LGBT kids don’t need more hollow promises

On Thursday, it was reported that Attorney-General Michaelia Cash has written to the Australian Law Reform Commission, asking for ‘detailed drafting’ to protect LGBT children from discrimination in faith-based schools.  

‘It is … the government’s position that no child should be suspended or expelled from school on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity,’ wrote Cash.

There are at least six reasons why this seemingly positive expression of support for LGBT kids is a bitterly disappointing statement of hollow nothingness.

First, we’ve heard this all before.  On 11 October 2018 the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, stated unequivocally: ‘We do not think that children should be discriminated against’. He promised to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination before the end of that year.

That was more than 3 years ago. 1,137 days to be exact (and yes, I’m counting). In that time, the Morrison Government has failed to do anything concrete to implement its promise.

Second, the Attorney-General was writing to ask the ALRC to do what it was already tasked to do by her predecessor, Christian Porter, back in April 2019. His original terms of reference requested the Commission to review religious exemptions, ‘having regard to… the importance of protecting the rights of all people, and children in particular, to be free from discrimination in education.’

More than 30 months later, the new Attorney-General is trying to spin a request for ‘detailed drafting’ as being something new. Exactly how that varies from ordinary ALRC recommendations is a distinction without a difference.

Third, we don’t need ‘detailed drafting’. We know how to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination.  Four jurisdictions – Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and NT – have already done so. Tasmania has been protecting LGBT kids, successfully, for more than 23 years. The amendments required are simple. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

Fourth, there’s not even a need to invent a new Bill. In response to the Prime Minister’s promise to protect LGBT kids in October 2018, the Labor Opposition introduced their own legislation the following month (the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Removing Discrimination Against Students) Bill 2018). The schedule of substantive amendments came to a grand total of 70 words.

If the ALRC reports in 2023, and the Government finally takes action that same year (both of which remain big ifs), it could end up taking them 5 years to draft 70 words. At just over one word per month, they’re certainly pacing themselves.

Fifth, we can see from the time and energy expended on the Religious Discrimination Bill where the Government’s real priorities lie. 

We’ve already gone through two rounds of public exposure drafts on the ‘religious freedom’ Bills package (which actually comprises three separate Bills). We’ve had 157 pages of draft legislation, before we even get to the third and final version(s) next week.

The drafting effort that has gone into the Religious Discrimination Bill demonstrates what happens when a Government wants to get something done. The comparative lack of effort in drafting straight-forward amendments to protect LGBT kids reveals what happens when they don’t.

Sixth, based on Senator Cash’s correspondence, it’s not even clear whether the Government supports ending all discrimination against LGBT students, or only removing the ability of religious schools to suspend or expel them. If it’s just the latter, then other forms of mistreatment would continue to be permitted, and the harm they experience will go on.

A child who was in Year 7 when the Prime Minister first promised to protect them from discrimination is on track to finish high school before he keeps that promise. That’s an entire generation of LGBT kids abandoned because they’re not considered a priority by their own Government.

LGBT kids don’t need more ‘detailed drafting’. They need action. What do we have instead? The Attorney-General sending the emptiest of gestures to the Australian Law Reform Commission, asking them to do something they’ve already been tasked to do.

It is a fig-leaf trying to cover up years of the Morrison Government’s inaction. But nothing can hide their lack of care about this issue. Because if they cared, it would have been fixed years ago.

The tragedy of it all is that, for as long as the Government prevaricates and obfuscates, vulnerable children are left exposed to abuse and mistreatment, discrimination, suspension and even expulsion, just because of who they are.

LGBT students deserve the right to learn in safety. Instead, Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws grant religious schools extraordinary special privileges to discriminate against them.

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Submission to the WA Law Reform Commission Review of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984

Law Reform Commission

GPO Box F317

Perth WA 6841

Via email: equalopportunityreview@justice.wa.gov.au

Friday 5 November 2021

To the Commission

Submission to Review of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA)

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this individual submission in response to the Commission’s Discussion Paper as part of this important and long-overdue review.

I do so as a long-standing advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, and as a leading expert on LGBTI anti-discrimination law in Australia, as demonstrated by my personal website www.alastairlawrie.net

Based on this experience, I submit that the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA) is one of the worst LGBTI anti-discrimination laws in Australia, failing to offer necessary protections to multiple sections of the LGBTI community, across multiple areas.[i]

In this submission, I will provide major comments in relation to three primary areas for reform:[ii]

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

I will then provide some additional comments regarding a number of other issues raised in the Discussion Paper.

Protected Attributes

Gender identity

I welcome the Discussion Paper’s focus on the issue of ‘gender history discrimination and gender identity’ on pages 107 to 109 (although I also note the problematic aspects of this discussion in relation to sex characteristics, which I will address further below).

Western Australia’s anti-discrimination protections for trans and gender diverse people are the narrowest and therefore most limited in Australia.

It is the only jurisdiction to limit anti-discrimination coverage to people who have undergone surgical and/or hormonal gender affirmation treatment, and have also had that gender affirmation recognised by the State (in this case, under the Gender Reassignment Act 2000 (WA)).[iii]

This is because of the combination of three provisions: the definition of gender reassigned person in section 4:

‘gender reassigned person means a person who has been issued with a recognition certificate under the Gender Reassignment Act 2000 or a certificate which is an equivalent certificate for the purposes of that Act’;

the definition of ‘gender history’ in section 35AA:

(1) ‘For the purposes of this Part, a person has a gender history if the person identifies as a member of the opposite sex by living, or seeking to live, as a member of the opposite sex.

(2) In subsection (1)-

opposite sex means a sex of which the person was not a member at birth’;

and the test for discrimination on the protected attribute of ‘gender history’ in section 35AB (and subsequent sections):

(1) ‘For the purposes of this Act, a person (in this subsection referred to as the discriminator) discriminates against a gender reassigned person on gender history grounds if, on the ground of the gender reassigned person having a gender history, the discriminator treats the gender reassigned person less favourably than, in circumstances that are the same or are not materially different, the discriminator treats or would treat a person not thought by the discriminator to have a gender history.’

In my view, there is no justification to limit protections for gender identity-related discrimination to the comparatively small group of people who have had their gender identity recognised by the State, while leaving the much larger group of other trans and gender diverse people without any protections whatsoever.

It is time for Western Australia to remove this limitation, and follow the lead of the Commonwealth Government, and all other states and territories, by removing any link between formal gender recognition and anti-discrimination protection.

A related problem is caused by the definition of ‘gender history’ in section 35AA, which limits protections to people who ‘identify as a member of the opposite sex’ – meaning a person who was assigned female at birth but whose gender identity is male, and vice versa.

Irrespective of the gender recognition restriction (above), this definition itself excludes a wide range of nonbinary and gender diverse people whose gender identities do not neatly fit within this supposed ‘gender binary’.

Unfortunately, in this respect, Western Australia has some company – anti-discrimination coverage in NSW, Queensland and the Northern Territory also excludes nonbinary and gender diverse people.

However, that means all other jurisdictions, including the Commonwealth, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT, have amended their laws to protect nonbinary and gender diverse people.

Once again, I can see no legitimate justification to allow discrimination against nonbinary and gender diverse people on the basis of their gender identity.

It is time for Western Australia to follow the best practice approach of other jurisdictions. The most recent, and not-coincidentally most inclusive, is the definition of gender identity which commenced in the Victoria Equal Opportunity Act 2010 on 26 October 2021:

‘gender identity means a person’s gender-related identity, which may or may not correspond with their designated sex at birth, and includes the personal sense of the body (whether this involves medical intervention or not) and other expressions of gender, including dress, speech, mannerisms, names and personal references’ (section 4).

Finally, I see no justification for why anti-discrimination protections for trans and gender diverse people should apply in fewer areas of public life compared to other protected attributes. The Act should be amended so that the prohibition on discrimination on the basis of gender identity applies in the same areas as race, sex and sexual orientation.

Recommendation 1:

Trans and gender diverse people in Western Australia should be protected against discrimination irrespective of whether their gender identity is formally recognised by the State, and irrespective of whether their gender identity is binary, nonbinary or gender diverse.

This should be achieved by replacing the protected attribute of ‘gender history’ with a protected attribute of ‘gender identity’, and adopting the best practice definition from the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010:

‘gender identity means a person’s gender-related identity, which may or may not correspond with their designated sex at birth, and includes the personal sense of the body (whether this involves medical intervention or not) and other expressions of gender, including dress, speech, mannerisms, names and personal references’.

Prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of gender identity should also apply in the same areas of public life as existing core protected attributes, such as race, sex and sexual orientation.

Sex characteristics

As flagged earlier, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the entire Discussion Paper is the conflation of the two distinct protected attributes of gender identity and sex characteristics.

In the section ‘Gender history discrimination / gender identity / intersex status’ on pages 107 to 109, it is unclear whether the Discussion Paper’s author(s) understand the differences between trans and gender diverse people, and people with innate variations of sex characteristics (intersex people).

Indeed, the questions posed on page 109 – ‘Should the protections in the Act be expanded beyond the currently defined gender reassigned persons (for example, persons identifying as another sex)? Should there be exceptions? What other legislation is relevant to this provision?’ – do not even ask directly about what attribute should be introduced to protect people with innate variations of sex characteristics against discrimination.

Obviously, I believe that intersex people in Western Australia do require protection against discrimination under the Equal Opportunity Act.

In my view, this should be achieved by introducing a new protected attribute of ‘sex characteristics’, as called for by intersex people and organisations in the March 2017 Darlington Statement, and as reflected in the Yogyakarta Principles plus 10

The terminology ‘sex characteristics’ is best practice, and has been recently introduced in both the ACT and Victoria (with ‘intersex variations of sex characteristics’ covered in Tasmania). Sex characteristics is also preferred compared to older attributes of ‘intersex status’, as protected in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), and in South Australia.

I endorse the definition of sex characteristics proposed by Intersex Human Rights Australia in their submission in response to the Discussion Paper:[iv]

‘sex characteristics means a person’s physical features relating to sex, and includes:

(a) the person’s genitalia and other sexual and reproductive parts of the person’s anatomy; and

(b) the person’s chromosomes; and

(c) the person’s hormones; and

(d) secondary features emerging as a result of puberty.’

Recommendation 2:

People with innate variations of sex characteristics (intersex people) in Western Australia should be protected against discrimination on the basis of who they are.

This should be achieved by introducing a protected attribute of ‘sex characteristics’, based on the wording used in the submission by Intersex Human Rights Australia:

‘sex characteristics means a person’s physical features relating to sex, and includes:

(a) the person’s genitalia and other sexual and reproductive parts of the person’s anatomy; and

(b) the person’s chromosomes; and

(c) the person’s hormones; and

(d) secondary features emerging as a result of puberty.’

Sexual orientation

One issue not addressed at all in the Discussion Paper is the need to update the definition of the protected attribute of sexual orientation.

Currently, section 4 of the Act defines sexual orientation as:

‘in relation to a person, means heterosexuality, homosexuality, lesbianism or bisexuality and includes heterosexuality, homosexuality, lesbianism or bisexuality imputed to the person.’

While this does include people who identify as lesbian, gay and bisexual, it does not expressly include other sexual orientations such as pansexuality. It has also fallen behind the best practice definitions of sexual orientation adopted elsewhere in Australia.

For example, recent amendments to the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010, which commenced on 26 October 2021, define sexual orientation as:

‘means a person’s emotional, affectional and sexual attraction to, or intimate or sexual relations with, persons of a different gender or the same gender or more than one gender.’

The WA Equal Opportunity Act 1984 should be amended in a similar manner to ensure sexual orientations other than lesbian, gay and bisexual – including people identifying as pansexual – are explicitly protected.

Recommendation 3:

People with sexual orientations other than lesbian, gay and bisexual – such as pansexual people – in Western Australia should be protected against discrimination on the basis of who they are.

This should be achieved by modernising the definition of ‘sexual orientation’ in section 4 of the Act, with reference to the best practice definition in the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010:

‘sexual orientation means a person’s emotional, affectional and sexual attraction to, or intimate or sexual relations with, persons of a different gender or the same gender or more than one gender.’

*****

Religious Exceptions

The religious exceptions contained in the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA) are excessive, and do not reflect contemporary community standards. Nor do they respect the right of LGBT people in Western Australia to go about their daily lives, free from discrimination. In employment. In education. In health and community services. In all areas of public life.

For example, section 72 currently provides:

‘Nothing in this Act affects-

(a) the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of any religious order; or

(b) the training or education of persons seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order; or

(c) the selection or appointment of persons to perform duties or functions for the purposes of or in connection with, or otherwise to participate in any religious observance or practice; or

(d) any other act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.’

While there may be some possible justification for sub-sections (a) through (c) (although I would argue (c) needs to be more narrowly drafted), in order to respect the ability of religious bodies to employ, train and appoint people to engage in religious ceremonies, there can be no possible justification for granting religious organisations an effective ‘blank cheque’ to discriminate against people in all areas of public life, and in relation to all protected attributes, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

In this respect, the Western Australian Equal Opportunity Act has fallen well behind best practice, and in particular the approach to religious exceptions adopted by Tasmania 23 years ago.

Under the Tasmania Anti-Discrimination Act 1998, the circumstances in which religious organisations may discriminate are more narrowly constrained. More importantly, such discrimination is only allowed on the ground of religious belief or activity or religious activity, and therefore not on other grounds such as sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex variations of sex characteristics.

Not only is this, in my view, a preferrable accommodation of the legitimate needs of religious organisations to form communities of faith, but it has also operated successfully for more than two decades, thereby setting an example I would strongly encourage Western Australia to follow.

The arguments against allowing religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people generally are even stronger in relation to LGBT students, teachers and other staff in the context of religious schools.

Under section 73 of the Equal Opportunity Act, religious schools are permitted to discriminate against:

  • LGBT teachers (sub-section (a))
  • LGBT contract workers (sub-section (b)), and
  • LGBT students and/or families (sub-section (c)).

This is unacceptable. LGBT teachers should be free to impart their knowledge, and utilise their skills, in any environment without having to fear that their sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status will be used to discipline them in, or even dismiss them from, their role. 

LGBT students should also be free to learn without fearing that their place of learning will discriminate against them. The parents of LGBT students, as well as rainbow families with children, should be able to feel confident in sending their children to any school in the knowledge they will not be mistreated because of who they, or their families, are.

Currently, Western Australia’s anti-discrimination laws fall well short of this ideal.

Instead, both in relation to religious exceptions broadly, and in relation to religious schools specifically, I submit that Western Australia should adopt similar provisions to those already successfully operating in the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998, namely:

51. Employment based on religion

(1) A person may discriminate against another person on the grounds of religious belief or affiliation or religious activity in relation to employment if the participation of the person in the teaching, observance or practice of a particular religion is a genuine occupational qualification or requirement in relation to the employment.

(2) A person may discriminate against another person on the ground of religious belief or affiliation or religious activity in relation to employment in an educational institution that is to be conducted in accordance with the tenets, belief, teachings, principles or practices of a particular religion if the discrimination is in order to enable, or better enable, the educational institution to be conducted in accordance with those tenets, beliefs, teachings, principles or practices.

51A. Admission of person as student based on religion

(1) A person may discriminate against another person on the ground of religious belief or affiliation or religious activity in relation to admission of that other person as a student to an educational institution that is or is to be conducted in accordance with the tenets, beliefs, teachings, principles or practices of a particular religion.

(2) Subsection (1) does not apply to a person who is enrolled as a student at the educational institution referred to in that subsection.

(3) Subsection (1) does not permit discrimination on any grounds referred to in section 16 other than those specified in that subsection.

(4) A person may, on a ground specified in subsection (1), discriminate against another person in relation to the admission of the other person as a student to an educational institution, if the educational institution’s policy for the admission of students demonstrates that the criteria for admission relates to the religious belief or affiliation, or religious activity, of the other person, the other person’s parents or the other person’s grandparents.

52. Participation in religious observance

A person may discriminate against another person on the ground of religious belief or affiliation or religious activity in relation to-

(a) the ordination or appointment of a priest; or

(b) the training and education of any person seeking ordination or appointment as a priest; or

(c) the selection or appointment of a person to participate in any religious observance or practice; or

(d) any other act that-

(i) is carried out in accordance with the doctrine of a particular religion; and

(ii) is necessary to avoid offending the religious sensitivities of any person of that religion.

There is obviously a lot of detail in these sections, but one particular point I would like to draw to the Commission’s attention is that it does allow religious schools to discriminate on the basis of religious belief or affiliation or religious activity against students, but only at admission or enrolment, and not post-enrolment.

Preferencing students of a particular religion is a concession to the ability of denominations to form communities of faith in which to educate children. However, the limitation – only allowing discrimination at enrolment and not beyond – is just as important, for two reasons.

First, it allows the child to determine their own religious beliefs as they age. Schools should not be able to discriminate against students who, as they grow older, question the faith of the school, or particular elements of that faith, adopt a different faith, or decide to have no faith at all.

Second, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religious belief beyond enrolment is a necessary safeguard against religious schools imposing discrimination on the basis of other attributes, including sexual orientation or gender identity, via alternative or indirect routes.

For example, were religious schools permitted to discriminate on the basis of religious belief throughout a student’s education, they could potentially ask students to sign codes of conduct which state that ‘homosexuality is intrinsically disordered’ or that ‘sex is binary and determined at birth’ (thereby erasing trans and gender diverse children).

The school in these circumstances could claim students who refused to sign such a document, and were subsequently punished, were not being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, but because of the specific tenets of the faith of the school. This discrimination would nevertheless inflict the same harmful outcome on LGBT students and should be prohibited.

Indeed, each of the four Australian jurisdictions which have already legislated to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination (Queensland, the Northern Territory and the ACT, in addition to Tasmania) only allow religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of religious belief, and only at the point of enrolment.

Finally, in relation to religious exceptions, I would like to highlight three alternative approaches to this issue which I would caution against being adopted in the Western Australian Equal Opportunity Act.

First, the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act 1991, and specifically section 25, establishes what I describe as a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ scheme, whereby religious schools are not allowed to ask teachers about their sexual orientation or gender identity.

However, where LGBT teachers and other staff members are ‘out’, disclose anything about their orientation, identity or relationship status – or ‘openly act in a way that the person knows or ought reasonably to know is contrary to the employer’s religious beliefs’ (sub-section 25(3)(a)) – they can be fired.

Forcing LGBT teachers into the closet in order to teach is inhumane. Compelling them to continually watch over the shoulders, and be ever-vigilant in policing their own sexual orientation and/or gender identity, is intolerable.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a failed policy in the US military. It is an awful approach under the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act. And it must not be replicated in Western Australia.

Second, the South Australian Equal Opportunity Act 1984, and specifically section 4, adopts what I consider to be an unsatisfactory approach in allowing discrimination by religious schools against LGBTI teachers, but only where the person discriminated against was provided with a publicly-available policy spelling out this discrimination.

Specifically, subsection 34(3) states:

This Division does not apply to discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status in relation to employment or engagement for the purposes of an educational institution if-

(a) the educational institution is administered in accordance with the precepts of a particular religion and the discrimination is founded on the precepts of that religion; and

(b) the educational authority administering the institution has a written policy stating its position in relation to the matter; and

(c) a copy of the policy is given to a person who is to be interviewed for or offered employment with the authority or a teacher who is to be offered engagement as a contractor by the authority; and

(d) a copy of the policy is provided on request, free of charge-

(i) to employees and contractors and prospective employees and contractors of the authority to whom it relates or may relate; and

(ii) to students, prospective students and parents and guardians of students and prospective students of the institution; and

(iii) to other members of the public.

In my view, the publication of such a policy does not ameliorate the discrimination involved. It does not make discrimination against LGBTI teachers any more acceptable, only more public.

Indeed, attempting to justify such a policy on the basis of ‘transparency’ is akin to suggesting the White Australia Policy was something less than racist because it was written down. Anti-LGBTI prejudice is just as unacceptable when it is published.

Third, the Victorian Government recently proposed amendments to the religious exceptions in their Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (via the Equal Opportunity (Religious Exceptions) Amendment Bill 2021, currently awaiting debate).

While passage of this legislation would result in significant improvements to their anti-discrimination framework, including removing the ability of religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students, teachers and other staff, it also introduces a dichotomy into the Act, establishing different protections in some circumstances based on whether the services being delivered are government funded or not (proposed new section 82B).

Where those services are not government funded – even if they are in the public sphere (such as community services) – religious organisations would retain the ability to discriminate against people accessing those services on the basis of ‘religious belief or activity, sex, sexual orientation, lawful sexual activity, marital status, parental status or gender identity’ (existing section 82(2)).

In my view, the discrimination itself remains unacceptable irrespective of the source of the funds used in its execution. This is both a practical consideration – that the individuals who are discriminated against in this way would suffer adverse and unjustified impacts.

And a normative one. A primary function of anti-discrimination laws is to signal to society what types of discrimination are acceptable, and what types are not. Retaining provisions which explicitly state there will be certain situations in which it is acceptable to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity reinforces negative anti-LGBT attitudes. 

In this way, while a large step forward, the proposed Victorian amendments still fall short of the best practice Tasmanian approach.

Recommendation 4:

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Western Australia should be protected against discrimination by religious organisations, both in employment and in relation to access to services.

This should include protection for LGBT students and their families, and for teachers and other staff members, in relation to religious schools and other religious educational institutions.

Where discrimination by religious schools is allowed in relation to students, this must be limited to the ground of religious belief or activity, and must not be legally permitted beyond enrolment.

This should be achieved by using the best practice provisions of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 – and specifically sections 51, 51A and 52 – as a starting point.

*****

Anti-Vilification Protections

I welcome the Discussion Paper’s focus on the issue of anti-vilification protections, from page 150 onwards, including acknowledgement that in Western Australia, only racial harassment and some aspects of racial vilification are prohibited, and not general vilification on the basis of other protected attributes.

In my view, this is a significant weakness of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA), especially given the ongoing high levels of anti-LGBTI harassment and hate speech in the community.

It also means that, in yet another core area of anti-discrimination legislation, Western Australia has fallen behind the standard set by other jurisdictions.[v]

Specifically, Tasmania and the ACT both prohibit vilification against all parts of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community.

Meanwhile, Queensland prohibits vilification against lesbian, gay, bisexual and some transgender people (those with binary gender identities), but does not prohibit vilification against nonbinary people or people with innate variations of sex characteristics.

Finally, NSW provides different parts of the LGBTI community with different levels of protection – all LGBTI people are protected by the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) offence of publicly threatening or inciting violence (section 93Z), but only lesbian, gay and some transgender people (those with binary gender identities) are able to access civil anti-vilification protections under the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW).

Importantly, it should be noted that the Victorian Government recently committed to extending its own vilification protections to cover sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics, meaning a clear majority of Australian jurisdictions have already, or will soon, cover the LGBTI community against vilification either in part or in full.

In my view, LGBTI people in Western Australia should also be protected against vilification by the introduction of explicit vilification protections in the Equal Opportunity Act 1984. These should cover the protected attributes of:

  • sexual orientation
  • gender identity, and
  • sex characteristics

as defined earlier in this submission.

Recommendation 5:

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in Western Australia should be protected against vilification.

This should be achieved by the inclusion of prohibitions on vilification within the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 which cover (at least):

  • sexual orientation
  • gender identity, and
  • sex characteristics.

In terms of what form these provisions should take, I believe the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 demonstrates best practice in this area.

Specifically, Tasmania adopts a bifurcated approach. Section 17(1) provides that:

‘A person must not engage in any conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules another person on the basis of an attribute… in circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would have anticipated that the other person would be offended, humiliated, intimidated, insulted or ridiculed.’

While section 19 states that:

‘A person, by a public act, must not incite hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of, a person or a group of persons on the ground of-

(a) the race of the person or any member of the group; or

(b) any disability of the person or any member of the group; or

(c) the sexual orientation or lawful sexual activity of the person or any member of the group; or

(d) the religious belief or affiliation or religious activity of the person or any member of the group; or

(e) the gender identity or intersex variations of sex characteristics of the person or any member of the group.’

This approach – a broad-based prohibition on conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules, supplemented by a narrower prohibition on the even more serious acts of inciting hatred, serious contempt or severe ridicule – ensures that all types of behaviour which should be banned are in fact covered.

Recommendation 6:

LGBTI people in Western Australia should enjoy both broad-based protections against conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules, as well as narrower protections against conduct which incites hatred, serious contempt or severe ridicule.

This should be achieved by adopting the bifurcated model of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998, and specifically sections 17(1) and 19 of that legislation.

I note that the Discussion Paper asks the following questions on page 153:

Should or how may vilification provisions address concerns about the impact on other rights and exemptions under the Act?

and

Should or how may vilification provisions address concerns around the loss of freedom of speech?

In response, I would like to highlight that we are talking about harmful speech, objectively-determined (the test in section 17(1) of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act provides that it must be ‘in circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would have anticipated that the other person would be offended, humiliated, intimidated, insulted or ridiculed’).

It is not a question of how the victim of such harmful speech feels, but about whether such harmful speech would be seen by others as causing offence, humiliation, intimidation, insult or ridicule.

Having said that, Tasmania, like all other jurisdictions which have adopted prohibitions on vilification, does provide an exception for speech which is for a public purpose. Section 55 of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tas) states:

‘The provisions of section 17(1) and section 19 do not apply if the person’s conduct is-

(a) a fair report of a public act; or

(b) a communication or dissemination of a matter that is subject to a defence of absolute privilege in proceedings for defamation; or

(c) a public act done in good faith for-

(i) academic, artistic, scientific or research purposes; or

(ii) any purpose in the public interest.’

These carve-outs are relatively broad, especially sub-section 55(c)(ii), and would seem to provide adequate and appropriate balance in the interests of free speech where that speech is in good faith and for a public purpose.

I should note that some other jurisdictions go slightly further. For example, civil vilification prohibitions in NSW include the following carve-out (taken from section 49ZT(2)(c) of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, which deals with homosexual vilification):

‘a public act, done reasonably and in good faith, for academic, artistic, religious instruction, scientific or research purposes or for other purposes in the public interest, including discussion or debate about and expositions of any act or matter.’

I do not support the express inclusion of ‘religious instruction’ in this context. There does not appear to be a legitimate reason why religious instruction should be elevated above other ‘public purposes’ in this way (noting that it is already exempt under the Tasmanian provisions where it is ‘done in good faith for any purpose in the public interest’). 

Indeed, there was an attempt in 2016 and 2017 to amend the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act in a similar way, which was thankfully defeated by their Legislative Council.

In my view, section 55 of the Tasmanian Act remains the best attempt to ensure that harmful speech is prohibited while legitimate speech is allowed.

Recommendation 7:

In order to ensure legitimate speech continues to be allowed, there is a need to introduce a provision exempting conduct which is done in good faith and for a public interest purpose.

This should be achieved by adopting the best practice exemption found in section 55 of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998:

‘The provisions of section 17(1) and section 19 do not apply if the person’s conduct is-

(a) a fair report of a public act; or

(b) a communication or dissemination of a matter that is subject to a defence of absolute privilege in proceedings for defamation; or

(c) a public act done in good faith for-

(i) academic, artistic, scientific or research purposes; or

(ii) any purpose in the public interest.’

*****

Other Issues

Removing Barriers to Identity Documentation for Trans and Gender Diverse People

The current restriction of anti-discrimination protections in the Act to ‘gender reassigned persons on gender history grounds’ inevitably raises the issue of lack of access to identity documentation, including birth certificates, for trans and gender diverse people.

Even if, as recommended earlier, a new protected attribute of gender identity replaces gender history, there is still an urgent need to remove barriers to this documentation.

Indeed, the terms of the Gender Reassignment Act 2000 (WA) make Western Australia the third worst jurisdiction in Australia for trans and gender diverse people to access birth certificates reflecting their gender identity.[vi]

The only reason it is not equal worst, with NSW and Queensland, is because the High Court decision in AB v Western Australia; AH v Western Australia [2011] HCA 42 removed the requirement for genital surgery – although there remains a requirement for physical treatment of some kind.

In this way, the approach to this issue in Western Australia falls a long way behind the best practice of other jurisdictions, a fact acknowledged by the WA Law Reform Commission previously in its ‘Review of Western Australian legislation in relation to the registration or change of a person’s sex and/or gender and status relating to sex characteristics’ (Project 108). The final report of that review recommended both that:

‘The Gender Reassignment Act 2000 (WA) and Gender Reassignment Regulations 2001 (WA) be repealed’ (Recommendation 10), and

‘The Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1998 (WA) be amended to provide an administrative process to change the gender classification on a Gender Identity Certificate’ (Recommendation 11).

From my perspective, legislation which provides trans and gender diverse people access to identity documents, including birth certificates, that reflect their gender identity, should meet at least the following three principles:[vii]

  1. Access to amended identity documentation must not depend on surgery or other medical treatments
  2. Access to amended identity documentation must not depend on approval by doctors or other medical professionals, and
  3. Access to amended identity documentation should be granted on the basis of self-identification, through a statutory declaration.

Currently, only one Australian jurisdiction’s birth certificate framework satisfies these criteria: the Tasmanian Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1999, which – following amendments in 2019 – now allows for complete self-identification of gender identity.[viii]

In modernising its approach to identity documentation, Western Australia should therefore follow the best practice example of Tasmania.

Recommendation 8:

Trans and gender diverse people in Western Australia should be able to access identity documents, including birth certificates, that reflect their gender identities, without the need for surgery or other medical treatments, and without doctors or other medical professionals playing the role of gate-keeper. Access to identity documents should be based on self-identification alone.

This should be achieved by adopting the best practice provisions of the Tasmanian Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1999.

Prohibiting Coercive Surgeries and Other Medical Treatments on People with Innate Variations of Sex Characteristics

Earlier in this submission, I called for the inclusion of a new protected attribute of sex characteristics, to ensure that people with innate variations of sex characteristics are protected against discrimination in all areas of public life.

While the introduction of this attribute would be an important step towards recognition of the human rights and dignity of intersex people, it is not nearly as important as ending what I consider to be the greatest violation of LGBTI rights in Australia: the ongoing performance of coercive surgeries and other involuntary medical treatments on people with innate variations of sex characteristics, and especially intersex children.

I therefore fully endorse the recommendation made by Intersex Human Rights Australia in its submission to the current consultation, that:[ix]

‘Protections from harmful practices in medical settings

In line with evolving best practice, as described in public commitments and action in the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria, and in line with recommendations of UN Treaty Bodies to Australia, we recommend that the Western Australian government enact separate protections from harmful practices in medical settings for people with innate variations of sex characteristics.’

Recommendation 9:

People with innate variations of sex characteristics in Western Australia should be legally protected from harmful practices in medical settings. Prohibitions on these practices should be developed in partnership with the intersex community and its representatives, including Intersex Human Rights Australia.

Prohibiting Conversion Practices

I welcome the Discussion Paper’s inclusion of a section on the prohibition of sexual orientation and gender identity conversion practices (on page 193).

In my view, such practices constitute psychological torture, and should be prohibited in all settings, including religious environments. This should apply irrespective of whether the person undergoing this torture is a minor or an adult (on the basis that it is not possible to give ‘informed consent’ to torture).

As to the question of whether Western Australia should adopt the models already in place in Queensland, the ACT, or Victoria, a combination of these approaches, or a new approach – and therefore whether this prohibition should be included in the Equal Opportunity Act or elsewhere – I defer to the views of survivors of conversion practices, and encourage the Commission to consult directly with the Brave Network and other survivor organisations.

Recommendation 10:

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Western Australia should be protected against sexual orientation and gender identity conversion practices. Prohibitions on these practices should be developed in partnership with survivors of these practices and their representatives, including the Brave Network.

Long Title and Objects Clause

Both the Long Title of the Act, and the Objects Clause (in section 3), should be updated to reflect improvements recommended above. This includes:

  • Replacing gender history with gender identity
  • Removing limitations in relation to gender identity (ie removing the qualifier ‘in certain cases’)
  • Adding sex characteristics, and
  • Updating sub-section 3(d) to provide that ‘to promote recognition and acceptance within the community of the equality of persons…’ applies to all protected attributes, including gender identity and sex characteristics.

This last change to the objects should also be reflected in the substantive provisions of the Act. For example, section 35ZD of the of Act currently provides an exemption covering ‘measures intended to achieve equality’ for people on the basis of sexual orientation:

‘Nothing in Division 2 or 3 renders it unlawful to do an act a purpose of which is-

(a) to ensure that persons of a particular sexual orientation have equal opportunities with other persons in circumstances in relation to which provisions is made by this Act; or

(b) to afford persons of a particular sexual orientation access to facilities, services or opportunities to meet their special needs in relation to employment, education, training or welfare.’

There is no equivalent provision in relation to gender identity – but there should be.

Interpretive Provision

I note the discussion of a possible interpretive provision on pages 104 to 106 of the Discussion Paper. This includes an interpretive provision proposed by Christian Schools Australia on page 105.

This interpretive provision appears to be taken directly from the One Nation Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020 in NSW – and it should be rejected for the same reasons it should be rejected in NSW, too.

This is best explained by looking at the Explanatory Memorandum for the One Nation Bill, and in particular the example of the Jewish employer of a publisher:

‘As for the remaining provisions of the Act, section 22L must be interpreted in accordance with new section 3 [the interpretive provision proposed by Christian Schools Australia], Principles of Act. In particular, the Siracusa Principles apply the requirement that limitations on religious manifestation must ‘pursue a legitimate aim and be proportionate to that aim’. The following example assists in clarifying this intended operation.

Example: A Satanist requests that a publisher prints material that promote the teachings of Satanism. A Jewish employee of the publisher requests that she not be required to facilitate the order. Having fundamental regard to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it would not be necessary or proportionate, for the employer to require her involvement in the order where alternative employees who do not have a genuine religious objection are available to facilitate the order. Similarly, it would not be necessary or proportionate for the employer to require her involvement in the order where alternative publishers are reasonably available to facilitate the order. In both of these cases, for the employer to require her involvement in the order would use ‘more restrictive means than are required’. In addition, to require such conduct would not be compatible with the international instruments stated at section 3.’

As I wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald last October,[x] this outcome is perverse, and creates more rather than less discrimination:

‘[A]n employee can refuse to perform the core component of their role (in this case, publishing materials) solely on the basis of their personal religious beliefs, even if this means sending the customer’s business to a competitor.

This would give employees the right to veto the decisions of their employer, including what goods and services are offered and to whom.

And what of the customer? In this example, they are turned away by the publisher because their religious belief does not accord with that of the employee, which is surely the type of discrimination that should be prohibited under a genuine Religious Discrimination Bill.

It’s important also to get a sense of how far this would go. If this is how the bill is intended to operate, employees may refuse to provide goods or services to a wide range of people because of the employee’s religious beliefs: not just to people from different religions, or no religion, but to single parents, unmarried couples, women, people with disability and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people, among others.

Importantly, from the customer’s perspective, there is no way of knowing in advance whether a particular business will refuse to serve them. Based on the scenario set out in the explanatory notes, any commercial busines could turn away any customer based on the religious beliefs of an individual worker. That is a recipe for chaos.

And it will leave employers around the state in an invidious position: either they compel their employee to perform the inherent requirements of their job and risk the employee claiming discrimination on the basis of religious belief, or they refuse to provide goods and services to customers on the basis of who they are and guarantee not just loss of income, but risk a discrimination complaint for the customer instead.

It’s an unholy mess.’

Western Australia must avoid making the same mistakes as the extreme and unprecedented Bill proposed by One Nation in NSW, where one human right (‘religious freedom’) is prioritised over and above other human rights, including what is the fundamental purpose of anti-discrimination laws: the right to live free from discrimination.

Interpretive provisions which single out ‘religious freedom’ must therefore be rejected.

Additional Protected Attributes

I would like to express my in-principle support for the inclusion of additional protected attributes within the Equal Opportunity Act, particularly where those attributes may be disproportionately relevant to the LGBTI community. These include:

  • Lawful sexual activity (discussed on page 123), and
  • Irrelevant medical record (discussed on page 121).

In terms of this latter attribute, I also endorse the recommendation made by Intersex Human Rights Australia in their submission to the current inquiry that:[xi]

‘In line with best practice international developments and recommendations for Australian jurisdictions, we recommend that the Western Australian government prohibit genetic discrimination in insurance and employment.’

Finally, I support the inclusion of a new protected attribute of ‘irrelevant criminal record’ (as discussed on page 120). I note the Discussion Paper’s acknowledgement there are already some protections for ‘expunged homosexual convictions’ in relation to work as created by the Historical Homosexual Convictions Expungement Act 2018 (WA).

While I believe expunged homosexual convictions would likely fall within irrelevant criminal record – and therefore be protected against discrimination in areas beyond work – this should include clarification that expunged homosexual convictions will always be ‘irrelevant’.

This is in recognition of the fact such convictions are solely the product of state-sponsored homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, and should never have constituted offences in the first place.

Definition of Religious or Political Conviction

I note the Discussion Paper considers whether to add a definition in relation to the existing protected attribute of ‘religious or political conviction’.

As part of this Discussion, an overly-expansive, and in my view, entirely-inappropriate definition for religion is provided by Christian Schools Australia (see page 122). In fact, this definition appears to be taken directly from the One Nation Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020 in NSW.

This would introduce an unnecessarily vague test for determining whether something constitutes religious belief or activity. It would be almost impossible to apply in practice, and should be rejected.

Instead, I submit that, should the Commission recommend the inclusion of definitions for political conviction and religious conviction, it should do so on the basis of the definitions in the ACT Discrimination Act 1991, namely:

‘political conviction includes-

(a) having a political conviction, belief, opinion or affiliation; and

(b) engaging in political activity; and

(c) not having a political conviction, belief, opinion or affiliation; and

(d) not engaging in political activity.’

‘religious conviction includes-

(a) having a religious conviction, belief, opinion or affiliation; and

(b) engaging in religious activity; and

(c) the cultural heritage and distinctive spiritual practices, observances, beliefs and teachings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; and

(d) engaging in the cultural heritage and distinctive spiritual practices, observances, beliefs and teachings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; and

(e) not having a religious conviction, belief, opinion or affiliation’ and

(f) not engaging in religious activity.’

Discrimination in Provision of Goods and Services Where Motivated by Religious Belief

While on the subject of religious belief, I would like to express my strong opposition to any proposal to allow individuals and businesses to refuse to provide goods and services, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, where that refusal is motivated by religious belief (as discussed on page 173).

Such a proposal would allow significant new discrimination against LGBT people individually, and LGBT couples. This discrimination would also be unpredictable in its operation – LGBT people going about their everyday life would know that any potential interaction could involve being lawfully discriminated against because of how they identity, or who they love.

The introduction of a new ‘exception’ of this kind would seriously undermine the purpose of having an anti-discrimination law in the first place, and should be categorically rejected.

*****

Thank you in advance for your consideration of this submission. Please do not hesitate to contact me, at the details supplied below, should you require additional information.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie


Footnotes:

[i] For a comparative analysis of LGBTI anti-discrimination laws across Australia, please see: ‘A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws. https://alastairlawrie.net/2017/07/29/a-quick-guide-to-australian-lgbti-anti-discrimination-laws/

[ii] These three areas draw from my article about the WA legislation: ‘What’s Wrong With Western Australia’s Equal Opportunity Act 1984?’ https://alastairlawrie.net/2016/10/23/whats-wrong-with-western-australias-equal-opportunity-act-1984/

[iii] While the definition of ‘recognised transgender person’ in section 4 of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 is similarly restrictive, the interpretive clause in section 38A makes it clear that NSW anti-discrimination protections apply to transgender people with binary gender identities irrespective of whether their gender identity has been recognised by the State.

[iv] Intersex Human Rights Australia, Submission to the WA Law Reform Commission on Anti-Discrimination Law Reform, 13 October 2021, available at: https://ihra.org.au/39075/walrc-anti-discrimination-2021/

[v] For a comparative analysis of LGBTI anti-vilification laws across Australia, please see: ‘Did You Know? Most Australian Jurisdictions Don’t Prohibit Anti-LGBTI Vilification’. https://alastairlawrie.net/2020/06/01/did-you-know-most-australian-jurisdictions-dont-prohibit-anti-lgbti-vilification/

[vi] For a comparative analysis of birth certificate legislation across Australia, please see: ‘Did You Know? Trans People in NSW and Queensland Still Require Surgery to Update Their Birth Certificates’. https://alastairlawrie.net/2020/05/02/did-you-know-trans-people-in-nsw-and-queensland-still-require-surgery-to-update-their-birth-certificates/

[vii] As articulated in this post from my website: ‘Identity, Not Surgery’. https://alastairlawrie.net/2018/07/17/identity-not-surgery/

[viii] The approach in Victoria, via the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Amendment Act 2019, comes close, including that it removes requirements for medical treatment, and removes medical gatekeepers to accessing new identity documents. However, it does not fully satisfy the criteria of self-determination, because under section 30A, an applicant must include a ‘supporting statement’ from another person who both ‘believes that the applicant makes the application to alter the record of the sex of the applicant in good faith, and supports the application.’

[ix] Intersex Human Rights Australia, Submission to the WA Law Reform Commission on Anti-Discrimination Law Reform, 13 October 2021, available at: https://ihra.org.au/39075/walrc-anti-discrimination-2021/

[x] Alastair Lawrie, ‘Religious discrimination bill will create an unholy mess’, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October, 2020, available here: https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/religious-discrimination-bill-will-create-an-unholy-mess-20201022-p567jx.html

[xi] Intersex Human Rights Australia, Submission to the WA Law Reform Commission on Anti-Discrimination Law Reform, 13 October 2021, available at: https://ihra.org.au/39075/walrc-anti-discrimination-2021/

Why there MUST be a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill

There is a *lot* of news happening at the moment. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now during COP26 – and with it humanity’s last best chance to address the existential threat of global heating – it can be difficult to keep track of other serious challenges to our human rights.

In Australia, one of those is the Morrison Liberal/National Government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill, which they remain committed to introducing into Commonwealth Parliament before the end of 2021.

While most people outside the Government still don’t know what form the final Bill will take (unlike a select few, like religious fundamentalists including the Australian Christian Lobby, with whom the Government has been negotiating – more on that later), we did learn something new last week:

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash is seeking to avoid the scrutiny of a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill.

As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald last Sunday (24 October):

‘Attorney-General Michaelia Cash signalled the government would ramp up pressure on Labor to not hold a Senate inquiry because the government “has conducted two rounds of public consultation on draft legislation, and met face to face with over 90 stakeholders in a series of roundtables”.’

This position – Attorney-General Cash wanting to avoid the usual scrutiny of a Senate Inquiry – was then confirmed during Senate Estimates last Tuesday (26 October), via the following exchange with Greens Senator Janet Rice:

Senator Rice: … Given the far-reaching impacts of this proposed legislation, will you commit to having a full and thorough Senate inquiry into the bill once it’s introduced?

Senator Cash: That’s a decision for the Senate.

Senator Rice: Is the government committed and supportive?

Senator Cash: That is a decision for the Senate.

Senator Rice: It will be a decision for the Senate, but will the government be supporting having a Senate inquiry into this legislation?

Senator Cash: Again, that is a decision for the Senate.

Senator Rice: Will the government support that by helping to provide the numbers in the Senate?

Senator Cash: If the Senate determines that there should be an inquiry then there will be an inquiry.

Senator Rice: Do you think that there should be an inquiry?

Senator Cash: That is a decision for the Senate.

Senator Rice: Do you think that there should be an inquiry given it is your legislation?

Senator Cash: The normal process would be that a bill goes to an inquiry.

*****

Count them: that’s six separate opportunities for the Attorney-General to confirm the Government would support a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill. And six refusals to do so.

The closest Cash came was stating it would be a ‘normal process’ to hold such an inquiry, not that the Government would agree to one.

Why does it matter?

This isn’t just a technical question of whether the Senate follows ‘normal process’ in holding an inquiry. Whether or not the Senate conducts an investigation into the Religious Discrimination Bill really matters, for two key reasons:

First, the Religious Discrimination Bill has the potential to affect the everyday lives of *all* Australians, religious and non-religious alike, including women, lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, people with disability, divorced people and people in de facto relationships.

Everyone.

We know this because of the content of the first two Exposure Draft Bills, released in August and December 2019 respectively, with the most recent of those including the following features:

  • Allowing health practitioners, including doctors, nurses, pharmacists and psychologists, to ‘conscientiously object’ to providing health services – even where this has disproportionate adverse impacts on particular groups (for example, refusing to provide puberty blockers, to the detriment of trans and gender diverse young people), and
  • Allowing people to make offensive, humiliating, intimidating, insulting or ridiculing comments against women, LGBTI people, people with disability and even people of minority faiths, in all areas of public life, as long as those comments are motivated by religious belief. 

Both the right to access health care, and the ability to go about your daily life – in workplaces, and schools and universities, and community services, and public transport, and other public spaces – without being subjected to vile comments on the basis of who you are, are at risk.

[For more detail on these and other serious problems with the Bill, see: The ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill Must Be Blocked’.] 

Legislation which carries such serious consequences deserves the highest level of scrutiny, and that must include a Senate Inquiry.

Second, the Religious Discrimination Bill has the potential to be the biggest change to Commonwealth anti-discrimination law for almost four decades.

Since the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act in 1975, and Sex Discrimination Act in 1984, the basic framework of Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws has remained relatively consistent.

This includes the general tests for what constitutes direct and indirect discrimination, and in what circumstances religious organisations are permitted to discriminate. It also includes the ‘complementary’ structure of Commonwealth, state and territory anti-discrimination laws, where they operate alongside each other, without seeking to override the other.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992Age Discrimination Act 2004, and even the addition of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status as protected attributes in the Sex Discrimination Act in 2013, did not fundamentally alter these arrangements.

However, the Second Exposure Draft Religious Discrimination Bill marks a radical departure from these precedents.

For example, the ability to make offensive, humiliating, intimidating, insulting or ridiculing ‘statements of belief’ is included in a provision (clause 42) which limits the operation of all other anti-discrimination legislation: Commonwealth (including the Fair Work Act 2009), and state and territory (singling out the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 in particular).

In practice, this would be the first time the Commonwealth Government directly sought to override the anti-discrimination laws of other Australian Governments.

The ‘conscientious objection’ provision (in clause 8) discussed earlier also involves a significant departure from standard practice. That is because it seeks to amend how the test for indirect discrimination operates, in favour of health practitioners who wish to discriminate in the types of services they provide.

One of the Religious Discrimination Bill’s other, more-infamous provisions – the so-called ‘Folau clause’ (also in clause 8) – is similarly-designed, altering the test for indirect discrimination to ‘stack the decks’ in favour of employees who make otherwise discriminatory statements outside core business hours.

Meanwhile, its proposed ‘religious exceptions’ (in clause 11, and scattered elsewhere throughout the Bill) dramatically re-write the existing scope of these special privileges. Not only do they apply to an expanded range of organisations, but the two different tests for whether a ‘religious exception’ applies are *both* far easier for organisations to use than the tests in the Sex Discrimination Act (section 37) and Age Discrimination Act (section 35).

Legislation which seeks to override state and territory anti-discrimination laws for the first time, and which significantly departs from existing practice in the test for indirect discrimination and significantly expands the scope and test for religious exceptions, deserves the highest level of scrutiny. That must include a Senate Inquiry.

What is the Government’s excuse?

Attorney-General Cash did not attempt to either clarify, or justify, the Government’s opposition to sending the Religious Discrimination Bill to an inquiry in her exchange with Senator Rice.

Which means we are left with her quote in the Sydney Morning Herald, namely that she does not support an inquiry: because the government “has conducted two rounds of public consultation on draft legislation, and met face to face with over 90 stakeholders in a series of roundtables”.

This rationale does not withstand the application of even the slightest skerrick of scrutiny.

Yes, the Government released two Exposure Draft Bills, which were open for public submissions. And yes, both the Bills, and associated submissions, have been published (see the Attorney-General’s Department website for the First Exposure Draft Bills here, and for the Second Exposure Draft Bills here.)

However, unlike a Senate Inquiry, there is little transparency about these processes:

  • There is no report document summarising feedback from either process
  • There is no public list of attendees at the roundtables mentioned by Senator Cash, and
  • There is no transcript of the evidence provided by these witnesses to the Government.

Also, unlike a Senate Inquiry, there was a lack of independence to these processes:

  • They were conducted by the Attorney-General’s Department, acting on the instructions of their Minister
  • Attendees of the roundtables were presumably selected by, or with the close involvement of, the Attorney-General, and
  • There was no opportunity for Opposition, Greens and cross-bench Senators to interrogate the evidence being provided to the Government.

In short, Government-run consultation processes are no substitute for the independence and transparency of a Senate Inquiry.

But there is an even bigger problem with Attorney-General Cash’s attempted justification for not supporting a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill – and that is the First and Second Exposure Draft Bills were released in August and December 2019 respectively. That is more than, and just under, two full years ago.

Indeed, submissions in response to the Second Exposure Draft Bill closed in January 2020, less than a week after the first case of novel coronavirus was detected in Australia. A *lot* has changed in the intervening 21 months, including the Attorney-General (with Michaelia Cash replacing former Attorney-General Christian Porter in March 2021).

It is highly likely some aspects of the Religious Discrimination Bill will have changed in that period too – perhaps for the better, maybe for the worse.

Most members of the Australian community, and the community groups which represent them, will not be aware of those changes until the final Bill is introduced to Parliament. They deserve the opportunity to comment on the Bill’s final provisions, not past versions that have potentially been superseded.

Of course, some groups *are* aware, and have been closely involved in negotiations about the Bill’s contents for the past two years. This includes religious fundamentalists, such as the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL).

Indeed, the same Sydney Morning Herald article in which Cash argued against a Senate Inquiry was primarily about the ACL revealing the final Religious Discrimination Bill will include some version of the ‘Folau clause’.

The article is titled ‘Christian Lobby boasts religious freedom laws will include ‘Folau clause’, and goes on to quote ACL boss Martyn Iles:

‘Mr Iles said the ACL was “very, very strongly applying pressure from a grassroots level and from our lobbying level to ensure the Folau clause remains in the bill. It was fought tooth and nail, it was really at risk for a long time there[. O]ne great win is that the final draft of the bill will contain a Folau clause. It’s not perfect, but it’s not bad. And it does exist within the bill.”’

The Government’s consultations with the ACL were not denied by Attorney-General Cash, once again at Senate Estimates:

Senator Rice: Minister, we’ve seen media reports – and I’m tabling the media report that I was reading last week, that the Australian Christian Lobby say that they’re in the final days of negotiations with the Prime Minister’s office over the bill. The ACL are claiming they are ‘part of a coalition of faith leaders who jointly have been negotiating very closely with the Attorney-General, and with the Prime Minister’s Office’. Is that an accurate summation of what’s been happening with the negotiations on the bill?

Senator Cash: I’ve been negotiating far and wide in relation to the bill.

Senator Rice: Who else have you been negotiating with over the last month, for example?

Senator Cash: I’ve been negotiating with stakeholders across the board. I would take on notice whether or not they want their names provided, though, with all due respect to them. Some actually don’t want their name provided formally.

Senator Rice: Could I take on notice a list of all the stakeholders, as far as they are willing to be named?

Senator Cash: I’m more than happy to do that, absolutely. I need to go to them to get their permission, but-

Senator Rice: Can you name some others, other than those that will be part of this coalition of faith leaders?

Senator Cash: I would prefer not to, in the event they don’t want their names publicly disclosed as having discussions with me, but I’m more than happy to take it on notice for you.

Senator Rice: Have you been negotiating with any of the human rights organisations or LGBTIQ+ organisations?

Senator Cash: Yes. They’re a very important stakeholder.

*****

This exchange is deeply unsatisfactory, for a number of reasons.

The Attorney-General was unwilling to divulge the name of *any* stakeholder with whom she had been negotiating, or even consulting, over the biggest change to Commonwealth anti-discrimination law in almost four decades.

Even though Cash eventually agreed to take this question on notice (meaning she will need to respond in writing in coming months), this will unlikely be revealed until after the Bill itself has been introduced, and even then stakeholders who wish to remain secret will apparently have their names withheld from the public.

Cash’s answers also do not reveal the level of engagement with each group. For example, it is possible for the Government to be ‘negotiating’ with religious fundamentalists about the text of the Bill, but only ‘consulting’ with other groups in high-level or non-specific terms.

The final answer is also worrying; Cash uses the singular form (‘They’re a very important stakeholder’) in response to a question about negotiating with ‘human rights organisations or LGBTIQ+ organisations’.

This could imply she may only be meeting with one such body, and it is unclear who that would be, especially when there is no generalist national LGBTIQ+ organisation that is accountable to the LGBTIQ+ community (LGBTIQ+ Health Australia is the closest there is although, as the name suggests, its primary focus is health).

In fact, there are a wide range of organisations that either represent particular sections of the community (like Intersex Human Rights Australia), or advocate on LGBTIQ+ issues generally (such as Just.Equal Australia and Equality Australia), as well as several state and territory membership-based LGBTIQ organisations. Senator Cash should be ‘negotiating’ with all of them.

All of this is to say that the broader community has almost no idea who has been meeting with Attorney-General Cash about the Religious Discrimination Bill, or how much access and influence each organisation has been able to achieve. Based on her evidence to Senate Estimates last week, it is possible we will never be permitted to know.

Which simply confirms that the *only* way there can be a truly independent, and transparent, consultation process – where the names of witnesses are published, hearings are held in public with everyone able to know who has been advocating for what, as well as an opportunity for all Parties to interrogate those views – is for there to be a Senate Inquiry.

What is Labor’s position?

It remains unclear what Labor’s position is on whether there should be a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill.

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus is quoted in the same Sydney Morning Herald article as Senator Cash, although he does not address this issue (to be fair, he may not have been asked about it, or he may have provided quotes on this topic that were not included).

Of more concern is the lack of public position on this by Labor in the period since then. I am not aware of any criticism from ALP MPs or Senators about Cash’s push to avoid the scrutiny of a Senate Inquiry, nor did any Labor Senators on the Estimates Committee alongside Senator Janet Rice join her in challenging this position.

It is possible the Labor Opposition will push for a Senate Inquiry when the final parliamentary sitting fortnight of the year starts on Monday 22 November (which is presumably when the Government will introduce the Religious Discrimination Bill).

However, it is also possible that the ALP, under Leader Anthony Albanese, does not support referral to a Senate Inquiry. If so, their rationale for doing so would be just as weak as Attorney-General Cash’s.

In the Opposition’s case, they may seek to avoid any criticism they are ‘holding up’ so-called ‘religious freedom’ laws in the lead-up to the federal election, due in the first half of 2022 (even though it is the Morrison Government’s own delays that have led to this timing).

But that cannot be justification for not closely scrutinising the biggest change to Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws in nearly four decades. Nor would it excuse failing to support at least an inquiry into legislation that is a serious threat to the rights of women, LGBTI people, people with disability, divorced people and people in de facto relationships, even people of minority faiths.

If Labor fails to support a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill in an attempt to avoid being politically ‘wedged’, then it seems highly likely they would subsequently also just ‘wave through’ the Government’s legislation.

That course of events would be reminiscent of the Labor Opposition’s actions under then-Leader (and now One Nation NSW Leader) Mark Latham in supporting John Howard’s Bill banning same-sex marriage in 2004. A ban which took a long and painful 13 years to overturn.

If Albo does not support a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill, and instead simply votes for the legislation, it would be the biggest display of Labor spinelessness on LGBTI rights since Latham revealed himself to be an invertebrate on marriage equality.

Why there MUST be a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill

I know that, for some of you, whether or not there is a Senate Inquiry on the Religious Discrimination Bill might seem like a fairly technical discussion. 

I hope I’ve convinced you that’s not the case, and shown why holding a Senate Inquiry is essential to independently and transparently scrutinise the biggest change to Commonwealth anti-discrimination law in 37 years.

And why we need this investigation to shine a light on any proposals that undermine the rights of women, LGBTI people, people with disability, divorced people and people in de facto relationships, and even people of minority faiths.

Of course, a Senate Inquiry is no guarantee this harmful legislation (if that’s what it turns out to be, because most of us have yet to see the final version) is ultimately defeated, or that its worst aspects are amended or at least ameliorated. It may still end up being passed.

But it would be a terrible sign if the Government is successful in avoiding a Senate Inquiry.

Perhaps think of it like this: if the Government was proud of this Bill and its key features, if it thought it could stand up to the rigour of independent and transparent consideration by a multi-partisan Committee, then it would gladly agree to it.

That Attorney-General Cash has publicly argued against doing so, suggests the final Religious Discrimination Bill will be a fundamentally bad law.

Instead, it seems they hope to ram it through Parliament, either late this year, or early next year, while everyone is distracted by other news: COVID-19, COP26 and global heating, the impending election campaign itself, and plenty more besides.

If they are successful, then the first time some people are aware it has even happened will be when they are refused a vital health care service. At their doctor. Or by their nurse. Or pharmacist. Or psychologist.

Or when they are subjected to vile comments about who they are. In their workplace. Or at their school or university. Or at another community service. Or on public transport.

Or any other public space in which making offensive, humiliating, intimidating, insulting or ridiculing comments about other people has been permitted as long as it’s motived by religious belief.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash came empty-handed to Senate Estimates last week, unwilling to answer whether the Government supports a Senate Inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill, and unwilling to disclose who she has been ‘negotiating’ with about this legislation.

No Cause for Celebration

Sydney World Pride is now just 17 months away. With the official Opening Ceremony scheduled for 24 February 2023, it promises to be one of the largest LGBTI celebrations in a post-pandemic world.

Unfortunately, when it comes to LGBTI law reform, there is very little reason to celebrate.

The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act is the worst LGBTI anti-discrimination law in the country. It’s the only one that fails to protect bisexuals, and the only one allowing all private schools, religious and non-religious alike, to discriminate against LGBT students. The ADA also excludes nonbinary people, and people with innate variations of sex characteristics.

With Queensland promising to amend their birth certificate laws, NSW will soon be the only jurisdiction in Australia requiring trans people to undergo genital surgery (which many don’t want, and some who do can’t afford) to update their identity documents.

While Queensland, the ACT and Victoria have already prohibited gay and trans conversion practices (to varying extents), and other states consider this vital reform, there’s no clear commitment for NSW to do the same.

Nor has the NSW Government promised to prohibit what are the worst of all human rights abuses against the LGBTI community: coercive surgeries and other involuntary medical treatments on intersex children.

In this context, it’s depressing to realise the next step on LGBTI rights here is likely to be a great leap backwards.

Earlier this month, a NSW Parliamentary Committee recommended adoption of the core elements of Mark Latham’s Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020, more accurately known as his anti-trans kids Bill.

That includes support for a domestic version of the UK’s infamous ‘section 28’, which traumatised a generation of LGBT students there before being abandoned in 2003.

By threatening teachers with having their accreditation revoked for mentioning anything ‘political or ideological’ in relation to gender or sexuality – which could be as simple as telling struggling gay kids that who they are is perfectly okay – it will drive most teachers to say nothing at all, creating the perfect conditions for ignorance and shame to thrive.

Even worse are the proposed changes to Bulletin 55: Transgender Students in Schools, which would (among other things):

  • Prohibit students from confidentially coming out as transgender to their teachers or school counsellors
  • Effectively ban transgender students from being able to access toilets or changerooms matching their gender identity, and
  • Out students who transition while at school to the parents of every other student in their year group.

These anti-trans rules are just the tip of the iceberg. This Bill, and associated Committee Report, are truly a Titanic-size assault on the rights of trans and gender diverse kids in NSW.

In policing children’s names and pronouns, their ability to play sport and even go to the bathroom, these are really Texas Republican Party-level interventions in the daily lives of people whose lives don’t matter to them.

It is, frankly, embarrassing. And no-one should be more embarrassed than Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who for 13 months has steadfastly refused to condemn, or even comment on, these proposed changes – all the while allowing Latham to chair the inquiry into his own Bill.

Her reluctance to publicly reject his anti-trans agenda has only allowed it to gather strength. Not only did all three Coalition MLCs on the Committee endorse its recommendations, but her own Parliamentary Secretary for Education declared his personal support for the anti-trans kids Bill earlier this year

The Government now has six months to respond (coincidentally, the deadline is the Monday after next year’s Mardi Gras). With more Coalition MPs so far publicly expressing support for the Bill than opposing it, the starting assumption has to be they are more likely to implement these changes than reject them.

And if they do? The biggest victims will be a generation of trans and nonbinary kids whose own Government will be actively seeking to erase their very existence, closely followed by other LGBT students who will be offered silence rather than support from their schools.

As for World Pride, well, it seems highly likely there would be a global boycott – one I would fully endorse. To do otherwise would be to invite the world to come and dance over the bodies of trans kids, killed by the transphobia of NSW Parliamentarians.

Even if it ultimately does not pass, the debate since August 2020 has already caused significant harm to trans kids in NSW, and to the families who love them.

If we cannot keep trans kids safe, if we cannot protect LGBT students in private schools against discrimination, if we cannot stop the psychological torture from gay and trans conversion practices, if we cannot prevent the physical torture of intersex children – if we can’t defend the most vulnerable among us – tell me again what exactly we would be celebrating at Sydney World Pride?

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Pathetic, and antipathetic, in equal measure

Pathetic: adjective, ‘unsuccessful or showing no ability, effort, or bravery, so that people feel no respect’

Last week, the Senate witnessed one of the most pathetic votes by any Government in recent memory: on Wednesday 1 September, Liberal and National Party Senators voted against amendment sheet 1427 to the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021.

As that description suggests, those amendments, moved by the Australian Greens, were largely technical in nature. All they did (or at least would have done, had they passed), was ensure the terms gender identity and intersex status were included in exactly the same sections of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) which cover other protected attributes, such as race, sex, disability and sexual orientation.

That includes provisions which protect workers against adverse action (section 351(1)) and unlawful termination (section 772(1)(f)) on the basis of who they are, meaning the amendments would have guaranteed trans, gender diverse and intersex employees the exact same ability to access the Fair Work Commission as women, people with disability and even lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. [For more background on this issue, see ‘Unfairness in the Fair Work Act’]

As well as being largely technical, they also should have been entirely uncontroversial. Gender identity and intersex status are already protected attributes in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth). The amendments were simply intended to bring these two pieces of legislation into closer alignment.

Indeed, the Greens changes in sheet 1427 directly tied the proposed definitions in the Fair Work Act back to the Sex Discrimination Act:

‘gender identity has the same meaning as in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

intersex status has the same meaning as in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.’[i]

And yet, these largely technical and entirely uncontroversial changes were still rejected by the Coalition Government. Together with One Nation, their votes were enough for the amendments to be voted down, leaving the rights of trans, gender diverse and intersex workers in doubt.

It seems like anything that advances the rights of LGBTI Australians, even if just an inch, will inevitably be rejected by the Morrison Liberal/National Government. Which is, frankly, pathetic.

*****

Antipatheic: adjective, ‘showing or feeling a strong dislike, opposition, or anger’

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this situation is that the 2021 Coalition were voting against the protection of groups which the Coalition had actually supported eight years earlier.

In 2013, the Liberal/National Opposition, under the leadership of Tony ‘no friend of the gays’ Abbott, voted in favour of the then-Labor Government’s historic Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013.

That legislation inserted gender identity and intersex status into the Sex Discrimination Act in the first place. But, eight years later, the Coalition refused to back the inclusion of the exact same terms, with the exact same definitions, in the Fair Work Act.

Think about that for a second. The current Government is more opposed to the rights of trans, gender diverse and intersex Australians than the Abbott Opposition was back then.

The ‘strong dislike, opposition or anger’ towards trans rights from notoriously transphobic Senators like Claire Chandler has overwhelmed any semblance of support from other, more sympathetic sections of the Morrison Government.[ii]

The Coalition’s antipathy to trans rights also seems to have overwhelmed their ability to make political judgements that benefit them.

This amendment was a potential win for them. Almost 28 months into a maximum 36-month parliamentary term, it is increasingly likely the Government will not pass a single pro-LGBTI Bill before the next election (including a failure to introduce legislation to implement Scott Morrison’s since-broken promise to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination).

If they had chosen to vote for these changes – the most straight-forward of amendments, merely introducing consistency in the groups protected under the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work Acts – moderate Liberal Senators, and Liberal candidates for socially-progressive electorates, could have pointed to this outcome as evidence they care about LGBTI rights.

Instead, by voting against these amendments, everybody can see that they don’t care, about anybody whose gender identities or sex characteristics are different to societal expectations.

*****

The Government’s reasons for not supporting these amendments also demonstrate the simultaneously pathetic and antipathetic nature of their opposition. Attorney-General, Senator Michaelia Cash, made the following comments in relation to the Greens’ amendments:

‘The government will also be opposing the amendment moved by the Australian Greens. The government believes that people are entitled to respect, dignity and the opportunity to participate in society and receive the protection of the law, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. The Sex Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination on these grounds in a range of areas of public life. The primary purpose of this bill is to implement the government’s commitments in its response to the Respect@Work report and to implement, as a matter of urgency, measures to strengthen national laws to better prevent and respond to sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. Discrimination on the basis of gender identity and intersex status is already prohibited in the Sex Discrimination Act…’

Cash raises a number of different arguments there. Unfortunately, none of them are compelling upon closer inspection.

For example, her attempt to declare that the primary purpose of the legislation is ‘to implement the government’s commitments in its response to the Respect@Work report’, might be an explanation of why they did not include these changes in the original Bill. It is not a justification for voting against these changes when they are moved by others.

Even worse, Cash’s argument is directly undermined by the words of her own Department, exactly one year-to-the-day beforehand. In response to my letter to then-Attorney-General Christian Porter calling for him to address this very issue, I received a reply dated 1 September 2020 from an Assistant Secretary in the Attorney-General’s Department, which included the following paragraph:

‘I note the discrepancies you raise between the language in the Fair Work Act 2009 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. At this point in time, the Australian Government has not indicated an intention to amend the Fair Work Act 2009 to explicitly include gender identity or intersex status as grounds for lodging an adverse action or unlawful termination application. In saying this, however, you may be interested to know that the Australian Government is currently considering its response to a number of recommendations made in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report. This process provides scope for the issues you have raised here to be considered further in the implementation of any proposed recommendations.’ [emphasis added]

Not only did the Department acknowledge this legislative gap, but they highlighted the Respect@Work response as an opportunity for this issue to be resolved. It was the Government itself, and possibly even Michaelia Cash herself or her predecessor Christian Porter, who actively decided to ignore, rather than address, this discrepancy.

Cash’s other arguments are just as flawed. She mentions not once, but twice, that discrimination on the basis of gender identity and intersex status is already prohibited under the Sex Discrimination Act. Which, well, yes, of course it is. As is discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation.

The point is, while sex and sexual orientation are also explicitly included in the Fair Work Act, gender identity and intersex status are not. Meaning women, lesbians, gay men and bisexuals have clear rights to access the Fair Work Commission, while trans, gender diverse and intersex workers do not. That inequality of access is exactly the issue the Greens’ amendments were intended to address, amendments the Government chose to reject.

Which reveals the lie at the heart of Cash’s introductory comment, that ‘[t]he government believes that people are entitled to respect, dignity and the opportunity to participate in society and receive the protection of the law, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.’

No. No, you don’t. If you did, you would have voted for these amendments.

*****

Of course, for most people paying attention to Australian politics these days, the fact the Coalition Government doesn’t really give a shit about LGBTI Australians is no surprise.

Last Wednesday’s vote by Liberal and National Party Senators against amendments to explicitly include trans, gender diverse and intersex workers in the Fair Work Act wouldn’t even make a list of the top five worst things the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Government has done in relation to LGBTI rights over the past eight years.

[A list that, from my perspective, would include (in no particular order):

  • Holding an unnecessary, wasteful and divisive public vote on our fundamental human rights
  • Defunding an evidence-based program against anti-LGBTI bullying in schools
  • Detaining LGBTI people seeking asylum in countries that criminalise homosexuality
  • Failing to implement the recommendations of the 2013 Senate Inquiry into the Involuntary or Coerced Sterilisation of Intersex People (allowing these human rights violations to continue to this day), and
  • Breaking its promise to protect vulnerable LGBT kids against abuse and mistreatment by publicly-funded religious schools.]

It probably won’t even be the worst thing the Coalition Government does to LGBTI Australians this year, with Cash also committing to introduce the recently-revived Religious Discrimination Bill before the end of 2021.

This is legislation that, based on the Second Exposure Draft, would encourage anti-LGBT comments in all areas of public life, as well as making access to essential healthcare much more difficult, among other serious threats. [For more background on this issue, see ‘The ‘Bad Faith’ Religious Discrimination Bill Must Be Blocked’

Nevertheless, just because this isn’t the worst thing they’ve ever done, doesn’t mean their vote on Wednesday was any less abhorrent.

And just because I earlier described these amendments as largely technical in nature, doesn’t mean they were any less important.

As well as guaranteeing access to the Fair Work Commission, these amendments were an opportunity for the Government, and Parliament more broadly, to reaffirm that trans, gender diverse and intersex Australians should enjoy the same rights as everyone else.

In rejecting the Greens’ amendments to add gender identity and intersex status to the Fair Work Act, the Government repudiated this fundamental principle.

The Senate vote last Wednesday perfectly encapsulates the Morrison Government’s pettiness, and the meanness of its approach, when it comes to LGBTI rights.

How pathetic in their lack of principle, and basic decency.

How antipathetic to the human rights and dignity of their fellow Australians.

In roughly equal measure.

Morrison, Turnbull and Abbott, divided by political ambition but united in their pathetic, and antipathetic, approach to LGBTI rights.

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Footnotes:


[i] Earlier amendments (sheet 1373) that would have introduced the protected attribute of sex characteristics, rather than intersex status, in the Fair Work Act to reflect both best practice and the views of intersex advocates such as Intersex Human Rights Australia, failed with both the Government and Labor expressing their opposition. Sheet 1427, which included intersex status based on the definition in the Sex Discrimination Act was then moved by the Greens because it was seen as being entirely uncontroversial and therefore more chance of succeeding.

[ii] NSW Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg did refer to the issue of trans, gender diverse and intersex inclusion in the Fair Work Act in his second reading debate speech, expressing support for it being addressed at some point, but did not find the courage to cross the floor on the amendment itself.

Never much of a country kid

I was never much of a country kid, despite growing up outside Blackwater, a couple of hours west of Rockhampton in Central Queensland.

Our family lived on 16,000 acres of what I now know is Gangulu/Ghungalu land – a fact never mentioned in my Bjelke-Petersen-era classrooms.

My dad had about 2,000 head of cattle, and when it rained – which was not nearly often enough – planted crops on the most productive parts.

In my memories, the landscape appears mostly in brownscale. Brown grass, surrounded by more brown dirt. Brown Braford cattle, mustered with brown horses and cattle dogs. The grey-brown of kangaroos. The house gently brushed in a layer of fine, light-brown dust.

Even the other colours of the pastoral palette didn’t provide much contrast; the dull silver-green leaves of the brigalow scrub, and occasional fields of rust-brown sorghum or faded yellow wheat.

I admit, the picture I’m painting doesn’t sound particularly idyllic, but it wasn’t without its beauty either. The property didn’t need much rain to spring to life, and Burngrove Creek – which ran through its middle – in flood was always a spectacular sight. As was the dark outline of the Blackdown Tablelands, off to the distant south-east.

[View from house, looking down towards Burngrove Creek]

I was never much of a country kid, especially compared to my siblings. My older sister could easily have been described as a pony princess, while my older brother generally fulfilled the stereotype of the motorbike-riding, pig-shooting (and later rodeo-riding and ute-driving) son of the bush I was destined never to be.

I was much more of the nerdy and indoors-y child. I did have a horse, Spree (named by my mum, for reasons I’ve long since forgotten), but I wouldn’t have ridden it more than a handful of times. Which was still more frequently than I jumped on a motorbike: four wheels, once or twice; two wheels, never.

Nor did I contribute much toward the farm-work. Obviously, my mustering skills were close to non-existent, while my attempts at milking resulted in more frustration (both mine, and the cow’s) than milk.

I was put in charge of looking after the chooks, a responsibility I could at least handle: letting them out mid-afternoon, collecting the eggs, and then feeding them the scraps and locking them back up at dusk.

Once I learned to drive, I also sometimes ‘did the waters’ (driving around the property to check the dams, and troughs, to ensure the cattle had enough to drink). But that was it.

It was clear from an early age that farm-life just wasn’t for me – a feeling that only intensified as I got older.

And my parents accepted my reluctance, too. They never put pressure on me to do the things my siblings did, a freedom from expectation I largely took for granted when I was younger, but one I am deeply appreciative of as I look back now.

I was never much of a country kid, and the things I was actually interested in always seemed so far away. Theatre, and galleries, and crowds, and the alluring buzz of metropolitan, cosmopolitan life, were busy happening someplace else. Further than the ‘big smoke’ of Rocky, further even than Brisbane (although visiting Expo ’88 aged 10 gave a small taste of future possibilities, and yes I mean that non-ironically).

Blackwater instead had a run-down drive-in, one radio station, one commercial TV channel and, at least back then, little to stimulate an inquisitive, impatient mind.

Both push and pull factors were working together harmoniously to create the central truth of my growing up in country Australia: as soon as I could leave, I would.

I was never much of a country kid, although my partner Steve has often told me how jealous he is of what I got to experience.

The wide-open space. Being outdoors. The motorbikes. The animals, especially. The quiet. The freedom to simply be, away from other people. The charming country houses of my parents that he’s visited during our 13 years together.

Who knows, maybe he would have enjoyed my own youth much more than I did.

But then, like many people who grew up in the suburbs, I suspect he underestimates the challenges it posed.

The isolation.

The relentless sun (although being a bookish child had its advantages – as the only one in my family to make 40 without skin cancer).

The equally oppressive heat.

The reality animals were usually either productive (cattle, cows and chickens), or worked (horses and dogs). While the main childhood pet I had (a cat, Beethoven, which I shared with my brother) didn’t last long before being bitten by a snake.

The boredom.

The feeling of being apart, outside of the action.

The fact that for the first few years of my life the five of us lived in a couple of rooms, on slabs of concrete, down one end of a machinery shed.

It might be a cliché, but life on the land can be, often is, hard.

I was never much of a country kid, and that has been reflected in my choice of career. For at least a few generations, on both sides of my family, most men would grow up to be primary producers – mainly graziers, although there were also a cane farmer and mango and lychee grower among them.

While most of the women would work in a health-related field – with several nurses, including my mum, as well as an optometrist, a physio, and a speech pathologist.

My sister and brother both largely followed these well-worn paths: she, a vet, he – until recently – a grazier (although, perhaps in a sign of the times, he sold his own beef property and is now a full-time coal-miner).

It was far from inevitable I would become a public policy professional, working in several government departments and community sector organisations. Although once again my parents never made me feel a sense of obligation to stay on the land, and I thank them for the gift of being encouraged to follow my own track.

[With my older sister and brother]

I was never much of a country kid. I only fired a gun once, when I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, under my dad’s strict supervision. It must have been apparent on my face just how little I enjoyed it. But I think he found the experience uncomfortable too.

In hindsight, I think it was one of the few times he did something because he thought it was the right thing for any child growing up on a farm to learn, rather than the right thing for his child, this particular child. We never spoke about it again.

I was never much of a country kid, but I think I inherited a lot from my dad. Not just the superficial – looks-wise I couldn’t be anyone other than his son, while I’ve commonly been mistaken for him over the phone.

Or characteristics like being softly-spoken and gentle (Steve has often commented he doesn’t understand how such a gentle-man survived more than half a century as a farmer).

More fundamentally, he imparted several of his core values.

Including the virtue of civic participation, and especially volunteerism. For him, that meant stepping in to fill in the gaps where governments failed to deliver essential services to rural communities, like being a long-time local fire warden.

And stepping up to advocate on behalf of his own community, by contributing via agricultural organisations like the United Graziers Association.

While my own LGBTI volunteering and advocacy is obviously driven by different goals and in service of a very different community, I’d like to think the urge to help, to make society better, as well as the way we both go about achieving that, are pretty similar.

I can also blame my dad for my life-long obsession with politics. The outlet for that obsession is far from shared – he unsuccessfully sought National Party pre-selection for the federal seat of Maranoa in 1990, as well as contesting, and losing, the state seat of Fitzroy in the Beattie-slide election of 2001, while I was previously a long-term member of the Labor Party, and even served as a ministerial adviser to the Rudd and Gillard Governments – but the ideal that politics is, or at least can be, a noble profession, is.

I was never much of a country kid, although it did teach me about silence – both the good and the terrible.

Like many such myths, behind the archetype of the ‘strong and silent’ man of the land lies a sliver of truth. In this case, for many farmers, my dad included, they would leave the house in the early morning, and try to do most of the demanding physical labour before the heat of the day’s middle. But a farm’s unending tasks cannot be ignored, keeping them occupied through to sunset when they finally return to the house. They might not speak to, let alone see, another human in daylight hours. For days on end.

These days – and especially working from home through the pandemic, which in my adult life has perhaps come closest to replicating that absence of day-to-day real inter-personal contact – I don’t consider my dad so much as reserved, as simply having fallen out of the habit of engaging with other people.

*****

There are some benefits to this physical dislocation. I’m grateful to my youth for the gift of an active inner-life, and strong inner-voice, attributes which come in handy in a now-socially distant, social media-driven world.

And for the innate sense of comfort in solitude, of doing everyday things on my own, something I know others, who grew up always being surrounded by people, often struggle with. 

Inevitably, though, there are downsides as well. For me, these came in years 6 and 7 of primary school, when my sister and brother had already left for boarding school, with dad working on the farm and mum doing shift-work as a nurse at the same mine where my brother now works.

That period of engulfing, overwhelming, silence transformed an awkwardly, but conventionally, shy 10-year-old boy into a painfully introverted 12-year-old.

It left me completely unprepared to be transported several hundred kilometres away, to that same school in Brisbane as my siblings, a boarding house of hundreds, and school of more than 1,000 – with no privacy, or silence, for the next five years.

I constantly felt alone in that particular crowd.

I’m not sure that, having discovered I was same-gender attracted on my first day there (a long story for another time) and the school’s fervent, at times ferocious, homophobia, I was ever going to find much happiness in that toxic environment.

But I’m certain the lingering effects of that late-primary school drought in conversation, my under-developed communications skills and overly-honed ability to retreat into my thoughts, meant I started at a distinct disadvantage.

It would be many years before I would finally find the comfort of my own community, and a sense of home with others of my kind.

I was never much of a country kid, even if I inherited a lot from my mum too. She also grew up on a cattle property, which was even more isolated (on the Isaac River, south-west of Mackay). 

Her father died when she was 13, however, and she eventually had to leave the land, moving to Mackay and looking after herself by becoming a nurse.

Those early hardships meant mum had to fight harder than dad for what she had. She learnt that sometimes help is not on its way, that you have to look after yourself.

And she developed a fearsome backbone – I was always much, much more scared of her than I was of dad.

The same was true for our (thankfully infrequent) arguments – she never backs down, a trait which I, as her youngest child, seem to take strongly after. It certainly makes dinner time discussion interesting.

[Mustering with the family (and yes, that’s me on the end).]

I was never much of a country kid, although it did teach me the fundamental lesson that water is life. Growing up on the farm, you get to observe first-hand the abundance that comes from having enough water. And the death that arrives – of grass, and cattle, and eventually hope – when that water departs.

So you obsess about the weather, and the Southern Oscillation Index, and Indian Ocean Dipole.

Long after moving to the city, my mind still doesn’t make the association of 420 with marijuana, instead that’s the time the Bureau of Meteorology’s afternoon forecast is released.

*****

But it also taught me a deeper truth about power, or rather powerlessness.
Because my dad’s entire livelihood, and our family’s fortunes, depended on something over which we had exactly zero control – whether enough wet stuff fell from the sky. And even whether it fell at the right times.

A reality brutally reinforced when, for the five years I was away at boarding school, the rain stopped falling.

For some of those years, it was six months or more between even the briefest of showers. Some of the stock died, more had to be sold off. There were no crops.

The only reason the business didn’t go under was because of mum’s income from the mine.

It was difficult watching my parents endure that drought, especially from a distance of 800km. But toughest of all was knowing there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

*****

When I was younger, I drew the wrong lesson from that painful experience.

I used to think that being dependent on the vagaries of the weather was an excellent reason not to be a farmer. And while that’s still true, in my youthful arrogance, or at least naivety, I thought I could instead study, and work, in areas where I would be able to exert control over my own destiny.

It took me until my 30s to comprehend that you can never really have power over your surroundings. No matter what you do, or where you live, you are dependent on so many different things around you that lie entirely outside of your control.

It might not be as black and white (or green and brown) as whether it rains or not, but you have to embrace your powerlessness and just get on and do the best job you can.

[When it rained enough, we grew wheat. My dad in a wheatfield, and the view to Blackdown Tableland.]

I was never much of a country kid, but for a long time that was how most other people perceived me. I suppose that much was unavoidable during my five years at boarding school – especially the first three when I was in the same dorm as my quintessentially rural brother. Even when I was at university in Canberra, however, somehow the metaphorical odour of hayseed and manure seemed to follow me around.

I don’t know that I would say I was ever truly ashamed of it – and certainly not in the same, visceral way I experienced shame about being gay while I was in the closet – but I was definitely embarrassed about my country origins.

For a long time I took deliberate steps to conceal my bush background, making sure to eliminate any hint of a rural twang in my accent, and speaking little about my childhood.

By the time I moved to Melbourne in my mid-twenties, very few people could have guessed I grew up on a cattle property in the middle of Queensland.

I was never much of a country kid, although that didn’t stop me from playing up the fact I grew up on a ‘station in the outback’ to pick up men interested in that kind of thing. A tactic that was particularly successful in my post-Brokeback Mountain North American summer holiday of 2006.

I was never much of a country kid, but I couldn’t escape it even when I worked in politics. As an adviser, whenever I had to go to the Senate chamber from the ministerial wing, I would walk past the National Party Senate Whip’s office.

With the door open, passers-by could see a long scroll celebrating all the people who had ever been Senators for the Country/National Party. About half-way down was my grandfather’s (dad’ dad) name, who served for a decade in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The fact my grandfather had voted to block supply against Gough Whitlam was a source of much amusement to my first boss there, John Faulkner (an avid historian of the parliamentary Labor Party).

Things became even stranger under my second boss, Joe Ludwig. At the start of the second term, Gillard appointed him Minister for Agriculture. As one of only a handful of Labor advisers who grew up on the land, he asked me to stay on. Suddenly I was Senior Adviser with responsibility for meat and livestock issues, including the cattle industry. 

Never in a million years did I imagine, growing up in 1980s Central Queensland perennially dreaming of the day I could finally leave for the city, in my 30s I would end up providing advice on beef policy.

The denouement of my time in politics was perhaps the most bizarre. One of my final responsibilities was to accompany Joseph to ‘Beef 2012’ in Rockhampton.

For those who may be unfamiliar, ‘Beef’ is basically a week-long carnival of carnivorism, held every three years (coincidentally, for a long time one of my aunts was involved in its organisation).

It was the kind of event I spent my childhood desperately trying to avoid being dragged along to. Yet there I was, shepherding the Minister around, showing him the exhibits, introducing him to stakeholders – even to my parents, who had driven up especially for the occasion. Completely surreal.

I was never much of a country kid, or so I had always told myself. My subconscious clearly must have disagreed.

In my late 20s I hit what could be described, in an understated way, as a rough patch. The depression I developed because of that homophobic boarding school had never really left me. My choices for self-medication (party drugs) and self-esteem (seeking to be affirmed through physical desire from others) had, unsurprisingly, not helped either. The breakdown of the first relationship in which I had fallen, hard, was enough to push me to try to end it all. And it nearly did. End.

Apparently, in the suicide note (which I still don’t remember writing) I asked to be cremated and for my ashes to be spread over the farm where I grew up. I guess, deep down, it must have felt like home.

[Dear reader, in case you’re worried, I’m fine now. Better than fine. I managed to draw on the same resilience my mum had shown, and overcome my depression. But please, if you’re considering sending your child to a school that treats LGBT kids as second-class, in any way, just don’t. And that goes doubly so for anti-LGBT religious boarding schools. Thanks.]

I was never much of a country kid, back when I actually was a kid. But from my early 30s onwards – that point in life when you exhale, and stop running from the things you were convinced you needed distance from – I think I become a little bit more ‘country’ with each passing year.

It started with little things, like finding visits to my parents’ farm more calming than constricting.

Or seeing the horses and other animals through Steve’s eyes; independently beautiful rather than creatures of industry.

While the idea of being apart, external to the action, once terrifying, now appeals.

Indeed, nothing confirmed this evolution as much as the first home Steve and I bought – a 2-bedroom, high-rise apartment in inner-city Sydney. 

Lots of things went wrong with the apartment, physically, from leaking windows to clogged drains, and even builders needing to rip holes in the walls to fix cracked A/C pipes.

But I wasn’t prepared for it feeling wrong, mentally, as well. Having finally planted roots in the buzzing heart of the metropolis and, well, I wanted to be literally anywhere else. He did, too.

We’ve made some major changes since then, including moving to Wollongong which is both closer to his parents, and further away from the madding crowd.

Somewhat more drastically, we also sold that unit and instead bought our future retirement house… in Queensland (surprising myself, but my mother more).

Sure, it might be closer to one acre than 16,000, and it’s on the Blackall Range of the Sunshine Coast Hinterland rather than having a view of the Blackdown Tablelands.

But it’s big enough for plenty of fruit trees, and has space for a couple of dogs (pets, this time) to roam.

There’s even a chook shed in the back corner (I’m not convinced whether we’ll use it yet, although at least I’ll know what to do).

Oh, and did I mention my parents live on the block next door?

I was always a country kid. Even if I didn’t accept it for a long time, because I couldn’t see myself in the various clichés of what that supposedly entailed.

You would think spending years fighting against stereotypes on the basis of sexual orientation would mean I understood that stereotypes of who is ‘country’ can be limiting and inaccurate, too. Well, I got there eventually.

Growing up in country Australia has influenced me in countless ways I have only recently begun to comprehend, and I’m sure in others I haven’t figured out yet.

I am undeniably a product of those years spent on the land, of the quiet and the isolation.

Obviously of my parents, too: softly-spoken and gentle, but with hidden backbone and not afraid of the argument (which, incidentally, are handy attributes for an LGBTI law reform advocate).

Even though my childhood looked very different to those of my sister and brother, being a country kid is just as much a part of my story as theirs. And I’m finally comfortable with that.

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.

It’s time Scott Morrison stopped running away from his promise to LGBT kids

Today marks an unhappy milestone for LGBT Australians: 1,000 days since Scott Morrison first committed to ending discrimination against LGBT students by religious schools, saying ‘We do not think that children should be discriminated against.’

It was a promise made amidst the significant backlash following the leaking of the Religious Freedom Review recommendations, from a public who were surprised to learn taxpayer-funded faith schools could mistreat, and even expel, kids just because of who they are. And it was made in the middle of the Wentworth by-election campaign.

In committing to remove these special privileges before the end of 2018, Morrison said what he needed to say to get himself out of a tricky political situation. But he never did what was needed to be done to ensure LGBT students were finally protected under the Sex Discrimination Act.

Instead, Morrison has been running away from his promise ever since. If only he ran the national vaccine rollout as quickly, maybe I wouldn’t be writing this from lockdown.

Morrison never even introduced amendments to Parliament to give effect to his commitment, let alone tried to pass them. And refused to support Labor legislation which would have achieved the same goal.

By April 2019 – on the day before the writs were issued for the federal election – Morrison’s then-Attorney-General Christian Porter referred the broader issue of ‘religious exceptions’ to anti-discrimination law to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) for review.

After his re-election, Morrison preferred to prioritise granting even more special privileges to religious organisations through the ‘Religious Freedom Bills’, and put the fate of LGBT students on hold. Literally. In March 2020, Porter amended the ALRC reporting deadline to be ’12 months from the date the Religious Discrimination Bill is passed by Parliament.’

With the Religious Discrimination Bill delayed by the pandemic, the earliest it could be passed is the end of 2021, meaning the ALRC won’t report until at least late 2022.

And, of course, given the serious problems of the first two exposure draft Religious Discrimination Bills – including undermining inclusive workplaces and access to healthcare – there are many who will be trying to stop it from passing (myself included).

Either way, based on current ALRC timelines, and assuming both that Morrison wins re-election and still feels bound by a promise first made in October 2018, he will not even start drafting legislation until 2023. LGBT students in religious schools would not be protected against discrimination until 2024. At the earliest.

Put another way, LGBT students in year 7 when Scott Morrison first promised to protect them will have finished school before he finally gets around to doing it. If he ever does.

Today might mark 1,000 days since Morrison’s broken promise, but I am more concerned about a larger number: the thousands, and perhaps even tens of thousands, of LGBT students who have been, and are still being, harmed because of his inaction.

For many, that harm will be long-lasting, scarring them far beyond the school gates. I know, because that’s what happened to me.

Not only was my religious boarding school in 1990s Queensland deeply homophobic, from rules targeting same-sex students to a pastor implying gay kids should kill themselves, it helped create a toxic environment which encouraged verbal, and physical, abuse by students against any kid who exhibited any kind of difference. I suffered both.

Like Scott Morrison, I attempted to run away; I spent more than a decade trying to outrun the depression caused by those experiences. But it eventually caught up to me, and age 29 I almost succeeded in what that pastor had hinted I should do.

I was extremely lucky to survive, and even luckier that, with self-care, plenty of support and the love of a good man, I finally managed to thrive.

But whether LGBT kids are able to survive their childhoods should not be a matter of chance. Every LGBT student, in every school, deserves the right to thrive.

As dark as my story is, there is also hope. Because in 2002, the Queensland Government amended their Anti-Discrimination Act to remove the ability of religious schools to discriminate against LGBT students. And I am reliably informed, by multiple sources, that my boarding school is now vastly more accepting of diversity of sexual orientation.

All it takes is a commitment to actions, not just words. Indeed, the ACT Government also responded to the 2018 Religious Freedom Review with a promise to protect LGBT students, and teachers, in religious schools – something they passed before the end of that year.

In contrast, Prime Minister Morrison is still running. Running away from his October 2018 promise. And running away from his obligation to ensure all students have the right to learn in a safe environment. It’s time Morrison stopped running, and allowed LGBT kids to thrive.

*****

Take Action

It is clear from the history of this issue that Prime Minister Morrison is not going to take action just because it is the right thing to do. He will only make this change if we put enough pressure on him. On that basis, it’s up to all of us to tell Morrison that:

  • It’s time to honour your October 2018 promise to protect LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination on the basis of who they are
  • It’s time to help LGBT kids thrive no matter which school they attend, and
  • It’s time to stop delaying this much-needed reform and just get it done already.

There are a variety of ways you can let him know your thoughts:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ScottMorrisonMP

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/scottmorrison4cook

Email webform: https://www.pm.gov.au/contact-your-pm

Mail: The Hon Scott Morrison MP Prime Minister Parliament House Canberra ACT 2600

Telephone (Parliament House Office): (02) 6277 7700

Don’t forget to add a personal comment explaining why this issue is important to you.

Oh, and just in case Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese feels like he can avoid this issue, we also need the ALP to be much clearer on where it stands. In particular, we should be asking ‘Albo’:

  • Do you publicly commit to protecting LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination on the basis of who they are? and
  • Will you pass legislation giving effect to this commitment in the first six months of your term if you win the next federal election?

Anthony Albanese’s contact details include:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AlboMP

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AlboMP

Email: A.Albanese.MP@aph.gov.au

Mail: The Hon Anthony Albanese MP PO Box 6022 House of Representatives Parliament House Canberra ACT 2600

Telephone (Parliament House Office): (02) 6277 4022

So, readers, it’s time to get writing/calling. Thanks in advance for standing up for LGBT kids.

*****

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.

[Scott Morrison with Member for Wentworth, Dave Sharma]. Morrison first committed to protecting LGBT students in religious schools against discrimination during the October 2018 Wentworth by-election – a promise he has been running away from ever since.

Finally, if you have appreciated 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

Surprise!* Mark Latham’s Inquiry is just as unbalanced and transphobic as his Bill

[*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:

  1. 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?

Zero.

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).

And

‘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.

Footnotes:


[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).

Friends, Jagged Little Pill and Transphobia in the NSW Legislative Council

In 1996, Australians were watching Friends and listening to Alanis Morissette while the NSW Upper House was the site of a toxic debate about trans law reform.

In 2021, Australians are watching the Friends Reunion, can book tickets to Jagged Little Pill: The Musical and the NSW Legislative Council is once again hosting hostile discussion about the rights of its trans citizens.

It is perhaps disappointing to realise how little progress has been made in terms of pop culture and representations of transgender people – with the Friends Reunion refusing to address the recurring transphobic jokes made at the expense of Chandler’s parent, and Jagged Little Pill: The Musical erasing the gender identity of a fictional nonbinary character on its journey to Broadway.

But it is downright depressing comparing the circumstances surrounding the Transgender (Anti-Discrimination and Other Acts) Act 1996 – which received royal assent 25 years ago this Saturday (19 June 1996) – and the current Parliamentary inquiry into the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020.

For a start, much of the language in the two debates, a quarter of a century apart, is disturbingly similar, with both deliberate misgendering,[i] and scaremongering about trans women in sports, playing starring roles in each.

With more than a hint of hyperbole, Liberal MLC Marlene Goldsmith declared in 1996 ‘This legislation will mean the end of women’s sports as a concept, an entitlement and a right.’

In 2021, Katherine Deves, speaking on behalf of something called ‘Save Women’s Sport Australasia’, complained that ‘gender identity’ requires 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.’

Meanwhile, any small advances – multiple references to ‘tranys’ in the 1996 Hansard[ii] thankfully haven’t been repeated more recently – don’t begin to overcome larger retreats elsewhere.

In the intervening 25 years, opponents of legal equality for trans people have pivoted from expressing pity about their plight, while dismissing trans issues as unimportant,[iii] to portraying trans people as potential predators, and a fundamental threat to ‘Western civilisation’.

This dramatic escalation in rhetoric comes not just from the mover of the latter Bill (One Nation’s Mark Latham, who described trans-inclusive education as ‘part of the post-modernist attack on the nuclear family’ in his Second Reading Speech), but also from multiple witnesses who appeared at April’s hearings into his horrific law.

For example, Mark Sneddon of the Institute for Civil Society said (rather uncivilly, and somewhat ominously) in supporting the Bill: ‘What we are trying to do – or what I understand this Bill is trying to do – is to reduce the social contagion influence of putting more people onto the conveyor belt of gender transition.’

Even fear campaigns about women’s bathrooms have worsened, rather than improved, over the past quarter century.

The only reference to toilets I could find in the 1996 Legislative Council debate came from Fred Nile (yes, the same one still sitting in that chamber), who said: ‘Because I am obviously not a woman, I do not know [how] a woman would feel to have a transsexual who was born a male sitting beside her in a woman’s washroom or powder room in a factory, office or club.’

In 2021, this argument has been weaponised, much more explicitly utilising the language of ‘threat’, with Terri Kelleher of the Australian Family Association giving evidence that ‘Is it not discrimination against natal girls if natal male students who identify as female are allowed to use their toilets, change rooms and showers and share overnight school camp accommodation? What about their right to feel safe and to their privacy in spaces where they may be in a state of undress or asleep?’ and later ‘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. That is very serious in the light of the child-on-child sexual abuse in schools.’

And, although most participants in the 1996 debate seemed to at least accept that transgender people are who they say they are, by 2021 a number of extremists appearing before Latham’s Committee were regularly making points about high rates of ‘de-transitioning’ and distinguishing between ‘genuine’ and ‘non-genuine’ trans people, before citing ‘social contagion’ and ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria’ (despite all four arguments being completely unsupported by any evidence whatsoever).

However, the toxic atmosphere surrounding Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill, and the fact contemporary discussion seems to be even worse than it was two and a half decades ago, is merely one small part of much larger frustrations about the situation we find ourselves in today.

At the very least, the 1996 debate was about legislation that would ultimately deliver multiple steps forward for trans rights in this state. Not only did the Transgender (Anti-Discrimination and Other Acts) Act insert transgender as a protected attribute in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, it also saw NSW become the first jurisdiction in Australia to legally prohibit transphobic vilification (something that still hasn’t happened under Commonwealth law, nor in Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory).

The same Act also amended the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 to allow transgender people who had undergone gender affirmation surgery to access identity documentation reflecting their gender identity.

These were genuinely historic reforms.

In contrast, the deceptively-named Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 seeks to completely erase real-life trans and nonbinary students from classrooms and schoolyards across NSW, censoring the curriculum and denying them affirmation and support from teachers, principals and even school counsellors.

As I have written elsewhere, this legislation is the worst legislative attack on LGBTI rights in Australia this century.

Some people might be tempted to dismiss this threat given it is merely the product of fringe extremists in the NSW Upper House (one of the chamber’s perennial features). Except the positions of the major parties on this Bill are, so far, worse than when a generation of young people were mislearning the definition of ironic (myself included).

Back then, the Carr Labor Government relentlessly pursued their reforms to anti-discrimination and birth certificate laws. And, while the Collins Liberal/National Opposition ultimately voted against them (because of baseless concerns about the impact of birth certificate changes to women’s sport, including nonsensical statements about the Sydney Olympics), they at least expressed in-principle support for trans anti-discrimination protections.[iv]

In contrast, in the 10 months since Latham introduced his legislative assault on trans kids, neither the Berejiklian Liberal/National Government nor the McKay, and now Minns, Labor Opposition have publicly condemned it.

Indeed, they both voted in the Legislative Council for the Bill to be considered in more detail by a Committee chaired by Latham himself, while the Liberal Parliamentary Secretary for Education Kevin Conolly has expressed his personal support for it.

In failing to reject Latham’s transphobia, could the major parties be any more pathetic?

But the most frustrating part of all is that we need to expend significant time and energy working to defend existing rights, instead of campaigning for improvements to those same reforms passed in 1996.

Because those changes were far from perfect, even when they were first passed.

For example, the amendments to the Anti-Discrimination Act inserted a definition of ‘recognised transgender person’, applying to people who have undergone gender affirmation surgery and had that recognised under the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act, even though it is irrelevant to determining whether anti-trans discrimination was prohibited under Part 3A (poor drafting which is still causing confusion in 2021, as demonstrated by transphobic discrimination by McIver’s Ladies Baths in Coogee earlier this year).

Unfortunately, neither the definition of ‘recognised transgender person’ nor Part 3A introduced protections against discrimination for trans and gender diverse people whose gender identity was nonbinary (instead only covering people who ‘identify as a member of the opposite sex’).[v]

The 1996 Anti-Discrimination Act reforms also permitted discrimination against trans students and teachers in publicly-funded ‘private educational authorities’, including (but not limited to) religious schools.[vi] Something that was difficult to justify 25 years ago, and is impossible to defend now.[vii]

Finally, in limiting access to updated birth certificates to people who have undergone gender affirmation surgery,[viii] the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act changes excluded the majority of trans and gender diverse people who are either unable to access such procedures (including for financial reasons) or who do not wish to. After all, trans people should be in control of their gender identity, not the(ir) doctor.

This weakness is not brand new information, either. The serious limitations of the birth certificate changes were raised by both Democrat[ix] and Greens MLCs[x] at the time.

Indeed, over the last decade, South Australia, the ACT, Northern Territory, Tasmania and Victoria have all removed any requirement for transgender people to have physically invasive medical treatment in order to obtain new identity documentation.

While the re-elected McGowan Labor Government in WA is under pressure to implement the recommendations of a 2018 WA Law Reform Commission Report which supported the same, and the Palaszczuk Labor Government has committed to introduce its own changes later this year.

Which means it is likely that at some point this term NSW will become the only jurisdiction in Australia which still requires trans people to undergo surgery to access a new birth certificate. Just in time to be subjected to (well-deserved) global scorn as Sydney hosts World Pride in February and March 2023.

Nevertheless, just as the Liberal, National and Labor Parties have refused to publicly reject Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill, none are currently promising to fix the problems in the Anti-Discrimination Act first introduced back in 1996, nor have any committed to finally bring the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act into the 21st century by allowing people to update their birth certificates without surgery or other physically invasive medical treatments.

This ongoing silence, on the fundamental human rights of the trans community, is simply not good enough. We really oughta know where the major parties stand on Latham’s anti-trans kids Bill, anti-discrimination reform and birth certificate requirements by now.

We must use whatever influence we have to demand more on these issues from our elected representatives. And by ‘we’ here I’m not talking about trans and gender diverse people, who are already fighting just for the ability to live their lives without discrimination, and to learn without erasure.

It’s time for cisgender members of the LGBT community, as well as our cis-het allies, to step up, and put pressure on Gladys Berejiklian and her Cabinet, and Chris Minns and his Shadow Ministers, to prioritise the dignity and equality of NSW’s trans and nonbinary citizens.

We must do so urgently, too. Because right now, trans and gender diverse people have very few friends in the NSW Legislative Council, and NSW Parliament more broadly.

While there remains a real chance their legal rights will go backwards, rather than forwards, in the near future. Which would be a very jagged little pill to swallow.

*****

Take Action

Following correspondence I sent in February calling on NSW MPs to reject the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020, today I sent the below short email to the Premier, Opposition Leader, and the Education Minister and Attorney General, plus their shadows. I encourage you to do the same (their contact details are included underneath the text):

Dear Premier

I am writing to urge you to publicly oppose the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020, legislation which would erase trans and nonbinary students from classrooms and schoolyards across NSW, as well as censor the curriculum and deny them access to affirmation and support from teachers, principals and even school counsellors.

This Bill is the worst legislative attack on LGBTI rights anywhere in Australia this century. It is simply not good enough that, more than 10 months after it was introduced, the people of NSW still don’t know whether you and your Party condemn or condone the harm it will inevitably cause.

Nor is it good enough that trans and gender diverse people in NSW are forced to live with second-rate anti-discrimination and identity documentation laws.

Therefore, I also urge you to publicly commit to amend the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 to:

  • Remove the unnecessary and confusing definition of ‘recognised transgender person’,
  • Replace the protected attribute of ‘transgender’ with an attribute of ‘gender identity’ and a definition which ensures nonbinary people are protected against discrimination, and
  • Remove the special privileges which allow publicly-funded ‘private educational authorities’, including religious schools, to discriminate against trans and gender diverse students and teachers simply because of who they are.

Finally, I urge you to amend the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 to allow trans and gender diverse people to self-determine their gender identity without the need for physically invasive medical treatment, such as surgery, as well as to recognise a wider range of gender identities, including nonbinary.

If the NSW Parliament fails to amend these laws, it is highly likely we will soon be the only jurisdiction in Australia which places this unfair and unnecessary barrier in front of its trans and gender diverse citizens. These hurdles must be removed as a matter of priority.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

*****

Premier Gladys Berejiklian webform: https://www.nsw.gov.au/premier-of-nsw/contact-premier

Education Minister Sarah Mitchell webform: https://www.nsw.gov.au/nsw-government/ministers/minister-for-education-and-early-childhood-learning

Attorney General Mark Speakman webform: https://www.nsw.gov.au/nsw-government/contact-a-minister/attorney-general-and-minister-for-prevention-of-domestic-and-sexual-violence

Opposition Leader Chris Minns email: kogarah@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Deputy Opposition Leader and Shadow Minister for Education Prue Car email: londonderry@parliament.nsw.gov.au

Shadow Attorney General Michael Daley email: maroubra@parliament.nsw.gov.au

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

Footnotes:


[i] In the 1996 debate, trans women were erroneously described by opponents as ‘transsexual males’, while in the 2021 hearings trans girls were commonly called ‘biological males’ or ‘natal males’. Mark Latham also deliberately used the deadname of a prominent transgender Australian on 20 April.

[ii] The term ‘tranys’ was used by both supporters and opponents of the 1996 legislation, perhaps indicating that this language did not carry the same pejorative connotations it does today. Either way, it was confronting seeing the frequency with which the term was used back then.

[iii] National Party MLC Duncan Gay opposed the 1996 reforms, stating: ‘I am going to be brief in my opposition to this bill. I am amazed about the amount of time spent by honourable members on what I believe is the most stupid and most unnecessary bill to ever come before this Parliament.’

[iv] With Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council, John Hannaford, stating: ‘I accept the need to deal with discrimination against members of the transgender community. I acknowledge that violence is committed against such members of the community and also that those members suffer discrimination. It is necessary to address such elements of violence and discrimination.’

[v] Unfortunately, this problem – only protecting trans people with binary gender identities – is shared by the anti-discrimination laws of Queensland, Western Australian and the Northern Territory. For more, see: A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.  

[vi] One of many reasons why the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act is the worst LGBTI anti-discrimination law in Australia. For more, see: What’s Wrong with the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977?

[vii] Disturbingly, these represent only the most prominent of the problems with trans protections in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act. One of the provisions inserted in 1996 provided an exception allowing discrimination by superannuation funds:

‘Section 38Q: A person does not discriminate against a transgender person (whether or not a recognised transgender person) on transgender grounds if, in the administration of a superannuation or provident fund or scheme, the other person treats the transgender person as being of the opposite sex to the sex with which the transgender person identifies.’

Interestingly, the then Attorney General, Jeff Shaw, made the following comment about this provision in his Second Reading Speech:

‘Granting legal recognition also has implications for the superannuation sector in terms of differential contributions and benefits. These implications have not yet been fully determined. The legislation therefore provides for an exemption to legal recognition in this area. Nevertheless, I wish to advise the House that the Government is currently examining this matter with a view to possible further amendments at a later date.’

Except, as you’ve probably guessed by now, those changes never happened – and this exception remains, with the exact same wording, today.

[viii] Interestingly, the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 provisions were amended in 2008, to replace the original terminology of ‘sexual reassignment surgery’ with ‘sexual affirmation procedure’, but the requirement for surgery was not altered.

[ix] Democrat MLC Elisabeth Kirby stated: ‘Although I support the Government’s amendments to the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages Act, I request that the Government give serious future consideration to an expansion of the criteria under which a new birth certificate can be obtained’ before highlighting that only a minority of transgender people undergo surgery.

[x] Greens MLC Ian Cohen also expressed his ‘reservations’ about ‘the certificate provisions not including transgender members of our community who, for whatever reasons, decline surgical intervention’ and later that ‘By using medical interventions as the benchmark for altering documents of identity, the legislation leaves out in the cold 80 per cent of the transgender members of our community who do not avail themselves of medical interventions.’ Perhaps with misplaced confidence he subsequently noted that ‘I am certain that with the passage of time this flaw will be recognised and rectified.’ Well, we’re now at 25 years and counting…

Submission to Consultation on Proposals for a First Nations Voice

30 April 2021

Submitted online

I am writing to express my personal support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which was a generous invitation by First Nations people to non-Indigenous Australians to walk together ‘in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.’

This includes whole-heartedly endorsing the three key elements of the Uluru Statement:

  • Voice
  • Treaty, and 
  • Truth.

As the Statement itself outlines, the first element – a First Nations Voice – must be ‘enshrined in the Constitution’.

Constitutional enshrinement is essential to ensure the independence of the Voice, and protect it against political intervention by the Government of the day, something which has unfortunately occurred in relation to past Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander bodies.

Constitutional enshrinement will also provide the Voice with stability, as it would not be able to be abolished through the passage of simple legislation, as happened with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).

I therefore urge the Commonwealth Government to honour its election commitment to hold a referendum to establish the Voice once the model has been settled.

The referendum process itself has the opportunity to be a unifying moment, as a step along the long journey of genuine Reconciliation.

A successful referendum, with what I would hope would be a large majority of Australians voting in favour, would also provide the Voice with additional authority and legitimacy as it fulfils its Constitutional responsibilities.

Holding a referendum in the near future would also take advantage of what I believe is growing momentum towards embracing the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the opportunity for substantive progress which it presents.

On the other hand, I strongly oppose the creation of a Voice via legislation prior to such a referendum. 

This approach – ‘legislation first, referendum later’ – is weak for the same reasons a ‘referendum first’ approach is strong.

‘Legislation first, referendum later’ means the Voice would lack true autonomy in its formative years, at the very time it would need to be establishing its credibility with First Nations people.

It would operate under the constant threat of being abolished, just like its predecessors, while delays to any referendum could squander the community goodwill which has been built in support of the Uluru Statement.

All of that is before considering the real possibility of the current, or a future, Government walking away from their commitment to hold a referendum at a later date.

The order of events to create the Voice must therefore be a constitutional referendum first, followed by the passage of enabling legislation.

The above position reflects the first two ‘key messages’ of the Indigenous Law Centre at the University of NSW, and the Uluru Dialogue.[i]

I also endorse their third ‘key message’:

‘The membership model for the National Voice must ensure previously unheard Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the same chance of being selected as established leadership figures.’

In relation to this principle, I would like to make a comment about one of the proposed elements of a First Nations Voice as highlighted in the Indigenous Voice Co-design Interim Report, provided to Government in October 2020 and underpinning the current consultation.

Specifically, Chapter Two of that Report proposes two options for the Voice on page 37:

Option 1 – equal representation (preferred option), which features 18 members with ‘two members of different gender for each state, territory and Torres Strait Islands’, and

Option 2 – scaled representation, which features 16 members with ‘two members of different gender for each state and the Northern Territory’ and ‘one member each for the ACT and Torres Strait Islands with a member of a different gender selected following each completed term…’

The discussion on page 38, under the heading ‘Gender representation’, then states:

‘The National Co-design Group agreed unanimously to the importance of gender balance. All options reflect the principle that there must be a requirement for balanced representation of different genders in the National Voice membership.’

In response, I begin by welcoming the use of the term ‘different gender’ rather than the exclusionary phrase ‘opposite sex’ in these options.

I obviously also support efforts to ensure the National Voice is not male-dominated, and certainly not in the same way that Commonwealth Parliament currently is.

Despite this, I question how these options would operate in practice, especially the requirement there ‘must’ be ‘gender balance’ (with some of the materials supporting the current consultation describing this as ‘guaranteed gender balance’).

In particular, how does such a requirement apply with respect to non-binary people or other First Nations people with gender identities that are not male or female?

I suspect most people reading the Interim Report and associated consultation materials would interpret proposals for two members per jurisdiction being of different genders, reinforced by an overall requirement for gender balance, as involving one female and one male member in each state or territory.

However, that outcome would mean non-binary First Nations people may be prohibited from serving on the National Voice (which is contrary to a goal of ‘ensuring previously unheard Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the same chance of being selected as established leadership figures’).

On the other hand, if non-binary people are allowed to serve as members of the National Voice, this may result in the numbers of male and female members being different or unequal, and not satisfy some people’s notions of ‘gender balance’.

I raise this issue as a long-term advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) community.

Nevertheless, I am conscious that I am not Indigenous, and believe that the core features of the Voice, including criteria for membership of the National Voice, are matters for First Nations people. 

In this context, I am not proposing a solution to this issue (concerning requirements for gender balance and their potential adverse impact on non-binary and other gender diverse First Nations people), merely bringing it to the attention of those responsible for this consultation and suggesting that it be considered further.

Thank you in advance for taking this submission into consideration.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

The Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Footnotes:


[i] 1. The government must honour its election commitment to a referendum once a model for the Voice has been settled.

2. Enabling legislation for the Voice must be passed after a referendum has been held in the next term of Parliament.