Are proposed laws threatening workplace inclusion?

'The only people who win in this scenario are the lawyers'

Are proposed laws threatening workplace inclusion?

The proposed legislative reforms on religious freedom could stop Australian organisations fostering inclusive cultures and erode any hard-won benefits derived from inclusion.

That’s the message from Diversity Council Australia (DCA), coming as the not-for-profit submitted its response to the Australian Government’s proposed religious reforms.

The warning echoes that of the Human Rights Commission, who earlier this week also cautioned that the Religious Discrimination Bill was “overly broad” and could have negative consequences on other protected groups.

DCA CEO, Lisa Annese, said that while she strongly supports protections against discrimination on the basis of faith, the proposed new laws would be problematic.

“DCA supports individuals being protected from discrimination and harassment because of their religious belief, however, we have a number of concerns with the proposed legislation,” said Annese.

“There are a number of problems with the legislation, but the main areas that concern DCA are the override of other anti-discrimination laws, the restrictions on workplace codes of conduct, and the inconsistency with other Commonwealth laws.”

Annese added that there is strong evidence that inclusion is good for business, but this proposed legislation would impair organisational efforts to implement diversity and inclusion policies.

“What’s more, the exposure draft differs significantly to the structure of other Commonwealth anti-discrimination legislation which will be confusing for business,” said Annese.

“For example, these Bills exempt behaviour undertaken ‘at a time other than when the employee is performing work on behalf of the employer’.

“However, there has long been a recognition that work extends beyond the physical boundaries of the workplace and the physical time of work. This inconsistency will be a mess for employers, but great for lawyers.”

Annese said she was also concerned that the new laws would have the effect of privileging religious expression over other rights at work.

“By inserting a clause which enables the override of federal, state and territory discrimination protections, this legislation creates standard for protection on the basis of religion which privileges religious interests over the interests of other Australians.

“We believe that people should be protected against discrimination because of their faith. But at the same time, we know that using that faith as a reason, genuinely held or not, to discriminate against others isn’t good for inclusion.

According to Annese, this could also create absurd situations where different kinds of speech would have different protections and different limits for when employers can step in to uphold workplace standards of conduct.

For example, two employees making homophobic comments and one employee is of a religious background.

“The only people who win in this scenario are the lawyers.”

Annese said that DCA’s submission advocated for laws that create an inclusive society:

 “At DCA, we are interested in seeing religious and multi-faith inclusion, especially in workplaces. Inclusion is a higher bar than legal compliance, it’s about ensuring that an individual’s right to have a religious belief or no religious belief is respected,” she said.

“Instead of introducing this draft legislation, we believe that the Government should continue consulting with relevant stakeholders on this issue, and develop legislation that is inclusive and does not provide additional positive rights that allow discrimination against other people.”

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