Australia

‘That’s rubbish’: Morrison rejects claims he’s stalling on religious discrimination laws

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Independent candidate Kerryn Phelps has accused the PM of delaying the release of the Ruddock review until after the October by-election

Prime minister Scott Morrison has dismissed claims he is delaying the release of the Ruddock religious freedom review and anticipated reforms to discrimination laws until after the October by-election in the seat of Wentworth.

The government’s main challenger in the traditionally safe Liberal seat, independent Kerryn Phelps, said the report was being “concealed from the public using cabinet privilege as an excuse”.

Mr Morrison responded on Wednesday morning, saying the claims were “rubbish” and the by-election was “not the reason” the report had still not been released, despite being handed to his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull in May.

The prime minister went further, saying his public pledge to change discrimination laws so people could not suffer disadvantage for their “religious beliefs” would win over religious voters in the Sydney seat.

“I think people in Wentworth know – people of faith in Wentworth, people of belief, for whom religion is very important to them – know that I have a lot of strong passions in this area,” Mr Morrison told ABC Radio.

“One of the most upsetting things I saw as a young fellow was when you drive up past Temple Emmanuel [Jewish synagogue] up there in Woollahra and there’d be security guards outside.”

“When I go to church on a Sunday, I don't need security guards outside my church … [but] that’s the reality for Jewish Australians and I just think that's appalling.

“So religious freedom means something very special to that community and they know I'll stand with them, as will Dave Sharma.”

Independent candidate for Wentworth Kerryn Phelps in Double Bay.
Independent candidate for Wentworth Kerryn Phelps in Double Bay.
AAP

Dave Sharma is the Liberal candidate in Wentworth, where he is under pressure to hold the seat or risk losing the government’s one-seat majority in the House of Representatives.

Wentworth is usually a safe hold for the Coalition but polling suggests the party will suffer a substantial electoral backlash over the dumping of former member Malcolm Turnbull from the prime minister’s office.

Census data from 2016 shows “no religion” was the most common response to the religion question in Wentworth, at 33 percent. But 20 percent of residents identify as Catholic, while 12.5 percent are of Jewish faith.

Kerry Phelps is warning the reforms are motivated by a desire to appease the conservative wing of the Liberal party and will give religious organisations further powers to legally discriminate.

She said the government was likely to expand exemptions like the existing rule that lets religious schools discriminate in their hiring process, for instance.

“I call on Scott Morrison to release the report before the Wentworth byelection and release his proposed legislation so people in Wentworth know what they are voting for when it comes to those so-called religious freedoms,” Ms Phelps told the Guardian.

“What this is really about is using religion as an excuse to water down anti-discrimination laws.

“If somebody on the basis of religion can be given a licence to discriminate and say that’s on the basis of my religion, then we are headed very much down the path of a religious-based rather than a secular government.”

Ms Phelps was a prominent advocate for same-sex marriage and is positioning herself as a choice for the “sensible centre” in Wentworth – a cosmopolitan electorate that is seen as traditionally Liberal but progressive on social issues.

Voters will head to the polls on October 20.

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