The presiding officers of Australia’s parliament house have backed down from a controversial decision to segregate Muslim women wearing facial coverings such as burqas or niqabs in the public galleries.
The speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, and the Senate president, Stephen Parry, met on Sunday to reconsider the “interim access arrangements” announced just over two weeks ago.
Bishop and Parry faced criticism over the decision to force visitors wearing facial coverings to sit in a separate area of parliament’s public gallery shielded by glass panels. The prime minister, Tony Abbott, had called on the pair to rethink the segregation policy, noting that all members of the public in the galleries had already cleared airport-style security checkpoints.
In a new information circular issued to parliamentarians and staff on Monday morning, the Department of Parliamentary Services backed down on the most controversial element.
Explaining the new interim arrangements, the department said: “All visitors entering Parliament House will be required to temporarily remove any coverings that prevent the recognition of facial features. This will enable DPS security staff to identify any person who may have been banned from entering Parliament House or who may be known, or discovered, to be a security risk. Once this process has taken place, visitors are free to move about the public spaces of the building, including all chamber galleries, with facial coverings in place.”
The email said the renewal and issue of sponsored passes remained suspended, while photographic identification was required for the issue of escorted passes for all adult visitors.
“Procedures are still in place to ensure that DPS security manage these procedures in a sensitive and appropriate manner,” the email said. “These measures are designed to enhance and strengthen the existing access, identification and security arrangements at Parliament House. Further amendments and enhancements to pass policy and broader security practice will be implemented in due course.”
The original arrangements were announced on 2 October, the final day of parliamentary sittings before a two-week break. Critics of the decision said it sent the wrong message about inclusion, at a time of heightened tensions over security.
The revised decision was announced in time for the resumption of the House of Representatives on Monday and a week of Senate estimates hearings. Parry was expected to face questions about the issue at an estimates hearing on Monday morning.