In a humiliating rebuff to Scott Morrison, a revolt by Liberal backbenchers has struck down the provisions of the sex discrimination act that allow discrimination against gay and transgender children.
In the early hours of Thursday, five Liberals crossed the floor – Katie Allen, Dave Sharma, Trent Zimmerman, Bridget Archer and Fiona Martin – in defiance of the Prime Minister. The vote was 65-59. The amended bill then passed the House of Representatives and now has to go to the Senate.
The rebels had been concerned the government’s much narrower proposed change excluded transgender children at religious schools.
The amendment was moved by crossbencher Rebekha Sharkie and was identical in wording to one of Labor’s proposed amendments. Sharkie told The Conversation she thought it might have a greater chance of success coming from the crossbench.
Earlier Morrison had told the house there would be “a time and place” to address the situation of transgender children.
He said the Law Reform Commission would consider the protection of these children from discrimination while allowing schools to maintain their ethos. The commission would report in six months. He also named Allen as chair of a House of Representatives select committee on the question.
The government’s proposed change to the sex discrimination legislation was a parallel bill to its religious discrimination legislation.
Labor and two Liberal rebels narrowly failed to amend the religious discrimination bill when Speaker Andrew Wallace used his casting vote to break a tied vote.
Archer and Zimmerman crossed the floor to support a Labor amendment aimed at ensuring existing anti-discrimination protections were not diminished by the protection to be given to “statements of belief”. The vote was 62-62.
The religious discrimination bill passed the house at 4am Thursday, shortly before the revolt over the associated bill. The only amendments to it were those the government made.
Archer, who supported all Labor’s amendments to the religious discrimination bill, also voted against its second reading and its final passage.
Now that they have been lost in the lower house, the opposition will pursue its amendments to the religious discrimination bill in the Senate.
Labor on Wednesday gave support to the controversial bill but said it was flawed and should be amended.
Caucus approved a package of proposed amendments that would
prohibit religious vilification
make it clear the legislation’s “statement of belief” did not remove or diminish existing protections against discrimination. (The legislation provides that “statements of belief” are legally protected if based on a genuinely held religious view.)
ensure in-home aged care providers could not discriminate on the basis of religion in providing services
prohibit discrimination against children on the grounds of sexuality or gender identity.
During the House of Representatives debate opposition leader Anthony Albanese tabled a letter Morrison had sent to him late last year in which the PM reaffirmed “there is no place in our education system for any form of discrimination against a student on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity” and said the government would amend the sex discrimination act to remove the provisions allowing this.
Labor said that it would “insist” on any of its amendments that were passed in either house. That could mean, if the government refused to accept them, the legislation bouncing between the houses until one or other side gave way.
The religious discrimination legislation is up against the clock, with the Senate rising on Thursday, and not sitting again until budget week, the last sitting before the election.
Albanese told parliament the legislation was “flawed” but it could be fixed.
He said it should be possible “to enhance protections against discrimination without enhancing discrimination against others”.
“We need shields from discrimination, not swords for discrimination." He said the legislation should be a unifying moment.
But if not amended the bill "will only succeed in driving us apart,” Albanese said.
Morrison has been pulling out all stops to get the religious discrimination legislation through.
But moderate Liberals have had a range of concerns, and much effort had gone into trying to settle backbench doubts and minimise defections.
Zimmerman told the house that he would “part with my party” on the statement of belief provision and the changes to the sexual discrimination act.
Zimmerman said the statement of beliefs “puts religious faith on a pedestal above other rights”. He objected to the changes to the sex discrimination act failing to include protection for teachers and transgender children.
NSW Treasurer Matt Kean tweeted “Trent Zimmerman has been one of my greatest political heroes during my 20 years in the Liberal party. This speech will help everyone understand exactly why.”
Earlier, NSW premier Dominic Perrottet said of the religious discrimination legislation: “I’ve made it very clear that I don’t believe legislation in this space is necessary”. He said it could end up creating more problems than it solved.
Within the Labor frontbench, and in the wider caucus, there was division about over whether the opposition should pursue amendments or oppose the legislation outright.
Former Labor leader, Bill Shorten, who was reported to have argued in shadow cabinet that Labor should oppose the legislation, told the house, “We will rue the day if this legislation passes the Senate” .
The religious discrimination legislation had its origins as a gesture to the losing side after the legislating of marriage equality.
Morrison has hoped to wedge Labor on the issue; Albanese is anxious to avoid the wedge.