Australia’s Parliament House lifts face veil ban
Australia’s Parliament House on Monday lifted a short-lived ban on facial coverings including burqas and niqabs after the prime minister intervened.
The department that runs Parliament House had announced earlier this month that “persons with facial coverings” would no longer be allowed in the open public galleries. Instead, they were to be directed to galleries usually reserved for noisy schoolchildren where they could sit behind soundproof glass.
That announcement was made just as Parliament’s last two-week session was ending and had no practical effect.
On Monday, the Department of Parliamentary Services, or DPS, said people wearing face coverings would be allowed in all public areas of Parliament House.
It said face coverings would have to be removed temporarily at the front door so that staff could “identify any person who may have been banned from entering Parliament House or who may be known, or discovered, to be a security risk.”
A DPS official, who declined to be named, citing department policy, said that by late Monday no visitor to Parliament House that day had a covered face. Face veils are rarely seen in the building.
The ban had been widely condemned as a segregation of Muslim women and a potential breach of anti-discrimination laws.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said he wasn’t notified in advance and had asked House Speaker Bronwyn Bishop to rethink the ban.
The restriction had been authorized by Bishop, who has campaigned for a ban on Muslim head scarves in schools, as well as Senate President Stephen Parry.
The controversy came as the government attempts to assure Australia’s Muslim minority that new counterterrorism laws and police raids on terror suspects’ homes in recent months were directed at countering criminal activity, not any particular religion.
The opposition welcomed the overturning of the ban and demanded an explanation for it.
“In 2014 for two weeks, the official policy of the Australian Parliament was to practice segregation and we need to ensure this does not happen again,” senior opposition lawmaker Tony Burke said in a statement.
Parry said the veil ban was not made on the advice of police or the national domestic security agency.
He told a Senate committee that the ban had been warranted as an interim measure because of police advice that 10 men and women had plotted to “disrupt” the House of Representatives “wearing garments that would prevent recognition of their facial features and possibly their genders.”
That never happened. But Bishop told Parliament that she and Parry would have been “derelict in our duty” if they had not dealt with it.
Security has increased at Parliament House since the government raised its terror warning level last month in response to the domestic threat posed by supporters of the Islamic State group. Australia is participating in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State militants in the Middle East.