Australia’s Parliament House lifted a short-lived ban on facial coverings including burqas and niqabs after the prime minister intervened.
The government department which 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 today, the department of parliamentary services (DPS) said people wearing face coverings would again be allowed in all public areas of Parliament House, in Canberra.
It said face coverings would have to be removed temporarily at the security check point at the front door so 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.
“Procedures are still in place to ensure that DPS security manage these procedures in a sensitive and appropriate manner.”
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 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 authorised by Ms Bishop, who has campaigned for a ban on Muslim head scarves in government schools, as well as by Senate President Stephen Parry.
The controversy came as the government attempts to assure Australia’s Muslim minority that tough new counter-terrorism 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,” said senior opposition politician Tony Burke.
But Senator Jacqui Lambie, from the minority 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 Islamic extremists and their supporters in Australia who view the burqa or niqab as flags for extremism,” she said.
Mr Parry revealed today that the policy on face coverings was not made on the advice of police or the national domestic security agency.
Security has increased at Parliament House since the government stepped up its terror warning to the second-highest level on a four-tier scale last month in response to the domestic threat posed by supporters of the Islamic State group.
Australia is participating in the US-led coalition against Islamic State militants, with its warplanes flying combat missions in northern Iraq and special forces preparing to deploy in Iraq to help train Iraqi security forces.
Mr Abbott was today in Jakarta, the capital of the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, for the inauguration of new Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.