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Concerns that Religious Discrimination Bill could negatively impact older people

Peak body for older Australians, Council on the Ageing (COTA) Australia has highlighted concerns the Religious Discrimination Bill could negatively impact older people, particularly those who receive in home care services.

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The Religious Discrimination Bill could impact older Australians when trying to access or receive aged care services. [Source: Shutterstock]

The Bill specifies people receiving aged care cannot be discriminated against on the basis of religion, however, it characterises aged care as aged care facilities and would not cover in home care.

If this Bill was to pass into law, it would potentially not protect in home care clients like it would nursing home residents.

On 9 February, the Religious Discrimination Bill was passed by the Lower House and it was set to be debated by the Senate at the end of last week. However, it seems that the Bill could be put off for debate until after the Federal Election as the Senate’s remaining sitting days before the election are expected to be filled by Federal Budget business.

While the Bill is unlikely to be touched on until after the Federal Election, COTA says it intends to advocate for amendments that are needed, no matter what party leads the country after the election.

Ian Yates AM, Chief Executive of COTA, says that the organisation wants to see all aged care providers treated the same under the Religious Discrimination Bill.

"Currently the Bill says that providers can’t preference people in nursing homes on the basis of religion but it does not say that if they’re delivering home care," explains Mr Yates.

"Disability in-home service providers are covered by the Bill, so it is most unclear why aged care home care providers are not.

"Over one million people get some form of in-home service. They deserve the same protection from discrimination as people living in a nursing home, or people with a disability."

During debate on the Bill at 3:30 am last Thursday, the Opposition proposed minor wording amendments that would change the term "aged care facilities" to "aged care service providers", which would ensure in home care clients were protected within the Bill.

Shadow Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services, Clare O'Neil, spoke about the necessary changes needed to protect older Australians receiving aged care services.

"It's probably not widely understood among people who don't work in Government that, actually, the vast majority of aged care recipients in Australia are not living in an aged-care home but are receiving services within their own home," states Shadow Minister O'Neil.

"In the order of 800,000 Australians are today receiving some type of services at home. It is going to be truly extraordinary to the Australian public when they understand that the bill that's being proposed by the Government would facilitate religion-based discrimination against people who receive in home care.

"There is not a single policy ground for making such a change to Australian law, and Labor is absolutely doing the right thing in trying to defend people who receive these services.

"The Member for Isaacs [Mark Dreyfus] has talked about the fact that the issue that's being debated here emerged through the Council on the Ageing raising the issue with us. Of course, we believe this to be some sort of drafting error. Why on Earth would the Government put forward an anti-discrimination bill that in fact facilitates discrimination against 800,000 Australians?"

However, the proposed amendments from the opposition were defeated, 63 votes to 61. The amendments were shot down by the Liberal National Party, Federal Member Bob Katter, and Federal Member Craig Kelly, meaning Minister for Health and Aged Care, Greg Hunt, also voted against changing the wording to protect in home care clients.

Mr Yates adds that COTA is also concerned about the "Statement of Belief" clauses in the Bill, which would allow an aged care worker to enter an older person's home and say that according to their religion - "living with an unmarried partner is a sin", "being gay is an abomination", or "dying with dignity laws are against God's will".

He says that COTA does not support clauses in the Bill that would override other anti-discrimination laws that protect vulnerable people, like older Australians.

In 2013, discrimination in aged care was banned - protecting older LGBTQIA+ people from being declined aged care services.

During this change in discrimination laws, Mr Yates says COTA heard stories of older gay men having to hide who they were to receive services they needed.

"During the changes in 2013, we heard stories of older gay men hiding photos of their partner, removing gay magazines and straightening up their house or what they called “de-gaying” their home before their worker came to provide care," explains Mr Yates.

"They did this because they were fearful of discrimination and inappropriate behaviour. We don’t want to see these changes give permission for that sort of thing to happen again."

While the Bill did pass the Lower House without the amendments, once the Bill goes before the Senate for debate further amendments can be made.

Mr Yates says COTA will persevere with talking to all sides of politics as the Bill continues through its review and scrutiny process.

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