Following the vote, the Australian Government established an Expert Panel, the Ruddock Panel, to examine and report on whether Australian law adequately protects the human right to freedom of religion. This decision reflected divisions in the Coalition over the same-sex marriage issue and appeared designed to placate the Christian right within the Coalition.
The terms of reference for the inquiry are set out below.
OBJECTIVEThe Panel shall examine and report on whether Australian law (Commonwealth, State and Territory) adequately protects the human right to freedom of religion.
SCOPEIn undertaking this Review, the Panel should:
- Consider the intersections between the enjoyment of the freedom of religion and other human rights.
- Have regard to any previous or ongoing reviews or inquiries that it considers relevant.
MEMBERSHIP OF THE PANELThe review will be conducted by an Expert Panel, chaired by the Hon Philip Ruddock, which will consist of:
- Consult as widely as it considers necessary.
- Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM
- the Hon Dr Annabelle Bennett AO SC
- Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO
The Panel will be supported by a secretariat led by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
- Professor Nicholas Aroney
TIMINGFollowing the Prime Minister’s agreement to an extension of its reporting date, the Panel will report its findings to the Prime Minister by 18 May 2018.The report was submitted to the Government some time ago but has not been released. Recently a series of leaks have generated considerable controversy, along with demands for immediate release. The Government's stated position has been that the matter has not yet been considered nor an official position developed. Once this had been done, the report would be released. along with the Government's response. Given the highly polarised nature of public discussion in this area, this created suspicions that there was some deal on the way that would be announced after the forthcoming by-election.
The 20 recommendations of the review have now been leaked. They surprised me a little. The fact that the Panel went for a minimalist position, one essentially designed to harmonise and make transparent existing laws, did not surprise me. I would have expected that, given its composition. What did surprise me a little were the varying exemptions from discrimination legislation for religious organisations across state jurisdictions. I did not know, for example, that students could apparently be excluded in some states on the grounds of sexual orientation. I think that this raises real issues. Further, and despite my comments on the minimalist approach, I was a little surprised at the apparent narrowness of the approach. I think that there are issues here that need to be discussed.
It's difficult to see what the Government might do with this report. It will not satisfy the right within the Coalition. The Government lacks the power to do anything effective to meet their concerns. The report's narrow focus has already focused attention on variations across the states and territories. One result may be the narrowing of religious exemptions that already exist. In all, I have the strong impression that the decision to set up the Expert Panel is another example of a decision made to meet an immediate need with long term adverse consequences.