Public submissions to review of religious freedom to be kept secret

Public submissions to the Turnbull government’s review of religious freedom in will be kept secret, in a marked departure from normal processes, according to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s department.

The department, which has control of the inquiry, said it would not publish the submissions, which is in stark contrast to ordinary parliamentary inquiries, in which most submissions are automatically released.

“Submissions to the Expert Panel will not be published online,” a department spokesman said in an emailed statement. “However, where individuals provide consent, submission extracts may be included in public materials.”

Late on Tuesday, however, Mr Turnbull’s media team sought to intervene by suggesting inquiry chairman Philip Ruddock would decide if submissions were published. The PM’s office then instructed his own department to issue a new statement to that effect.

An hour later, the department said decisions on releasing submissions would rest on “whether individuals have provided consent”, but that appears impossible, because the online consent form assures people their submission “will not be published in its entirety”.

Philip Ruddock said he wanted to be “as open as possible” in the conduct of the inquiry. Photo: Nick Moir

It is expected the high-profile inquiry – prompted by fears about the impact of same-sex marriage on religious practice – will attract submissions from ‘s biggest churches, including the Catholic and Anglican archdioceses of Sydney and Melbourne. It presents an opportunity for religious organisations and other advocates to spell out the exact changes to the law they believe are necessary.

Mr Ruddock said when contacted on Tuesday that the panel had not discussed the publication of submissions and ultimately it was a matter for the PM’s department.

“From my point of view, I want to be as open as possible with people in relation to the information we receive and the nature of the approaches that are taken,” said Mr Ruddock, a former Liberal attorney-general and now Hornsby mayor.

“The work’s not done in a closet, in my view, but I’ll take advice in relation to the handling of it when we meet.”

The expert panel – which also includes n Human Rights Commission president Rosalind Croucher, Catholic priest Frank Brennan and retired judge Annabelle Bennett – is expected to meet for the first time next Wednesday.

The government has taken the same approach to previous extra-parliamentary inquiries, refusing to publish 13,000 submissions on Peter Dutton’s proposed citizenship test changes, arguing they had been “provided in confidence”.

Malcom Turnbull announced the review to quell disquiet in the Coalition about religious freedoms. Photo: AAP

Mr Turnbull announced the Ruddock review in November, largely as a way of placating conservative interests in the Coalition concerned about the effects of same-sex marriage on religious practice. A number of amendments to the legislation along those lines were defeated on the floors of both houses of Parliament.

The LGBTI advocacy group just.equal launched a petition on Tuesday calling for an n Charter of Rights and urging the inquiry to reject any bid to roll back anti-discrimination laws.

The group’s founder Ivan Hinton-Teoh said it was “astonishing” that the submissions would be kept secret, and would rob the review’s findings of any credibility.

“It is the height of hypocrisy for an inquiry into freedom of religion, conscience and speech to keep its submissions under wraps,” he said.

Labor’s assistant minister for equality, Terri Butler, called on the government to change tack and release the submissions.

“People have a right to expect transparency of their government,” she said. “This is a high-profile inquiry and the government has nothing to fear from a debate about religious freedom, because I suspect most ns support strengthening religious freedom in the event that’s found to be necessary.”

Members of the public can make submissions to the panel until January 31, and the report will be handed to the government by the end of March.

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