What’s Wrong With the Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Act?

This post is part of a series of posts looking at Australian anti-discrimination laws and analysing how well, or in many cases how poorly, they protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people from discrimination and vilification. The other articles can be found here.

These articles look at the laws that exist in each jurisdiction, and assess them in three key areas:

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

Unfortunately, the Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Act has significant problems in relation to all three issues, meaning there is plenty of work to do for the Legislative Assembly to ensure LGBTI people are adequately protected against discrimination and vilification.

Protected Attributes

Sub-section 19(1) of the Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Act sets out the grounds on which discrimination is prohibited, including “19(1)(c) sexuality.”

Sexuality itself is defined in section 4 of the Act as: “sexuality means the sexual characteristics or imputed sexual characteristics of heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality or transsexuality.”[i]

On a positive note, employing this definition means the Act does offer protection to lesbians, gay men and bisexual people (something not all state and territory laws do – for example, New South Wales does not cover discrimination or vilification against bisexual people). Although arguably it could still benefit from the more inclusive definition of ‘sexual orientation’, as featured in the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984[ii].

However, there are significant problems in terms of the Act’s application to discrimination against transgender people. First, because it includes ‘transsexuality’ within the term ‘sexuality’, when it is in fact about gender identity.

Second, and more importantly, by using the word ‘transsexuality’ rather than transgender (or including the term ‘gender identity’[iii] as its Commonwealth equivalent does, which would be preferred), it is possible that the Act fails to protect transgender people who are not ‘transsexual’ from discrimination, which is clearly a significant failing.

Another significant failing is the complete absence of protection against discrimination for intersex people. This stands in contrast to the Commonwealth, Tasmania, the ACT and South Australia who have all prohibited discrimination on the basis of ‘intersex status’[iv].

Summary: The Act does cover discrimination against lesbian, gay and bisexual Northern Territorians (although it could be further improved by adopting a more inclusive definition of sexual orientation). However, by using the term ‘transsexuality’, and including it within the term ‘sexuality’, it is likely the Act does not cover all transgender people. It also fails to offer any protection to intersex people.

Religious Exceptions

There are some positive, but also several negative, features of the Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Act in terms of the special rights it grants religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTI people.

The primary provision establishing ‘religious exceptions’ is section 51:

“This Act does not apply to or 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) an act by a body established for religious purposes if the act is done as part of any religious observance or practice.”

The drafting of these exceptions is actually relatively narrow when compared with those that exist in other states and territories.

For example, while the first two paras above (section 51(a) and (b)) are identical to the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 section 56(a) and (b), the NSW legislation subsequently goes much further, allowing discrimination in relation to:

“(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.”

In contrast, the primary Northern Territory provision appears to more closely target the appointment of ministers of religion, and religious celebrations and practices, rather than the more nebulous criteria of ‘avoid[ing] injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion”.

Indeed, depending on the scope of ‘religious observance or practice’, and how this phrase has been interpreted by the judiciary, the NT provision is arguably more justifiable on the basis it seems to be concerned with religious freedom, rather than providing religious organisations with carte blanche to discriminate against LGBTI people.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of other sections of the Act. Section 37A provides an incredibly broad exception to religious schools:

“An educational authority that operates or proposes to operate an educational institution in accordance with the doctrine of a particular religion may discriminate against a person in the area of work in the institution if the discrimination:

(a) is on the grounds of:

(i) religious belief or activity; or

(ii) sexuality; and

(b) is in good faith to avoid offending the religious sensitivities of people of the particular religion.”

In effect, any religious school in the Northern Territory can discriminate against any employee or potential employee solely because they are LGBTI, irrespective of the role and no matter how qualified they may be. This is simply unacceptable and must be removed.

The section covering discrimination against students is not as broad. Sub-section 30(2) provides that:

“An educational authority that operates, or proposes to operate, an educational institution in accordance with the doctrine of a particular religion may exclude applicants who are not of that religion.”

Note that this only permits discrimination against students on the basis of their religion, and not because of their sexuality (or transsexuality). This is to be welcomed and, if 51(d) (above) has been interpreted narrowly, means LGBT students are protected against discrimination in NT religious schools.

The other provision that grants special rights to religious organisations to discriminate is sub-section 40(3), in relation to accommodation:

“A person may discriminate against a person with respect to a matter that is otherwise prohibited under this Division if:

(a) the accommodation concerned is under the direction or control of a body established for religious purposes; and

(b) the discrimination:

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

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

If discrimination in relation to the appointment or training of ministers of religion is already allowed under section 51(a) and (b), which would presumably include the facilities used for housing these ministers/trainees, it is difficult to see how this particular section would be justified. As a result, it should be repealed alongside section 37A.

Summary: The main religious exceptions offered under the NT Act are relatively modest when compared to some other states and territories. Provided that ‘religious observance or practice’ has been interpreted to mean religious ceremonies and little else, section 51 may not require substantial amendment.

However, there is no justification for discrimination against LGBTI employees or potential employees in religious schools, meaning section 37A should be repealed as a matter of priority. Sub-section 40(3), allowing discrimination in relation to accommodation, also appears excessively broad.

Anti-Vilification Coverage

The Northern Territory is the only jurisdiction in Australia that does not prohibit racial vilification. In which case, it is perhaps unsurprising that there are no prohibitions on vilification against LGBTI people either (the definition of ‘discrimination’ in section 20(1) does include “harassment on the basis of an attribute”, however this falls far short of the usual standard of ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’[v]).

The Government should introduce prohibitions against anti-LGBTI vilification, as well as in relation to other attributes, including race.


Will Chief Minister Michael Gunner fix the NT Anti-Discrimination Act?

On a positive note, during this term of Parliament the Northern Territory Government released a discussion paper looking at Modernisation of the Anti-Discrimination Act. It included examination of all of the above issues (protected attributes, religious exceptions and anti-vilification coverage), with submissions due by 31 January 2018.

However, more than two years later and nothing appears to have come from this consultation. Which means that, heading into the next Northern Territory election on 22 August 2020, the NT Anti-Discrimination Act remains in desperate need of reform. Will whoever is elected by up to the challenge?


If you have enjoyed reading this article, please consider subscribing to receive future posts, via the right-hand scroll bar on the desktop version of this blog or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus


[i] It should be noted here that these concepts (heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality and transsexuality) are not further defined in the legislation.

[ii] Section 4: “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.”

[iii] “[G]ender 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.”

[iv] In March 2017, intersex activists from around Australia released the Darlington Statement which called for the protected attribute of ‘intersex status’ to be replaced by ‘sex characteristics’. For more information, see the OII Australia website, here.

[v] For example, sub-section 18C of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act 1975 provides that:

“(1) It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if:

(a) the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people…”

One thought on “What’s Wrong With the Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Act?

  1. Pingback: Northern Territory Election: Anti-Discrimination Questions | alastairlawrie

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s