SYDNEY (AFP) - A controversial plan to make women wearing the burqa or niqab sit in separate glassed public enclosures at Australia's Parliament House due to security concerns was abandoned on Monday after an outcry.
The backdown followed a decision on Oct 2 by Speaker Bronwyn Bishop and Senate President Stephen Parry to seat people wearing face coverings in areas normally reserved for noisy school children while visiting parliament.
It followed heated debate about potential security risks since the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS ) group. The ruling was condemned by human rights and race discrimination groups, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott asked that it be reconsidered.
Race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane told Fairfax Media the original ruling meant Muslim women were being treated differently to non-Muslim women.
"No one should be treated like a second-class citizen, not least in the parliament," he said. "I have yet to see any expert opinion or analysis to date which indicates that the burqa or the niqab represents an additional or special security threat."
Labor opposition frontbencher Tony Burke welcomed the backdown but said the initial decision should never have been made.
"What possessed them to think that segregation was a good idea?" he said. "Segregation was previously introduced, apparently, with no security advice attached to it and no security reason attached to it."
- Temporarily remove face coverings -
The Department of Parliamentary Services said in a statement that the rules had been changed and all visitors must now "temporarily remove any coverings" that prevent the recognition of facial features.
"This will enable security staff to identify anyone who may have been banned from entering the building or who may be known to be a security risk," it said. "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".
Parry explained that the original "interim" decision was made after rumours began circulating earlier this month that burka-clad protesters were planning to disrupt parliament. No protest took place.
Australia has been on edge since the rise of the ISIS group with the government tightening counter-terrorism laws and police in recent weeks conducting major terror raids amid fears of an attack on home soil by radicalised Australians.
The country was one of the first nations to join the United States' aerial campaign against the militant group, which controls large parts of Iraq and Syria and is increasingly seen as a global threat.
On Sunday, Canberra said it had reached a deal with Baghdad for the deployment of about 200 special forces to assist Iraqi troops in their fight against jihadists.
While overturning the plan was largely welcomed, Palmer United Party senator Jacqui Lambie, an outspoken opponent of face coverings, said it would encourage extremists to commit "acts of violence against Australians".
"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," she said in a statement.
"This decision will not stop me from putting private members legislation before parliament, which will make illegal the wearing of the burqa and any other form of facial identity-concealing outfit or items of clothing in public."