No Referendum. No Plebiscite. Just Pass the Bill.

The following is my submission to the current Senate Inquiry into whether there should be a referendum or plebiscite into marriage equality. As you can tell from the title of this post, I am strongly against both.

For more information, or to make your own submission, go here: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Legal_and_Constitutional_Affairs/Marriage_Plebiscite

Committee Secretary

Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee

PO Box 6100

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

legcon.sen@aph.gov.au

Saturday 29 August 2015

Dear Committee Members

SUBMISSION TO INQUIRY INTO “THE MATTER OF A POPULAR VOTE, IN THE FORM OF A PLEBISCITE OR REFERENDUM, ON THE MATTER OF MARRIAGE IN AUSTRALIA”

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this submission on the question of whether Australia should hold a ‘public vote’ on the issue of marriage equality, and if so what form and timing such a vote should take.

My overall response to this question is that a marriage equality plebiscite or referendum would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore should not be held.

My detailed responses to the terms of reference to the inquiry are set out below.

a. An assessment of the content and implications of a question to be put to electors

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore will not address this term of reference.

b. An examination of the resources required to enact such an activity, including the question of the contribution of Commonwealth funding to the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore will not address this term of reference.

c. An assessment of the impact of the timing of such an activity, including the opportunity for it to coincide with a general election

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive, and therefore will not address this term of reference.

d. Whether such an activity is an appropriate method to address matters of equality and human rights

It is absolutely inappropriate to use a ‘public vote’ to determine whether all people should be treated equally under the law, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

The recognition of the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians should not be subject to a popularity contest, and only granted if enough people express the view, through such a vote, that we are ‘worthy’.

In circumstances where it is not already formally recognised, the right for all couples to be married under secular law should be recognised in the usual place and in the usual way – in our nation’s parliament.

Turning specifically to the question of a referendum, the High Court has already found that the Commonwealth Parliament has the constitutional power to introduce marriage equality.

In the 2013 case overturning the Australian Capital Territory’s same-sex marriage laws, the High Court stated, unequivocally, that: “[w]hen used in s51(xxi), “marriage” is a term which includes a marriage between persons of the same sex.”[i]

This makes those who argue for a ‘constitutional referendum’ on this subject, or who even suggest that one could be held, seem to be one of two things, either:

  1. Completely lacking in understanding of the Constitution, and the Australian system of government generally (and arguably dangerously ill-informed where such people are current parliamentarians)

Or

  1. Motivated by a desire to block the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex Australians by whatever means necessary, even by holding an unnecessary referendum, solely because it imposes a higher threshold for success (the requirement to be passed by both a majority of voters, and a majority of voters in a majority of states).

While there are fewer legal arguments against holding a plebiscite on marriage equality, there remain strong reasons why it would be inappropriate.

First, as described above, whether human rights are recognised or not should not be determined through a popularity contest.

Second, the result of any such plebiscite would not be binding on the Parliament, and there would obviously be no requirement for a successful result to be recognised immediately (as demonstrated by the 1977 plebiscite on the national anthem, which was not legislated until 1984).

Third, and related to the above, the suggestion to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality appears to be nothing more than a delaying tactic, designed to hold off the prospect of full equality for LGBTI Australians for at least another term, or more (especially given Prime Minister Abbott has expressed his desire for it to be held after the next federal election, and even then after the referendum on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians).

Fourth, and finally, it should be noted that the same people who are arguing for a plebiscite now (including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Deputy Liberal Leader and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Treasurer Joe Hockey) voted against marriage equality in the Parliament in August 2004 and, joined by Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, did so again in September 2012.

At no point did they express the view that parliamentarians voting on marriage equality was somehow inappropriate – at least while the Parliament was voting ‘No’.

Indeed, in May, responding to the Irish marriage equality referendum and rejecting a similar proposal here, Prime Minister Abbott said that: “questions of marriage are the preserve of the Commonwealth Parliament”.[ii]

The only thing that appears to have changed is that, unlike 2004 and 2012, and were a Liberal Party conscience vote to be granted, marriage equality legislation would have a reasonable chance of success in 2015.

Which only makes the decision to reject the concept of a parliamentary vote, in favour of a plebiscite, appear even worse.

It is not just moving the goalposts, it is changing the fundamental rules of the game, to thwart opponents who simply want the right to be treated equally under the law.

It is beyond unreasonable, it is hypocritical and grossly unfair, and should be rejected.

A referendum or plebiscite on marriage equality would also be extraordinarily wasteful.

Public estimates of the cost of holding such a vote (particularly when it is a standalone ballot, which is the preference of Prime Minister Abbott) have put the figure at in excess of $100 million.[iii]

This is extraordinarily expensive, particularly given introducing marriage equality is something that could be done by our nation’s Parliament in the ordinary course of events, at no additional cost to the taxpayer.

Of course, if the Abbott Liberal-National Government genuinely wants to spend $100-150 million on issues of concern to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, then might I suggest the following:

  • Implementing the reforms recommended by the 2013 Senate Inquiry into the Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People in Australia, to end this gross violation of human rights
  • Removing out-of-pocket medical expenses for transgender Australians
  • Increasing funding for the Safe Schools Coalition to ensure it reaches students in every school across the country and
  • Funding housing services for LGBTI young people, who are disproportionately affected by homelessness.

All of these suggestions, and indeed a great many others, would be better uses of public monies than throwing millions of dollars away on an unnecessary, inappropriate and wasteful plebiscite or referendum.

In addition to the above reasons, it should also be acknowledged that a public vote on marriage equality has the potential to be incredibly divisive, and therefore dangerous.

This is because any referendum or plebiscite would necessarily stir up homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia in the community, and especially in the media.

We experienced a small taste of what such a debate would look like this week when the Daily Telegraph newspaper devoted its front page, and several pages thereafter, to attacking the idea that students should be exposed to the reality that rainbow families exist, and are normal (with one columnist even ‘bravely’ telling a 12 year old girl that her family was not normal).

The only positive aspect of this outrageous and horrific ‘beat-up’ is that it has gradually receded in prominence, replaced by other stories as part of the regular news cycle.

Unfortunately, the holding of a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would all but ensure that such stories were featured prominently for days, weeks or even months on end.

We should not underestimate the damage that such a vote would cause.

Research consistently finds that young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are disproportionately affected by mental health issues, and have substantially higher rates of suicide than their cisgender heterosexual counterparts, with one of the main causes being the discrimination and prejudice to which they are exposed every day.

A bitter and protracted public debate, about whether who they are should be treated equally under the law or not, would inevitably have a significant, negative impact on their mental health.

But they would not be the only ones adversely affected. A nasty campaign against the equality of LGBTI families, which would be an inevitable part of any public vote, would also negatively impact on the wellbeing of the children of these families.

Indeed, nearly all LGBTI Australians would probably be affected in some way by the holding of a public vote to determine whether we should continue to be treated as second class citizens by our own country or not. Such a vote should not be held.

A plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive. It should be comprehensively rejected by this Inquiry, and by the Commonwealth Parliament.

e. The terms of the Marriage Equality Plebiscite Bill 2015 currently before the Senate

I believe that a plebiscite or referendum on marriage equality would be unnecessary, inappropriate, wasteful and divisive.

I therefore call on all Senators to reject the Marriage Equality Plebiscite Bill 2015 currently before the Senate, and to resist any and all attempts to hold a plebiscite or referendum on this subject in the future.

f. Any other related matters

There is absolutely no justification whatsoever to hold a referendum on something which the High Court has already found is within the power of the Commonwealth Parliament.

Nor is there any justification to hold a plebiscite on marriage equality. I am 37 years old, and there has not been a federal plebiscite in my lifetime.

It is bizarre, and offensive, that the first plebiscite since 1977 should be held to determine whether my relationship should be treated equally under the law.

My fiancé Steven and I recently celebrated our 7th anniversary. We have been engaged for more than five and a half years. We, like thousands of other LGBTI couples in Australia, are done waiting.

We have gone to protests, we have written submissions, we have commented in the media, we have patiently (and sometimes less than patiently) campaigned for change.

Finally, when the numbers for reform appear to exist within the Parliament, if not this year then certainly after the 2016 election (irrespective of who wins), Prime Minister Abbott and the Liberal-National Government he leads seek to change the rules.

Despite voting against my equality for more than a decade, without reservation, he and his colleagues now believe that this is not something which can be determined by the Commonwealth Parliament.

Plainly, they are wrong. Marriage equality can and should be passed, in the House of Representatives and the Senate, the same places where it was banned in August 2004.

And, if our current House of Representatives MPs and Senators will not do their job, if they refuse to legislate for the equal right to marry for all Australians irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, then the Australian people must do their job next year and vote them out. Because LGBTI Australians have waited long enough.

Thank you for taking this submission into consideration.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

If Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and the Government he leads, will not change the law, then the Australian people must change the Government.

If Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and the Government he leads, will not change the law, then the Australian people must change the Government.

[i] The Commonwealth v Australian Capital Territory [2013] HCA 55, para 38.

[ii] “Gay Marriage Referendum in Australia Dismissed by Tony Abbott”, ABC News Online, 25 May 2015: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-24/leaders-dismiss-same-sex-marriage-referendum-in-australia/6493180

[iii] “Williams said the average cost of a referendum was between $100m and $150m outside an election and half that if it was held in conjunction with an election”: “Tony Abbott says no to referendum on same-sex marriage, despite Irish vote”, Guardian Australia, 24 May 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/24/tony-abbott-says-no-to-referendum-on-same-sex-marriage-despite-irish-vote

Will Christine Forster Apologise for her Pre-Election Column?

Ms Christine Forster

cforster@cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au

Monday 24 August 2015

Dear Ms Forster,

I am writing to you concerning an opinion piece you wrote before the 2013 Federal Election for the Star Observer called “Vote Liberal for Real Change”.[i]

Specifically, you began by writing:

“You only have one vote on September 7 and this election is the most important in a generation.

“For many of us in the GLBTI community marriage equality is a key political issue at a federal level and the positions of the two major parties on this important question are virtually the same. Both are leaving it up to their new members of parliament to decide, after the election” [emphasis added].

It was abundantly clear at the time that this description was inaccurate – that in no way, shape or form could the positions of Labor and the Coalition be described as “virtually the same”.

Indeed, as I commented on your opinion piece at the time:

“The second paragraph in this op-ed is rubbish. No, Ms Forster, the positions of the two major parties on this important question are NOT virtually the same.

“One major party has a party platform in favour of marriage equality, rules which guarantee its MPs a conscience vote, a majority of sitting MPs who voted in favour of marriage equality just last year, a Prime Minister who supports it, and a commitment to reintroduce a Bill within 100 days.

“The other – your brother’s Coalition – has left it up to whoever is elected at this election to decide whether to even have a conscience vote (with the possibility that there is not a conscience vote/all its MPs are forced to vote against), a Leader who continues to oppose marriage equality, and who does not expect a Bill to even arise in the next parliament, and not a single sitting MP who voted for marriage equality in 2012 (despite Liberals always saying that backbenchers can vote freely on every Bill).

“I don’t know what your definition of ‘virtually the same’ is, but it is in no dictionary that I can find.”

Unfortunately, the description that you used then has turned out to be even more inaccurate now, almost two years later.

The Labor Opposition today is led by a supporter of marriage equality, who has made a similar commitment to his predecessor (to introduce a Bill within 100 days, if elected), with the vast majority of ALP MPs and Senators indicating they will vote in favour of marriage equality when it next comes to a vote.

Meanwhile, the Liberal-National Government remains led by a Prime Minister who is strongly opposed to the full legal equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, and a Coalition party room that spoke two to one against even allowing a conscience vote on the subject, meaning only a small handful of Coalition MPs will be able to vote in favour of reform.

To make matters worse, the Abbott Liberal-National Government is apparently intent on denying a House of Representatives vote on this matter during the current term of parliament (by using its numbers on the Selection of Bills Committee), instead concentrating on finding ways to defer the issue for yet another term, even considering the option of an inappropriate and unnecessary constitutional referendum to help ‘stack the decks’ against marriage equality.

Given all of the above, I have two simple questions for you:

  1. Do you now concede that your pre-election opinion piece was inaccurate?
  2. Will you apologise to anyone who was silly enough to actually believe what you wrote?

I look forward to receiving your correspondence addressing the above questions.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

[i] 4 September 2013: http://www.starobserver.com.au/opinion/election-opinion-vote-liberal-for-real-change/108960

Christine Forster (source: ABC).

Christine Forster (source: ABC).

Submission to Alex Greenwich Discussion Paper re Removing Surgical Requirement for Changes to Birth Certificate

Alex Greenwich MP

58 Oxford St

PADDINGTON NSW 2021

sydney@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Friday 21 August 2015

Dear Mr Greenwich

SUBMISSION ON DISCUSSION PAPER RE REMOVING SURGICAL REQUIREMENT FOR CHANGES TO BIRTH CERTIFICATE

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this short submission in response to the above-mentioned Discussion Paper, and for highlighting what is clearly an important issue for transgender people in NSW.

I should begin by noting that I am writing this from the perspective of a cisgender gay man and that, if this submission is contrary to the views expressed by trans* individuals and organisations, then those submissions should obviously be preferred.

Nevertheless, as a long-term advocate and activist within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, I find it hard to disagree with the premise of the Discussion Paper which is that trans* people should not be required to undergo irreversible sex affirmation surgical procedures before being able to apply to amend their birth certificate.

Similarly, I can see no valid reason why the approach which has been adopted by Ireland – and which is described in the Discussion Paper as ‘world’s best practice’ – should not be adopted here.

This approach – allowing transgender individuals to legally change their birth certificate through a statutory declaration process without any need for medical documentation – has a number of significant advantages.

These include:

  • Recognising the diversity of experience within the transgender community
  • Respecting the personal autonomy of people to identify themselves and
  • Removing the unnecessary ‘medicalisation’ of this process.

Above all, adopting the Irish approach would make it easier for trans* people to obtain documentation which reflects their gender identity, which is a positive outcome in and of itself.

I look forward to seeing the Final Report of this consultation later in 2015, and to the ongoing work of yourself and the NSW Cross-Party LGBTI Working Group on a wide range of other, related issues, including (but not limited to):

  • The abolition of incredibly unjust ‘forced trans* divorce’ laws
  • The removal of exceptions to the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 which allow private schools to discriminate against trans* students and teachers[i] and
  • The abolition of the unjustifiably broad exceptions granted to religious organisations in sub-section 56(d)[ii] of the same Act.

Thank you in advance for taking this submission into account. Please contact me at the details provided below if you would like clarification or further information about any aspect of this submission.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

[i] Section 38K of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, which covers education, provides that “[n]othing in this section applies to or in respect of private educational authorities”.

[ii] “Nothing in this Act affects: … (d) any other act or practice of a body established to propagate religion that conforms to the doctrines of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion.”

State Member for Sydney Alex Greenwich (source NSW Parliament website).

State Member for Sydney Alex Greenwich (source: NSW Parliament website).

Responding to Bill Shorten’s Arguments Against a Binding Vote on Marriage Equality

Last night, just 36 hours from the start of ALP National Conference, the Sydney Morning Herald published an opinion piece by Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten explaining why he supports a conscience vote on marriage equality[i].

The article itself is short and, based on any objective reading, the arguments he makes for a conscience vote (or rather, against a binding vote), are weak.

So weak, in fact, that it is tempting to assume Mr Shorten is aware there remains a strong chance that National Conference will decide on Sunday afternoon that the ALP should nevertheless bind (whether immediately, or taking effect from the start of the next federal election campaign), and he does not want to appear to be too out of step with the membership on this issue.

Whatever the motivation, in this post I will respond to the three main arguments against a binding vote put forward by Mr Shorten.

1. A binding vote would be difficult for ALP MPs and Senators who oppose marriage equality

Bill says: “I support marriage equality… But I understand that not every Labor MP or party member feels the same way. Some, particularly people of faith, take a different view. I respect this. It’s why I support a free vote on marriage equality.

Solidarity still has a powerful meaning in our party and a binding vote would put a handful of Labor MPs in a very difficult position. Either they vote against their conscience, or they vote against the party they’ve dedicated their working life to serving.”

Response: This may well be true – for a handful of ALP parliamentarians in both chambers the prospect of being compelled to vote for the full equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, including in the Marriage Act, does raise personal ethical issues for them.

But the problem is, and the key fact that Mr Shorten ignores, is that this dilemma – being compelled to vote for a position with which you do not agree – is not unique to the issue of marriage equality.

Indeed, to paraphrase a slogan from another political party, this is the exact same question faced by every ALP MP, on every single issue, and every single vote, whenever they disagree with the Party’s position – as a member of a political party based on collective action, and bound by the principle of solidarity, does my personal opposition outweigh my overall loyalty to the party?

It is the same question that is asked by ALP members from across the factional divide who find our current policies on refugees (which involve the offshore detention, processing and resettlement of refugees, including LGBTI refugees in countries that criminalise them) to be abhorrent.

It is the same question that was asked by ALP members who earlier this year personally opposed the Abbott Government’s metadata legislation – but which was supported by the Federal Opposition. Or who did not support the cuts to single parent payments made by the Labor Government in 2012, or who wanted to shut down the live animal export trade permanently in 2011[ii].

Each of these policy questions raises significant ethical issues for the MPs and Senators who have a different personal view to the overall position of the Party. But, in respect of no other policy was the response of the Party, and Party Leader, to say that this disagreement therefore meant that normal processes, which require parliamentarians to be bound, should not apply.

And Mr Shorten does not make any substantive argument for why the issue of marriage equality should be treated differently to any other issue.

He does make an indirect reference to ‘people of faith’ but, as has been explained previously[iii], that would only be relevant if ALP parliamentarians were being required to vote to change the definition of marriage within their religion – and no marriage equality Bill proposed to date would do any such thing.

Under every proposal, all ministers of religion would be free to continue to reject – or support (remembering that some religious organisations want to be able to marry LGBTI couples) – marriage equality.

All that Labor MPs and Senators are being asked to do is to vote for the equality of all Australians under secular law, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status – and their personal faith is not a compelling argument to reject that vote being made binding as is standard operating procedure.

And it is even less compelling when we remember that a binding vote on marriage equality was adopted by the ALP from August 2004 to December 2011 – and that, during this time, all Labor parliamentarians who supported LGBTI equality, including those like Senators Penny Wong and Louise Pratt who were from the LGBTI community themselves, were required to vote against it.

Overall, then, Mr Shorten’s first argument does highlight the fact that supporting marriage equality might be difficult for some individual MPs and Senators – but that is not the same thing as saying that the normal rules of the Australian Labor Party, which ordinarily require binding, should not apply.

2. Labor should not adopt a binding vote because of what Tony Abbott might, or might not, do

Bill says: “I believe the best way to ensure our Parliament passes a definition of marriage which includes, values and respects every Australian relationship is for all representatives, from all parties, to have a free vote… I’m hopeful Tony Abbott will allow his MPs a free vote when Parliament returns, to achieve this outcome.

If Labor gets hung up on procedural argy-bargy, we jeopardise this possibility. Not only is it far more difficult for us to call on Tony Abbott to give his party room a free vote if we bind ourselves, there is also the risk that the Coalition re-commits to binding against marriage equality.”

Response: Mr Shorten is right to highlight the very real risk that Tony Abbott, and Warren Truss, and the political parties that they lead, could continue to bind their parliamentarians to vote against marriage equality. But what he omits to mention is that this risk exists irrespective of whatever delegates to this weekend’s ALP National Conference decide to do.

Even if the Labor Party chooses to retain a conscience vote on marriage equality, in the hope that it will somehow entice the Liberals and Nationals to do the same, there is no guarantee this move will have any influence over them whatsoever.

After all, if the ALP’s position was so influential, then it is reasonable to ask why the Coalition hasn’t adopted a conscience vote during the three and a half years in which Labor has already had one[iv].

Mr Shorten’s argument also seems to suggest that a conscience vote on both sides is numerically the most likely to succeed, when in fact the best chance for passage would be for the Labor Party to adopt a binding vote, and for the Liberal and National Parties to adopt a conscience vote.

As Australian Marriage Equality has repeatedly made clear, even with a conscience vote on both sides, if and when a cross-party marriage equality Bill is considered later this term, it could still fall short.

And that phrase, ‘this term’, is actually the key here. Because the decision whether to adopt a binding vote, or retain a conscience vote, is about far more than the remaining 13 months of this parliamentary cycle.

This debate is also about what policies the Australian Labor Party takes to the next Federal Election, and whether it is able to implement them.

If Mr Shorten wants to be able to stand before the Australian people, with hand on heart, and declare that, if elected, a Labor Government he leads would introduce marriage equality, then the only way in which he would be able to ensure it could be delivered is by adopting a binding vote, right here at this Conference.

The decision for National Conference delegates now is about whether the Australian Labor Party fully supports marriage equality, and ensures that all of its MPs and Senators vote accordingly when it next comes before Parliament.

The decision is also about whether, if that vote fails and we are elected to Government next year, a new Labor Government is able to finally deliver marriage equality to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians who have already waited for far too long.

And it is a decision which is far too important to ‘outsource’ to Tony Abbott, and Warren Truss, and the Liberal and National Party rooms, based on hypotheticals about what they may or may not do.

3. A conscience vote is an inherently better way to achieve reform than a binding vote

Bill says: “Frequently now people speak of marriage equality as an “inevitable” social change. In my experience, there is no such thing as inevitable progress, and worthwhile change is always hard-won. The best way to deliver reform is to bring people together. To build support by finding common ground; through consensus not coercion – not through the force of procedure but through the power of an idea whose time has come.”

Response: To many, the sentiments in this paragraph might seem noble. To me – and, I suspect, to most ordinary members of the Australian Labor Party – this paragraph seems almost bizarre.

After all, Mr Shorten is a former trade union official who became state, and later national, secretary of the Australian Workers Union. And he has been a Labor Party MP for almost eight years, including serving as a Cabinet Minister and now, for almost two years, as Party Leader during Opposition.

In all of those positions and roles he has been part of organisations and bodies that are based on solidarity, whether that involves taking collective action in industrial disputes, or voting collectively to change the nation’s laws.

For him to turn around now and say that the best way to deliver major reform is “through consensus not coercion – not through the force of procedure but through the power of an idea whose time has come” is, in effect, arguing that the entire way in which both the union movement and Australian Labor Party operate is inherently wrong.

Is Mr Shorten genuinely saying that all the legacy reforms passed by Labor Governments, from the introduction of Medicare to the expansion of higher education, from the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act and Sex Discrimination Act to the legislative recognition of native title, and more recently from the repeal of WorkChoices to the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, should have been achieved through conscience votes? Because that is the clear implication of his argument.

To fully realise just how strange, nonsensical even, Mr Shorten’s argument here is, we should consider the major policy which he announced just yesterday morning – a commitment for a 50% renewable energy target by 2030[v].

That would be a major reform – and it is definitely “an idea whose time has come”. By the same logic which he has used to argue against a binding vote on marriage equality, the best way to achieve a 50% RET must be through “consensus not coercion”, meaning Labor parliamentarians should be free to vote against it.

Mr Shorten would probably recoil in horror at that prospect. Well, the rest of us recoil at the double-standard which suggests that the Labor Party can and should bind in order to achieve political, economic, environmental and social change – but that it cannot bind to help achieve change for LGBTI Australians.

So, unless he is going to propose an amendment at this weekend’s Conference to make all policies optional for all Labor Party MPs, he should stop arguing to make just the issue of marriage equality non-binding.

********************

From this discussion, it is clear that none of the three main arguments put forward by Mr Shorten withstand close scrutiny.

After reading, and re-reading, his opinion piece, it is also clear that he fails to grapple with the core of the issue, which is this:

  • Should Labor Party MPs and Senators be free to vote for continued discrimination against LGBTI Australians under secular law?
  • Should our parliamentarians have the so-called ‘right’ to deny human rights to one group in society solely on the basis of who they are?
  • Should ALP caucus members have the option to reject the fundamental equality of their fellow citizens simply because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status?

The answer to these questions should be, indeed must be, no. And I sincerely hope that the majority of National Conference delegates agree come Sunday afternoon.

Of course, it is incredibly disappointing that the Leader of my political party, Bill Shorten, does not. But he should remember that at the last National Conference the delegates rejected the view of the then Leader, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, that the Party should not change the platform to support marriage equality.

We can, and must, reject his view this time around, and make that platform position binding on ALP MPs and Senators. It’s time to support LGBTI equality 100%. It’s time to bind.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten's arguments against a binding vote on marriage equality do not withstand close scrutiny.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s arguments against a binding vote on marriage equality do not withstand close scrutiny.

[i] “Bill Shorten: Why I Support a Free Vote on Gay Marriage”, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 July 2015: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/bill-shorten-why-i-support-a-free-vote-on-gay-marriage-20150722-gii96f.html

[ii] For more on this issue, see “One of these things is not (treated) like the others” : http://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/22/one-of-these-things-is-not-treated-like-the-others/

[iii] See “Why the Australian Labor Party should still adopt a binding vote on marriage equality”: http://alastairlawrie.net/2015/07/14/why-the-australian-labor-party-should-still-adopt-a-binding-vote-on-marriage-equality/

[iv] For more on this issue, see “Why the Australian Labor Party should still adopt a binding vote on marriage equality”: http://alastairlawrie.net/2015/07/14/why-the-australian-labor-party-should-still-adopt-a-binding-vote-on-marriage-equality/

[v] “Bill Shorten to unveil 50% renewable energy target at Labor conference”, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 July 2015: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/bill-shorten-to-unveil-50-renewable-energy-target-at-labor-conference-20150721-gih4bp.html

What ALP National Conference Delegates Should Hear About Marriage Equality

While I am a member of the Labor Party (and have been for more than 13 years), I have not been elected as a delegate to this year’s ALP National Conference, which will be held in Melbourne next weekend (Friday 24 to Sunday 26 July).

If I had been, and if I had the privilege of speaking during the Rules debate scheduled for Sunday afternoon, this is the speech I would like to give:

*************************************

It’s time for the Australian Labor Party to fully support the equal rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

It’s time to say – without equivocation or qualification – that the relationships of LGBTI people must be treated in exactly the same way under secular law as their cisgender heterosexual counterparts.

It’s time to take the Platform position, which already supports marriage equality in principle, and make it binding on the members of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.

The Labor Party can bind on marriage equality.

In fact, for more than two thirds of the time marriage equality has been debated in our Parliament, the ALP has bound its MPs and Senators on this issue – from Howard’s homophobic ban in August 2004, which we shamefully supported, until the last National Conference in December 2011, Labor MPs and Senators were bound to vote against it.

With a large majority of Party members, of Labor MPs and Senators – and, above all, of the Australian community – supporting amendments to the Marriage Act to ensure it does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, there is absolutely no reason why we should not bind in support in 2015.

There is nothing so unusual or exceptional about marriage equality that dictates that normal Party processes, based on the principles of solidarity and collective action, and which ordinarily demand a bound vote, should not apply to this issue.

Despite what some delegates might try to argue, religious freedom is not a legitimate argument to reject a binding vote.

The introduction of marriage equality will not have an adverse impact on religious freedom. Under every Bill proposed to date, ministers of religion will be free to decline to officiate LGBTI weddings.

In fact, the introduction of marriage equality will enhance religious freedom because it will allow those organisations and faiths that want to marry LGBTI couples to do so.

As Tony Burke notes: “Those who want to marry will be able to do so. Those who do not want the change will be unaffected by it.”

That includes individual parliamentarians who want to oppose marriage equality simply because it does not accord with their personal faith.

If legislation sought to impose marriage equality within religion, to change the official teachings of their faith, they might have an argument.

But it does not. Again, as Tony Burke observes: “The various religious faiths will continue to have their own views and rules around marriage. The law of Australia needs to respect the freedom of people to practice their faith and it will.”

Viewed in this way, it is clear that MPs and Senators demanding a conscience vote in order to oppose equality in secular law are not seeking to exercise their ‘religious freedom’ – they are seeking to impose their personal religious views onto others.

And, as a secular political party, we should vigorously resist their attempts.

The Labor Party should bind on marriage equality.

It should bind because introducing this reform would address one of the major outstanding forms of discrimination against LGBTI Australians – and the ALP should always stand united in addressing discrimination against the marginalised.

In the words of Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek, the question is simple: “Do we support legal discrimination against one group in this country? Or do we not?”

It should bind because the ability to found a family, and to have one’s relationships recognised under secular law, is more than just a natural desire, it is a fundamental human right.

Human rights should not be ‘optional’, and their recognition should not be left up to the whim of individual Labor Party MPs and Senators, as it is under a conscience vote.

As my old boss, Senator John Faulkner, told the 2011 National Conference when this same question was being debated: “A conscience vote on human rights is unconscionable.”

It should bind because the current Party Rule – which says “Conference resolves that the matter of same-sex marriage can be freely debated at any state or federal forum of the Australian Labor Party, but any decision reached is not binding on any member of the Party” – is not only wrong, it is offensive.

Commitments to achieve human rights should not come with an asterisk.

‘Terms and conditions’ should not apply when what is at stake is the equality of people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

It is offensive that special Party Rules continue to allow individual Labor MPs and Senators to vote against those rights, that equality. These provisions should be permanently removed from our governing document.

It should bind because it is unjust to impose solidarity on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex members of the Party, and to not offer it in return.

It is unjust to demand loyalty, to make Senator Penny Wong vote against her own community’s rights for seven and a half years, and Senator Louise Pratt for three and a half – and then deny that same loyalty when the Platform position changes to one of support for equality.

Solidarity, and loyalty, cannot be continually demanded of us but not reciprocated.

Finally, it should bind because lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Labor members are sick and tired of having our rights being sacrificed as the price of ‘Party unity’.

Granting a conscience vote on marriage equality should not be a ransom that is paid to parliamentarians who threaten to quit the Party rather than be compelled to vote to recognise the love of LGBTI couples.

If denying the legal equality of others is more important to them than adhering to Party solidarity – something they expect of others, but are unwilling to offer themselves – then they should leave. The rest of us should no longer give in to their blackmail.

The Labor Party must bind on marriage equality.

It must bind to finish the job that was left half-done by our predecessors in 2011, who voted to change the Platform, but narrowly failed to make that position binding.

That failure has had real adverse consequences – a bound vote in September 2012 could have seen marriage equality passed last term, putting an end to the painfully long wait of LGBTI couples simply to enjoy the same legal rights that are taken for granted by others.

Had the last National Conference decidedly differently, some Australians need not have died waiting for their relationships to be recognised by their own country – as some inevitably, and tragically, have done.

Adopting a binding vote now would demonstrate that we acknowledge we got it wrong in December 2011, and, in doing so, we apologise.

But this is about more than making up for past mistakes – it is about the present, too.

We must bind to ensure the Australian Labor Party does everything within its own power to support marriage equality in 2015.

We cannot control what Tony Abbott, and Warren Truss, and their respective Parties do on this issue – if we could, they would have adopted a conscience vote during the three and a half years in which we have already had one.

What we can control is our own Party and its Rules. What we can control, by adopting a binding vote, is ensuring as many ALP MPs and Senators as possible vote in favour of marriage equality the next time it comes before the Parliament.

That is what we are accountable for, and should be judged on accordingly.

And we must bind for the future. If marriage equality is rejected this term – and that remains a genuine possibility – the Australian Labor Party must be able to go to the next election telling the people that, if elected, it will pass marriage equality as quickly as possible.

The only way that it will be able to make that commitment is by adopting a binding vote at this Conference.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians have waited long enough already – too long, actually – and, if legislation is unsuccessful this year, and we win in 2016, they will be looking to us to finally pass this reform.

If, as a newly-elected Government, we are unable to do so because too many Labor MPs and Senators exercise a conscience vote against the rights of their fellow citizens, we will left looking completely ineffectual – and, much more significantly, LGBTI Australians will be let down yet again.

Labor must be able to promise to introduce marriage equality next term – and, just as importantly, it must be able to deliver it.

Because only in that way can the Labor Party truly claim that it will represent, and govern for, all Australians.

Only by adopting a binding vote can we say that the famous ‘Light on the Hill’ shines for everyone – and that we will use its light to overcome the darkness that is homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia, both in the law and in society.

Only by adopting a binding vote can the Australian Labor Party say that it is whole-heartedly committed to creating a country that is free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

It’s time to make that commitment, here at this Conference, and then again later this year on the floor of Parliament.

Delegates, it’s time to bind in support of marriage equality.

Senator Penny Wong at the 2011 ALP National Conference in Sydney

Senator Penny Wong at the 2011 ALP National Conference in Sydney

Why the Australian Labor Party should still adopt a binding vote on marriage equality

Over the past couple of months, a large number of people have invested a lot of time and energy in the possibility of a conscience vote within the Liberal Party, and that such a vote will, alongside the votes of the majority of ALP (and all Greens) MPs and Senators, help to deliver marriage equality in the second half of 2015.

And many have argued that, given this focus, we should no longer pursue a binding vote in favour of marriage equality within the Australian Labor Party at their National Conference, which will be held in Melbourne in ten days’ time (Friday 24 July to Sunday 26 July 2015, with the binding versus conscience debate likely to be held on the Sunday afternoon).

But we should remember that these two goals – seeking a conscience vote within the Liberal Party, and an ALP binding vote – are not mutually exclusive (as I have explained in previous posts)[1].

Even more importantly, we should acknowledge that, while we may hope for a Liberal Party conscience vote, it would be dangerous to expect it to happen.

Much of the optimism of recent times relates to Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s comments in Parliament in the week after the successful Irish marriage equality referendum, in which said:

“If our Parliament were to make a big decision on a matter such as this, it ought to be owned by the Parliament and not by any particular party.”[2]

A number of people interpreted this statement to mean that he was open to the possibility of a Liberal Party conscience vote, and that he was in fact inviting Coalition backbenchers to start work on a cross-party Marriage Equality Bill, to be introduced in Parliament after the winter recess.

Except that the Prime Minister gave no such invitation, and certainly did not provide an unambiguous commitment – all he did was offer an observation, and one that started with a very big “IF”.

And of course, even if Tony Abbott had given a commitment, we would do well to remember that, based on the long trail of wreckage he has already left in less than two years in the Lodge – and the 40 promises to the Australian people he has already broken[3] – he is arguably the biggest commitment-breaker ever to hold the highest political office in the country, so it would be very difficult to hold him to his ‘word’ in any event.

Events since that statement have also confirmed the substantial obstacles that remain in the way of a Coalition conscience vote. They include:

  • Liberal MPs who oppose a conscience vote within the Liberal Party
  • National MPs who oppose a conscience vote within the National Party
  • Liberal MPs who would like the issue of a conscience vote to be considered by the joint party room, rather than the Liberal Party room alone, because it would stand a better chance of defeat
  • Coalition MPs who have argued that Australia should only recognise LGBTI relationships through civil unions rather than marriage, and
  • Coalition MPs who have advocated the holding of a referendum or plebiscite rather than allowing the matter to be decided by the Parliament.

We have even had the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, suggest that frontbenchers that support marriage equality should resign their Cabinet position if they wanted to advocate on this issue. As quoted in the Australian Financial Review:

“There is very strong support in favour of maintaining the definition of marriages as it is in the marriage act… If you can’t support party policy, like I did with emissions trading, you do the honourable thing and I resigned from the front bench.”[4]

Not to forget the ‘stellar’ contribution of Agriculture Minister, Deputy Leader of the National Party (and future Deputy Prime Minister) Barnaby Joyce’s implication that marriage equality should be resisted because it might damage our cattle and beef exports to South East Asia (a suggestion so embarrassing to Australia it has been reported on around the world)[5].

Perhaps most worrying of all was the reaction of the Prime Minister’s office to the news earlier this month that a cross-party working group had in fact drafted a Marriage Equality Bill, with the aim of consideration by the Liberal Party room, and hopefully the Parliament, in August.

Abbott’s office released the following statement:
“Any member can introduce a private member’s bill into the parliament but they do not come before the joint party room for discussion unless they will be voted on in the parliament.

“It is rare for a private member’s bill to be voted on and any bill would be subject to the usual process. The prime minister’s position remains the same as it has always been and he supports the current policy that marriage is between a man and a woman. The government’s priority is strong economic management and keeping Australians safe.”[6]

There are (at least) three issues of particular concern with this statement:

  1. The reference to the joint party room (rather than Liberal Party room), making a conscience vote less likely to succeed
  2. The reference to parliamentary procedure, hinting that debate on any private member’s Marriage Equality Bill could be blocked by the Selection of Bills Committee (which is dominated by Liberal and National Party MPs who are themselves opposed to LGBTI equality), and
  3. The reference to other priorities (including the economy and national security), indicating that the Prime Minister could oppose the Bill progressing because it would somehow detract from these issues.

All in all, it would be heroic to assume there will inevitably be a conscience vote within the Liberal Party on this issue – and there is indisputably a very real risk that they reject a free vote, with that risk existing irrespective of whatever position the Labor Party adopts at its National Conference later this month.

That’s right – despite some people arguing that the Australian Labor Party should not adopt a binding vote because such a move will automatically prevent the Liberals from adopting a conscience vote, it is unlikely that Labor’s position will be the sole, or even decisive, factor.

A number of Liberal MPs have shown, quite comprehensively, over the past two months that they have their own reasons for opposing a conscience vote, and these reasons exist regardless of what delegates to ALP National Conference choose to do.

And that is entirely logical – after all, if the ALP’s position was so persuasive across the political aisle as to be almost irresistible (as some apparently believe it to be), the Liberals would have adopted a conscience vote on marriage equality at some point in the more than three and a half years Labor has already had one.

Of course, that does not mean that, should the Labor Party adopt a binding vote on marriage equality, and the Liberals subsequently choose to reject a conscience vote, the Liberal Party, and its few remaining moderate MPs, will not try to blame the ALP for this outcome[7].

In fact, that would be the most predictable development in this entire debate – the Party blocking reform would point the finger at anyone, and everyone, but itself in an effort to deflect responsibility for its own actions. It is not even a ‘risk’, but a guarantee.

But that is a political debate, and surely one the Australian Labor Party should be willing to take on.

If, come August, the ALP supports marriage equality with a binding vote, something which is both the right thing to do, and a position which is supported by between two thirds and three quarters of the population, and the Liberal and National Parties, who form the majority of the House of Representatives, oppose marriage equality with their own binding vote, then Labor MPs must be able to apportion blame squarely where it belongs – on Tony Abbott and his colleagues.

And, putting it frankly, if they can’t win that particular political argument, with almost everything stacked in their favour, then perhaps we should sack the entire Federal Parliamentary Labor Party and start again.

We should also acknowledge that there are real and serious risks for the Labor Party in the opposite direction – that choosing to continue with a conscience vote at the National Conference in July brings with it its own dangers.

First, even if the ALP maintains a conscience vote in the hope of enticing the Liberal Party into adopting one, for the reasons outlined above, Liberal (or Coalition) MPs could still refuse, thus rendering marriage equality unachievable this term.

Not only will that leave Labor looking somewhat silly, but, given they will be unable to change their rules until the next National Conference (due in 2018), for the remainder of this term Labor will be left in a position where it too is vulnerable on this issue, because it doesn’t support marriage equality 100%.

Second, even if the ALP maintains a conscience vote, and the Liberal Party adopts one, marriage equality could still fall a handful of votes short when it is considered later in 2015 (or early in 2016).

In these circumstances, it is almost inevitable that people will look to where else those ‘missing’ votes could have come from – and at least some fingers will point in the direction of Labor’s failure to adopt a binding vote.

Indeed, this is something that Katherine Murphy of the Guardian Australia has already written about:

“I’m not quite sure what the panic is, because whether or not same-sex marriage becomes law in this country is 95% in the hands of the Abbott government, and the prime minister is not a supporter of marriage equality.

I say 95% because if the vote in the House of Representatives is as close as I suspect it is, Labor binding its MPs to vote yes to marriage equality could be the extra element to get the proposal over the line. If same-sex marriage eventually comes to a vote, and that vote falls just short, do remember that fact. Bill Shorten has plumped his credentials on this topic, but he’s also effectively killed off a binding vote for Labor on gay marriage” (emphasis added)[8].

Third, failing to adopt a binding vote could seriously harm a new Labor Government should it win the 2016 Federal election. Here’s how:

Marriage equality is defeated this year (either because a conscience vote on both sides falls short, or because the Liberal Party continues to bind against). Possible.

Labor is elected at the 2016 Federal election with a narrow majority (or relying on cross bench support). Possible.

The number of ALP MPs who would exercise any conscience vote against the full equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians exceeds the size of their overall parliamentary majority. Possible.

The Liberal-National Opposition, now led by Scott Morrison, retreats – even further, if that’s possible – into ‘conservatism’ after losing Government, and binds (or continues to bind) against marriage equality. Possible – and thoroughly terrifying.

And marriage equality is consequently defeated, at least until the 2018 ALP National Conference, which is the next opportunity to change the Party’s rules.

While the above sequence of events is admittedly not the most likely to occur, it is by no means beyond the realms of possibility – and its impact would be devastating.

Because newly-elected Prime Minister Bill Shorten, who personally supported marriage equality so much he moved his own Marriage Equality Bill, and consistently criticised Prime Minister Tony Abbott for refusing to support it, and leading a political party which supports marriage equality in its platform, and being elected to Government with the good will of the population (at least on this issue), would still be unable to deliver this important social reform.

This would make both Prime Minister Shorten, and the Party that he leads, look completely ineffectual – thus frustrating the hell out of the electorate, who would have every right to expect that a new Labor Government would be able to deliver a reform that is, in 2015, already years overdue.

The best way, indeed the only way, to ensure that a newly-elected ALP Government would be able to deliver marriage equality in 2016 is for it to adopt a binding vote at its 2015 National Conference.

Obviously, most of the above discussion is about politics – both small ‘p’, and capital ‘P’ – about internal divisions in the Liberal Party, and what they might do on this issue in coming months, about hypotheticals, and strategy, and about the political risks, on both sides of this debate, for the Australian Labor Party.

This is not to suggest these considerations are what should ultimately guide the delegates in Melbourne on Sunday 26 July when they decide whether to adopt a binding vote – indeed far from it (as I will explain below).

However, it is necessary to discuss these issues in some depth because anyone who asserts that the current ‘politics’ of marriage equality are straightforward – that the ALP must retain its conscience vote so the Liberal Party adopts their own, leading to marriage equality being passed in the second half of 2015 – is wrong.

Even if the Labor Party keeps their conscience vote, there is absolutely no guarantee that the Liberal Party introduces their own. And even if Tony Abbott does grant (or at least accept) a ‘free vote’ inside his Party, it doesn’t necessarily follow that marriage equality will be passed this term.

There is real uncertainty about what happens next – and, as I have detailed above, there are real dangers for the Labor Party in retaining a conscience vote, and hoping (or wishing) that the Liberal Party ‘plays ball’.

In this context, where there is both genuine doubt, and genuine risk, no matter what position the ALP takes, I would argue that delegates should decide the issue on its merits: Is a binding vote in favour of marriage equality the principled position for the Australian Labor Party to adopt?

And the answer to that question must be an unequivocal “YES”.[9]

As a political party based on solidarity and collective action, there are no legitimate arguments to say that the issue of marriage equality is so special, so exceptional, that the ordinary process of ‘binding’ on policy positions should not apply here too.

Indeed, for more than two thirds of the time this issue has been voted on in Federal Parliament, the Australian Labor Party has adopted a binding vote on marriage equality – from August 2004 to December 2011, it bound its MPs and Senators to vote against.

Now that the Labor Party has a platform position in favour of removing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians from the Marriage Act, it is inappropriate, almost offensive, to turn around and say that its removal should be deemed ‘optional’.

As Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek put it so eloquently, when asked about this issue in April, the choice is in fact remarkably clear:

“Do we support legal discrimination against one group in this country? Or do we not?”[10]

And that is the decision that confronts delegates to ALP National Conference in ten days’ time. Not considering the hypothetical: “If we do this, Abbott might do that, and then something else might happen.”

But asking the practical question: “If we support marriage equality, if we genuinely believe that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians should be treated equally under the law, then why should some ALP MPs and Senators be allowed to continue to vote against the rights of their fellow citizens solely on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status?”

The answer is, obviously, that they should not. And I still hope that is the conclusion that the majority of National Conference delegates reach on Sunday 26 July.

Protesters outside the 2011 ALP National Conference, calling for Labor to support marriage equality, and adopt a binding vote. Only the first half was achieved - in 2015, it's time to finish the job.

Protesters outside the 2011 ALP National Conference in Sydney, calling for Labor to support marriage equality, and to do so through a binding vote. Only the first half was achieved – in 2015, it’s time to finish the job.

PS If you support a binding vote, and are in Melbourne during ALP National Conference, please consider coming along to the rally outside the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, from 1pm on Saturday July 25. Full details here: <https://www.facebook.com/events/343248609218667/ #ItsTimeToBind

[1] “Hey Australian Labor, It’s Time to Bind on Marriage Equality” http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/07/13/hey-australian-labor-its-time-to-bind-on-marriage-equality/ ; “4 more arguments against an ALP binding vote on marriage equality, and why they’re wrong too” http://alastairlawrie.net/2015/04/16/4-more-arguments-against-an-alp-binding-vote-on-marriage-equality-and-why-theyre-wrong-too/

[2] From Sydney Morning Herald, “Same-sex marriage vote should be owned by the Parliament: Tony Abbott” http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/samesex-marriage-vote-should-be-owned-by-the-parliament-tony-abbott-20150527-ghaohc.html

[3] From the webpage “Abbott’s Wreckage” http://sallymcmanus.net/abbotts-wreckage/

[4] “Gay Marriage Causes Coalition Civil War”, 2 July 2015: http://www.afr.com/news/politics/gay-marriage-causes-coalition-civil-war-20150702-gi33uh

[5] From The Independent (UK): http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/australian-minister-barnaby-joyce-claims-legalising-samesex-marriage-could-damage-cattle-trading-with-asia-10369540.html and Time: http://time.com/3947537/australia-barnaby-joyce-cattle-gay-same-sex-marriage/

[6] As reported in the Guardian Australia, “Tony Abbott digs in to frustrate any possibility of same-sex marriage vote” 2 July 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/jul/02/tony-abbott-digs-in-to-frustrate-any-posibillity-of-same-sex-marriage-vote

[7] Indeed, gay Liberal Senator Dean Smith has already attempted to make this argument, when Tanya Plibersek was publicly advocating a binding vote in April: http://www.smh.com.au/national/gay-liberal-senator-dean-smith-slams-tanya-plibersek-over-gay-marriage-move-20150427-1mu99l.html

[8] “Tony Abbott digs in to frustrate any possibility of same-sex marriage vote” 2 July 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/jul/02/tony-abbott-digs-in-to-frustrate-any-posibillity-of-same-sex-marriage-vote

[9] Regular readers of this blog know there are large number of reasons why I believe Labor should bind. This post will only cover a few – if you would like to read more, you should start with “Hey Australian Labor, It’s Time to Bind on Marriage Equality”: http://alastairlawrie.net/2014/07/13/hey-australian-labor-its-time-to-bind-on-marriage-equality/

[10] Sydney Morning Herald, “Plibersek push to make Labor MPs vote for same-sex marriage”, 27 April 2015: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/plibersek-push-to-make-labor-mps-vote-for-samesex-marriage-20150427-1mteon.html

Why we need a full-time LGBTI Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission

As I have written previously, the passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 was a major achievement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights in Australia[1].

It provided anti-discrimination protections for LGBTI people under Commonwealth law for the first time – including historic world-first specific protections for people with intersex variations.

However, one thing this legislation did not do was establish a statutory position for a Commissioner for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex (SOGII) Issues within the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) – unlike existing positions for race and sex (indeed, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner is created in section 96 of the same act in which LGBTI anti-discrimination protections now live[2]).

This means there is no guaranteed advocate for LGBTI equality within the AHRC. The current President of the AHRC, Gillian Triggs, has sought to overcome this serious shortcoming by asking the Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, to also accept responsibility for SOGII issues, in addition to his existing priorities.

Nevertheless, this essentially stop-gap measure does not reconcile the challenges presented when his ‘part-time’ role – his responsibilities for LGBTI matters – conflicts with his full-time role – he was appointed by the Commonwealth Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, with the explicit mandate to advocate for ‘freedoms’, by which he meant traditional civil liberties as opposed to more contemporary rights like freedom from discrimination.

Over the past 18 months, this tension has played out in a variety of ways, including through the failure of the otherwise worthy Resilient Individuals: Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity & Intersex Rights 2015 Report[3] to adequately address the issue of state-sanctioned discrimination by religious organisations against people simply for being LGBT.

However, this conflict has come to a head in a column which Mr Wilson wrote for The Australian last week on the topic “Religious freedom and same-sex marriage need not be incompatible”[4], in which he argued that, should marriage equality legislation be passed in Australia, new rights should be created to allow not just ministers of religion, but also businesses involved in providing wedding-related services (and yes, that includes businesses selling wedding cakes), to discriminate against customers.

Through this column, Mr Wilson has indicated that his first priority is protecting the freedom to discriminate, and that the right of LGBTI Australians not to be discriminated against comes second (and even then arguably by some distance). He has therefore demonstrated that his roles as Human Rights Commissioner, and ‘part-time’ responsibility for SOGII issues, are incompatible.

In the short-term, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians deserve a Commissioner within the AHRC whose existing responsibilities do not cause them to advocate against their interests. In the medium-term, we need a stand-alone full-time Commissioner for SOGII issues within the Commission, to avoid these problems arising in the future.

I have written below two letters, one to the President of the AHRC, Gillian Triggs, calling for Mr Wilson’s responsibilities for LGBTI matters to be reallocated within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

And I have written a second letter to the Shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, asking him to support a resolution at the upcoming ALP National Conference to amend the Labor Party Platform to include a commitment to create a new Commissioner for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Issues within the AHRC.

I have chosen not to write or send a third letter, to the current Attorney-General, George Brandis, given he likely agrees with the actions of Mr Wilson, and it is extremely unlikely that someone who axed funding for the position of Disability Commissioner (and therefore ended the role of the highly-respected disability rights advocate Graeme Innes) last year, would somehow find funding for the creation of a SOGII Commissioner today.

As always, I will publish any responses I receive from Ms Triggs and Mr Dreyfus.

Professor Gillian Triggs

President

Australian Human Rights Commission

GPO Box 5218

SYDNEY NSW 2001

Sunday 12 July 2015

Dear Professor Triggs

PLEASE REALLOCATE RESPONSIBILITY FOR SEXUAL ORIENTATION, GENDER IDENTITY AND INTERSEX ISSUES WITHIN THE AHRC

I am writing to you about the allocation of responsibility for sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex issues within the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

Specifically, I call on you to reallocate these responsibilities, which currently lie (informally at least) with the Human Rights Commissioner, Mr Tim Wilson, to another of the Commissioners within the AHRC.

I do so because I believe that the stance which Mr Wilson has adopted, in advocating for traditional freedoms like freedom of religion, has taken precedence over and is increasingly incompatible with the responsibility to advocate for the equal rights, and freedom from discrimination, of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

I cite as evidence the column which Mr Wilson wrote for The Australian newspaper, published on Monday 6 July 2015, titled “Religious freedom and same-sex marriage need not be incompatible.”

In this piece, Mr Wilson does the following four things:

First, he argues that the legislation which finally introduces marriage equality in Australia should include new provisions which provide a substantive right to discriminate against couples, not just for ministers of religion (which are already proposed), but also for businesses that provide wedding-related services.

Second, the argument for this appears to be primarily to allow businesses the ability to discriminate against LGBTI couples (so that the individuals who operate these businesses are not “forced to act against their conscience”).

Not only is Mr Wilson raising this issue now as part of the broader discussion around making marriage non-discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status – but, just as importantly, there does not appear to be any other public calls for a greater right to discriminate for wedding service providers outside of the marriage equality debate.

Third, the ‘solution’ which he offers, which would allow discrimination by wedding service providers on the basis of the religious (or not) nature of the wedding involved, would allow increased discrimination against a wide range of couples – in practice, this would inevitably include a detrimental impact on some LGBTI couples (although of course they would not be the only ones affected).

Fourth, at a time when one of the last major legal sources of discrimination against LGBTI Australians are the wide-ranging exceptions to anti-discrimination laws which are offered to religious organisations, instead of advocating for the curtailment of these exceptions, Mr Wilson is arguing for establish new rights to discriminate in a key area of public life.

Mr Wilson may well respond to the above description of his column by indicating he is performing his primary role, which is to advocate for traditional rights and freedoms, including the freedom of religion. I am not disputing that view.

However, I submit that, in doing so, he is not fulfilling his ‘part-time’ responsibilities, which include advocating for the removal of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

LGBTI Australians deserve better than to have a ‘part-time’ Commissioner for whom, when potential conflict arises between freedom of religion and their freedom from discrimination, as it does in this situation, the former takes precedence.

I urge you to reallocate the responsibility for sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex issues within the Australian Human Rights Commission from Mr Wilson to another Commissioner, hopefully to one where there is less apparent conflict between their primary role and these additional functions.

The only way in which such a conflict can be resolved on a permanent basis would be for the amendment of the Sex Discrimination Act to create, and for Government to appoint, a full-time Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Issues Commissioner within the AHRC. I therefore also urge you to advocate for the creation of such a position by the Government.

Thank you in advance for your consideration of this correspondence.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, should reallocate responsibility for LGBTI issues within the Commission.

President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, should reallocate responsibility for LGBTI issues within the Commission.

Hon Mark Dreyfus QC, MP

Shadow Attorney-General

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

Sunday 12 July 2015

Dear Mr Dreyfus

PLEASE SUPPORT THE CREATION OF A COMMISSIONER FOR SEXUAL ORIENTATION, GENDER IDENTITY AND INTERSEX ISSUES WITHIN THE AHRC

I am writing to you about the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013.

Specifically, I call on you to help address one of the outstanding issues of this historic legislation – namely, the failure to create a new statutory position of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex (SOGII) Issues Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

Without such a position, the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians are not being as effectively promoted as they could be, and certainly not as effectively as the rights promoted by the statutory Race and Sex Discrimination Commissioners, also within the AHRC.

For example, currently, and in the absence of a statutory position, responsibility for SOGII issues has been allocated, on a ‘part-time’ basis, to the Human Rights Commissioner, Mr Tim Wilson, whose primary role is to advocate for ‘freedoms’, meaning traditional civil liberties as opposed to more contemporary rights like freedom from discrimination.

This means that, not only do issues of discrimination that confront LGBTI Australians not receive sufficient time and resources, but they are also secondary to, and sometimes incompatible with, the promotion of other rights like the freedom of religion.

One example of this incompatibility comes from the column which Mr Wilson wrote for The Australian newspaper, published on Monday 6 July 2015, titled “Religious freedom and same-sex marriage need not be incompatible.”

In this piece, Mr Wilson does the following four things:

First, he argues that the legislation which finally introduces marriage equality in Australia should include new provisions which provide a substantive right to discriminate against couples, not just for ministers of religion (which are already proposed), but also for businesses that provide wedding-related services.

Second, the argument for this appears to be primarily to allow businesses the ability to discriminate against LGBTI couples (so that the individuals who operate these businesses are not “forced to act against their conscience”).

Not only is Mr Wilson raising this issue now as part of the broader discussion around making marriage non-discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status – but, just as importantly, there does not appear to be any other public calls for a greater right to discriminate for wedding service providers outside of the marriage equality debate.

Third, the ‘solution’ which he offers, which would allow discrimination by wedding service providers on the basis of the religious (or not) nature of the wedding involved, would allow increased discrimination against a wide range of couples – in practice, this would inevitably include a detrimental impact on some LGBTI couples (although of course they would not be the only ones affected).

Fourth, at a time when one of the last major legal sources of discrimination against LGBTI Australians are the wide-ranging exceptions to anti-discrimination laws which are offered to religious organisations, instead of advocating for the curtailment of these exceptions, Mr Wilson is arguing for establish new rights to discriminate in a key area of public life.

In my opinion as an LGBTI advocate, it is simply not good enough that, when there is a conflict between the freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination, the person with responsibility for SOGII issues within the AHRC promotes the former at the expense of the latter.

The issues of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia which confront LGBTI Australians, every day, are both real and serious. We deserve a full-time Commissioner within the AHRC to help address these problems – and certainly not a ‘part-time’, informal appointee, whose primary responsibilities can conflict with, and in some instances override, LGBTI rights.

I understand that, at the upcoming ALP National Conference in Melbourne, on July 24-26 2015, there will likely be a resolution to amend the Labor Party Platform to include a commitment to create a new Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Issues Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

This resolution is based on recent developments in Victoria, where the new Labor Government has committed to appointing Australia’s first Gender and Sexuality Commissioner within the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC)[5].

I call on you, as Shadow Attorney-General, to support moves to amend the Platform in this way, so that the Federal Labor Party can establish the first stand-alone SOGII Commissioner at Commonwealth level when it returns to Government.

Thank you in advance for your consideration of this correspondence.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

[1] Highs & Lows of 2013, No 2: Australia finally adopts federal anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people: http://alastairlawrie.net/2013/12/26/no-2-australia-finally-adopts-federal-anti-discrimination-protections-for-lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-and-intersex-people/

[2] “Section 96. Sex Discrimination Commissioner. (1) There shall be a Sex Discrimination Commissioner, who shall be appointed by the Governor-General.”

[3] The Resilient Individuals Report is available here: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/sexual-orientation-sex-gender-identity/publications/resilient-individuals-sexual

[4] http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/religious-freedom-and-same-sex-marriage-need-not-be-incompatible/story-e6frg6zo-1227429558684

[5] VEOHRC Media Release welcoming Budget funding for this appointment: http://www.humanrightscommission.vic.gov.au/index.php/news-and-events/media-releases/item/1225-commission-welcomes-funding-for-lgbti-community-in-state-budget