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.

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

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…

A Pride Flag for NSW

Today (26 March 2021) marks exactly ten years since the election of the NSW Liberal/National Government.

In that decade, and especially in their early years, they have passed a few important LGBT law reforms, including the long-overdue abolition of the homosexual advance defence (or ‘gay panic’ defence) in 2014 and establishing a scheme to expunge historical criminal records for same-sex intercourse in the same year.

However, the pace of reform has slowed markedly in recent times. The last new LGBTI laws were both passed in 2018, with the removal of ‘forced trans divorce’ (although this was necessitated by the passage of marriage equality in Commonwealth law, while NSW failed to seize the opportunity to amend identity laws more generally) and the introduction of an offence for publicly threatening or inciting violence against others, including on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status (although it replaced existing criminal vilification offences on the basis of homosexuality and transgender status, and as far as I am aware has not been enforced since it commenced).

Indeed, with this week also marking the halfway point of the Liberal/National Government’s third term, there have been no new laws passed addressing LGBTI issues since then, and none appear to be on the horizon.

This is not because the job of LGBTI law reform in NSW is complete. Far from it. As I have written previously, NSW now has the worst LGBT laws in Australia, and is only saved from that title with respect to intersex issues because some other jurisdictions are similarly appalling.

At least part of the problem is that many people, both inside and especially outside our communities, erroneously believe the struggle is over. Which is where my idea for a pride flag for NSW comes in.

From my perspective, the pride flag is inherently political. A symbol of our strength and resilience in overcoming anti-LGBTI prejudice and abuse, as well as a reminder to continue fighting until all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are truly ‘free and equal’.

With that in mind, here is what I think the six colours of the ‘traditional’ pride flag[i] could stand for in NSW today, as a way of bringing attention to at least some of the essential reforms which are still yet to be won here.

Red: Ban conversion practices

Anti-gay and anti-trans conversion practices (sometimes described as ‘ex-gay’ or ‘ex-trans’ therapy) continue in Australia today. Several jurisdictions have already taken steps to ban these practices, with general prohibitions, including in religious environments, now law in Victoria and the ACT, and a more limited ban, only covering health settings, in Queensland. Other states, including Tasmania, are actively considering their own legislation.

To date, the Berejiklian Liberal/National Government has given no firm indication they are considering laws to outlaw these destructive practices. They need to be pressured into taking urgent action to stop them.

Amber/Orange: Protect LGBT students & teachers

By now, we are all familiar with ‘amber alerts’ in the media to draw attention to vulnerable children in danger. Well, every day in NSW there should be an amber alert for LGBT kids – because, in 2021, religious schools are still legally permitted to discriminate against them on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

That is in part because of Scott Morrison’s broken promise from 2018 to amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1984(Cth) to remove the special privileges allowing religious schools to abuse, mistreat, suspend or even expel students just because of who they are.

But it is also because the Berejiklian Liberal/National Government refuses to repeal the special privileges contained in its own law, the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW). Indeed, the exceptions in NSW are actually worse, because they permit all private schools, colleges and universities to discriminate, not just those that are religious (making NSW the only jurisdiction in Australia to do so).

Of course, LGBT students are not the only victims of such discrimination. The same provisions also allow private educational authorities to discriminate against LGBT teachers.

If we genuinely want our schools to be safe learning environments where all people are encouraged to reach their full potential, then the NSW Government must protect both LGBT students and teachers from discrimination.

Yellow: End coercive intersex surgeries

As I have written elsewhere, the worst human rights abuses currently affecting any part of the Australian LGBTI community are coercive medical treatments, including surgeries and other interventions, on children born with intersex variations of sex characteristics.

These egregious human rights violations carry lifelong consequences which is why they must be deferred until intersex people can consent, or not consent, to them. Some jurisdictions, including Tasmania and the ACT, appear to be moving in that direction. As yet, there is no sign of similar progress in NSW.

[NB The yellow comes from the intersex pride flag, which is yellow and purple.]

Green: Improve birth certificate access

NSW now has the equal worst birth certificate laws in Australia, alongside Queensland. 

Under the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995 (NSW), trans and gender diverse people must undergo ‘a surgical procedure involving the alteration of a person’s reproductive organs… for the purpose of assisting a person to be considered a member of the opposite sex’ before being allowed to update their birth certificate to reflect their gender identity.

This requirement is both unnecessary and inappropriate, especially when some people may not wish to undergo such surgeries, while others cannot afford to do so given the prohibitive costs involved.

NSW has fallen behind the majority of other Australian jurisdictions which have updated their birth certificate laws to allow access based on self-identification only (which is best practice), or at least without physical medical interventions. It is time the Government gave the green light to trans and gender diverse people here to access birth certificates without any medical gate-keeping.

Blue[ii]: Trans discrimination law reform

Trans and gender diverse people in NSW are also let down by confusing and outdated anti-discrimination protections, as amply demonstrated by the controversy surrounding discriminatory efforts to prevent trans women who have not undergone surgery from accessing McIver’s Ladies Baths in Coogee.

On one hand, there is a definition of ‘recognised transgender person’ in section 4 of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) which some people might, mistakenly, try to use to justify limiting access on the basis of surgery:

‘recognised transgender person means a person the record of whose sex is altered under Part 5A of the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1995[iii] or under the corresponding provisions of a law of another Australian jurisdiction.’

Except the substantive protections against transgender discrimination apply irrespective of whether the person has had surgery. According to section 38A:

‘A reference in this Part to a person being transgender or a transgender person is a reference to a person, whether or not the person is a recognised transgender person

(a) who identifies as a member of the opposite sex by living, or seeking to live, as a member of the opposite sex, or

(b) who has identified as a member of the opposite sex by living as a member of the opposite sex…

and includes a reference to the person being thought of as a transgender person, whether the person is, or was, in fact a transgender person’ [emphasis added].

Which means discriminating against transgender women who have not had surgery would probably be found to be unlawful.

Given this, the misleading definition of ‘recognised transgender person’ should be removed from section 4.

However, that would still not address a far bigger problem, including with the broader definition in section 38A: it likely only applies to people with ‘binary’ gender identities, because of its use of the outdated concept of ‘opposite sex’.

In other words, non-binary people in NSW are not explicitly covered by the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977. The NSW Government must remedy this by replacing ‘transgender’ with ‘gender identity’, potentially based on the definition in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth):

‘gender identity means the gender-related identity, appearance or mannerisms or other gender-related characteristics of a person (whether by way of medical intervention or not), with or without regard to the person’s designated sex at birth’.

Lavender/Purple: Bisexual discrimination law reform

The definition of transgender is not the only outdated terminology in the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW). The other protected attribute covering (some parts) of the LGBTI community is currently ‘homosexual.’ Section 4 of the Act defines that term to mean ‘male or female homosexual.’

That narrow definition means NSW’s anti-discrimination laws are the only such laws in Australia that fail to protect bisexuals against discrimination.

This omission is truly appalling. It is well beyond time for the NSW Government to update the Anti-Discrimination Act to cover sexual orientation generally, in line with other jurisdictions including the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984:

‘sexual orientation means a person’s sexual orientation towards:

(a) persons of the same sex; or

(b) persons of a different sex; or

(c) persons of the same sex and persons of a different sex.’

[NB The lavender comes from the bisexual pride flag, which is pink, lavender and blue.]

The six issues discussed above are of course not an exhaustive list. There are plenty of other LGBTI laws and policies which also need to be amended by NSW to provide genuine equality to its citizens irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.[iv]

But, in my opinion, these are some of the most essential reforms in order for people to feel pride that we are making real progress in overcoming homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia.

I started this article by highlighting the fact today is the 10th anniversary of the election of the NSW Liberal/National Government.

Coincidentally, today also marks 100 weeks until the planned opening ceremony of World Pride 2023 in Sydney.

That means Premier Gladys Berejiklian has exactly 100 weeks to deliver on each of the six issues identified here.

If her Liberal/National Government fails to make these long-overdue and much-needed changes in that time, then I suggest we fly this ‘pride flag for NSW’ at half-mast during that opening ceremony to acknowledge the damage inflicted and pain caused by their ongoing inaction.

If you have enjoyed reading this post, you can sign up to receive updates about this and other issues from this blog, via the right-hand scroll bar on desktop, or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus [NB Given the events of the past month – with this website being blocked by Facebook for being ‘news’ – it is more important than ever to sign up if you want to receive updates, especially with the possibility of further disruptions].

Footnotes:


[i] I also personally support the newer ‘Progress’ version of the pride flag, incorporating both elements of the trans flag, and black and brown stripes to represent people of colour.

[ii] The blue here could either represent part of the trans pride flag – which is blue, pink and white – or the blue of the Pacific Ocean at McIver’s Ladies Baths.

[iii] Which, as we have seen, only allows the granting of new identity documentation following invasive surgeries.

[iv] Indeed, the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) also needs to be updated to include a new protected attribute of ‘sex characteristics’ covering intersex people, and to remove the general exception in section 56(d) which allows a wide range of religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT employees and people accessing their services.

What for art thou Albo?

Anthony Albanese became Leader of the Australian Labor Party in May 2019. It’s now March 2021, and we still don’t know where he stands on key issues affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) community.

In his 22 months as Opposition Leader, Mr Albanese (commonly referred to as ‘Albo’), has only explicitly referred to LGBTIQ rights once in Parliament. On 2 July 2019, he made the following statement:

‘In an article in the NewDaily and in a number of other articles reporting on that article, it’s been suggested that I supported watering down Labor’s commitment to LGBTIQ rights. As someone who in their first speech in parliament mentioned removing discrimination on the basis of sexuality and is a strong advocate for the rights of gay and lesbian people, that is not true; it did not happen.’

Despite this, and unfortunately for LGBTIQ Australians, that article foretold what appears to have occurred in the period since.

As happens every term, the Labor Party is engaged in updating its National Platform, the document setting out its core principles.

As part of this process, Albo has expressed a clear desire for the Platform to be streamlined. The current draft, which will be considered at an online Special Platform Conference on 30 and 31 March 2021, stands at 111 pages – compared to 268 pages of policy detail in former Leader Bill Shorten’s 2018 version.

Based on that level of reduction, you might expect that LGBTIQ policy commitments would have decreased by a similar ratio (to be two-fifths of the previous document).

However, the axe seems to have fallen disproportionately on issues affecting our communities. From 46 separate mentions of LGBTIQ issues in 2018, there are just nine in the 2021 draft Platform.

Admittedly, that is a somewhat superficial criterion. Nevertheless, looking at the substantive policy commitments in closer detail, and the cuts are just as bad. Worse, in fact, with Labor’s Platform now missing in action on some of the most important challenges we face.

That includes what I consider to be the worst human rights abuses affecting any part of the LGBTIQ community today: coercive medical interventions, including surgeries, on children born with intersex variations of sex characteristics.

The 2015 and 2018 ALP Platforms included clear commitments to address these abuses. From the 2018 version:

‘Parents of intersex children can be pressured to hormonally or surgically intervene on their children if they don’t receive medically correct advice, information or support about how to parent an intersex child. Labor will ensure deferral of non-necessary medical intervention on infants and children with intersex variations until such time as the person concerned can give their informed consent is supported. Labor commits to promote and support a human rights-based patient consent model for accessing lifetime medical treatments and procedures. Labor will prohibit modifications to sex characteristics undertaken for social rationales without informed consent and ensure intersex persons’ right not to undergo sex assignment treatment is respected.’

In contrast, the draft 2021 ALP National Platform is completely silent on this issue. That is simply not good enough.

Another important policy commitment from 2015 and 2018 that has disappeared relates to the out-of-pocket costs which far-too-frequently prevent trans and gender diverse people from being able to access gender-affirming health care. Again, from the 2018 Platform:

‘Labor acknowledges the right of all Australians, including transgender and gender diverse people, to live their gender identity. For many, this includes accessing specialist health services and for some people can involve gender affirming medical technologies. Cost should not be a barrier to accessing these services. Labor commits to removing, wherever possible, barriers to accessing these services and consulting with experts in government. This should materialise in a focus on creating fair, equal and affordable access to medical care and treatments relevant to trans and gender diverse Australians.’

In 2021, Labor has so far found no room in its core principles document to address one of the biggest challenges affecting the everyday lives of trans and non-binary Australians.

A third major omission from the draft Platform is HIV – and that omission is total. If passed in its current state, the 2021 Australian Labor Party Platform would be the first in at least a generation not to even mention the term HIV.

I would argue the middle of a global pandemic is possibly the worst time to abandon commitments relating to another epidemic that, despite popular misconceptions, remains far from over. Instead, I believe the Platform should (at a minimum):

  • Highlight that lessons learned from HIV have assisted Australia in dealing with COVID-19
  • Emphasise the fundamental importance of working in partnership with affected communities, including people living with HIV and those at risk, and
  • Recommitting to ending the HIV epidemic in Australia, and globally.

The fourth and final major problem I would like to focus on is the lack of clarity around much-needed improvements to LGBTIQ anti-discrimination and anti-vilification protections. On this issue at least the draft 2021 Platform includes some detail:

‘Labor will work closely with LGBTIQ Australians to develop policy to:

(a) ensure they enjoy equality before the law and have access to public services without discrimination; [and]

(b) strengthen laws and expand initiatives against discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, sex characteristics and queer status’.

However, these commitments do not go nearly far enough. It is possible (although by no means certain) that para (a), above, means Labor will remove anti-discrimination exceptions which allow religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. But there is no equivalent commitment to protect the employees of religious organisations, including teachers and other staff in religious schools.

As with the other three areas identified earlier, these anti-discrimination principles are also a significant step backwards from their 2015 and 2018 equivalents. There is no longer a commitment to introduce a stand-alone Commissioner for LGBTIQ issues within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Nor is there a policy to introduce long-overdue LGBTIQ anti-vilification protections in Commonwealth law (despite the draft 2021 Platform twice committing to address religious vilification). Or a commitment to finally include gender identity and sex characteristics as protected attributes in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) on the same basis as sexual orientation.

There are plenty of other problems with the draft Platform – perhaps most notably a policy to ensure schools are ‘welcoming and supportive environments for all’ which has removed previous explicit references to gender identity and sexuality, and added a qualifier (‘initiatives… as selected by schools’), thus rendering it close to meaningless.

Nevertheless, if the ALP wishes to demonstrate it is still committed to improving the rights of LGBTIQ Australians then I suggest the four main issues described above (ending coercive surgeries on intersex children; reducing out-of-pocket costs for gender-affirming health care; including policies addressing HIV; and improving commitments to LGBTIQ anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws) would be a good place to start.

The defence of the Australian Labor Party to these criticisms has been to reiterate that the draft 2021 National Platform is intentionally a high-level, principles-based document, and to explain that more-specific LGBTIQ policies will be released closer to the election.

The problem with that defence, from my perspective, is that the clear message the ALP sent to all stakeholders back in 2019 was that all policies were under review, that in effect ‘everything is up for grabs’. Since then, as far as I can ascertain, there have been exactly zero policy announcements explicitly relating to LGBTIQ issues.

At the same time, the rights of LGBTIQ Australians have come under sustained attack at both Commonwealth level (including through the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill which Labor has not, to date, unequivocally opposed) and in the states and territories (including Mark Latham’s own ‘Religious Freedom’, and anti-trans kids, Bills in NSW).

In this context, it is only natural for the LGBTIQ community to closely examine the words and actions coming from the Leader of the Opposition and the Party he represents. So far, the only substantive document which we can scrutinise is the draft Platform and, particularly when compared to its 2015 and 2018 iterations, it is a disappointment.

The good news is that its deficiencies can still be fixed. The Special Platform Conference is not for another nine days, and the Leader of the Opposition, Shadow Ministers and conference delegates all have the opportunity to reinsert genuine commitments around intersex surgeries, trans health costs, HIV, and anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws.

The bad news is that, more broadly, time is running out. We are nearly two years into a three-year term. Indeed, Prime Minister Morrison has the option of holding the next election as early as August, just five months away. There is little time left for Albo and the ALP to show us where they stand on key issues affecting the LGBTIQ community.

And I use that phrase deliberately – show us your current policies, don’t tell us about your past public positions.

Which brings me back to Albanese’s statement to Parliament in July 2019. It is interesting that, in defending his approach to LGBTIQ rights as Leader, he directly referred to his first speech which he gave on 6 May 1996.

To be fair, Albo’s comments then (‘The bigots who criticise programs aimed at the special needs of sections of our community ignore the fact that there is not equality of opportunity across class, gender, sexual preference and ethnicity’) were undoubtedly progressive for the time.

But times change. As does terminology (thankfully), as well as the needs of the LGBTIQ community which are much more complex and diverse than a general commitment to ‘equality of opportunity’.

Frankly, I am far less interested in what Anthony Albanese said as a new backbencher 25 years ago than I am in what he has to offer the country as its alternative Prime Minister for the next three years.

From my position as an advocate for LGBTIQ rights, I believe it’s time for Albanese to outline what a Government he leads would do for our community. Clearly, and in detail.

It’s time for him to answer the question ‘What for art thou Albo?’ Because, as of today, I and other LGBTIQ Australians genuinely don’t know.

Caption: It’s great that Albo is a regular participant in the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, including this year’s event (pictured). It would be even better if he could articulate, clearly and in detail, what he will do for LGBTIQ Australians if he becomes our Prime Minister for the next three years.

If you have enjoyed reading this post, you can sign up to receive updates about this and other issues from this blog, via the right-hand scroll bar on desktop, or near the bottom of the page on mobile. You can also follow me on twitter @alawriedejesus [NB Given the events of the past month – with this website being blocked by Facebook for being ‘news’ – it is more important than ever to sign up if you want to receive updates, especially with the possibility of further disruptions].

Letter to WA Political Parties re Anti-Discrimination and Birth Certificate Reform

The writs for the Western Australian state election will be issued at 6pm today (3 February 2021). The upcoming poll, on Saturday 13 March, is an opportunity to make long-overdue progress on a range of important policy issues affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community.

As with elections last year in the Northern Territory, Australian Capital Territory and Queensland, I am writing to political parties contesting the WA election asking for their commitments on LGBTI law reform.

While there are a variety of different policy issues that must be addressed, my letter focuses on two areas where I have the most expertise:

  • Reform of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA),[i] and
  • Changes to identity documentation for trans and gender diverse people.[ii]

This letter has been sent to the leaders of the WA Labor Party, Liberal Party and National Party, as well as to all MLCs from other parties: The Greens; One Nation; Liberal Democrats; Shooters, Fishers and Farmers; and Western Australia Party. As with previous elections, I will post any responses I receive from these parties below.

*****

Given the upcoming Western Australian state election, I am writing to ask about your Party’s positions on two important issues for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community.

I do so as a long-term advocate for the LGBTI community, including via my website www.alastairlawrie.net where I focus on anti-discrimination and anti-vilification law reform around Australia, among other topics.

The first issue I would like to ask about is reform of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA), which is necessary to address its serious shortcomings in relation to discrimination against and vilification of LGBTI people in Western Australia. Specifically:

  1. Will you protect intersex people against discrimination by introducing a new protected attribute of ‘sex characteristics’?
  2. Will you protect all trans and gender diverse people against discrimination by replacing the current inappropriate, ineffective and outdated protected attribute of discrimination against ‘a gender reassigned person on gender history grounds’ with a protected attribute of ‘gender identity’?
  3. Will you protect LGBT students, teachers and other staff at religious schools against discrimination by removing the special privileges which currently allow them to discriminate?
  4. Will you protect LGBT employees at, and people accessing services from, religious organisations in health, housing and other community services against discrimination by amending religious exceptions generally, based on the best practice approach in Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1998?
  5. Will you protect LGBTI people against hate speech by introducing prohibitions on vilification on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics?

The second issue I would like to ask about is access to identity documentation, including birth certificates, for trans and gender diverse people, which is another area where Western Australia’s legislative approach has fallen far behind most other jurisdictions. Specifically:

  1. Will you allow trans and gender diverse people to update their birth certificates and other identity documents without requiring surgery, other medical treatments or counselling?
  2. Will you allow trans and gender diverse people to update their birth certificates and other identity documents based on self-identification alone?
  3. Will you allow trans and gender diverse people to update their birth certificates and other identity documents by identifying as male, female, non-binary or ‘other, please specify’, in line with recent reforms in both Tasmania and Victoria?

Thank you in advance for your prompt consideration of this request. Please note that any answers provided will be published via my website, to assist LGBTI people in Western Australia make an informed choice on Saturday 13 March.

Please do not hesitate to contact me, at the details provided, should you require clarification of the above.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

*****

Update: 13 February 2021

During the week, I received the first formal Party response to the above correspondence, from the WA Greens. Their commitments are reproduced below:

Dear Alastair

Thank you for your email to WA Greens MPs.

I am pleased to advise that the Greens are committed to removing discrimination on the grounds of gender identity or sexuality from all federal and state laws. We want the process for legal recognition of gender in Western Australia to be simplified and for Western Australian birth certificates to have an X gender marker, in line with most of the rest of Australia.

The Greens (WA) will encourage and support legislation and actions that ensure that intersex and transgender people, without undertaking surgeries, are able to alter their sex on all official documents, consistent with how they live and identify, and irrespective of their marital status.

As the Member for the North Metropolitan Region and Greens (WA) spokesperson I have been a long term advocate in this space. In 2018 I introduced a Private Members Bill into the WA Legislative Council, the Equal Opportunity (LGBTIQ Anti-Discrimination) Amendment Bill 2018, seeking to end discrimination against LGBTIQ parents, students and staff by religious schools. Disappointingly, this bill has not received the support necessary from other political parties for it to be passed and to become law.

The Greens will continue to fight to remove all exceptions in the Equal Opportunity Act that permit discrimination against people on the basis of their gender identity and/or sexuality.

If you would like more information, the Greens (WA) Sexuality & LGBTQIA+ Issues and Gender Identity policies provide more information about our party’s commitments in these areas.

The Greens have also proposed a WA Charter of Rights to provide further protections against rights-based infringements including discrimination.

Thank you for your interest and advocacy in this important area.

Kind regards

Alison

Hon Alison Xamon MLC (BA, LLB, Cert IV HS, Cert Adv Arb)

Member for the North Metropolitan Region, Legislative Council, Parliament of Western Australia

*****

Update: 25 February 2021

On Tuesday (23 February 2021), I received the following reply from the Leader of the WA Nationals, Mia Davies, which, as you will see, does not give specific commitments on either LGBTI anti-discrimination law reform or improved access to birth certificates for trans and gender diverse people – other than that Nationals MPs would be granted conscience votes on both issues.

Dear Mr Lawrie

2021 STATE ELECTION: LGBTI LEGISLATIVE REFORM

Thank you for your correspondence dated 3 February 2021. I appreciate your advocacy in relation to LGBTI legislation and the need for reform.

One of the founding principles of The Nationals WA is that regional West Australians deserve access to relevant services and protections against discrimination, regardless of their postcode. As you would be aware the day-to-day issues faced by LGBTI people are often exacerbated by remoteness and isolation from services and support networks.

If legislation to resolve the issues raised was introduced to Parliament, voting on it would be a matter of conscience for Members of The Nationals WA team. I encourage you to send your questions to each local candidate in The Nationals WA team for their individual responses. Their details can be found on our website http://www.nationalswa.com/

Although not specific to LGBTI individuals and families, The Nationals WA have made the following election commitments to date which may be of interest:

-$15 million for an office of the State Rural Health Commissioner, to complement the work done at a national level. This office would be independent of Government, providing advice and reporting on rural and regional health concerns.

-$140 million for regional mental health services, including demographically targeted funding for regional community support hours.

Further details on these and other election commitments can be found on our website.

Yours sincerely

Hon Mia Davies MLA

LEADER

Footnotes:


[i] For example, see What’s wrong with Western Australia’s Equal Opportunity Act 1984?  and A Quick Guide to Australian LGBTI Anti-Discrimination Laws.

[ii] For example, see Identity, Not Surgery and Did You Know? Trans People in NSW and Queensland Still Require Surgery to Update Their Birth Certificates.