Age Care Religious Exemptions Gone

Retirement home: k4dordy

Whether by accident or design, in the ‘rush’ to salvage something from the abandonment of its commitment to overhaul all anti-discrimination law, the Attorney General’s department left something behind.

They saved the changes to the Sex Discrimination Act, which will be amended to cover gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, as well as same-sex de facto couples, for the first time.

But they left in the part that said religious people could ignore the law, and left out the bit that said “except in age care.” The plan had been to stop ‘religious’ age care providers from discriminating against us, but somehow that got left out. Now we’re fighting to get it back in again.

When I queried Mark Dreyfus’s office, I was told that the AGs statement at a press conference still applied.

That statement says:

We haven’t proposed a change to the exemptions that have been there for religious organisations for many years other than, and I’d stress this, the removal of the exemption for aged care services. And that’s government policy.

That’s something that was clearly set out in the bill. We drew attention to it.

It’s something I’d add that the responsible minister for aged care services, Mark Butler, has spent a lot of time consulting about.

And we would be proposing to go forward with that, not least because there was very, very little criticism, very few of the hundreds of submissions to the Senate Committee raised any objection at all to the removal of the exemption for religious institutions that provide aged care services.

The AGs staff confirmed that this did indeed mean that the removal of religious exemptions in respect of aged care is government policy.

However, they now have a problem. The Sex Discrimination Act that has been introduced into parliament leaves the religious exemptions intact. Yet it is government policy to remove them.

You should talk to the Minister for Ageing, Mark Butler, I was told. This is his area. Needless to say, Butlers staff thought it was the Attorney General’s, but never mind.  Butler’s office issued the following statement.

The Government is absolutely committed to removing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity from aged care.

In March of this year, the Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, announced that further work will be done on the Draft Human Rights and  Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012 following issues raised by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee’s report of 21 February. 

This Report recommended a number of policy, definitional and technical amendments which will require deeper consideration in the process of consolidating five bodies of anti-discrimination law into one.  

On 21 March 2013, the Attorney-General introduced the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013 into Parliament.

The Bill will amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to insert new protections from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, and extend the ground of marital status to marital or relationship status to provide protection from discrimination for same-sex de facto couples. 

These amendments support the government’s commitment to introduce new protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. 

While the Attorney-General’s Department continues to work on the Draft Human Rights and  Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012, these amendments will provide important, long overdue protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

You’ll notice that Butler’s statement neatly sidesteps the issue of exactly when and how the religious exemptions in respect of aged care will be removed. When I asked for clarification I was told.

Our commitment remains exactly the same – to get rid of religious exemption for aged care providers that receive Commonwealth funding. 

So we haven’t moved away from that at all.

Its only a matter of the mechanism that’s used to achieve that, and when it will be done.

It could be by an amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act currently before parliament. It could be via Butler’s bill, the Aged Care (Living Longer, Living Better) Amendment Bill 2013 where you see the Special Needs Group for Aged Care.

Or it could be at some unspecified future date when the government gets round to finishing its overhaul of anti-discrimination law, which few expect before the election. An election few expect the government to win.

Both Dreyfus and Butler had prior engagements on Thursday, so they were unable to join me on the Rainbow Report. I hope to speak to them both in the very near future to get some more specific commitment.

I also contacted the Shadow Attorney General George Brandis to ask him if he would support the removal of the religious exemptions in respect of aged care. But he too had a previous engagement, and his staff did not answer my requests for a statement of bipartisan support.

We’re not out of the woods yet. But we’re getting there.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)