The worst of times

As the dust settles on the recent federal election, and the new Albanese Labor Government settles into office, I wanted to take this short(ish) opportunity to reflect on the term of Parliament just ended, and especially its impact on LGBTIQ Australians.

To the surprise of few readers of this blog, the reflection of the past three years in the rear-view mirror (now thankfully receding into the distance) is far from pretty. Indeed, in my opinion, the 2019-2022 term of the Morrison Liberal/National Government was the worst for LGBTIQ people in my lifetime, by some margin.

There are many reasons for arriving at this conclusion, chief among them the Religious Discrimination Bill, which came to dominate the Morrison Government’s legislative agenda, especially in its dying days.

Remember, this was a law that sought to legally protect offensive, humiliating, insulting and ridiculing comments against women, LGBT people, people with disability and people of minority faiths. By over-riding existing state and territory anti-discrimination laws, it also procedurally denied access to justice for victims of discrimination.

The Coalition’s Religious Discrimination Bill featured the broadest special privileges allowing religious organisations to discriminate against employees and people accessing their services of any anti-discrimination law in Australia. 

If passed, it could have entrenched existing discrimination against LGBT students ‘under the guise of religious views’ – while it definitely would have permitted new forms of discrimination against LGBT teachers by over-riding states and territories that had already protected them.

For more on the problems of the Religious Discrimination Bill, read: Why the Religious Discrimination Bill must be rejected (in 1,000 words or less) 

And even though LGBT people were obviously not the only targets of what I would describe as legislated hatred, I don’t think anyone would deny that denying the rights of LGBT Australians was a primary motivator both for the Morrison Government itself, and for the religious fundamentalists who supported the Bill.

But the Religious Discrimination Bill was by no means the only attack on LGBTIQ people by the Morrison Government.

In the final 12 months alone, we saw all bar six Liberal and National Party Senators vote for a One Nation motion calling for an end to gender-affirming and supporting health care for trans children and teenagers (in June 2021).

In September, the Coalition also rejected straight-forward amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) which would have seen trans, gender diverse and intersex workers protected on exactly the same basis as others, including lesbian, gay and bisexual workers (for more, see: Pathetic, and antipathetic, in equal measure).

In February 2022, on the very day that the Religious Discrimination Bill was finally abandoned, Tasmanian Liberal Senator Claire Chandler introduced legislation seeking to ban trans women and girls from participating in sport. Despite being a private member’s bill, it was later explicitly and repeatedly supported by Morrison himself, and no doubt would have been a priority for his Government had they been re-elected.

And of course the election campaign itself was marred by the toxic transphobia of candidate for Warringah, Katherine Deves, hand-picked by Morrison himself in a transparent effort to invent a culture war and win the votes of bigots (for more, see: Ten months of transphobia). 

Then there was the issue of LGBT students in religious schools, a topic about which the Morrison Government continually found new ways to disappoint, ultimately abandoning some of the most vulnerable members of the community.

Morrison had promised way back in October 2018 to protect LGBT kids before the end of that year – a commitment he spent the following three and a half years running away from (for more, see: Scott Morrison’s Broken Promise to Protect LGBT Students is Now Three Years Old). By the time he was booted from office, his broken promise to end discrimination against LGBT students was 1,318 days old (and yes, I was counting).

The appalling treatment of LGBT kids during the Religious Discrimination Bill debate in February demonstrates just how little he, and his Ministers, cared about this group. Not only did Morrison’s proposed amendments only seek to prohibit expulsion – which would have allowed religious schools to continue to mistreat students in 1,001 other ways, from differential treatment and exclusion, through to discipline, detention, suspension and even asking them to leave).

But the calculated choice to exclude trans and non-binary children from any and all protection whatsoever (and therefore only to prohibit the technical expulsion of lesbian, gay and bisexual kids), was a wholly-prejudiced policy so heinous it can never be forgiven, and that includes anyone who voted for it.

The mistreatment of LGBT students also neatly illustrates why the last term of Parliament was truly the worst of times because, as much as what made the past three years horrific were the constant attacks on our community, just as damaging in the long run was the Morrison Government’s failure to take action to address long-standing human rights abuses against LGBTIQ Australians.

Not least of which are coercive surgeries and other non-consenting medical interventions on children born with innate variations of sex characteristics (otherwise known as intersex children).

Not only did the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison Governments successively fail to implement any of the recommendations of the ground-breaking Senate Inquiry into this issue from October 2013 – almost nine years ago – but, as far as I am aware, they also didn’t even acknowledge, let alone respond to, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Report from October 2021 either (‘Ensuring health and bodily integrity: Protecting the human rights of people born with variations in sex characteristics in the context of medical interventions’).

Now, as someone who is in their mid-40s, I’m old enough to recognise that the last term of Parliament is not the only three-year period which has been challenging for LGBTIQ Australians.

Indeed, I suspect readers are probably thinking of two other terms which were also brutal – the 2001-2004 term of the Howard Government during which the marriage ban was originally passed, and the 2016-2019 term of the Turnbull/Morrison Government, and especially the plebiscite debate and then postal survey.

But I would argue that neither was as relentlessly awful as the three years just concluded.

In terms of Howard, it was really only the final six months of the 2001-2004 term during which he sought to use same-sex marriage (as it was then called) as a wedge against the Labor Opposition – the first two and a half years were awful for other reasons (especially in the (mis)treatment of First Nations people, and people seeking asylum) but did not specifically target LGBTIQ Australians in the same way as the Morrison Government.

And in terms of the 2016-2019 term of the Turnbull (and later Morrison) Government, I absolutely acknowledge that the debate about the plebiscite, in the last half of 2016, and then the postal survey (which, let’s not forget, was the idea of now-Opposition Leader Peter Dutton) in the last half of 2017, were completely unnecessary, totally divisive and ultimately damaging for far too many LGBTIQ people.

At the same time, it was nevertheless a debate about improving the legal recognition of LGBTIQ relationships, and the Australian people eventually delivered marriage equality, which was a welcome and long-overdue step forward (no thanks to the Liberal Party, who must never be allowed to claim credit for this outcome – see: Liberals Claiming Credit for Marriage Equality Can Get in the Bin).

In contrast, the debate around the Religious Discrimination Bill concerned a law that sought to strip existing rights away from LGBT people, including protections against discrimination, and the ability to go about our day-to-day lives without being subjected to offensive, humiliating, insulting and ridiculing comments simply because of who we are.

The Religious Discrimination Bill debate also dragged on far longer than the plebiscite/postal survey – with the first exposure draft released in August 2019 (followed by a second in December of that year), and the Bill not stopped until February 2022 (30 months later).

I should at least acknowledge two additional contextual factors which help to explain just why the past three years have been so rough – although neither reduces the culpability of the Morrison Government for its actions.

The first is that there was obviously a cumulative effect of the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Government’s homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex discrimination. With the safe schools debate and decision to de-fund it occurring in the first term, and the plebiscite debate and postal survey (plus religious freedom review) in the second, the LGBTIQ community was already worn down by seemingly continuous debates about our lives.

Although, as the Treasurer who allocated funding for the plebiscite and then postal survey, Scott Morrison is responsible for a significant share of that accumulated stress.

The second is there is no doubt the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic since early 2020 has exacerbated the harms caused by the Morrison Government’s attacks on our community, especially because it left us isolated and alone in our homes when we needed each other for support and reinforcement to fight back against the Religious Discrimination Bill.

But once again, that context does nothing to exculpate the outgoing Government – indeed, the fact they were willing to push ahead with this divisive legislation, during bushfires, and floods, and a global pandemic, and instead of doing anything to alleviate climate change, only renders them more guilty.

There is one last question which needs to be addressed, and that is: why does writing this down matter? Especially post-election?

After all, the Morrison Government has been defeated. The country has (thankfully) moved on. While for the LGBTIQ community, we already know the past three years were the worst of times, because we endured them, and for many have the scars to prove it.

To which I say there are still (at least) two reasons for publishing this article.

The first is to ensure the Coalition’s homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex discrimination is properly recorded.

This is especially important as the Liberal Party inevitably tries to rewrite the history of the recent past, to present some kind of softer, kinder, gentler image to the electorate. But there was nothing soft, or kind, or gentle, about 2019, 2020, 2021, and early 2022 for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer Australians.

The second is because I think it helps to explain how many of us are feeling, right now. Yes, there is a sense of relief the attacks on us have ended (for now), but that welcome feeling doesn’t even begin to outweigh the sheer exhaustion from fighting constant battles over the last three, or six, or nine, years.

The tiredness in our collective bones.

On a personal level, and as an advocate with more than two decades experience, I will willingly concede the past three years have been the toughest of them all. 

The end of 2021, when two years of a global pandemic was followed by the introduction of the final Religious Discrimination Bill in late November, was particularly rough. It is definitely no coincidence that, in late December, exactly three days after lodging our submissions to both Parliamentary inquiries into the Bill, I came down with shingles (the working title for this post was actually ‘Scott Morrison’s Homophobia Gave Me Shingles’ but I assumed, probably correctly, nobody would click on that).

My body was saying, loudly and clearly, enough. Especially as illness ruined the planned summer break, preventing me from seeing my parents in Queensland.

Of course, the Religious Discrimination Bill debate continued, relentless, rolling on into Committee hearings in early January and Parliamentary debate in early February. But so did my need to stand up for my community, and try to see it defeated. Which we did. Collectively. But it came with a significant cost.

For me, that was burnout worse than anything I have experienced before, and – being completely honest – which I’ve only just recovered from (and which helps to explain the lack of recent posts).

Anyway, the point of this is not to say ‘woe is me’ (I’m fine, now). But it is to acknowledge there are a lot of people still feeling pretty bruised and battered by the past three years. And so we should try to show the care towards each other that the Morrison Government didn’t.

Together, we saw off the Religious Discrimination Bill. Together, we can put the worst of times behind us.

NB This post is written in a personal capacity, and does not reflect the views of employers past or present.

Scott Morrison’s defeat ended the worst Commonwealth Parliamentary term for LGBTIQ rights in my lifetime.

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

4 thoughts on “The worst of times

  1. Thank you, Alastair, for your tireless, evidence-based and articulate advocacy on behalf of us all. This is a truly excellent record of the traumas caused and perpetuated by the various Liberal – National Coalition governments of Australia – especially the last, most despicable one.
    Your record of calling out this injustice will stand the test of time.
    Time, now, for healing.
    Thank you.
    Stuart Loveday
    Sydney, NSW


  2. Hi Alastair, I’m sorry to hear about the toll this work has taken on you, and I’d like to encourage you to continue to prioritise self-care, even though it may feel like the worst is over, and you’re fine now. I’ve found that these cyclical crises (and they are bound to continue) can erode our reserves of mental, emotional, spiritual and physical energy and undermine our resilience.
    Your work is amazing, and remains crucial. But above all, you are precious, and I hope you care for yourself as wisely, thoroughly, and practically, as you do the rest of us.
    big hug
    Sujay Kentlyn
    Darwin, NT


    • Hi Sujay, Thank you very much for your very thoughtful message. Yes, I am definitely prioritising self-care (a *lot* more than I am used to doing), and will continue to do so for the medium term. Hope you are doing well too. Big hug back. Kind regards, Alastair


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