The Prime Minister has announced that the Cabinet have appointed former Liberal minister the Hon Philip Ruddock to head an inquiry which will examine “whether Australian law adequately protects the human right to religious freedom.” The announcement comes as debate continues about the make up of the bill to implement same-sex marriage, following the 61.6% yes vote result of the national postal survey.
In a media release announcing the appointment, the Prime Minister stressed that the inquiry’s remit was not confined to questions about marriage:
“The impending legalisation of same-sex marriage has seen a variety of proposals for legislative reform to protect freedom of religion. Many of these proposals go beyond the immediate issue of marriage.”
The Prime Minister outlined his reasons for the review as follows:
“Any reforms to protect religious freedom at large should be undertaken carefully. There is a high risk of unintended consequences when Parliament attempts to legislate protections for basic rights and freedoms, such as freedom of religion. The Government is particularly concerned to prevent uncertainties caused by generally worded Bill of Rights-style declarations.
This will be a timely expert stocktake to inform consideration of any necessary legislative reforms.”
Mr Ruddock will be joined by an “expert panel”, consisting of the recently appointed President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM, former Federal Court judge the Hon Annabelle Bennett AO SC and priest and human rights lawyer, Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO. The expert panel have been asked to report back by 31 March 2018.
In June 2004, Mr Ruddock introduced the Marriage Amendment Bill 2004 into the House of Representatives in his former role as Attorney-General. The resulting Act formally added the definition of marriage in Australia as “as a union of a man and a woman”, and also ensured that same-sex marriages entered into under the law of another country would not be recognised in Australia.
ABC News reported that Mr Ruddock “said the task would pose significant challenges, but that the group would endeavour to come up with an appropriate response for the Government.” Mr Ruddock said:
"Protection of the right to freedom of religion is a very important right. And how we manage that within the context of difficult human rights obligations, which can sometimes be formalised in a way which takes it beyond the power of the parliament, you need to get the balance right".
Treasurer Scott Morrison, who has raised concerns about protections for religious freedoms in the same sex marriage debate, told the ABC News he was pleased about the inquiry:
“What this does is says to 4.9 million Australians who had a different view, and I think to many more Australians who also believe religious protections need to be looked after, that we will do a thorough review of this.”
However, he reiterated that he would still be pushing for amendments to the same sex marriage bill currently being considered by the Parliament.
Opposition frontbencher Chris Bowen told the ABC News that “the Labor Party would cooperate with any review”, but believed it should not interfere with the plan to pass the same sex marriage bill before Christmas:
"Bill Shorten has made it clear that we're up for sensible discussion about what might need to happen in relation to religious freedoms and reassurances going forward, but we need to be satisfied as to the detail of course…
It is very important that this gets separated from the marriage equality debate.”
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