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6PR Mornings with Gareth Parker



Subjects: Religious freedoms; national minimum wage

GARETH PARKER: The question around whether your employer can have anything to say about your religious beliefs is very much live as a result of the Israel Folau case. That looks as though it's headed to court, but in that case the issue is that Folau signed a contract that asked him to adhere to a code of conduct, and Rugby Australia - his employer - say he's breached it so they've terminated his contract. That's the issue in simple terms. But there is a new push on by some Coalition backbenchers to strengthen protections around religious freedom. But that exact nature on how they want them strengthened I think is yet to be thrashed out. But the issue, as I say, is a live one, and it'll land on the desk of this gentleman, the Attorney-General Christian Porter. Good morning.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Good morning, Gareth. How are you?

GARETH PARKER: I'm well. And you're also the Industrial Relations Minister too, so congratulations on that.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Ah yes and there's been some, I think, good news today coming out of the expert panel who determines the minimum wage. So …

GARETH PARKER: Yes. We'll come to that.


GARETH PARKER: This religious freedom's issue, there is an ongoing review around religious freedoms, and obviously Barnaby Joyce and some others have been out in the press in the Eastern States this morning on these issues. Where do you see it all?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: There's two things that are happening in this space, and both of them we were very clear about as we went into the election. One is the particular issue about how you would redraft provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act and also the Fair Work Act to ensure the right balance between the rights of students in schools - not to be discriminated on the basis of sex or sexual orientation. But also the ability of religious schools and organisations to teach in accordance with their faith, maintain staff in accordance with their faith, and have school rules and discipline among students in accordance with their faith. That has gone off to the Australian Law Reform Commission. We'd actually proposed a way of doing that last year, it was rejected by Labor. I think what we've proposed would have worked, but nevertheless it wasn't able to be resolved in Parliament. So that has been moved off to the Australian Law Reform Commission. So we'll await their report and response on that.

The second issue is that we have promised very clearly that we would - based on the findings of the Ruddock review into religious freedoms - introduce a religious freedom- a religious discrimination bill which, of course, would become a religious discrimination act.

Now, already Australia has well-known acts that prevent discrimination based on certain attributes - the Disability Discrimination Act, a Sex Discrimination Act, a Race Discrimination Act, an Age Discrimination Act. So the next one of those to complete that architecture, to protect people from discrimination would be the religious discrimination bill – it’s a clear election promise. The drafting of that bill in its draft form is fairly well-advanced, so you could expect to be seeing that in the Parliament in the not too distant future.

But that was a very clear election promise and obviously one we're going to fulfil. And this did become an issue during the campaign, because some of the efforts that Labor made late last year on this issue, about the right balance between the ability of schools to maintain discipline of students and have staffing and teaching in accordance with faith, being balanced against the rights of students not to be discriminated against. I think they proposed something which went way too far in limiting the ability of religious schools. And that was of enormous concern to religious bodies, I think, during the election and in many seats that was reflected in the results.

GARETH PARKER: Sure. So the Folau- because the Folau case is a lightning rod, but it's also very interesting. Is it - would it under your proposed laws be discriminatory for Rugby Australia to insist on Israel Folau not expressing his religious views on social media?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well this is a very complicated legal question that I can't ask - I can't answer, unless I have been privy to all of the terms and provisions of that person's contract with Rugby Australia.

So, and of course that looks like it will be a matter which will be the subject of ongoing dispute in the courts. So I think that there is a danger in conflating two very different issues. Whether you think that a contract of that nature is a good or a bad idea, or fair and reasonable, or unfair and unreasonable, people enter into employment contracts of their own volition all the time, and contracts of a number of types with a number of terms. The question as to whether or not what we would intend to do in a religious discrimination bill would prevent that sort of contract, would depend on all of the terms of those particular individual types of contracts. But what I would say is that we're not necessarily in the business in government of trying to prevent individuals privately contracting the terms of their employment in a fair and balanced and reasonable way with their employer in a range circumstances. And what we have promised we would do is do something which is very known to Australian law, which is say that we would define an attribute just as we've done with attributes around sexual orientation, or age, or race, or other matters such as disability. We would define an attribute which is religious adherence and expression, and then put into that Act a range of circumstances where it would become unlawful for people to discriminate against a person based on that attribute.

GARETH PARKER: It's going to be tricky balance, isn't it?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well it always will be a tricky balance, but no more or less tricky in a sense than trying to find the right balance that exists in the Sex Discrimination Act or the Age Discrimination Act, or the Race Discrimination Act, because the way that these Acts works is they define the attribute; they say that people can't discriminate against others based on that attribute, and then list out a range of exceptions. Because there will be instances where for other reasons and other values that our society holds as important, there'll be exceptions where a level of indirect discrimination will be tolerated because it represents other values that we hold dear.

So if I could give this very basic example, we would expect that a religious discrimination bill would say something similar to this, that you cannot refuse entry of a person into a club or an organisation based on the fact that they adhere to a certain religion. Now it's obvious that you would need to create an exception to that insofar as there wouldn't be an expectation on a branch of a Muslim religion to accept someone who was an Orthodox Jewish person. And I think most people would consider that a logical and reasonable exception because the other value that you're holding true to there is people's rights to associate freely and in the way that their religion says that they should. So it's not without its complications, but it is an architecture of preventing discrimination against people based on a certain attribute that's well known in Australian law.

GARETH PARKER: It's going to be an interesting debate to watch it unfold. The minimum wage decision you alluded to before. So it goes up $21.60 a week, 3 per cent the minimum wage. The federal minimum wage is now $740.80 per week. Do you reckon you could live on $740.80 a week?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well there's no doubt that minimum wage represents a challenge, but of course that dovetails into the issue about tax reform and how much of your wage do you actually get to take home in your pocket. That decision itself reflects an increase above the rate of inflation of 1.3 per cent, so a real increase of 1.3 per cent. That represents an increase which is higher than the economy wide wages growth of 2.3 per cent. And just by way of comparison over the last 10 years, the national minimum wage increased on average 2.8 per cent a year in nominal terms and 0.8 per cent in a year in real terms. So in real terms, this represents a bigger yearly increase than we've seen on average over the last 10 years; which is very positive obviously for people at that wage level. But what is also very important is that that wage increase doesn't occur in a vacuum. And of course when we come back to Parliament, there's stages two and three of a tax plan which would eventually bring forth a restructured and reformed tax system which wouldn't see 94 per cent of people never face a marginal tax rate greater than 30 per cent. So when you also combine that increase in the minimum wage with the fact that we are delivering on substantial tax reform, which sees people take home more of the money that they earn, that represents, I think, a very positive thing for wage earners of all points across the income spectrum.

GARETH PARKER: Okay. But people on minimum wage aren't going to be up in the 30 per cent marginal tax bracket either.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, no, that's true. But of course, at the low income end.

GARETH PARKER: I mean it's good for people who earn more than the minimum wage.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, at low income end there are still substantial tax cuts that have been designed by this Government. So these things working in concert represent a significant improvement. But of course, it's always the case that the minimum wage is a minimum. We have I think it's the second or third highest minimum wage in the world. And the minimum wage is obviously very often a stepping stone from first jobs into better jobs and higher incomes. And one of the positive things about this decision is something that's taken very heavily into account by the expert panel in making this decision is their assessment of the relative performance and competitiveness of the national economy…so the national economy's strength and its ability to absorb an above usual real increase in wages. So this does represent their assessment that our economy is strong and is growing strongly including in employment growth.

GARETH PARKER: I just want to ask you this before we've got to let you go.


GARETH PARKER: But as IR Minister, what are your priorities going to be? Because this has been a blank slate for the Coalition this campaign, there was no IR policy to speak of.

CHRISTIAN PORTER:Well, my initial thoughts are that this is an area where there's got to be some intensive stakeholder consultation over the first couple of months. The architecture of the system's well known. I think that what we'll be looking for initially is ways inside that architecture to make the system more efficient. There's clearly, I think - particularly with enterprise agreements - complexities that are not always well understood. Sometimes the system is very difficult to navigate. So we'll be looking at those types of ways to increase the efficiency of the system in the immediate term. That, I think, will involve getting out in a good faith and genuine way and listening over the first couple of weeks and months to the key employer and employee groups and receiving their list of ways in which they think that the existing system can be improved, but inside the architecture that's now been operating for quite some time.

GARETH PARKER: Alright. So watch this space again. Christian, thank you.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Okay, thanks Gareth.

GARETH PARKER: Christian Porter, Attorney-General.