By Neil Francis, 21 December 2021
Fellow, Rationalist Society of Australia

Executive summary

This report comprises a professional assessment of an online survey into attitudes towards issues raised by the government’s Religious Discrimination Bill included on the Federal Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights website.

There are multiple, significant flaws in the survey. These include research design, timing, sampling, vagueness and confused wording, bias in questions, and omission of important questions.

The Committee should treat responses with extreme caution, and only as exploratory, partial, qualitative, and unrepresentative.

It would be ethically untenable to state, imply, or allow to be passively imputed that the responses to the survey represent a quantitative, balanced, sufficiently ranging, or authoritative measure of the mood of the Australian public on the matter.

Introduction

The federal government proposes to reform the law regarding religious discrimination in Australia. On November 26th, the Australian Attorney General, Michaelia Cash, referred the Religious Discrimination Bill (in reality a legislative package of three bills) to the Federal Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights.

In early December, the Committee published a survey using the online survey tool SurveyMonkey. Comprising 11 questions, it purports to elicit the views of Australians about the proposed reforms.

Reforms for limited right to act harmfully towards others

The proposed legislation is not necessary for circumstances when people agree or treat each other well, such that parties are satisfied. Rather, its purpose is to prescribe a set of legal standards for how people may or may not treat each other when they disagree: in this case, on matters of religion or its absence, and in relation to certain human attributes.

What is not in contention

What is not in contention is the right of persons to privately hold any religious or non-religious belief or undertake any private religious or non-religious activity. These rights already exist.

The survey

Research objectives

It is unclear why the Committee chose to consult the public via a fixed, 11-question survey.

As the Explanatory Memorandum to the Religious Discrimination package of bills states, there has already been extensive consultation with the public over the issue of religious freedom. The Ruddock Expert Panel considered more than 15,500 submissions and conducted more than 90 consultation meetings with key stakeholders.

Sampling

The survey questionnaire is available to everyone online. Anyone, including digital disruptors from anywhere around the world, can fill out the survey, and potentially any number of times.

Malfeasance aside, the research design means that respondents are self-selecting. With such methodology, it would be malpractice to assert that responses are representative of the views of Australians in general.

The Committee must therefore avoid claiming or even implying that the results might be representative of Australians as a whole or on average. At best, the sampling method renders the study qualitative rather than quantitative.

Most of the questions offer a simple Yes/No choice. It might be tempting for the Committee to publish the percentage responses to these questions but to do so would be unprofessional and misleading. If the percentages of Yes/No responses are published, they must be accompanied by a clear note explaining that because of the survey’s design, these percentages cannot be extrapolated to the wider Australian public.

Timing

A key element of good research design is to provide reasonable opportunity to participate.

While the Committee’s short survey timeframe is understandable given its reporting date, employing an excessively short time limit usually results in a significant overrepresentation of “heavy users” — those deeply vested in the topic — at the expense of the larger body of moderate and light “users”.

The survey introduction urges respondents to “consider the full text of the religious discrimination legislative package (including explanatory memoranda) when considering their response.”

Purpose

The full text of the religious discrimination legislative package comprises some 235 pages of text. In the short time available, it is extremely unlikely respondents would be able to read, let alone digest, this amount of information before making informed responses to the survey.

This means answers are more likely to be based on personal beliefs and values, regardless of what is actually in the legislative package. Lobby groups have urged their followers to respond to the survey and have provided indicative “talking points” to assist them.

Under these circumstances, the survey serves largely as a tool for ideological lobbying rather than as a reliable indicator of Australians’ attitudes towards specific contexts.

The questions

The questionnaire instrument comprises 11 questions, self-administered online by respondents.

Most of the questions are biased.

They presume a positive stance towards the legislative package rather than taking a neutral stance. For example, instead of asking whether there “should be legislation”, questions should ask whether there “should or should not” be such legislation; instead of asking whether an additional anti-discrimination act “is important”, questions should ask whether an additional act is “important or not”.

Further, the questions ask about “protecting religious belief and activity”, but not specifically about protecting non-religious beliefs. They mention protecting religious activities but make no mention of protecting non-religious activities.

The vagueness of most questions invites simple ideological responses rather than principled responses that consider a balance of rights and responsibilities. For example, it is unclear whether “religious activity” applies to private life, to private and public life, or only to public life (i.e. linked to the phrase “in areas of public life”).

Because the questions favour an affirmative response, those choosing Yes can indicate their view with a single click. Those who have concerns or issues are likely to feel a greater need to explain why they so choose, placing greater cognitive burden on them.

Question 5 goes to the issue of religious schools being able to force students to undertake religious activities to “avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of people of that religion.”

This question is based on false premises. Most religious schools don’t want to discriminate on the basis of a student’s religion. For example, some Jewish schools welcome other faiths, and the Catholic church reports that a third of students at its schools are not Catholic.

Further, the question wrongly presumes that the “religious susceptibilities” of “people of that religion” are uniform and invariate: that is, everyone of that religion agrees regarding the exclusion of students of another religion or none. It assumes that only religious people have “susceptibilities” that can be “injured”, and that this is a sufficiently important reason to permit discrimination. There is no question as to the “injury” to the “susceptibilities” of persons discriminated against by the religious, on the basis of the proposed legislation.

The question notably doesn’t ask the reverse: what if an expressly non-religious school wanted to exclude students who have a religion? This would be to apply an equal balance of consideration of “freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, especially since the legislative packages purports to protect people of no religion as well. The omission of the non-religious condition, too, indicates a pro-religion bias.

Questions 6 and 7 contain multiple design errors. They conflate a range of sectors or multiple services, the wording is biased, and they omit important features.

Q6 commits the multi-barrelled questionnaire sin of combining multiple propositions into a single question. Respondents may hold, for example, quite different views in respect of schools versus hospitals, or hospitals versus accommodation providers, but the question rolls them all into one.

Q6 and Q7 use the ‘soft’ word “preference” in relation to hiring decisions, in order to avoid the hard reality that the legislative package would authorise religious institutions to reject job applicants solely on the basis of (the wrong) religious belief, or of non-religious beliefs.

The questions fail to distinguish between roles where the beliefs of the person are central (e.g. a teacher of the religion, a chaplain, etc), and roles where they are not (e.g. a teacher of mathematics, an office worker, a cleaner). It also wrongly implies that proposed rights relate only to new recruits and not to existing employees.

Question 8 asks whether religious people “would be comfortable to share their beliefs in public life without the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021.” This is a poorly conceived question. It uses a ‘metacognitive’ approach — one in which a person is asked what others might think rather than what they themselves actually think. It is well-established in professional and academic research that people usually think others are more fearful, offended or otherwise experience negative feelings, than they do themselves. This would lead to a very substantial overestimate of feelings of “discomfort”.

And the question fails to examine the reverse of its assumption: would non-religious people be less comfortable sharing their beliefs in public life with the Religious Discrimination Bill?

Overlooked principles: questions not asked

No questions regarding the non-religious

The non-religious comprise at least a third of the Australian population. Despite the legislative package notes stating that balancing the rights of both religious and non-religious Australians is a core objective, none of the 11 questions are in respect of non-religious Australians.

Eight of the 11 questions expressly ask about protections for the religious. One question is neutral, and two are administrative.

No questions regarding public funding

There are no questions in the survey, nor has it been well-considered in the entire legislative reform process, as to whether organisations’ receipt of public funding — that is, income from taxpayers — is relevant to Australians’ views as to whether religious organisations should enjoy privileged rights to discriminate.

No questions about discrimination on other grounds

The proposals in their current form would allow religious organisations to discriminate against persons not only on the basis of the person’s religious attributes (e.g. being of the same faith), but on non-religious attributes.

Critically, this right is not extended to non-religious organisations who may hold similar beliefs of conscience. For example, religious organisations would be granted legal privileges to discriminate against sexual minorities of whose private activity it disapproves. But a similar organisation of people holding exactly same beliefs about such private sexual activity, but which is not religious, would be prohibited from so discriminating. No question is asked about this in-principle difference.

About the author

Neil Francis is a Fellow of the Rationalist Society of Australia. He holds decades of professional experience and expertise in medical, market and social research.