Australia news LIVE: Parliament returns for first sitting day of the year; religious freedom laws on the agenda

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Victoria examining how religious freedom bill might affect state’s anti-discrimination laws

By Cassandra Morgan

The Victorian government is seeking legal advice on how it might defend state-based anti-discrimination legislation if the federal religious discrimination bill passes, according to Premier Daniel Andrews.

“[The state’s Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes] made some comments yesterday [and] made it very clear on behalf of the [state] government that we would use any and all legal avenues to defend those who want to be treated fairly and equally and might not be under any arrangements where a Commonwealth act overrode or set aside provisions of a state act,” Mr Andrews said earlier this morning.

“These are exactly the laws that Victorians voted for and I’m sure that the Attorney-General will have put that view.”

When asked about transgender students specifically, the Premier said everyone should be treated equally.

Parliament to hear acknowledgement of bullying and sexual abuse

By Angus Thompson

In less than an hour, Parliament will hear a formal acknowledgement of the bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault that has occurred in the building. It is one of the recommendations of Sex Discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins in her review of the culture within federal Parliament.

However, the event has already attracted criticism from former ministerial adviser Rachelle Miller, who has made allegations she had an affair with stood-aside cabinet minister Alan Tudge that was emotionally abusive and on one occasion physically abusive. Mr Tudge has said he regrets the affair but denies it was in any way abusive.

Ms Miller said she was originally not invited to attend the acknowledgement, with Parliament currently not open to the public due to coronavirus restrictions. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese are expected to speak at the event.

However, arrangements have since been made for her and five others to attend (including former Liberal staffer Brittany higgins) after independent MP Zali Steggall intervened.

“We were sent an email last week from the review team that conducted the Jenkins review updating us on the fact that recommendation one would be happening on Tuesday … we weren’t told anything about whether or not we could attend,” Ms Miller told ABC radio this morning.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham told ABC radio he asked the Human Rights Commission to contact all participants in Kate Jenkins’ review and “make sure they were informed the acknowledgement would be given”. He added that due to COVID protocols people couldn’t ordinarily come into the building.

“But when some have expressed an interest in physically attending, special arrangements have been made for those who wish to do so,” he said.

‘We need to keep going’: NSW authorities urge people to keep coming forward for boosters as hospitalisations fall

By Sarah McPhee

NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant says the state’s booster vaccination rate of 48.6 per cent is “really pleasing” and people should not assume their current vaccination journey is complete until they receive that dose.

There were 18 COVID-19 deaths reported in the state today, including 12 men and six women. Two people were aged in their 60s, five in their 70s, six in their 80s and five in their 90s.

Dr Chant said three of those who died had received three vaccine doses, 10 people had two doses and five were not vaccinated.

NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant.

NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant. Credit:Edwina Pickles

“We do need to have three doses of the vaccine to give us the optimum protection against the Omicron variant,” she said.

Dr Chant said people should not consider they have “completed the journey with vaccination at the moment” until they have had three doses, or four for some immunocompromised people.

“I want to also convey to the community that we will be having an ongoing journey with COVID as we transition,” she said.

“We need to keep up to date with our current guidance of vaccinations and we may be recommending in future months additional vaccines, depending on that ATAGI [Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation] guidance.

“Rather than seeing it all as just to get here, it is going to be a fact that we have to continue to adopt and calibrate to the new challenges in our learning, but the vaccines work.”

There are 2068 patients in NSW hospitals, including 132 in intensive care. Of those in ICU, 61 are ventilated. This is compared to 2099 people in hospital yesterday, and 137 people in ICU.

“It is pleasing to see the decline in hospitalisation and ICU admissions and we’re hoping that trend continues,” Dr Chant said.

She said the turnaround times for PCR tests were performing very well, and encouraged anyone experiencing difficulty registering a positive rapid antigen test result with the Service NSW app to call 13 77 88.

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said it was pleasing to see the number of boostered people ticking closer to 49 per cent of the eligible population, and believes there are “green shoots” across the state.

“We need to keep going. Those efforts ensure that our hospitalisations and ICUs continue to fall,” he said.

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Tasmania reports 601 new COVID infections

By Broede Carmody

Tasmania’s daily coronavirus numbers are also in.

The southern state has recorded 601 new coronavirus infections and zero deaths.

The Tasmanian government says of today’s cases, the majority (480) are self-reported rapid antigen tests and the remainder (121) are positive PCR swabs.

There are 15 people with coronavirus in Tasmanian hospitals. Of those, one person is in intensive care.

There are 3302 active cases across the state. Tasmania’s second-dose vaccination rate for residents aged 12 and up is 95.65 per cent.

Qld records 5178 new cases of COVID-19, 12 deaths

By Stuart Layt

Queensland’s daily coronavirus numbers are in.

The state has recorded 5178 new cases of COVID-19 and 12 additional deaths.

Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath.

Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath.Credit:Getty

There are 663 people with coronavirus in hospital. Of those, 42 are in intensive care. There are 22 people on a ventilator.

Of the people who died, one was aged in their 30s, although Chief Health Officer John Gerrard said that was a “somewhat unusual” case which they had included in the official numbers to be thorough. However, further investigations will be conducted.

Nine of today’s 12 deaths were in aged care. Two people were in their 60s, two in their 70s, three in their 80s, and four in their 90s.

Three of the people who died were not vaccinated and one was boosted. Six had two doses and two were of unknown vaccination status.

The state is edging towards its 90 per cent vaccination target, with the double-dose rate of eligible Queenslanders 89.97 per cent as of this morning.

Health Minister Yvette D’Ath said that meant every single person who came forward to get their second dose would help Queensland achieve its target.

The current version of the religious discrimination bill explained

By Lisa Visentin

How did the government land on the decision to prohibit religious schools from expelling gay students but not transgender students as part of its religious discrimination bill package?

Firstly, to summarise: the bill will create a new Religious Discrimination Act, but the government is now also proposing to amend s38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act to ban religious schools from expelling students because they are gay leaving schools with the right to discriminate against students on the basis of gender identity (i.e. transgender and other gender diverse students).

We still haven’t seen the exact wording of the amendment, but if the change is limited to deal with just the expulsion of gay students, then other forms of discrimination against gay students may still remain legal as well.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison attending a church service this morning. The PM is expected to introduce his religious freedom laws to Parliament this afternoon.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison attending a church service this morning. The PM is expected to introduce his religious freedom laws to Parliament this afternoon. Credit:James Brickwood

The government says it has consulted widely on the bill package. The Australian Christian Lobby one of the most influential religious lobby groups told this masthead it had been in extensive discussions with the government on changes to s38(3) that it was prepared to tolerate.

“We have been negotiating with the government on it,” ACL National Director of Politics Wendy Francis said.

She said the group would accept changes to “prevent the expelling of students on the grounds of sexuality alone”, adding: “ACL can support this.”

But it would not accept the full repeal of s38(3), which would scrap the broader legal basis for religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Earlier this morning, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham told ABC radio that protections for transgender students would be examined as part of a “relatively quick, within 12-month review” by the Australian Law Reform Commission.

“In the fifteen years I’ve served in this parliament, I’ve managed to make many steps, none of them have been achieved in one go,” Senator Birmingham said.

Asked whether he would like to see laws discriminating against transgender students removed, he replied: “I’d like to see as much discrimination removed as possible … while respecting the fact that schools of faith, schools structured in different ways, single-sex schools, need to be able to find the right way within discrimination laws to be able to continue to operate.”

with Angus Thompson

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Watch: NSW, Qld’s COVID-19 updates

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet provided today’s coronavirus update alongside Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant.

The pair were joined by Transport Minister David Elliott around 10am AEDT to talk about the Sydney Metro Central Station project. We’ll have the playback version shortly.

Meanwhile, Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath provided her state’s coronavirus update around the same time.

She was joined by Chief Health Officer Dr John Gerrard.

More than 7000 Victorian students COVID-positive since start of term

By Cassandra Morgan

More than 7000 Victorian students have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of school term.

Deputy Premier James Merlino said 7046 school students and 925 staff had so far tested positive; or, 0.7 per cent of students in the state and 0.8 per cent of school staff.

He said 2368 school students tested positive for the virus yesterday, and 125 staff, and confirmed no schools had closed because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

“And interestingly, staff absences right now are less than pre-pandemic levels in 2019,” Mr Merlino said.

“That’s a reflection of the dedication of our teachers, support staff, and principals and also how, firstly, mandating vaccines, and then doing the surveillance testing is really making a difference.

“The feedback we’ve got from principals, from teachers, from parents, and from students, is that the voluntary but highly recommended two day a week rapid antigen testing is really providing confidence and comfort to everyone in our schools, and teachers and students are just loving to be back at school.”

Victoria to dole out free RATs to childhood services

By Cassandra Morgan

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has announced free rapid antigen tests will be doled out to families with children aged between three and five who attend early childhood services.

The Premier said more than 1.6 million tests will be delivered to early childhood services over the coming weeks, so families could opt to do voluntary twice-weekly testing.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.Credit:Joe Armao

Sessional kindergartens would receive their deliveries over the next two weeks, followed by other childhood services like long daycare, family daycare, and occasional care. The Commonwealth government will foot the bill for half of the rapid antigen tests.

Staff at childcare centres already have access to free rapid antigen tests in Victoria, as do staff and students at the state’s schools.

The school program is slated to go for four weeks from the start of term one. Authorities are yet to say whether that program will be extended.

Mr Andrews said the COVID-19 vaccination rate for children aged between five and 11 fell just short of the predicted 50 per cent first-dose milestone yesterday, with the proportion vaccinated now standing at about 49.9 per cent.

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PM should be ‘true to his word’ and end discrimination for all students: Labor MP

By Angus Thompson

House of Representatives manager of Opposition business, Tony Burke, says the Prime Minister should end discrimination for all school students.

He also insists Labor is yet to see the final form of the religious discrimination bill, which is being introduced to Parliament today.

Labor MP Tony Burke.

Labor MP Tony Burke. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

As Lisa Visentin has written, faith-based schools wouldn’t be able to expel gay students but would retain the right to expel transgender students under draft amendments to the government’s proposed religious freedom laws.

Speaking on ABC radio this morning, Mr Burke, who is also Labor’s industrial relations spokesman, said the Opposition was waiting to see the government’s final position before responding to the bill.

Asked whether he was prepared to accept the retention of existing legislation allowing for the expulsion of transgender students, Mr Burke said it was “not for me to accept”.

“The Prime Minister previously said he would end discrimination for all students, and he should be true to his word on that,” he said.

It was put to Mr Burke that if the bill failed before the election, the Coalition might be able to campaign against Labor when it comes to religious freedoms.

Mr Burke responded that “whatever the final form … the bill will involve a mix of issues”.

“My part of Sydney probably has the highest level of religious observance in the country and so a lot of people will be unaware of examples where people do get discriminated against because of their faith.”

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