ARA highlights the need for amendments to the Religious Discrimination Bill

Paul Zahra, CEO of the Australian Retailers Association (ARA), says that the Religious Discrimination Bill needs sensible amendments to protect our progress towards equality.

He highlights that while the Bill creates more issues that it attempts to solve, the amendments proposed by the federal opposition are sensible compromises to ensure safe workplaces, free from discrimination against sexuality, gender identity, race, and religion.

“Retail is Australia’s largest private sector employer, with one in 10 Australians working in our diverse and multicultural sector. That’s why diversity, equality and inclusion policy is so critical to the health of our sector. It is increasingly important that those segments of the community who have been wrongly marginalised in the past see themselves reflected in the brands and businesses they engage with,” Zahra said.

“Fundamentally, there can only be forward steps towards equality – sideways steps or backward steps do not belong in best practice legislation. The bill that was tabled by the government earlier this week does not progress us towards equality, but we are broadly supportive of the oppositions’ amendments.

“We question the timing of this debate but if the government is intent on passing this legislation this week, then we call on the parliament to support the amendments proposed by the opposition. Without these amendments, the government’s legislation will leave Australia out of step with anti-discrimination policy around the world, further deepening the poor perception of Australia’s record on human rights and moral leadership on critically important social issues.

“Our primary concern remains Section 12 of the bill, which would legalise casual racism, sexism and homophobia under the guise of a religious statement of belief. This would completely undermine many of the hard-fought wins that have been delivered by anti-discrimination legislation, at all levels of government, in recent decades.

“If parliament does not support the amendments in relation to Section 12, and the bill still passes, we are concerned that this provision will have a detrimental impact on workplace relations, increase friction in society, and increase suicide rates amongst marginalised sections of the community who already struggle with mental health challenges despite the legal protections that are already in place.”

The ARA is concerned that inadequate thought has been applied to how this federal legislation would interact with established state and territory legislation, leading to confusion and creating unnecessary complexity at a time when the focus should be on supporting business as we emerge from Covid-19.

“The changes to the government’s legislation tabled on Tuesday, and the opposition’s subsequent amendments, have alleyed some of our concerns about the compliance burden on business but this legislation, if passed, will still create tangible impacts and challenges for business.

“The way in which the government has managed this process and prosecuted its argument, is concerning – rushing through complex legislation with significant social impacts at a time when business is focused on dealing with the many impacts arising from a global pandemic and navigating an already-shaky pathway to post-Covid recovery. This really isn’t the right time to be having this debate but the oppositions’ amendments are sensible and offer the least-worse version of this bill,” Zahra said.

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