Canberra: Australia’s Parliament House on Monday lifted a short-lived ban on facial coverings including burqas and niqabs after the prime minister intervened.
The government department that runs Parliament House announced earlier this month that “persons with facial coverings” would no longer be allowed in the open public galleries of the House of Representatives or the Senate. Instead, they were to be directed to galleries usually reserved for noisy schoolchildren, where they could sit behind sound-proof glass.
The October 2 announcement was made a few hours before the end of the final sitting day of Parliament’s last two-week session and had no practical effect.
Hours before Parliament was to resume on Monday, the Department of Parliamentary Services, or DPS, said in a statement that people wearing face coverings would again be allowed in all public areas of Parliament House.
It said face coverings would have to be removed temporarily at the security check point 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 on face veils in the public galleries had been widely condemned as a segregation of Muslim women and a potential breach of federal anti-discrimination laws.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott later revealed that he had not been notified in advance that the ban was planned and had asked House Speaker Bronwyn Bishop to “rethink that decision”.
The restriction had been authorized by Bishop, who has campaigned for a ban on Muslim head scarves in government schools, as well as Senate President Stephen Parry.
The controversy came as the government attempts to assure Australia’s Muslim minority that tough 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 what it described as a “burqa ban,” and demanded an explanation for why it had been introduced in the first place.
“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.
But Senator Jacqui Lambie, from the minor Palmer United Party, said the ban’s reversal made Australia appear weak and indecisive on national security.
“The decision today to allow burqas and other forms of identity-concealing items of dress to be worn in Australia’s Parliament will put a smile on the face of the overseas... extremists [Daesh] and their supporters in Australia who view the burqa or niqab as flags for extremism,” Lambie said in a statement.
Parry revealed on Monday that the policy on face coverings 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.”
The plan was never carried through. But Bishop told Parliament that she and Parry would have been “derelict in our duty” if they had not dealt with “an action planned that would have disrupted the business of the House.”
Parry also revealed that months before the threatened protest in the House of Representatives, he and Bishop had many discussions about the security implications of face coverings.