What’s Wrong With the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977?

This post is part of a series looking at anti-discrimination laws around Australia and examining how well, or how poorly, they protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people against discrimination and vilification.[i]

 

This includes analysing three key issues: protected attributes, religious exceptions and anti-vilification coverage. Unfortunately, as we shall see below, the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 has serious shortcomings in all of these areas, and NSW has gone from having the first gay anti-discrimination laws in Australia, to having (arguably) the worst.

 

It is clear this legislation is in urgent need of major reform. What is less clear is whether the current NSW Government, and Parliament, is up to the task.

 

Protected Attributes

 

As indicated above, NSW was the first jurisdiction in Australia to introduce anti-discrimination protections for ‘homosexuals’. In fact, it passed these laws in late 1982, 18 months before homosexuality was decriminalised, meaning a gay man could not be discriminated against for who he was (in some areas of public life at least), but could still be convicted for having sexual intercourse in private. The problem is that the protected attributes included in the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 have not kept pace with community standards in the decades since.

 

There was one positive clarification in 1994 that “homosexual means male or female homosexual”[ii] (to overcome any erroneous assumption that homosexuality only referred to gay men). However, the only significant expansion in the past 35 years was the introduction of transgender as a protected attribute in 1996:

 

Section 38A Interpretation

A reference in this Part to a person being transgender or a transgender person is a reference to a person, whether or not the person is a recognised transgender person[iii]:

(a) who identifies as a member of the opposite sex by living, or seeking to live, as a member of the opposite sex, or

(b) who has identified as a member of the opposite sex by living as a member of the opposite sex, or

(c) who, being of indeterminate sex, identifies as a member of a particular sex by living as a member of that sex,

and includes a reference to the person being thought of as a transgender person, whether the person is, or was, in fact a transgender person.”

 

While this reform was a major step forward, it nevertheless failed to cover all discrimination on the basis of gender identity. This protected attribute focuses only on binary genders – covering people whose sex was designated as male at birth, but now identify as female (and vice versa). It does not cover other people along a more inclusive spectrum, including people who do not identify exclusively as either male or female.

 

Section 38A of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 is therefore no longer best practice, and a new, more inclusive definition[iv] should be adopted to ensure all transgender people benefit from anti-discrimination protection.

 

Intersex people are even worse off under the Act. Paragraph (c) of the definition above offers their only protection under NSW law, but it is problematic because:

  • It inappropriately conflates intersex, which relates to physical sex characteristics, with gender identity, and
  • It only appears to protect people with intersex variations where they identify as either male or female.

 

To remedy this situation, a stand-alone protected attribute of ‘sex characteristics’ should be introduced, based on the March 2017 Darlington Statement by intersex activists.[v]

 

There is, however, one section within the LGBTI community that is not included in the entire Anti-Discrimination Act, not even in an out-dated, fundamentally flawed or only partial way. In fact, one of the five letters of the acronym has no anti-discrimination coverage at all: bisexual people.

 

NSW is the only jurisdiction in Australia where its anti-discrimination laws do not cover discrimination on the basis of bisexuality. That is as bizarre as it is offensive.

 

It must be remedied at the earliest possible opportunity by the NSW Parliament, with either the introduction of a new stand-alone protected attribute of ‘bisexual’, or (preferably) by the modernisation of the current protected attribute of ‘homosexual’ to instead refer to ‘sexual orientation’, in line with the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984[vi].

 

Summary: The protected attributes contained in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 are the narrowest in the country, only offering protection to gay men, lesbians, and some transgender people. It needs to be updated to ensure it covers gender identity and sex characteristics, as well as extending anti-discrimination protection to bisexual people, whose exclusion is a gross oversight that has been allowed to stand for far too long.

 

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Religious Exceptions

 

In contrast to its narrowly-defined protected attributes, the religious exceptions included in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act are in fact the broadest in Australia.

 

These loopholes allow religious organisations to discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender people in a wide variety of circumstances, and are so generous that they substantially, and substantively, undermine the overall purpose of the legislation (which is supposedly “[a]n Act to render unlawful racial, sex and other types of discrimination in certain circumstances and to promote equality of opportunity between all persons”).

 

The main exceptions permitting anti-LG&T discrimination by religious organisations are found in section 56 of the Act:

 

Section 56 Religious bodies

Nothing in this Act affects:

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

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

(c) the appointment of any other person in any capacity by a body established to propagate religion, or

(d) any other act or practice of a body established to propagate religion that conforms to the doctrines of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion.”

 

While sub-sections (a) and (b) might appear reasonable, as they are at least related to the internal training and appointment of ministers of religion, sub-sections (c) and especially (d) are outrageous in their breadth, essentially sanctioning discrimination against lesbian, gay and transgender employees and people accessing services in any organisation that is considered ‘religious’, including schools, hospitals and social services.

 

The operation of these provisions, and sub-section 56(d) in particular, in giving effective carte blanche to religious organisations to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in NSW was confirmed in a 2010 decision of the Court of Appeal[vii], allowing Wesley Mission to discriminate against a male same-sex couple who had applied to be foster carers to children in need.

 

Wesley successfully defended its prejudiced approach on the basis that “[t]he biblical teaching on human sexuality makes it clear that monogamous heterosexual partnership within marriage is both the norm and ideal.”[viii] This was in spite of the fact Wesley allowed single men and women to be carers (apparently they believed two dads or two mums had less to offer than one).

 

The ‘right to discriminate’ provided to religious organisations by section 56 of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 is essentially without restriction. And this general ability to exclude lesbian, gay and transgender people in NSW is supplemented by additional loopholes covering specific areas of public life.

 

One of these covers discrimination in adoption services. While the equal right of same-sex couples to adopt was recognised in NSW law in 2010, those very same reforms inserted the following into the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977:

 

Section 59A Adoption services

(1) Nothing in Part 3A [transgender protections] or 4C [homosexual protections] affects any policy or practice of a faith-based organisation concerning the provision of adoption services under the Adoption Act 2000 or anything done to give effect to any such policy or practice.”

 

Which means that a religious organisation that operates an adoption service is legally permitted to deny a child the best possible adoptive parents solely because they might be lesbian, gay or transgender.

 

Perhaps the most (in)famous exceptions in the Act are those that apply to ‘private educational authorities’.[ix] Even though subsection 56(d) already allows religious schools to do whatever they want in relation to lesbian, gay and transgender teachers and students, NSW Parliament added specific clauses to ensure that private educational authorities can:

 

  • Discriminate against transgender employees[x]
  • Discriminate against transgender students, including by refusing their admission, attaching conditions to their admission, denying them benefits as a student, or by expelling them[xi]
  • Discriminate against lesbian and gay employees[xii] and
  • Discriminate against lesbian and gay students, including by refusing their admission, attaching conditions to their admission, denying them benefits as a student, or by expelling them[xiii].

 

Imagine considering it justified to seek special privileges to discriminate against these groups, let alone for State Parliament to condone such discrimination via legislation?

 

Perhaps the most extraordinary part of the ‘private educational authorities’ exceptions is that they aren’t even restricted to religious schools – in fact, the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 allows all non-government schools and colleges, even where they have absolutely nothing to do with religion, to refuse to employ lesbian, gay and transgender people, and exclude or expel LG&T students.

 

Summary: The religious exceptions contained in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 are the broadest in Australia, and fundamentally undermine the integrity of a framework which is supposed to address discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Subsections 56(c) and (d) should be repealed, as well as the more specific exceptions offered to religious organisations in relation to adoption services, and those allowing private educational authorities to discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender employees and students.

 

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Anti-Vilification Coverage

 

There is one area where anti-discrimination law in NSW has improved recently, and that is anti-vilification coverage, with the passage of the Crimes Amendment (Publicly Threatening and Inciting Violence) Act 2018.

 

However, because this was a piecemeal change, rather than part of a comprehensive reform package, it means NSW is left with a two-tier, fundamentally inconsistent anti-vilification regime.

 

On one hand, the civil prohibitions against vilification contained in the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 only apply to homosexuality [xiv] and (narrowly-defined) transgender [xv] .

 

This means that bisexuals, non-binary trans people and people with intersex variations are not able to make complaints of vilification to the Anti-Discrimination Board.

 

On the other hand, the new Crimes Act 1900 offence of ‘publicly threatening or inciting violence’ in section 93Z applies to all of:

  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender identity and
  • Intersex status.

 

All three are defined in section 93Z(5) [xvi] using the broadly-inclusive definitions of the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, and mean that bisexuals, non-binary trans people and people with intersex variations are protected in NSW anti-discrimination laws for the first time (although note that, once again, intersex advocates have called for intersex status to be replaced by the protected attribute of sex characteristics). [xvii]

 

The penalty for this offence is also relatively high: up to three years imprisonment for individuals, and up to 500 penalty units for corporations.

 

Summary: The 2018 anti-vilification reforms are welcome, both for bringing anti-LGBTI vilification provisions into closer alignment with other forms of vilification, and also for including bisexual, non-binary trans and intersex people for the first time. However, if anything, these changes have underscored just how out of date the other anti-vilification provisions of the Anti-Discrimination Act itself are, given it still covers only lesbian, gay and some trans people. This remains an area in desperate need of reform.

 

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Other Issues

 

While the ‘What’s Wrong With’ series concentrates on the three main areas of protected attributes, religious exceptions and anti-vilification coverage, I will also raise other issues relating to LGBTI anti-discrimination laws where they are significant.

 

In the case of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, these include:

 

  • An incredibly broad exception allowing “the exclusion of a transgender person from participation in any sporting activity for members of the sex with which the transgender person identifies”[xviii]
  • An inappropriate exception allowing superannuation funds to “treat… the transgender person as being of the opposite sex to the sex with which the transgender person identifies”[xix] and
  • Perhaps most alarmingly, exceptions which allow employers to discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender applicants and employees “if the number of persons employed by the employer… does not exceed 5”[xx].

 

In fact, a similar exception also permits discrimination in relation to the ground of sex[xxi] – but no such limitation applies to race[xxii].  Which means that the NSW Parliament has effectively determined that racial discrimination cannot be tolerated in employment in any circumstances – but discrimination against lesbians, gay men, transgender people and even women is acceptable in some circumstances. That message is unconscionable, and these provisions must be made uniform (by abolishing the exceptions applying to homosexual, transgender and sex discrimination in employment).

 

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In conclusion, it is clear that, while NSW once had the first gay anti-discrimination laws in Australia, it now has (arguably) the nation’s worst LGBTI laws – with significant problems in terms of protected attributes and religious exceptions, and serious shortcomings where it does have anti-vilification coverage. These and other issues must be addressed by the Government, and Parliament more broadly, as a matter of priority.

 

NSW ADA homosexuality 1982

NSW was the first Australian jurisdiction to introduce anti-discrimination laws covering any part of the LGBTI community – but 36 years later still doesn’t protect bisexual or intersex people.

 

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Footnotes:

[i] The other posts in the series can be found here: LGBTI Anti-Discrimination / #NoHomophobiaNoExceptions

[ii] Section 4 Definitions.

[iii] From section 4: “recognised transgender person means a person the record of whose sex is altered under Part 5A of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 or under the corresponding provisions of a law of another Australian jurisdiction.”

[iv] Potentially modelled on the definition adopted by the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984: “gender identity means the gender-related identity, appearance or mannerisms 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” [Although obviously exact wording should be agreed with NSW’s transgender community.]

[v] OII Australia, and other intersex activists from Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand, issued the Darlington Statement as a call for wide-ranging law and policy reforms, including ‘for effective legislative protection from discrimination and harmful practices on grounds of sex characteristics’ (paragraph 9, here).

This terminology (‘sex characteristics’) is intended to replace the previous protected attribute of ‘intersex status’, as included in section 4 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, and defined 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.”

[vi] Section 4 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 states ““sexual orientation” means a person’s sexual orientation towards:

(a) persons of the same sex; or

(b) persons of a different sex; or

(c) persons of the same sex and persons of a different sex.”

[vii] OV & OW v Members of the Board of the Wesley Council [2010] NSWCA 155 (6 July 2010).

[viii] OW & OV v Members of the Board of the Wesley Mission Council [2010] NSWADT 293 (10 December 2010).

[ix] Defined in section 4 as “private educational authority means a person or body administering a school, college, university or other institution at which education or training is provided, not being:

(a) a school, college, university or other institution established under the Education Reform Act 1990 (by the Minister administering that Act), the Technical and Further Education Commission Act 1990 or an Act of incorporation of a university, or

(b) an agricultural college administered by the Minister for Agriculture.”

[x] Section 38C prohibits discrimination against transgender applicants and employees, but subsection (3)(c) clarifies that this prohibition does not apply to discrimination by private educational authorities.

[xi]Section 38K Education

(1) It is unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against a person on transgender grounds:

(a) by refusing or failing to accept the person’s application for admission as a student, or

(b) in the terms on which it is prepared to admit the person as a student.

(2) It is unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against a student on transgender grounds:

(a) by denying the student access, or limiting the student’s access, to any benefit provided by the educational authority, or

(b) by expelling the student or subjecting the student to any other detriment.

(3) Nothing in this section applies to or in respect of a private educational authority.”

[xii] Section 49ZH prohibits discrimination against lesbian and gay applicants and employees, but, just like for transgender people, subsection (3)(c) clarifies that this prohibition does not apply to discrimination by private educational authorities.

[xiii]Section 49ZO Education

(1) It is unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against a person on the ground of homosexuality:

(a) by refusing or failing to accept the person’s application for admission as a student, or

(b) in the terms on which it is prepared to admit the person as a student.

(2) It is unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against a student on the ground of homosexuality:

(a) by denying the student access, or limiting the student’s access, to any benefit provided by the educational authority, or

(b) by expelling the student or subjecting the student to any other detriment.

(3) Nothing in this section applies to or in respect of a private educational authority.”

[xiv] Section 49ZT

[xv] Section 39S

[xvi] Gender identity means the gender related identity, appearances or mannerisms 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.

Intersex status means the status of having physical, hormonal or genetic features that are:

  • neither wholly female nor wholly male,
  • a combination of female and male, or
  • neither female nor male.

Sexual orientation means a person’s orientation towards:

  • persons of the same sex, or
  • persons of a different sex, or
  • persons of the same sex and persons of a different sex.

[xvii] Interestingly, it also means heterosexual people are covered by the publicly threatening or inciting violence offence in the Crimes Act 1900, although they still don’t have any coverage under the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 itself (for discrimination, or civil complaints of vilification).

[xviii] Section 38P. It is hoped that, given the work in recent years by transgender groups, the Australian Human Rights Commission and Australian sporting organisations, these provisions could be amended if not repealed entirely in future years.

[xix] Section 38Q.

[xx] Included in both sub-sections 38C(3)(b) and 49ZO(3)(b).

[xxi] Section 25(3)(b).

[xxii] Section 8, which covers Discrimination against applicants and employees on the ground of race, does not include any exception based on the number of employees that an employer has.

2 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977?

  1. re: footnote xix, that superannuation provision would essentially only have symbolic implications now, wouldn’t it, but may have been intended to limit ‘same sex’ couples attempting to get around discriminations in the past?

    I can understand the Wesley Mission being considered to be a body established to propagate religion but would St Vincent’s Public Hospital really be able to claim that?

    Like

    • Thanks for your comment Martin. In terms of the superannuation comment, yes, one would hope that superannuation funds no longer behaved in this way. However, in an area of law that serves the dual purposes of a) resolving specific disputes and b) setting community standards (eg that, as a principle, LGBTI people should not be discriminated against), leaving such a provision on the statute book still tacitly condones the view that transgender people are somehow ‘lesser’.

      In response to your second question, yes, St Vincent’s Hospital really would be able to claim that if they so wished – I can see nothing in this legislation that would stop them.

      Like

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