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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anthony Albanese on election night, 21 May 2022.

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The Internal Contradiction of the Morrison Government’s Religious Discrimination Bill

On Saturday 30 November, Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed that his Government would not meet its commitment to introduce the Religious Discrimination Bill into Parliament before the end of the year.

 

Instead, he announced they would be releasing ‘a revised and further exposure draft of the RDA Bill to reflect the Government’s response to the consultation to date and provide further opportunity for engagement.’ [i]

 

On an optimistic reading, this means there is more opportunity for the Government to listen to all of the criticisms of this legislation, from women, LGBTI people, legal organisations and the Australian Human Rights Commission, that the Religious Discrimination Bill requires substantial amendment because it authorises discrimination against large sections of the Australian community.

 

Unfortunately, based on all evidence to date, we have more reason to be pessimistic, and instead fear that the Government will only listen to religious fundamentalists demanding even more special privileges to discriminate.

 

The only change to the Bill which Attorney-General Christian Porter highlighted at the National Press Club on 20 November[ii] was an amendment to ensure that ‘religious hospitals and aged-care providers will be given protections equivalent to those given to other religious bodies, in relation to employment of staff’ (in other words, allowing them to discriminate).

 

There have been no indications of positive changes to the Bill, to reduce its adverse impact on women, LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people, people in de facto relationships, people with disability and others. Nor was there any reason to be hopeful in the Prime Minister’s media release confirming the delay.

 

However, what I really want to highlight here is the inconsistency of two of Morrison’s statements in that release.

 

Specifically, he criticises Labor for ‘a lack of genuine commitment … to the principle that Australians who hold sincere religious beliefs in this country deserve the same legal protections that are rightly provided in other areas such as gender and race.’

 

But then later the Prime Minister also says ‘Our Government will continue to proceed on the basis of good faith with a view to having a balanced and common sense Bill that protects the important religious freedoms that Australians can sadly no longer take for granted.’

 

Except these two concepts – a Religious Discrimination Bill, and religious freedom laws – are very, very different things.

 

Had Morrison actually delivered the former, legislation that simply protects people of faith, and no faith, against discrimination on the same basis as gender, race and other attributes, then not only would Labor have likely welcomed it, but so too would the majority of Australians, including LGBTI people. After all, we know what discrimination is like, and don’t want other people to experience it.

 

Instead, his Government has produced a ‘Religious Discrimination Bill’ in name, but a religious freedom law in substance. The most problematic elements of the Exposure Draft – re statements of belief, large employer codes of conduct, conscientious objections by health practitioners and the general ‘religious exception’ in clause 10[iii] – all purport to protect ‘religious freedom’ rather than the right to non-discrimination.

 

Obviously, a lot has been written about the serious flaws of these provisions (including by the author), and particularly about the discrimination they permit against other groups.

 

Perhaps one consequence that hasn’t received as much attention is that they actually make this legislation not just inconsistent in its objectives, but internally contradictory as well.

 

That’s because these same provisions also allow discrimination against people on the basis of their religious beliefs, or lack of belief – making it a Religious Discrimination Bill that perversely encourages religious discrimination.

 

For example, the protections for ‘statements of belief’ in clause 41 – which effectively render them exempt from all Commonwealth, state and territory discrimination laws – don’t just apply to comments that discriminate against women, LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people, people in de facto relationships and people with disability.

 

Clause 41 also protects statements of belief that discriminate on the basis of religion. This includes, for example, saying the followers of other religions are ‘unclean heathens destined for eternal damnation’. Just like sexist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist statements, these derogatory comments will be protected irrespective of where they occur, including in the workplace, in education, in health, and in the provision of goods and services.

 

In the same way, clauses 8(3) and (4) won’t just protect a certain footballer telling gay and trans people they are going to hell – it will protect any religious employee who, outside ordinary work hours, tells people from other religions they’re going to hell, too.

 

The conscientious objection provisions, in clauses 8(5) and (6), are an even bigger threat. As well as allowing health practitioners, from GPs and pharmacists through to optometrists, physiotherapists and even podiatrists, to refuse to serve women, or LGBTI people, they could potentially be (ab)used by a health practitioner to refuse to serve Jewish people, or Muslims, or people from other minority faiths.

 

But the biggest threat of all – especially to minority religions – is found in clause 10. It allows religious schools and universities, charities and ‘any other body that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion (other than a body that engages solely or primarily in commercial activities)’,[iv] to discriminate on the basis of religious belief.

 

This clause therefore permits discrimination against teachers and students, as well as the employees of – and even people accessing – charities and community services. And, as we have already seen, Attorney-General Porter plans to expand this clause even further to allow religious hospitals and aged care services to discriminate in relation to employment (at the very least).

 

Technically, clause 10 protects all religious organisations equally – they will each be able to discriminate in terms of who they employ (or refuse to employ), and provide services to (and who they exclude).

 

Practically, this clause will primarily benefit the largest religious organisations – including the Catholic and Sydney Anglican[v] churches and related education, health and community services organisations – at the expense of everyone else.

 

With the massive outsourcing of public services to these bodies over the past two to three decades, they now receive billions and billions of dollars each and every year, and will be explicitly permitted to use that public funding to discriminate.

 

Not just in relation to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (which is sadly already allowed under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth), and which the Morrison Government steadfastly refuses to change), but also in relation to religious belief, or lack of belief.

 

That means a professor being denied a job because they are Jewish.

 

A doctor refused employment at a hospital because they are Muslim.

 

A school student expelled because they are atheist.

 

A homeless person missing out a bed in a shelter because they are Hindu.

 

A charity worker rejected for promotion because they are Buddhist.

 

An aged care employee losing shifts because they are agnostic.

 

All these scenarios could be legal under the Religious Discrimination Bill, as long as it was a religious organisation doing the discriminating. And they would be using taxpayers’ money – your money, my money, our money – to do so.

 

This outcome – entrenching the power and privilege of the major churches, namely the Catholics and Sydney Anglicans, over and above the rest of us – is the inevitable consequence of the internal contradiction of this legislation.

 

The Morrison Government has chosen to undermine what could and should have been a standard Religious Discrimination Bill – one that would have prohibited most, if not all, of the scenarios described above – with provisions that instead promote ‘religious freedom’.

 

With their decision to release a second Exposure Draft for public consultation, the Government now has the opportunity to make a better, and more informed, choice, and to prepare legislation that reduces religious discrimination rather than increasing it.

 

Unfortunately, I can’t seem to suspend my disbelief that they will choose the right option. Based on everything leading to this point, I have no faith the Government’s ‘revised and further exposure draft’ Bill will be any less of a threat to women, LGBTI people, single parents, divorced people, people in de facto relationships and people with disability.

 

But we must not forget it is also a threat to minority religions, to Jewish people, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and agnostic people alike. They too will be subjected to discriminatory statements of belief, and potentially denied access to health care, just because of who they are. And they will be refused employment, and discriminated against in education, health, aged care and community services, all by ‘mainstream’ religious organisations using public monies to do so.

 

Hopefully, they – as well as the many decent Catholic and Anglican people of good faith who oppose new special rights to discriminate – will join us in demanding genuine religious anti-discrimination laws, to replace Morrison’s badly botched Bill.

 

 

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By choosing to include expansive ‘religious freedom’ provisions, Scott Morrison has undermined the ability of the Religious Discrimination Bill to actually prohibit religious discrimination.

 

Footnotes:

[i] Media Release, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Government will Protect Religious Freedoms by Getting Law Right, 30 November 2019.

[ii] Transcript, Attorney-General Christian Porter, Address to National Press Club, 20 November 2019.

[iii] The Growing List of Problems with the Religious Discrimination Bill.

[iv] Clause 10(2)(c).

[v] Noting Anglicare Victoria have joined other religious bodies, including Vincent Care Victoria and Uniting Vic.Tas, in criticising the special rights to discriminate contained in the Bill. ‘Religious discrimination bill: Faith-based groups and equality advocates welcome delay’, Guardian Australia, 1 December 2019.