Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (New South Wales—Minister for International Development and the Pacific) (15:56): I rise to speak on Senator Lambie's bill, the Criminal Code Amendment (Prohibition of Full Face Coverings in Public Places) Bill 2017. Can I say, Senator Lambie, I may not agree with all of what you say but I absolutely respect your right, as a member of this parliament, to put forward the views that you are putting forward. I know that they are views that are shared by people in the Australian community.

As many of my colleagues know, I have spent many, many years involved in a whole range of different community activities and, most especially, across the diversity that is, today, contemporary and mainstream Australian society. Therefore, I have had the opportunity to speak with and to meet with, and to have opportunity to discuss this and other issues, many people in different communities, including many women in the Muslim communities. So I wanted to share some of those thoughts as part of this discussion and as part of the debate about this bill.

As a Liberal government we believe in the inalienable rights and freedoms of all people, free of interference by government in our daily lives. And, of course, this means that all Australians should be free to choose their religion. They should be free to practice their religion and beliefs without intimidation and without interference so long as—and I underline this—those practices are within the framework of Australian law. And that includes freedom of people to express their religion through their choice of clothing. It really, basically, comes down to not telling people what they should or should not wear.

However, Senator Lambie, I believe that there always is an appropriate balance between freedom and security. There will be situations and locations where safety and security dictate that individuals must be identifiable. For example, people should be identifiable in courtrooms, to police officers investigating crimes or incidents, and when entering buildings such as federal offices or other places that are designated by law as requiring people, for identification purposes, to reveal their face to have them identified.

The need for identification is not an issue about religion; it is an agnostic issue. It could be someone wearing a motorcycle helmet, a woman wearing a face covering—a burqa or other face covering—or any other person. As you have said, Senator Lambie, it could be someone wearing a balaclava or some other face covering. It is a useful and important discussion to have, but it is also important to find the appropriate balance between freedom and security. This government's first priority is to keep the public safe. We are committed to ensuring that our agencies have the powers that they need, but it comes down to striking that appropriate balance.

Senator Lambie, your bill would apply in public places in the territories and in Commonwealth places when the threat level under the National Terrorism Threat Advisory System is higher than 'possible'. I remind the Senate that a higher threat level of 'probable' has been in place in Australia since September 2014. The bill also contains exemptions for full-face coverings where it is reasonable and necessary for the wearer's occupation; for participation in lawful entertainment, recreation or sport; for a genuine artistic purpose; or for safety equipment, and it allows for those exemptions to be prescribed by regulation. The definition of a full-face covering is an item that substantially covers the front of a person's head from the top of the forehead to the base of the chin in a way that conceals the identity of the person, whether or not a part of a person's face can still be seen.

As I said to Senator Lambie through you, Mr Acting Deputy President, I have had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in many different situations in different communities, and I have to say that in my 35 years of involvement I have rarely seen women wearing a burqa. I have spent time in places where one would normally see them worn. I have, on the odd occasion, seen women wearing a niqab, but more often than not I have seen them wear a hijab, where their face is fully seen; a chador, where, whilst the head is more covered, you can definitely still see the face; or a dupatta, which is mostly worn by women of South-East Asian background. I have taken the opportunity to speak with quite a number of women, and I have actually asked them the direct question of whether they feel under an obligation: does the Koran obligate women to have their face covered? The most common answer I get is, 'No, it doesn't.' Women who have told me that they do wear mostly the hijab have told me that they do so because it is their choice. It is what they feel that they would like to wear as a demonstration of their beliefs.

I grew up in a Catholic system. I was taught by nuns at school. Nuns wear habits, but they normally wear a habit where you can see their face. People wear different head coverings. For example, Sikhs wear turbans. Again, in instances of identification, those are not going to be an issue, because the face is not fully covered. I think that in this issue it is important that we look at it from that identification perspective and that we look at identification right across the spectrum—and Senator Lambie, as you correctly say, at people with balaclavas and other face coverings. But in the end it really does become a question of finding the appropriate balance.

We are one of the most culturally diverse yet socially cohesive nations on earth, and our Australia of today is founded on a whole set of principles. It is about freedom; it is about opportunity; it is about tolerance; it is about understanding, but it is also about respecting the law. Senator Lambie, I appreciate the sentiment of this bill, because—and I now speak from a personal perspective—this is confronting at times, and it has been confronting for many Australians. Many Australians have told me that they find it confronting when faced with somebody whose face is totally covered. But I think that in Australia—and certainly in my experience over a long period of time and in places where I have walked like Lakemba, Auburn and other places—I have very rarely seen women whose faces are fully covered. I have definitely seen them with hijabs and chadors, but I have not seen too many in the full burqa or the full niqab. Having said that, Senator Lambie, I think it is very important that we find the appropriate balance in this issue. When it does come to a question of identification, it should not be about religion; it should be an agnostic approach, and it should be one that applies to forms of covering that go to the very important point of identification.

Media enquiries

  • Minister's Office: (02) 6277 7110
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555