Adapted from John Kennedy’s Speech to the Legislative Assembly on 17 November 2021

The Attorney-General’s question and answer document states:

‘We will better balance the right to equality with the right to religious freedom, ensuring protection and promotion of both rights.’

There are colleagues better able to eloquently and thoughtfully express the right to equality; however, I venture to speak on the right to religious freedom, ensuring protection and promotion of both rights. I have always been a practising but questioning Catholic. It has been a privilege to serve as President of the Association of Teachers in Victorian Catholic Secondary Schools, which is now part of the Independent Education Union, on the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria and as President of the Principals Association of Victorian Catholic Secondary Schools. The church, like other denominations and faiths, has achieved much in its care and advocacy of those in need—not just Catholics.

When I look around this chamber, I find it interesting to observe the disproportionate number on both sides who went to Catholic schools. Now, I am not sure what that tells you. Maybe we want to say that people who have got some eye to service of one kind, public service and so on, may have had some of that fostered in their non-government schools. I will just put that out there.

I would also like to say that whilst spending 41 years in Catholic schools, 30 as Founding Principal of Loyola College in Watsonia, I completed a Bachelor of Theology degree from the United Faculty of Theology of the Melbourne College of Divinity. So, I have a really strong interest in this.

Now, we have had a few arguments about process, about how much consultation and so on. My three years in this place has taught me a great deal. One thing is that people who say ‘Delay’ or ‘There is not enough consultation’ very often just simply means they oppose the Bill. I have finally worked that out.

The question and answer document rightly emphasises contemporary experience and understandings of the right to equality for gender, marital status and sexual orientation. I am speaking about the right to religious freedom, which is part of this legislation. I mention the discussion that took place at the federal level with the Greens’ Discrimination Free Schools Bill, which took place just a couple of years ago. One speaker was Senator Wong, a staunch supporter of the LGBT, who said this:

‘Labor does respect the Australian people. We will treat this legislation in the mature way it deserves. We will treat this legislation in the mature way the Australian community deserves. Regrettably, they have been denied such an approach by the government. We respect the right of parents to send children to the school of their choice and to have their children educated in accordance with their religious convictions. We respect that many parents choose religious schools because they want their children to be grounded in the identity and mission of a particular faith. We also respect that religious schools, and parents of students, are entitled to require employees to act in their roles in ways that uphold the ethos and values of that faith, and that this requirement may be taken into account when a person is first employed and in the course of their employment.’

I believe that we at the State level have been saying the same thing. We need to understand that the legislation is in one sense bigger than what could be seen by some as a circumscribed “inherent requirement”, because—in my view and my experience—such an “inherent requirement” incorporates a variety of commodities, including what might arguably be described by some as “incidental requirements” and a “critical mass” as applied to selecting, promoting and terminating teaching and non-teaching staff. So, for example, I think it could be true that this may not apply to the gardener or the office staff—but it may very well apply. It may be argued that the office staff have quite a connection with the local church and community.

I believe, the material received from the framers of the bill, makes clear that in fact the provision allowing a religious institution to discriminate on the grounds of a broad range of protected attributes is still there. I think it is important to recognise that “critical mass” can mean that whilst the first and foremost thing should be to have a qualified teacher of physics, it does not follow that there has to be a Catholic physics teacher, for example. But it might mean that there should be a critical mass of teachers, for example, who are adherents of the Catholic faith, and unambiguously so. The legislation does not go against that.

I have been a bit concerned, though, by the needless politicising of this by some speakers today. The member for Murray Plains was mocking us, would you believe, saying ‘trust us’, ‘tell the truth for once’, ‘wants to go to war’—all that sort of emotive stuff is no substitute for argument and data. I must say too that I am a tad disappointed with my Archbishop who publicly spoke of:

… one more unneeded attack by the government upon people of faith in Victoria.

Such a generalisation is what one expects from a political opponent.

The Bill highlights for employers the importance of indicating up-front what are the expectations. It is the “conduct” of a staff member that can be so important in terms of their position in a school rather than something privately held or exercised. I think it is the public conduct that is the most important thing there.

I conclude by wanting to say that our schools, the ones that I am most familiar with, and other faith schools, have made enormous contributions to society. Despite the heat of the current matter, I am positive that in the light of day critics will start to see that in fact the legislation is consistent— quite consistent —with day-to-day operations in our religious organizations.