Religious Freedom Inquiry submissions could be kept secret


No decision has been made on whether submissions to the government’s inquiry into religious freedom will be made public, the Inquiry Chair, Mr. Philip Ruddock has said to the media. Mr Ruddock, former Attorney General of Australia, said it was important for people to be able to maintain anonymity if requested.


 

Ruddock, the chairman of the inquiry, said it was important the committee “have some regard” for those who wished to share experiences but did not want their views made public.

The expert panel will meet for the first time next week and will make the decision on publishing submissions then.

“What I sought when I was first asked to chair this inquiry was whether or not a decision had been taken on how these matters would be dealt with,” Ruddock said. “It became clear when I spoke to the prime minister’s office that this would be decided when we met and that is what I thought would be the appropriate approach.

“In all of these things, there are always some circumstances where if people have a view that there is material that they want to provide but it is sensitive – yet they want it brought to the committee’s attention but not necessarily the public’s – then you have to have some regard for that.”

Ruddock said his personal view, from his experience sitting on other committees, was that it was important for people to be able to maintain anonymity if requested.

The inquiry, which was launched in response to the marriage equality bill passing late last year, is set to become one of the next conservative battlegrounds.

A taster was provided in the amendment debate to the marriage equality bill in December, when conservatives engaged in fierce debate with members of their own party, as well as Labor and the crossbench, arguing for further protections for those who had either a moral or religious objection to marrying a same-sex couple.

The amendments were all voted down, with the Coalition party room given the understanding the real battle would come once Ruddock handed down his report.

Labor’s assistant minister for equality, Terri Butler, said she believed the submissions should be made public, “unless there is a sound reason for confidentiality”, with any decision to be made on a case-by-case basis.

“Blanket secrecy arrangements would undermine public confidence in this important inquiry,” she said.

The acting Greens leader, Rachel Siewert, said any attempt at secrecy would show the government to be suffering from a “deep-seated hypocrisy in the fact the public won’t have the freedom to access submissions to the inquiry”.

“The government is clearly concerned that submissions may call for things they’re not willing to consider, such as a charter of rights to protect freedoms for all Australians,” she said. “I’ve worked on hundreds of Senate inquiries over the years, many as chair of the community affairs references committee, and it’s very unusual for submissions to inquiries to be treated in this way.

“Transparency is at the core of any inquiry process. It ensures that public consultation is genuine and inclusive, and instils confidence in the process.

“Even in the most sensitive inquiries, including into issues such as forced adoption, we worked closely with people to respect their privacy and anonymity and in most cases enabled submissions to be published.”

The expert panel, which includes the Australian Human Rights Commission head, Rosalind Croucher, has set a deadline for initial submissions of 31 January, with the report due by the end of March.

 

 

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