“One of things I fear is that somehow [the] public debate about who you are has tried to sheer off one group off from another,” she said. Senator O’Neill said all Australians should feel free to “come out and be who they are in a public place”.
The senator, who is a key voice on religious matters within the ALP, warned divisions between these different groups can have dangerous and damaging consequences.
“It leads to social unrest,” she said. “It leads to the liberation of strident voices and a lot less listening.”
The Morrison government released a draft religious discrimination bill in late August, with public submissions closing last week. While religious and legal groups have welcomed the bill, many stakeholders – from across the political and religious spectrum – have raised serious issues with the fine print. Labor is still consulting and has not released a position on the draft laws.
Senator O’Neill has previously criticised the so-called “Folau clause” in the bill, which would force companies with revenue of at least $50 million a year to prove the sacking of staff for expressing controversial religious views in a private capacity was necessary to avoid “unjustifiable financial hardship”. She described the $50 million threshold as “arbitrary”.
The Labor senator is now also accusing the Coalition of mishandling the entire process by rushing public consultation with churches and community groups and delaying a long-awaited Australian Law Reform Commission review into the right of schools to expel students or fire staff members because of their sexuality until December 2020.
“The government isn’t managing this well. And because of that vacuum of ethical leadership on this matter of national identity with the potential to unify us, we see instead the breaking of the social compact and the firming up of lines of tribal binarism,” Senator O’Neill said.
The Labor senator said there needed to be a “zone of tolerance” around religious debates, with a focus on shared values and greater understanding of cultural differences. Her sincere wish is that when Australians encounter people from a different background, they should respond with “how interesting”, rather than having a “right fight”.
To achieve this, Senator O’Neill, a former high school teacher, wants to see a greater focus on religious studies in schools.
“This is not about a faith education. This is about a democratic education for a multicultural, multi, multi-faith community,” she said.
“We need to have cultural literacy about all sorts of things, not just about the great food people provide for our country.”
Senator O’Neill was first elected in 2010 in the lower house seat of Robertson, on the NSW Central Coast. She lost the seat in 2013 but was quickly returned to Parliament as a senator, when Bob Carr resigned, creating a casual vacancy. A prominent Catholic within the party, she is also from the more conservative Right faction.
Attorney-General Christian Porter is planning to bring the religious discrimination bill before Parliament as soon as this month, although some stakeholders expect the bill will be delayed, given the complexity of the legislation and the differences of opinion that have emerged. Last week, he said he had conducted nine face-to-face roundtables with more than 90 community representatives since the draft bill was released.
“It’s fair to say that the engagement between stakeholders and my office and department has been extensive and ongoing,” Mr Porter said.
He also said: “Like any topical issue before the Parliament, there are a variety of views on the religious discrimination bill, and this is reflected in the written submissions we’ve received to date.”
Judith Ireland is a political reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House