Attorney-General Michaelia Cash says religious discrimination bill and protection for gay students are ‘separate issues’

Her comments appear to recommit the government to a year-long timeline after the bill’s passage before efforts would be made to legislate to protect gay students.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison agreed to consider fast-tracking protections for gay students in a bid to secure the support of moderate Liberal MPs ahead of a potential vote on the bill in the final week of Parliament earlier this month. But a vote on the bill was delayed and it was instead referred to two parliamentary committees for scrutiny over the summer.

The draft laws are shaping up as an election test for Coalition and Labor, with both sides eager to win support among faith-based communities while not isolating LGBTIQ groups that believe the laws will licence discrimination against them on the grounds of religion.

Senator Cash told the webinar the Prime Minister had made clear that gay students should not be expelled because of their sexuality, adding, “I think we all agree with that”.

“But to be clear this bill doesn’t deal with that. This bill is about protecting people against religious discrimination on the basis of their beliefs or non-beliefs,” she said.

She said it was the Labor Party that had made clear “that they will be the ones pursuing this issue”.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said last week the opposition would seek to make the issue of protections for gay students and teachers a key consideration of the parliamentary inquiries.

Moderate Liberal MPs including Katie Allen, Angie Bell, Fiona Martin and Dave Sharma are among those on the government benches who have raised concerns about the bill and the need for more protections for gay students and teachers.

In statement following the webinar, a spokesman for Senator Cash said the government would consider the views of the respective committees, saying “any amendments will also be dealt with through the appropriate parliamentary processes”.

“We recognise that a number of stakeholders wanted to be consulted on the issue of exemptions in the SDA [Sex Discrimination Act]. We can assure them that they will have that opportunity through the committee process and through their submissions and the public hearings to share their views,” the spokesman said.

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