By Linda Belardi.
The Federal Opposition will knock back an amendment in the Senate to remove the legal exemption granted to faith-based aged care providers from anti-discrimination law on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.
Addressing the upper house on Tuesday night, shadow attorney-general George Brandis said the government’s amendment did not protect the basic right to freedom of religion in Australia.
“The state should not have the power to say to a particular church or religious institution, which conducts an institution like a hospital or a school or an aged care home, you must conduct that institution in accordance – not with the tenants of your faith – but in accordance with the dictates of the state,” he said.
The government’s reform of the sex discrimination act seeks to make it unlawful to discriminate against someone on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. A late, controversial amendment introduced in the Senate on Tuesday further proposes to remove the religious exemption, which permits aged care facilities to discriminate against LGBTI clients when accessing aged care services.
Senator Brandis said the Coalition will oppose the amendment as proposed by the government, and if passed in the Senate, the Opposition will withdraw its support for the entire bill when it returns to the lower house.
A total of eight Senators rose to debate the bill last night, including three in favour of the bill (Louise Pratt – ALP, Penny Wright – The Greens and Sue Boyce – Coalition) and five coalition Senators against.
The Coalition Senators reconfirmed the party’s commitment to the policy of religious exemption from the reach of anti-discrimination law, and said that the proposed limitation in the area of aged care could lead to further eroding of the exemption in other areas in the future.
The Opposition Senators cited support from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the Salvation Army, Catholic Health Australia, the Presbyterian Church of Australia, Freedom 4 Faith and The Catholic Women’s League Australia to retain the exemption. (Only three of these bodies named actually deliver aged care services to the community.)
While indicating her support for the bill, Queensland Liberal Senator Sue Boyce noted the absence of written submissions from major religious-based aged care providers to the committee reviewing the bill.
Of the 90 public submissions made to the senate committee, Mission Australia, was the only provider to make a public record statement in relation to the bill.
Opposition to the removal of the exemption was expressed in written submissions from the Australian Catholic Lobby, Freedom 4 Faith and the Catholic Women’s League Australia.
However, in previous submissions and public statements in response to the abandoned Human Rights and Anti Discrimination Bill 2012, Anglicare Australia, UnitingCare Australia and Catholic Health Australia, representing the three largest faith-based aged care providers in Australia, stated that they do not discriminate on the basis of sexuality or gender identity.
Indeed, Australian Ageing Agenda reported from the Tri-State conference in February public comments made by Catholic Health Australia, CEO Martin Laverty stating that prejudicial practices were not tolerated by his organisation.
The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation committee’s final report tabled on Friday recommended that the bill be amended to introduce the government’s limitation on religious exemption from anti-discrimination law in aged care.
The report said the exemption was “consistent with the current practice of several of the major religious aged care providers, which have stated publicly that they already provide services on a non-discriminatory basis.”
Senator Boyce said a policy of non-discrimination by aged care providers did not mean that legislative reform was not necessary.
“Aged care providers can’t have it both ways,” she said.
“Why should we allow a religious organisation delivering an aged care service determine who their clients should be?”
The second reading of the legislation was adjourned at 10 pm on Tuesday and will continue this week.