MS TIERNEY (Minister for Training and Skills) — I wish to exercise the right of reply on behalf of the government. The Andrews Labor government respects people’s right to religious expression, but not at the cost of equality. The inherent requirements test for employment will ensure a fairer balance between the right to equality and the right to freedom of religion. The inherent requirements test for employment was scrapped by the former coalition government in 2011, which left many Victorians vulnerable to discrimination when seeking employment with religious bodies or schools, particularly because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
This bill before us today was actually an election commitment, and as a government that was elected just over two years ago we believe we have a mandate for this. It is not an attack on religious freedom; it is about ensuring a better balance between rights. It will do this by limiting the ability of a religious body or school to rely on a religious defence to discriminate in the area of employment because of a person’s sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or differing religious beliefs.
The inherent requirements test for employment in the bill is the same as was enacted by the former Labor government in 2010. This bill will restore a fairer balance between a person’s right to be free from discrimination in employment and the need to protect the right to freedom of religion and belief. The test was removed, as I said, from the act before it commenced operation in August 2011. Its removal has meant that many Victorians remain vulnerable to unjustified discrimination in employment.
In terms of canvassing the contributions that we have heard today, I will go through a number; I do not have sufficient time to go through all. I do appreciate Ms Pennicuik’s contribution and the Greens party’s various positions on the existence of religious exceptions within the Equal Opportunity Act 2010. I also acknowledge that Ms Pennicuik has in past Parliaments introduced similar amendments to the ones that she has circulated during this debate, but we believe that they are beyond the scope of the bill before us today. The government believes that this bill, unamended, strikes the right and fair balance between freedom of religion and a person’s right to be free from discrimination in employment. There is room for both rights. It could be said that the government’s bill has found a sensible middle ground between the Greens’ desire to ultimately abolish religious exceptions and the opposition’s wish to expand them.
I turn to the contributions of Mr Finn and Mr Rich-Phillips. Can I say in response to Mr Finn that I remind the house that, quite contrary to his suggestion, this bill is not an attack on religious freedom here in Victoria. In fact this bill respects, embraces and acknowledges the place of religious bodies and schools and their roles in our communities. Its purpose is simply to place a reasonable limit on the ability to discriminate in employment. It will not force religious bodies and schools to hire outside of their community of faith. Indeed Mr Ondarchie also made a comment that I do feel I need to respond to. He said that there is no evidence that the current law is affecting people. This simply is untrue. According to an article in the Sunday Age of 25 September under the heading, ‘The hidden cost of faith-based hiring’, many workers are put in the position of having to hide their sexuality while working at faith-based organisations for fear of being sacked. In 2016 this is just simply unacceptable. Employees have the right to work without fear. The bill does not prevent organisations from recruiting within their communities of faith; it limits their ability to unfairly discriminate.
When it came to Mrs Peulich’s contribution, she proposed that the bill before us today is an attempt to erode religious freedom. This is a complete mischaracterisation of the bill. No organisation or school will be denied the ability to recruit people of shared faith. This bill does strike a balance and asks schools and religious organisations to demonstrate the link between the practising of the faith and the doing of the job and how it is inherent to the role.
We also had a claim from Ms Lovell that her previous government did have a mandate to do what they did in 2011. I believe that is tenuous to say the least. But we on the Labor side can actually claim an absolute mandate for this bill. We put it to the Victorian people as our commitment to equality. It was part and parcel of our equality agenda and the reason for many people voting us into government, and I call on those opposite to respect the will of the Victorian people in that regard.
I also wish to take up a point that Mr O’Sullivan made. He said that this has all been rushed through. The bill was actually introduced in August, before he was appointed to the Parliament.
Mr O’Sullivan interjected.
Ms TIERNEY — We’re hardly sneaking it in, Mr O’Sullivan. It was also an election commitment, so it is hardly a surprise bill.
When we talk about how this will operate there are a number of things that come to mind, but if someone believes that they are being discriminated against, simple things will happen. The first thing is that you will have the ability to go to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, where they offer a resolution service, and there would be conciliation between the parties, hoping that both parties turn up. If that is not successful, the person wishing to make a complaint can lodge a formal complaint with the Victorian Civil and Administration Tribunal — that is, VCAT. The religious body or school would then be required to demonstrate the link as its defence for discriminating. I think that is highly reasonable. It is a test that will take into account the nature of the job in question, the nature of the religious body or school and the religious beliefs that guide the body’s or school’s operations, and it will be determined on a case-by-case basis through VCAT.
These considerations are important because different religious bodies and schools adopt different approaches to the application of religious beliefs and principles within the organisations, and that is why it is so important that VCAT handles and determines these matters on a case-by-case basis.
In concluding, I thank all of those that have contributed to this discussion today. I think in many ways for me personally it demonstrates the level and degree of misinformation that is still out there in the community and is still being peddled primarily by those opposite in the chamber, which I think is a shame, because I think this is a very fair and very balanced bill that has the support of the Victorian people. I commend the bill to the house.