The religious freedom review headed by Philip Ruddock has started secret hearings with evidence taken in private sessions, despite a commitment in January to be “as open as possible in its approach to submissions”.
Ruddock has brushed off concerns that the process of private hearings reduces transparency, telling Guardian Australia “it’s not a trial” and the panel was more likely to be persuaded by written submissions anyway.
Guardian Australia has obtained an email account of the first hearing on Monday, which was not advertised, attended by Australian Capital Territory’s LGBTIQ ministerial advisory council chair Anne-Marie Delahunt and member Suzanne Eastwood.
Eastwood wrote to her fellow members of the council that she and Delahunt were “alarmed to say the least about the type of questioning and the complete lack of a ‘friend’ on the panel”.
“The negative effects this review could have on our community are quite alarming,” she said. “It felt like progress could be set back years and years. We were asked not to discuss the discussion we had at the review.”
In January the religious freedom review panel clarified its approach to written submissions by promising to make them public in response to media reports thatit intended to keep them secret.
Labor’s equality spokeswoman, Terri Butler, said the private hearings on top of the original secrecy around the submissions “will undermine confidence in the process”.
Butler said the review was being conducted in “a very significant area of public policy, in a highly contested set of circumstances” so the panel should want a transparent process to prevent its conclusions being impugned.
“It’s not going to instil confidence – it’s not a parliamentary committee and this is one of the problems with going around the parliamentary process.”
Asked why the hearings were not advertised or open to the public, Ruddock told Guardian Australia they are “informal dialogues” that the panel had elected not to record or reproduce.
He said the panel had resolved to make written submissions public, but not the “informal discussions” in part due to “issues with resourcing”.
Ruddock declined to say whether this approach was inconsistent, referring questions to the review’s secretariat.
He said witnesses were given “instructions about the potential risks associated with proceedings that are not governed by parliamentary privilege” but denied that witnesses were told not to discuss the proceedings.
Butler said the difference of recollection over the warning in Monday’s hearing showed why a record was needed that allows “public scrutiny that can resolve differences of recollection”.
“It’s a risk for [the panel] – if [Ruddock] says a witness or stakeholder said one thing and they said they said something else, it becomes he said, she said.”
A spokeswoman for the prime minister’s department said the panel had chosen to meet “individual stakeholders or small groups to give people an opportunity to share their views openly and honestly … in a respectful and safe environment”.
“Stakeholders who are meeting with the panel are being advised that anything they say during the meeting will not be attributed in the panel’s report,” she said.
“Stakeholders are free to discuss any details of their discussions with the panel as they see fit.”
In her email, Eastwood circulated a letter urging LGBTI organisations to make a submission by the 14 February deadline.
It warned that the “very positive” development of marriage equality must not “be undermined by the possibility this review could further entrench allowable discrimination and unequal treatment by religious organisations”.
The other members of the panel are the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Rosalind Croucher, Annabelle Bennett, Father Frank Brennan and academic Nicholas Aroney, who has argued that recognising religious freedom should include acceptance of a limited form of sharia law.