It was a relief this year to see the federal government take steps towards implementing the two excellent reports on women's workplace safety by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Repect@Work and Set the Standard. Both tackle the cultural barriers to women's workforce engagement in the form of harassment and discrimination.
At the same time, it's great to hear that the federal government is interested in legislating to protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Australia endorsed the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief in 1980 by ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). After 40 years, it's high time we had a federal protection against religious discrimination.
It's therefore extremely frustrating to discover that the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 not only fails to properly implement the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, but it also manages to exacerbate the sort of cultural barriers that the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's reports seek to overcome. It's an own goal of impressive proportions.
The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion has two parts: the right to hold, not hold or change your beliefs; and the right to put thoughts and beliefs into action ('manifestation'). Under the ICCPR, the right to manifest religious belief is not an absolute right. The ICCPR says that the manifestation of thoughts and beliefs can be qualified, if necessary, to "protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others."
Section 12 of the Bill says that a statement of religious belief is protected, even if it would have been unlawful under other anti-discrimination legislation. That means that a sexist statement which would have been unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act or one of the State discrimination acts is now fine, as long as it isn't malicious, and doesn't threaten, intimidate, harass or vilify.
Section 12 of the Bill actually reverses the limitation on the manifestation of belief as set out in the ICCPR by specifically removing protections under existing discrimination laws. Rather than limiting the right to manifest beliefs to protect the rights of others, the Bill actually limits the human right of others to freedom from discrimination, in order to protect the right to manifest beliefs.
In its current form, this Bill is capable of protecting sexist, racist and other discriminatory statements as long as they constitute a religious belief and are politely or benevolently expressed, no matter how serious the outcome to the person affected.
One of the greatest barriers to gender equality is tackling unconscious bias and discriminatory norms and cultures. In its current form, the Bill will provide protection to people who express 'religious' views which contribute to sexist cultures in workplaces.
Polite sexism is a key reinforcing factor in cultures which are unsupportive to gender equality. The most concerning element of polite sexism is that its effects are slow but deep, like dripping water on stone. Regular, low-level repetition of well-intentioned sexism wears away at an individual's ability to envisage and implement change.
Imagine being a woman who would like to apply for a management role in her workplace but has a manager who tells their peers that he believes that women should be subservient to men. Or the woman with a disability who finds concentrating on their work difficult because their co-worker keeps bringing coffee to their desk as a kind gesture to the person who has been abandoned by God. Or the Aboriginal woman who knows promotional decisions will be made by someone who believes God made white people superior to Black people.
Building respectful and safe workplace cultures starts with a recognition that everyone has needs and rights which must be balanced in a mature and empathic way.
This Bill tells people of faith that their needs and rights are more important than the needs of other people. For a government which says it supports women's rights in the workplace, this Bill is a significant misstep.
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