[*Not surprising in the slightest]
In August 2020, NSW One Nation MLC Mark Latham introduced the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020. As I wrote at the time, this Bill is the worst legislative attack on LGBTI rights in Australia this century.
In particular, Latham’s Bill seeks to erase trans and gender diverse students from classrooms and schoolyards across NSW. It would also establish a UK ‘section 28’-style prohibition on positive references to anything at all to do with LGBT people, as well as introducing an offensive and stigmatising definition of intersex variations of sex characteristics.
This Bill should have been immediately rejected by the Berejiklian Liberal/National Government and (at the time McKay) Labor Opposition. Instead, Coalition and Labor Members of the Legislative Council voted to refer the Bill for inquiry by the Portfolio Committee No. 3 – Education, which just so happens to be chaired by Mark Latham himself, thus creating a serious and ongoing conflict of interest.
Even if there might be circumstances in which an MLC should be given authority to lead an inquiry into their own legislation (and, readers, I can’t think of any right now), a chair in this situation should be acutely aware of the responsibilities of their position and their obligation to act impartially and respectfully.
Unfortunately, as demonstrated in the 11 months since then, Mark Latham is not such a chair. Indeed, Mark Latham’s Inquiry into Mark Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill has been as unbalanced and transphobic as his legislation is, as evidenced in the following five areas:
- Lack of trans witnesses
Latham’s inquiry conducted hearings on April 20 and 21, 2021. Across those two days, 42 witnesses were scheduled to give evidence. Do you know how many were trans or nonbinary children – that is, the people who stand to lose the most if this legislation passes?
In fact, there was only one identified trans witness out of 42 (the amazing Teddy Cook, from ACON), plus one parent of a trans child. As far as I am aware, that means 40 witnesses out of the 42 scheduled to appear (or 95% of witnesses) were neither trans themselves nor the parent of a trans child.
This imbalance alone is enough to dismiss the validity of the entire inquiry.
It’s not like there weren’t other trans individuals and organisations ready and willing to give evidence either. As I understand it, the Gender Centre – described in its submission as ‘NSW’s leading trans led organisation, providing 95% of all trans specific services in the state’ that ‘support over 500 NSW transgender and gender diverse families generally’ – were not invited to appear.
The selection of non-trans witnesses was biased, too. Of the religious organisations invited to give evidence, only faith groups that expressed support for the Bill were given a guernsey.
As noted by Greens MLC David Shoebridge during the hearings: ‘Unfortunately, the Coalition and the Chair determined not to allow any witnesses to appear from the parts of the Christian faith who oppose the bill.’ (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 8).
This meant religious organisations that expressed their opposition to the Bill through their submissions – including the Pitt St Uniting Church, and Uniting Church LGBTIQ Network – did not receive an invitation to appear.
In my view, the lack of trans witnesses, and biased selection of others, rendered this inquiry process illegitimate from the outset.
2. Disrespectful treatment of submitters and witnesses
It wasn’t just the selection of witnesses that was unbalanced, but also how organisations that made submissions, or appeared as witnesses, were (mis)treated – especially by the chair.
Take, for example, the Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta, who made a submission to the inquiry in which they expressed their opposition to Latham’s Bill.
For this ‘sin’, not only were they not invited, but they were attacked in their absence.
When Shoebridge noted that ‘The Chair and the Coalition would not allow them to come. They voted on majority to prevent them coming’, Latham ultimately responded with ‘Well, there has to be a degree of sanity here.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 36).
Imagine, as the Chair of an inquiry, thinking it appropriate to imply an organisation that made a submission to that inquiry ‘lacked sanity’.
The attack worsened from there, with Latham asking the witness from Catholic Schools NSW (who did oppose the Bill and were not coincidentally offered an invitation) to provide data about enrolment and academic performance of schools in the Parramatta Diocese specifically:
‘My understanding is that a number of the Parramatta parents are none too happy about this position and that the Parramatta diocese enrolment share and academic results have collapsed in recent times because of the so-called progressive approach to education. Do you have some data on that that you can furnish to the Committee?’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 36).
In my opinion, there can be no justification for asking questions which suggest a vendetta against religious bodies which have the temerity to take a different policy view to yours.
Nor was this the only example of Latham’s disrespect to submitters or witnesses. Later that day he made a series of what can only be described as unprofessional remarks in response to the evidence of Georgia Burke, representing the LGBTI Subcommittee of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights.
Burke: ‘… The best interests of the children are entirely disregarded with the primacy of parents put to the forefront.’
Latham: ‘Jesus, seriously.’
Burke: ‘It is interesting to reflect on the comments of the special rapporteur to which we refer in our submission.’
Latham: ‘The best interests of the children are disregarded when the parents are put to the forefront?’
Shoebridge: ‘Carry on.’
[Labor MLC Anthony] D’Adam: ‘Carry on, they are just being rude.’
Latham: ‘That is unbelievable.’
Burke: ‘His report of 2010 – and I do have a copy with me if it assists the Committee for me to table that report.’
Latham: ‘Jesus Christ.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 63).
[As an aside, it might be interesting to know what the religious fundamentalists who support Latham’s similarly-extreme ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill think about his blasphemy?]
As chair, Latham also accused witnesses of either ‘fabrication’ (saying to Ghassan Kassisieh of Equality Australia: ‘That is not what the Bill says. That is just a fabrication, I am sorry.’ Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 63), or ‘making something up’ (to Jared Wilk of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties: ‘You see, that is the problem. You are making something up about the bill that is not actually true.’ Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 65).
This is not the behaviour of somebody who should be in charge of anything, let alone an inquiry into legislation which carries the very real potential to undermine the human rights of some of the most vulnerable members of the community.
3. Allowing irrelevant evidence
The potential impact of Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill is incredibly broad – applying not just to classroom teaching, but also to ‘instruction, counselling and advice’ provided to students by principals, school counsellors, non-teaching staff, contractors, advisors and consultants, non-school based staff, contractors, advisors and consultants, and even volunteers (proposed new section 17C of the Education Act 1990).
However, one thing it doesn’t actually apply to is school sport. Despite this, Latham’s inquiry invited Katherine Deves from ‘Save Women’s Sport Australasia’ to address the Committee, where they were given free rein to make comments like:
‘It requires them [women and girls] to forego their right to compete on a level playing field in sport because fair competition is destroyed, athletic opportunities are lost and players’ safety is completely disregarded. On 1 December last year a senior bureaucrat in the NSW Sports Minister’s office told me that a woman would have to be killed before gender inclusion sports policies would be withdrawn.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 24).
‘We believe that the female sports category should be for female-born females only. We need to start asking boys and men to be more accommodating of non-gender-conforming boys and accommodate them in their sports instead of expecting the girls and the women, to their own detriment, to accept them into their sports. We are getting stories now of boys competing in girls’ sports and winning and taking sports on the podium and taking sports on the team and girls being harmed.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 27).[i]
Leaving to one side the lack of evidence to substantiate these claims, this testimony had nothing whatsoever to do with the Bill – a point which Shoebridge raised: ‘Point of order: There is not a single part of the terms of reference of this inquiry that relates to sport and I cannot see how either the opening submission or this question relates to the terms of reference.’
About which Latham eventually ruled: ‘I do not think censorship here is appropriate. The witness can answer the question.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 27).
Except ensuring witnesses at least vaguely stick to the terms of reference of the inquiry is not censorship, but one of the core responsibilities of a Committee Chair, something Latham spectacularly failed to fulfil here.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, women’s sport was not the only unrelated matter that was allowed to be raised – Latham also provided ample space for witnesses to talk about access to bathrooms, something that is also unaffected by his legislation.
For example, Terri Kelleher of the Australian Family Association was given the opportunity to make the following comments:
‘Why would you want to set up – because part of the instructions or guidelines for schools as a result or a flow-on from teaching gender fluidity, you know, that people are the gender they feel and it may not be their natal sex, is to allow natal males into girls’ toilets. Now, that is not saying that all males or all boys who identify as girls are going to be a threat, but it sets up a situation where that can occur. This is very serious in the light of the child-on-child sexual abuse in schools.’ (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, pages 40-41).
And then allowed to elaborate:
‘One of the risks … is the staff is to monitor the length of time in a change room. So staff are to monitor the length of time. It puts teachers in a difficult situation. Are they to be rostered outside toilets? Does there always have to be someone supervising wherever the toilets may be used, which would be throughout the day?’ (page 41).
Which led to the following exchange between MLCs sitting on the Committee:
D’Adam: ‘Point of order: We are taking evidence on a bill that has nothing to do with unisex toilets.’
Shoebridge: ‘Or teachers sitting outside toilets timing.’
D’Adam: ‘It has nothing to do with it. It is outside the terms of reference of this inquiry and I would ask the Chair to bring the witness back to-‘
[Nationals MLC Wes] Fang: ‘I have been waiting for this one. ‘Any other matter’ – it has been called on me so many times.’
Latham: ‘Yes. Related matters. I think the use of – I raised earlier on the problem of boys declaring themselves to be girls to get into the girls’ change room. That was in order and I think this is in order as well.’ (page 41)
In effect, the Chair of the inquiry ruled that ‘bathroom panic’-style testimony was in order because he himself had raised the issue of change room access, from the Chair, earlier in the day. This is the opposite of an impartial investigation.
4. Providing a platform for transphobia
As we have already seen, by allowing witnesses to talk about unrelated matters like trans participation in sport and ‘bathroom panic’ (including rhetorically linking trans access to toilets to child sexual abuse), Latham ensured his inquiry provided a platform for transphobia. Nor were these the only examples of extreme prejudice against trans and gender diverse young people over those two days.
This includes multiple witnesses suggesting that the gender identities of the majority of trans and nonbinary kids were not real but instead the product of mental illness:
‘When parents are kept in the dark about gender ideology and about what children are exposed to related to gender fluidity, they face an increased risk of harm. School officials and others do not know of, or may disregard, a child’s personal history – perhaps trauma or abuse or other diagnosed conditions, whether autism or mental health issues. They may play a role in a child’s identity concerns.’ (Mary Hasson, Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 3).
Dianna Kenny of something called the ‘Society for Evidence-based Gender Medicine’ was permitted to make the following extraordinary – and extraordinarily offensive – claim:
‘There is a very minute number of people who are what we try to call genuinely trans, and suddenly we have seen a 4,000 per cent increase in the number of young people identifying as trans. Only a tiny fraction of that 4,000 per cent increase are going to be what we call genuinely trans. The rest of them are in the thrall of the trans lobby, and they have serious mental health issues and other things that need to be addressed.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 33).
When asked by Labor MLC Anthony D’Adam about those people who Kenny claimed were not ‘genuinely transgender’ (‘Those who are not in that category – the others – you are saying that there is something wrong with them, that they are sick.’), Kenny replied:
‘It is a manifestation of serious mental health issues, yes. I work clinically with those people. I see them at close quarters. I work intensively with the families and with the young people themselves. The evidence is increasing exponentially that those young people have serious health issues that need to be addressed…’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, pages 33-34).[ii]
From my perspective, this does not read like a reasonable debate of issues related to the Bill but instead seems to be a free kick for witnesses to make derogatory comments about the mental health and wellbeing of trans and nonbinary kids.
Of course, being a parliamentary hearing about trans rights in 2021, a range of other transphobic tropes – from ‘desisters’[iii]/’de-transitioners’[iv] to ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria’[v] and ‘social contagion’[vi] – made predictable appearances (and, just as predictably, none were based on high-quality, independently-verified research, because, well, it doesn’t exist).
Mark Sneddon of the Institute of Civil Society even gravely warned that: ‘What we are trying to do – or what I understand this bill is trying to do – is to reduce the social contagion influence putting more people onto the conveyor belt of gender transition.’ (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 42).
A quote which, perhaps unintentionally, goes to the core of the whole debate. Through their evidence, these witnesses all appear to be implying that being trans or nonbinary is itself a negative thing, and should be avoided wherever possible, including through legislation which prevents students from even hearing that gender diversity exists.
Whereas the rest of us understand that a) trans and nonbinary people are a part of the natural spectrum of human gender identity (and indeed always have been), b) trans and nonbinary kids are awesome, and c) there are really two conveyor belts – one which lets trans and nonbinary kids be themselves and delivers them to health and happiness, and one which tells trans and nonbinary kids that they are wrong and should not exist, and abandons them to darkness and depression.
That is really what Latham’s Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 is all about – keeping trans and nonbinary students in the dark. About who they are. And that who they are is okay. More than okay. Beautiful.
Latham’s legislation is deeply transphobic. Which means it is no surprise that so was the evidence of many of the witnesses appearing at his inquiry. And that includes Latham himself, who even deliberately deadnamed and misgendered a prominent transgender Australian. (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 48).
5. Giving evidence from the chair
The fifth and final way Latham’s inquiry was unbalanced is not directly linked to trans and gender diverse children, but nevertheless goes to how ‘un-parliamentary’ his behaviour was – and that was his frequent attempts to give evidence from the chair.
For example, after raising the (unverified) story of a student whose school counsellor supported their social transition against the wishes of their parents, he was asked by Shoebridge ‘Is that in evidence?’ and by D’Adam: ‘Point of order: Is the chair giving evidence?’ To which Latham replied:
‘That is in evidence – and did not tell the family. So, Jack has asked me a question. I have given you a brief summary and will be presenting more of that evidence as the inquiry unfolds…’ (emphasis added, Hearing Transcript, 20 April, pages 24-25).[vii]
Perhaps the most extreme example came when Latham attempted to ask Ghassan Kassisieh of Equality Australia about a range of non-LGBTI issues, before making unsubstantiated claims about climate change, leading not just the Greens’ David Shoebridge but even the Nationals’ Wes Fang to suggest Latham should not be doing so as chair:
Latham: ‘Climate change – that while there is evidence of warming, it is not at some of the alarmist levels that have been projected. Sea levels are not rising and Tim Flannery was wrong about his predictions that our dams in western Sydney would never fill again.’
Shoebridge: ‘Point of order: Simply making these unfounded, biased assertions from the chair on matters unrelated to the terms of reference of this inquiry is not of assistance and, in fact, it does not fit with any of the terms of reference of this inquiry.’
Fang: ‘To the point of order-‘
Latham: ‘It fits in the submission. It is the witness’s submission – wanting to know the other side of the story. I am seeking a response about the other side of the story.’
Shoebridge: ‘Call me old-fashioned but I was looking at the terms of reference of the inquiry.’
Fang: ‘To the point of order: I actually support Mr Shoebridge here. Chair, you should not be doing it and, like Mr Shoebridge, if you are going to make these unsubstantiated comments you should do it just as a participating member, like Mr Shoebridge does often through this Committee.’ (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 59).
Fang nails the problem here – Mark Latham should never have been permitted to prosecute the case for his own legislation as chair of the same Committee inquiring into it.
It was an inevitable conflict of interest, and just as inevitably led to serious shortcomings of the inquiry generally, and the hearings on April 20 and 21 in particular.
From a lack of trans witnesses, and only inviting faith bodies that supported the Bill to appear while ignoring those religious organisations that opposed it.
To criticising trans-supportive faith groups in their absence, implying they ‘lacked sanity’, and acting disrespectfully and unprofessionally to other witnesses.
Allowing completely irrelevant testimony, about trans inclusion in girl’s and women’s sports, and ‘bathroom panic’, which had exactly nothing to do with the legislation being considered.
And giving voice to transphobia, including providing a platform to witnesses who dismissed the gender identity of the majority of trans and nonbinary kids as not being real while simultaneously describing them as suffering ‘serious mental health issues’.
Before using the position of chair to give his own evidence, rather than impartially examining the evidence of witnesses.
If you were being charitable, you could describe these hearings, and the overall inquiry they were a part of, as a farce.
But, after reading through all of the testimony given over those two days, including the derogatory comments about some of the most vulnerable members of our community, I am not feeling especially charitable. So I will call it as it is:
This inquiry, and the fact Mark Latham has been allowed to serve as its chair, is a sick joke. And, if you can’t tell by now, I am not amused.
The other thing that is definitely not humorous? The fact the Coalition Government, and Labor Opposition, have allowed this embarrassing debasement of NSW Parliament to drag on for almost a full year.
This legislation seeks to erase trans and nonbinary kids in schools across NSW. It will cause harm to them, and to all LGBTI children and young people.
These things have been known since it was first introduced in August 2020 – and yet neither Gladys Berejiklian, nor Jodi McKay and now Chris Minns, have done the bare minimum: to speak out against it, and declare they will not support legislation that attacks kids.
What the fuck are they waiting for?
It’s beyond time for the major parties to finally reject Mark Latham’s Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020, and Latham’s equally unbalanced and transphobic inquiry into it.
NSW Parliament can be, should be, better than this. Trans and nonbinary kids need it to be.
For LGBTI people, if this post has raised issues for you, please contact QLife on 1800 184 527, or via webchat: https://qlife.org.au/
Or contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.
[i] Nor was Deves the only witness allowed to raise the irrelevant issue of trans inclusion in girl’s and women’s sports, with Terri Kelleher of the Australian Family Association making the following comments:
‘What right do they [girls in schools] have to fair sporting competitions? There is a worldwide movement at the moment speaking out for women’s and girl’s rights to their own sporting competitions on the ground that natal males have serious advantages over females.’ (Hearing Transcript, April 20, page 40).
[ii] Strangely enough, despite Kenny arguing that ‘genuinely transgender’ people are extremely rare, they are also capable of ‘destroying the fabric of the nuclear family’ (‘But to withdraw parental guidance and authority in the way that the transgender lobby has implemented with children declaring themselves to be transgender is really destroying the fabric of the nuclear family.’ Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 28), which indicates trans people must have super-powers.
[iii] John Steenhof of the Human Rights Law Alliance (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 36) and Mark Sneddon of the Institute for Civil Society (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 42).
[iv] Patrick Byrne of the National Civic Council, who suggested that transition – and not transphobia – was the cause of high rates of depression and suicide amongst transgender people: ‘Are you going to teach that there is a growing movement of de-transitioners and the risk if you go all the way down the road to full sex change surgery, a highly intrusive medical surgery, and then the longer-term risks from that. The best study on that was in Sweden, I think it was, the long-term effects of … transitioning, which had a suicide rate of 19 or 20 times the rest of the population.’ (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 44), and Kirralie Smith of Binary Australia (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 9).
[v] Dianna Kenny of the Society for Evidence-based Gender Medicine (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 29 and page 31).
[vi] Mary Hasson (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 3), and a favourite phrase of Dianna Kenny, who used it multiple times, including in this truly non-sensical quote revealing she apparently does not understand the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation:
‘Basically, what is happening is that children are being taught erroneous information and based on erroneous information these children are becoming extremely confused and as through a process of social contagion we are seeing very large increases in the number of children declaring themselves either non-binary, transgender, genderqueer, asexual, pansexual, omni-sexual, demi-boys and demi-girls.’ (Hearing Transcript, 21 April, page 25).
[vii] Another example occurred after a witness attempted to cite Latham’s Second Reading Speech for the Bill as ‘evidence’:
D’Adam: ‘Just to further elaborate, obviously we have all heard the second reading speech.’
Shoebridge: ‘It is not evidence.’
D’Adam: ‘That is not necessarily evidence of what is occurring. It is an assertion from a Member of Parliament.’
Latham: ‘Order! There is a professional development course. I will show you the course. We have got it on tape.
Shoebridge: ‘There is no order. It is not evidence.’ (Hearing Transcript, 20 April, page 37).