal government that introduced the first equal opportunity act in this state, in the late 1970s. It was a Victorian Liberal government that decriminalised homosexuality in the early 1980s. And of course it was the last Victorian Liberal government that passed legislation to expunge previous convictions related to homosexual acts from the previous period prior to their decriminalisation. So the Liberal Party has a very, very strong tradition in equal opportunity and in removing and opposing discrimination.

It is interesting to reflect on the way in which that original equal opportunity legislation developed and was used in its first iterations. I am reminded of what I think was probably the first use of that legislation, being the case of Deborah Wardley versus Ansett circa 1979, which was a case around sex discrimination. It was a case where Ms Wardley was seeking employment as a pilot with Ansett Airlines. She was well established as a pilot in general aviation, but she was seeking to become the first female airline pilot in Australia. To read back over that case, which was the first time the legislation was used in a meaningful way, and to read back over the debate at the time is quite an insight into the environment at the time. Ultimately some decisions were made under that equal opportunity legislation. The case never went to full fruition because there was a change in ownership and leadership at Ansett which made it a moot point, so the legislation was never tested to its full extent, but it started the framework for equal opportunity in this state. It was used in a very clear way in that case in respect of an employment matter, as to whether females should be employed as airline pilots. It was a very straightforward matter. The arguments at the time are quite amusing to look back at over 40 years later, but that set the path of equal opportunity legislation in Victoria.

So the Liberal Party in this state is very comfortable with equal opportunity legislation and is very comfortable in opposing discrimination, but the party is also very supportive of freedom of association and freedom of religion. That is where the bill before the house this afternoon runs into difficulty: striking the balance between the rights of an individual; the rights of other individuals to associate freely and to associate with people of similar belief and therefore similar values; and in this instance, given the debate is particularly around the educational setting, the right of people to have their children educated in a particular environment.

As we have heard from Dr Bach and others, the purposes of this bill are to limit the exceptions in relation to employment matters in respect of religious bodies and educational institutions that are, or are to be, conducted in accordance with religious doctrines, beliefs or principles; to limit the exceptions in relation to the provision of government-funded goods and services by religious bodies; to limit the exceptions that apply in the course of establishing, directing, controlling or administering educational institutions that are, or are to be, conducted in accordance with religious doctrines, beliefs or principles; and to remove the general exception on religious grounds in respect of discrimination by individuals. Much of the debate has focused on the issue of employment in a religious environment and the capacity for religious institutions to employ people of their own faith. We have heard about the three-point test which is being introduced in this legislation to restrict the circumstances in which a religious institution or a religious school seeking to employ a person of the same faith is able to require that faith as a condition of employment. We have heard about the inherent requirement test which is being imposed and the reasonable and proportionate test that is also being imposed as part of this provision.

Mrs McArthur in her contribution spoke about what she believed was the fundamental misunderstanding of this government about the nature of religious schools and religious institutions and about the fact that people of faith are not just, in sending their children to religious schools, seeking an education; they are seeking an environment for their children which has values consistent with their own, has a culture consistent with their own and reflects the beliefs that they have as a family in the broader educational environment. I actually disagree with Mrs McArthur, because I do not believe this is a misunderstanding by the government. I actually believe this is an intentional step by the government, knowing that it can say it is retaining the religious exemption for employment in religious environments while at the same time putting in place a test which is effectively unworkable and which will effectively make it impossible for religious institutions who are seeking to employ people with the same belief systems and the same views as the institution, by virtue of the inherent requirement test, to do so. As we have heard and I think Dr Bach spoke about, when employing physics teachers and employing mathematics teachers the ability to indicate that the religious belief and the religious values of the person in those roles form an inherent requirement for the role of a maths teacher or a physics teacher is going to be practically impossible. So I do not think it is a misunderstanding by the government; I think it is a deliberate attempt by the government to undermine this exemption and to undermine the capacity for religious institutions and schools to employ people of their own faith while pretending that the exemption remains.

If this legislation passes and this comes into effect, we will see the way in which this new test is litigated and the way in which in practice it ends up actually being able to be used, and I suspect it is going to be in very limited circumstances that religious schools and institutions are not going to be able to employ people of their own faith in the way they have done in the past. So while removing, in the government’s view, discrimination on the basis of religious belief, the government is going to be undermining the values and the cultures of these institutions where people choose to assemble and where people choose to send their children to be educated to the detriment of those groups and to the detriment of those families.

I thought Mr Quilty’s contribution on the debate earlier was interesting, where he made the very practical observation of: why would a person who is of a different belief want to force themselves into an environment where they do not inherently fit, where they are not inherently comfortable and where the people they are with are not inherently comfortable if the issue, for example, is religious belief? I think that practical approach that Mr Quilty articulated is something we need to keep in mind.

Legislating in a way that creates conflict between people in institutions is not in the interests of the individuals concerned, it is not in the interests of the institution and it is not in the interests of the broader community. Creating mechanisms to force people to be employed where they are not going to fit with the religious environment or fit with people of the faith of the institution—creating conflict—is not in anybody’s interest. Often legislation like this is put together at a high level. The principles and beliefs—dare I say ideology—of the government are forced at a high level without regard for the practical implications they are going to have on the ground.

As I said, the Liberal Party has a very proud tradition with respect to equal opportunity legislation in this state and with opposing discrimination in this state, but as so many other speakers have said today, in the example of religious belief in religious institutions an important balance needs to be struck. We believe the government has failed to get that balance right with this legislation. They have failed to consult adequately about this legislation, and for that reason we will be supporting Dr Bach’s reasoned amendment that this bill not be read a second time until further consultation is undertaken. And if that does not succeed, we will be opposing this legislation on the second reading.

Ms SHING (Eastern Victoria) (15:13): I have sat here for almost all of this debate, and I have read every single word of the debate in the lower house on the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021. At the outset I know that there are a lot of people who are following this debate very, very keenly from all sides of the debate and all positions that it entails. I want to acknowledge those with whom I have spoken and with whom I have met. I also want to acknowledge in particular the religious organisations, peak bodies and groups who have extended me the courtesy and the respect of discussions around why it is in fact that religious exemptions are an important part of the fabric of the communities, the schools and the organisations that they are quite rightly proud of.

The tenets fundamentally of tradition and of community have been spoken about extensively in this place, and I will touch on them, albeit briefly, today in my contribution. But I also want to acknowledge the really key role of organisations like the Victorian Pride Lobby, Equality Australia and the many religious organisations who have stood very proudly in support of the removal of religious exemptions and of discrimination on the grounds of religion.

We have heard today from those opposite about why it is that this is not a necessary change to make—because there is, to paraphrase a number of speakers, not in fact any problem at all. This is where I beg to differ, and this is where every time I stand up to talk about these sorts of issues I invariably get upset. So I am asking for the forbearance of the house and of this Parliament to stay the course with me as I work through this.

Lots of people talk about how they have an understanding of what this means, and I take Dr Bach at his word when he refers to having seen the importance of an inclusive and a diverse school community to foster a culture of belonging, of self-esteem and of the capacity for students to reach their best potential and for staff and for teachers to do the same. But I am here on my own today as the only LGBTIQA+ person in this Parliament who is out, and I am here today to say that voting against this bill because you think you know tolerance and inclusion is not to know the discrimination that I face every day, that LGBTIQA+ people face every day. For our entire lives we are told that we are different and we are told in too many cases that that difference is unacceptable, that therefore we should not be entitled to be treated in the same way as others, that in fact who we are is an incursion or an inconvenience, that we represent something bad and nasty, that according to the federal freedom-of-religion debate and discussion that is going on at the moment, comments which will be sanctioned to enable offensive discussion to occur mean that I can continue to be told that I belong in hell, that I am a disgrace and that I am not worthy of being included in the way that others are, because for some reason religious belief trumps my identity.

I have worked too hard over these last seven years since I was elected, not just as the Parliamentary Secretary for Equality but as someone who is trying to be visible so that others can do the same, to instil a sense of pride in who we are. Pride is really, really hard when we live and swim against a current that is not just about tolerance—that idea of putting up with something that you find distasteful—but about finding and levering reasons to disallow our ability to move, to live, to be employed in and to take part in the things that people take for granted.

In the last Parliament I stood here while motions about the Safe Schools program were debated, and I listened to those opposite as they looked me in the eye and said that people like me did not deserve protection from bullying and discrimination, from isolation, from harassment and from vilification and that in fact the desire to be treated equally was part of some dramatic agenda, some idea to in fact reach into the good, straight, respectable world and turn it on its head by including people like me. I listened and I took part in the debate and that awful postal survey, which never needed to happen, before the marriage equality debate, and in the name of freedom of religion and freedom of expression I was told that it was one step away—if they voted yes, if people I knew voted yes—for me to be able to marry a dog or a pig.

I have stood in this chamber and sat in this chamber and I have voted time and time again in favour of progressive reform. I listened to people opposite say, ‘We respect and admire and love and include LGBTIQA+ people, but—’. And there is always a ‘but’. There is always a reason in the name of political discourse to say that we are a really, really great part of the world, we make fantastic tokens on television shows, we make a really neat reality TV program that gets people better dressed and sassier on the streets. But we live lives of a thousand cuts in a thousand different ways—the way that we are employed, the way that we are talked about, the esteem in which we are held. Our identities weigh us down in the same way that they prompt us to seek pride. We lose our families, we lose access to support, we lose a seat at the table in so many important ways, in so many specific, wonderful, celebratory ways—in grief, in mourning, in the achievement of those really wonderful landmarks that everyone ought be able to celebrate with those who they love and who love them.

And yet when I stand up here I know, because I have seen the rolled eyes. I have seen people say, ‘There goes Harriet, she’s on again about the equality agenda’. This is the equality agenda. For me this is personal. For me this is about the fact that when we have law which sanctions and facilitates discrimination—that says someone like me does not have to be employed because of who I am—that is another cut. That is another cut in the thousands of cuts. And to hear people say there is not a problem, to hear people talking in this place and more broadly saying there is not a problem, hurts just as deeply as discrimination, because it involves turning your backs collectively on what is the problem.

I can assure you that despite the many, many good religious folk out there, the excellent teachers and staff, the way that many schools work so hard to create and foster cultures of inclusion, there are so many devastating and tragic stories that sit alongside of that. And why aren’t they told? Those stories are not told because all too often, through no choice of our own, as LGBTIQA+ people, we take the path of least resistance, not because we want to but because to stand up for our own identities and our own rights is really, really tiring—because ours is a constant struggle to be simply recognised for the disadvantage that is an inherent part of who we are. It is humiliating. We are exhausted, but we are also resolute. And I do not neglect or ignore at any point the work that has been done across numerous governments to draw attention to inequality. It is important that we are able to take steps progressively over time to challenge and tackle the stigma and the discrimination that results all too often in our depression, our anxiety, our self-harm and our suicide. Too often we are here because of our chosen families. We are only here, we are only still here, because of the ones who love us and who we love in return.

When I listened to the debate on the ban on conversion and suppression practices in this place, again, I was told and I listened to the fact that it is nothing personal, that if we were to take everyone at their word there is nothing but love and respect for LGBTIQA+ people, but. And there is that infernal ‘but’, that connector, that enabler of ongoing prejudice and discrimination in the name of this so-called balance. When I listened to the debate on the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1996 reforms, which fell in the Parliament of 2014 and which, thanks to crossbench support from some of the most wonderful people I have ever had the privilege of meeting, succeeded in this Parliament, I was told by those sitting opposite me and by people who eyeballed me that it was nothing personal, but.

At a federal level we are now tackling the purported ability to make statements to offend. We are now looking at a piece of reform at a commonwealth level that seeks the power to retain bigotry and prejudice, as long as it does not step over that mystical line into vilification or hate speech. I can assure you—and I know this from personal experience, and the hundreds of wonderful LGBTIQA+ people for whom I am trying to be visible know it from personal experience—that offensive comments are part of the thousand cuts that we deal with. Discrimination in law—despite that the vast majority of religious organisations are, if we listen to those opposite, doing their best to do the right thing—and the frameworks that permit the perpetuation of this discrimination are further cuts. They ache, they hurt and they add up over a lifetime. And so until we actually tackle this stigma and do better by those who are not in this place—because at the moment, as far as I am aware, I am the only one—we are not doing our jobs. We are not doing our jobs to take care of those who are most vulnerable. And we deserve better.

This government has worked so hard—yes, partnering alongside the coalition and the opposition around the apology for historical homosexual convictions and, yes, working alongside them for better treatment for people with HIV/AIDS. But I look at the voting record here and I look at what has happened. I listen to the Leader of the Opposition on radio say in one breath that he does not think that LGBTIQA+ people should be a political football and then I see that he does not even show up to the vote, to stand opposite the government and have the guts to vote no. We do not have the luxury of being cowards. We do not have the luxury unless we are prepared to fly under the radar, to drop the hands of those we love and to closet ourselves over and over and over again in ways that constitute a cut here and a cut there. These are our lives. This is personal.

And there is inherently, at its heart, the reason why we need to pass this legislation. These loopholes have to be narrowed. I do not disagree that there is further work to be done, but I am not here to stand up and not make this personal. I am here to make sure that every single person voting in relation to this bill understands that it impacts people in very significant, very real and very enduring ways. The reasons to block this bill can be argued very eloquently. I have heard Mr Davis and others talk today about the various principles and philosophies that drive at the heart of prioritising freedom of religion, and I want those opposite to know and I want those who are perhaps following this debate to know that these reforms will, because of the will of this Parliament, pass.

But the work will go on, and I want those who are allies and supporters of people like me, without perhaps the advantage of standing in a place like this, to know that it will get better, and it will be the job of people like me and people who vote for this legislation to do all that we can to identify and call out that discrimination, to make it clear that we are in fact worthy of the same opportunities as others, that we do in fact deserve better than archaic legislation that gift-wraps the ideas of bigotry and exclusion in principles of philosophy. I commend this bill to the house.

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (15:29): Thank you, Ms Shing. You spoke for a lot of people today, and I know that is hard. I am so proud of you. That is what we are doing this piece of legislation for, right? So let us get this done.

In summing up debate on the bill I did want to take the opportunity to reflect on some of the themes that have emerged in the debate and the reasons why this bill is so important. But I think we pretty much heard why this bill is important just then. I spent a lot of time on the second-reading speech for this bill because it is an important bill. It is about people’s lives. And in that second-reading speech I outlined that the exceptions currently contained in the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 are really broad. They allow religious bodies and schools to fire someone because they are gay, divorced or an unmarried mother, and it is about time we closed this gap. It is this gap that has allowed discrimination to occur for many years and forced countless teachers and other staff at religious organisations to live in fear, simply because of who they are. The efforts by the Morrison government to entrench discrimination in our federal laws show us how fragile these protections can be and how important it is to make sure our laws are as strong as they can be.

I do thank all members of the chamber who have spoken in support of these reforms and for the moving speeches that they have given. I am proud to be among people with such strong commitment to equality. Despite earlier suggestions from the Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Minister for Equality that they would support this bill, the Liberal Party, as we have heard, have announced they are going to vote against it. It is telling, I have got to say, that the opposition’s so-called equality minister did not even speak on the contribution in the debate in the lower house. Once again the opposition have talked up their principles but caved to political pressure from the conservative elements within their party.

In terms of their specific comments the opposition said we should delay this bill and consult more. This response ignores the history of the bill. This bill—there are no surprises. We have tried it before. It is deja vu for a lot of people. We went to the elections in 2014 and in 2018 promising to make this change. The government has consulted with a wide range of stakeholders in developing the bill, including LGBTIQ+ stakeholders, the faith-based education sector, the non-faith-based education sector, faith-based service providers, religious school peaks and principals and faith leaders. I have personally met with leaders from Catholic, Anglican, Islamic, Jewish and Hindu groups. We listened carefully to their concerns, and I am confident we got the balance right.

The opposition are putting a reasoned amendment today, which is just about delay. There is no further consultation required on this bill. I watched a little bit of the Assembly debate, and I reflected on the member for Hawthorn’s comments. Mr Kennedy said:

My limit of three years in this place has taught me a great deal. One thing is that people who say ‘Delay’ or ‘There is not enough consultation’ very often just simply do not like it and it is a means …

to stop the bill. I cannot argue with the wise words of Mr Kennedy. It is a playbook. We see it again and again—a reasoned amendment to delay, to chicken out, to have a reason. As Ms Shing articulately stated, it is the ‘but’. We are not having any buts today. We are going to pass this bill because we have got enough people in this place that know it is the right thing to do.

The opposition have claimed that the bill is an attack on religion. As is often the case the opposition is contributing to the spread of misinformation. Let me be very clear: the bill will not stop religious bodies and schools from practising their faith, teaching their religion or maintaining their religious ethos. Like all employers, they will be able to require employees to respect their organisational values. The government recognises—of course we recognise—the contribution that religious schools make to our community. They strengthen the cultural fabric of our society and provide a spiritual haven for many families of faith, and a lot of people have talked about the contribution that religious groups have made to our community. I welcome that, and nothing in this bill stops any of that.

The bill explicitly provides exceptions for religious bodies to discriminate on the grounds of religious belief and activity, and we think that this is appropriate. Religious schools will still be able to set conduct policies requiring teachers to uphold the religious ethos of the school and not undermine the school’s religious teachings, provided the policies are not applied in a way that amounts to unlawful discrimination. I want to confirm that contrary to what those opposite have suggested, the bill will not impose a new administrative burden on religious bodies. We expect that most religious bodies and schools will be able to keep operating just as they always have, and as many have told me and we have heard again and again in today’s debate, most say they are not discriminating and they do not want to.

A ridiculous argument that continues to come up—and I do not understand how people keep prosecuting it—is that because there is no discrimination happening you do not need to make it illegal. Even if that is true, isn’t it the argument that you should remove the ability to discriminate if it will not impact anybody anyway?

Before we move on to the committee stage of the bill I do want to conclude by reminding the chamber who this change is for, and I think Ms Shing did that probably better than I will. But there are lots of people who, unlike Ms Shing, are not willing to come out and be a public voice. In fact they are not even willing to tell the people they work with what their reality is. The legislation is not about abstract principles; it will have a real-life impact on everyday Victorians.

During consultations I was heartened to hear, as I said, that most religious organisations are committed to treating all Victorians equally, but there are still instances of unacceptable discrimination, and people live in fear of that discrimination and the repercussions. We have heard from many teachers in religious schools that they go to work in fear. They are forced to lead double lives at work, lives stripped of the dignity and worth that all Victorians are entitled to. One such individual was a man I met with this week. He came to my office on Monday. He sent me an email outlining his story, and I was really happy that he came in to meet me personally. He has been a principal in Catholic schools for more than two decades. He has a deep, warm and vibrant Catholic faith. He has been a devoted and high-achieving educator in the Catholic education system, instilling Catholic values of the common good and human dignity in the students and staff within his care. He is also gay. For decades he lived in constant fear of his sexuality being revealed. He was not able to out himself at work because he could not come out to his colleagues. He was not able to be himself at work because he could not come out to his colleagues or to his church community. He had threats from staff that he managed when he tried to discipline them that they would out him so that he would not go hard on them or discipline them. He concealed his weekend activities from colleagues because talking about spending time with his partner could have gotten him fired. He volunteered for yard duty every Monday morning so he would not have the question, ‘How was your weekend?’, for years. I really thank him for coming in and seeing me. It was pretty heart rending. This is happening around our state, and it should not be. It is why this bill is so important.

Lastly I do want to acknowledge the pain that debates such as this do inflict on individuals. It is exhausting and it is traumatic to have political commentators and others constantly discuss whether your life is worthy, whether it is valid and whether it should be protected. To those people I say: we have your back. And I hope that with this long overdue change all LGBTIQ+ Victorians can live authentically, free of fear and in no doubt that laws such as this also have their backs.

Dr Cumming’s amendment negatived.

House divided on Dr Bach’s amendment:

Ayes, 12
Atkinson, Mr Burnett-Wake, Ms Finn, Mr
Bach, Dr Crozier, Ms McArthur, Mrs
Bath, Ms Cumming, Dr Ondarchie, Mr
Bourman, Mr Davis, Mr Rich-Phillips, Mr
Noes, 24
Barton, Mr Limbrick, Mr Stitt, Ms
Elasmar, Mr Maxwell, Ms Symes, Ms
Erdogan, Mr Meddick, Mr Tarlamis, Mr
Gepp, Mr Melhem, Mr Taylor, Ms
Grimley, Mr Patten, Ms Terpstra, Ms
Hayes, Mr Quilty, Mr Tierney, Ms
Kieu, Dr Ratnam, Dr Vaghela, Ms
Leane, Mr Shing, Ms Watt, Ms

Amendment negatived.

House divided on motion:

Ayes, 23
Barton, Mr Leane, Mr Symes, Ms
Cumming, Dr Maxwell, Ms Tarlamis, Mr
Elasmar, Mr Meddick, Mr Taylor, Ms
Erdogan, Mr Melhem, Mr Terpstra, Ms
Gepp, Mr Patten, Ms Tierney, Ms
Grimley, Mr Ratnam, Dr Vaghela, Ms
Hayes, Mr Shing, Ms Watt, Ms
Kieu, Dr Stitt, Ms
Noes, 12
Bach, Dr Crozier, Ms McArthur, Mrs
Bath, Ms Davis, Mr Ondarchie, Mr
Bourman, Mr Finn, Mr Quilty, Mr
Burnett-Wake, Ms Limbrick, Mr Rich-Phillips, Mr

Motion agreed to.

Read second time.

Instruction to committee

The PRESIDENT (15:53): I have considered the amendments circulated by Ms Maxwell, and in my view her amendments are not within the scope of the bill. Therefore an instruction motion pursuant to standing order 15.07 is required. I remind the house that an instruction to committee is a procedural debate.

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (15:53): I move:

That it be an instruction to the committee that they have the power to consider amendments to amend the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 to provide for the commission to review the programs and practices of any government department, public authority, state-owned enterprise or municipal council on request of either house of the Parliament, or a minister, and to disclose reports of documents relating to the review if it is in the public interest.

Motion agreed to.

Committed.

Committee

Clause 1 (15:56)

Dr BACH: Attorney, if it is all right with you, I will ask just a couple of questions. In particular I have got a couple of questions about the inherent requirement test. I will just ask you, if I may, about two or three types of different positions in schools to seek an understanding of whether or not they meet the inherent requirement test, but I may—

Ms SYMES: Through the Chair, before you get to that, I am just going to pre-empt where you might be going. I will not be in a position to give you a ruling on hypothetical situations. The second-reading speech outlines the inherent requirement test and gives some examples in that. So I guess I am just foreshadowing that it is not my role to make a determination on hypothetical situations through this committee.

Dr BACH: Fine. I understand that. As I said in the debate, the very specific examples that you used in your second-reading speech were instructive and very, very useful. I suppose what in particular I am seeking to get at, which was not necessarily made explicit—and that is no criticism—in the second-reading speech, is that as I understand it the fact of the matter is that should faith-based schools do what they do from time to time, which is use their discretion to appoint a person who does not have, to use the words of the bill, beliefs or principles which are entirely in accordance with that religious entity, well, that then punctures the inherent requirement test for all like teachers. Am I correct in my understanding, I suppose, is my question.

Ms SYMES: What became quite apparent through consultations, Dr Bach, is that many religious schools do not require their teaching staff to be adherents to the school’s religion. As such the inherent requirement test is designed to be flexible to reflect the fact that many schools do not wish to discriminate on the basis of religious belief when they employ staff. Whether or not a role inherently requires conformity with the religious beliefs and doctrines will depend on many factors, but importantly it will depend on the context of the school and what the particular role involves in practice. Religious schools can consider the inherent requirements of various roles, and in those roles, or in one particular role, it might not be inherent, but the next year they might have an additional role and it becomes inherent. It will be on a case-by-case basis.

Some schools may require a wide range of teaching staff to have religious pastoral roles in which strict doctrinal conformity is required. Others may designate specific positions that—

Business interrupted pursuant to standing orders.

Ms TIERNEY: Pursuant to standing order 4.08, I declare the sitting to be extended by up to 1 hour.

Ms SYMES: Dr Bach, I was finishing with the explanation in relation this. To comply with the inherent requirement element of the test, religious bodies and schools should consider the importance and extent of religious conformity required by each role in the context of their overall operations. That might vary from role to role, from year to year.

Dr BACH: Thank you, Attorney. I just have one other question. Regarding the reasonableness and proportionality test, as I referred to in my remarks earlier today, you used a very helpful example in your second-reading speech of a case in which it would not be reasonable or proportionate to discriminate because of the circumstances. The specific example you used was that of a teacher needing to carry out prayers or a devotion. Now, I note your comments to me before. However, given that you used that example, and I confess, in seeking to think this one through, given the scope of the test, I find it difficult to think through many examples of my own in which it would be deemed reasonable and proportionate to take action. I can foresee your response, but given that you were so good as to give us an example in your second-reading speech of a case in which that test could not be met, is it possible to have an example in which that test could be met?

Ms SYMES: I listened to your second-reading contribution, Dr Bach, in relation to the morning prayer example. What you said is fairly accurate. A lot of schools would find it easy to find somebody to fill the gap, but maybe you are a tiny school with only a few staff and it would be more difficult and so not reasonable to substitute another teacher to take the pastoral responsibilities. That is why we came up with the reasonable and proportionate test—to allow it to be flexible so that in instances where it might be appropriate for somebody who cannot fulfil the religious role, if the school can demonstrate that no-one else can either, then that would be an inherent requirement of that role. But in another situation, where they are a very large school, for example, or where you could combine classes for prayers or something—it requires people to consider the opportunities within. And I use schools because we can understand how that would work, but obviously this applies to all religious organisations.

Mr LIMBRICK: I have a couple of questions also for the Attorney around inherent requirements. Through our consultations it was put to me, especially in the case of some Jewish and Islamic schools, that the objective of their school environment is not just teaching but they want to create an immersive environment whereby it is not just teaching about their religion but also preserving their culture in many cases. Some of these schools want everyone within that school to model and be a role model for that culture. Their concerns, which were put to us, were that if they were in a position where people who did not model that culture were within their schools, they would be showing a contradiction to their students and their community. What would the Attorney’s response be to these groups that have these sorts of concerns?

Ms SYMES: Thank you, Mr Limbrick, for your question. I had obviously the same concerns raised with me. I spoke to a lot of people about this bill and how it would operate, and some religious schools were concerned about the fact that this bill may enable people to start undermining and actively campaigning against their religion within the school and whether they can take action or not. Nothing in this bill takes away the ability for a school to apply the normal expectations that they have on employees to behave appropriately within the context of the organisation they work for. So somebody that started to actively argue and try and convert people away from the religion that they were teaching in would not be facilitated or protected by virtue of what we are doing in this bill.

Mr LIMBRICK: I thank the Attorney for her response. With regard to the type of situation that I referred to, where the school is trying to set up an immersive environment, I acknowledge that many schools are not like that; they are diverse. In fact many Catholic schools intentionally bring in groups that are not part of their religion. But for a school that has an immersive environment—I fear I might be heading towards a hypothetical, but I will ask anyway—if their objective was to create an immersive environment, then could that be an inherent requirement of the role?

Ms SYMES: You have correctly identified a loose hypothetical situation. It is going to depend on a case-by-case situation, looking at the particular role that is required by the organisation as to whether there is a religious inherent requirement, so it is a bit difficult to sort of give you an all-encompassing answer, because the legislation is designed to be flexible.

Dr CUMMING: Attorney, I have some questions and I guess a bit of a statement as well on your second-reading speech. For me—on your second-reading speech—and the lived experience of teachers in, say, religious schools and being single parents in Catholic schools, the example I can give you is here and now. In the school that my children go to I know there are teachers who are single parents, and they are still employed. I know that there have been teachers who have been married, have come out as gay and then have gone back into heterosexual relationships, and they are still employed. And I know that there are openly gay teachers, and they are still employed.

I heard the example that you gave. I am guessing that it was a gay man in a religious school that felt that way—that he could not come out within this particular school—but my experience in the western suburbs of the schools that I have known of within my lifetime is that there has been a level of tolerance even though they do have their religion being taught. There is that understanding of people’s changing situations, but they still have their religious beliefs.

So for me, Attorney, is this widespread in Victoria? Because I have not experienced that in the western suburbs—that a teacher has been dismissed because they have become a single parent or they have got divorced or they have changed or identified differently their sexuality or gone back to another identity or sexuality.

Ms SYMES: Thank you, Dr Cumming. What you have articulated is a lot of people’s perception, not necessarily everyone’s reality.

Dr CUMMING: It is my reality.

Ms SYMES: Yes, but you are not the one that is potentially being discriminated against in the school. I guess if I was to flip that, yes, your experience is of inclusive schools and tolerance, but the current legal framework allows for religious schools to sack someone if they get divorced. That is permitted under the current framework, so we want to ensure that you cannot. As you have identified, we hope that it is not happening, but it can legally. So I am heartened that your experience is that you do not see a lot of it. I think that is fantastic, and I spoke to a lot of schools that said, ‘We employ gay people. What’s the big deal?’. But I also heard from individuals, from receptionists at schools who were separated from their husbands and did not want to tell the school because they thought that it might cause them to lose their job. So we are coming back to the examples of people maybe not actively being discriminated against and you are not seeing it but people not being able to tell anyone about the fact that they got divorced or who are concerned if they got pregnant without being married or—God forbid—were gay. ‘Let’s not tell anyone about it, because I might lose my job’—that is an awful way to live, and our laws as they currently stand say that is fine, that is legal.

So hopefully it is not happening very much, but we hear that either it is happening actively or people are concerned that it will happen to them. An example that I gave you was of a principal that I met with who was trying to discipline a teacher for inappropriate behaviour and they countered that with, ‘Well, if you go too hard on me, I’m going to tell everyone you’re gay, so you might lose your job’. Having that over people is something that we should remove.

We met with the Independent Education Union, and they brought us a lot of examples of where people either have been discriminated against or are concerned about the fact that it is legal to be discriminated against and therefore live in constant fear that it will happen to them if people find out about their real life outside of school. A recent survey of the union of almost 1150 members working in faith-based schools in Victoria and Tasmania found that 51 per cent of respondents reported having witnessed or been subjected to discrimination based on marital, relationship or parental status. That is pretty telling. That is a lot of people that are concerned about the fact that these organisations have got free rein to discriminate. I am sure there are great schools out there that do not, of course, but they have got nothing to worry about if we are just going to make it illegal for everyone to do so.

Dr CUMMING: Attorney, I thank you for that answer, because for me in my lived experience and what I have witnessed as I have gone through my school life as well as my children’s school life that has not been the case. I believe it is right to make sure that it is in law, that it is not the case that people are having those fears when they are coming out or saying that they have got divorced or saying that they are a single parent or saying that they are pregnant even, which is another fear that many women have when they are telling their employer that that is the case.

But for me the lived experience in the religious schools that I represent in the western suburbs is that I would say the vast majority are very modern in the way that they practise their faith and that they understand people’s changing circumstances. It would be sad to think that there are some schools or some people out there that would actually discriminate against someone for their changing circumstance, but I would believe that the vast majority have that balance. I know that we are in clause 1, so I can kind of make statements as well as questions at the same time, Attorney.

Ms SYMES: Thank you, Dr Cumming, for your comments. I guess what they represent is that in your experience and the schools that you know, what we are doing today will have no impact, because all it does is provide a framework for the way they are already behaving.

Dr CUMMING: I guess for me that is why I am feeling comfortable with some of the answers that you have been giving in this committee stage. I guess from some of the debate that we have heard—and there are obviously those minor examples—sometimes some of the conversations that are out in the community and that the government express paint all the organisations in a particular way or all the religions or all this as a bigger problem, a huge problem, rather than a small problem. But it still, even though there are a minority of people that are experiencing this, is a horrible problem that we should stamp out. So for me it is that balance of making sure that we respect the religious organisations that are out there that are doing the right thing, even though it is not in law. It is their morals and integrity that make them carry out doing the right thing by people. So it is nice to have a law, but I would say that they are currently doing the right thing by a lot of people.

Ms SYMES: Dr Cumming, perhaps a lot of those schools that are doing the right thing are some of the ones that wrote to me that welcomed the reform, because they think that everybody should do the right thing and join their club.

Ms MAXWELL: Firstly, can I just say that I am very appreciative of the contribution that Ms Shing gave today. I think it certainly shows her courage and how genuinely she wants to put an end to discrimination. She has advocated that for a long time, and it was very courageous and articulate for her to stand there today and give that speech. So I just want to acknowledge that.

Attorney, given what you were saying previously about how some people in schools have not wanted to tell their story because of the consequences that they may endure—and to hear the story of that principal that came and spoke to you, I too could not stop crying at that; that was just so sad—some people in schools obviously understand the consequences of talking about their sexuality, but in the most part most people do not care about legislation. They do not understand legislation. They would not even know it exists. So for those people, how do we now ensure that the message is put out very clearly and that it is transparent that it is now going to be legislated that it is illegal for that discrimination to happen?

Ms SYMES: Thank you, Ms Maxwell. It is a good question. It is important to ensure our laws are modern, respond to the type of Victoria that we want, promote equality and inclusion and specifically remove discrimination, particularly based on sexuality and marital status, as we are doing today. But cultural change has to follow legislative change. The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) are very keen to talk about these reforms, and there are a lot of advocates that have been working in this space for a long time, so I think continuing to have these conversations in a really respectful way is something I would welcome.

I think I acknowledged in my summing up that these debates about whether you should or should not discriminate can be really harmful and quite traumatic. Hopefully once we can move on beyond the legislation changing, we will have an opportunity to talk about what this means for people’s lives in a positive way. I do not want this to lead to cases of people having to take on cases of discrimination. I hope this leads to more awareness that these practices are inappropriate and illegal, and therefore it brings about positive changes. The laws do not matter; it is more importantly about the experiences of people. I agree with you about having more conversations and more awareness, and I think that the legislation enables us a bit of a platform to jump forward and do just that.

Dr RATNAM: Attorney, I have a clarifying question on the interaction between the proposed new section 83A inserted by the bill, which is concerned with religious schools, and new section 82A, which with these amendments will remove the exemptions from religious organisations receiving government funding but leave the exemptions in place for organisations that do not receive government funding. Can you confirm that religious schools cannot rely on the remaining exemptions in section 82 to discriminate?

Ms SYMES: Thank you, Dr Ratnam. Yes, I can confirm that is the position. New section 83A applies to religious schools and provides that they may only discriminate on the grounds of religious belief or activity where it is reasonable and proportionate. Religious schools will not be able to rely on the broader exception provided in section 82(2) that you referred to, which applies to religious bodies. This follows from the statutory language as well as the general principle of statutory construction that more specific provisions trump general ones.

Dr CUMMING: Just to the Attorney again, obviously we have all received a lot of emails on this topic from religious organisations or otherwise that feel that possibly this is an attack on religion. Is this meant to be? I guess, this is a very open question, Attorney. How is the government actually going to make sure that people out in the community realise, if it is not an attack on religious schools and their belief systems, that their right to religious freedom is still being supported by this government?

Ms SYMES: Just to be clear, Dr Cumming, the bill removes section 84 of the Equal Opportunity Act, which currently provides an exemption to religious organisations that other people do not have access to. It effectively enables religious organisations to take action against others on the basis of another person’s religious belief or activity, sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status, gender identity and actions that are reasonably necessary to comply with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of a religious individual’s religion.

So it is taking away an exemption that has facilitated the ability to discriminate. As you identified, we are hoping that not too many people do that. But it is in no way designed to remove religious freedom. It is to protect against discrimination on those other attributes unconnected to religion.

Dr RATNAM: I move:

1. Clause 1, page 2, lines 1 to 3, omit all words and expressions on these lines.

My amendments 1 to 4 and 8 to 11—I believe that is the right grouping—seek to remove the distinctions between government-funded and non-government-funded services and will prohibit religious bodies from discriminating against their service and facility users on the basis of any protected attribute except for religious belief and activity and sex.

When people are in crisis and are seeking assistance from religious community service organisations, the majority of whom provide crucial and compassionate care, they are not in the position to investigate the funding status of the available service and will instead go to the most readily available. This could mean that a trans woman seeking a family violence refuge could be turned away from a non-government-funded religious service and accepted by one that does receive funding. When vulnerable people are accessing housing support, a family violence refuge, counselling services, emergency aid et cetera, they need to be protected and supported regardless of their sexual orientation, their gender identity or their family situation.

The bill seeks to create a two-tiered system where LGBTIQ service users will be protected at some services and not at others, and this is not fair. Our amendments will remove the distinction between government and non-government services and instead religious bodies will continue to be able to discriminate on the basis of religion and sex but not on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status et cetera. This will allow religious bodies to continue to operate same-sex spaces and services as well as keep their right to offer their facilities and services to those of the same faith. It will, however, prohibit them from discriminating against LGBTIQ people as well as sole parents, divorcees et cetera. This amendment is consistent with the protections offered in Tasmania.

Mr LIMBRICK: As I indicated in my second-reading speech, the Liberal Democrats are sympathetic to what the government is trying to do with regard to government-funded services. However, we think that overriding privately funded services with this type of amendment is overreach, and we will not support the amendment.

Mr MEDDICK: Look, I will be very, very short. I just rise to say that I will be supporting Dr Ratnam’s amendment and her consequent amendments as we move through. They speak to the questions that I was actually going to raise in committee, so I will now just leave those to Dr Ratnam.

Dr BACH: The opposition will not be in a position to support these amendments, largely on the basis that I already articulated regarding this particular element of the bill in my second-reading contribution.

Ms SYMES: Dr Ratnam, we are not in a position to support your amendments today. We do consider the proposed changes in the bill, which are limited to government-funded goods and services, are appropriate and targeted. We have consulted extensively on this bill, and it would almost be disingenuous to go further at this time when we have not had the opportunity to consult.

These are not new issues that you are raising of course. They have been brought to my attention. But I did not want to hold up the bill in the main things that we are trying to achieve by bringing that in and starting a new consultation process. I am certainly happy to look at this in the future because there are a few people that would like me to do so, and I think I have made the comment before that there is always reform in the justice portfolio; it never stops. So I continue to have those conversations, but I really want this bill to pass today and I really want to do it unamended so that I can get on with getting it enacted rather than having any more delay for something that we have been trying to do for almost 12 years now.

The ACTING PRESIDENT (Mr Bourman): Dr Ratnam’s amendment 1 is also a test for her amendments 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10 and 11.

Amendment negatived.

Ms MAXWELL: I move:

1. Clause 1, page 2, line 12, for “individuals.” insert “individuals; and”.

2. Clause 1, page 2, after line 12, insert—

“(e) to provide for a review of the programs and practices of any public agency or authority on request by the Parliament or a Minister.”.

We know that this is outside the scope of the bill and I was therefore required to do an instruction motion. Number 1 is consequential to amendment 2; 2 updates the purpose of the bill to include providing for a review on request by the Parliament or minister, and 3 inserts a new clause 12A to enable the Parliament or a minister to request the commission to review the programs and practices of any government department, public authority, state-owned enterprise or municipal council. The expression of entities is consistent with those used in the act already.

Dr CUMMING: I rise to support Ms Maxwell’s motion. She mentioned ‘municipal’—I love when an amendment or an act talks about municipal councils, because they are an arm of the state government and the state does not use them enough. Also too, Ms Maxwell, even though the Attorney in the second-reading debate stated that she believes that the motion that I raised earlier around not passing this bill until we hear from the federal government is not necessary, I believe your motion is quite reasoned, being that if something falls out of the federal legislation this state government should just hopefully make the changes that are needed for Victoria. For me, the reason why I moved my motion at the start was for that very reason—that I am concerned. It was not to delay this bill, it was not to kick it down the road, it was not about not dealing with it today. For me, it was the very real feeling that the federal government is dealing with this at the moment and that I would not want any Victorian taxpayer money wasted on challenging the federal legislation, depending on what it is. So for me, it is worth having this laid down so that whatever the federal government comes up with eventually, if there is merit in that, then we are able to have the flexibility within this legislation to reflect that rather than going down a path of legal challenges.

Ms SYMES: Ms Maxwell, on your amendments, I do not feel we are in a position to support them because I do not have an appreciation of what the outcome will be. I know what you are trying to achieve, but because of the time I have not had the opportunity to get advice on whether there would be unintended consequences and the like and how it would change the commission’s practices. Have you got any advice from the commission or otherwise about how that would be implemented? You do not do things unless you know exactly what they are going to do, and I am not in a position to know if there would be other consequences from your amendment.

Ms MAXWELL: Thank you, Attorney. We are in fact meeting with VEOHRC, but if I can just go through some of this it might help to explain that. In my speech in the second-reading debate I said it is clear that the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 needs to change in order for VEOHRC to review matters that may be referred to it by a government minister or the Parliament.

As Ms Symes noted in response to my question yesterday, the government cannot table a review that it does not have and VEOHRC cannot provide the minister with a copy of a particular review because of a court order made by the Court of Appeal in 2018. The court order was enforced in direct relation to section 151 of the Equal Opportunity Act. It clearly demonstrated that if the government requests a review of a public entity by VEOHRC, that entity may simply say, ‘No, thanks’, and block the review. If there are systemic human rights issues within a public authority, a government department, a state-owned entity or council and they do not self-refer, the government or the Parliament should, we believe, be able to refer this to VEOHRC. The commission’s role is executed through researching systemic issues; reviewing organisations, programs and practices for compliance; and conducting investigations under the Equal Opportunity Act. So these amendments provide for VEOHRC to exercise some discretion. VEOHRC can consider a referral and determine not to review an organisation; however, there is a public interest test for the release of reports and documents. I believe these are reasonable amendments—ones that advance the protections for workers and public transparency—and they would provide the opportunity for those reports to be accessible by changing section 151 of the act.

Ms SYMES: Thank you for that explanation, Ms Maxwell. I have had conversations with VEOHRC’s commissioner about the organisation and some challenges around information sharing and the like. As you have identified, your amendments are outside the scope of this bill, but I did want to give you the opportunity to discuss them. I am concerned that because you have not discussed them with the commissioner, we are not exactly sure how they would work in practice. However, as I said, the commissioner has got a few views about the legislation and is wanting to discuss with me some improvements for facilitation, particularly of information, data and research, and your suggestion might be something we can have a discussion about in the context of those further possible amendments to the act if we get an opportunity next year. So I am unable to support your amendment today. I understand what you are trying to achieve. It is just a little bit too much unknown. Again, I am very reluctant to have this bill amended, given the Assembly is not around to pass it and it would hold up this important reform, but I am happy to continue conversations with you about your endeavours.

Dr BACH: The opposition is also very understanding of where Ms Maxwell is going with these amendments. From our perspective, given the seriousness of the issues which she has hit upon both in her contribution here but also in the very helpful explanatory note that she circulated some time ago, we will be supporting her amendments.

Mr LIMBRICK: I would like to thank Ms Maxwell’s team for briefing my team on what she is intending to do here. I appreciate some of the concerns raised by the Attorney, but I do appreciate the intent of what Ms Maxwell is trying to do, and the Liberal Democrats will be supporting this.

Dr CUMMING: I just have one question of the Attorney on Ms Maxwell’s amendments. I can ask Ms Maxwell, but seeing as you have got people in a box, I am going to go that way. Am I right that, depending on what the federal government pass in the way of their legislation, this state government is separate?

The ACTING PRESIDENT (Mr Bourman): Dr Cumming, that is way off subject. If you would like to discuss Ms Maxwell’s amendments, that would be good, but the other stuff has kind of been done and dusted.

Dr CUMMING: No, I know that she is not trying to delay it. My question to Ms Maxwell is: regarding the intent of your motion, does that actually sit under what is possibly happening federally as well in the way of the religious discrimination act in both houses of the Australian Parliament?

The ACTING PRESIDENT (Mr Bourman): Dr Cumming, I am not sure your question has anything to do with Ms Maxwell’s amendment.

Dr CUMMING: That is why I am asking.

Ms MAXWELL: Thank you for your question, Dr Cumming. No, it absolutely has no relevance to the federal legislation.

The ACTING PRESIDENT (Mr Bourman): The question is that Ms Maxwell’s amendments 1 and 2, which add new subclause (e) and are consequential for her amendment 3 proposing new clause 12A, be agreed to.

Committee divided on amendments:

Ayes, 17
Bach, Dr Cumming, Dr Maxwell, Ms
Barton, Mr Davis, Mr McArthur, Mrs
Bath, Ms Finn, Mr Ondarchie, Mr
Bourman, Mr Grimley, Mr Quilty, Mr
Burnett-Wake, Ms Hayes, Mr Rich-Phillips, Mr
Crozier, Ms Limbrick, Mr
Noes, 18
Elasmar, Mr Melhem, Mr Symes, Ms
Erdogan, Mr Patten, Ms Tarlamis, Mr
Gepp, Mr Pulford, Ms Terpstra, Ms
Kieu, Dr Ratnam, Dr Tierney, Ms
Leane, Mr Shing, Ms Vaghela, Ms
Meddick, Mr Stitt, Ms Watt, Ms

Amendments negatived.

Clause agreed to; clauses 2 and 3 agreed to.

New clause (16:48)

Dr RATNAM: I move:

5. Insert the following New Clause to follow clause 3—

“3A Exception—standards of dress and behaviour

In section 42(2) of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010, omit all words and phrases from and including “a standard” to and including “the standard”, substitute “the views of the school community are a relevant factor in assessing the reasonableness of the standard”.

This amendment is to close a loophole in the Equal Opportunity Act that could see LGBTIQ students continue to face discrimination despite this new bill and these new protections. Section 42 of the Equal Opportunity Act was amended by the Liberal government in 2011 to allow a school to set and enforce a standard of dress, appearance and behaviour for students as long as the school community agrees to the standard. This opens the door to the possibility that some religious schools could use this provision to circumvent the new protections and prohibit students from wearing the uniform of their gender identity or force them to use the bathrooms and change rooms of their sex assigned at birth. It could also mean that, with the support of the parent community, schools could prohibit same-sex couples attending their formals and a range of other possibilities.

Victoria Legal Aid have previously reported on a case where a school did rely on section 42 to force a trans student to wear a uniform that did not fit their gender identity. While we are all here seeking to protect LGBTIQ students, we should make sure we do so thoroughly and that is why I am proposing that we reinstate the original wording of this section of the bill and—instead of allowing the school community to effectively set the standard of what constitutes reasonable dress, appearance and behaviour—that the school community are a factor in assessing the reasonableness of the standard but not the sole standard-setters.

I believe this creates the right balance where a school community has a say in reasonable standards but cannot go beyond what is reasonable in the broader community, and this ensures greater protection, particularly for gay, trans and gender-diverse students.

Ms SYMES: The government will not be supporting Dr Ratnam’s amendment for basically the same reasons that I gave for inability to support her amendment 1. The government does acknowledge the concerns raised about this provision and the potential to discriminate against LGBTIQ+ students. I will continue to consider the appropriateness of section 42, but as I said, we did consult heavily on the context of the bill. This particular amendment would apply beyond just religious schools to all schools, and therefore understanding the implementation issues of the amendment and ensuring the opportunity to consult further have not been done. So not at this time, and I am not wanting to hold up the bill that we have here this afternoon.

Mr LIMBRICK: The Liberal Democrats will not be supporting this amendment. Whilst I understand the intent of what Dr Ratnam is proposing, I am quite concerned about the possible unintended consequences of this type of amendment, particularly for religious garb that some school students wear, such as hijab and things like that. I think that far more consultation would be required before going ahead with something like this.

Dr BACH: I do thank Dr Ratnam again for the explanatory note that she circulated as she circulated her amendments. Given that this amendment would place further restrictions not just on religious schools but on others and given our articulated reasons for opposition to the bill more generally, we will also be opposing this amendment.

New clause negatived.

Clauses 4 to 6 agreed to.

Clause 7 (16:53)

Dr RATNAM: I move:

7. Clause 7, page 5, after line 10, insert—

‘(5) After section 83(2) of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 insert—

“(3) Subsection (2) does not apply to a person after the time of their admission as a student to the religious educational institution.

(4) This section does not permit discrimination on the basis of any attribute other than as specified in subsection (2).”.’.

This amendment again seeks to strengthen protection for students in religious schools consistent with laws in Tasmania. I am proposing that discrimination on the basis of religious belief or activity is permitted against students only at the point of enrolment at the religious school and that once students have been admitted to the religious education institute they may no longer be discriminated against on these grounds. The reason for this change is twofold. Primarily it is because young people are still developing their sense of self and their identity, and I would like them to be free to do this within their school setting without fear of reprisal. For example, a student who enters a Catholic school may decide after a few years that they are no longer Catholic, and they should be free to make these decisions. The second factor is that as the bill stands there is still a possibility that students could face discrimination on the basis of their school’s religious belief about their sexuality or identity, so a trans or gender-diverse student could potentially still face discrimination from the school on the basis that they do not share the religious belief of that school that gender is binary, or a gay student could continue to keep their same-sex attraction secret for fear they will face repercussions for not sharing the religious belief that marriage and intimate relationships must be between a man and a woman.

I do want to acknowledge that most religious schools are welcoming and inclusive spaces where students are free to explore their identity. However, we also know that there are schools who seek to limit the views and experiences of their students when it comes to sexuality and gender. While we are here creating these protections for students, it is my opinion that we should make them as strong as possible. I do understand that the reasonable and proportionate clauses will limit the possibility for schools to undertake these forms of discrimination. However, again, while we are improving protections, let us do so thoroughly by freeing students from the possibility of discrimination on the basis of religious belief once they have already enrolled. This allows young people the freedom to explore their identity and to be their authentic selves without fear of discrimination from their school. The final minor amendment is to add a subsection after section 83(2) which adds uniformity to the bill and clarifies that the exceptions only allow discrimination based on a person’s religious belief or activity and not on the basis of other protected attributes, such as sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status or gender identity.

Ms SYMES: The government will not be supporting this amendment. The bill already narrows the ability of religious schools to discriminate against students to matters of religious belief or activity only, and any such discrimination must be reasonable and proportionate in all circumstances. This would apply, for example, to decisions to suspend students or to selecting student representatives. It will prevent schools from discriminating against students based on their sexuality, gender identity or other protected attribute and devaluing their identity and potentially contributing to mental health issues. Importantly, any discrimination against students on the basis of religious belief or activity would need to be applied consistently to all students. For example, a decision to expel a student on the basis of conformity with religious doctrine would need to apply equally to all students irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or other protected attribute. If such decisions were made on a selective basis, they would be unlawful.

Dr BACH: On the basis that these amendments would make the bill even more restrictive, the opposition will be opposing them.

Mr LIMBRICK: As I indicated in my second-reading speech, although we do not have concerns about the issue of consent for people being employed by schools, we do have some concerns around the issue of consent with students, because of their age and the reasons that Dr Ratnam outlined. On that basis we will be supporting this amendment.

Amendment negatived; clause agreed to.

Committee divided on clauses 8 to 12:

Ayes, 25
Barton, Mr Limbrick, Mr Shing, Ms
Bourman, Mr Maxwell, Ms Stitt, Ms
Elasmar, Mr Meddick, Mr Symes, Ms
Erdogan, Mr Melhem, Mr Tarlamis, Mr
Gepp, Mr Patten, Ms Terpstra, Ms
Grimley, Mr Pulford, Ms Tierney, Ms
Hayes, Mr Quilty, Mr Vaghela, Ms
Kieu, Dr Ratnam, Dr Watt, Ms
Leane, Mr
Noes, 9
Bach, Dr Crozier, Ms McArthur, Mrs
Bath, Ms Davis, Mr Ondarchie, Mr
Burnett-Wake, Ms Finn, Mr Rich-Phillips, Mr

Clauses agreed to.

Business interrupted pursuant to standing orders.

Ms TIERNEY: Pursuant to standing order 4.08(1)(b), I declare the sitting to be extended by up to 1 hour.

Clause 13 agreed to.

Reported to house without amendment.

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (17:06): I move:

That the report be now adopted.

Motion agreed to.

Report adopted.

Third reading

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (17:06): I move:

That the bill be now read a third time.

The PRESIDENT: The question is:

That the bill be now read a third time and do pass.

House divided on question:

Ayes, 22
Barton, Mr Maxwell, Ms Stitt, Ms
Elasmar, Mr Meddick, Mr Symes, Ms
Erdogan, Mr Melhem, Mr Tarlamis, Mr
Gepp, Mr Patten, Ms Terpstra, Ms
Grimley, Mr Pulford, Ms Tierney, Ms
Hayes, Mr Ratnam, Dr Vaghela, Ms
Kieu, Dr Shing, Ms Watt, Ms
Leane, Mr
Noes, 12
Bach, Dr Crozier, Ms McArthur, Mrs
Bath, Ms Davis, Mr Ondarchie, Mr
Bourman, Mr Finn, Mr Quilty, Mr
Burnett-Wake, Ms Limbrick, Mr Rich-Phillips, Mr

Question agreed to.

Read third time.

The PRESIDENT: Pursuant to standing order 14.27, the bill will be returned to the Assembly with a message informing them that the Council have agreed to the bill without amendment.

Announcements

Felicitations

The PRESIDENT (17:12): While I am on my feet and as this is the last sitting day I take this opportunity, on behalf of all of you and myself, to thank Victoria Police, the PSOs, security, the attendants, the COVID subcommittee, all parliamentary staff—Hansard, IT, those in the department and in the Parliament—and our staff as well, and the clerks, especially everyone in this category. I say to all of them, on behalf of you: have a happy season and, if you celebrate Christmas, merry Christmas and a happy new year. Thank you very much.

Members: Hear, hear!

Adjournment

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria—Leader of the Government, Attorney-General, Minister for Emergency Services) (17:13): Thank you, President. I am sure everyone shares those words. Thank you for saying them on our behalf. With that, I move:

That the house do now adjourn.

Member conduct

Mr DAVIS (Southern Metropolitan—Leader of the Opposition) (17:13): (1692) My adjournment tonight is for the attention of the Attorney-General, and it relates to IBAC and the ongoing IBAC hearings into Operation Watts and the matters around Operation Watts—the ALP branch stacking, the corrupt behaviour that is being exposed day by day, week by week. I notice that in the last few days we have seen Labor Party MPs bulleted: Mr Gepp has been bulleted, Jane Garrett outrageously bulleted, also Danielle Green, Jill Hennessy, Mr Halse and Richard Wynne, and I hear that Mr McGuire is under the pump and likely to be pushed over anytime soon.

But my concern is that they have bulleted all of these people, but they have not gone after the ones who are in trouble at IBAC. I notice that there are a number of people who have been mentioned at IBAC in this chamber: Kaushaliya Vaghela and Dr Tien Kieu. I notice that Mr Tarlamis has had significant mentions at IBAC in recent days, and the Premier, Daniel Andrews, has been mentioned in dispatches negatively. You would have to say that this is a concern. I would ask that the Leader of the Government observe and listen to this concerning IBAC testimony. This is about the quality of the Parliament and it is about the cleanness of the Parliament, and she is in a position to take on board what is being heard at IBAC and to act within the Labor Party on the basis of what she is hearing at IBAC, so I would ask her to—

The PRESIDENT: Mr Davis, how is this related to the Attorney-General?

Mr DAVIS: Well, because the Attorney-General is responsible for IBAC, President. In the administrative orders she is clearly responsible for IBAC, and we are hearing quite significant testimony at IBAC that would concern anyone who wanted to see that there was not corruption in this state. But I have to say that what I am asking the Attorney to do is make sure that the Parliament is clean and to act to expose each of these people who have been mentioned at IBAC.

Mr Gepp: On a point of order, President, I am reluctant to give the aspirational member for Kew any oxygen on this stuff, but I did notice as I was walking out—which is why I came back—that he somehow suggested that I have been mentioned or implicated in some IBAC inquiry and subsequently—

Mr Davis: No, no, no—

Mr Gepp: Surely I am entitled to put my point of order before he interrupts.

The PRESIDENT: Let him finish, please.

Mr Gepp: And that somehow I have been ‘bulleted’—was his word—based on this IBAC thing. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is fabricating it. He is not entitled to besmirch a member’s name without any foundation. This clown ought to apologise and get back in his box.

Mr DAVIS: On the point of order, President—

The PRESIDENT: There is nothing further on the point of order. First of all, Mr Davis, I asked you what the Attorney-General has got to do with this, and to be honest you did not convince me. So I am going to rule it out.

Mr DAVIS: President, I just wanted to add to this point of order—

The PRESIDENT: No, it is finished.

Family violence

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (17:18): (1693) My adjournment is to the Minister for Prevention of Family Violence, and the action I seek is for the minister to meet with a group of victims and victim-survivors of coercive control and family violence regarding the review into coercive control that was discussed in my motion last week.

I was very grateful last sitting week to have three people visit this Parliament as part of their call for a strengthened response within our justice system to the evidence and impacts of coercive control. Each of these individuals was in their own way subjected to horrendous violent offences involving someone in a position of intimate trust. Michelle Skewes’s husband was convicted of nine charges of rape against her during their marriage. Jay was subject to repeated violent attacks throughout her marriage, often in the presence of her children. Lee Little lost her daughter who attempted to leave her relationship in circumstances that were treated as murder until the charges were plea-bargained down to a driving offence.

Having gone back over Hansard from the debate, the government in speaking to my motion indicated that coercive and controlling behaviour can already constitute an offence in Victoria. Hansard shows Ms Terpstra saying all these forms of abuse or control can interact and all form part of coercive control or be singular offences in and of themselves. I think it is important to note that there is not a standalone offence of family violence but that charges arise under contravention of a family violence intervention order or some other offence like assault or stalking. With regard to coercive control, it is the experience of many victims I have spoken to that coercive control was given very little consideration in hearings relating to their intervention order applications, nor was it given much consideration when they faced court on charges of physical violence. So there are a range of things to consider in this review, and I am very grateful for the productive dealings that I have had with the minister’s office to date on these important issues and also very encouraged from the support across the Legislative Council.

The individuals who attended Parliament last week, along with others, have experienced coercive control and are very keen to invite the minister to meet with them and discuss when and how the review will occur. I think this will give a great opportunity to take the next steps with victims and victim-survivors, to include them in these discussions and to empower them in the process. I would also like to say—and unfortunately he has left the chamber—that these victims of crime felt so honoured that Mr Gepp actually went out and spoke to them and listened to their stories, and they were extremely appreciative and very grateful for his time.

Swimming and water safety education

Ms VAGHELA (Western Metropolitan) (17:21): (1694) My adjournment matter is directed to the Deputy Premier, Minister for Education, Minister for Mental Health and Minister for Disability, Ageing and Carers, the Honourable James Merlino. This adjournment matter relates to the portfolio responsibilities of education. We know water safety and swimming lessons are a crucial part of Australian kids’ education, and the Andrews Labor government is working to make sure no kids miss out on that opportunity due to the pandemic. That is why swimming was added to the curriculum in November 2016, with students to achieve the equivalent of the swimming and water safety skills outlined by the Victorian water safety certificate, which includes being able to swim 50 metres continuously, before leaving primary school. It is also why our most recent budget delivered more than $55 million for swimming and water safety education. This brings our total investment under the Andrews Labor government to $116 million for swimming safety for our Victorian students.

While swimming teachers are overwhelmingly employed privately, our swimming in schools initiative means that all Victorian kids have the chance to learn how to swim and stay safe around water, and it supports the jobs of thousands of swim educators around the state. This funding is supporting schools to provide students with swimming and water safety programs as well as covering the cost of transport to swimming facilities. Of course swimming lessons are held in terms 1 and 4 every year, so we look forward to many kids joining their friends at the local pool for swimming lessons. The action I seek from the minister is to provide me with an update on how eligible students of the Western Metropolitan Region can get access to these important swimming lesson vouchers.

Medical file privacy

Mr FINN (Western Metropolitan) (17:22): (1695) I wish to raise a matter for the attention of the Minister for Health. One of the most distressing things in what has been a very distressing year in many respects was the recent raid on a doctor’s surgery in my electorate, in Sunshine. Dr Mark Hobart, as I have mentioned in the Parliament a couple of times now, is a much-respected and much-loved GP in Sunshine and has served the people of that area for 30 years. The raid by authorised officers—and I really do not like that term—on his surgery recently led to him losing his licence, I understand, but also perhaps more importantly the seizure of confidential medical files.

I have always been of the view that the relationship between a doctor and his or her patient is absolutely untouchable. It is beyond suspicion or anything else. And certainly one’s medical records, anybody’s medical records, should be the same. They should be kept from the public gaze and they should be between the doctor and the patient. What we have seen here is that confidential medical files have been seized by the authorised officers for reasons that we do not know and they have been taken to places that we do not know, and we do not know when they are coming back. This seems to me to be extraordinary and setting a precedent which is quite appalling.

It could happen now to any of us. It is something that I find intolerable and that I think any of us in a decent society would find intolerable. I have been surprised by the fact that the minister has not made any public statement on this, because I think it is his responsibility to give some reassurance that this sort of thing is not going to be a regular occurrence. Clearly now, particularly given this week the passing of the pandemic legislation giving the Premier all power to do pretty much whatever he likes to whoever he likes whenever he wants to, that gives people a greater degree of anxiety about where we may be going with regard to a number of things.

But what I am concerned about tonight is what exactly the status is of these confidential medical files that have been seized. These are the medical files of my constituents, and I am appalled. I am appalled that they have been taken away from a doctor’s surgery. What I am asking the minister to do as a matter of urgency—I am talking about tonight if he can—is return those confidential medical files to Dr Mark Hobart’s office.

Commercial Passenger Vehicles Victoria

Mr BARTON (Eastern Metropolitan) (17:26): (1696) My adjournment is for Minister Carroll in the other place. Commercial Passenger Vehicles Victoria, the CPVV, are the regulator for the taxi, rideshare and hire car industry. The CPVV list one of their key functions as accrediting all commercial passenger vehicles. Just as important as this function is the de-accrediting of commercial passenger vehicles when they are no longer in the industry. Unfortunately the CPVV actually has no idea who is in the industry. How are they meant to regulate an industry when they do not even know who is in it? I have no idea.

The CPVV system goes like this: if you signed up to be an Uber driver three years ago, a passenger threw up in your car and you decided this was not the career for you, the CPVV still thinks you are active in the industry. If you ask the CPVV how they know who is in the industry, they quote their yearly registration payment. Of course if you are not in the industry anymore, you would not pay the $50 registration fee and may opt out of the system. The CPVV have not collected this payment or registration renewal for the last four years. This was well before COVID.

On top of this many drivers have left their booking service providers and have decided to become independent operators. Often leaving the networks and becoming independent is the first step on the path of business collapsing entirely. The CPVV have said that they have a team of people who reach out to drivers to try and see who is active in the industry, and supposedly if they have made a permanent exit from it, the CPVV encourage them to surrender their accreditation and registration. It is no surprise that in my experience I have not heard of one person in the industry who has been contacted by the CPVV to ask if they are still active.

Every month the CPVV puts up numbers saying that we have 120 000-odd drivers and around 80 000 vehicles, but best estimates suggest 25 to 35 per cent of the industry are not booking service providers. I do not believe for a second that the CPVV is contacting even close to 1 per cent of the 120 000 registered drivers to see if they are still active since the last time they paid their registration fee in 2017. So the action I seek is: will the minister instruct the CPVV to take their role as a regulator seriously and find out who is actually active in the commercial passenger vehicle industry so we know who to regulate?

Narre Warren North Road, Narre Warren North

Mr RICH-PHILLIPS (South Eastern Metropolitan) (17:28): (1697) I raise a matter for the attention of the Minister for Transport Infrastructure in the other place related to the proposed upgrade of Narre Warren North Road between Belgrave-Hallam Road and Fox Road, which is scheduled to get underway within the next month. I have been contacted by representatives from the Narre Warren North Road action group concerned about the failure of Major Road Projects Victoria to take into account the concerns that have been raised by local residents as to the design of that road upgrade that Major Road Projects Victoria are proposing to build.

The Narre Warren North Road action group have indicated that Major Road Projects Victoria have given lip-service to the notion of consultation with local residents but in practice have ignored the concerns they have raised as to the design of that duplication of Narre Warren North Road, to the effect that existing intersections with Crawley Road and Brundrett Road will be cut off for people on those roads seeking to make right turns onto Narre Warren North Road, with the consequence that all traffic seeking to turn right to head north on Narre Warren North Road will be required to do U-turns at various intersections further south. The group appropriately raises the issue that U-turns at those other intersections, the lower intersections, including one at the aged-care facility, are known to be less safe—that is, drivers doing U-turns are known to be less safe than if those intersections at Crawley Road and Brundrett Road were open for right-turning traffic—and that in fact, rather than being a safe option, the construction proposed by Major Road Projects Victoria is going to be less safe.

The design that has been put forward by the government may be administratively efficient for the government and convenient for the government to build; however, it does not meet the needs of the local community. Those needs have been ignored in the consultation process by Major Road Projects Victoria. The action I seek from the Minister for Transport Infrastructure is, firstly, that she acknowledge and respond to the representations that have been made directly to her by the Narre Warren North Road action group, but more particularly that she reflect the concerns of the local community and have the project modified to allow traffic to make right turns out of Crawley Road and Brundrett Road so that the needs of this local community are actually met by this road project rather than being ignored.

COVID-19 vaccination

Mr QUILTY (Northern Victoria) (17:31): (1698) My adjournment matter is for the Minister for Health. New surveys show that only 9 per cent of parents say they will refuse to vaccinate their children aged under 12. Ninety per cent of parents have indicated that they are open to the idea of vaccinating their children, with 70 per cent indicating that they definitely intend to vaccinate their children under 12. This is before the TGA has approved the vaccine for use in children under 12. There are still strong reasons to be unsure about the use of vaccination in children, and yet most parents are very confident that the vaccine will be a good idea. Ninety per cent of people over 16 have already been vaccinated and have firsthand experience of the vaccine. This will include parents making the decision for their young children.

I bring all this up because it shows that we do not need to use force to achieve high rates of vaccination. I call on the minister to allow parents to make this decision themselves, without using vaccine mandates. Instead, why not rely on evidence and persuasion? With 70 per cent of parents in the state already leaning towards the vaccination of children and with the evidence of the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, there should be little trouble achieving high vaccination rates voluntarily. Do not use force and coercion where it is not necessary. Respect difference of opinion and allow people time to consider the issue and decide for themselves.

This government likes to talk a big game about not putting things in the too-hard basket, but why is it too hard to get this done without taking away people’s rights and freedom of choice? Why does this government use coercion and force as a first instinct instead of a last resort? Give the public time to come around. Make the case, provide the evidence, stand behind the record of the vaccine and let people come to their own conclusions. We can beat COVID without being cruel and coercive. Again, the action I seek is for the minister to not use mandates to force the vaccination on children under 12 and to instead rely on persuasion.

Western Victoria Transmission Network Project

Mrs McARTHUR (Western Victoria) (17:33): (1699) My adjournment matter is for the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change and concerns the alleged intimidation tactics used by AusNet staff or contractors seeking to gain access to private land in connection with the Western Victoria Transmission Network Project. I am sorry to report that two landowners in the Melton area have made serious complaints about assault and intimidation as a result of project staff using powers under section 93 of the Electricity Industry Act 2000 to force access. I understand that one complaint is currently under investigation by the police. I am sure these processes will run properly, and I do not want to provide a commentary on the allegations, but I will say that I am aware that CCTV and video footage exists and it does not look good.

The reason I raise this matter is not to dispute the right of AusNet to access this land or to sensationalise these cases. Rather, I want to illustrate the inappropriate approach it is widely reported that AusNet took in its earliest interactions with many landowners, not just these two, and to call for a more general code of practice to be developed. Section 93(5)(d) of the Electricity Industry Act notes that the right of access is:

subject to any access code applying in relation to the exercise of powers under this section issued by the Commission.

‘Commission’ here means the Essential Services Commission, yet incredibly no such access code exists. It seems that this is yet another planning failure on the part of this government. The powers are being exercised on behalf of AusNet, and yet the access code reference in the legislation has not been written. Its existence might have prevented the poor practice seen to date, and I put on record here my anger that this failure has contributed further distress to those already deeply upset by this project. Another important purpose of such a code, Minister, would be clarification on who can legitimately access the land—a question which has arisen on a current project, when AusNet are seeking access to pursue a contract won by Mondo.

Minister, the action I seek is the long-overdue completion of this access code and the clarification within it of whether subsidiaries of the project proponent have the same rights to force access as the entity named by the party contracted to build the infrastructure.

Extremism

Dr RATNAM (Northern Metropolitan) (17:36): (1700) My adjournment matter tonight is for the Leader of the Government in this house, and the action I seek is for the Leader of the Government to write to the Legal and Social Issues Committee requesting that the committee undertake an inquiry into the rise of far-right extremism in Victoria with the terms of reference as detailed in notice of motion 691.

It was not long after I became an MP that I was followed from my office by a group of far-right thugs. As I was leaving my electorate office to get a coffee, these men, one with a phone camera in hand, walked up to me, shoved some sort of tube in my face and ask me if I needed help cleaning out my orifices. I felt surrounded, and it was frightening. I did not know where it was going to end. This event changed my sense of personal safety. I have been in public life for almost 10 years, but it has only been in the last four years that I have become increasingly concerned about threats. Those men who followed me that day are well known to police as the ringleaders of the growing far-right extremist movement in Victoria.

It is a movement that has been on the rise, and it is only getting stronger as we experience periods of social disruption. Most Victorians would have been shocked in January this year to see pictures of Neo-Nazis parading around in military clothing in the Grampians and giving Nazi salutes in front of a burning cross. Further in-depth research by the Age and Channel 9’s 60 Minutes revealed for all of us the horror of the ‘Nazis next door’, as they labelled their series of reports about the rise of far-right extremism. The reports revealed in disturbing detail the violent white supremacy and misogyny at the heart of these anti-democratic groups, how these extremist movements seek to recruit and their political ambitions. We must not forget that far-right movements can result in violent extremism, as we saw when worshippers were gunned down at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, by an Australian-born white supremacist. There is also evidence of connection between far-right groups in Australia and international extremist groups, including explicitly violent Neo-Nazi groups such as Combat 18 and The Base. Politicians around the world are starting to take notice. Last week the federal government banned The Base, described as a violent, racist Neo-Nazi group known by security agencies to be preparing terrorist attacks.

But bans are not the only solution; we also need other solutions. We need more tools in our toolbox to counter the rise of the far right. That is why it is so important for a parliamentary inquiry to look into what is happening. This has spilled out in the ugliest ways during the pandemic protests on the streets of Melbourne, appropriating the language of anti-vaxxers and of the conspiracy movements. The threat to our democracy is real. We only need to look at the United States and the Capitol insurrection to see how connections between the far right and other groups can lead to political violence. What I am intending with the inquiry referral is for us in this place to take this issue of the increasing presence of far-right extremism seriously. We need to better understand what is happening, why it is happening, what the role of economic and social insecurity and uncertainty is and how racist scapegoating and misogyny play out. As a Parliament we have a responsibility to make sure all Victorians feel safe and supported and to do what we can to tackle any dangerous agenda that threatens our social cohesion. History has shown us what will happen if we do not act.

Healthcare workers

Ms CROZIER (Southern Metropolitan) (17:39): (1701) My adjournment matter this afternoon is for the Minister for Health. We have heard a lot from this government about supporting frontline health workers and making big announcements to support them. I would like to also acknowledge the work that they have done over the last 20 months, but it is not just the frontline healthcare workers—the nurses, doctors, paramedics and others—it is those behind the scenes: the cleaners, the orderlies, the pathologists, the allied healthcare workers. They have all been working very, very hard and very, very well together, and I think they never get acknowledged enough. I would like to put on record my acknowledgement of their work as well throughout the last 20 months.

Nevertheless, the government is always talking and making big headlines about healthcare workers, and understandably. They made an announcement in October that they would provide healthcare workers with a surge payment, but reports today indicate that the surge payments have not been forthcoming, especially to those in some of the COVID wards—the very reason that the government went out there and made the big announcement to support these workers. They have not received this payment. I think there have been a number of hospitals that have been named as not having been forthcoming with those payments—Box Hill, Ringwood East, Upper Ferntree Gully and Healesville, all part of the Eastern Health network. So the action I seek is for the minister to give an assurance that no other hospitals across Victoria have been caught up in not providing that support or in delaying this surge payment to healthcare workers that was promised by the government.

Wodonga Project

Ms LOVELL (Northern Victoria) (1702)

Incorporated pursuant to order of Council of 7 September:

My adjournment matter is directed to the Minister for Housing and concerns funding for the Wodonga Project to help disadvantaged youth in Wodonga and the surrounding region.

Action: and the action that I seek from the minister is a commitment to provide recurrent funding of $838 172 per annum over four years to allow lead agency Junction Support Services and other community stakeholders to implement the Wodonga Project, which focuses on an early intervention model to address youth disadvantage in the Wodonga region.

The Wodonga Project is a community-driven reform initiative to address the serious issues of youth homelessness, early school leaving and youth mental health prevalent throughout the Wodonga region.

The project tackles these issues through the implementation of a community of schools and services model, also known as the COSS model, relying on early intervention to achieve results.

The Wodonga Project is based on the Geelong Project, which by using the COSS model has achieved a 40 per cent reduction in adolescent homelessness and a 20 per cent reduction in disengagement from education across three pilot schools.

The Wodonga Project is also inspired by the neighbouring Albury Project, another COSS model initiative established in 2018 and funded by the NSW government.

A collective of community organisations and the Wodonga secondary schools have joined together to implement the Wodonga Project, with Junction Support Services taking the lead agency role.

This is in response to the increasing prevalence of youth disadvantage in the Wodonga region, with the number of young local people experiencing homelessness or disengagement exceeding available resources.

Junction, NELLEN and Gateway Health have committed initial funding for the project and additional funding of $30 000 has been obtained from Wodonga council.

The Wodonga Project has joined with six other community partnerships in a consortium bid to deliver the COSS model throughout Victoria, and I know the minister has received a briefing on the project.

The implementation of the Wodonga Project helps deliver recommendation 19 of the Victorian inquiry into homelessness, recommending Victorian government funding to support initiatives linked to the COSS model, with a minimum of seven pilot sites, including three in regional Victoria.

Like its Geelong counterpart, modelling suggests the Wodonga Project will provide a social return of $5 for every $1 invested, with a recurrent cost each year of $838 172 for four years.

In line with recommendation 19 of the inquiry into homelessness, I urge the minister to support the Wodonga community to help their disadvantaged and disengaged youth and commit funding for the Wodonga Project.

Responses

Mr LEANE (Eastern Metropolitan—Minister for Local Government, Minister for Suburban Development, Minister for Veterans) (17:41): If I could start with Dr Ratnam’s adjournment matter to the Leader of the Government, the Leader of the Government will write to Dr Ratnam, but I can at the same time dispatch her adjournment matter. The Leader of the Government has spoken to me and has asked me to pass on that the government definitely supports Dr Ratnam on that reference and that she will definitely write to the Legal and Social Issues Committee and request that they embark on that really important reference. But can I say to Dr Ratnam, I am very sorry that you had to experience what you externalised. I agree with her. I have been here a long, long time, and I have never seen anything like what we have witnessed in recent months. I do not even know how people know the number of grandkids I have, but I have personally had people write to me saying that they are going to kill them.

A member interjected.

Mr LEANE: People can interject as much as they like, but this period of time has been appalling. The political discourse over these last few months has been appalling. I will speak to the Leader of the Government, and she will follow up that action.

Including Dr Ratnam’s adjournment, if my calculations are right, there were nine adjournment matters addressed to eight different ministers. I will ensure that they all get those adjournment matters. President, I will not count Mr Davis’s pathetic attempt at slandering a number of members of this chamber, because I take it that you ruled that out. So I will not pass on that pathetic attempt by a pathetic individual.

President, thank you for your Christmas wishes to everyone, but you did not include yourself. Thank you for the great job that you have done this year. It has been much appreciated.

Questions without notice and ministers statements

Written responses

The PRESIDENT (17:43): Ms Crozier raised a point of order in the afternoon about a question and answer. I did check Hansard, as I promised to do, and I believe the answer was covered in a different way.

The house stands adjourned. Have a good break.

House adjourned 5.44 pm until Tuesday, 8 February 2022.