Ruddock’s religious freedom report handed to Malcolm Turnbull

The Prime Minister's office confirmed it may be 'weeks' before the Ruddock review is released to the public, giving the government time to consider its response.

A government-appointed panel led by former Liberal minister Philip Ruddock will today hand the prime minister a report on religious freedom in Australia that could trigger a new political debate over discrimination laws.

The prime minister's office confirmed the report would not be made public today, with a spokesman telling SBS News the government may consider the document for "weeks" before its release. 

In a statement, Malcolm Turnbull confirmed he had received the report and praised the panel for its "comprehensive and respectful" work.

"I look forward to considering the report in detail and will consult with members of the government before releasing it to the public and responding to its findings," Mr Turnbull said. 

There has been no official word on the report’s contents but the recommendations are rumoured to include an expansion of anti-discrimination laws to cover religious beliefs, as reported by Queensland’s Courier-Mail.  

It is currently illegal under Australian law to discriminate against people on the basis of their race, age, disability, or gender or sexual identity in various public spaces, mostly in the areas of employment and education.

But religion is not currently a ‘protected attribute’ under the laws, and Australia does not have a bill of rights like the United States.

Mr Ruddock’s panel was overwhelmed with tens of thousands of public submissions from faith groups, secular organisations, legal experts and members of the public, with more than 16,000 contributing in the first two months of the inquiry.

The deluge prompted the prime minister to grant an extension to give the panel more time. 

The panel also held a series of closed meetings with stakeholders around the country. Guests were controversially promised they could speak freely because ‘no record’ of their words would be kept.

The panel was set up in the weeks before same-sex marriage passed into Australian law. Mr Ruddock, himself a former attorney-general, was joined on the panel by a group of experts in religion and the law: Jesuit priest Frank Brennan, former high-profile judge Dr Annabelle Bennett, Human Rights Commission president Rosalind Croucher and constitutional lawyer Nicholas Aroney.

A number of Turnbull government members tried to pass amendments to the bill that legalised same-sex marriage to insert more “protections” for religious groups.

While religious ministers were given the right to refuse to organise weddings for same-sex couples, one of the failed amendments would have extended that right to “objecting” civil celebrants too.

Former attorney-general George Brandis also floated the idea of legislating a right to "freedom of thought, conscience and religion", borrowing the language of a United Nations treaty.

But the idea of legislating “rights” in Australia for the first time is controversial within the Turnbull government.

Liberal MP Tim Wilson, who was among the Coalition’s leading voices in support of same-sex marriage, said a stand-alone bill of rights was inconsistent with socially conservative values.

"It's an oddity to see many people who identify as conservative or socially conservative, who have traditionally opposed a Bill of Rights or Charter of Rights, now prosecuting this cause," Mr Wilson said at the time.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also poured water on the idea.

"The government is particularly concerned to prevent uncertainties caused by generally worded Bill of Rights-style declarations," Mr Turnbull said when he announced the review last year. He said any reforms would need to be taken “carefully”, warning of a “high risk of unintended consequences”. 

Attorney-General Christian Porter will lead the government's response in the coming weeks. 

Published 18 May 2018 at 3:34am, updated 18 May 2018 at 12:11pm
By James Elton-Pym