PM’s fo­cus on free­dom for re­li­gion


Mal­colm Turn­bull has declared he be­lieves in re­li­gious free­dom “even more strongly” than in same-sex mar­riage as he re­sponds to John Howard’s call for swift ac­tion to re­veal new safe­guards for all Aus­tralians be­fore they cast their postal sur­vey votes over the next seven weeks.

The Prime Min­is­ter yes­ter­day vowed to pro­tect re­li­gious free­dom, in a new sig­nal to Aus­tralians who feared the loss of their per­sonal rights if a re­form bill was rushed through par­lia­ment by the end of the year.

He did not make any pledge to out­line changes be­fore the Novem­ber 7 dead­line for postal bal­lots.

Chris­tian groups hailed the “land­mark day” in the cam­paign af­ter Bill Shorten is­sued a sim­i­lar vow to Mr Turn­bull’s, say­ing that as a per­son of faith he would not sup­port any bill that im­pinged on re­li­gious free­dom.

The de­vel­op­ments high­lighted dis­sent within Coali­tion ranks.

Church lead­ers also backed Mr Howard’s call for the gov­ern­ment to out­line pro­tec­tions for re­li­gious free­doms be­fore the postal vote, while ad­vo­cates for mar­riage equal­ity said the onus was on the No cam­paign­ers to of­fer “de­tailed reme­dies” if they be­lieved ex­ist­ing safe­guards were in­ad­e­quate.

Speak­ing from Sin­ga­pore, Mr Howard said he be­lieved the con­ces­sions from Mr Turn­bull and the Op­po­si­tion Leader about the prospect of fur­ther amend­ments re­in­forced his call on the gov­ern­ment to pro­duce pro­tec­tions for re­li­gion, free­dom of speech and parental rights.

“My view is: if they con­cede the min­i­mum pro­tec­tions are not ad­e­quate, then are they re­in­forc­ing the need that what those pro­tec­tions are should be re­leased be­fore the bal­lot is over?” he told The Week­end Aus­tralian.

“The main game is be­fore the vote; af­ter the bal­lot is far too late.”

Mr Turn­bull of­fered Mr Howard an op­por­tu­nity to con­trib­ute to the fi­nal bill, to be de­cided in par­lia­ment by De­cem­ber 7 af­ter the postal vote re­sults are re­vealed on Novem­ber 15, but the for­mer prime min­is­ter said the is­sue should be dis­cussed be­fore­hand and Mr Turn­bull could call him “di­rectly” when he wanted.

Mr Ab­bott yes­ter­day backed Mr Howard’s push for re­li­gious pro­tec­tions to be re­vealed be­fore peo­ple voted and declared re­li­gious pro­tec­tions should have been worked out “well be­fore” the is­sue was put to the peo­ple.

“Free­dom of con­science should not be an af­ter­thought from peo­ple who claim they sup­port free­dom,” Mr Ab­bott said.

“The ex­traor­di­nary in­tol­er­ance and bul­ly­ing we’ve seen from SSM sup­port­ers means that as­sur­ances that free­dom of con­science will be pro­tected in this brave new world are hard to take se­ri­ously.’’

In an exclusive in­ter­view with The Week­end Aus­tralian’s for­eign editor, Greg Sheri­dan, Mr Ab­bott out­lined what he would have done had he re­mained prime min­is­ter. He said he in­tended to sub­mit to a pub­lic vote the fi­nal bill on same-sex mar­riage that would ul­ti­mately be put to par­lia­ment if the plebiscite re­turned a yes vote.

Ad­vo­cates for change have drafted a bill that con­firms the rights of min­is­ters of re­li­gion to refuse to solem­nise a same-sex mar­riage as well as the rights of re­li­gious or­gan­i­sa­tions to refuse to pro­vide ser­vices for wed­ding func­tions that breach their faith.

The lead pro­po­nent for this bill, West Aus­tralian Lib­eral se­na­tor Dean Smith, said those who con­sid­ered these safe­guards

in­ad­e­quate should of­fer “de­tailed leg­isla­tive reme­dies” to ad­dress the is­sue.

Mar­riage equal­ity ad­vo­cate Rod­ney Croome said it was time for the No cam­paign to spell out “ex­actly” what le­gal amend­ments they needed.

“In the ab­sence of con­crete le­gal pro­pos­als, the No cam­paign about free­dom of speech and re­li­gion is just about mud­dy­ing the waters,” Mr Croome said.

“My chal­lenge to the No case is to show us ex­actly what le­gal changes you want, or move on.”

Mr Turn­bull promised “ex­ten­sive” pro­tec­tions for re­li­gious free­dom but made it clear this was up to par­lia­ment as a whole rather than the gov­ern­ment.

“I just want to re­as­sure Aus­tralians that as strongly as I be­lieve in the right of same-sex couples to marry, as strongly as I be­lieve in that, even more strongly, if you like, do I be­lieve in re­li­gious free­dom,” the Prime Min­is­ter said.

“Re­li­gious free­dom is fun­da­men­tal and it will be pro­tected in any bill that emerges from this par­lia­ment.”

Mr Shorten is­sued a prom­ise to vot­ers, say­ing he had been “raised to be a per­son of faith” and would make sure the con­cerns would be treated with re­spect.

“La­bor will not sup­port leg­is­la­tion which im­pinges upon re­li­gious free­dom in this coun­try,” he said.

The Coali­tion for Mar­riage saw the com­ments from Mr Turn­bull and Mr Shorten as con­fir­ma­tion that the same-sex mar­riage de­bate was about re­li­gious free­dom — and that wider pro­tec­tions were needed.

Aus­tralian Chris­tian Lobby head and the Coali­tion for Mar­riage spokesman Lyle Shel­ton said: “Now that they are ad­mit­ting that pro­tec­tions are needed, they need to de­scribe how free­dom of be­lief will work for all Aus­tralians un­der same-sex mar­riage law.

“This in­cludes for par­ents who don’t want rad­i­cal LGBTIQ sex ed­u­ca­tion forced on their chil­dren and peo­ple of faith or no faith who wish to con­tinue to be­lieve mar­riage is one man, one woman.”

De­ter­mined to win the postal bal­lot, No cam­paign­ers have re­fused to out­line the safe­guards they would like to see writ­ten into the law, say­ing to do so would be to ad­mit de­feat. Mr Shel­ton did not an­swer ques­tions about whether the onus was on him and the No cam­paign to ex­plain how to pro­tect free­doms with­out al­low­ing a re­li­gion to deny ser­vices to oth­ers.

Church lead­ers and le­gal schol­ars backed Mr Howard’s call for the gov­ern­ment to out­line pro­tec­tions for re­li­gious free­doms ahead of the vote.

The Catholic Arch­bishop of Bris­bane, Mark Co­leridge, said ver­bal as­sur­ances pro­vided by the gov­ern­ment that free­dom of re­li­gion and free­dom of con­science would be pro­tected were not enough if the com­mu­nity were to make an in­formed de­ci­sion.

He said it was “deeply con­tra­dic­tory” to talk “ob­ses­sively about hu­man rights while at the same time un­der­min­ing the rights to re­li­gious free­dom”.

“John Howard has iden­ti­fied an unease many of us feel, par­tic­u­larly given that, in Aus­tralia, pro­tec­tions for free­dom of re­li­gion and free­dom of con­science are al­ready un­cer­tain,” he said.

Syd­ney Angli­can Arch­bishop Glenn Davies echoed Arch­bishop Co­leridge’s con­cerns, say­ing the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment would be “fool­ish” to ig­nore Mr Howard’s “wis­dom and ex­pe­ri­ence”.

“Given the ob­struc­tion of the Se­nate in pre­vent­ing the gov­ern­ment from de­liv­er­ing on its prom­ise to hold a plebiscite, we can­not be con­fi­dent the gov­ern­ment can pro­vide the pro­tec­tions for free speech and free­dom of be­lief which are es­sen­tial,” he said.

Mur­doch Univer­sity le­gal aca­demic Au­gusto Zim­mer­mann said that once mar­riage was re­de­fined, any­one who dis­agreed with same­sex mar­riage and de­nied a ser­vice faced po­ten­tial le­gal pros­e­cu­tion — not for the de­nial but on the grounds of dis­crim­i­na­tion.

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