Folau 'Shouldn’t Suffer Employment Penalty' For Anti-Gay Posts: Shorten

Rugby star Israel Folau is “entitled to his beliefs” and shouldn’t be penalised for them, Labor leader Bill Shorten told an election debate.

Scott Morrison said freedom of speech needed to be exercised “responsibly”.

The two leaders faced off in a spirited third and final election debate at the National Press Club on Wednesday night. Issues including refugees and offshore detention, political instability and leadership chaos, franking credits, health funding and the economy were obvious and unsurprising topics of conversation.

Bill Shorten and Scott Morrison during the third election debate. Photo: AAP

But a surprise question from moderator Sabra Lane was on Rugby Australia’s controversial punishment of Israel Folau, over a graphic he posted on Instagram claiming that “hell awaits” people who were gay, liars, drunks or atheists.

READ MORE: Israel Folau Guilty Of High Level Rugby Australia Code Of Conduct Breach

READ MORE: Views: Israel Folau Has Only Himself To Blame For Breaking The Workplace Rules

Following a lengthy three-day hearing, Folau was found to be guilty of a "high level" breach of the player's code of conduct, meaning his $4 million contract may now be torn up. (Rugby Australia has yet to decide on sanctions.)

The controversy verdict set off a firestorm of debate about freedom of speech and religion in Australia, with many conservative voices sharing their outrage over the decision.

israel folau
Israel Folau attends Code of Conduct hearing. May 7, 2019. Photo: AAP.

On Wednesday, Lane asked both leaders about whether free speech was under threat in Australia, specifically in reference to the rugby star’s case.

Morrison, first to answer, said freedom of speech and religion were some of the “fundamental” freedoms Australians had. But he appeared to hint that he did not support Folau’s actions.

“Freedom of speech is important but we have to exercise it responsibly and exercise it in a society such as ours with civility and due care and consideration to others,” Morrison said.

“As public figures we have a higher and more special responsibility,” he continued, before adding that he admired people of faith.

Scott Morrison watches on during the third election debate. Photo: AAP

Morrison, a devout churchgoer himself, said “the great thing about Australia” is that people are “free to believe” what they like.

“That's why we'd be pursuing a Religious Discrimination Act which would provide the same protections to those of sexual gender and appropriate forms of discrimination we have,” the PM said.

Shorten took a stronger line, appearing to gently voice support for Folau.

He said he was “uneasy about where that debate's gone.”

“On one hand, I think Israel Folau is entitled to his views, and he shouldn't suffer an employment penalty for it. So I'm uneasy about that part of it,” Shorten said.

“But I also think that we've got to be mindful about the other side of the equation. People putting out on social media that if you're gay you're going to go to hell... I get that's what he genuinely believes. When you're a public figure, that has negative impact, a hurtful impact on other people.”

Bill Shorten during the third election debate. Photo: AAP

Shorten said he hoped both RA and Folau could find a “happy medium” and that “common sense prevails”.

“I don't think it's a simple issue. I don't think it's a clear-cut issue when the edges bump up against each other. I don't think if you're gay you're going to go to hell. I don't know if hell exists actually. But I don't think if it does that being gay is what sends you there. So I am uneasy,” the Labor leader said.

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Israel Folau became Super Rugby's all-time leading try scorer just days before the scandal. Photo: AAP.

“On the Folau matter I'm also uneasy if he has genuinely held views and he could suffer some sort of really significant penalty. It's a matter of respecting each other.”

Shorten said a Labor government would work with church and law reform groups to “get the balance right between anti-discrimination laws and religious freedom.”

Josh Butler is on the campaign trail with Bill Shorten.

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