PM intervenes in parliament burqa row

Prime Minister Tony Abbott. (AAP)

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has confirmed he has asked Speaker Bronwyn Bishop to reconsider a controversial plan to segregate people who wear the burqa into separate areas of Parliament House.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has confirmed he has asked Speaker Bronwyn Bishop to reconsider a controversial plan to segregate people who wear the burqa into separate areas of Parliament House.

After a week of heated debate about bans on burqas or niqabs, the Department of Parliamentary Services on Thursday decided people with facial coverings could only watch parliament from the enclosed galleries usually reserved for noisy school children.

It was unclear how a facial covering would be defined, but wearers would have to sit behind glass and up a floor from the regular galleries.

The decision provoked widespread outrage, prompting an intervention from Mr Abbott. 

"The prime minister has asked the presiding officers to reconsider the new arrangements for people wearing facial coverings regarding access to the public gallery," a spokesman for the PM's office confirmed on Friday.

Mr Abbott said the presiding officers - Mrs Bishop and Senate President Stephen Parry - are responsible for decision relating to security and stressed the revisions announced this week are "interim arrangements".

While the prime minister does not have direct power to veto the decisions of presiding officers it is unlikely they would ignore his wishes.

'Religious apartheid'

Labor and the Greens are worried parliament is signalling it's OK to treat Muslim women poorly, and Independent MP Andrew Wilkie has slammed it as "religious apartheid".

"The decision by the government to isolate, in their own rooms, burqa-wearers observing the parliament has no security merit at all," Mr Wilkie said.

DPS has also tightened security around passes for visitors to secure areas of parliament.

Both the ABC and Fairfax Media reported that Mr Abbott in an embarrassing backflip had asked Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, Senate President Stephen Parry and the department to reconsider the separate seating arrangements.

He was reportedly calling for 'common sense to prevail'.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Mr Abbott let the divisive debate on banning burqas and niqabs drag on too long.

"If we're asking our troops to stand up to sectarianism, intolerance and prejudice overseas, we should be prepared to do the same in our parliament," he told AAP.

Labor also wrote asking Mrs Bishop to reconsider the move, saying every Australian should feel welcome visiting Parliament House.

Senate President Stephen Parry says security officers need to be able to quickly identify people shouting out from the public galleries.

He insists it's an interim measure until Australian Federal Police and ASIO advise him and Mrs Bishop on screening policies in relation to garments that hide identity.

Senior government minister Malcolm Turnbull implored Australians to move on from the burqa debate. Mr Turnbull says in the 10 years he's been in parliament he's seen only one woman in the full, face-covering burqa in the public gallery.

He told the Nine Network that people should be allowed to wear whatever they like, as long as the necessary security precautions are taken. 

"We don't want to have debates like this being turned into a coded attack on the Muslim community," Mr Turnbull said.

"Our enemies, ISIL .... they want us to attack Muslims, to alienate and frighten the Muslim community so they don't feel they're part of Australia and they feel their only home is with an extremist group."

Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek agreed.

"We're a stronger community when we respect and trust one other."

'Burqa ban' breaches 'trifecta' of human rights: Broderick

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick said the interim rule could be open to a legal challenge and in breach of the "trifecta" of human rights - on the basis of sex, race and religious grounds.

It clearly targeted a specific group - Muslim women - and treating them unfavourably and differently.

"It's just not right," she told ABC radio on Friday. "This is about exclusion at a time when tensions are quite
high."

The only Muslim federal MP, Labor's Ed Husic, also condemned the decision.

"It's not right, it's deeply disappointing and something I'd hope the presiding officers would give thought to," he said.

The controversial DPS decision came after calls by Liberals Cory Bernardi and George Christensen and Palmer United Party senator Jacqui Lambie for the burqa and niqab to be banned from parliament completely.

"What I'm arguing for is no facial coverings at Parliament House at all," he told ABC TV on Friday.

Mr Christensen said on Thursday night people shouldn't get their hopes up over the prime ministerial intervention because Mr Abbott didn't have a veto over the presiding officers' decisions.

Labor and the Greens are worried parliament is signalling it's okay to treat Muslim women poorly, and independent MP Andrew Wilkie has slammed it as "religious apartheid".

But Mr Christensen dismissed concerns about the plan.

"People who just shout this argument down as racism or bigotry... they're just name calling," he said.

He pointed to overseas laws on the burqa. 

"The entirety of France is engaging in religious apartheid, Turkey's engaging in religious apartheid (and) Belgium," he said.

Asked if he thought a beard was a facial covering Mr Christensen: "if you put on a beard like you would put on a balaclava or a veil on your face, it's unnatural and shouldn't be allowed."

Earlier this week Mr Abbott further fuelled debate on the issue when he admitted to finding the attire "confronting" and that he wished women wouldn't wear it.

On Thursday he refused to add to his remarks.

"It's hardly the most important issue facing our country right now," he said.

 

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