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Attack on State anti-discrimination laws

If you live in Tasmania, you enjoy the greatest protection in the nation from discrimination and hate speech. That protection may not mean much to you, if you’re someone who’s never needed it.

And that’s the issue. The most vulnerable people in our society are those who are marginalised because of who they are, and because of the cultural norms that have persisted for generations and allow others to assess their value against those norms. Unchallenged, those norms give rise to segregation, isolation and fundamental erosion of the value of an individual, causing untold harm.

Twenty-one years ago, Tasmania’s Labor Government introduced the most progressive anti-discrimination laws in the country, and they remain nation leading today.

Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act protects people from discrimination or hate speech based on a range of attributes: race, sex, age, gender, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, political belief and – importantly – religious belief.

Scott Morrison wants to introduce national legislation that would explicitly override the section of the Tasmanian act that provides that protection.

His justification is to safeguard personal liberty. But what he is really attempting to protect is the ability of the powerful to vilify and marginalise the vulnerable.

Passage of the national legislation would remove the legal protection that currently stands in Tasmania against hate speech.

The new law would directly expose many vulnerable Australians to wide-scale, sanctioned discrimination. It would allow health care providers to refuse to treat patients on religious grounds. It would allow hateful statements in everyday settings like workplaces. It would expose students, teachers and staff to discrimination in schools. It would remove legal recourse for vulnerable people who are victimised and subjected to hate speech because of who they are.

It would be a terrible outcome for all Tasmanians, but it has more sinister implications.

It’s an attack on Tasmania’s right to make and defend our own laws. If Scott Morrison succeeds, he will have set a dangerous precedent for the federal parliament to ride roughshod over state laws.

Let’s have a closer look at what Scott Morrison says he’s setting out to do, which is to protect people of faith from persecution because of their faith.

I have no argument with ensuring that people are not discriminated against on the basis of their religion. I support such a protection, just as I support protections for people not to be discriminated against on the basis of their gender, or their ability, or their sexuality, or any of the many attributes that can set apart one person or group in our society from another.

But there are those who do have a problem with that level of protection, and they include our Prime Minister.

Conservative leaders in the Tasmanian community have already attempted to water down the state’s nation-leading laws. In 2017 the Tasmanian Liberal state government attempted to amend the laws to allow ‘religious belief’ as a defense to hate speech and other actions that would otherwise be held discriminatory under Tasmanian law.

That bid was opposed by Labor and rejected by Tasmania’s Upper House. Now the same push is happening at national level.

People of faith in Tasmania already have protection against discrimination or hate speech because of their religion. They enjoy the same protection as all other Tasmanians, and have the same responsibility as all other Tasmanians to not discriminate or incite hatred against others.

Fears that the Tasmanian law would harm faith-based organisations such as schools, hospitals and charities have proved unfounded. In fact the reverse has proved to be true: the Act has long been recognised as working well and has fostered more inclusive and successful faith-based organisations.

An exemption under the Tasmanian law means these organisations can already make employment decisions on the basis of religion, while simultaneously preventing them from discriminating against people who don’t share, or align with, that religion.

Tasmania’s laws strike the right balance. They allow Tasmanians to not suffer discrimination, and allow organisations with a faith-based practice to prosper.

The laws have also contributed to fostering a society where hate speech is now much less common than it once was and debate about human rights more broadly is more mature than in times past.

This, in the state that once had the most discriminatory laws against LGBTI people. It’s a sign of how far we’ve come that we now have the best laws protecting not just LGBTI, but all people, from discrimination.

I call on the Australian Government to make a genuine commitment to protecting all Australians from discrimination – not just Australians of faith – and abandon its intention to override Tasmanian law. The passage of these laws would set us back decades.

This is the time for Peter Gutwein to demonstrate both backbone and the compassion he promised on being appointed Premier. He must show Tasmanians he can and will stand up to Scott Morrison where the rights of this state are at stake. In doing so, he must be clear that he is standing up for every Tasmanian, especially those who would be most affected by the quashing of our anti-discrimination laws.

There is no need to put at risk hard-won protection for Tasmanians while trampling on state’s rights. The smarter course would be for the Morrison government to look to Tasmania’s laws, which provide a model for the nation for both protecting the rights of all Australians, and ensuring all Australians are free from persecution.

Ella Haddad is the Shadow Attorney General and Shadow Minister for Equity

this article was originally published February 18, 2020

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