It’s time for Moderate Liberals to speak now, or forever hold their peace

Commonwealth Parliament returns this week, for the final sitting fortnight of the year.

 

During the previous sitting week, on Monday 7 November, the Senate finally killed off, once and for all, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

The welcome actions of Labor, Greens and Nick Xenophon Team Senators, and even Derryn Hinch, have spared the country from what would have been an entirely unnecessary, fundamentally wasteful and inevitably divisive public vote on the human rights of a minority group.

 

In doing so, they have also ensured that the public, and political, pressure to finally pass marriage equality sits squarely where it should have been all along – on Liberal and National MPs and Senators.

 

After all, they are the ones sitting on the Government benches, meaning they shoulder the responsibility to introduce legislation to treat all couples equally, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

From now until the next federal election, likely to be held in the 1st half of 2019, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians should put pressure on Coalition parliamentarians to fix this mess.

 

More specifically, we will need to target one of the three main groupings within the Government, the cohort who are more likely to be receptive to our messages – Moderate Liberals.

 

It is difficult to see the other two ‘factions’ changing their respective tunes. National Party MPs, who are supposed to represent all people in rural and regional areas, have instead shown themselves completely uninterested in the relationships of the many LGBTI couples that live in their electorates.

 

In fact, the old ‘Country Party’ rump of the Coalition have been so determined to delay and potentially defeat marriage equality that they included the plebiscite as a core component of its formal agreement with Malcolm Turnbull when he became Prime Minister in September 2015.

 

Apparently, it is far more important to spend at least $170 million, and probably more than $200 million, on a non-binding opinion poll, than on meeting the health, education and infrastructure needs of non-metropolitan Australians.

 

The other major grouping within the Coalition – Conservative Liberals – are even less interested in recognising the human rights of LGBTI people. They would prefer just to see marriage equality blocked, and only agreed to holding a plebiscite under then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott because they saw it, correctly, as a stalling tactic.

 

With the plebiscite now dead, the terrible Tory trio of Abetz, Bernardi and Christensen, and their factional colleagues, are comfortable in seeing this issue left off the political agenda – from their perspective, hopefully permanently.

 

All of which is to say that the only hope of passing marriage equality in the remainder of this term rests with what is, in 2016, perhaps the smallest and least powerful of the Coalition groups – Moderate Liberals[i].

 

These MPs and Senators are the only ones within Malcolm Turnbull’s Government who could foreseeably take any action on marriage equality, at least in the short-term.

 

That’s because, if they are genuinely moderate in their beliefs, they are likely to understand the following three things:

 

  1. There is no justification for discrimination against people solely on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status under secular law – and that includes in the Marriage Act 1961.

 

  1. The plebiscite was the wrong process to achieve marriage equality. Not only was it unacceptable to the vast majority of LGBTI people, it also contravened the traditions of Australian democracy[ii], which has only ever witnessed three national plebiscites, and none on substantive policy for almost a century, and

 

  1. Most importantly, LGBTI Australians have already waited long enough (far too long actually) for their relationships to be treated equally under the law, meaning a parliamentary vote should not be delayed until 2019.

 

But, while they may understand these points, the real question is: What will Moderate Liberal MPs and Senators now do about it?

 

Will they stand up for their principles and push for a parliamentary vote, or will they continue their modus operandi from the past ten to 15 years and adopt the path of least resistance against their National Party and Conservative Liberal counterparts, by maintaining their official support for the discredited plebiscite?

 

Unfortunately, the signs to date are not encouraging. North Queensland LNP MP, Warren Entsch, who has pushed for marriage equality inside the Coalition for several years, has indicated that he is choosing right now, when we arguably need him most, to ‘give up the fight’[iii] on this issue for the remainder of this term.

 

He has, in effect, walked away from the LGBTI community rather than walking five metres across the chamber floor to vote for reform.

 

Disappointingly, few if any of Entsch’s colleagues have so far suggested they are interested in picking up where he left off.

 

warren-entsch

Warren Entsch, introducing his private member’s bill for marriage equality in 2015. Sadly, it seems he is unwilling to even vote for equality for the next two and a half years.

 

What would we ask them to do if they were ‘ready and willing’? There are two ways in which Moderate Liberals could progress marriage equality this term.

 

The first, and most challenging, path would be for them to push for a conscience vote inside the Liberal Party room (and in the absence of National MPs and Senators who, as Christopher Pyne accurately pointed out, were included by Tony Abbott in August 2015 as a means of ‘branch-stacking’ against equality).

 

Their arguments would be strong – the Government has tried and failed to implement its election policy (to hold the plebiscite), so it needs to find another way to recognise the legal equality of LGBTI relationships. A free vote also has the benefit of being far more consistent with the past practices of Australia’s main right-of-centre party than a public vote.

 

But they would also face strong resistance, led by PM-(again)-in-waiting Tony Abbott, among others, meaning it is unclear what the outcome would be.

 

If they failed, the second way in which Moderate Liberals could help pass marriage equality would be by ‘simply’ crossing the floor.

 

It would only take one or two principled Senators to secure passage in the Upper House, and probably only a small handful of MPs, perhaps half-a-dozen, to do so in the House of Representatives.

 

In the absence of a Prime Minister, Ministers or Assistant Ministers who were prepared to give up their positions of power for the sake of the human rights of their fellow citizens, they would all need to come from the backbench. And, by taking such a step, these backbenchers would know they were potentially jeopardising any future advancement within the Party.

 

It is unclear whether there are enough Coalition MPs and Senators to make that crucial difference. But, it is incredibly important that Moderate Liberals find these numbers, one way or another.

 

Not just for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, and our family members and friends, who have already endured 12 years – and counting – of John Howard’s homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic ban on our weddings.

 

It is also important for the future of Moderate Liberals themselves.

 

Make no mistake, this is a fundamental test for the section of the Liberal Party who identify as moderate, even ‘progressive’, on social issues.

 

Their ‘slice’ of the Coalition has been diminishing for decades, and their influence has waned noticeably from even the time when I was growing up.

 

On many issues, from the (mis)treatment of people seeking asylum, to the prioritisation of ‘national security’ over civil liberties, and even their growing obsession with section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, they are now almost indistinguishable from their National Party, and Conservative Liberal, colleagues.

 

So, if they cannot stand up to the rabid right-wing on this, a straight-forward question of inclusion versus discrimination – a clear-cut choice between granting human rights or actively denying them – it is difficult to see them standing up on anything.

 

If Moderate Liberals fail to ‘deliver the goods’ on marriage equality by the time the next election rolls around, it will be tempting for most Australians to reach the conclusion that they are ‘good-for-nothing’.

 

And, in my view at least, the public would be right – if Moderate Liberals cannot make progress on this issue before 2019, then they will have demonstrated that they have no place in contemporary Australian politics. It probably won’t be that much longer before they discover they have no place in Commonwealth Parliament either.

 

All of which means that, if they want LGBTI Australians to be able to walk down the aisle – and if they want to retain their seats on the ‘right’ side of the political aisle – it’s time for Moderate Liberals to speak now, or forever hold their peace.

 

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Footnotes:

[i] Irrespective of their actual factual alignment, for the purposes of this article this grouping includes the four out gay men in the Government: Trent Zimmerman, Tim Wilson, Trevor Evans and Senator Dean Smith.

[ii] The argument made by WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith in declaring that he could not, in good conscience, support the plebiscite enabling legislation.

[iii] Sydney Morning Herald, 11 November 2016, The same-sex plebiscite is dead. So what happens now?

What’s Wrong With the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act 1991?

 

This post is the seventh in a series examining the anti-discrimination laws that exist in each Australian jurisdiction and analysing how well, or how poorly, they protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people from discrimination. Previous articles have looked at the frameworks in Victoria, NSW, the Commonwealth, the Northern Territory, the ACT and Western Australia.

 

Specifically, each post has considered three main aspects of LGBTI anti-discrimination legislation:

  • Protected attributes
  • Religious exceptions, and
  • Anti-vilification coverage.

 

Contrary to what some might expect, Queensland’s laws are at least ‘average’, and in some cases, particularly in relation to anti-vilification laws, ‘better than average’, across these three areas. Unfortunately, that says more about the major flaws that exist across most anti-discrimination laws in Australia than it necessarily does about the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 (‘the Act’) itself.

 

There are still significant problems that must be addressed with this legislation, beginning with the issue of who is – and isn’t – covered.

 

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Protected Attributes

 

Like most of its counterparts in other states, Queensland’s Anti-Discrimination Act does not protect all parts of the LGBTI community from discrimination.

 

On the positive side, it does cover all lesbian, gay and bisexual people – with discrimination on the basis of ‘sexuality’ prohibited in section 7 of the Act (defined as “sexuality means heterosexuality, homosexuality or bisexuality” in the Dictionary found in the Schedule).

 

On the less positive side, it only covers some transgender people, and not others. That is because, while section 7 also includes ‘gender identity’, the Act’s definition of this term is out-dated:

 

“gender identity, in relation to a person, means that the person-

(a) identifies, or has identified, as a member of the opposite sex by living or seeking to live as a member of that sex; or

(b) is of indeterminate sex and seeks to live as a member of a particular sex.”

 

While this does protect transgender people who were previously identified as male but now identify as female (and vice-versa), it does not include non-binary trans people. In order to rectify this situation, the Act’s definition of gender identity should be updated to reflect the definition used in the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984[i].

 

Even worse off than transgender Queenslanders, however, are people with intersex traits – while part (b) of the definition of ‘gender identity’ may apply to some intersex people in limited circumstances, there is no stand-alone protected attribute for intersex people and therefore no clear-cut protection against discrimination for them.

 

Again, this could be rectified with the introduction of intersex status as a protected attribute, using the definition of ‘intersex status’ as featured in the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984[ii].

 

Overall: While the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 does protect lesbian, gay and bisexual people, and some transgender people, from discrimination, it leaves other trans people (especially those whose identity is non-binary) and most intersex people out in the cold. This should be fixed as a matter of priority, by updating the definition of gender identity, and adding intersex status as a protected attribute.

 

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Religious Exceptions

 

Queensland has adopted a unique approach to religious exceptions through the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991, in which case I will spend more time than normal discussing this element.

 

The primary religious exception is found in section 109:

 

“Religious bodies

(1) The Act does not apply in relation to-

(a) the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order; or

(b) the training or education of people seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order; or

(c) the selection or appointment of people to perform functions in relation to, or otherwise participate in, any religious observance or practice; or

(d) unless section 90 (Accommodation with religious purposes) applies – an act by a body established for religious purposes if the act is –

(i) in accordance with the doctrine of the religion concerned; and

(ii) necessary to avoid offending the religious sensitivities of people of the religion.

(2) An exemption under subsection (1)(d) does not apply in the work or work-related area or in the education area.”

 

As I have observed in previous posts, the first three sub-sections ((a), (b) and (c)) are at least concerned with the appointment of ministers of religion, or the conduct of religious celebrations, and are therefore more likely to be excusable on the basis of protecting ‘religious freedom’.

 

Unfortunately, the wording used in sub-section (d) – “in accordance with the doctrine of the religion concerned and necessary to avoid offending the religious sensitivities of people of the religion” – is incredibly broad, and permits discrimination against a wide range of people in terms of service delivery.

 

However, sub-section (2) is unusual and, as far as I can tell, not replicated in any other state or territory legislation. In essence, it provides that religious bodies cannot discriminate against employees unless their role is directly connected with ‘religious observance or practice’. It also means religious schools cannot discriminate against students on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity[iii].

 

If section 109 was the only source of religious exceptions in the legislation, Queensland’s Act would almost be assessed as positive. However, there are other sections that complicate this assessment.

 

Chief among them is section 25:

 

“Genuine occupational requirements

(1) A person may impose genuine occupational requirements for a position.

Examples of genuine requirements for a position-

…Example 4-

Employing persons of a particular religion to teach in a school established for students of the particular religion

(2) Subsection (3) applies in relation to-

(a) work for an educational institution (an employer) under the direction or control of a body established for religious purposes; or

(b) any other work for a body established for religious purposes (also an employer) if the work genuinely and necessarily involves adhering to and communicating the body’s religious beliefs.

(3) It is not unlawful for an employer to discriminate with respect to a matter that is otherwise prohibited under section 14 or 15, in a way that is not unreasonable, against a person if-

(a) the person openly acts in a way that the person knows or ought reasonably to know is contrary to the employer’s religious beliefs-

(i) during a selection process; or

(ii) in the course of the person’s work; or

(iii) in doing something connected with the person’s work; and

Example for paragraph (a)

A staff member openly acts in a way contrary to a requirement imposed by the staff member’s employer in his or her contract of employment, that the staff member abstain from acting in a way openly contrary to the employer’s religious beliefs in the course of, or in connection with the staff member’s employment.

(b) it is a genuine occupational requirement of the employer that the person, in the course of, or in connection with, the person’s work, act in a way consistent with the employer’s religious beliefs.

(4) Subsection (3) does not authorise the seeking of information contrary to section 124[iv].

(5) For subsection (3), whether the discrimination is not unreasonable depends on all the circumstances of the case, including, for example, the following-

(a) whether the action taken or proposed to be taken by the employer is harsh or unjust or disproportionate to the person’s actions;

(b) the consequences for both the person and the employer should the discrimination happen or not happen.

(6) Subsection (3) does not apply to discrimination on the basis of age, race or impairment.

(7) To remove any doubt, it is declared that subsection (3) does not affect a provision of an agreement with respect to work to which subsection (3) applies, under which the employer agrees not to discriminate in a particular way.

(8) In this section-

religion includes religious affiliation, beliefs and activities.”

 

That is obviously a lot to take in. So here are my three key observations:

 

  • This section expands the religious exceptions offered under section 109, so that religious bodies can discriminate on the basis of sexuality and gender identity against teachers and other staff in schools generally, but against employees in other religious organisations only “if the work genuinely and necessarily involves adhering to and communicating the body’s religious beliefs”.
  • In both cases this is limited by a potentially vague ‘reasonableness test’ (determining “whether the action taken or proposed to be taken by the employer is harsh or unjust or disproportionate to the person’s actions”), and
  • In both cases it is also limited by a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ clause – discrimination is only permitted where “the person openly acts in a way that the person knows or ought reasonably to know is contrary to the employer’s religious beliefs” and the religious school or body cannot ask about sexuality or gender identity. This would therefore protect teachers or other staff who did not discuss their sexual orientation at their school or workplace[v].

 

Of course, as even the US Government and Military has eventually been forced to concede, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is a terrible policy, ‘invisibilising’ LGBT people in the workplace, forcing them to deny who they are and silencing them in everyday conversations (for example, gay teachers would not be able to openly acknowledge their partners at all in the classroom or even in the staffroom). It also exposes LGBT employees to potential harassment and bullying.

 

‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is also a terrible policy with respect to LGBT students, because it denies them visible role models to look up to, or to seek relevant information from.

 

But, and here is the extraordinary part, these exceptions – allowing religious schools and other bodies to discriminate against ‘out’ lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees – are actually the second-best religious exceptions in Australia (behind only Tasmania), because they don’t allow these organisations to explicitly deny employment solely on the basis of sexuality or gender identity.

 

The other, much more unambiguously positive part of the Act’s religious exceptions is that section 25 does not apply to students – which means that, while a religious school can reject students who are not from a particular religion, they cannot reject students on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity.

 

Overall: Queensland’s approach to religious exceptions is unique, and its protection of LGBT students against discrimination is to be welcomed. However, other parts of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 provide overly-generous rights to religious schools and other bodies to discriminate against LGBT employees, and people accessing services, and these should be significantly curtailed.

 

Specifically, subsection 109(1)(d), which allows discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender identity in relation to service-provision, should be repealed.

 

And, while the limitations on discrimination in relation to employment (including a ‘reasonableness test’ and a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ clause) might mean Queensland’s legislation is better than most, permitting discrimination in such circumstances is still unacceptable in the 21st century, meaning section 25 should ultimately also be abolished.

 

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Anti-Vilification Coverage

 

Queensland is one of only four Australian jurisdictions to provide anti-vilification protections to LGBT people – the others being NSW, the ACT and Tasmania (noting that Commonwealth anti-vilification law only applies to race).

 

And unlike NSW, the Queensland Act treats all types of prohibited vilification exactly the same – establishing vilification on the basis of race, religion, sexuality and gender identity in the same section (124A)[vi], and creating the offence of serious racial, religious, sexuality or gender identity in another (section 131A).

 

This also means that the same procedures are used, and that the same penalties apply (“for an individual – 70 penalty units or 6 months imprisonment; or for a corporation – 350 penalty units”), which are both positive features.

 

Of course, given the out-dated definition of gender identity used, and the Act’s exclusion of intersex status, not all parts of Queensland’s LGBTI community are currently protected against vilification – although this could be rectified at the same time as the protected attributes, described earlier.

 

One other, relatively minor, fault that should also be corrected is that, while the offences themselves cover sexuality and gender identity alongside race and religion, the titles of the relevant Parts or Chapters do not (“Part 4 Racial and religious vilification” and “Chapter 5A Serious racial and religious vilification”).

 

This obviously does not impact on the substantive rights involved. However, it may be misleading to a casual reader of the legislation, and in some cases may cause people to mistakenly believe that they are not protected against vilification. As a result, it would be preferable if these titles were renamed to be genuinely inclusive.

 

Overall: Queensland’s anti-vilification protections are comparatively strong, but could be further strengthened by updating the definition of gender identity, adding intersex status, and ensuring that the titles of relevant Parts/Chapters are inclusive and not potentially misleading.

 

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Other Issues

 

There are two additional serious problems with the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991, and it would be negligent to conclude this analysis without addressing them.

 

The first is the truly awful subsection 28(1), which states:

 

“Work with children

(1) It is not unlawful to discriminate on the basis of lawful sexual activity[vii] or gender identity against a person with respect to a matter that is otherwise prohibited under subdivision 1 if-

(a) the work involves the care or instruction of minors; and

(b) the discrimination is reasonably necessary to protect the physical, psychological or emotional wellbeing of minors having full regard to all the relevant circumstances of the case, including the person’s actions.”

 

This is genuinely appalling – the very law that is supposed to protect transgender people against discrimination implies that trans employees may be unsuitable to work with children, and could even be a threat to the ‘physical, psychological or emotional wellbeing of minors’.

 

There was never a time that such a prejudiced subsection would have been acceptable, and it most definitely is not in 2016 – there is no excuse for the Palaszczuk Labor Government to leave this provision in place today.

 

The second additional flaw is found in section 45A, which states that the protection against discrimination in goods and services, located in section 46, “does not apply to the provision of assisted reproductive technology services if the discrimination is on the basis of relationship status or sexuality.”

 

Again, there can be no justification for such discrimination against lesbian, gay and bisexual people in terms of their access to in-vitro fertilisation, artificial insemination or gamete, zygote or embryo transfer. This section must also be repealed as part of the overall much-needed updating of the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act 1991.

 

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Footnotes:

[i] Defined in section 4 of that Act as “gender identity means the gender-related identity, appearance or mannerism or other gender-related characteristics of a person (whether by way of medical intervention or not), with or without regard to the person’s designated sex at birth.”

[ii] Defined in section 4 of that Act as “intersex status means the status of having physical, hormonal or genetic features that are:

(a) neither wholly female nor wholly male; or

(b) a combination of female and male; or

(c) neither female nor male.”

[iii] Although section 42 does allow religious schools to discriminate against “applicants who are not of the particular sex or religion”. A similar provision allows religious boarding schools to discriminate on the basis of sex or religion as well (section 89).

[iv] “124 Unnecessary information

(1) A person must not ask another person, either orally or in writing, to supply information on which unlawful discrimination might be based.”

[v] Without looking at any relevant case law, it is unclear how well, or poorly, the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ approach serves transgender people in the workplace.

[vi] “Section 124A Vilification on grounds of race, religion, sexuality or gender identity unlawful

(1) A person must not, by a public act, incite hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of, a person or group of persons on the ground of the race, religion, sexuality or gender identity of the person or members of the group.

(2) Section (1) does not make unlawful-

(a) the publication of a fair report of a public act mentioned in subsection (1); or

(b) the publication of material in circumstances in which the publication would be subject to a defence of absolute privilege in proceedings for defamation; or

(c) a public act, done reasonably and in good faith, for academic, artistic, scientific or research purposes or for other purposes in the public interest, including public discussion or debate about, and expositions of, any act or matter.”

[vii] The Act defines lawful sexual activity as “means a person’s status as a lawfully employed sex worker, whether or not self-employed”.

Do you feel proud, Malcolm?

The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP

Prime Minister of Australia

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

 

Tuesday 25 October 2016

 

Dear Prime Minister Turnbull

 

LGBTI Refugees and People Seeking Asylum

 

I am writing to you about a subject that is incredibly important, but one that does not often attract significant attention – from the media, from the public and, above all, from the Australian Government.

 

That subject is the mistreatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) refugees, and people seeking asylum, including the decision by successive Australian Governments to detain, process and even seek to resettle these people in countries that criminalise homosexuality.

 

I believe that this approach, exposing people who have sought Australia’s protection to persecution and prosecution in other countries, simply because of who they are, is a fundamental breach of human rights.

 

I have expressed concerns about this mistreatment from the very beginning of Australia’s current offshore processing regime. Within one month of the passage of legislation authorising the removal of people seeking asylum who arrived in Australia by boat to Nauru and Manus Is, Papua New Guinea (PNG) in August 2012, I wrote to both then Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, and then Shadow Immigration Minister – and now Treasurer – Scott Morrison.

 

In that letter I asked: “Do you agree that asylum seekers who are fleeing persecution on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity (or indeed who are fleeing on other grounds but are LGBTI), should not be sent to any country which criminalises or discriminates against LGBTI people?

 

“Are you aware that homosexuality is current illegal in all three countries[i] to which the Australian Government currently intends to send asylum seekers? [And] Will the laws of these jurisdictions apply to asylum seekers being detained by the Australian government?”

 

It took nine months to obtain a reply, not from Minister Bowen, nor from his successor (Brendan O’Connor), but instead from the Department of Immigration. But the reply I did receive was incredibly disappointing.

 

Not only did it fail to answer whether LGBTI people transferred to Nauru and PNG could be subject to criminal prosecution, it then indicated that, in order to avoid the risk of mistreatment on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status in those countries, people seeking asylum needed to raise those concerns in the extremely short ‘window period’ prior to transfer[ii].

 

It seems the Australian Government was completely uninterested in LGBTI people transferred to Nauru and PNG if they only disclosed their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status after being transferred.

 

Someone else who was uninterested in this subject was Shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who never even bothered to reply to my correspondence.

 

Undeterred, following the change of Government in September 2013 and with Mr Morrison assuming the role of Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, I wrote to him again in February 2014.

 

In that letter I repeated my concerns about the mistreatment of LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum transferred to Manus Island and included reference to the Amnesty International Report This is Breaking People, which had found that:

  • “Section 210 of the PNG Penal Code, which makes male-male penetrative sexual intercourse a criminal offence punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment, applies to asylum seekers detained on Manus Island
  • Section 212 of the PNG Penal Code, which makes other sexual activity between men, termed ‘gross indecency’, a criminal offence carrying a maximum penalty of 3 years’ imprisonment, also applies to asylum seekers detained there [and]
  • Asylum seekers held on Manus Island have been informed that if they are found to have engaged in male-male sexual intercourse, they will be reported to PNG Police…”

 

I then included a personal challenge to Mr Morrison: “If you, as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and therefore Minister responsible for the welfare of asylum seekers and refugees, cannot guarantee that sections 210 and 212 of the PNG Penal Code do not apply to detainees on Manus Island, then you cannot send LGBTI people there in good conscience.”

 

This time around, it only took the Department of Immigration and Border Security five and a half months to respond to my concerns[iii]. Their underwhelming response included the following statement:

 

“The enforcement of PNG domestic law is a matter for the Government of PNG. The government is aware of laws relating to homosexual activity in PNG and understands that there have been no recent reports of prosecution under those laws.

 

“If homosexual activity should occur in the [Offshore Processing Centre], there is no mandatory obligation under PNG domestic law for Australian officers or contracted service providers to report such activity to the PNG Government or police.”

 

In short, the then Australian Government – of which you were a senior Minister – rejected the claim that there was mandatory reporting of ‘homosexual activity’ to PNG police, but explicitly did not deny that the laws of that country, outlawing sex between men, applied to the refugees and people seeking asylum that we, as a country, had placed there.

 

In March of this year, I raised the issue of the mistreatment of LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum again, this time through a submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee inquiry into conditions and treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in Nauru and PNG.

 

Unfortunately, that Senate inquiry lapsed due to your calling of a double dissolution election but, before Parliament was dissolved, the Committee issued an interim report, including the following paragraph:

 

“1.57 The committee received some evidence focused on the situation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people held in the [Regional Processing Centres]. Mr Alastair Lawrie noted that male homosexual conduct remained a criminal offence in both Nauru[iv] and PNG, and expressed the view that ‘the Australian Government inflicts serious harm on LGBTI people seeking asylum by detaining, processing and resettling them in countries that continue to criminalise homosexuality.’ Mr Lawrie cited reports of abuse, assault and marginalisation of homosexual asylum seekers in the [Regional Processing Centres], and the lack of appropriate health and community services in the two countries…”

 

Thankfully, post-election the Senate has decided to initiate a new inquiry looking at the issue of abuse, self-harm and neglect of asylum seekers in Nauru and PNG, and its investigation is ongoing.

 

On a more negative note, however, it is unclear how the Government will respond to any findings from such an inquiry, given Liberal and National Party Senators recommended, in the interim report, that “examination of Australia’s border protection activities be referred to the more reliable and cost-effective forum of Senate Estimates.”

 

Coincidentally, it is Senate Estimates that leads me to write to you, in your role as Prime Minister, today.

 

Last Monday, 17 October 2016, during the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s Senate Estimates Hearing of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, there was an extraordinary exchange between WA Labor Senator Louise Pratt, and Departmental Secretary Mr Michael Pezzullo.

 

And by extraordinary, I mean extraordinarily dismissive of the legitimate concerns of Senator Pratt, and others including myself, about the mistreatment of gay, bisexual and same-sex attracted refugees and people seeking asylum placed on Manus Island by successive Australians Governments.

 

I have included the full text of this exchange as an Attachment with this letter[v]. I strongly encourage you to read it. If you do, you will see how little priority has been given to this issue, including by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection under the Prime Ministerships of your predecessors and now of course under you.

 

First, it was surprising to witness, via the following exchange, Mr Pezzullo appear not to know that male homosexuality is criminalised under PNG law:

 

“Senator PRATT: And in the meantime, no homosexual conduct is allowed.

Mr Pezzullo: I do not know whether it is allowed or not.
Senator.

PRATT: Well, it is illegal.

Mr Pezzullo: I am not an expert on those laws in the domestic jurisdiction of PNG.”

 

Given, as we have seen above, I have raised this issue with successive Ministers for Immigration, and received multiple responses from the Department of which he is now the head, not to mention the ongoing advocacy on this subject by organisations like the Human Rights Law Centre, Amnesty International, Kaleidoscope Human Rights Foundation and NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, it is alarming to hear the Secretary’s lack of knowledge about the risk of prosecution for LGBTI[vi] people detained and processed on Manus Island.

 

Second, and less surprisingly but even more worryingly, was the distinct lack of concern on display by Mr Pezzullo, with the implication that the mistreatment of LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum was not something that had crossed his desk, or that he had actively turned his mind to, in his two years as Secretary:

 

“Senator PRATT: In that context, how is the issue of people’s sexual identity and the illegality of that in PNG being addressed within that?

Mr Pezzullo: You will need to ask the PNG government. I do not know, is the answer.” [And later]

“Senator PRATT: Or homosexual law reform in PNG perhaps?

Mr Pezzullo: Well, that is not something that my department has any role in.

CHAIR: Nor has the Australian government.

Mr Pezzullo: We have enough on our plate. I do not mean to belittle the point, but the pursuit of law reform around same-sex attraction in foreign jurisdictions is not on my to-do list.”

 

Third, and perhaps least surprising – but most worrying – of all, was the position stated by Mr Pezzullo, at multiple points, that the Australian Government has no responsibility towards LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum that it has sent to Manus Island after they have been transferred. For example:

 

“Senator PRATT: Australia has a responsibility in this regard, because we are not supposed to engage in these activities in offshore processing as a way of in a sense refoulement of the refugee process, because people might be subject to further persecution.

Mr Pezzullo: The historical basis of the transfers—noting that there has not been a transfer into regional processing for some 2 1⁄2 years; the Australian government acquitted its nonrefoulement obligations over 2 1⁄2 years ago, at a minimum—“ [And later]

“Senator PRATT: So it has no further responsibility to the human rights of those men?

Mr Pezzullo: Not pursuant to—Australia observes its human rights, diplomacy and policy objectives in all manner of ways that the foreign minister and her officers discharge. But in terms of ensuring that through the transfer mechanisms that were agreed in 2012 and 2013 we did not refoule persons who had come into our jurisdiction we acquitted those obligations at that time.”

 

In effect, Mr Pezzullo was arguing, on behalf of the Australian Government – your Government – that, once Australia had transferred refugees and people seeking asylum to Manus Island, and unless those LGBTI refugees had explicitly raised concerns in the hours or at most days between their arrival by boat and their transfer, Australia had no ongoing responsibility towards them.

 

Now, Mr Pezzullo may or may not be correct from a legal viewpoint. I am sure there are human rights advocates, and potentially courts and tribunals both in Australia and in Papua New Guinea, who might take a different view.

 

But he is definitely wrong in every other respect. Australia, and the Australian Government, absolutely has a responsibility towards LGBTI refugees that, through its actions, it has caused to be sent to Manus Island for detention, processing and even resettlement.

 

It has a moral obligation. An ethical obligation. A social obligation. A human obligation.

 

These are people who sought the protection of the Australian Government, which then chose to send them to countries where, far from being safe from persecution, they were – and still are – at risk of criminal prosecution simply because of who they are.

 

I cannot see how anyone could possibly assert that the successive Australian Governments, and Prime Ministers, who have created this situation and exposed these people to potential harm, do not have a responsibility towards them.

 

And obviously that means that your Government, and now you as Prime Minister, also have a moral, ethical, social and above all human responsibility to do something about it.

 

The question I have for you is: will you?

 

Will you take action to remove LGBTI refugees and people seeking asylum from Manus Island, where they were placed by the Australian Government and where they are still subject to criminalisation?

 

Prime Minister, you are a Member of Parliament representing one of the ‘gayest’ electorates in Australia, with literally thousands, if not tens of thousands, of LGBTI people living in the seat of Wentworth.

 

You claim to support the equality of LGBTI people, both legally and socially. Earlier this year, you even became the first sitting Prime Minister to attend Australia’s largest ‘Pride’ event, the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade.

 

That night, you joined in celebrating the hard-fought and hard-won freedom, and increasing equality[vii] and acceptance, of Australia’s LGBTI community, surrounded by tens of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, as well as their families and friends.

 

That very same night, and for hundreds of nights beforehand and every night since, just 3,500km to the North, a much smaller number of gay, bisexual and same-sex attracted refugees had far less reason to celebrate: certainly not freedom, and instead of equality and acceptance, a fear of prosecution and persecution by a Government that considers them criminals.

 

And the only difference between these two groups – between the ‘loud and proud’ crowd on Oxford St, and the isolated and vulnerable individuals on Manus – is where they were born.

 

The actions of successive Australian Governments have put the latter group where they are, directly in harm’s way. As the Prime Minister since September 2015, and leader of the current Liberal-National Government, you now keep them there.

 

You might have celebrated ‘pride’ with Australia’s LGBTI community almost 8 months ago, but contributing to the detention, processing and resettlement of LGBTI refugees in countries that criminalise them is nothing to be proud of.

 

And I think, deep down, you understand that. In which case, it is up to you to do something that you, your Government and the country you lead can be proud of:

 

Bring. Them. Here.

 

Your predecessors negotiated with the PNG Government for Manus Island to become the site of the ‘Regional Processing Centre’. You have the power to negotiate with the PNG Government to close that same centre and bring the refugees and people seeking asylum there back to Australia.

 

In fact, after the PNG Supreme Court earlier this year ruled that the detention of refugees and people seeking asylum on Manus Island was illegal, and in breach of the PNG Constitution’s right to personal liberty[viii], I suspect their Government would welcome such a move.

 

Bring them here and end the frankly horrific situation whereby LGBTI people who have fled persecution in other parts of the world, including those fleeing persecution on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, have been deliberately left in a place where they are subject to criminal laws on the basis of those same attributes.

 

Successive Australian Governments put them there. You, as Prime Minister, and leader of the current Government, can get them out. Do something that makes us all proud. Please, Prime Minister Turnbull, bring them here.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

malcolm-turnbull-mardi-gras

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, celebrating ‘pride’ at the 2016 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade. Not pictured: The gay, bisexual and same-sex attracted refugees and people seeking asylum detained on Manus Island, PNG.

 

**********

 

Attachment A

Senate Estimates Monday 17 October 2016

Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee Hearing re Department of Immigration and Border Protection

Senator PRATT: I would like to know how many men on Manus have been given positive refugee status determinations on the basis of their sexuality.

Mr Pezzullo: Their claim of persecution relates to sexuality?

Senator PRATT: That is right.

Mr Pezzullo: I will ask Ms Noble or other officers to join me, but I am not sure that we would immediately have that data to hand, because we do not do the refugee status determination. Unless Ms Moy can answer the question directly, we will take it on notice.

Senator PRATT: You would agree that some would have had to have been found as refugees, basically?

Mr Pezzullo: Possibly. I do not know.

Ms Moy: The RSD process in Papua New Guinea is run by ICSA. We are not privy to the information of each claim. We would need to go to Papua New Guinea and ask them that question. So we would need to take it on notice.

Senator PRATT: But that is a difficult thing, given that homosexuality is actually illegal in PNG. They are having to make these disclosures to the PNG government, in which case they may even have a well-founded fear of persecution from within PNG. Is that not correct?

Mr Pezzullo: We will have to take on notice how the PNG authorities have dealt with the assessment of claims pursuant to both their international legal obligations and the operation of their domestic law.

Senator PRATT: Well, homosexuality is a criminal offence there. It is illegal.

Mr Pezzullo: I understand the point you are making. What I am saying is that how the PNG authorities have assessed those claims is a matter that would not be readily known to Ms Moy and myself.

Senator PRATT: What is the government’s advice to those men who are currently on Manus who are refugees because they are gay and who are about to be resettled in PNG?

Mr Pezzullo: Which government’s advice? The advice of the Australian government?

Senator PRATT: Yes.

CHAIR: Well, that is not a question for you, Mr Pezzullo. You are not here to give advice to people in detention in another country.

Senator PRATT: Australia has a responsibility in this regard, because we are not supposed to engage in these activities in offshore processing as a way of in a sense refoulement of the refugee process, because people might be subject to further persecution.

Mr Pezzullo: The historical basis of the transfers—noting that there has not been a transfer into regional processing for some 21⁄2 years; the Australian government acquitted its nonrefoulement obligations over 21⁄2 years ago, at a minimum—

Senator PRATT: In that context, how is the issue of people’s sexual identity and the illegality of that in PNG being addressed within that?

Mr Pezzullo: You will need to ask the PNG government. I do not know, is the answer. Australia, through two agreements, two heads of agreement—one initiated under the Gillard government and one under the Rudd government and then consolidated under subsequent governments—entered into agreements to transfer persons who arrived here by illegal maritime means into the jurisdictions of either Nauru or PNG, two separate transfers. At that point our nonrefoulement obligations had to be addressed and acquitted, and they were. There is no ongoing—

Senator PRATT: In what manner were issues of sexuality addressed within that agreement? Or were they not?

Mr Pezzullo: You cannot refoule persons back to the country of origin where they have raised claims of persecution. There were no claims of persecution against the states or the regimes of Nauru and PNG.

Senator PRATT: I understand that that is about returning people to their country of origin. But in effect we have taken them to a country where they could be subject to exactly the same form of persecution, where they are supposed to be having their claim for asylum processed.

Mr Pezzullo: Well, you speculate that. When you say we have ‘taken them to a country’—we cannot simply drop people off. We entered into intergovernmental agreements, to transfer persons from the Australian migration jurisdiction to other migration jurisdictions. At that point, the last of which occurred 21⁄2 years ago, because there have been no transfers since, all of Australia’s obligations in that regard were discharged.

Senator PRATT: In other words, the Australian government has no responsibility to those gay men who are currently detained on Manus in terms of whether their human rights in relation to their sexuality will be upheld in PNG or not.

Mr Pezzullo: I understand the question you are asking. You say that the Australian government has no responsibility in that circumstance, but the Australian government—a number of governments, actually, that straddle several parliamentary terms—discharged all of its legal undertakings at the time of the transfer, yes.

Senator PRATT: So it has no further responsibility to the human rights of those men?

Mr Pezzullo: Not pursuant to—Australia observes its human rights, diplomacy and policy objectives in all manner of ways that the foreign minister and her officers discharge. But in terms of ensuring that through the transfer mechanisms that were agreed in 2012 and 2013 we did not refoule persons who had come into our jurisdiction we acquitted those obligations at that time.

Senator PRATT: But we have a contract with the PNG government that—

Mr Pezzullo: We have an agreement, yes.

Senator PRATT: We have an agreement for which the PNG government is paid, and within that agreement there are men whose original claim for protection was based on their homosexual identity. Their claims are being processed in a country in which homosexuality is illegal.

Mr Pezzullo: Senator, you state, as an assertion—in what I think is a question—that their original claims were founded on sexuality.

Senator PRATT: They may or may not have been.

Mr Pezzullo: Thank you.

Senator PRATT: The question is that people who are homosexual and who are currently detained or being processed on Manus—their homosexuality may or may not have been part of their original claim—are being processed in a country in which homosexuality is illegal and they are being forced to be there.

Mr Pezzullo: Which might mean, in the circumstances that you describe—and this is a matter for the government of Papua New Guinea—that the government of Papua New Guinea is not able to resettle those gentlemen within their domestic jurisdiction. In that case, the government of PNG will need to enter into arrangements with so-called third country resettlement options where that clash with domestic law—or that contradiction with domestic law, if I can characterise it in those terms—is not applicable.

Senator PRATT: And in the meantime, no homosexual conduct is allowed.

Mr Pezzullo: I do not know whether it is allowed or not.
Senator

PRATT: Well, it is illegal.

Mr Pezzullo: I am not an expert on those laws in the domestic jurisdiction of PNG. I understand the point of the question you are asking. What I am saying is: those persons—the single adult men who are on Manus—are in the legal jurisdiction of the government of Papua New Guinea. They have both international obligations that pertain to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which include non-refoulement, and other complementary protections that attach to various other covenants that that government has entered into. Then they have domestic laws which, as I understand from reporting, can be characterised in the way that you have described. It is now a matter for the government of Papua New Guinea to resolve: how do you settle a person who you know to have a well-founded fear of persecution—across a range of matters, one of which might be related to sexuality—within your domestic jurisdiction? I do not know—Ms Moy might be able to assist me—if we have been asked for technical assistance in terms of how to perhaps assist with the country options. I just do not know.

Ms Moy: Not at this stage.

Senator PRATT: Or homosexual law reform in PNG perhaps?

Mr Pezzullo: Well, that is not something that my department has any role in.

CHAIR: Nor has the Australian government.

Mr Pezzullo: We have enough on our plate. I do not mean to belittle the point, but the pursuit of law reform around same-sex attraction in foreign jurisdictions is not on my to-do list.

Senator PRATT: I think I have exhausted that. Clearly the government has no further responsibility.

**********

Footnotes:

[i] At the time the Australian Government continued to advocate the transfer of refugees and people seeking asylum to Malaysia, in addition to Nauru and PNG.

[ii] From the response: “Pre-Transfer Assessment is undertaken prior to a person’s transfer to a [Regional Processing Country] to consider whether there are specific circumstances or special needs that mean it is not reasonably practicable to transfer an asylum seeker to an RPC at this time.

Where a person raises concerns against a designated RPC, the Departmental officer refers to relevant country information, as well as assurances received by Australia from the RPC governments, to assess if those charges are credible. If the person makes credible protection claims against all RPCs, the case is brought to the Minister’s attention in accordance with his guidelines for considering the exercise of is power under section 198AE of the Migration Act 1958 to exempt that person rom transfer.”

[iii] The response is included with the original letter, here.

[iv] Since the time of my submission to that inquiry, and in very welcome news, Nauru has finally decriminalised male homosexuality.

[v] The original transcript for this hearing can be found on pages 132-134 here.

[vi] I note that only ‘male’ refugees have been transferred to Manus Island, in which case the majority of people affected by these laws will be gay, bisexual and same-sex attracted ‘men’. However, for consistency with previous letters (to Ministers Bowen and Morrison) that also dealt with Nauru (to which women and children have been sent) the term LGBTI will continue to be used throughout this post.

[vii] Although obviously still not full equality, not just on the issue of marriage, but also in relation to trans birth certificates, non-consensual surgeries on intersex infants and extensive religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws, among other issues.

[viii] ABC News, PNG’s Supreme Court rules detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island is illegal, 27 April 2016.

What’s Wrong With Western Australia’s Equal Opportunity Act 1984?

 

This post is now the sixth in a series examining the anti-discrimination laws that exist in each Australian jurisdiction and analysing how well, or how poorly, they protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people from discrimination. Previous articles have looked at the frameworks in Victoria, NSW, the Commonwealth, the Northern Territory and the ACT.

 

Specifically, each post has considered three main aspects of LGBTI anti-discrimination legislation:

  • Protected attributes
  • Religious exceptions, and
  • Anti-Vilification Coverage.

 

Unfortunately, as we shall see below, the Western Australian Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (‘the Act’) has significant problems in terms of all three elements, making it serious competition to the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 for the (unwanted title of) worst LGBTI anti-discrimination law in the country.

 

With a WA state election scheduled for 11 March 2017, now less than five months away, the onus is on all major parties to indicate whether, and if so how, they will remedy the Act’s serious flaws.

 

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Protected Attributes

 

As with most Australian anti-discrimination laws (other than those in the Commonwealth, Tasmania and the ACT), the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 only protects some parts of the LGBTI community from discrimination, but not others.

 

On the positive side, it does include all lesbian, gay and bisexual members of the community – with ‘sexual orientation’ defined in section 4 as:

“in relation to a person, means heterosexuality, homosexuality, lesbianism or bisexuality and includes heterosexuality, homosexuality, lesbianism or bisexuality imputed to the person.”[i]

 

On the negative side, however, it completely excludes intersex people from anti-discrimination protection, an omission that should be rectified immediately.

 

On the negative and downright bizarre side, the Western Australian Act adopts a completely unique approach that results in only transgender people whose gender identity as been officially recognised by the State Government benefiting from anti-discrimination coverage.

 

Specifically, rather than prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity (which would be best practice), the Act only prohibits discrimination against “a gender reassigned person on gender history grounds”.[ii]

 

Section 4 of the Act states that “gender reassigned person means a person who has been issued with a recognition certificate under the Gender Reassignment Act 2000 or a certificate which is an equivalent certificate for the purposes of that Act”, while section 35AA prescribes that “[f]or the purposes of this Part, a person has a gender history if the person identifies as a member of the opposite sex by living, or seeking to live, as a member of the opposite sex.”

 

Prima facie, the combination of these two definitions mean that only people who have transitioned from male to female, or vice versa, and had that transition recognised by the Government via the Gender Reassignment Act are protected from discrimination. People who have yet to transition, or any trans person who is non-binary, are not covered by these clauses. This is a serious flaw, and one that must be corrected by the WA State Government.

 

Conclusion: While lesbian, gay and bisexual Western Australians are included in the protected attributes of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984, intersex people are completely excluded, as are a large number of trans people (either because their gender identity has not been formally recognised under the Gender Reassignment Act, or because their gender identity is non-binary).

 

Both flaws should be rectified as a matter of priority, potentially using the definitions of gender identity and intersex status found in the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

 

**********

 

Religious Exceptions

 

While it’s approach to trans anti-discrimination regulation is unique, the Equal Opportunity Act’s provisions surrounding the rights of religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people are pretty standard for a state and territory (or even Commonwealth) law[iii]. Unfortunately, that ‘standard’ allows homophobic, biphobic and transphobic discrimination in an incredibly wide range of circumstances.

 

Section 72 of the Act states:

Religious bodies

Nothing in this Act affects-

(a) the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of any religious order; or

(b) the training or education of persons seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order; or

(c) 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; or

(d) 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 susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.”

 

The first three sub-sections ((a), (b) and (c)), can potentially be justified on the basis that there is a direct connection with the appointment and training of religious office-holders, or the conduct of religious ceremonies.

 

However, sub-section 72(d) is effectively a blanket exception that allows any religious organisation – including religious-operated schools, hospitals and community services – to discriminate against LGBT employees, and LGBT people accessing their services. This is clearly unacceptable.

 

Religious schools don’t even need to rely on this broad exception. That’s because they have additional, specific protections in section 73, which allow them to discriminate against teachers and other employees (sub-section (1)), contract workers (sub-section (2)), and even students (sub-section (3)).

 

Sub-section (1) is incredibly generous (with sub-section (2) adopting similar wording):

 

“(1) Nothing in this Act renders it unlawful for a person to discriminate against another person on any one or more of the grounds of discrimination referred to in this Act in connection with employment as a member of the staff of an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, if the first-mentioned person so discriminates in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.”

 

Even though the wording used in relation to students is slightly narrower, it nevertheless envisages discrimination against students on the basis of sexual orientation or against gender reassigned persons on the basis of their gender history:

 

“(3) Nothing in this Act renders it unlawful for a person to discriminate against another person on any one or more of the grounds of discrimination referred to in this Act, other than the grounds of race, impairment or age, in connection with the provision of education or training by an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, if the first-mentioned person so discriminates in good faith in favour of adherents of that religion or creed generally, but not in a manner that discriminates against a particular class or group of persons who are not adherents of that religion or creed.”[iv]

 

Given education is conducted in the public sphere, it is, in nearly all circumstances, at least partially paid for by taxpayers, and above all it is the right of students to receive a comprehensive and inclusive education free from discrimination, there can be no justification for the continued existence of the exceptions for religious schools outlined in section 73. They, just like sub-section 72(d), should be repealed as a matter of priority.

 

Conclusion: The religious exceptions contained in the WA Equal Opportunity Act are, sadly, similar to those that exist in most Australian jurisdictions, in that they provide religious organisations generally, and religious schools in particular, extremely generous rights to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans employees and people accessing services. These religious exceptions must be curtailed to better protect LGBT Western Australians against discrimination.

 

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Anti-Vilification Coverage

 

This will be the shortest section of this post because, well, there isn’t any: there is currently no prohibition on vilification of LGBTI people under the Equal Opportunity Act 1984. This lack of protection is similar to the Commonwealth, Victoria, South Australia and the Northern Territory.

 

Interestingly, the Act also excludes racial vilification. Instead, Western Australia has chosen to outlaw racial vilification via the Criminal Code 1913, which creates a total of eight related offences, including:

 

Section 77. Conduct intended to incite racial animosity or racist harassment

Any person who engages in any conduct, otherwise than in private, by which the person intends to create, promote or increase animosity towards, or harassment of a racial group, or a person as a member of a racial group, is guilty of a crime and is liable to imprisonment for 14 years” and

 

Section 78. Conduct likely to incite racial animosity or racist harassment

Any person who engages in any conduct, otherwise than in private, that is likely to create, promote or increase animosity towards, or harassment of, a racial group, or a person as a member of a racial group, is guilty of a crime and is liable to imprisonment for 5 years.”[v]

 

However, there are exactly zero offences outlawing vilification of LGBTI people in the Code. This disparity is completely unjustified, especially given the real and damaging impact of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia on people’s lives (similar to the detrimental impact of racism).

 

If vilification offences are to be retained, as I believe they should (even if some right-wing Commonwealth MPs and Senators may disagree), then they should be expanded to cover vilification against members of the LGBTI community.

 

Conclusion: Neither the Equal Opportunity Act nor the Criminal Code prohibit LGBTI vilification, despite the latter creating a number of offences against racial vilification. Similar offences should also be established against the vilification of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Western Australians.

 

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Other Issues

 

We have already seen, under ‘Protected Attributes’ above, that the Equal Opportunity Act offers only limited anti-discrimination protections to Western Australia’s trans and gender diverse community.

 

Unfortunately, this ‘anti-trans’ approach is replicated in a number of other sections of the Act, and is even featured in the Long Title: “An Act to promote equality of opportunity in Western Australia and to provide remedies in respect of discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status, pregnancy, sexual orientation, family responsibility or family status, race, religious or political conviction, impairment, age, or publication of details on the Fines Enforcement Registrar’s website, or involving sexual or racial harassment or, in certain cases, on gender history grounds” [emphasis added].

 

Note that, not only does ‘gender history’ come last, it is also the only ground which features the qualifier ‘in certain cases’.

 

The objects of the Act are also exclusionary with respect to trans people. While object (a) in section 3 the Act seeks to ‘eliminate, so far as possible’ discrimination on grounds including sexual orientation and “in certain cases, gender history”, object (d) excludes trans people altogether:

 

“to promote recognition and acceptance within the community of the equality of persons of all races and of all persons regardless of their sexual orientation, religious or political convictions or their impairments or ages.”

 

Apparently, promoting recognition and acceptance of transgender people is not a priority.

 

This approach is also reflected in substantive parts of the Bill. Whereas section 35ZD allows discrimination in favour of people on the basis of their sexual orientation “to ensure that persons of a particular sexual orientation have equal opportunities with other persons” and “to afford persons of a particular sexual orientation access to facilities, services or opportunities to meet their special needs” (ie positive discrimination), there is no equivalent section for transgender people (or gender reassigned people with a gender history).

 

There is even a sub-section (74(3a)) that ensures an aged care service cannot discriminate solely in favour of transgender people (even though other aged care services can discriminate on the basis of ‘class, type, sex, race, age or religious or political conviction’[vi]).

 

Even the way some sections of Part IX, which aims to provide ‘Equal opportunity in public employment’, are drafted indicate that transgender discrimination is to be considered separately. For example, section 140 states:

 

“The objects of this Part are-

(a) to eliminate and ensure the absence of discrimination in employment on the ground of sex, marital status, pregnancy, family responsibility or family status, sexual orientation, race, religious or political conviction, impairment, age or the publication of relevant details on the Fines Enforcement Registrar’s website; and

(aa) to eliminate and ensure the absence of discrimination in employment against gender reassigned persons on gender history grounds; and

(b) to promote equal employment opportunity for all persons.”[vii]

 

It is bizarre that even the protected attribute of ‘publication of relevant details on the Fines Enforcement Registrar’s website’ is included with sex, race and sexual orientation (among others), while gender reassigned persons are included in a separate sub-section.

 

Whenever the Western Australian Equal Opportunity Act 1984 is updated to ensure all transgender and gender diverse people are protected from discrimination, these additional sections will need to be updated to ensure that, as a protected attribute, gender identity is finally treated equally to other attributes.

 

Footnotes:

[i] With discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation then prohibited under Part IIB of the Act.

[ii] Section 35AB.

[iii] Other than Tasmania’s exceptions, which are significantly narrower and, to a lesser extent, Queensland’s.

[iv] Interestingly, the phrase “other than the grounds of race, impairment or age” is omitted from the exceptions relating to teachers and contract workers – presumably religious schools can discriminate on these attributes then too.

[v] Other related offences include:

79 Possession of material for dissemination with intent to incite racial animosity or racist harassment

80 Possession of material that is likely to incite racial animosity or racist harassment

80A Conduct intended to racially harass

80B Conduct likely to racially harass

80C Possession of material for display with intent to racially harass

80D Possession of material for display that is likely to racially harass

[vi] Sub-section 74(2)(a).

[vii] Section 146 includes a similar delineation.

The Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill is Unacceptable

This time last week, our major focus was, understandably, on ensuring Bill Shorten and the Australian Labor Party listened to the concerns of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community and agreed to block Malcolm Turnbull’s unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite.

With that particular mission (almost) accomplished – although the plebiscite’s enabling legislation won’t be ‘dead, buried and cremated’ until it is finally voted down by the Senate in November – it is time to turn our attention to another battle, and that is the issue of religious exceptions.

Last Monday night (10 October 2016), the Government, via Attorney-General George Brandis, released an exposure draft of the legislation it would put before parliament in the event the plebiscite is held, and if that vote was successful.

Since that time, a number of people have expressed their serious concerns about the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, and especially about the broad ‘rights to discriminate’ contained within. Now that I have had the opportunity to examine this Bill in detail, I am afraid I must join their condemnatory chorus.

Nearly everything about this Bill, from its title down, is unacceptable. It is far more focussed on ensuring that religious organisations, and even individuals, can refuse to serve LGBTI people, than it is about ensuring LGBTI couples are treated equally, and above all fairly, under the law. And, for the reasons that I will outline below, I sincerely believe it should be rejected in its current form.

**********

First, let’s start with that title, and specifically the phrase ‘same-sex marriage’, which is also used in the Bill’s long title (“A Bill for an Act to provide for same-sex marriage, and for related purposes”).

For the umpteenth time, and for the benefit of slow learners like Prime Minister Turnbull and Senator Brandis, ensuring that all LGBTI Australians can marry is not ‘same-sex marriage’, but ‘marriage equality’.

The former phrase is narrow and excludes non-binary trans people, as well as many intersex individuals. Only the latter phrase captures all couples, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Fortunately, the substance of the Bill actually does include all people – the primary clause would amend the homophobic definition of the Marriage Act enacted by John Howard’s Liberal-National Government in 2004 to read “marriage means the union of 2 people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”

If that is the case, then why has the Government used the inaccurate phrase ‘same-sex marriage’ in the Bill’s title?

Perhaps it is simply politics, and the ongoing inability of the Coalition’s right-wing to acknowledge that this is, fundamentally, an issue of equality (although not referring to it as marriage equality even after the majority of the population voted for it – which is the precondition for this Bill – would seem to me incredibly petty).

On the other hand, maybe Turnbull and Brandis are right to shy away from describing this legislation as ‘marriage equality’ – because, in the vast majority of its provisions, it is nothing of the sort. Indeed, most of the Bill’s clauses are actually concerned with ensuring couples other than ‘a man and a woman’ are able to be refused service in a wide range of circumstances.

Which means that a far more accurate title for this legislation might be the ‘Marriage Amendment (Allowing any 2 adults to marry, but then allowing them to be denied service if they are LGBTI) Bill’. But, as well as being a mouthful, that might be a little too much ‘truth in advertising’ for this particular Government.

**********

Turning to the more substantive faults of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill, and the first concerns the rights of ministers of religion to refuse to conduct LGBTI weddings.

Now, let me begin by saying that I actually agree that ministers of religion should legally have the ability to accept, or reject, any couple who wishes to be married by them through a religious ceremony (even if I personally believe that such discrimination is abhorrent).

Indeed, that ‘right’ is already provided to ministers of religion under section 47 of the Marriage Act 1961: “Ministers of religion not bound to solemnise marriage etc. Nothing in this Part: (a) imposes an obligation on an authorised celebrant, being a minister of religion, to solemnise any marriage…”

Which means that no amendments are required to the Act to allow ministers of religion to refuse to officiate LGBTI weddings (and none have been proposed by previous marriage equality Bills from Labor, the Greens and even last-year’s cross-party Bill from MPs including Liberal Warren Entsch). So why then does the Bill repeal section 47 and replace it with the following:

Ministers of religion may refuse to solemnise marriages

Refusing to solemnise a marriage that is not the union of a man and a woman

(3) A minister of religion may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite any law (including this Part) if:

(a) the refusal is because the marriage is not the union of a man and a woman; and

(b) any of the following applies:

(i) the refusal conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the minister’s religious body or religious organisation;

(ii) the refusal is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion;

(iii) the minister’s conscientious or religious beliefs do not allow the minister to solemnise the marriage.”

Ministers of religion will still have exactly the same right to refuse to perform any wedding, including newly-recognised LGBTI weddings[i], that they have now. Arguably, it would provide a greater ability for religious organisations to impose their official doctrine on ministers of religion within their faith – although, as we have seen recently, imposing such views is already commonplace.

But the overall power will remain basically the same. So, why introduce these new provisions, spelling out in detail the ability to decline non- ‘man/woman’ marriages, at all?

It is difficult to see any other motivation than plain old homophobia and transphobia.

And that becomes apparent when comparing it against another issue that is also contrary to some religious views – divorce and remarriage[ii]. The Catholic Church in particular espouses an official view against both, and its ministers would therefore reserve the right to decline to officiate second (or third, fourth or even fifth) weddings.

Under both the existing, and the proposed new, sections 47 a minister of religion has the ability to reject couples in these circumstances – without it being spelled out. Just as the wording of the existing section 47 would allow them to reject LGBTI couples, were it to be retained following the introduction of marriage equality, without it necessarily being spelled out.

Which means there is absolutely no valid reason to insert new provisions that single out LGBTI couples (or non- ‘man/woman’ couples) for special, and detrimental, treatment, as part of a redrafted section 47.

Therefore, while the continuing ability of ministers of religion to decline to officiate weddings is not particularly problematic (from a legal point of view anyway), the unnecessary insertion of clauses which specify the right to discriminate against LGBTI couples – but not any other couples – definitely is.

The proposed new section 47 is homophobic and transphobic. It is unacceptable, and it must be rejected.

**********

Sadly, it only gets worse from here. The second substantive fault of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill is the creation of an entirely new ‘right’ to discriminate against LGBTI couples.

Currently, only ministers of religion have an explicit ‘opt-out’ clause. No equivalent provision or power exists for civil celebrants[iii] – which is entirely reasonable, given they are essentially ‘small businesses’, providing a service that the government has authorised them to, and explicitly not acting on behalf of any religion or religious organisation.

However, the Government is proposing, through this Bill, to allow even these ‘secular’ civil celebrants to reject LGBTI couples simply because of who they are (again, this is something that has not been included in most previous Bills, other than that from Senator David Leyonhjelm[iv]). Proposed new section 47A reads:

Marriage celebrants may refuse to solemnise marriages

(1) A marriage celebrant (not being a minister of religion) may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite any law (including this Part) if:

(a) the refusal is because the marriage is not the union of a man and a woman; and

(b) the marriage celebrant’s conscientious or religious beliefs do not allow the marriage celebrant to solemnise the marriage.”

This is, to put it simply, outrageous.

There is absolutely no reason why someone who is engaged in small business should be able to discriminate in such a way, against people who are LGBTI, simply because of their ‘personal beliefs’. It is the equivalent of encouraging them to put up a sign saying ‘no gays (or lesbians, or bisexuals, or trans people, or intersex people) allowed.’

And exactly how outrageous, and offensive, is revealed by once again comparing it to the situation with divorce and remarriage.

Despite whatever personal beliefs a civil celebrant may hold, and even after the Government’s Bill was passed, they would still not be able to formally decline to officiate someone’s second (or subsequent) wedding. Indeed, it is likely such discrimination would be unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, which includes ‘marital or relationship status’ as a protected attribute in section 6[v].

In contrast, if the new section 47A was included in any amendments to the Marriage Act, these same celebrants would be able to reject LGBTI couples on the basis that they were not ‘a man and a woman’[vi], and for no other reason.

In effect, Malcolm Turnbull and his Government are saying that the religious beliefs of civil celebrants can be used to justify discrimination – but only if those religious beliefs are anti-LGBTI (and not, for example, if they are opposed to divorce).

Once again, I am forced to conclude that the proposed new section 47A is homophobic and transphobic. It is unacceptable, and it must be rejected.

**********

But it’s not just civil celebrants who will be allowed to put up unwelcome, on multiple levels, signs saying ‘no gays (or lesbians, or bisexuals, or trans people, or intersex people) allowed’. Religious bodies or organisations will also be able to do so as part of proposed new section 47B, which reads:

Religious bodies and organisations may refuse to make facilities available or provide goods or services

(1) A religious body or a religious organisation may, despite any law (including this Part), refuse to make a facility available, or to provide goods or services, for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage, or for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage, if:

(a) the refusal is because the marriage is not the union of a man and a woman; and

(b) the refusal:

(i) conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the religious body or religious organisation; or

(ii) is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.”

If this provision were solely concerned with providing clarity that religious bodies were not obliged to conduct any weddings that they did not condone in their places of worship, like churches, then it may have almost been reasonable.

However, section 47B goes far beyond what would be required to achieve that limited goal. Instead, it provides a wide-ranging ‘right to discriminate’ against LGBTI couples, one that is problematic in at least three key ways:

  • It applies to more than just facilities, but also to the provision of ‘goods and services’, which, given the extent of influence of religious bodies and organisations in Australia, is incredibly broad
  • Sub-section (2)[vii] makes it clear that this right extends to religious bodies or organisations that are engaged in providing commercial services, for profit, and
  • The phrase “for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage” is vague, and left undefined, and could potentially capture a range of facilities, goods or services that are not directly connected to either a wedding ceremony or reception.

This section is also cause for concern in that it establishes a precedent whereby discrimination against LGBTI couples is encouraged. One consequence is that, while the current Bill does not allow florists, wedding cake-bakers, photographers or reception venues to refuse service (unless of course they themselves are run by a religious organisation), their voices demanding such exceptions in future will only get louder.

But again the major problem with this section is that it is singling out LGBTI couples – or anyone who doesn’t fit within the definition of ‘a man and a woman’[viii] – for special, and detrimental, treatment. And literally nobody else.

As with civil celebrants, it is only homophobic and transphobic religious belief that is preferenced here – other sincerely-held religious beliefs, for example, against divorce and remarriage, do not attract any such right. Which means that, yet again, the Liberal-National Government is expressing its support for religious freedom, but only as long as the beliefs concerned are anti-LGBTI.

The only possible conclusion is that proposed new section 47B is homophobic and transphobic, which makes it unacceptable. It must be rejected.

**********

The fourth and final substantive fault in the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill is the addition of a note to section 81, which deals with the rights of Defence Force chaplains to refuse to solemnise weddings.

The new note reads: “Example: A chaplain may refuse to solemnise a marriage that is not the union of a man and a woman where the refusal conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the chaplain’s church or faith group.”

I am strongly opposed to allowing these chaplains to discriminate against LGBTI couples in this way. Which might be surprising to some, especially given my view, expressed above, that ministers of religion should legally have this right.

Surprising, that is, until you consider that Defence Force chaplains are public servants, paid for out of everyone’s taxes – LGBTI and non-LGBTI, and religious and non-religious, alike[ix]. Indeed, the Defence Jobs Australia website indicates that chaplains are paid over $94,200 following completion of basic training.

The same website also claims that chaplains must “administer spiritual support to all members, regardless of their religion.”

Therefore, allowing discrimination by Defence Force chaplains fails in principle on two counts:

  • As public servants they should not be able to discriminate against members of the public simply because of their personal beliefs (otherwise we are allowing the Australian equivalent of Kim Davis), and
  • In providing spiritual support to Defence Force personnel, they are expected to do so for all people, not just those who are cisgender and/or heterosexual.

Which means that, if Defence Force chaplains are to continue to be authorised to officiate any weddings, then that must include the weddings of LGBTI people.

To do otherwise is, once again, homophobic and transphobic. It is unacceptable, and it must be rejected.

**********

There follows a few provisions that are actually positive in nature – removing the existing prohibition on the recognition of foreign marriages between two men, or two women[x] – before one final provision that establishes, clearly, that the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill is more concerned with promoting homophobia and transphobia than in addressing LGBTI inequality.

That is an amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act provision[xi] that currently provides an exception for conduct which is “in direct compliance with” the Marriage Act – because, for example, a civil celebrant is unable to lawfully marry an LGBTI couple.

The introduction of genuine marriage equality should lessen that discrimination, and potentially even obviate the need for such a provision to begin with.

Instead, this amendment expands the exception, by adding conduct that is “authorised by” the Marriage Act, thus ensuring that the exceptions to Australia’s federal LGBTI anti-discrimination framework, which are already too broad[xii], are broadened even further.

**********

SENATE SINODINOS DEBATE

Attorney-General George Brandis’ Bill is not aimed at achieving genuine marriage equality, and should perhaps be renamed the Marriage Amendment (Allowing any 2 adults to marry, but then allowing them to be denied service if they are LGBTI) Bill.

It is disappointing, although perhaps not entirely surprising, to observe that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal-National Government just don’t get it when it comes to marriage equality.

First, they sought to impose an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite on LGBTI Australians in order for our relationships to simply be recognised as equal under secular law.

Then we discover that their planned ‘reward’ – if the plebiscite is held, and if we are ultimately successful in their $200 million+ national opinion poll – is actually a fundamentally flawed piece of legislation, that spends more time and effort in expanding the rights of religious bodies, and civil celebrants, to discriminate against us than in actually implementing marriage equality.

We all know, far too well, that the equal recognition of our relationships is long overdue in Australian law. Unfortunately, that equality, genuine equality, will not be achieved via passage of the Marriage Amendment (Same-Sex Marriage) Bill.

At its core, it is homophobic and transphobic, making it unacceptable. I believe that, just as we have campaigned for Parliament to reject the plebiscite, and adopt a better process, we must also demand that they reject this ill-conceived legislation, and replace it with a better Bill.

If you believe that marriage equality should be exactly that – equality – please sign & share this petition to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull: Equal Love Should Not Be Treated Unequally.

Footnotes:

[i] It would appear that this provision does not explicitly allow ministers of religion to discriminate against trans individuals or couples where the union is between two people who identify as a man and a woman – although the catch-all ‘right to discriminate’ in 47(1) “A minister of religion may refuse to solemnise a marriage despite anything in this part” would nevertheless still apply.

[ii] Please note that I am not expressing support for such beliefs (against divorce and remarriage). I am merely using this example because, given many people sincerely hold such views, their differential treatment under the Bill makes it clear that the legislation is not concerned with protecting religious freedom, but instead aims to legitimise homophobia and transphobia.

[iii] Curiously, both the Attorney-General’s Media Release announcing the Exposure Draft Bill, and sub-section 2 of the proposed new section 47A, imply that civil celebrants do have such a power. This may be based on a very generous interpretation of section 39F of the Marriage Act 1961 which notes that “A person who is registered as a marriage celebrant may solemnise marriages at any place in Australia” – and in particular that the word may is used here rather than must.

However, it is just as easily argued that the fact ministers of religion currently enjoy an explicit ‘right to discriminate’ under section 47, while there is no equivalent section for civil celebrants, means civil celebrants cannot simply reject couples for any reason whatsoever.

More importantly, without an explicit power, it is likely the actions of civil celebrants would be captured by the anti-discrimination protections of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 – currently, with respect to sex and relationship status, and, if marriage equality is passed, with respect to sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status (unless a new right to discriminate is inserted).

[iv] For more, please see: Senator Leyonhjelm’s Marriage Equality Bill undermines the principle of LGBTI anti-discrimination. Should we still support it?

[v] With the definition of ‘marital or relationship status’ in section 4 of the Sex Discrimination Act explicitly including “(d) divorced”.

[vi] Interestingly, my interpretation of this provision means that, unlike ministers of religion, civil celebrants would not be able to reject trans individuals or couples who identify as a man and a woman, particularly because there is no other stand-alone right to refuse.

[vii] Which reads “Subsection (1) applies to facilities made available, and goods and services provided, whether for payment or not.”

[viii] Interestingly, this section would not allow religious bodies or organisations to refuse to provide facilities, goods or services to weddings involving one or two trans people where the couple identified as a man and a woman, although it is possible religious exceptions contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 would make such discrimination lawful.

[ix] Of course, I would argue that the High Court should find this arrangement – the use of taxpayer funds to hire people to perform an explicitly religious function – to be unconstitutional under section 116, but that is an argument for another day (and probably for a more adventurous High Court too).

[x] Sections 88B(4) and 88EA.

[xi] Subsection 40(2A)

[xii] For more, please see: What’s Wrong With the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984?

Submission re Queensland Adoption and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016

The Queensland Labor Government has proposed legislation to finally allow adoption by same-sex couples in that state. The Adoption and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016 is currently being considered by a Parliamentary Committee, before being debated and voted upon later in 2016.

My submission to the Committee is included below. If you are reading this post on Wednesday 12 October, you can also watch the Committee’s public hearings about the Bill here.

**********

Research Director

Health, Communities, Disability Services and Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Committee

Parliament House

George St

Brisbane QLD 4000

c/- hcdsdfvpc@parliament.qld.gov.au

 

Tuesday 4 October 2016

 

To the Committee

 

Submission re Queensland Adoption and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016

 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission regarding the Adoption and Other Legislation Amendment Bill (‘the Bill’).

 

In this submission, I will focus on one aspect of this legislation – the proposed reform to allow same-sex couples to adopt children.

 

This reform is outlined in clause 13 of the Bill, which would amend section 76 of the Adoption Act 2009 to remove the requirement that a person expressing an interest in being assessed for suitability as an adoptive parent has a spouse, and that their spouse is not of the same gender as themself.

 

I strongly support this reform, for two reasons.

 

First, it removes unjustifiable discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

 

The overwhelming majority of credible research shows that children raised in same-sex parented families are as healthy, and as happy, as those raised by mixed-sex couples.

 

As Deborah Dempsey found in the 2013 research paper “Same-sex parented families in Australia”[i]:

 

“[o]verall, research to date considerably challenges the point of view that same-sex parented families are harmful to children. Children in such families do as well emotionally, socially and educationally as their peers from heterosexual couple families”.

 

This conclusion was supported by research in the following year, by Dr Simon Crouch and others, that:

 

“children with same-sex attracted parents in Australia are being raised in a diverse range of family types. These children are faring well on most measures of child health and wellbeing, and demonstrate higher levels of family cohesion than population samples.”[ii]

 

These findings accord with reputable studies from overseas, with evidence consistently revealing that children from same-sex parented families experience the same levels of physical and mental health as their peers, if not better.

 

Based on this research, continuing to impose legal criteria that restricts prospective adoptive parents to those who have a spouse of a different gender, can be seen for what it really is – discrimination against LGBTI people that is both unnecessary, and completely without foundation.

 

It is time such discrimination was removed from the statute book, and I am grateful that the Bill will accomplish this.

 

Second, and even more importantly, removing this discrimination is in the best interests of children because it will help ensure an adopted child has the best possible adoptive parents.

 

As the research demonstrates, parenting ability has nothing whatsoever to do with sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

Some cisgender heterosexual people make wonderful parents, while others do not. The same is undoubtedly true of members of the LGBTI community.

 

But to determine that only people who are in mixed-gender relationships may apply to become adoptive parents, while the LGBTI people who would make wonderful parents may not, carries with it the inherent risk that a child misses out on being adopted by more suitable parents solely because past Queensland Parliaments have determined that those people do not have the ‘right’ sexual orientation, gender identity or sex.

 

After all, it is only logical that, if the pool of prospective adoptive parents is reduced because of irrelevant criteria, the overall depth and quality of that pool is diminished.

 

Indeed, this argument was explicitly acknowledged in the second reading speech by Minister Fentiman, who noted that:

 

“[t]he bill recognises the need to provide fairness and equity and amends eligibility criteria to enable same-sex couples, single people and people undergoing fertility treatment to adopt a child. This will result in a broader and more flexible pool of people from which to select for assessment as suitable adoptive parents. Importantly, this change will mean more options will be available for matching a child to prospective adoptive parents who will best meet the child’s individual needs.”

 

On the basis of the above two reasons – that the Bill will remove unjust discrimination against LGBTI people, and that the proposed changes are in the best interests of children who are adopted – I urge the Committee to recommend that the Adoption and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016 be passed.

 

Ultimately, I call on the Queensland Parliament to support this reform as a matter of priority, thus recognising the diversity of modern families, and ensuring that they are treated equally under the law.

 

Thank you again for the opportunity to provide a submission on this important Bill. Should the Committee want any additional information, or wish to clarify any of the above, I can be contacted at the details provided below.

 

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

 

Footnotes:

[i] Dempsey, D, “Same-sex parented families in Australia”, Child Family Community Australia, Research Paper No. 18, 2013.

[ii] Crouch, S, Waters, E McNair, R, Power, J, Davis, E, “Parent-reported measures of child health and wellbeing in same-sex parented families: a cross-sectional survey”, BMC Public Health, 21 June 2014.

Pride, Pressure and Perseverance

I am a naturally introverted person, and someone who is more likely to express an opinion about an issue of public policy, than to wear my heart on my sleeve.

 

Which means that, when it comes to something like the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, I am more likely to understand the philosophical importance of ‘pride’ – of a community coming together to express pride in who they are – than to actually feel it. Think more political expression than personal emotion.

 

But today is different. Today I definitely feel pride, deeply and sincerely, in my community, in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer Australia.

 

I feel pride not just because of what we as a community have accomplished, but also because of the reasons we took on the task in the first place.

 

By now you would know that, this morning, the Australian Labor Party caucus formally decided to block Malcolm Turnbull’s plebiscite on marriage equality.

 

Given the numbers in the Senate, and the already stated positions of the Greens, Nick Xenophon Team, Derryn Hinch and even Liberal Senator Dean Smith, that means the plebiscite’s enabling legislation will not pass the upper house, when it is ultimately voted on (whether that is in a few weeks’, or a few months’, time).

 

We have, through collective effort, killed the plebiscite. It merely remains to be buried.

 

I probably don’t need to explain to regular readers of this blog just how hard many, many people have had to work to make that happen – in the face of stiff opposition.

 

The plebiscite was the policy of not one but two Prime Ministers, and of a (narrowly) re-elected Liberal-National Government.

 

It had a vocal cheer squad across large sections of the mainstream media, and even many of those who knew it was poor public policy nevertheless urged us to accept it as a supposedly ‘pragmatic’ way forward.

 

It was, at least initially, popular in the electorate – although now, after we have spent months painstakingly highlighting the fact it is both non-binding, and extraordinarily expensive, it is less popular than Donald Trump.

 

The Government even had the easiest argument to make – ‘Let the people decide’ – despite the fact using a plebiscite to determine the rights of a minority group is a perversion of Australia’s system of representative democracy.

 

And it would have been comparatively ‘easy’ to adopt the path of least resistance, to roll over and accept the offer that was on the table, and the possibility it could have led to marriage equality by the middle of next year.

 

Given we have already been waiting so long for marriage equality, and that there are many couples who have now been engaged for many years, or even decades, waiting to simply be treated equally under Commonwealth law, that may have even been an understandable choice.

 

But it would not have been the right one. And I am proud we did not make it.

 

The LGBTIQ community decided, following much debate over the course of several months, not to roll over and ‘put up with’ a fundamentally flawed model put forward by people who clearly did not have our best interests at heart.

 

Instead, we stood up to say no to their unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite.

 

We stood up to say that, given marriage equality is, at its heart, about fairness, the manner in which it is recognised must be fair as well (contrary to Attorney-General George Brandis’ recent bleatings that ‘the ends justifies the means’).

 

Above all, we stood up to say that, while a plebiscite may have helped some members of our community to have their rights recognised more quickly, it would also have caused real and potentially long-lasting harm to young and vulnerable members of the LGBTIQ community, and to rainbow families.

 

And that trade-off was unacceptable to us.

 

Which means that, as well as having the right objective, we were also motivated by the right reasons – and that makes me immensely proud, too.

 

As an aside, I am also personally satisfied in the small but hopefully meaningful role I played in this much broader collective effort – whether that was by writing multiple submissions and letters to decision-makers, engaging in community education, refining arguments and messaging, conducting my own survey to ascertain community attitudes towards the plebiscite or even designing simple little memes that somehow managed to reach a wide audience.

 

As with any significant campaign, there are obviously many, many people (too many to event attempt to name here) who have all helped achieve this particular victory. I am just happy to be among them.

 

Of course, this is not the ultimate success that we crave – the equal recognition of our relationships under the Marriage Act 1961, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

Defeating the plebiscite is just another battle (albeit a significant one) on the long road towards that objective. And there are, unfortunately, plenty more battles left to fight to reach that goal.

 

Which means that, rather than being able to sit back and rest on our laurels at this point, we must keep the pressure up – just as we have done for the past 12 years.

 

We must keep the pressure up on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a man who claims to support the LGBTIQ community generally, and marriage equality specifically. Well, if that is the case, then it is his responsibility to actually demonstrate that support by providing a free vote in the Parliament, so that this issue can be resolved as quickly as possible (and potentially before the end of this year).

 

And if Turnbull is unwilling or unable to lead on this (and all indications are that he will not show the same leadership that Bill Shorten today has), then we must keep the pressure up on other MPs and Senators within the Coalition who back marriage equality, and encourage them to follow their conscience and cross the floor to support the legislation put forward by Labor and/or the Greens.

 

Hon Bill Shorten MP Official portrait 20 March 2013

In blocking the plebiscite, Bill Shorten has shown the leadership that Malcolm Turnbull sadly has not.

 

We must also keep the pressure up on the Government over their proposals, released last night, to dramatically expand religious exceptions as part of any amendments to the Marriage Act – including by providing civil celebrants with the power to effectively put up a sign saying ‘No gays allowed’, and religious-operated businesses and services to turn away LGBTIQ couples.

 

Anything beyond the existing right of ministers of religion to refuse to officiate a ceremony is unacceptable and must be rejected.

 

And we must keep the pressure up by continuing to defend our principled stance against the plebiscite.

 

It is inevitable that many within the Liberal and National Parties will now turn around and blame the LGBTIQ community, and the Australian Labor Party for listening to us, for their failure to achieve marriage equality in the short-to-medium term.

 

But that view is based on a falsehood – because, if those same MPs and Senators are genuinely interested in resolving this issue, then they should be reminded that they sit in the place where they can do exactly that, by passing legislation in the ordinary way (and in exactly the same way that our rights were denied by John Howard’s Government in August 2004).

 

For however long it takes us to achieve marriage equality, we will likely need to continue to explain our justification for saying a firm ‘No thanks’ to the plebiscite – and that is because it is unnecessary, inappropriate, divisive, wasteful, unprecedented, bizarre, inconsistent, radical, unfair and dangerous.

 

Right now, it remains to be seen just how long that wait will be. As indicated above, if Turnbull were to do the right thing and call for a free vote immediately, marriage equality could be passed within a matter of weeks, and LGBTIQ couples could be able to marry by the start of 2017.

 

Or it could take slightly longer, with sustained pressure forcing the Government to change its position over the course of the next 12-18 months (or compelling enough backbenchers to summon the courage to walk 12-18 feet across the parliamentary chamber to pass the Bill).

 

It may even be that we will not achieve marriage equality for another three or four years, following the possible election of a Shorten Labor Government – or the Coalition coming to its senses and abandoning the unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite.

 

No matter how long it takes, we know that marriage equality will eventually be recognised under Australian law.

 

Why? Not just because it is the right thing to do. But because of one quality that LGBTIQ Australians have shown, in abundance, since Howard’s unjust ban. A quality that we continue to demonstrate today: perseverance.

 

Over the past 12 years, we have been let down by multiple Prime Ministers, and Governments of different persuasions. But we have kept fighting.

 

We have been legislated against, and then largely ignored, and yet we have continued campaigning until we made marriage equality a central issue in Australian politics.

 

And we have been underestimated, time and time again – most recently about the plebiscite itself (you can bet that most senior figures within the Coalition, and indeed many people in the media, believed that the LGBTIQ community would simply acquiesce to their problematic proposal).

 

But we have persisted in arguing for what we believe is right and fair, including the fairest way to achieve it.

 

We do this because it’s personal. Because, while prima facie this is an issue simply of legal discrimination, it is about far more than that.

 

It is about who we are as people, and our fundamental right, not just to equal treatment under the law, but to dignity and respect.

 

It is about our relationships, about seeing them be recognised as being as worthy as those of everyone else – and about having the same choices as others, including whether to get married or not (rather than having that decision made for us by 226 people in Canberra).

 

It is about our families, both the rainbow families who are raising thousands, or tens of thousands, of happy and healthy – and above all, loved – children, and our parents and siblings and extended families, who share the entirely understandable desire that their family members be treated fairly.

 

And it is about generations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer Australians still to come, who have the right to grow up in a country that does not discriminate against them simply because of who they are.

 

For all of these reasons, we will continue the fight for marriage equality for as long as it takes.

 

We will persevere. Until it is finally done.