The Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, is currently undertaking a public consultation called Rights & Responsibilities 2014. Unfortunately, similar to the ALRC Freedoms Inquiry, it is very much focused on ‘traditional’ rights at the expense of other rights like the right to non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. This post is my submission to this consultation process.
You can find out more about the inquiry, including downloading the Discussion Paper, at the following link: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/rights-responsibilities-2014 Written submissions, including an option to complete an online survey, are due by Friday 31 October 2014. Public consultations are also being held across the country, with a session in Sydney scheduled for Wednesday 19 November 2014 (details at the AHRC website).
Mr Tim Wilson
Human Rights Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission
Monday 27 October 2014
Dear Commissioner Wilson
SUBMISSION TO RIGHTS & RESPONSIBILITIES 2014 CONSULTATION
I welcome the opportunity to provide a submission to the Rights & Responsibilities 2014 public consultation, and in particular to provide feedback on the Discussion Paper, of the same name, published on the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) website.
In this submission, I will provide feedback on two of the four rights, or related sets of rights, featured in Appendix A of the discussion paper (namely, the right to freedom of expression, and the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religious worship).
However, before doing so I would like to express my serious concern that the focus of the discussion paper is limited to some rights, which could be characterised as being more ‘traditional’ in nature (for example, the right to property), to the apparent exclusion of other rights which, I believe, are no less important in the contemporary world.
Specifically, I would argue that prioritising certain rights above others potentially neglects and devalues the importance of those other rights which are no less essential to ensuring that all Australians are able to fully participate in modern society.
From my point of view, chief among these rights is the right to non-discrimination, or to put it another way (which may be more favourably received), to be free from discrimination, including unfair or adverse treatment on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.
The right to non-discrimination is fundamental in international human rights law adopted immediately post-World War II. Article 2(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that:
“Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognised in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, property, birth or other status.”
Similarly, article 21 of the ICCPR establishes that:
“All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has, in cases which both involved complaints by Australian citizens against actions by the Tasmanian and Commonwealth Government respectively, found that the wording of these articles includes the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The Commonwealth Parliament has also recognised that the right to non-discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians is worthy of protection, with the passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013.
This historic legislation, providing similar rights to non-discrimination to those already enjoyed on the basis of race, sex, disability and age, was a significant, albeit long overdue, step forward for the LGBTI community. For this reason, I would not wish to see the right to be free from discrimination on these attributes to be diminished in comparison to other, more ‘traditional’ rights.
Unfortunately, that is the almost inevitable conclusion of a consultation process which aims to consider “how effectively we protect people’s human rights and freedoms in Australia” (page 1 of the Discussion Paper) but which then only focuses on a small number of freedoms, including the right to property, but which neglects others.
In this way, the Rights & Responsibilities 2014 Discussion Paper appears to reinforce the message, already made clear by the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis’ ‘Freedom Inquiry’ reference to the Australian Law Reform Commission (see http://www.alrc.gov.au/inquiries/freedoms/terms-reference for the terms of reference), that some freedoms are somehow better or more worthy of protection than others. Both inquiries appear to suggest that there is a hierarchy of rights, with ‘traditional’ rights at the top, and other rights, such as the right to non-discrimination, placed below them.
This is particularly concerning when some of those traditional rights being promoted or ‘privileged’ in these consultations, including the right to property and the right to ‘common law protection of personal reputation’ (aka defamation), are rights which are inherently more valuable to those who already enjoy ‘privilege’ within society, while other rights vital to protect the interests of people who are not ‘privileged’ are largely ignored.
Above all, I am concerned that you, in your role as Human Rights Commissioner, should actively participate in the reinforcement of this supposed hierarchy of rights, with the right to non-discrimination placed somewhere toward the bottom – especially as you are also the Commissioner at the AHRC with responsibility for sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status issues.
I would ask that you reconsider your approach to these issues in the Rights & Responsibilities 2014 consultation process, and, instead of promoting a narrow view of what constitutes fundamental human rights, ensure that other rights, including the right to non-discrimination – or to be free from discrimination – are also given appropriate consideration.
I will now turn my attention to two of the four rights, or related sets of rights, featured in Appendix A of the Discussion Paper.
Right to freedom of expression (page 5 of the Discussion Paper)
I acknowledge the importance of the right to freedom of expression, or freedom of speech. However, I also welcome the Discussion Paper’s statement that freedom of speech is not absolute, in particular where it notes that:
“Under international law, freedom of expression may only be limited where it is prescribed by law and deemed necessary to protect the rights or reputations of others, national security, public order, or public health or morals. A mandatory limitation also applies to the right to freedom of expression in relation to ‘any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence’.”
In this context, I question why laws should be established to prohibit ‘advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred’ but not to prohibit advocacy of hatred on other grounds, including sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.
The impact of vilification on these grounds, and the negative influence of public homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia more generally, is just as harmful as racial or religious vilification. Therefore I can see no good reason why there should not also exist equivalent anti-vilification protections covering LGBTI Australians a Commonwealth level.
It is for this reason that I provided a submission earlier this year in response to the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis’, Exposure Draft Bill seeking to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, in which I argued that, instead of abolishing racial vilification laws, similar protections against vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status should be added to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (a copy of this submission can be found at the following link: http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/04/24/dont-limit-racial-vilification-protections-introduce-vilification-protections-for-lgbti-australians-instead/ ).
Thus, while I understand the focus of this section of the Discussion Paper is on ensuring that there exist only narrow restrictions on ‘freedom of expression’ (as summed up in the question “how individuals can be held accountable for the use of their freedom of expression outside of law” emphasis added), I submit there remains a proper, indeed necessary, role for legal restrictions on this freedom to protect against the “incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”.
I further submit that these protections should cover lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians against such incitements. I sincerely hope that, in your capacity as both Human Rights Commissioner and AHRC Commissioner with responsibility for sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status issues, you agree.
Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religious worship (page 6 of the Discussion Paper)
I also acknowledge the fundamental importance of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religious worship. I further agree with the Discussion Paper on page 6 where it states that “[t]he internal dimension of the right – the freedom to adopt or hold a belief – is absolute.”
However, just as importantly, I support the statement that “the external dimension – the freedom to manifest that belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching – may be limited by laws when deemed necessary to protect the public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others” (emphasis added). This is a vital caveat that allows Governments to protect other individuals and groups against both potential and real harm.
Unfortunately, I do not believe that Australian law currently strikes the right balance between respecting the right to freedom of religious worship, and the harms caused by breaches of the right to non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.
Specifically, I am concerned that the broad exceptions and/or exemptions which are provided to religious organisations under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws, including those protections added by the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, are far too generous, and essentially approve the prejudicial and discriminatory treatment of LGBT Australians by religious bodies in a large number of areas of public life.
For example, the combined impact of sub-section 37(1)(d) of the amended Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (which provides that “[n]othing in Division 1 or 2 affects… any other act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibility of adherants of that religion”) and section 38 of the same law (which applies to educational institutions established for religious purposes), means that, according to Commonwealth law:
- Religious schools can freely discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, including expelling those students simply for being who they are;
- Religious schools can also freely discriminate against LGBT staff members, including by refusing to provide or terminating their employment, where sexual orientation and gender identity is completely irrelevant to the ability of that person to perform the duties of the role;
- Religious health and community services can similarly discriminate, with impunity, against both LGBT employees and potential employees, as well as LGBT individuals and families accessing these services; and
- Religious aged care services can discriminate against LGBT employees or potential employees.
It is difficult to see how these exemptions, which allow LGBT people to be discriminated against simply as they seek to obtain an education, or access healthcare (which are themselves fundamental international human rights), and to be treated unfairly in employment in a large number of jobs across a wide range of areas, is not a gross breach of their human rights.
It is even more difficult to envisage how these exemptions fit with the statements on page 2 of the Discussion Paper that “[r]ights and freedoms… are about being treated fairly, treating others fairly…” (emphasis added) and that “[l]imits on rights have been established to ensure individuals do not harm others when exercising their own rights.”
Religious exceptions and exemptions under Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws allow serious harm to be caused to LGBT Australians, on a day-to-day basis and across multiple spheres of public life, and, I assert, should be significantly curbed.
To this end, I believe the religious exemptions which are included in sub-sections 37(1)(a),(b) and (c) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, if supplemented by exemptions covering how religious ceremonies are conducted, would be both more justifiable in being better targeted to protecting freedom of religious worship itself, and less likely to result in harm to LGBT people through the breach of their right to non-discrimination across broad areas of public life. Therefore, these are the only religious exemptions which should be retained.
This, much narrower, approach to religious exemptions would, in my view, also be a more appropriate outcome of a system of human rights that seeks to both protect fundamental rights, and promote the responsibility not to infringe upon the fundamental rights of others.
In this respect, I question why the Discussion Paper does not live up to its title – examining both Rights AND Responsibilities – but instead focuses primarily on the expansion of some rights, including the right to freedom of religious worship, even at the possible expense of others, such as the right to non-discrimination. For example, the conclusion of the section on “Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religious worship” notes that:
“Rights & Responsibilities will focus on:
- the ways you exercise your right to freedom of religion
- where restrictions on freedom of religious worship exist
- whether you have felt restricted or prohibited from exercising your right to freedom of religion
- what could be done to enable you to exercise your right to freedom of religion.”
This focus presupposes that the only changes with respect to this area of law should be expansions to the ‘freedom of religion’, rather than allowing for the possibility that people claiming to exercise this freedom are in fact unjustifiably and inappropriately infringing upon the rights of others.
The Discussion Paper does not seem to even contemplate the possibility that more protections may be needed to shield LGBT Australians from discrimination, perpetrated by religious organisations, but which at this stage is legitimated by exemptions to Commonwealth anti-discrimination law.
I submit that removing these wide-ranging, and overly-generous, religious exemptions is one of the most important, and effective, reforms the Government could make to improve the rights of any group of Australians. I sincerely hope that, as AHRC Commissioner with responsibility for sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status issues, you agree that LGBT Australians should be free to live their lives without homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia. And to do so without exception.
Thank you in advance for your consideration of this submission.
 Human Rights Committee, Toonen v Australia, Communication No. 488/1992, UN Doc CCPR/C/50/D/488/92 and Human Rights Committee, Young v Australia, Communication No. 941/2000, UN Doc CCPR/C/78/D/941/2000.
 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 20(2).
 Noting that the religious exemptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 do not apply to intersex status, only to sexual orientation and gender identity.
 Noting that the religious exemptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 do not apply to LGBT people accessing aged care services.
 “Nothing in Division 1 or 2 affects:
- the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of any religious order;
- the training or education of persons seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order;
- the selection or appointment of persons to perform duties or functions for the purposes of or in connection with, or otherwise to participate in, any religious observance or practice…”