A senior Liberal has warned both the Coalition and Labor face a voter backlash at the next election if the Australian Parliament does not legislate sweeping protections for religious believers.
NSW Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has launched a petition to pressure the Morrison government to pass a religious freedom act.
She said religious Australians have been mobilised by the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2017 and the recent sacking of rugby player Israel Folau, after he expressed his religious views online.
“Ordinary people of faith are now, understandably, asking the question: if I quote my Bible, will it get me into trouble?”, Senator Fierravanti-Wells said.
After the Coalition’s tax cuts passed Parliament last week, religious discrimination looms as one of the next major agenda items for the federal government. Attorney-General Christian Porter began briefing government MPs on details of a new religious discrimination bill on Friday.
But Senator Fierravanti-Wells warned a minimalist bill that “merely substitutes religious discrimination for sex discrimination or racial discrimination” will not make voters’ concerns go away. The NSW Liberal said Prime Minister Scott Morrison had “created a greater expectation that he will do something substantial” on religious freedom, pointing to his public appearance worshipping at a church service during the election campaign.
Noting swings against Labor in seats with high levels of religious voters in western Sydney, Senator Fierravanti-Wells said concerns about religious freedom “moved votes” at the May election. The former minister for international development – who quit the frontbench in protest against Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership last year – said both sides of politics ignored peoples’ concerns about religious rights at their peril.
“It might turn out to be a [small] pox on both their houses,” she said.
Last week, Senator Fierravanti-Wells launched an official parliamentary petition calling on the public to pressure the upper house to ensure “freedom to manifest one’s religion” would only be limited by the the need to protect public safety, health or the rights and freedoms of others. She said the Folau matter had “hardened my resolve on this issue”.
The government announced it would introduce a religious discrimination bill late last year, in response to the Ruddock review into religious freedom. Mr Porter held a meeting of about 22 MPs government MP in Canberra on Friday, where he showed them a PowerPoint presentation on the bill. Other MP briefings are expected to take place in the coming weeks.
Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce was among those who attended Friday’s meeting. Mr Joyce, who is reserving his final judgment until he sees a copy of the bill, said he is worried about people being sacked for issues that don’t have anything to do with their jobs.
“An Australian has lost their job on issues that have nothing to do with his job of catching a ball,” Mr Joyce said of the Folau sacking. “You might not agree with his views but he was employed to play football … he didn’t run out with Leviticus all over his jersey.”
When previously asked about his plans for the religious discrimination bill, Mr Porter has likened it to other existing acts that prevent discrimination based on certain attributes – such as disability, sex, race and age.
“I don’t think that that would be a very contentious bill, necessarily, it follows a very standard architecture,” he said late last year.
Less conservative Liberals have so far praised Mr Porter’s handling of the issue, saying he is steering a sensible path through a complex area of law.
Labor and crossbench MPs and other community groups – including church groups – are yet to see any details of the bill, which is understood to have already had more than 50 drafts.
The bill is expected to come before Parliament later this year, but not in time for the next sitting of Parliament which begins on July 22.