I have already written about the significance of this achievement (link: https://alastairlawrie.net/2013/06/30/federal-lgbti-anti-discrimination-protections-at-last/), so I won’t go into a lot of new detail here.
Still, as far as highlights of 2013 go, it would be pretty difficult to overlook the passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act in June. From 1 August, LGBTI people in Australia finally had anti-discrimination protections under federal law. And we only had to wait 38 years after the Racial Discrimination Act, and 29 years since the original Sex Discrimination Act (and yes, that was sarcastic – the passage of this Bill was long, long overdue).
There were two particular aspects of the Sex Discrimination Amendment Act that warrant particular celebration. First, it is the first anti-discrimination law passed anywhere in the world to explicitly include intersex people. That is a pretty amazing achievement, and another testament to the great work and advocacy by OII Australia and other groups.
Second, the legislation includes an amendment that means aged care service providers operated by religious organisations are not legally allowed to discriminate against LGBTI people accessing their services. Again, this is a significant victory, and will help to ensure the generation of LGBTI people who fought so hard – and successfully – for our civil rights, have the opportunity to grow old with dignity.
Nevertheless, the fact that a special ‘carve-out’ is necessary for aged care service delivery by religious organisations emphasises the major weakness of the anti-discrimination protections that were passed: schools, hospitals and other community service organisations that are run by religious groups are legally allowed to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, both employees and service recipients (NB religious organisations do not have exceptions allowing them to discriminate against intersex people).
These religious exemptions or exceptions are contrary to the fundamental concept of anti-discrimination law – that people should not be discriminated against for things that are irrelevant to their capacity to perform a job, or their right to access a service.
Fighting to remove these religious exceptions will be the biggest test for LGBTI advocates and activists over the next 5, 10 or even15 years (achieving marriage equality will likely turn out to be both easier, and quicker, than removing religious exceptions, and religious organisations will probably fight much harder to retain them than to retain a discriminatory Marriage Act).
Still, fight them we must, because for however long a religious school can sack a teacher for being gay or bisexual, or a service organisation can refuse to provide that service because the intended recipient is transgender, then we are not truly equal.
As an indication of how difficult this fight will be, I am re-posting the exchange between myself, now Attorney-General George Brandis and Tony Jones on #QandA back in June, the night before the legislation, including the aged care carve-out, was passed (and, no this is not just – well, not entirely – because I had so much fun doing this):
ALASTAIR LAWRIE: My question is to Senator Brandis. Last Tuesday you announced that the Coalition would block any LGBTI anti-discrimination bill that did not allow religious aged-care service providers to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. This is despite the fact that these agencies themselves do not believe they need this exception. You seem to be putting a theoretical religious freedom above practical protections. Why don’t you believe that older lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender Australians, people who have grown up when their love was criminalised, who lost friends and lovers to HIV and AIDS, have the right to grow old in dignity and respect that they deserve?
GEORGE BRANDIS: It is a very important question that you ask and let me explain what the Opposition’s position is. But there was one statement in your question which wasn’t quite right. You said that the religious institutions, the churches, didn’t themselves want the exemption so far as concerned aged care facilities. That’s not right. Some said they didn’t want it. Most said they did. So don’t be misled by a misleading statement by the Attorney-General. On the broader issue, when the bill, the sex discrimination bill, was introduced into the Parliament, I took a submission to the Shadow Cabinet and to our party room which was, I think without a dissenting voice, endorsed that we should support it. And the reason we support it is because it is actually the policy we took to the 2010 election, that the provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act should extend to sexuality as a protected attribute. The Government knew that they had the Opposition on board with this. In fact, the Government’s measure was itself taken from the Opposition’s report on the broader human rights and anti-discrimination bill, the bill that was abandoned by the Government earlier this year because it was acknowledged to have gone way too far. So we had, on this very tricky and important issue of discrimination against gay people, we had bipartisanship and unanimity. And then into the middle of this harmonious bipartisan moment, the Labor Party, out of the blue, threw in an amendment never anticipated, never expected, that would have caused the religious exemption issue to come into play. Now, if you want to build a consensus around this issue, that gay people should be protected from discrimination by the Sex Discrimination Act, then you would not have done that and the Labor Party, on all other grounds, in all other arenas, has said that it will respect the religious exemption. I am cynical about why the Labor Party did that…
TONY JONES: Okay, George.
GEORGE BRANDIS: …knowing that by introducing the religious exemption, it would make it impossible for that bipartisanship to continue.
TONY JONES: George Brandis, the questioner has his hand up so we’ll go back to you.
ALASTAIR LAWRIE: I would just like to pick up a point you seem to be making. In Senator Humphrey’s dissenting report to the sex discrimination senate inquiry, the two organisations that he quoted justifying the call for religious exception in that circumstance were the Australian Christian Lobby and the Catholic Women’s League. Neither of them provide religious aged care services. So in that circumstance, why are we trying to impose a religious exception to the detriment of older LGBT people for those groups that don’t actually run those services?
GEORGE BRANDIS: Well, I’m very familiar with that minority report because I was one of the signatories to it and I had a lot to do with drafting it. There were many more submissions to the inquiry from other churches and religious institutions than those two. So don’t infer that because those two were mentioned as a ‘For example’, those were the only ones, because they weren’t.
TONY JONES: Okay. George, I would like the hear other people on this subject. Anne Summers?
ANN SUMMERS: Well, I’m afraid I don’t know much about the legislation. I mean I just obviously would support the principle that LGBT people should be able to go to retirement homes and nursing homes free from any form of discrimination, which I take to be the central point and I know that, you know, one of the problems with homes that are run by some religions is they have been discriminatory in the past and I imagine what we are trying to avoid is the continuation of that discrimination and I would support that.
TONY JONES: Yeah, very briefly, George, before I go back to the other panelists, shouldn’t anti-discrimination be universal?
GEORGE BRANDIS: No.
TONY JONES: Why shouldn’t it?
GEORGE BRANDIS: Anti-discrimination laws should not be universal because the right to fair treatment is one of several very important but sometimes inconsistent values. The right of people who practice or profess a particular religious faith to live their lives and to conduct their institutions in accordance with the precepts of their religious faith is integral to religious freedom and religious freedom is also a fundamentally important value.
TONY JONES: So religious…
GEORGE BRANDIS: And if I may say…
TONY JONES: But just on principle, you are saying that religious freedom supersedes the freedom of your sexuality?
GEORGE BRANDIS: Yes, I am, as a matter of fact. Yes, I am. But I am also making a political point. There are – we in the Liberal Party have joined with people in the Labor Party to progress this agenda for years and those who wanted to see the Sex Discrimination Act extend to protect people on the grounds of their sexuality were furious that the Labor Party decided to throw in a curve ball into the debate that deprived the country of the opportunity for unanimity on this. [emphasis added].
That exchange, and especially Senator Brandis’ statement that religious freedoms clearly trump our right to not be discriminated against, show just how hard this battle will be.
Underscoring this point is Attorney-General Brandis’ recent appointment of Tim Wilson as a new Human Rights Commissioner, responsible for promoting ‘traditional freedoms’. Recruited from the right-wing Institute of Public Affairs, on 23 January this year Mr Wilson appeared at a Senate hearing into the then draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill (transcript here: http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/committees/commsen/8eb3bdec-c603-4d2d-9564-674c7bd7b5c2/toc_pdf/Legal%20and%20Constitutional%20Affairs%20Legislation%20Committee_2013_01_23_1612_Official.pdf;fileType=application%2Fpdf#search=%22committees/commsen/8eb3bdec-c603-4d2d-9564-674c7bd7b5c2/0000%22).
During his testimony, he argued that anti-discrimination protections should only apply to government employees and services – basically, that anti-discrimination law should not protect people from being fired for being gay, or being expelled for being a lesbian, or being denied a service for being bisexual, transgender or intersex. Given the extremity of these views, if this is any indication of how Attorney-General Brandis will approach anti-discrimination reforms then we will need to be prepared to fight any moves to wind back our hard-won protections in 2014.
In the meantime, the passage of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 will stand as the most significant LGBTI victory of the past 12 months. Thank you to the former Labor Government, then Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, Senators Penny Wong and Louise Pratt and everyone else who helped to make this happen.