ABC Capital Hill – anti-vaccine protests, Religious Discrimination Bill, vaccine mandates

Monday, 22 November 2021

JANE NORMAN, HOST: Lots to talk about today, and joining me is Nationals Senator, Perin Davey, and Labor frontbencher, Amanda Rishworth. Thanks for your time. Now I want to get on to the big agenda items in Parliament, but can we just start with the security issue. Reece Kershaw there talking about officers investigating threats about Federal Parliamentarians, or parliamentarians I should say. Amanda Rishworth, you have been in this building since 2007. Has anything changed security wise for you?

AMANDA RISHWORTH, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT: Not for me, personally, nothing has changed for me. There is no doubt that there is heightened concern, I think, in the community and within parliamentarians around security. There’s some concerns out there, but nothing’s changed for me personally.

NORMAN: That’s great news, I’m pleased to hear that. Perin Davey, you’ve been here for this term of Parliament. Are you concerned about your safety? Have you got any reason to be more concerned?

PERIN DAVEY, NATIONALS SENATOR FOR NEW SOUTH WALES: Personally no, I have the luxury of being in a very regional community where everyone knows everyone. But I will say that it is heightened at the moment, the conversations are heightened, but it is actually not new. I remember going to community hall meetings where faux horses heads were thrown on the stage against bureaucrats. I remember when Tony Burke was threatened as Water Minister. I’ve seen effigies of Minister Littleproud thrown into the Murray River. It cannot be condoned, regardless of what the issue is, whether it is water policy, climate change, or vaccinations and freedoms. Violence should never be condoned.

NORMAN: Do you think the PM got in trouble last week because it looks like he was, in some ways, condoning the protests when he said he understands why people are angry and frustrated?

DAVEY: I think there was a lot of semantics going on around what the Prime Minister said. On the one hand, he said violence can’t be condoned. And then someone said “but he didn’t use the word condemn, so he doesn’t condemn it”. And I think that is sort of clutching at straws to try and make something out of, what I thought, he was very clear that violence should never be tolerated. In Australia we have a right for peaceful protests, but peaceful protests is what it should stay as.

RISHWORTH: I mean, I would disagree. I think in these heightened scenarios, there needs to be an unequivocal statement. And the Prime Minister needed at this point to have an unequivocal statement to say that he condemned these protests. The pictures of the gallows those sorts of things were very, very upsetting, not just for Members of Parliament, I think it was very upsetting for the community. And we need to at this time bring the community together. It should have been unequivocally condemned, in my view, and he didn’t do that.

NORMAN: Do you think there was a deliberate pivot in the answer that he gave? He said, on the one hand, frustration cannot be an excuse for violence, and on the other hand, he said but I understand why people are frustrated.

RISHWORTH: I do think he was trying to say two messages out there. I don’t believe that his statements, if they were thought through, were about bringing the community together. I know he doesn’t get on with Premier Andrews clearly there’s been stoushes in the media. But this was unacceptable, whether he was trying to send a message to people that didn’t like him, or try and relate to them, it was unacceptable. And he should have condemned it outright.

NORMAN: Just in terms of what you were saying earlier about whether this situation has changed. Reece Kershaw in his grab that we played said that there were a number of factors that have changed recently in terms of the security environment that we’re in. What are the kind of factors that you think have led to these recent anti-government protests?

DAVEY: Certainly we’ve seen very concerning incidences of violence overseas. We’ve seen the terrible and tragic circumstances in the UK. We saw the 6 January riots in America that we hope would never be repeated here. But there does seem to be an increasing furore and an increasing fever pitch amongst these protests. And the unfortunate thing is there are many people who are out there, and they take to the streets to march in peaceful protests, and they are getting swarmed and surrounded by some really horrific scenes. You know I agree the nooses should not be tolerated at all, and those sorts of scenes can’t be tolerated. So we do need to really hammer home the message that peaceful protest is allowable, but violence, threats of violence, and the increasing use of social media to threaten public officials, not just parliamentarians, but also our staff. I’m not sure about Amanda, but some of the phone calls that come into our offices are just horrendous. And my staff should not have to deal with that.

NORMAN: Not at all . And actually, interestingly, Mark McGowan, as we mentioned a short time ago, the Western Australian Premier has actually just shut his electorate office. Can you imagine having to do that because of the threats that have been levelled against him and his staff?

RISHWORTH: That is absolutely unacceptable for those staff who are serving the public. But more importantly, that is a small minority affecting democracy, actually shutting down. You should be able to have access to your Member of Parliament, to a range of things to advocate on your behalf, to help you through Centerlink process or the range of issues that come in. The fact that these people think it’s okay to stop others being able to have access to their elected official is appalling. So they are a blight on our democracy. And it is terrible for the staff that do their best to help people every single day of the week. So I just would say this is absolutely appalling behaviour, and has no place in Australia. It seems some of the tactics are being imported from groups within America. I haven’t had any specific advice, but it seems some of the tactics are, I saw a protest talking about amendment 14 of the Constitution, which is actually the American Constitution. It has no place here in Australia, we have had a peaceful democracy here in Australia, and I hope it remains the same for a long time to come.

NORMAN: Don’t we all. Let’s move on to the priority bill for this fortnight, and that is the Religious Discrimination Bill. Perin Davey, do you think that there is a problem here that needs to be solved with this legislation?

DAVEY: This was a commitment that our government took to the last election, and we did so because it was being called for. There were people who felt that their religious rights were being undermined and weren’t protected –

NORMAN: There were very few examples of that though wasn’t there? It’s a feeling as opposed to actually having evidence of that?

DAVEY: And across the board, when you look at all of our discrimination rules and rights, they’re few and far between cases of some of the discrimination. But we’ve got laws to protect people’s rights, and I think that it is absolutely time, that in this country. Because people must remember this is not just about Christian religion, or any particular isolated religion, this is about protecting the rights of any practitioner of any religion to be able to practice their faith their way.

NORMAN: Amanda Rishworth, and we haven’t seen the details, I don’t think Labor has yet been briefed either. So we are talking, you know, broadly about the concept of this. Jacinta Collins, a former colleague of yours, reckons that Labor should back it in, in terms of the principle of it. Where do you stand?

RISHWORTH: Labor’s been very clear from the time the Government announced this what 3 and a half years ago, that we were willing to work on a religious anti-discrimination bill, happy to work on it. But it hasn’t proceeded in a bipartisan way. There hasn’t been a lot of consultation. I haven’t seen this Bill, it hasn’t been made public as of yet. We’ve seen previous bills, we’ve heard rumours that there is change. So we’ll look at the detail, but it hasn’t been done in a way that has been bipartisan. And that concerns me because I believe the Prime Minister seems to want to play politics with this, instead of actually reaching across the aisle and actually talking with Labor about what this might look like. So I’ve been really disappointed that this has taken so long to get here. We are on the eve of an election. It was an election commitment, it seems like the Prime Minister wants to rush this through, has not been bipartisan about it, hasn’t wanted to really work in good faith, and that is concerning. So we’ll take a look at it of course when it comes. We’ve said we are interested in working with the Government on this, but it hasn’t happened and now it seems to be rushed just so the Prime Minister can fulfil an election promise, without careful consideration.

NORMAN: Perin Davey it’s kind of fair criticism, right? You did promise this in 2019 at the election. Three years later, this could actually be the final sitting fortnight before another election.

DAVEY: Yes, we promised it three years ago and we have taken three years consulting and preparing. As Amanda said, people have seen previous drafts, and those previous drafts were put out for public consultation. We heard the commentary of the Labor Party, we’ve taken that on board. We’ve spoken to religious representatives from across the board, and we’ve taken their feedback on board. We’ve heard from the LGBTQI community as well. So that is why it’s taken this long, because we are taking on board all of the feedback we’re getting. This Bill is too important to have rushed and got through. We needed that time to consult constructively and appropriately with everyone. Yes, now people are saying, well it looks like it’s a last minute thing. This is a Bill three years in the making, three years of consultation in the making, and I think it’s appropriate when we’re talking about something this significant.

NORMAN: So you’ve got eight days left of this sitting fortnight. It’s not yet clear whether we’ll be returning next year, all depends on the election. If this Bill doesn’t pass or at least go to a vote, would that be a broken promise?

DAVEY: Well, it’s before the House of Representatives first and then hopefully it will pass there and then come to the Senate. How the Senate deals with it, whether the Senate wants to refer it to a committee is entirely up to the Senate chamber. We don’t control the Senate. If it goes to committee it will be reviewed, but hopefully we can have it back very quickly. Hopefully it would be a short turnaround respecting the amount of consultation that has already occurred.

NORMAN: Okay, Amanda just on the issue of Labor and religion more broadly. At the last election Labor suffered some big swings against it in Western Sydney, in parts of Queensland. One theory at the time offered by some of your colleagues in fact was that Labor was performing poorly in areas where religion was really alive and well. I suppose heading towards the next election and looking at a Bill like this, does it make you more favourable to support this kind of Bill to prove to voters of faith that Labor supports them, among others?

RISHWORTH: I don’t think we look at this Bill as some sort way to get votes. We look at the principle and as we said three years ago, we are open to looking at enshrining freedom of religion. We’ve said that. It needs to be balanced up against other discrimination laws in this country. It needs to be worked through carefully and consistently. And that is why in this iteration of this bill, we’ve been disappointed the Government hasn’t wanted to work with us. So we don’t look at this as some sort of vote grabbing exercise. We look at this as an important issue of principle, it needs to be carefully considered. It could have important ramifications and we need to be clear about what those are. And that as I said, I haven’t seen the Bill, it hasn’t been made public yet. So to think that the final Bill would then be rushed through because we haven’t seen it is quite disappointing. And that has been echoed by religious leaders as well, who have been concerned that the Government hasn’t reached across the aisle to discuss this.

NORMAN: And just before we let you guys go to Question Time, Pauline Hanson’s Bill to effectively override State vaccine mandates was defeated today pretty comprehensively. Are you sort of relieved or pleased that this Bill didn’t actually get through, so that States have the power to do whatever they want to do when it comes to vaccine mandates?

RISHWORTH: Well, firstly, I’d say I don’t know why the debate was brought on. I mean, the Government has many issues, as we said including the Religious Discrimination Bill, in front of the Parliament. So I’m not sure why the Government agreed to bring this Bill on for debate. But what I would say is the States and Territories have been doing the hard lifting when it comes to protecting our communities here in Australia. And they have done a really important job, based on medical advice about protecting our communities. So I think we need to continue to respect the medical advice, respect the work the States and Territories have done. And I really don’t like the Prime Minister’s tactic of taking the praise when it comes to the high vaccine numbers, and then at the same time in some ways his comments are undermining them. It’s not good enough. The States and Territories have been acting on medical advice. It is a very, very difficult time, but it’s a very crucial time as we open our borders to get this right. The States and Territories have been acting on that medical advice, and they should be supported to do that.

NORMAN: Perin Davey you voted against the Pauline Hanson Bill. What do you say to your colleagues like Alex Antic and Gerard Rennick, who are saying Morrison you need to ban these mandates or we’re not going to vote for our government’s bills. It’s a pretty childish approach, isn’t it?

DAVEY: Oh well look, threats against the Government, threats against the Government’s agenda, don’t necessarily get us anywhere. But I will also say Barnaby Joyce was quite right when he said if the States have implemented a mandate, it is the State Government’s issue. So if you can’t get a coffee at the coffee shop because you’re unvaccinated, that is the State Government’s rule. Amanda is absolutely right, the State Governments are following their health advice. I commend New South Wales who’ve got a clear end date in sight. New South Wales have got different rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated at the moment, but they’ve also said come 15 December, it doesn’t matter whether you’re vaccinated or not, we will have consistent restrictions in place. I believe Queensland is working towards a similar strategy, they’re just so far away from being 80 per cent vaccinated yet that they can’t even contemplate it. So what we need is people to get out and get vaccinated if they can, so that we can get to the 80 per cent, so that we can follow the national plan out of COVID, which was agreed by the National Cabinet and all State Premiers.

NORMAN: Well on that note, thanks for your time.

ENDS

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