The political fight over religious freedom will be pushed into next year, in a bid to guarantee same-sex marriage can be legislated by Christmas, as conservatives agitate over parental rights and scramble to gain enough numbers to secure their changes.
The plan sets up a wider debate about freedom of conscience once the parliament votes on marriage equality, as politicians from all sides vow to act on the resounding 61.6 per cent support for changes to the Marriage Act in the nationwide postal vote.
In a strategic intervention late yesterday, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton called for a “free discussion in the new year” over the full scope of religious freedoms in a way that would not stymie the vote on marriage in the coming weeks.
However, conservative Liberal and National senators yesterday confirmed to The Australian that they would defy calls for the issue of parental rights to be pushed back until next year and intended to put up a range of amendments including parental rights.
The Senate opened debate on marriage reform yesterday but is yet to find a consensus on amendments such as protecting free speech, mandating parental rights, exempting civil celebrants or shielding religious charities from funding cuts if they believe in traditional marriage.
The Australian understands key Labor senators, including former right-wing powerbroker Don Farrell, have begun private talks with conservative Liberals to see if agreement among socially conservative senators from both sides could be reached on amendments that would include parental rights. The talks have been described as “embryonic”.
Despite Mr Dutton’s suggestion that debate on parental rights could be deferred to next year, Senate conservatives are pushing on with an amendment that will dare senators to vote against protection of parental rights.
Malcolm Turnbull said he was “very, very confident” that same-sex marriage would be legislated by Christmas, as he emphasised there would be no government ruling on amendments, leaving each to a free vote in parliament. “There will be a lot of amendments moved: some of them will get up, most of them probably won’t,” the Prime Minister said.
Senior Liberals who back the case for marriage equality cautioned last night that some of the amendments could prove unacceptable, questioning why a civil celebrant with no church affiliation should have the right to reject a same-sex wedding.
Key conservatives must convince many of their moderate Liberal colleagues as well as independent crossbenchers if they are to have any hope of securing their amendments by the Senate deadline of November 30, leading to a vote in the lower house by December 7.
The lead author of the marriage-equality bill, West Australian Liberal senator Dean Smith, is urging colleagues to separate the religious freedom debate from the Marriage Act by referring the questions to a parliamentary committee or drafting a separate bill next year.
Mr Dutton, one of the most senior conservatives in cabinet, advanced a similar plan late yesterday on the ground parents needed a greater say over gender programs such as Safe Schools.
“Let’s wait to see what happens with some of the amendments … I think now that we’ve got (the same-sex-marriage survey) resolved it will give us the ability to have a free discussion in the new year as to whether or not there is support for a religious protections bill,” Mr Dutton told Sky News.
The plan ensures conservatives will continue pressing to achieve their agenda even if they do not secure the votes for their amendments to Senator Smith’s bill.
Conservative Coalition senators met late yesterday in the parliamentary office of Queensland senator Barry O’Sullivan to decide which amendments would be put to the Senate to include in the bill.
At the meeting were Resources Minister Matt Canavan, Multicultural Affairs Minister Zed Seselja, Tasmanian senator Eric Abetz and Victorian senator James Paterson, whose rival bill to include broad religious protections failed to get off the ground.
It is understood the meeting was called to “pick apart” the Paterson bill, to decide which amendments they would fight to retain and include in the Smith bill and which they were prepared to jettison. Senator Canavan confirmed negotiations were under way to include elements of the Paterson bill, including protections for faith-based charities, in the Smith bill.
“A number of senators are working on ways to ensure protection for freedom of speech, parental rights and religious freedoms … there is a lot of work to be done to protect fundamental human rights,” Senator Canavan said.
A vital question for the Liberals and Nationals will be whether they allow a conscience vote on religious freedom and freedom of speech if a bill is drafted next year, given the risk of continuing years of Coalition division on social reforms such as gay marriage.
Bill Shorten said Labor would look at any amendments put forward, adding that “the people who voted No were entitled to their opinion” and should be respected.
The strongest No votes were recorded in Labor electorates in western Sydney.
“We are interested and committed to religious freedom and the ability of churches to practise wedding ceremonies and marriage ceremonies according to their own tenets, and we respect that,” the Opposition Leader said.
“Having said that, with the legislation, let’s get it done. It is an amendment to the Marriage Act. I think a lot of issues have been well canvassed, and we will obviously consider and have look at any amendments, but we are not up for new discrimination and new delay.”
Labor and the Greens have generally supported Safe Schools, making it difficult for the conservatives to secure enough numbers for a parental-rights amendment unless they secure all their Coalition colleagues as well as crossbenchers. One source of argument will be whether the parental rights trigger a dispute over state rights and intervention in state schools.
The protections for religious charities could help those bodies that believe in traditional marriage, but some Liberals are concerned this might extend to service providers, such as aged-care facilities, that accept government subsidies. One concern is whether an aged-care home partly funded by Canberra should have the right to turn away a same-sex couple.
The Attorney-General, George Brandis, has proposed an amendment to protect free speech, seen by some moderates as the most likely to succeed, but his proposal for an amendment to exempt civil celebrants is seen as problematic.
One senior Liberal said under current law a civil celebrant could refuse to marry anyone and should not have any power to refuse a gay couple, given the celebrant is not a church leader and is applying an existing law that will be amended to recognise same-sex marriage.Share