Lyle Who?

With the postal survey complete, and LGBTI marriage passed by Commonwealth Parliament, it’s time for us to ignore Lyle Shelton.

 

Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) since May 2013, and their Chief of Staff for six years prior to that, the events of the past few months have – thankfully – seen him suffer defeat after defeat.

 

First, he, the ACL and the wider ‘Coalition for Marriage’ (aka the No campaign) comprehensively lost the postal survey:

 

By 2,943,260 votes (or more than the entire population of Western Australia and the Northern Territory, combined),

 

In every state and territory, and

 

In an overwhelming 133 out of 150 electorates across the country.

 

We should remember that this was the process they asked for, one that completely stacked the decks in their favour.

 

An optional vote, with older Australians, who are more likely to oppose marriage equality, also more likely to participate.

 

A postal ballot, with many younger Australians, who are more likely to support marriage equality, also less familiar with ‘physical’ mail.

 

A simple Yes/No question, with the long history of failed referenda in Australia demonstrating it is much easier to run a scare campaign, and sow seeds of doubt, than to convince people to vote for positive change.

 

Rules requiring equal media coverage of the Yes and No cases, even when the No campaign had nothing to say relating to the question of same-sex marriage itself, only misinformation and manipulation about trans and gender diverse kids, and Safe Schools.

 

Even with all of these advantages, the No campaign experienced what can only be described as a drubbing: 61.6% to 38.4%.

 

To add insult to (their) injury, they then lost again in the Parliament, where they sought numerous additional special rights to discriminate against LGBTI couples – and were denied.

 

Despite having a conservative Government, including a Liberal and National majority in the House of Representatives.

 

Despite intense lobbying to provide civil celebrants, and wedding-related businesses, and religious schools, and parents, and charities, with new legal authority to treat same-sex marriages as second-class.

 

Despite having Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull support at least some of these special religious privileges.

 

All of these amendments were voted down in the Senate. And then again in the House of Representatives for good measure.

 

Shelton, the ACL and the Coalition for Marriage comprehensively failed in their mission to ‘defend traditional marriage’.

 

However, as enjoyable as it was to write the above – and the temptation toward schadenfreude is admittedly strong right now – that is not actually the reason we should ignore him.

 

After all, there is nothing wrong with losing in a democracy. As an LGBTI advocate, and a ‘progressive’ more broadly, my own history of involvement in Australian politics is littered with many more defeats than victories. And I’m sure there will be plenty more of the former in coming years too.

 

On the other hand, there is plenty of justification for ignoring him on the basis of how he went about the campaign itself, and the Australian Christian Lobby’s offensive conduct for many years beforehand.

 

Because of his (infamous) oft-repeated comments that rainbow families having children was creating a new Stolen Generation.

 

Because of his rhetorical link between marriage equality and Nazi Germany (“Changing the definition of marriage to entrench motherless and fatherlessness in public policy and teaching our kids their gender is fluid should be opposed. The cowardice and weakness of Australia’s ‘gatekeepers’ is causing unthinkable things to happen, just as unthinkable things happened in Germany in the 1930s”).

 

Because of his incitement of ‘bathroom panic’ against trans women (“Why should a man identifying as a woman be allowed into a woman’s gym or a domestic violence shelter? Why should biological males identifying as women be allowed into women’s public toilets and shower facilities?”).

 

Especially because of their ongoing attacks on trans and gender diverse young people. In the words of Georgie Stone:

 

“Although there is so much we have achieved there is still this social stigma in Australia against trans kids. That needs to change, especially in the light of the same-sex marriage debate. The No campaign used trans kids as cannon fodder” [emphasis added].

 

But, with the postal survey now over, and with all couples now permitted to marry, irrespective of their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics, there is no compelling reason to continue to pay attention to the likes of Lyle Shelton.

 

It’s time we allowed his discriminatory viewpoint to recede to the fringes of society, where it rightfully belongs.

 

For my part, that means ignoring his attention-seeking public commentary. And not sharing articles, posts or tweets in which he and the ACL simply perpetuate homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.

 

Which means that, from today, Lyle Shelton will join an ‘exclusive’ group of people who I vow to never amplify via social media.

 

Alongside a certain former leader of the Australian Labor Party, turned media ‘outsider’.

 

And a notorious internet troll, who was recently in the country and who shares a name with a breakfast beverage.

 

After exerting disproportionate influence on public policy over the past decade, I think we should collectively say ‘Bye Fe-Lyle-cia’. Or should that be ‘Bye Feli-Shelton’? Either way, Lyle, it’s time for you to sashay away.

 

Lyle Shelton

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The robo-debt letter that should be sent

This time last year, there was an emerging scandal for the Turnbull Government – the automated letters being sent to hundreds of thousands of people who had received social security seeking repayment of supposed debts worth tens of thousands of dollars.

 

Based on incomplete and often inconsistent information, a significant proportion of these notices were inaccurate, with many recipients owing nothing at all.

 

The ‘robo-debt’ letter program was nothing short of an omnishambles. Unfortunately, despite scathing assessments by both the Commonwealth Ombudsman and a Senate Inquiry, this scheme continues to this day.

 

Instead of targeting many of the most vulnerable members of the community, for debts they either don’t owe or can’t pay, there is one robo-debt letter that I think should be sent.

 

To a group of people that have cost Australian taxpayers a large amount of money, by failing to perform their most basic duties, and who definitely have the capacity to pay.

 

**********

 

Dear Liberal and National Senators and Members of Parliament,

 

We are writing to seek repayment of a significant sum you owe to the people of Australia. This debt has been incurred due to your failure to fulfil the minimum responsibilities of your employment.

 

In August 2017, instead of voting on legislation in Parliament – which is, after all, what you are elected to do – you decided to outsource your obligations to the general public, by holding a postal survey about same-sex marriage.

 

Your postal survey was unnecessary. Unlike Ireland, there was absolutely no requirement for this process, which could at best be described as a voluntary, non-binding, national opinion poll.

 

Your postal survey was harmful. Exactly as the LGBTI community had told you it would be: “experiences of verbal and physical assaults more than doubled in the three months following the announcement of the postal survey compared with the prior six months”, while “more than 90% reported the postal vote had a negative impact on them to some degree.”

 

Your postal survey was unprecedented. Never before has an optional survey, run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, been used to cast judgement on the fundamental human rights of a minority group. It must never be used again.

 

Your postal survey was wasteful. Originally budgeted at $122 million, it apparently came in under budget – at just $80.5 million*. This is money that could have been spent on health. Or education. Or any number of government programs that actually benefit the Australian community.

 

The historic events of the past fortnight have merely confirmed this monumental waste. LGBTI marriage has finally been passed in both houses of Parliament – the places where this important change should have been made all along.

 

Indeed, Commonwealth Parliament is the only place where it could ever have been achieved.

 

You are one of 105 Coalition Members of Parliament elected at the 2016 federal election. Your personal share of responsibility for this debt, of $100 million, has been allocated equally.

 

Your estimated debt is $766,666.67. We seek your repayment within 30 days of receipt of this letter.

 

Responsibility for seats currently unoccupied due to dual citizenship-related ineligibility – Liberal Senator Stephen Parry, Nationals Senator Fiona Nash and Liberal MP John Alexander – will fall on their respective political parties.

 

We understand a small number of you have consistently opposed your Government’s proposals to hold a plebiscite and then, when that legislation was rejected by the Senate, to conduct a postal survey instead. We thank you for your principled position.

 

If you fall into this category, please supply evidence of your denunciation of these policies, following its announcement by Prime Minister Tony Abbott in August 2015, and during the plebiscite debate in the second half of 2016 and the postal survey debate in August 2017, both under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

 

Once this evidence is received, you share of responsibility will also be allocated to your party’s head office.

 

Grievance procedures

 

It is possible some of you will feel aggrieved to receive this letter. If that is the case, please feel free to lodge a formal letter of complaint.

 

However, you should be aware we will give it the same level of consideration that you gave to the legitimate concerns expressed by the LGBTI community ahead of your decision to hold the postal ballot.

 

You should also consider yourselves lucky.

 

Lucky you are not having your wages deducted for all the years in parliament during which you failed to pass this most straight-forward of reforms (for some of you, stretching all the way back to the Howard Government’s original ban on marriage equality in 2004).

 

Lucky you are not being charged for all the time and expense wasted by LGBTI Australians, and our families, friends and allies, in having to fight for equal rights during your unjust, and unjustifiable, postal survey.

 

Lucky you will not have to pay damages for the emotional, mental and social harms you have caused by shirking your essential responsibilities and undertaking a bitter and divisive ‘vote’.

 

The LGBTI community was not so lucky. We were forced to wait more than 13 years for the equal recognition of our relationships. And then jump through hoops no-one else has ever been expected to negotiate.

 

We paid the price for your lack of leadership. Now it’s time for you to pay up.

 

Sincerely,

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, our families, friends and allies

 

Parliament House

*NB An earlier version of this article used the figure $100 million as the estimate announced by the ABS on the day the postal survey results were announced. On 8 December, Finance Minister Senator Mathias Cormann revealed the final cost to the Government was $80.5 million.

It’s Not Over Yet

Just when you thought Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull couldn’t physically be any more disappointing on marriage equality than he already is, he goes and announces his support for adding new forms of discrimination to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 (aka the Smith Bill).

 

That’s right, less than 24 hours after yesterday’s emotional celebrations when that Bill cleared the Senate – something which Turnbull himself tweeted showed ‘Parliament at its best today – the Senate passed the same-sex marriage bill’ – he has revealed he will support multiple negative amendments in the House of Representatives, including some that were explicitly rejected in the upper house.

 

This significantly increases the chances that the legislation that is ultimately adopted falls well short of genuine marriage equality, even risking the passage of the Bill entirely if we end up with deadlock between the two chambers.

 

It is unclear whether Turnbull actually believes in the amendments himself, or if he is simply supporting them in a(nother) craven capitulation to capital ‘c’ Conservatives within his party, in a last-ditch effort to save his leadership.

 

Frankly, my dear readers, I don’t give a damn what his motivation is. Because, far more importantly, it is clear what the impact will be: more discrimination against LGBTI couples, and LGBTI Australians more broadly.

 

Let’s turn to the possible amendments themselves. Based on media reports in The Australian, and Guardian Australia, it appears Turnbull now supports at least two, probably three, and potentially even more amendments undermining the Smith Bill, which as we already know is a significant compromise. These include:

 

  1. Providing all civil celebrants with an ability to discriminate on the basis of their personal conscientious or religious belief

 

As reported by The Australian, “[t]he Prime Minister supports… provisions that would ensure that marriage celebrants are able to decline to solemnise marriages which they do not wish to solemnise.” Presumably, this means supporting Attorney-General George Brandis’ amendments on this topic.

 

This proposal is so terrible it is almost unbelievable we have to keep explaining why, but just to reiterate the many reasons why we should say ‘I don’t’ to religious exceptions for civil celebrants:

 

  • Civil wedding ceremonies are not religious, therefore a celebrant’s personal beliefs are irrelevant
  • The ability to discriminate does not currently exist with regards to divorcees remarrying, so should not be introduced for LGBTI couples
  • Civil celebrants are performing a duty on behalf of the state, so should not have the power to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status
  • Commercial businesses should not be able to discriminate on the basis of personal religious or conscientious belief
  • If civil celebrants are allowed to discriminate, it is difficult to withhold this privilege from other wedding-related businesses, and
  • Allowing civil celebrants to discriminate creates a terrible precedent for anti-discrimination law in Australia, opening the door to further discrimination in the future.

 

  1. Reinforcing the ability of charities to discriminate against LGBTI people

 

These amendments are being sold as a supposed ‘shield’ to protect charities from some unspecified, nefarious action by future governments. In reality, they are more likely to be used as weapons against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians, further entrenching the ability of religious organisations to discriminate against employees, and people accessing their services.

 

Irrespective of which view you adopt, however, the amendments are completely unnecessary. As revealed by Liberal Senator Dean Smith during Senate debate of his Bill on Tuesday, he wrote to both the Australian Commissioner of Taxation, and the Acting Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commissioner, about the impact of his proposed legislation. From Hansard:

 

“I asked the charities commissioner two questions. The first was whether a religious charity that currently holds and/or expresses a view of or a position on marriage will be able to continue to do so without any negative impacts on its charitable status following the enactment of amendments to the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry – that is, the future act. ‘The short answer’, the commissioner said to me, ‘to this question is yes’.

“The second question I asked the charities commissioner was whether the lawful refusal to conduct a marriage ceremony, deliver goods or services, or hire facilities to same-sex couples or other couples in accordance with the future Marriage Act and current exemptions in federal, state and territory anti-discrimination laws would result in any adverse consequences in relation to an entity’s charitable status. ‘The short answer’, he says in correspondence to me, ‘is no’.

“For the sake of completeness, the Australian Taxation Commissioner says:

… a religious charity holding or expressing a view of a religious nature (position on marriage) will not have an impact on [Deductible Gift Recipient] endorsement.

He goes on to say:

Similarly, lawful refusal to conduct a marriage ceremony, deliver goods and services or hire facilities in accordance with the future Marriage Act will be unlikely to impact DGR endorsement. These activities would fall outside the scope of the general DGR categories and would not prevent DGR endorsed religious charities from fulfilling their DGR purposes.”

 

Turnbull’s own Government agencies – including the Taxation Commissioner himself – have effectively rejected any need for amendments in this area. He should not be jeopardising the introduction of marriage equality for the sake of something that is, at best, unnecessary, and at worst, a Trojan horse for increased discrimination against LGBTI people.

 

  1. Including a declaratory statement about ‘religious freedom’ in the Marriage Act

 

Another Trojan horse for new, adverse treatment of LGBTI Australians is the second of Attorney-General Brandis’ failed amendments: a proposal to add a statement from Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in the objects of the Marriage Act itself.

 

At this stage, there are mixed signals about whether the Prime Minister supports this change. What is not ‘mixed’ – indeed, what is unequivocal – is that such a change must be rejected.

 

In the words of ALP Senate Leader Penny Wong, during the same debate on Tuesday:

 

“As has been pointed out by a number of legal advisers, and also referenced in some of the documentation provided by the Human Rights Law Centre, there are some questions about the extent to which there may be unintended adverse consequences in relation to this amendment. I would also make the point that we find it somewhat odd that one would cherrypick the ICCPR in this way. For example, article 18.1 is singled out but not article 18.3, which states:

Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

“Obviously, 18.3 constrains to some extent the rights articulated in 18.1 and reflected in the amendment that Senator Brandis has spoken to. I also note that article 26 of the ICCPR commences as follows:

All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law.

“I pick up those two aspects of the covenant because it seems to us on this side that there’s obviously, certainly in this chamber and to some extent in the community, an interest in discussing the place of religious belief and the way in which the law might safeguard better the right to have such a belief—the right to hold beliefs—and a discussion about the extent to which that belief might affect the application of Australian law. However, as I have said on a number of occasions today, that is a reasonably complex and at times controversial discussion, and it is certainly a discussion that goes quite directly to the way in which religion is dealt with in a secular state and to the extent to which absolute belief, and limited protection under the law for that, need to be balanced.

“The Labor Party’s view reflects to some extent Senator Brandis’ introduction to this amendment, which is that this is a matter that rightly should go through the process that Prime Minister Turnbull has established [the Ruddock review]. We believe that an amendment of this sort would better be considered in the context of that process.”

 

Greens’ Senator Nick McKim noted even more serious concerns with this amendment:

 

“Enacting only the first sentence of article 18.1 leaves out the limitations on freedom of religion that are found in the remainder of 18.1 and in article 18.3 and… transforms what is a limited right into an absolute right.

“…I want to note that there is a trend around the world in Western democracies—and this is the case in Europe as well as the United States—where conservative Christian pro bono law groups are pursuing aggressive litigation strategies to justify discrimination against LGBTIQ people. Including article 18.1 of the ICCPR in Australian law will make freedom of religion justiciable and fuel legal conflict in our country. Last year we saw the Australian Christian Lobby establish the pro bono Human Rights Law Alliance… they established that alliance precisely for the purpose of litigating against LGBTIQ people, and the alliance is already running a number of cases on behalf of conservative Christians, including challenges to anti-discrimination law on the basis of the religious freedom provision in the Tasmanian Constitution, the constitution of my home state. Senator Canavan described this amendment as ‘a shield’. It’s not a shield; it’s a sword. It’s a sword that will be wielded by the conservative right against LGBTIQ people in this country, and that’s why it should be stridently opposed.”

 

**********

 

I started this post by expressing my disbelief that Malcolm Turnbull could have found a new way to let me, and LGBTI Australians, down. Again.

 

But, putting aside my own incredulity, that’s exactly what he’s done. Again.

 

Even after deciding that LGBTI Australians must be subjected to an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite on our fundamental human rights.

 

Even after that was rejected by the Senate, and he determined that we would be subjected to an unprecedented three-month, $100 million postal survey instead.

 

Even after Australians overwhelmingly voted Yes, and he refused to put forward marriage equality legislation that simply amended the definition, and recognized foreign marriages – without additional discrimination against LGBTI couples.

 

Even after the Smith Bill was passed by the Senate. Now that legislation that would finally allow all LGBTI couples to marry is before the House of Representatives, and its passage is so close we can almost touch it, the Prime Minister is still finding new ways to treat us as second-class citizens.

 

But, just as we’ve overcome all of the previous hurdles that have been placed in our way, we must do everything we can to clear this one too.

 

That means taking action one more time to say that second-class is not good enough. That we won’t accept new forms of discrimination as part of any marriage equality Bill. That the House of Representatives must reject any amendments that can be used to discriminate against us.

 

Please make sure you complete the #equalmeansequal webform, calling on MPs to vote against new discrimination: www.equal.org.au/equalmeansequal

 

Because now is definitely not the time to hold your peace.

 

151222 Turnbull

Prime Minister Turnbull, who wants to add new discrimination to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill in the House of Representatives.

Quit Playing Games

With marriage equality set to be debated in Commonwealth Parliament during the next fortnight, I have written the below letter to all MPs and Senators, calling on them to legislate for genuine marriage equality, not a Bill (or amendments) that entrenches our second-class status. To send your own message that #equalmeansequal, click here.

 

**********

 

Dear MP/Senator

 

I met my fiancé Steven two weeks after my 30th birthday.

 

Within a few months it was clear this relationship was something special. Just 17 months after we met, in January 2010, we did what most couples who are in love do: we got engaged.

 

That means we have been engaged, waiting for the right to marry, for almost eight years.

 

Obviously, a lot of ‘life’ can happen in eight years. We’ve moved cities, changed jobs – almost as many times as the country has changed Prime Ministers – and even bought a home together (well, the small fraction that isn’t owned by the bank).

 

But, nearing the end of 2017, we still can’t plan our wedding day. I want to draw your attention to one of the consequences of our extended, involuntary wait.

 

My grandmother, who is now in the second half of her 90s, would have been able to attend our wedding had we held it when most couples do, within a year or two of our engagement.

 

Instead, with her health declining and having recently moved into assisted living, she won’t be there when Steven and I tie the knot.

 

The delay in passing marriage equality, due to the intolerance, and intransigence, of too many politicians over too many years, has stolen that moment of celebration from us all.

 

Steven’s situation is only slightly better. With a Portuguese background, family is even more important to him. He would love nothing more than to be able to wed in front of his grandmother.

 

But, in her late 80s and having recently had a pacemaker installed, we cannot ignore the possibility his dream may not come true, especially if marriage equality is delayed any further.

 

I think I will be even more upset for him if that moment is stolen, too.

 

Of course, the failure to lead on this issue by Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, and Malcolm Turnbull among others, has taken much, much more from other couples, including Peter Bonsall-Boone and Peter de Waal who, after 50 years together, will forever be denied the ability to marry each other.

 

It’s time for you, as our elected representatives, to end the interminable wait for marriage equality, a wait that has already proven too long for too many.

 

Quit playing games with our relationships. Pass marriage equality now.

 

**********

 

I met my fiancé Steven one week after my brother’s wedding. Two years earlier I attended my sister’s wedding.

 

I look forward to being able to invite both of my siblings, and their respective spouses, to Steven and my nuptials.

 

When we finally say ‘I do’, though, there is a real chance our marriage will be subject to different terms and conditions than theirs. Because the legislation that will give us the right to marry will likely take away our rights in other areas.

 

The Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, introduced by Liberal Senator Dean Smith, is already deeply flawed, allowing existing civil celebrants to simply declare themselves ‘religious marriage celebrants’ in order to turn away same-sex couples, and unnecessarily duplicating religious exceptions from the Sex Discrimination Act within the Marriage Act.

 

Yet, there are many MPs and Senators who seem intent on making this unsatisfactory legislation even worse.

 

From Attorney-General George Brandis, who wants to provide all civil celebrants with the ability to discriminate against couples on the basis of their personal religious or conscientious beliefs, even though their role is entirely secular in nature.

 

And to add a ‘religious freedom’ declaration to the Act that will almost inevitably be used by the Australian Christian Lobby-created Human Rights Law Alliance to litigate to establish new ways of discriminating against LGBTI couples.

 

To Treasurer Scott Morrison, who apparently thinks school students need to be protected from learning about couples like Steven and me, and wants to legislate an unprecedented power for parents to withdraw their children from any class that even mentions the fact same-sex marriages exist.

 

Then there’s Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm, who has already circulated amendments that would allow commercial businesses to discriminate against LGBTI couples on their wedding day. And, if they hold one, at their engagement party. Oh, and on all of their wedding anniversaries too.

 

None of these so-called ‘freedoms to discriminate’ operate currently with respect to inter-faith marriages, or to divorced couples remarrying. The fact they are being proposed now is homophobic.

 

Nor are any of these new religious exceptions necessary.

 

All that is required to introduce marriage equality is to amend the definition in the Marriage Act to be the union of two people, and to recognise the foreign marriages of same-sex couples that already exist. Nothing more.

 

After all, when Steven and I do eventually marry, there is absolutely no reason why we should be treated any differently to, or worse than, my brother or my sister were.

 

Quit playing games with our rights. Pass genuine marriage equality.

 

**********

 

I met my fiancé Steven four days before the 4th anniversary of John Howard’s ban on marriage equality.

 

His Government’s discriminatory Bill was rushed through the Parliament, and passed by the Senate on Friday 13 August, 2004.

 

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians have spent more than 13 years trying to undo his changes, and for a better, fairer, and more-inclusive Marriage Act to be adopted in its place.

 

The process for doing so should have been the same one employed by the then-Liberal Prime Minister: a parliamentary vote.

 

Instead, our two more-recent Liberal Prime Ministers have both argued that LGBTI Australians should have to overcome hurdles that have not been placed in front of other groups.

 

First, it was the proposed plebiscite – a national, non-binding vote that has only been used three times in the 117 years since Federation, but not once to decide on the human rights of a minority, and not once in my lifetime.

 

Then, when that process was firmly rejected by the Senate – at the request of the LGBTI community itself – the Turnbull Government decided to invent a ‘postal survey’ run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, a 3-month, $100 million farce that confirmed what every opinion poll of the last decade had already found, while also stirring up homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in the community.

 

Let’s be clear: the postal survey should never have been held. And it must never, ever be imposed on any other group.

 

Now, having jumped through those extra hoops, and with marriage equality set to be debated by Commonwealth Parliament, the rules have apparently changed once more.

 

Instead of respecting the outcome of the process they chose, which overwhelmingly supported marriage equality, some MPs and Senators are spending more time creating additional restrictions to ensure our relationships are considered lesser than the marriages of cisgender heterosexual couples.

 

They are trying to change the rules of the game, right when LGBTI couples finally get the chance to take our rightful place on the field. Or at the altar. Or wherever we decide to marry.

 

That simply isn’t good enough.

 

Quit playing games with our community. Pass marriage equality, and stop creating new ways to discriminate against us.

 

**********

 

I met my fiancé Steven at a time when I had started to genuinely wonder whether I would ever find someone to spend my days with, let alone share a wedding day.

 

As an LGBTI advocate, the ability to marry felt like an abstract, or even hypothetical, right – important, yes, but not something I thought I would exercise myself.

 

Fortunately, falling in love made the hypothetical real, and today, more than nine years into our relationship, our desire to get married is more real than ever.

 

Unfortunately, public discussion over the past few weeks has at times felt ‘un-real’, as some MPs and Senators have debated the abstract ability of people to discriminate against LGBTI couples, rather than the practical rights of those couples to marry.

 

They have focused on hypothetical homophobic bakers, florists, and wedding-venue providers, and lost sight of the fact marriage equality should be about removing discrimination, not adding to it.

 

Once this parliamentary debate is over, if any of their amendments are passed, the rights of people to discriminate against us will sadly be very real.

 

The message that parliament would send – that our marriages are second-class – would be very real too. And LGBTI Australians would be reminded of that fact every time we are turned away by civil celebrants, or other wedding-related businesses, for years or even decades into the future.

 

It’s time for you, as our elected representatives, to decide what kind of legacy you want to leave. A better, fairer, and more-inclusive Australia. Or a country that chose something else, something lesser.

 

I started this letter by noting that Steven and I met two weeks after my 30th birthday. As much as I might try to deny it that means next year we will celebrate two major milestones: my 40th birthday and, much more significantly, our 10th anniversary.

 

As verbose as I am, I don’t actually have the words to express how much it would mean to me to finally be able to marry the man I love after all this time.

 

And so, I make this final plea to you:

 

Quit playing games. Pass marriage equality now. But, when you do, make sure it treats all couples equally. Because we are. Equal.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

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Why we should say ‘I don’t’ to religious exceptions for civil celebrants

The issue of marriage equality will be decided by Commonwealth Parliament in the next fortnight, first in the Senate (from Monday 27 November) and then, assuming it clears the upper house, in the House of Representatives (from Monday 4 December).

 

The ‘starting point’, problematic though it may be, is Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017. Although what this legislation looks like by the end of this process remains unpredictable.

 

That’s because a wide variety of Coalition MPs are likely to put forward an even more diverse range of amendments. In this post I will discuss just one, already foreshadowed by Senator George Brandis: to provide all civil celebrants with the ability to discriminate on the basis of their personal religious or conscientious beliefs.[i]

 

I do so because, at this stage, this amendment seems to have a better chance of being successful – in part because of who is proposing it (the Attorney-General, a supposed ‘moderate’ within the Government) and also because it is marginally less extreme than some of the other changes flagged by people like James Paterson, Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton.

 

I don’t, however, support Senator Brandis’ amendment, for the following reasons:

 

  1. Civil wedding ceremonies are not religious. Indeed they were explicitly created as an alternative to religious ceremonies – and are now a very popular alternative, accounting for 3-in-4 weddings in Australia in 2015. If the wedding itself is not religious, surely the religious beliefs of the person officiating it are irrelevant.

 

  1. The ability to discriminate does not currently exist. There are a wide range of religious beliefs around marriage, including people who don’t support marriages between people of different faiths, while others don’t believe in divorce and remarriage. And yet, civil celebrants do not enjoy a special privilege to discriminate for these reasons. That it is being contemplated now, when LGBTI Australians might finally be able to wed, reveals that such an amendment is fundamentally homophobic.

 

  1. Civil celebrants are performing a duty on behalf of the state. Only people who are formally registered are given the legal authority to officiate marriage ceremonies – their role is regulated by, and delegated by, the Commonwealth Government. If the Government is not able to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, then nor should people who are fulfilling a secular function on its behalf.

 

Some people do not accept this characterisation, instead asserting civil celebrants are more akin to small business owners. But even on this theoretical foundation, there is absolutely no basis to provide them with special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI couples (or any other couples for that matter):

 

  1. Commercial businesses should not be able to discriminate on the basis of personal religious or conscientious beliefs. They cannot be allowed to hang signs in their windows – real, or online – saying ‘no gays allowed’. In 2017, it feels strange to actually have to put that down in black and white, but it is the inevitable consequence of Senator Brandis’ proposal. And others within the Turnbull Government would go even further (with Kevin Andrews arguing Jewish bakers should be able to refuse Muslim customers, and vice versa).

 

  1. If civil celebrants are allowed to discriminate, it is difficult to withhold this privilege from other wedding-related businesses. While some claim civil celebrants play such a central role in weddings they alone should be able to discriminate, philosophically it is hard to distinguish their position from others closely involved in the same ceremonies (including photographers, wedding venue-providers and even florists). If the former is permitted to reject couples on the basis of personal prejudice, why not the latter? By opening the door to civil celebrants, we may end up inadvertently allowing plenty of others to walk through – when all should be kept outside.

 

  1. Allowing civil celebrants to discriminate creates a terrible precedent for anti-discrimination law in Australia. Currently, the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act, and most state and territory anti-discrimination laws, only permit religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people. They do not provide the same special privileges to individuals. The Australian Christian Lobby desperately wants an individual ‘freedom to discriminate’ against people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. By granting this ability to civil celebrants in the Marriage Act, a change that may seem small to many, we would actually be handing Lyle Shelton a large victory, and an invaluable tool in his ongoing campaign against LGBTI equality.

 

For all of these reasons, I think that anyone who supports genuine marriage equality – including the LGBTI community, our families, friends and allies, and the 61.6% of the population who voted Yes – should say ‘I don’t’ to religious exceptions for civil celebrants.

 

**********

 

It would, however, be remiss of me not to address an argument that is commonly used to support such special privileges, one that is advanced even by some within the LGBTI community itself. That is the view that ‘why would couples want to be married by someone who disagrees with their relationship?’

 

The answer, of course, is that the vast majority of couples do not (although some, especially in rural and regional areas, may have few other options).

 

But, with all due respect to the people making this case, so what? That response doesn’t actually deal with the substantive issue at hand, and completely misunderstands the essential role of anti-discrimination law.

 

To see why, let’s apply the same question to other scenarios: Why would anyone want the florist for their wedding to be prejudiced against LGBTI people? The (now clichéd) baker? The wedding venue-provider?

 

Why would an LGBTI couple want to spend their honeymoon at a hotel where the proprietor disagrees with their relationship? Or to celebrate their anniversary at a restaurant whose owner is homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or intersexphobic?

 

Why would a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex employee want to work for an anti-LGBTI employer?

 

The answer, again, is that most LGBTI people do not want to find themselves in any of these circumstances. But, for a variety of reasons (including the impact of historical discrimination, ongoing homophobic attitudes in society-at-large, and differences in power and privilege) plenty of people do – and that is the reason we have anti-discrimination laws in the first place.

 

The Sex Discrimination Act, and its state and territory equivalents, operate to protect vulnerable groups against adverse treatment, wherever it occurs: the provision of goods and services, education, employment and other areas of public life. That obviously covers civil celebrants offering their services to the public, too.

 

In amending the Marriage Act, we should not support anything that undermines these vital anti-discrimination protections. By conceding that discrimination by civil celebrants should be allowed, by effectively ‘picking and choosing’ when anti-LGBTI prejudice is made lawful, we would be doing exactly that.

 

Once this broader principle of anti-discrimination has been sacrificed, our opponents will stake their claims for ever-widening ‘freedoms to discriminate’. Indeed, Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm has already circulated amendments to the Smith Bill that would make it entirely legal to discriminate against LGBTI couples in providing goods, services or facilities in relation to:

“(a) the solemnisation of a marriage under the Marriage Act 1961; or

(b) the preparation for, or celebration of, such a marriage; or

(c) the preparation for, or celebration of, events associated with such a marriage, including:

(i) an event announcing or celebrating the engagement of the parties to be married; and

(ii) an event celebrating the anniversary of the marriage.”

 

No doubt other conservative MPs and Senators will move their own amendments in the course of parliamentary debate, some perhaps more expansive, and even worse, than these.

 

They must, of course, be rejected – for exactly the same reasons that we must reject Senator Brandis’ amendment concerning civil celebrants. Because lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians should not be discriminated against in any area of public life. No exceptions.

 

If you agree, please take two minutes to write to Commonwealth MPs and Senators to let them know that #equalmeansequal, and that there should be ‘No compromise on equality’ (click here).

 

**********

 

One final point before I conclude. By now, I have hopefully convinced you to say ‘I don’t’ to Senator Brandis’ amendment to create religious exceptions for civil celebrants.

 

If that is the case, then logically you should also say ‘I don’t’ to the Smith Bill itself – because all of the above arguments can also be made against sub-section 39DD(2), which would allow existing civil celebrants to nominate to become ‘religious marriage celebrants’, and discriminate against LGBTI couples, based on nothing more than their personal religious beliefs.

 

That’s why I and others have argued passionately that the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, as it currently stands, does not offer genuine marriage equality. And why we should be pressuring Labor, the Greens and anyone else who claims to support LGBTI equality to amend that legislation to remove such discriminatory provisions.

 

I guess we’ll all find out in the coming fortnight how real their commitment to equality actually is.

 

George Brandis 25

Attorney-General George Brandis, who is proposing religious exceptions for civil celebrants.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Interestingly, Senator Brandis is doing so even though civil celebrants themselves do no support such an amendment. As reported this week in the Sydney Morning Herald , Dorothy Harrison, the chair of the Coalition of Celebrant Associations, said: “We don’t approve of exemptions. We feel that if that’s the law of the country, then that’s what you do. We have discrimination laws and we have to live by them.”

How Dare You

I‘ve been writing this blog for more than five years. In that time, I have tried to stick to a few guiding principles in what I publish:

 

  1. To be factually accurate, and to correct the record as quickly as possible where I do (occasionally) make a mistake. Because there’s not much point in having an uninformed debate.
  2. To only divulge as much personal information as is relevant to the topic at hand, and to try to respect the privacy of my fiancé Steven (although sometimes, as with our appearance on The Drum this week, there is a compelling reason to share our story).
  3. To try not to write, or post, while angry.

 

Today, I’m breaking rule number three. To put it bluntly, I’m mad as hell, and not in an amusing, Shaun Micallef kind of way.

 

The source of my frustration? The fact that, in the same week the overwhelming majority of Australians voted for marriage equality, some Commonwealth Parliamentarians have decided to undermine that same equality by pushing for new special privileges to discriminate against us.

 

Those arguing for something less than full equality include Attorney-General George Brandis, who has already indicated he will move multiple amendments to the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017 (aka the Smith Bill) which, as we have seen, is itself an unsatisfactory compromise.

 

Senator Brandis’ proposals include providing all civil celebrants with the ability to reject couples on the basis of their personal religious or ‘conscientious’ beliefs – despite the fact civil celebrants are performing a secular function delegated by the state.

 

He is also suggesting a provision to state that “nothing in the bill makes it unlawful for people to hold and to express the views of their own religion on marriage.” Which sounds fairly innocuous, but when we eventually see the detail could include an attempt to override state and territory anti-vilification laws.

 

James Paterson

Liberal Senator James Paterson.

 

Then of course there is Senator James Paterson who, on Monday, released his own draft legislation that sought to grant special privileges to discriminate against LGBTI people in a wide variety of circumstances, including allowing commercial businesses to deny goods and services to same-sex weddings.

 

Thankfully, his legislation won’t ultimately be introduced, but he and others are likely to move the majority of its measures as amendments to the Smith Bill.

 

Perhaps the most egregious of these is the concerted push to include, within the Marriage Act itself, a ‘right’ for parents to withdraw their children from any class with which they disagree on the basis of their religious beliefs. This move, reportedly supported by Senators David Fawcett and Zed Seselja, as well as MPs Scott Morrison and Andrew Hastie, is a naked attack on the Safe Schools program.

 

In the words of Peter Dutton: “I want to make sure that proper parental protections are in place… Because I do think this Safe Schools movement will use this debate as a launching pad for their next wave.”

 

It could even extend to parents withdrawing their children from any and all sex education lessons, or Health and Physical Education generally – basically, any class that might teach students the incontrovertible fact that LGBTI people exist, and that we are normal.

 

If you’re struggling to figure out how parents withdrawing children from Safe Schools lessons has anything to do with marriage equality, you’re not alone. Because they are completely unrelated issues, deliberately conflated by the ‘No’ campaign during the postal survey, and again now by conservative MPs.

 

**********

 

It is not difficult to legislate for marriage equality: to amend the definition to be the union of 2 people, and recognise the marriages of LGBTI couples that already exist. That is all that is required to implement the equal treatment of LGBTI relationships – nothing more and nothing less.

 

Instead, we are seeing some Liberal and National politicians using this debate to try to add to, rather than subtract from, anti-LGBTI discrimination, to fight an unrelated ‘culture war’ rather than do the one thing 7,817,247 people voted for: pass marriage equality.

 

My message to Senators Brandis, Fawcett, Seselja and Paterson, MPs Morrison, Dutton and Hastie, and anyone else who is contemplating amendments that have the practical impact of discriminating against LGBTI people and our relationships:

 

How dare you.

 

How dare you hold a 3 month, $100 million non-binding postal survey on the worth of our relationships, and of our lives, in the first place.

 

How dare you decide, when your unnecessary, wasteful and harmful process is finally over and the overwhelming majority of Australians have voted for marriage equality, to offer us something that falls far short of that standard.

 

How dare you attempt to change existing laws so that civil celebrants, who are performing a secular function delegated by the state, can simply say ‘no gays allowed’ on the basis of nothing more than their personal beliefs.

 

How dare you use this debate to attack Safe Schools, and inclusion programs for LGBTI students more generally, so that young people are denied the right to learn that who they are and who they love is okay.

 

How dare you amend legislation that would finally give lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians equal recognition under the law by taking away our rights in other areas, including anti-discrimination and anti-vilification protections.

 

How dare you place any terms or conditions on the right of LGBTI couples to get married in the (hopefully near) future that do not currently exist for cisgender heterosexual couples.

 

How dare you vote to ensure that your own weddings and marriages are treated any differently to, or better than, my wedding and marriage to my fiancé Steven.

 

Seriously, how dare you.

 

**********

 

I thought long and hard before writing this post, and then again before deciding to publish it. There is obviously a risk that, in doing so, I could simply be dismissed as an ‘angry gay’ (which is usually very far from the truth).

 

But then I realised I can live with that description. Particularly because there is a much greater risk: that, after coming so far since the Howard Government first banned marriage equality way back in August 2004, after fighting so hard, and overcoming every obstacle placed in our way – including the unnecessary, wasteful and harmful postal survey – we are denied true marriage equality at the final hurdle.

 

That is what is at stake in the final parliamentary sitting fortnight of the year, starting Monday 27 November: full equality, or something that falls short, potentially by a long distance.

 

I don’t want to think back on this moment and realise that we could have achieved something wonderful, but instead ended up with something flawed.

 

So, if you believe in genuine marriage equality like I do, if you think that LGBTI relationships should be treated in exactly the same way as cisgender heterosexual couples are today, then it’s time to get active.

 

Please write to MPs and Senators who support marriage equality and let them know that there should be No compromise on equality.

 

If you can, call the office of your local MP to reinforce that message. Tweet, share, and do everything you can to make sure your voice is heard at this critical point.

 

This is the best opportunity for our relationships to be treated equally under the law. Don’t let some conservative MPs and Senators take that right, your right, away.

Bill Shorten, It’s time to honour your commitment on marriage equality

The following is my open letter to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, ahead of the announcement of the postal survey result this Wednesday (15 November) and likely subsequent parliamentary consideration of marriage equality legislation:

 

**********

 

On 31 March 2016, you attended a panel event called ‘Why Knot?’ in Redfern, co-hosted by the Guardian Australia and Australian Marriage Equality.

 

At the end of that forum, during the Q&A session, I asked you the following question:

 

“There is a real risk that, when Malcolm Turnbull finally gets around to drafting it, his Marriage Amendment Bill will seek to include new special rights for civil celebrants and other wedding business-providers to discriminate against LGBTI couples. Just to get it on the record: Mr Shorten, will you commit the Labor Party to voting against any attempts to expand religious exceptions beyond existing provisions and, if they do somehow end up being passed and polluting the Marriage Act, will you seek to repeal them at the earliest available opportunity?”[i]

 

Your answer: “Yes, and yes.”

 

As reported by the Guardian, you went on to state: “It’s not allowed under the current law – why would we water down existing laws? We don’t need to water down anti-discrimination law to keep some people [who oppose same-sex marriage] happy.”

 

You were right then.

 

You were right because this reform, marriage equality, is about removing discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex characteristics. One form of discrimination should not simply be replaced by another.

 

You were right because protections for ‘religious freedom’ that are only introduced when LGBTI couples might finally have the opportunity to wed should be seen for what they are: attempts to legitimise homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.

 

You were right because the vast majority of LGBTIQ Australians do not want our long desired, long fought for and long overdue equal right to marry undermined by new special privileges to discriminate against us – with research at the start of 2017 confirming that:

 

“81% of the 6,352 LGBTIQ adult Australians taking part in this survey were strongly opposed to potential new laws making it legal for individuals and organisations to refuse their services to same-sex couples, based on personal conscience or religious belief.”

 

And you were right because four-in-five Australians agree, with a poll earlier this month reporting that:

 

“In response to the question, ‘If the majority vote ‘yes’ in the postal survey, should same-sex couples be treated the same under the law compared with other couples?’, 78% of respondents said yes. This figure consisted of 98% of respondents who said they had voted ‘yes’, and also 43% of those who said they had voted ‘no’.”

 

You were right then. Are you still right now? Specifically, will you, and the Labor Party, do the right thing when marriage equality legislation is likely considered by Commonwealth Parliament in the coming weeks and months?

 

I ask this question because I am extremely disappointed by reports that the Labor Caucus has already decided to support Liberal Senator Dean Smith’s Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, describing it as an ‘acceptable compromise’.

 

This is despite the fact his draft legislation:

 

  • Permits existing civil celebrants to discriminate against LGBTI couples by nominating to become ‘religious marriage celebrants’ based on nothing more than their personal beliefs [section 39DD(2)], and
  • Unnecessarily duplicates exceptions from the Sex Discrimination Act within the Marriage Act itself, allowing religious bodies that offer wedding-related facilities, goods and services to the public to turn away LGBTI couples [section 47B].

 

Both of these provisions appear to be matters you either explicitly or implicitly rejected in your answer at that forum in Redfern just over 19 months ago.

 

I urge you to reconsider your, and your Party’s, position on the Smith Bill, not just because of your previous commitment to me and to that audience, but also because of the principle that marriage equality should be exactly that: equal. The weddings of LGBTI Australians, when they are finally made legal, must not be subject to any extra terms and conditions than those that already exist.

 

At the very least, I believe you should develop amendments to remove both of the above provisions from the Smith Bill prior to its potential passage.

 

I am sure you are also aware of reports that conservatives within the Liberal and National Parties are busy preparing their own amendments to the Smith Bill that would extend discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people across a wide range of areas of public life.

 

It is incumbent upon you, and every member of the parliamentary Labor Party, to vote against every amendment that seeks to perpetuate the second-class treatment of LGBTI Australians, our relationships and our families.

 

In this context, the debate around marriage equality legislation will be an opportunity for you to show, once again, the leadership on this issue that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will not.

 

You stood with the LGBTI community against the unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite in October 2016.

 

You stood with the LGBTI community again, earlier this year, against the equally unnecessary, wasteful and divisive (and arguably illegitimate) postal survey.

 

When the survey went ahead, you stood with the LGBTI community a third time by campaigning to help win the public vote.

 

Please stand with us now by voting to ensure any Bill that is passed represents genuine marriage equality, not just same-sex marriage subject to additional discrimination.

 

It’s time to honour your commitment, to me, to LGBTI Australians, and to every person who has voted Yes to the equal treatment of equal love.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

Bill Shorten Commitment

Will Opposition Leader Bill Shorten support genuine marriage equality?

Footnotes:

[i] I recorded the question shortly thereafter – and published it in April 2016 in the following article: In the battle for marriage equality, we must not forget to fight against religious exceptions.