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PM intervenes in burqa row


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Prime Minister Tony Abbott has confirmed he has asked Speaker Bronwyn Bishop to reconsider a controversial plan to segregate people who wear the burqa into separate areas of Parliament House.

After a week of heated debate about burqas, parliamentary authorities on Thursday decided people with facial coverings could only watch parliament from glassed-off galleries usually reserved for noisy school children.

The decision provoked widespread outrage, prompting an intervention from Mr Abbott.

“The prime minister has asked the presiding officers to reconsider the new arrangements for people wearing facial coverings regarding access to the public gallery,” a spokesman for the PM’s office confirmed on Friday.

Abbott said the presiding officers – Bishop and Senate President Stephen Parry – are responsible for decision relating to security and stressed the revisions announced this week are “interim arrangements”.

While the prime minister does not have direct power to veto the decisions of presiding officers it is unlikely they would ignore his wishes.

Labor and the Greens are worried parliament is signalling it’s okay to treat Muslim women poorly and Independent MP Andrew Wilkie has slammed the move as “religious apartheid”.

But Liberal National Party MP George Christensen believes the plan doesn’t go far enough.

“What I’m arguing for is no facial coverings at Parliament House at all,” he told ABC TV on Friday.

Senior government minister Malcolm Turnbull implored Australians to move on from the burqa debate.

“We don’t want to have debates like this being turned into a coded attack on the Muslim community,” Turnbull said.

“Our enemies, ISIL … they want us to attack Muslims, to alienate and frighten the Muslim community so they don’t feel they’re part of Australia and they feel their only home is with an extremist group.”

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick said the interim rule could be open to a legal challenge and in breach of the “trifecta” of human rights – on the basis of sex, race and religious grounds.

“It’s just not right,” she told ABC radio on Friday.

“This is about exclusion at a time when tensions are quite high.”

The only Muslim federal MP, Labor’s Ed Husic, also condemned the decision: “It’s not right, it’s deeply disappointing.”

Former Labor Speaker Anna Burke said the plan came “out of nowhere” and was devoid of any logic or rationale.

“We’re all a bit stunned,” she told ABC radio.

“Where is the security risk? Where is the need to identify peoples’ faces who are coming into the building?”

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