Aged care providers should select staff based on their qualifications, experience and character rather than their religion, an aged care lawyer tells Australian Ageing Agenda.
The Federal Government released a second exposure draft of its Religious Discrimination Bill last Tuesday incorporating key changes suggested by religious bodies and other stakeholders since the first draft was released in August.
Among them, religious aged care, hospital, and accommodation providers can now take faith into account in staffing decisions to preserve a religious ethos.
This includes giving preference to employees of the same religion as the relevant facility when compared with people not of that religion, according to Government documents.
The latest changes could represent a step backwards in some cases, said Hall & Wilcox partner Alison Choy Flannigan.
“It is a challenge to attract and retain good staff. Staff should be selected on the basis of their qualifications, experience and kindness and not on the basis of their religion,” Ms Choy Flannigan told Australian Ageing Agenda.
She said it was too early to tell what the implications would be, including whether aged care workers should be afraid for the jobs.
“I am of the view that there is a shortage of skilled aged care workers and if they are discriminated on the basis of religion, then they are better off working for an organisation which appreciates them for who they are.
“Having said that, it would be very disappointing if religious organisations use religion and the new legislation as an excuse to unfairly dismiss staff.”
The religious discrimination bills propose to make it illegal to discriminate both directly and indirectly on the basis of having a religious belief or not having a religious belief in certain categories of public life.
As AAA previously reported, the proposed religious discrimination legislation could have a significant impact on how aged care providers conducted their business and managed their staff if passed (read more here).
The consultation on the first draft received almost 6,000 submissions and Attorney-General Christian Porter also met with close to 100 stakeholder groups to hear their views.
A further period of consultation will provide stakeholders an opportunity to consider whether the revisions address the issues they have raised, Mr Porter said in a joint statement with Prime Minister Scott Morison.
‘A fraught issue’
Aged & Community Services, which represents church, charitable and community-based aged care providers, did not respond to AAA’s questions but provided a general statement.
“This has always been and always will be a fraught issue and a balance must be struck between the competing objectives of providing access and maintaining a faith-based identity,” said ACSA CEO Patricia Sparrow.
“The most important thing must be that all Australians get the care they deserve from an appropriately skilled and qualified workforce,” she said.
Ms Choy Flannigan said she was unable to comment on whether most faith-based providers wanted this change, but added she knew of welcoming faith-based providers.
“[I]n my experience, the reputable aged care providers for whom we act, including from the Catholic, Anglican and Protestant faiths have welcomed staff and residents, clients or patients from all religions.”
She said comments in the media suggest the amendments have been made to placate conservative religious organisations.
“What will be interesting to see as this legislation plays out in practice is that some conservative religious organisations, for example of the Christian faith, would be pleased to be able to express their own views.
“However, [they] are likely to be challenged to accept the views of the conservatives of other faiths, for example the Muslim faith,” she said.
Submissions on the Bills close on 31 January 2020.
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