Albanese Government Must Do Better, and Do More, on LGBTIQ Rights in Second Year

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the election of the federal Albanese Labor Government. Looking back on those first 12 months, there have been some small but important wins, and some disappointing losses. But above all, there has been plenty of unfinished – and in many cases, un-started – business.

First, to the wins. In November last year, as part of the Fair Work Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Act 2022 reforms, the Government added gender identity and intersex status as protected attributes in relation to the Fair Work Act’s adverse action and unlawful termination provisions. These amendments ensured trans, gender diverse and intersex workers were explicitly included in this law for the first time (although the Government still needs to update the out-dated terminology of intersex status, replacing it with sex characteristics, something Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke has thankfully committed to do).

The second set of wins were the announcements from the Government which coincided with Sydney World Pride earlier this year, including:

  • Development of a 10 Year National Action Plan for the Health and Wellbeing of LGBTIQA+ Australians,
  • $26 million in grants for research projects seeking to improve the treatment and care of LGBTIQA+ people, through the Medical Research Future Fund, and
  • A new inclusion and equality fund to support LGBTIQ human rights in the Asia-Pacific region, with initial funding of $3.5 million.

On the other hand, the second half of 2022 saw some disappointing losses. This includes the decision by the Government to reject Greens amendments, supported by the cross-bench, to create an LGBTIQA+ Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission. Even if the Government believed the Bill being amended at the time (which related to the method of appointment for Commissioners) was the wrong vehicle for these amendments (which is the excuse they used), they have still not committed to introducing their own legislation to establish this stand-alone independent national voice on LGBTIQA+ rights which, based on recent events, is more needed than ever.

Another disappointing loss was the complete exclusion of LGBTIQ groups, and issues, from one of the major set-pieces of the first year of the Albanese Government: the Jobs and Skills Summit. Not only were LGBTIQ organisations not invited to attend the Summit itself, the Government also did not hold any specific consultations with LGBTIQ groups in the lead-up to it (out of more than 100 it conducted). It is therefore no surprise that the outcomes document from the Summit did not address any specific LGBTIQ issues – at a time when many cohorts within the LGBTIQ community experience significant workplace discrimination and exclusion (especially trans and gender diverse workers).

The above wins and losses could, in some respects, be seen as a decidedly mixed scorecard. Instead, I see it as a fundamentally incomplete one – after all, the issues identified are a long way from a comprehensive LGBTIQ agenda. There are many, many more priorities that the Government has not reached an outcome on – including plenty that haven’t even commenced.

Take, for example, one of the few explicit LGBTIQ commitments the Albanese Government took to the May 2022 election: to protect LGBTQ students and teachers in religious schools against discrimination.

In November 2022, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus asked the Australian Law Reform Commission to undertake an inquiry on this topic, with a deadline of 21 April 2023. Except, the day before the final report of that review was due to be handed to the Government, the ALRC was given an 8-month extension to 31 December. There is really no need for such an extension – especially when this law reform itself is actually quite straight-forward (after all, Tasmania, the ACT, Victoria and NT all already protect both LGBTQ students and teachers).

The outcome of this process is that it is highly unlikely LGBTQ students and teachers will be protected this year, with any amendments not taking effect until well into 2024. As I wrote at the time of this delay in The Canberra Times, it is example of the ways in which the LGBTQ class of 2023 has been comprehensively failed, by Governments of both persuasions.

On a related note, the Government has not made any commitments to remove broader religious exceptions, found in both the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and Fair Work Act, which allow religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTQ workers, and people accessing services, across health, housing, disability, aged care and other welfare and community services. The majority of these services are funded by us, the taxpayer, including in aged care – meaning the large increases in aged care funding in the recent federal Budget are going to organisations that can use that money to discriminate against LGBTQ workers.

There are a range of other important LGBTIQ policy areas where the Government has not yet taken concrete action, including:

  • Inclusion in the 2026 Census. While the Australian Bureau of Statistics has started consultation on the questions which should be included in the next Census, the Government has not given an unequivocal promise that questions on sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics will be included. Such questions are necessary to help deliver essential services to our communities – after all, if we are not counted, we do not count.
  • Medicare funding for gender-affirming health care. Far too many trans and gender diverse Australians still cannot afford what are vital, and in many cases life-saving, health services. Gender-affirming health services should be publicly-funded via Medicare, removing out-of-pocket costs for this community.
  • Ending non-consenting surgeries on intersex kids. With the ACT Government soon to pass historic legislation banning many non-consenting surgeries and other medical interventions on children born with variations of sex characteristics (the first jurisdiction in Australia to do so), I am unaware of any Commonwealth Government actions to help ensure intersex kids are protected around the country.
  • Re-introduction of Safe Schools. The Albanese Government continues to fund the National School Chaplaincy Program to the tune of more than $60 million per year (and even though they have formally removed the requirement that these office-holders must be appointed on the basis of religion, the vast majority still are). In contrast, the Government has had two Budgets to date but is yet to find any money to re-introduce what was an effective, and necessary, program against anti-LGBTIQ bullying in schools.
  • LGBTIQ policy infrastructure. In addition to an LGBTIQA+ Human Rights Commissioner at the AHRC, there is a clear need for a Minister for LGBTIQ Communities, as well as formal consultative bodies in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, as well as portfolios like Health, Education and Attorney-General’s. Currently, none of these exist.

[For a more comprehensive LGBTIQ Report Card on the Albanese Government’s First Year in Office, check out this helpful graphic from Just.Equal Australia.]

Even on more symbolic matters, the Government’s record is mixed. While in late February Anthony Albanese became the first Prime Minister to march in the Mardi Gras Parade, and also participated in the World Pride March over Sydney Harbour Bridge in early March, these efforts at visible (some might say performative) inclusivity are undone by his apparent aversion to even saying the word transgender, let alone doing the bare minimum to publicly combat the growing culture war against trans and gender diverse Australians.

Speaking of which, it certainly feels like the Government is missing in action as the LGBTIQ community comes under increasing attacks, and even threats of violence, including the TERF and neo-Nazi rally on the steps of Victorian Parliament, the Christian Lives Matter riot in Belfield in Sydney, and the wave of intimidation against Drag Story Time events in Victoria and now elsewhere around Australia.

Local Councils have been left on their own to deal with what is a growing national crisis of far-right extremism, in a way that may not have happened if the targets had been from other communities. This is perhaps illustrated by the Attorney-General’s ill-timed announcement this week of $40 million in ‘Securing Faith-Based Places’ grants, to protect religious schools and places of worship against violence and discrimination.

Without debating the merits of this scheme – and I obviously agree people should be free to worship in safety – it was a mistake to announce this on IDAHOBIT, certainly without providing equivalent funding for LGBTIQ community security against similar (and in some cases, probably the same) extremists. Nor has the Government made any promises to introduce Commonwealth anti-vilification protections for LGBTIQ Australians, despite committing to prohibit religious vilification.

The Albanese Government still enjoys a large amount of public goodwill, including from many LGBTIQ people – at least partly due to the fact it is not the Morrison Liberal/National Government, a dreadful period during which our community came under relentless and sustained attack.

However, simply not being Scott Morrison is not enough as the Albanese Government enters its second year in office. From an LGBTIQ community perspective, they clearly need to do better, and do more, on the issues which affect us.

Oh, and one final thing. I raise the spectre of Scott Morrison here quite deliberately (despite the risk of PTSD, including my own). Because the coming 12 months is also likely to see the Albanese Government introduce its own Religious Discrimination Bill.

As a community we will need to be on high-alert to ensure this legislation protects people of faith against discrimination on the same basis as existing anti-discrimination laws, without permitting lawful discrimination against others, including LGBTIQ Australians. If it does include anti-LGBTIQ provisions, the Government should be in no doubt we will fight against its law just as hard as we fought against Morrison’s Bill.

Anthony Albanese on election night, 21 May 2022.

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