Plan to segregate burqa wearers in talks for weeks

Visitors of Afghan nationality wearing hijabs are seen outside Parliament House in Canberra (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Speaker Bronwyn Bishop and Senate President Stephen Parry discussed security concerns with facial coverings such as burqas well before a controversial interim plan was put in place almost three weeks ago.

At-a-glance: Burqa, niqab and hijab

Speaker Bronwyn Bishop and Senate President Stephen Parry discussed security concerns with facial coverings such as burqas well before a controversial interim plan was put in place almost three weeks ago.

Earlier today, Ms Bishop and Senator Parry reversed the controversial interim ruling that people wearing burqas or niqabs in the public galleries be segregated behind glass.

Visitors will now be required to show their faces and to show identification upon entering Parliament House but after that, will be free to move around.

On the last day of the sitting fortnight two weeks ago, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Bronwyn Bishop, and the Senate President, Senator Stephen Parry, issued a temporary ruling that anyone wearing facial coverings would be required to sit in soundproof glassed-galleries high above the chambers, normally reserved for school children.

The move followed a request from South Australian Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi for the presiding officers to ban the burqa in Parliament altogether.

The temporary restrictions were put in place to stop a group of protesters, who were apparently planning to dress in burqas, disrupting question time on October 2.

Fear of protesters prompted burqa plan

Speaking at a Senate estimates hearing today, Senator Parry said he was advised on the day the protesters, some of whom were reportedly men, would be wearing burqas to hide their identities.

A meeting involving the two presiding officers and parliamentary officials was hastily convened that morning in the Speaker's office.

The meeting received written advice from the DPS of two options to deal with the matter.

The option of putting visitors in a glassed-off area wasn't included, but was raised during the meeting, Senator Parry said.

The Senate's key security officer - Usher of the Black Rod, Rachel Callinan - confirmed this third option was added during the meeting by the Speaker and the President.

Ms Callinan had provided advice on this option, but was unwilling to divulge whether she had spoken in favour or against it.

Senator Parry said he hadn't received ASIO or police advice on the third option, which was always intended to be an "interim" measure to deal with an urgent security matter on the day.

"I was satisfied with the advice that was received and what we discussed in that meeting," the former police officer told the committee in Canberra.

"The interim measure was warranted."

Ms Callinan said she hadn't been advised the protesters specifically planned to disrupt question time, but rather that a group of people wearing burqas were going to "attempt to enter Parliament House".

The first time she heard mention of question time was during the October 2 meeting.

The Speaker has now taken charge of parliament security, rather than both presiding officers sharing the responsibility.

Axing plan to 'put a smile of the face' of extremists

The Palmer United Party's Jacqui Lambie hit out at the decision to overturn the burqa restrictions, saying it would encourage extremists to commit "acts of violence against Australians".

"The decision today to allow burqas ... to be worn in Australia's Parliament will put a smile on the face of the overseas Islamic extremists and their supporters in Australia," she said in a statement.

Senator Parry also  cited "many discussions" with the Speaker about security in past months "that would include facial coverings".

The initial decision prompted strong community backlash and the Prime Minister stepped in to request it be revised.

In the new ruling issued today, the department says that all visitors entering Parliament House will be "required to temporarily remove any coverings that prevent the recognition of facial features".

"This will enable DPS security staff to identify any person who may have been banned from entering Parliament House or who may be known, or discovered, to be a security risk," it says.

"Once this process has taken place, visitors are free to move about the public spaces of the building, including all chamber galleries, with facial coverings in place."

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