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16 February 2022

There are plenty of Australians who probably think their Federal MPs are a bunch of couldn't-work-in-an-iron-lung, snout-in-the trough, gravy-train abusing bludgers.

This is a pretty harsh view, though I recognise it's a commonly held one.

But I want to say to such cynics and critics hold on to your hats there is something that happened in Parliament last week that might blow your socks off.

On Wednesday night we members of the House of Representatives sat through the night and didn't leave until it was 5am Thursday.

The late sitting led to an official complaint by at least one independent member. But I have no problem with the occasional late sitting.

I think the more the public see their elected representatives working hard the better. Perhaps it will restore some faith in our political class and our democracy.

I've never been afraid of a bit of hard work. I suppose you inherit that streak. My dad was a seafarer and worked on the Melbourne docks, and my mum was a teacher who studied to become a lawyer while working full time and raising us kids. I paid my own way through university by working at a butchers.

So being back in the House of Representatives and a bit bleary eyed on Thursday morning after three hours sleep was fine.

Frankly for us well-paid public servants it was nothing, especially when compared with the crazy hours and personal sacrifice made by frontline heroes of the pandemic like our nurses. And frankly I find it disrespectful that, given that broader context, any MP would complain too much.

But, as it turned out, the pre-dawn session ended up being for nothing because of the haphazard way the Prime Minister has organised his law-making priorities.

What was the reason for this burning of the midnight oil?

Well, Mr Morrison had promised to legislate against religious discrimination in this term of government and he was running out of time. (Although I believe it was more political than that.) \But things got messy as the Parliament played possum in the pre-dawn.

Five of the PM's own Liberal MPs were not comfortable with continuing discrimination against school kids in religious schools and crossed the floor voting against the Prime Minister to vote with Labor in support of amendments to extend protections.

With the sun up on Thursday, the changed Bill went to the Senate at which point the Government, unsure what to do, dropped it entirely. So much for that.

My own view on the PM's now possibly abandoned Bill is that it had problems on several fronts.

First, I have no doubt that discrimination against people of faith is real. That weeping sore on the history of the 20th century anti-Semitism is unfortunately not a thing of the history books, nor is Islamophobia, and neither is the sectarianism of casual jeering references to Christians and their faith.

Discrimination against people of faith is real, it is deplorable, and it has no place in Australian society. It is wrong.

But how on earth did the Prime Minister get the Parliament and the nation to the point where the proposition is that preventing discrimination against one group of Australians requires diminishing protections of another?

The concerns of gay and trans groups have been aired widely but I was also concerned the proposed laws, without Labor's proposed amendments, could see nasty speech directed at people with disability promoted and protected.

It is surprising but not uncommon if you ask a person with disability how often people (who may be well meaning) come up to them and say they can be healed or that their condition is the result of sin or karma.

Such comments can be shattering for Australians with disability. Even our Australian of the Year, Dylan Alcott, has recounted how he has been the subject of religious bigotry simply because he has a disability.

We have a hyper-political Prime Minister who is not the Prime Minister for uniting Australia but the Prime Minister for dividing Australia.

He cunningly pits different groups of Australians against each other for his own political advancement.

It is my belief that even faith groups in this debate are being treated unfairly as a political football by our Divider-in-Chief.

How does it help people of faith and religious freedom, with values of love, compassion and dignity and moral justice, when other vulnerable groups lose protections or have their protections diminished?

The so-called "filter bubble" of the internet and social media is largely to blame for these polarised times where Australia often feels like warring tribes instead of one proud and friendly nation, full of people who are tough but with big hearts and who help each other out in hard times.

We need more moments of national unity and less of cynical division.

I'm up for the odd sleepless night and burning the midnight oil for that.


This was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday, 16 FEBRUARY 2022.