Thursday, January 17, 2013
Religious rights to stay
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has assured religious groups they will have the "freedom" under a new rights bill to discriminate against homosexuals and others they deem sinners, according to the head of the Australian Christian Lobby.
Under current law, faith-based organisations, including schools and hospitals, can refuse to hire those they view as sinners if they consider it "is necessary to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of that religion".
Ms Gillard has met Australian Christian Lobby managing director Jim Wallace several times, and he says she assured him "she has no intention of restricting freedom of religion" when it comes to religious groups' legal rights to discriminate in hiring and firing.
Discrimination by religious organisations affects thousands of Australians. The faiths are big employers, and the Catholic Church in particular is one of Australia's largest private employers.
They rely on government funding but because of their religious status are allowed to vet the sexual practices of potential employees in ways that would be illegal for non-religious organisations.
Labor often claims to represent progressive values and is led by an atheist, but the government has gone out of its way to placate religious organisations on this issue.
The woman who will be steering the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill through the Senate, Finance Minister Penny Wong, is a committed Christian and a lesbian.
Senator Wong said this week that Labor was "seeking to balance the existing law and the practice of religious exemptions with the principle of non-discrimination".
It is believed that senior Labor ministers have been making similar promises to the Christian lobby since Kevin Rudd was prime minister.
Before she was elected in 2010, Ms Gillard promised Mr Wallace in a filmed interview that she would protect the school chaplains program and that under her government "marriage will be defined as it is in our current Marriage Act as between a man and a woman".
She said that "we do not want to see the development of ceremonies that mimic marriage ceremonies".
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference is adamant that the church should retain its rights to discriminate, but Anglicans are divided.
The more conservative Sydney diocese claims its right to discriminate against gays and lesbians and others whose "lifestyles" offend religious beliefs, Bishop Robert Forsyth of South Sydney said.
But social welfare charity Anglicare practises the opposite, South Australian branch chief executive, the Reverend Peter Sandeman said.
"Jesus didn't discriminate in who he associated with and helped and neither should we," Mr Sandeman said. "At Anglicare South Australia, we introduced a formal policy welcoming and supporting inclusion and diversity nearly a decade ago."
Jews "don't have a position on this", Executive Council of Australian Jewry executive director Peter Wertheim said.
The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils did not respond to questions.
Labor's Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill was an attempt to consolidate the law, "not completely re-invent the anti-discrimination system", a spokeswoman for Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said.
"We are proud to be introducing important new protections from sexual orientation discrimination. While there are some exemptions, this doesn't detract from these important changes".
Review 'missed opportunity' to separate church and state
Says an old Scottish red-ragger. Cameron has just got to open his hate-filled mouth for you to hear the reason behind the destruction of Scotland's industry. He should go back there
Labor Left leader Senator Doug Cameron has questioned the role of the Australian Christian Lobby in a review of anti-discrimination laws and says he does not believe there should be any discrimination on the basis of sexual preference or marital status.
Senator Cameron told Fairfax Media on Wednesday that he was concerned that Ms Gillard spoke with the Christian lobby before the matter was discussed in caucus.
"It seems to be that there is now a fait accompli about this legislation if the reports in the press are correct and the Labor Party has missed a significant opportunity to practice the principle of the separation of church and state," he said.
Ms Gillard reportedly gave assurances to ACL managing director Jim Wallace that the government has "no intention of restricting freedom of religion" when it comes to religious organisations' legal right to discriminate against those who might offend their beliefs.
Under the draft new Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill, faith-based organisations retain the legal right to deny employment to groups such as homosexuals and transgender people and certain other classes, if it "is necessary to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of that religion".
A spokesman for Ms Gillard said earlier this week it would not comment on discussions with stakeholders.
Mr Wallace told reporters on Wednesday he was "not aware of any church or any [religious] organisation actually rejecting the employment of anyone and particularly, not the provision of services".
Last year, 21 complaints were lodged with the Australian Human Rights Commission by people alleging they had been discriminated against at work, on the basis of their sexuality. The commission does not break down complaints by whether the work was with a religious organisation, but commission president, Gillian Triggs, confirmed complaints had been received about religious groups. "We can and do receive complaints about discrimination in employment with faith-based organisations on the ground of sexual preference," she said.
Senator Cameron said he did not believe there should be "any discrimination on the basis of sexual preference or religion or marital status".
A Senate committee is holding an inquiry into the draft bill and public hearings are scheduled for next week.
West Australian Labor senator Louise Pratt, who sits on the Senate committee, echoed Senator Cameron's views, telling Fairfax Media that she was surprised by the position of some religious groups.
"I am surprised that religious organisations delivering services using taxpayer funds and already employing a great many lesbian and gay [people], single mums, unmarried people – and also delivering services to those people - should want to retain the right to discriminate against them. It simply doesn't make sense."
Senator Pratt, who is a lesbian and has long history of advocating for gay and lesbian law reform, said she expected the issues would be "actively debated" during the public hearings.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who also sits on the Senate committee, said it was disappointing that the Prime Minister was "again following the line that Jim Wallace and the Australian Christian Lobby want her to follow".
Senator Hanson-Young added that it was not just Mr Wallace but ALP factions and factional powerbrokers, such as Joe de Bruyn – head of the powerful Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association, and a conservative Catholic – who were influencing Ms Gillard's position.
The Greens senator said that there was still "plenty of time" to change the legislation before it passed the Senate.
Economy gets big tick
Months after Labor's mining tax, its carbon tax and its fourth successive budget deficit, Australia has been given the tick of approval by the world's biggest fund manager.
BlackRock is one of the world's most important buyers of government bonds, investing $US3.7 trillion worldwide. It says Australia's carbon tax and the mining tax have had at most a "marginal" impact on perceptions of the country's risk. More important has been the government's success in shrinking its budget deficit.
The fund manager's new sovereign risk update ranks Australian government bonds as the world's seventh least risky, up from 10th least risky three months ago.
No other nation has managed to jump three places in the latest survey. The finding is at odds with a claim made by federal Coalition Treasury spokesman Joe Hockey last August that Labor was "adversely impacting Australia's sovereign risk profile".
BlackRock's Australian head of fixed income, Steve Miller, said Australia's position was "exceedingly strong" and strengthening.
"The plain fact is, compared to the rest of the world, and this is what we are doing, Australia's public debt position is very, very strong.
Whether you are looking at budget balance or public debt to gross domestic product, whichever way we look at it, Australia comes out exceedingly strong."
The new BlackRock survey rates the governments of Norway, Singapore, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, Canada, Australia, Taiwan, Germany and Chile as the 10 safest to lend to.
The United States is in the next 10 along with New Zealand and China, which have each moved up two places.
At the bottom, in positions 40 to 48 are Spain, Argentina, Ireland, Italy, Venezuela, Egypt, Portugal and Greece.
Japan and South Africa have each slid two places to 35 and 36.
Acting Treasurer Penny Wong welcomed the report as an "endorsement of Australia's strong public finances in the face of global headwinds".
A spokesman for Mr Hockey said the reality remained that business leaders had "expressed serious concern about the chopping and changing of government policy, the uncertainty of the taxation environment and the toxic relationship Canberra has with many members of the business community".
"Unquestionably, eight changes to the carbon tax, five versions of the mining tax, unexpected changes to business taxation, and the four largest deficits in Australia's history impacts on Australia's attractiveness as an investment destination," the spokesman said.
Speaking in reference to the interest rates Australia needs to pay to borrow money, Mr Miller said: "All other things being equal, this [the risk update] and the things that brought it about will put further downward pressure on bond yields." He said it would also make it easier for Australian state governments to borrow money.
The BlackRock calculation accords with those of the world's top three credit ratings agencies, which have given Australia their highest AAA rating. But it is a more recent calculation and the improvement reflects recent developments.
"The impact of the mining tax and the carbon tax would be marginal," Mr Miller said.
"We look at ability to pay and willingness to pay. Australia's budget position has improved. It has never defaulted. It has low debt by international standards."
PM under fire on gun crime
The major source of gun crime in Australia is Lebanese Muslims who came here as refugees. Deporting them would help
An announcement by the Prime Minister that she is examining ways to end the gun violence on Sydney streets has been dismissed by New South Wales as an election stunt.
With more than 135 shootings across the city last year, including 20 in the past two months, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she had asked the Home Affairs Minister, Jason Clare, to prepare "options" to address the violence and explore what, legally and constitutionally, the federal government could do.
The NSW Police Minister, Michael Gallacher, accused Ms Gillard of "gross hypocrisy" over the comments, which were made at the launch of the federal government's new cyber-safety program. He said the federal government was failing "dismally" to protect Australia's borders from illegal gun imports.
"If Labor in Canberra want to help curb gun violence on the streets of Sydney it should be taking a good hard look at its border protection regime which is failing to stem the tide of illegally imported firearms into the country," Mr Gallacher said.
"The federal government must do what it can to prevent illegal guns reaching our shores - that's to get their own government in order before telling us how to run ours."
The acting NSW Premier, Andrew Stoner, said Ms Gillard's comments were "out of the blue" and more about winning votes in key electorates than addressing the gun crime problem.
"This is merely a stunt by Julia Gillard in order to win some sort of support in western Sydney," he said. "They know that western Sydney is a key battleground for the federal election later this year."
He said the state government had urged the federal government 18 months ago to improve customs operations to "stop the flood of illegal guns into NSW" and introduce national bikie laws in an attempt to curb gun violence in the state.
Ms Gillard, who also expressed concerns about recent street clashes in Brisbane, acknowledged that state governments and police authorities were principally responsible for containing suburban violence but she believed the Commonwealth could help.
"At this time all levels of government need to be doing everything that can be done to address this violence," Ms Gillard said.
The prime minister would not give a "running commentary" on how she thought the NSW government, which has primary responsibility for policing, was handling the problem. She also would not give any more specifics on what options Mr Clare would be canvassing.
Her announcement came less than 24 hours after the latest Sydney shooting in which a senior member of the Hells Angels was shot dead and another man wounded in the city's west.
"We've seen overnight yet again a report of another shooting in Sydney's south-west … We are seeing reports of violence in suburbs in Brisbane," the Prime Minister said.
"People who make their lives in these suburbs, in these parts of our great nation, deserve to be able to get about their business, to raise their families in an environment that is safe and secure and peaceful."
A senior police source told Fairfax Media officers would support the federal government's involvement if it meant more funding and extra powers to help deal with criminals and gun violence. They would also welcome national laws that would help stop criminals moving from state to state.
"It has to be something more than just a knee-jerk reaction to the violence in western Sydney," the senior officer said. "It has to involve talking to the key stakeholders as well as funding and actually putting proper universal laws in place."
The Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, also described Ms Gillard's announcement as "completely unnecessary" saying racial clashes between Aboriginal and Pacific Islander families in the Brisbane suburb of Logan were now in hand. After days of violent confrontations, the two families - the Briggs and the Palaus - finally agreed to stop the violence after attending police-brokered peace talks on Tuesday night.